Wednesday, May 23, 2018

More Dead than Alive



More Dead than Alive (1969, Robert Sparr) 

The title and the poster of the movie may give you the impression that this is a spaghetti western, but no, More Dead than Alive is an American movie. It stars Clint Walker as a former gunslinger - known as 'Killer Cain' - who has spent 18 years in jail and discovers that it's hard to leave his past behind. 

The film opens with protracted (and remarkably bloody) sequence of a jailbreak that ends in carnage. Cain refuses to help the jail breakers because he wants to serve his sentence and start a new life, but when he is finally released from jail, the world he once knew has become a recent memory and he himself a living anachronism. The only person willing to offer him a job, is a showman named Ruffalo, who asks Cain to perform as a sharpshooter in a traveling sideshow. Also working for Ruffalo is a young man named Billy Valance, who soon starts challenging Cain to a duel, in order to prove himself as a gunslinger ...  

The name Billy Valance is no doubt a reference to John Ford's, The man Who Shot LibertyValance, the movie that (along with Peckinpah's Ride the High Country) had established the End of the West as a dominant theme of American westerns from the decade. More Dead than Alive is set in a West that is no longer Wild, but the story device of the famous gunfighter who is repeatedly challenged by a younger man, is closer to Henry King's The Gunfighter, a western from Hollywood's glory years. The surprise ending (I won't give it away) also brings The Gunfighter to mind, but what worked marvelously in King's movie, is strangely ineffective here, leaving us with a feeling of malaise.
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Director Robert Sparr mainly worked for television and it shows. This is a routine movie, but it's well-cast and easy to enjoy. Walker and Francis (as the woman who helps him forget the past) are a nice, physically contrasting couple and Vincent Price is as flamboyant as ever as the sideshow barker. Singer/actor Paul Hampton overacts as the immature, psychologically unstable Billy, but the role seems to ask for it. The bloody opening sequence almost feels completely detached from the rest of the movie. In the previous year Bonnie and Clyde had a set a trend and in 1969 we saw various western with excessive bloodletting and a tragic ending in which the 'heroes' were shot to pieces. But movies like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Wild Bunch were movies about people who had chosen a violent lifestyle; in the case of More Dead than Alive the gory killings seem to undermine the anti-violence message of the movie. But those were the days, and in 1969 cowboys died in bloody fashion.
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Director: Robert Sparr - Cast: Clint Walker (Cain), Anne Francis (Monica), Vincent Price (Ruffalo), Paul Hampton (Billy) - Written by George Schenk - Produced by Aubrey Schenk and Hal Klein - Music by Philip Springer


R.I.P. Clint Walker, Gentle Giant


Thursday, April 26, 2018

The Undefeated




A routine western with patriotic overtones that is presented as a homage to John Ford. It was overshadowed by the immensely successful True Grit, released earlier the same year. The story is set in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War and the script is sprinkled with human-interest stories and colorful peripheral characters, most of them played by familiar western actors such as Ben Johnson, Harry Carey Jr., Dub Taylor and others. And of course it stars the Duke, for the occasion paired with Rock Hudson.

The film opens with a remarkably violent and bloody charge, led by Yankee Colonel John Henry Thomas (John Wayne) against a confederate regiment. Overlooking the tragic results of the carnage, the news is brought to the Colonel that the war is over, that the surrender terms were actually signed three days earlier. Thomas is the type of man who will always do his duty, but who also abhors violence  and therefore cannot understand why anybody would keep on fighting when the war is over. Hudson's Confederate officer Langdon is almost his direct opposite: he is stubborn and self-righteous, not willing to give up the fight and therefore rather torches his ranch than leave it to Northern carpetbaggers.

Shortly after, both men cross the Rio Grande, Thomas to sell horses to Emperor Maximilian, Langdon to join the Emperor's forces with the survivors of his regiment and their families (*1). Their paths cross on different occasions: together they fight off a gang of Mexican bandits, they relive the hostilities during a drunken brawl at a 4th of July party, there's an interracial love story (involving Thomas' adopted Cherookee son and Langdon's daughter) and eventually they all decide that it's time to go 'home'.

The film's patiotism may feel a bit simplistic today, but in 1969 the country was entangled in anti-war and anti-imperialist demonstrations and Wayne and McLaglen clearly wanted to make a statement. The ending is a bit of an anti-climax, but the theme of reconciliation is well-handled and the large-scale action scenes are quite good, if not always believable: Mexican bandits would of course not attack entrenched Americans in 'Indian' style, but such an attack offers ideal material to fill the widescreen and William Clothier's widescreen cinematography is breathtakingly beautiful. The natural charm of the actors will give you the idea that you're back in the good old days, when heroes were tall in the saddle and solid as a rock. The Duke seems to have a great time, but in reality filming was a difficult, painful experience: he broke three ribs when he fell from a horse and later tore a ligament in his shoulder  


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Note:

* The charactor of Col. Langdon was most probably based on the historic Confederate officer Joseph Shelby, who crossed the border with around 1,000 of his men after the end of the war to seek asylum in Mexico. For their unwillingness to surrender, they were called 'the undefeated'

Dir: Andrew V. McLaglen, John Wayne (uncredited) - Cast: John Wayne, Rock Hudson, Roman Gabriel, Ben Johnson, Lee Meriwether, Antonio Aguilar, Dub Taylor, Bruce Cabot, Harry Carey Jr, John Agar, Marianne McCargo, Merlin Olsen, Jan-Michel Vincent

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

The Duel at Silver Creek (1952)



The Duel at Silver Creek

This was Don Siegel's first foray into the western genre. The script combines two archetypes of western stories: the town under terror type and the revenge western. Both stories have their own protagonist, an undaunted sheriff and a young man seeking the murderers of his father.

The father of a young man, Luke Cromwell (Murphy) is killed by claim jumpers, bandits stealing the claims of small time minors. Luke becomes a gambler and a gunslinger but the local sheriff appoints him as his deputy: he's in need of a quick drawing assistant after he has been hit by a bullet and is no longer able to squeeze the trigger. The two fall out when Luke discovers that the sheriff's sweetheart is in league with the claim jumpers and the older man won't believe him. Luke wants to leave town but is then told that the sheriff is about to face a young man called Johnny Sombrero in a duel ...

Most characters are referred to by funny names like The Silver Kid, Lightning Tyrone or Johnny Sombrero and the story isn't exactly waterproof. The jumpers are openly selling the stolen claims and yet nobody can figure out who they are? But Murphy is perfectly believable as the hot-headed young man who is a lot smarter than the old fox mentoring him. He looks great in his black leather suit, almost as if he changed his Electra Glide for a horse at the Studio door. Faith Domergue is deliciously wicked as the she-devil in disguise; in one scene she even strangles a wounded man so that he can't give away any secrets, a scene that must have shocked viewers in those days. Lee Marvin makes a cameo appearance as one of the frequenters of the local saloon. 

With too much happening in a running time of a mere 77 minutes, the movie feels a little hectic. It's also quite uneven; Siegel was a late bloomer and had not yet reached full artistic maturity when he was offered this movie (at the age of forty), but his talent was undeniable; with his typical no-nonsense approach he makes the best of the mediocre story material and the triangular shootout in the town street - involving Luke, the sheriff and Johnny Sombrero - is a great scene, both Peckinpah and Leone must have studied it.
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1952 - Dir: Don Siegel - Cast: Audie Murphy (Luke 'Silver Kid' Cromwell), Faith Domergue (Opal 'Brown Eyes' Lacy), Stephen McNally (Marshall 'Lightning' Tyrone), Susan Cabot (Jane 'Dusty' Fargo), Eugene Iglesias (Johnny Sombrero), Gerald Mohr (Rod Lacy), James Anderson ('Rat Face' Blake), Lee Marvin ('Tinhorn' Burgess) 



Jory



Jory is a coming-of-age western, telling a story about the initiation of a teenager into the realities of frontier life. It's a bit similar to Dick Richards' The Culpepper Cattle Company, released around the same time. Jory (Robby Benson) is a 15-year old boy who is orphaned after his alcoholic father is killed in a barroom incident. He joins a cattle drive and befriends the trail boss (John Marley), a philosophical old timer who takes the kid under his wing. But Jory is not only instructed in the cowboy trade, but also taught how to draw a gun quickly by a likable cowhand, a young man named Jocko, who actually holds himself for a formidable gunslinger, but has never shot a man in a duel ...

Jory is an interesting, but very uneven movie. The first half is rather strong, the second half messed up with clichés. The strong first half is helped enormously by the presence of the popular country singer B.J. Thomas* as the would-be gunslinger Jocko. It is suggested that Jocko, like Jory, was 'adopted' by the trail bos, and the friendship between the two foster brothers provides the movie with a few touching moments, among them the sene in which Jocko is provoked to a duel and is unable to point his gun at another human being, not even in self defense ...

Jocko's violent death is avenged by Jory - who is definitely not afraid to point his gun at another human being - but the problem is that the movie makes all the wrong choices after this emotionally wrenching scene. Jory has now become a 15 year old gunslinger, a sort of Jory the Kid, ready to show his shooting skills in any situation, but nobody seems worried about this development. Quite on the contrary: his mentor thinks he has proved himself on the cattle drive and recommends him to a friend, who is looking for somebody to guard his blossoming daughter. Hire a 15-year old to guard your 14-year old daughter? Who would ever do that? Of course the two start soft-soaping each other and Jory isn't much of a protector either: he is kidnapped (along with his sweetheart) but his foster father sacrifices himself to save the kid. It all ends with Jory - now sick of violence and death - hanging up his guns and leaving the region (and the movie) to go looking for 'a place with his name on it' - whatever that means.
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Dir: Jorge Fons - Cast: Robby Benson (Jory), John Marley (Roy Starr), B.J. Thomas(Jocko), Linda Purl (Amy Barron) Claudio Brook (Ethan Walden), Patricia Aspíllaga (Carmelita Starr), Brad Dexter (Jack), Todd Martin (John Barron), Anne Lockhart (Dora) - Screenplay by Gerald Herman & Robert Irving, based on a novel by Milton R. Bass

Note:

* B.J. Thomas sold more than 70 million records but is - like many other country singers - virtually unknown in Europe. And yet most people will know his voice: his version of the Burt Bacharach/Hal David song Raindrops keep fallin' on my head was part of the soundtrack for the immensely popular Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

B.J. Thomas singing Raindrops keep fallin' on my head




Sunday, February 18, 2018

Madron (1970)



An obscure western, an American-Israeli production, shot in Israel, the Negev substituting the American Deep South. Madron was one of the first movies produced by GBC Edric Isracine and the first Israeli movie set in a non-Israeli location. It was co-produced by Chicago based Zev Braun productions  (*1). The movie was released a few month after - and almost completely eclipsed by - Don Siegel's Two Mules for Sister Sarah, which told a similar story about a mercenary and a nun and their journey through the desert.

Leslie Caron is Sister Mary, a French-Canadian nurse and the only survivor of an Apache attack on a wagon train (*2). She is picked up, in the middle of the nowhere, by a drifter called Madron, a primitive man who has survived so far by following his instincts. He promises to bring her to safety, but the two must fight off Mexican bandits and marauding Indians. The journey is long and grueling, and poor old Madron also has to deal with a smooth-talking woman who starts discussing all his decisions ...

Madron was made in the slipstream of Ralph Nelson's infamous Soldier Blue; it has the same narrative structure and some of that movie's brutalities, but few of its concerns. Sister Mary repeatedly states that all people have a soul and are therefore God's children, but the Indians are presented as cruel and superstitious. The Mexicans come off a little better: one of them is a good catholic who is first saved by Sister Mary (when Madron wants to execute and bury him) and later sacrifices himself to save her from being raped and killed by the Apaches. 

Apparently the movie was made for television but released theatrically when it was judged too violent for the small screen. Few people bought a ticket, but the song Till Love touches your Life was nominated by Academy in the category Best Original song. It refers to the tender feelings the two travelers develop for each other, and that may, or may not have resulted in you-know-what (the script is oddly uncommunicative at this point). Boone and Caron play their roles with brio and are in fact far better than this mildly entertaining, but otherwise modest production deserves.

Notes:

* (1) Zev Braun was Jewish and so was famed Italian composer Riz Ortolani. Richard Boone assisted the Israeli film industry in the 1960s and the 1970s and received a special award from Yitzhak Rabin in 1979 for his 'contribution to Israeli cinema' 
* (2) Caron was born in France. For this reason it is suggested in the movie that she is French-Canadian, but her accent does not sound Canadian at all

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1970 - Dir: Jerry Hopper - Cast: Richard Boone, Leslie Caron, Gabi Amrani, Paul L. Smith, Aharon Ipalé, Mosko Alkalai, Haim Banai - Music: Riz Ortolani - Song Till love touches your life, composed by Riz Ortolani, lyrics by Arthur Hamilton


Sunday, January 14, 2018

Sam Whiskey



"Sam Whiskey was way ahead of its time. I was playing light comedy and nobody cared."
- Burt Reynolds

Most American westerns released in the late Sixties, early Seventies interpreted the genre in revisionist terms. Even the immensely successful, seemingly light-hearted Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was essentially a thoughtful, pessimistic movie. Sam Whiskey anticipates Burt Reynolds' comedic roles in movies like Smokey and the Bandit, and in that sense it was ahead of its time, but it's by no means a revolutionary effort. It's labeled as a western but often plays more like a heist movie; some have characterized it as a caper movie in reverse.

In a genuine caper movie the protagonists - usually a trio of friends or professional partners - perform one or more crimes in order to lay their hands on a treasure. In Sam Whiskey the trio is trying to locate a stash of gold stolen from an army mint and bring it back to where it came from.  In other words: they're not performing a crime, but trying to cover one up.

Angie Dickenson is Laura Breckenridge, a woman who recently became a widow and will use everything - including sex (well, mainly sex) - to get things going her way. She  'seduces' Sam Whiskey (Burt Reynolds) into retrieving $250,000 in gold bars stolen from the US army. The bars were stolen by her late husband and Mrs. Breckenridge wants to preserve her family's reputation by undoing the theft. Sam enlists two partners, Jed Hooker, a blacksmith he only met shortly before (played by Ossie Davis) and O.W. Cooper, an old army pal turned inventor (played by the gentle giant Clint Walker). The three are trailed by a bespectacled villain (Rick Davis) and his men, who wonder what the three are up to, and monitored by the widow, who's afraid that Sam and his friend will try to run off with gold and keep it for themselves.

Sam Whiskey was a much maligned movie by contemporary critics, but some recent comments were more positive. I was pleasantly surprised as well after all the bad things I had heard about it. Don't get me wrong: It's far from great, but it's an amiable little movie, mildly funny, easy to enjoy. Both Arnold Laven's direction and William N. Norton's screenplay leave a lot to desire, but the actors pull it off. There's some real chemistry between Burt and Ossie Davis and their remarks and repartees are often witty. Angie Dickinson has an incredibly sexy seduction scene early on, but unfortunately she has very little to do in the remainder of the movie other than waiting outside the army mint while the boys are doing their job inside. Western action is sparse (and unspectacular) but the protracted finale, with the execution of the daring scheme to put the gold back in its place, is very well handled, occasionally even exciting.

Miscellaneous:

Reportedly this was the first movie to have a scene cut under the new MPAA rating (introduced in November 1968). To avoid an R-rating director Laven removed a bare-from-the-waist shot of Angie Dickinson (according to some sources he replaced it by a 'closer shot', from the shoulders up). It's said that the scene has been re-inserted in recent releases. The version I saw was quite revealing but contained no such scene


1969 - Director: Arnold Laven - Cast: Burt Reynolds (Sam Whiskey), Angie Dickinson (Laura Breckinridge),  Clint Walker (O. W. Bandy), Ossie Davis (Jedidiah Hooker), William Schallert (Mr. Perkins), Rick Davis (Henry Hobson), Woodrow Parfrey (Thornton Bromley), Ayllene Gibbons (Big Annie) - Screenplay: William N. Norton 

Friday, September 8, 2017

Invitation to a Gunfighter


A flawed but interesting western set in the aftermath of the Civil War. It has been labeled as 'a strong contender for the dullest Hollywood western ever' (*1), but others think it's a minor classic (*2). It's far from perfect, but tells a story about racism and  hypocrisy that is probably even more relevant today than it was back in the Sixties.

Yul Brynner is a professional gunfighter who's commisioned to a small border town in New Mexico. Matt Weaver, a war veteran, has returned to his hometown to reclaim his homestead and his fiancée, but Weaver was one of the few inhabitants of the border town sympathizing with the Confederacy and therefore wasn't welcomed by the others. Moreover the town boss, a banker named Sam Brewster has sold his farm in his absence and his fiancée (Janice Rule) has married another man, a Unionist who lost an arm in the war ...

Both men of course want Weaver out of town and pay the professional to to the job, but this is definitely a western with a twist. The gunfighter is a Creole (by the name of Jules Gaspard d'Estaing) who despises white supremacists and therefore has a natural disliking for Confederate soldier Matt Weaver. But Weaver has barricaded himself in his family home and while biding his time, Jules discovers that the situation is far from crystal clear. Brewster is a corrupt businessman who uses the painful memories of the Civil War to swindle people out of their houses, and the townspeople are hypocrites, who allegedly sympathized with those who fought against slavery but look down on Mexicans and hire them for the jobs that were done by black slaves before the war. Soon the Creole gunman becomes a bigger threat to the townspeople than Matt Weaver ...

The film directed and co-written by Richard Wilson, an Orson Welles disciple; it is talkative and slow-moving and has a static, almost theatrical look. It was nearly entirely filmed on the backlots of the Universal Studios (the house from Psycho, the 'Bates Motel', was used as Sam Brewster's home). There are only a couple of isolated action scenes, but those sparse action moments are intense and the finale is both well-prepared and well-handled; all characters, including Jules, seem cornered, which makes you wonder what will happen and who will survive the final confrontation. Pat Hingle overdoes things a little as the local tyrant and Janice Rule has three men courting her, but as an actress she very little to do, other looking very worried out of her window (but she's good-looking when she does). Yul Brynner and George Segal on the other hand, are two great leads with contrasting looks and acting styles. I've never been a great fan of Brynner's acting style, but he's near perfect as the dandy-esque professional. 

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Notes:

* (1) Stuart Galbraith IV on DVD Talk - http://www.dvdtalk.com/reviews/67775/invitation-to-a-gunfighter/
* (2) Phil Hardy, Western movies, p. 287

Director: Richard Wilson - Cast: Yul Brynner, George Segal, Pat Hingle, Janice Rule, Brad Dexter, Strother Martin, Alfred Ryder, Clifton James, Bert Freed, John Alonzo - Screenplay: Richard & Elizabeth Wilson, Alvin Sapinsley, based on a story by Hal Goodman & Larry Klein


Janice Rule: Looking good, when looking worried ...



More Dead than Alive

More Dead than Alive (1969, Robert Sparr)  The title and the poster of the movie may give you the impression that this is a spag...