Saturday, April 27, 2013

Buchanan Rides Alone (1958)

Dir: Bud Boetticher, Cast: Randolph Scott, Craig Stevens, Barry Kelly, Tol Avery, Peter Whitney, Manuel Rojas, Joe De Santis, L.Q. Jones

Buchanan Rides Alone is the odd western out in the Ranown Cycle (1), the legendary series of low-budget westerns directed by Budd Boetticher and starring Randolph Scott. The other movies portray the western hero as a lone and embittered, but strong-willed man with a self-imposed mission (often to find the murderer of his wife). Scott enters Buchanan Rides Alone with a smile on his face and the atmosphere is almost farcical at times. 

Buchanan rides into the border town of Agry, where everything - a steak, a bottle of whiskey and a room - costs $ 10 (what a lovely detail). The town is called Agry because it is ruled by the Agry brothers, the hypocritical judge Simon, the greedy sheriff Lew and the irresolute hotel holder Amos. Buchanan is told by sheriff Lew that drifters aren't welcome, so it would be a good thing for him not to linger  in Agry Town. Buchanan's laconic answer says it all:

"I ain't gonna linger no place until I get back where I belong."

Buchanan is not a man looking for trouble, but when they occur, he won't step away, and he'll do whatever he feels is necessary. He becomes involved in the life of the town when a wealthy young Mexican, Juan de la Vega, kills Simon Agry's son in what seems to be a fair duel. Buchanan tries to stop the angry mob from lynching the Mexican, even though he's warned that this might cost him his own neck:

"We were voted out of a double hanging, Buchanan. Unless you get on that horse and start riding, we'll make up for it with a double bury."

The lynching is then prevented by the victim's father, the judge, who prefers to give the boy a fair trial (in the face of upcoming elections for a public office). While the young De La Vega is sentenced to death by hanging, Buchanan is sent out of town at gunpoint, and the two men escorting him, have been ordered to execute him. However, one of them, a man born in the West of Texas (like Buchanan), changes sides and saves his life. In the meantime the brothers have fallen out among each other: Lew and Amos have discovered that Simon has made a secret deal with Juan de la Pena's  father to give the young man back his freedom (and his life) for $ 50.000. Agry Town has become Money Hungry Town ...

With its town setting, its corrupt dignitaries, and this combination of comedy and grim violence, the movie almost plays like a spaghetti western (one could imagine Giuliano Gemma playing the Buchanan role). And indeed it is often mentioned as one of the American westerns that Kurosawa must have seen before making Yojimbo (which was, of course, later turned into A Fistful of Dollars) by Leone. The finale - with an exchange of prisoners, the warring parties entrenching themselves on different sides of a bridge -  also seems to have influenced the finale of Rio Bravo (2). 

Even after multiple viewings I'm not sure about Buchanan Rides Alone. The quirky script is full of double-crossings and changing alliances, and if you don't pay close attention, you might lose sight of what is exactly going on - and why. I'm not too sure about Scott in this role either. In the other movies Boetticher used Scott's boney stature and furrowed face to express stoic indifference to danger, but his presence doesn't work so well in a more freewheeling context and things become a bit silly when Scott even keeps a smile on his face with a rope around his neck. In an interesting comment on the movie (3), director Taylor Hackford says Scott's Buchanan is a sort of precursor to Eastwood's No Name, the character created for Leone's Dollar Movies. True or not: you need a different kind of actor to lend credibility to a character who is charming and laconic in one moment, and gruff and lethal  in the next. In other words: an actor like Eastwood.

Some have complained about the villains in the movie, the Agrys, but I thought they were a lovely bunch of nasty maniacs, especially the slimy, treacherous Amos, played by Peter Whitney. Craig Stevens' part, on the other hand, as the mysterious gunman serving the judge, is intriguing, but not developed properly; basically it's a cameo, even though Stevens received second-billing (!). L.Q. Jones is a delight (as always) as the man who thinks there's no place like the West of Texas; he's also involved in the funniest scene of the entire movie,  the funeral of a former buddy, shot by Jones to save Buchanan: the two men dig a hole in the ground, but when it keeps filling up with water, they decide to 'bury' the man up in the tree, so the animals won't get at him. Jones then has a hilarious speech in which he declares that his friend was a cheater and a thief who couldn't be trusted under any circumstances, but otherwise not a bad guy. And look at Scott's face during the eulogy!


* (1) Like Richard T. Jameson has stated in an article on the cycle, the term Ranown is more evocative than precise. It's an acronym, derived from RANdolph Scott (the star and associate producer of the movies) and Harry Joe BrOWN (the executive producer), but today it rather evokes the names of Scott and Boetticher, and the seven westerns they made between 1956 and 1960. However, the first movie, Seven men from Now, the one that brought the two men together, did not involve Brown (it was produced by John Wayne's company Batjac) and the sixth movie, Westbound (1959) was a contract job for Warner Brothers and bears little resemblance to the other Boetticher-Scott collaborations. Most people therefore exclude it from the series. If we accept this, the Ranown Cycle consists of: Seven Men from Now (1956), The Tall T (1957), Decision at Sundown (1957), Buchanan Rides alone (1958), Ride Lonesome (1959) and Comanche Station (1960).

 * (2) There's no bridge in (the finale of) Rio Bravo, but there is one in Rio Lobo, Hawks's second loose remake of the 1959 movie.

Richard T. Jameson, The Ranown Cycle, in: They went that-a-way, London, 1982

Sunday, April 21, 2013

River of No Return (1954)

Dir: Otto Preminger - Cast: Robert Mitchum, Marily Monroe, Rory Calhoun, Tommy Rettig, Murvyn Vye, Douglas Spencer

It is said that the script for this movie was loosely based on Vittorio de Sica's famous neo-realistic movie Ladri di Biciclette (Bicycle Thieves - 1948). In the Italian movie a father and a son scour the city of Rome in the aftermath of WWII in search of a stolen bicycle. Without his bicycle, the man won't be able to make a living in the post-War society. 

In River of no Return the premise is somewhat altered by the addition of a third character, a woman played by Marilyn Monroe. She is a singer in a gold digger's camp in Canada, and has been looking after a young boy when his father (Mitchum) was in jail. Mitchum soon gets the chance to do Marilyn a favor in return, when she and her boyfriend (Calhoun) lose control over a raft on the river near Mitchum's farm. Calhoun is a cardsharp who wants to register, as soon as possible, a gold claim he has won dishonestly in a card game, and therefore steals Mitchum's horse and rifle, leaving him and the boy behind without proper means to defend themselves against hostile Indians. Instead of departing with her fiancé, the woman decides to stay with the father and the son and the threesome begin their dangerous journey down the boisterous river on a raft, persecuted by the Indians ... 

The rugged nature of the Canadian Rocky Mountains has taken the place of a city and the quest for a stolen bike (which allows the man to make a living), has become a quest for a hearth and home: a father and a son learn to respect each other during the journey , and both learn to love and respect the woman in their company, and see her as, respectively, a wife and a mother. This may all sound a little heavy-handed for what was meant to be a light-weight romantic adventure movie, but the two stars are wonderful together and Mitchum's stoicism and Monroe's spontaneity give the film an easy-going charm. The scenery is beautiful and made even more impressive by the use of Cinemascope, but there are also several (quite distracting) scenes shot against the bluescreen. There's not too much action, but Marilyn's tight jeans offer ample compensation.

Noticing how easy-going the finished movie is, it may come as a surprise that the production was a troublesome affair. It was shot on location in Banff and Jasper National park in Canada under very difficult circumstances. The crew was confronted with heavy rains (which made the white-water rapids even more perilous to the actors and stuntmen) and lots, lots of personal problems. Marilyn brought an acting trainer to the set who was sent away by director Preminger, but Studio executive Darryl F. Zanuck sided with Marilyn in the conflict. Preminger and Monroe then only would communicate through Mitchum. Filming had to be stopped because Monroe sprained an ankle (some say she faked the injury to thwart Preminger) and after a while Mitchum turned to heavy drinking. Preminger later said it was Rettig - who plays the boy - who saved the movie: he had a very good relationship with Marilyn and he was too young to be used as a scapegoat by any of the others.

Rory Calhoun would later work with Sergio Leone on Il Colosso di Rodi, Leone's first film as a director. Leone turned to him for the role of No Name in A Fistful of Dollars after several other American actors (Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, James Coburn) had turned the offer down, but Calhoun didn't like the script.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Django Unchained - Nothing outside the movies

Nothing outside the movies

- A small essay

"There is nothing outside the text"

Even if you're not really interested in philosophy (and all that) you might be familiar with this statement by French postmodern philosopher Jacques Derrida. In French it reads "Il n'y pas de hors-texte" and a more accurate translation would be: "There is no such thing as outside-the-text". Basically it states that one cannot step out of context. The con-text of a text, is textual, so texts refer to other texts, not to any reality outside the world of texts. Scholars will tell you that it's all far more complicated, but that what they're scholars for. They will also tell you that Derrida didn't like the term 'postmodern' and preferred to be called a deconstructionist (1).

I - A fistful of Spaghetti

Tarantino has been described as a man with an encyclopedic knowledge of genre movies most people haven't even heard of. When making his own movies, the raw material for it, is provided by those movies in his head. In 2007, when his latest film, Django Unchained was no more than a mere idea, he told interviewers that he wanted to do "movies about America's horrible past with slavery and stuff, but do them like a spaghetti westerns, not big issue movies." (2) Half a decade later, when asked if he had done any historic research for Django Unchained, he said:


To Quentin, there is no such thing as outside-the-movie, and of all movies, the spaghetti western genre seems to have the biggest impact on his way of film making. In Kill Bill genre elements were fused with manga and Asian martial arts cinema; in Inglourious Basterds they were smuggled into a revenge movie set during World War II. In both movies a young woman must witness how her family is slaughtered; in the first movie during a shotgun wedding, in the second movie as part of an ethnic cleansing. The theme of a young person witnessing the slaughter of his family, was taken from the spaghetti western Death Rides a Horse, in which the witness is a young boy. This movie is also famous for its recurring flashbacks of the massacre, with the camera  zooming in on the eyes of the boy and the image turning red, an effect copied by Tarantino in Kill Bill. The protracted opening of Inglourious Basterds (SD Colonel Landa having a conversation with the man he's about to kill) is similar to an early scene in Sergio Leone's The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Tarantino's favorite movie. 

II - Close to home, back in time

And now there's Django Unchained, the title referring to a 1966 spaghetti western made by Sergio Corbucci, the so-called 'other Sergio'. For those of you unfamiliar with the genre: the eponymous hero Django from Corbucci's movie is a drifter, a black-clad cowboy, trailing a coffin behind him. He has fought for the Union, but after the Civil War he travels Down South, to a small western town near the Mexican border, to get even with the racist Confederate officer who has killed his wife. Django, the angel of revenge, almost became synonymous with the blood-calls-for-blood philosophy of the genre. The character was so popular that numerous unofficial sequels were released, barely related to the original, often even only sequels in name. In Germany - where the movie had been particularly successful - more than fifty movies were labeled as Django-movies. The actor who played the original character, Franco Nero, has a cameo in Django Unchained: he's the person standing next to Jamie Foxx explaining that the 'd is silent'.

Tarantino has turned a black-clad anti-hero into a black man, a slave who is freed by a bounty hunter because he has some vital information about a couple of outlaws the bounty hunter is looking for. After the slave has helped the bounty hunter to track down the outlaws, the bounty hunter helps the slave to locate (and liberate) his lost wife, a slave woman called Broomhilda, worth a few extra bucks because she speaks German. In the meantime the black man is introduced, by his liberator, into the art of bounty hunting, that is: the second great pastime of spaghetti western heroes. If they're not avenging murdered family members, they're collecting bounties.

With spaghetti westerns themes as a sort of leitmotiv, the three movies seem to form a trilogy of continents: In Kill Bill brought the widowed bride travels to contemporary Asia, Inglourious Basterds was set in wartime Europe, Django Unchained leads us back to a Deep American South on the eve of the Civil War. While getting closer to home, Tarantino is getting further back in time.

II - Deconstructing Django

Like some have noticed, Django Unchained is more a Southern than a Western (Tarantino initially referred to it as 'Southern' as well): the setting is not the desert or a western town, but the world of Southern plantations. There are visual references to various classic spaghetti westerns, and Tarantino's heroes shoot with the ultra-swift and ultra-precise hands of all those Djangos who populated the Italian West. Just look at the scene with the recently freed slave, who most probably has never used a gun in his life before in his life, showing supernatural marksmanship while practizing his shooting skills on a snowman. ("A natural talent," says his teacher). That's all very spaghetti, so to speak. But with a black action hero, female slaves being whipped and Mandingo slaves fighting each other to death in gladiator style, we're often closer to the world of blaxploitation. Some have read the excessive bloodletting in the movie as a nod to Sam Peckinpah (in particular his 1969 western The Wild Bunch) but the blood-spattered scenes (true explosions) are closer to  comic strip violence than to Peckinpah's balletic bloodbaths.

And then there's the music. As usual the soundtrack is, like the movie itself, a mixture of styles and influences, ranging from Jim Groce's I got a Name (probably a nod to Eastwood's No Name character) to Beethoven's Für Elise. The original title track of the '66 movie, composed by Luis Bacalov, is played over the opening credits and there's of course a lot of Morricone on the soundtrack, but some of his tracks do not refer to his spaghetti western scores (one piece is taken from the Hollywood ersatz spaghetti Two Mules for Sister Sarah) and we also get James Brown and Johnny Cash. Like some have noticed, only James Taylor seems to be missing.

III - A Dog's Tail

Evaluating a movie like Django Unchained is complicated by a few things: a postmodern film maker is always aware of the fact that his work belongs to the category of 'make belief'. He therefore is deliberately playful, disrespectful, ambiguous. Historical and political correctness do not count. There's no sense in reproaching him that his work (or parts of it) is unrealistic: it was never meant to be realistic. Blaming him for mixing styles or degrading delicate subjects, will get you nowhere. Tarantino has been accused of playing out cheap tricks instead of trying to create a coherent work of art, and this is probably also what bothered Morricone when he said that Tarantino used music "without coherence". But his fans will tell you that's all part of the fun, you can take it or leave it. You can't blame a conjurer for playing tricks. All true, of course, but this is also the weakness of postmodernism: it too easily rejects criticism by wallowing in its own playfulness.

I must confess that I had no high hopes for Django Unchained. I had the feeling Tarantino had used his postmodern tricks once too often. In Inglourious Basterds, he had tried to recreate some of the magic of Kill Bill, as if he were a dog chasing his own tail. Inglourious Basterds wasn't bad, but it was not as good as Kill Bill and I was afraid that Django Unchained would be a further step down. I was also skeptical about Jamie Foxx, I couldn't picture him as an action hero.

I was pleasantly surprised in both aspects: Django Unchained is good fun and Jamie Foxx is perfectly believable as the black shooting star. I don't think the movie is much better than Inglourious Basterds, but in at least in one aspect it's a step up: In Inglourious Basterds Tarantino seemed to have lost his great feeling for dialogue, it all sounded a bit pedestrian (more as if someone tried to imitate Tarantino), in Dango Unchained he regains some of his wit. Some scenes show how effective this type of film making can be in the hands of a talented artist. The best example is perhaps the scene with the Regulators, KKK avant-la-lettre (and before the war): it's grisly and funny, history reflected in a distorting mirror, and at the same time a sneer to D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation, in which the founding of the Ku Klux Klan is glorified. 

IV - No shit from nobody

As said the scene is very funny, but it also goes on too long, and that's the main problem of this movie: it doesn't know where to stop. Another example is the shootout at the Candie house; with its true explosions of blood it's of course meant to be over-the-top, but it's so far over-the-top, and again: goes on so long that it becomes tiring and downright silly. The final 20-25 minutes are the weakest part of the movie and almost seem redundant.

Django Unchained made me think of another movie I studied a while ago, Peckinpah's Major Dundee. In popular myths about it, the production is described as a stereotyped war of a gifted artist versus bullying studio bosses, the latter destroying what would have been a masterpiece without their interference. Peckinpah was indeed a gifted artist, and no doubt some of those studio bosses were bullies, but digging into the production's history, it quickly became clear that Peckinpah was as guilty for the shortcomings of the final product as the studio. Artists - film makers, writers - have a tendency to think that they are the only ones who can decide what should be in the film (or book), and what should be left out of it. And usually they want to leave out as little as possible. When they are successful, they reach a point where they don't have to take no shit from nobody, and to many, this is a critical moment. Often it's the beginning of their artistic downfall. Stephen King is a good example: his novels were at good length and thoroughly readable as long as they were neatly edited, but then he became so famous that his publishing house would accept anything he wrote, with catastrophic results.

With a running-time of two hours and forty-five minutes Django Unchained is definitely overlong; it's not such a problem while watching it - it remains watchable throughout - but it could have been a lot better if Tarantino, or any other, had trimmed a bit. Or more than just a bit.


(1) In fact there are many readings of this catch phrase (which seems to be in accordance with postmodern beliefs that there is no ultimate truth). A common reading is also adopted by The Urban Dictionary:  "Derrida - A French philosopher, acknowledged as the father of deconstruction. More accurately described as a post-structuralist, Derrida is most famous for his catch phrase "il n'y a pas de hors-text," which exemplifies his belief that there are no transcendental explanatory structures which can be legitimately used as interpretative tools." 

(2) (Scroll down to the end of the article for the statement)

Monday, April 15, 2013

Day of the Evil Gun (1968)

Dir: Jerry Thorpe - Cast: Glenn Ford, Arthur Kennedy, John Anderson, Dean Jagger, Harry Dean Stanton, Paul Fix, Nico Minardos, James Griffith
The spiritual father of this small but interesting movie was Charles Marquis Warren, an illustrious name in the world of the western, often described as the man who brought the western to the small screen. He created Rawhide and adapted the radio series Gunsmoke for television. He had done a few directional jobs in the fifties and Day of the Evil Gun (for which he only wrote the story and the screenplay) marked his return to the big screen. The next year he would write, direct and produce the Elvis vehicle Charro.
Lorne Warfield (Ford), an aging gunman trying to forget his violent past, is told by his neighbor, the farmer Owen Forbes (Kennedy) that his wife and two young daughters are kidnapped by the Apaches. Warfield has been away from home for a couple of years, and Forbes tells him that his wife - who thought her husband was dead - has fallen in love with him. He therefore wants to accompany Warfield on his quest, even though the latter thinks his neighbor (who has never shot a man) will only be a burden. Both characters are well-defined and far from one-dimensional, and Ford and Kennedy are very convincing as, respectively, the philosophical gunman and the sullen farmer,  who gradually begins to revel in the hunt and (even more so) the killings he's forced to do. What makes their characters even more colorful, is that they're both tormented by feelings of remorse: the gunman because he could've done something, but wasn't there, the farmer because he was there, but couldn't do anything.
The premise of the quest for family members kidnapped by Indians, will no doubt remind most of us of John Ford's The Searchers, but the moody and gritty atmosphere is closer to Peckinpah's The Deadly Companions. On their perilous journey the two men encounter the son of a Spanish nobleman, down on his luck, who has founded his private empire South of the Mexican border, a community of banished and agonizing cholera victims, and a group of Confederate deserters residing in a Mormon ghost town. In fact the journey is so eventful that the finale - the two men releasing the women and subsequently facing each other in an unusual confrontation - is a bit of a let-down.
The violence is quite potent and therefore some have suggested that the movie was influenced by the spaghetti westerns that were overflowing the market, but neither the action nor the score have a distinct Italian feel.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Garden of Evil (1954)

Dir: Henry Hathaway - Cast: Gary Cooper, Richard Widmark, Susan Hayward, Cameron Mitchell, Hugh Marlowe, Rita Moreno, Victor Manuel Mendoza
Today this is one of Henry Hathaway's least known westerns, but it was a prestigious affair back then. It was one of Fox's first cinemascope productions and also one of their first movies with stereophonic sound; for the occasion a stellar cast was hired and Bernard Herrmann (best known for his collaborations with Hitchcock) was asked to write a score.
Gary Cooper, Richard Widmark and Cameron Mitchell are three fortune-hunters stranded in a Mexican port while the ship that is supposed to bring them to the Californian Gold Rush is being repaired. While spending some time in the saloon (watching Rita Moreno performing a song and a dance), they're asked by a American woman (Hayward) to follow her into the mountains, where her husband has been trapped in a goldmine after a landslide. They quickly get to the mine, but it is situated on sacred Indian ground, and on the way back, they're ambushed by the Indians ...
The grandeur of the cinematography often seems to overpower the story-line. Garden of Evil is beautifully looking, but also dead-slow, almost coming to a halt while the camera patiently, all to patiently scrutinizes those beautiful Mexican vistas (1). Luckily the characters are well-drawn and seem tailor-made for the wonderful ensemble of actors.  Both Cooper and Widmark are close to their very best as, respectively, the strong-willed, honorable adventurer and the slightly shady card sharp, the first one who senses there's something wrong with the woman who hired them. Some have sensed a homoerotic element in Widmark's performance (I must say it crossed my mind too). Cooper and Widmark have a laconic, but meaningful conversion when watching Hayward offering lumps of sugar to her horse:
Widmark: "Look, you see that? Before this is over, you'll be just like that horse, eatin' right out of her hand."
Cooper: "Maybe it isn't the woman.  Maybe it's the sugar."
The broody characters and their uneasy relationships are far more interesting than the action, which is sparse and not very spectacular. The Indians are called Apaches, but look more like Mohawks or (as someone ironically stated) like students moonlighting as extras. Bernard Herrmann's score veers from playful and inventive to loud and overbearing, and occasionally becomes so obtrusive that it's hard to concentrate on what's happening on-screen. It was the first of only two western scores (the second one being The Kentuckian, made the next year).

If the story sounds familiar to spaghetti western fans, it should: it was adapted into a spaghetti western called Find a Place to Die (Joe, cercati un posto per morire!) by Giuliano Carnimeo. A few changes were made to the story, but the premise was left intact and several scenes were copied, among them the early scene in the saloon (Daniela Giordano replacing Rita Moreno)

(1) According to IMDB it was entirely shot on location in Mexico, but I thought I spotted a few painted backgrounds.

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...