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Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Showdown (1963)



Showdown (1963)
Aka: The Iron Collar

The  border town of Adone is one of a kind: it has no jail, therefore perpetrators are chained to a post in the middle of the town street. This is what happens to two friends, Chris (Audie Murphy) and Bert (Charles Drake), after spending a night in town. Chris was already a bit skeptic about their visit, because his friend has a habit of drinking and making trouble at the card table. Of course his worries come true: a drunken Chris provokes a brawl in the saloon and the two end up in the middle of the street, with an iron collar around their necks.

It's an unpleasant situation, but under normal circumstances they will be released the next day, so Chris tries to get some sleep while Bert is sobering up. Unfortunately, they're not alone: also tied to the pole, is a dangerous outlaw called Lavalle, who forces the others to dig out the pole.  After a brief shootout, the 'prisoners' manage to escape and fly into the hills. Chris and Bert decide to go their own way, but they're caught by Lavalle and his men. In town Bert has stolen a few bonds belonging to an old  flame, and now Lavalle wants him to go back to convert them into cash. Bert travels to town, but comes back empty handed, infuriating the maniacal criminal ...

Showdown is a stark, grim movie, with a short running time (under 80 minutes), made on a tight budget. The outdoor scenes were shot around Lone Pine, but to save money, the movie was shot in black-and-white, a decision that made Murphy furious. Lone Pine was also a favorite shooting location of Bud Boetticher and there's no doubt that the famous Scott-Boetticher westerns from the Ranown Cycle were a major source of inspiration. There a hostage situation, a strong-willed yet vulnerable lady, and an undaunted hero, who refuses to give an inch. Murphy's Chris is a man who acts on instinct rather than reason: he risks his own neck when trying to save his friend's life, even though Bert has told him he wouldn't ever do the same thing for him ...

The film was almost completely overlooked and panned by those who had noticed it, but recent comments have been more positive. Some have criticized the script (by Ric Hartman, working under the pseudonymous Bronson Howitzer) for being contrived and over-elaborate, and yes it's a bit mechanical, and not all twists and turns are believable, but basically this is a B-movie and scripts for these movies were never meant to be scrutinized methodically. Audie Murphy is his usual steadfast self and there are nice cameos by Strother Martin (as the town drunk) and L.Q. Jones (as a silent member of the gang), six years before they became a notorious couple of scavengers in Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch. The one thing that doesn't work, is Kathleen Crowley's part of the saloon girl who once was Bert's sweetheart but is now developing feelings for Chris. Crowley isn't bad - or ugly for that matter - but watching her, it's hard not to think of Sergio Leone's statement that women basically slow a western down. 





Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Cahill U.S. Marshal



CAHILL: U.S. MARSHALL (1973, Andrew V. McLaglen)

An odd western with Duke as an aging Marshal whose sons go astray because daddy isn't home enough. They absolutely want his attention and therefore make some 'bad friends' and get involved in a bank robbery. As you might have expected, things go terribly wrong: nobody was supposed to get hurt, but one of daddy's friends even gets killed, and instead of bad friends, the bank robbers turn out to be real mean bastards. 


It has been suggested that Cahill, U.S. Marshal was intended as a movie about a cop and a widower, more busy with his job than with his two growing up kids (*1). Cop thrillers were in the air - thanks to Clint Eastwood's portrayal of Dirty Harry - but apparently it was decided in the last minute to put Big John back in the saddle, where he belonged. Cahill is definitely a 'post-True Grit' movie: like the more successful Big Jake (1971), it plays with the new persona Wayne had adopted in his Oscar winning role: a living anachronism, a man who had outlived his time, but had not yet lost his touch. But, like John Wills has stated in his study, in True Grit and Big Jake Wayne's persona was presented as a remnant of some older order, brought back for a limited mission in 'modern times' (*2): the sly fox was asked to do some dirty work younger generations were unable to handle. The role fitted the aging Duke like a glove.

In Cahill things are a little different. Wayne plays an aging widower who has two young boys back home but prefers to spend his days out there, tracking down bad guys. The subject must have been very dear to his heart: like J.D. Cahill, the actor John Wayne had often been an absent father to his children, always moving on to the next movie. His autobiographers Randy Roberts and J.S. Olsen go as far as to describe the movie 'close to biographical'. This might also have been the reason why John Wayne wasn't happy with the finished movie: in an interview he declared that the movie had "a good theme" but "wasn't a well-done picture, because it needed better writing and a little more care in the making." (*3) Cahill U.S. Marshal is not a bad film, it's rather slow-moving and the action scenes are sparse, but they're well-crafted and the finale - daddy saving his kids by blowing the baddies to hell - is surprisingly violent. Cahill is entertaining enough; the problem is that there seems to be a better movie lurking underneath.

John Wayne was sixty-five when Cahill, U.S. Marshal was filmed and had already a cancerous lung removed. He was suffering from shortness of breath and had difficulty mounting his horse. Filming must have been quite an ordeal but he saves himself with his usually bravura and looks remarkably comfortable in the role of the sly fox. George Kennedy (as the leader of the boys' 'bad friends') and Neville Brand (as a half-breed tracker who assists Cahill on his quest), are also quite good, but this 'good theme' of the unsound family relations is treated too superficially. 


Dir: Andrew V. McLaglen - Cast: John Wayne, Neville Brand, George Kennedy, Gary Grimes, Clay O'Brien, Dan Vadis, Denver Pyle, Jackie Coogan, Harry Carey Jr. Walter Barnes, Marie Windsor, Morgan Paull - Music: Elmer Bernstein

Notes:

* (1) Ivan Scheldeman, De Films van John Wayne, Antwerp 1979, p. 33
* (2) Gary Wills, John Wayne's America, p. 289
* (3) See: http://tonymacklin.net/content.php?cID=194


Monday, April 17, 2017

The Guns of Fort Petticoat



The Guns of Fort Petticoat (1957)

The first movie production by Murphy-Brown Pictures, a partnership Audie Murphy had formed with Harry Joe Brown. It remained their only movie because of personal differences between the two partners. The Guns of Fort Petticoat was panned by contemporary critics who thought this outlandish story about a petticoat army fighting off an Indian attack didn't combine well with the historic background of the plight of the red man, but the movie seems to have withstood the test of time pretty well and today many think it's one of Murphy's more enjoyable efforts

The story is set in full Civil War time. Audie Murphy is Lt. Frank Hewitt, a guy from Dixie in Yankee service. When some Cheyenne braves leave their territory, Hewitt's commander, the racist Colonel John Chivington decides to punish them by attacking their virtually unprotected village. The result is an infamy known to history as the Sand Creek Massacre. Hewitt knows the Indians will seek revenge by attacking innocent homesteaders and with most men departed to fight in the Civil War, only women and children are left to defend the homesteads. He deserts to warn the women but is first treated by them as a 'blue belly traitor'. Things change when he shows them the dead body of a woman tortured and murdered by marauding Indians. Hewitt and the women entrench themselves in an abandoned mission post to fight of the imminent Indian attack ...


AudieMurphy was not a great dramatic actor, but his real-life experiences (he was one of the most decorated combat soldiers of WWII) seemed to lend credibility to his screen persona. He is quite convincing as the experienced soldier training the women in combat techniques, slowly turning the colorful troupe into an efficient fighting unit, the Guns of Fort Petticoat. Some clichés are tackled (several women and one child are killed during the attack), others remain intact; there's room for romance and comedy and yes, some of the comedy feels a little out of place, notably a scene of Murphy spanking the hot-headed Kathryn Grant. But let's not forget that many contemporary westerns (including those by the likes of Ford or Hawks) offered vaudeville-like interruptions of a serious narrative.

Director Marshall was no Ford or Hawks but he had a long career in both the western and comedy genre and overall the serio-comic mix works quite well. Only the coda, in which a court-martialed Hewitt is discharged thanks to the intervention of the women (and his commanding officer is charged instead), rings untrue. There's nothing wrong with using historic events as a background of a fictional story, but John Chivington was forced to resign after a thorough investigation by the Congress, and to suggest that his fate was sealed during an improvised military court by a group of women who stood up for the man who had taught them how to fight, is sheer nonsense. 

Director: George Marshall - Cast: Audie Murphy (Lt. Frank Hewitt), Kathryn Grant (Anne Martin), Hope Emerson (Hannah Lacey), Jeanette Nolan (Cora Melavan), Sean McClory (Emmett Kettle), Ainslie Pryor (Col. Chivington), Patricia Livingston (Stella Leatham) 


Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Jane Got a Gun



Jane Got A Gun 

Ever since I saw her in Luc Besson’s Leon: The professional (1994) I have a soft spot for Natalie Portman. In 1994 she was thirteen, but looking like a child, today she’s 35, but still looking ever so young. Her juvenile features inevitably turn her movies into something of a guilty pleasure. In Jane got a Gun she is a young woman who has lost her innocence, but not her vulnerability. She’s the mother of a six or seven year old girl and the wife of a man with a questionable reputation, Bill Hammond (played by Noah Emmerich).

One day Bill comes home with eight bullets in his back. The men who shot him, the Bishop brothers, are on their way to the farm and their arrival will mean even more trouble. The only one who can help Jane and her wounded husband, is their neighbor Dan Evans (Joel Edgerton), but he is not only their neighbor, but also Jane's former fiancé, the man she left to become Mrs. Hammond. At first Dan isn’t willing to help her defend her farm, but he still has feelings for her and changes his mind when he's told that Bill Hammond is possibly dying ...

Jane Got a Gun was a troubled production. At some point, the names of Michael Fassbender, Sam Worthington, Bradley Cooper and Jude Law were all mentioned in relation to the production. The original director, Lynne Ramsey, left a few days into shooting and Edgerton was first cast as the villain but then filled the vacated role of the hero after Worthington had left the production. We can of course speculate about what might have been if this director or that actor, etcetera, but for a movie with this history, Jane got a Gun isn’t bad.
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The film has an interesting setting - the days immediately before and after the Civil War. It also has interesting characters: the three leads, Jane, Bill and Dan, all have their shady sides, and none of them is 'innocent': It soon transpires that Jane did not leave Dan but that, quite on the contrary, he left her, to fight in a war he believed in. Jane then headed West, in search of a new life, joining a wagon train led by two brothers, John and Vic Bishop, and realized far too late that the brothers had special plans with her. She only accepted to become the wife of a man with a questionable reputation because he was the only one who cared when she was in a humiliating, dishonoring situation.

Portman and Edgerton turn in good performances, but the other actors fare less well: McGregor is underused (he's also virtually unrecognizable due to a false moustache and a lot of make-up) and Emmerich is confined to his bed most of the time, not a comfortable position to make an impression as an actor. The film was criticized for its complex, flashback-driven narrative and I do agree that this back-and-forth, back-and-forth structure occasionally works a little confusing, but the twists, turns and revelations will surely hold your attention (and the final twist, concerning a second daughter, is particularly surprising). The action moments are often unexpected (and very brutal), but the movie seems to lack a real western ending: the attack on the farm is set at night and if it brings a Peckinpah movie to mind, it's not one of his westerns, but his siege drama Straw Dogs.

***
Dir: Gavin O'Connor - Cast: Natalie Portman (Jane), Joel Edgerton (Dan), Noah Emmerich (Bill), Ewan McGregor (John Bishop), Boyd Holbrook (Vic Bishop), Rodrigo Santoro (Fitchum)


Friday, April 1, 2016

Rio Grande



RIO GRANDE 

Dir: John Ford - Cast: John Wayne, Maureen O'Hara, Ben Johnson, Claude Jarman, Jr., Harry Carey, Jr., Chill Wills, J. Carrol Naish, Victor McLaglen, Grant Withers, Sons of the Pioneers (as the Regimental Singers), Patrick Wayne

The third part of Ford’s celebrated Cavalry Trilogy, following Fort Apache and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.  It’s the first of five movies with John Wayne playing opposite to Maureen O’Hara; they were both strong characters and there had been doubts about pairing them for a movie, but they became good friends. The film also marks the film debut of John’s son Patrick (he plays one of the children).

The story is set fifteen years after the Civil War, but the theme is still (like in Yellow Ribbon) reconciliation. North and South must unite under the US flag and stick together in pursuit of marauding Indians. At a personal level, the theme of reconciliation is reflected by the relationship of an inhibited, stubborn officer, Colonel Kirby Yorke (Wayne) with his estranged wife (O’Hara) and his son, a boy he hasn’t seen since the end of the war. The young man was dropped as a cadet at West Point, but subsequently enlisted in the cavalry and is now assigned to his father’s regiment at the frontier. Soon after the boy, the mother also arrives at the outpost, to buy her son free.

Rio Grande was an adaptation of a story by J.W. Bellah, whose writings had served as the base for all three movies of the trilogy. Bellah’s story, called Mission with No Record, was based on an actual raid executed in 1873. A number of Kickapoo Indians had left their reservation and fled into Mexico; from time to time they were launching surprise attacks from their base south of the border. Eventually an officer from Fort Clark was ordered - unofficially - to put an end to the raids, even if the campaign violated the sovereignty of another nation. The action almost led to an international conflict and reportedly General Sherman was much angered at the operation that was planned behind his back (1).

In the movie the army still crosses the border, but the punitive expedition is turned into a rescue mission when a wagon load of women and children, sent by Colonel Yorke to another fort for savety, is intercepted by the Indians. The children are held captive in a church south of the border and the situation leaves Colonel Yorke no choice: he must act and must act without hesitation. Yorke sends his most daring trooper, Tyree (played by Ben Johnson) forward to infiltrate the Indian camp and protect the children so he can launch a full-scale attack on the camp without putting the children in danger. Tyree is given permission to choose two other troopers to accompany him and to Yorke’s shock his own son is one of the two men chosen ...


Rio Grande is often called the most beautifully filmed of the cavalry pictures, but at the same time many regard it as the weakest of the trilogy. The story of the the broken down marriage and the son who grew up without his father is well-handled, but it offers few surprises; of course the two still love each other and of course the young man proves himself in battle. The songs performed by The Pioneers aren’t completely redundant - the 'Kathleen song' neatly illustrates the feelings of the protagonists - but there are too many of them and they’re not well integrated into the movie. The conflict with the Indians lacks a 'bad character' such as Henry Fonda’s Owen Thursday, the irresponsible martinet from Fort Apache who was played off against Wayne’s knowing Sergeant York (then written without the 'e').

As a result Rio Grande is - more then the other parts - a movie of moments: some incredible horse stunts, performed by the actors themselves (*2), drunken Indians performing a death song in the middle of the night, O’Hara opening Wayne’s war chest, finding a music box that plays 'I’ll take you home, Kathleen' (her name in the movie) and above all that majestic scene of Colonel Yorke all alone on a hill, grieving for the past, thinking of what might have been, agonizing the difficult task he has been assigned.

Notes:

*1) Gary Wills, John Wayne’s America, p. 181-183. The story of Rio Grande is set in 1879, fifteen years after 'Shenandoah’

* 2) See: http://www.westernhorseman.com/archive/classic-articles/198-ben-johnson - The text says: "(...) in Rio Grande, he and fellow actors Claude Jarman Jr. and Harry Carey Jr. did their own stunt work in a spectacular Roman-riding scene that's still a film classic. Anyone who views that scene can easily see that Johnson is a real horseman."



Monday, February 8, 2016

Hannie Caulder




Of all the oddities of the Western Wonderland of the early seventies, this must be one of the oddest. Like many westerns of the period it was shot in Spain and offers a cast of familiar faces as well as a few surprise appearances; it also tries to outdo the violent and perverted tendencies of the previous decade with lots of blood and a particularly nasty rape scene. With Ernest Borgnine, Jack Elam and Strother Martin playing the baddies in the style of the Three Stooges, this may sound like a half-baked American pseudo spaghetti, but the film is British, which explains some of the surprise appearances, such as Christopher Lee, Mr. Dracula himself, as a gunsmith, and Diana Dors as a prostitute.

In the opening minutes three outlaw brothers try to rob a bank in a sleepy Mexican border town. It’s an outrageous scene, with so much blood spilled, that it comes close to parody. Director Kennedy had done a few good western comedies (notably the excellent Support your local Sheriff), and the scene was probably meant as a spoofy version of the opening scene of The Wild Bunch, but it’s so gross, and at the same time so stupid, that it fails in every aspect. After all, even outlaws as inept as the Clemens brothers wouldn’t have robbed a bank with a regiment of federales sleeping on the porch of a town building. The next scene is the infamous rape scene, with the brothers not only raping a woman (played by a thirty-one year old Raquel Welch), but also killing her husband and burning down her house. The sequence is filmed with an almost total lack of subtlety or restraint. And again so much blood is spilled & spattered that the killing of the husband looks like a ritual slaughter.

Surprisingly the movie finds the right tone as it goes along. A key element is a strong performance by the much underrated Robert Culp as a bearded and spectacled bounty hunter, hired by Welch to turn her into a proficient gunwoman who can get even with the thugs who ruined her life. He gives her the shooting lessons she’s asking for, warning her at the same time of the ultimate futility of the revenge mission she has planned. Culp’s wonderfully reserved performance provides the movie with exactly the right counterbalance for the outlandish atmosphere. The shooting lessons are wisely nested in a carefully handled interlude involving Christopher Lee as a gunsmith with more children than you can think of. This is all handled with so much care, that we seem to have wandered into another movie. The scene eventually culminates into a bloody shootout with a Mexican gang of cutthroats, which seems a bit thrown in, but also leads the film to its final act, describing Welch’s revenge.


Once past the first ten, fifteen minutes, Hannie Caulder is a surprisingly enjoyable western, although the would-be mystical ending is weak (what’s all this nonsense with Stephen Boyd - dressed in black - supposed to mean?). Even some of the comedy starts to work (Borginine and Martin starting to fight while trying to rob a stagecoach!). Edward Scaife’s lush cinematography of the Spanish locations is admirable. I wasn’t too pleased with Ken Thorne’s score. It occasionally reminded me of Jerry Fielding’s magnificent score for The Wild Bunch, but never seems to find the right balance between classic and modernist influences. Too much old school in a modern context. But of course in this movie everything (direction, landscape & score) plays second fiddle to Welch, and she had never looked better and would never look as good again as she did in Hannie Caulder. A promotion pic of her in her poncho, and no more than a poncho, became one the most iconic images in the history of film making.

***
Dir: Burt Kennedy - Cast: Raquel Welch (Hannie Caulder), Robert Culp (Thomas Luther Price), Ernest Borgnine (Emmett Clemens), Jack Elam (Frank Clemens), Strother Martin (Rufus Clemens), Christopher Lee (Bailey), Stephen Boyd, Aldo Sambrell, Brian Lightburn, Luis Barboo, Diana Dors (Madam)

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Three Amigos




Steve Martin, Chevy Chase and Martin Short are The Three Amigos, a comedy team from Hollywood’s silent era (probably inspired by The Ritz Brothers). After being sacked by the studio they receive a telegram from a Mexican woman named Carmen, who wants them to come to her little hometown Santo Poco, south of the border, and do some work for the locals. The three think they’re asked to perform their singing cowboy routines, but no: the señorita had accidently seen their adventures on a big screen and thinks they will be able to defend the town against real bandidos ...

As one might expect in a comedy, the three amigos are the last to understand the seriousness of the situation: the town of Santo Poco is visited on regular intervals by the notorious bandit El Guapo, who has discovered the racketeering business and is asking increasingly more money for his services from the poor villagers. And as you might expect (again) in a comedy, the three manage to do what they were hired for, in spite of their own incompetence. And they do this - the film makers know their stuff - by rallying the villagers to stand up for themselves and organize their own defence; in other words, the three amigos become the magnificent three.

As a comedy Three Amigos is not without merit, but knowing that three of the most popular American comedians from the period are in it, one would have expected it to be funnier. The script offers all three of them a few opportunities to show what they’re capable of, but only in one scene, set around a campfire, there’s something like a synergetic effect, otherwise the best moments come from individual efforts, and the three never really feel like a team. In one scene, Short and Martin perform a song and dance number in a cantina; it’s a nice and funny scene but you wonder what Chase is doing while they’re performing their act: it turns out that he was playing the piano - at least that’s what we’re supposed to believe.



Three Amigos has its moments and I noticed that it also has its fans: some critical notes from my part on facebook led to some spiteful remarks. I therefore gave it another chance. It’s actually not bad and some of the solo bits and vignettes are even pretty good. Kai Wulff is hilarious as the German who has always idolized Short’s skills as a gunslinger and therefore challenges him to a duel and ... is outdrawn by him! Alfonso Arau - best known to western buffs as one of the baddies from The Wild Bunch - has the movie’s best remembered line as the villain El Guapo, after watching the three performing their routine:


"I like these guys. They are funny guys. Kill only one of them."

Randy Newman is mentioned as co-author of the script; he wrote three songs for the movie and also has a ‚cameo’ as a singing bush (maybe he wrote his own lines). Let’s say that his songs are better than his performance ...

***
Dir: John Landis - Cast: Chevy Chase (Dusty Bottoms), Steve Martin (Lucky Day), Martin Short (Ned Nederlander), Joe Mantegna (Harry Flugleman), Alfonso Arau (El Guapo), Loyda Ramos (Conchita), Patrice Martinez (Carmen), Kai Wulff (The German)