Thursday, June 27, 2013

Yellowneck (1955)

Dir: R. John Hugh - Cast: Lin Mc Carthy, Stephen Courtleigh, Berry Kroeger, Harold Gordon, Bill Mason, Al Tamez, Jose Billie

An odd little movie, like most movies set in Civil War days, it's part war movie, part western, but in this case it's more War than West. To begin with, it is set in Florida, not your usual western setting, and the story of five Confederate soldiers lost in the Everglades, often seems closer to the lost patrol type of WWII movies, set on a South Sea Island, about marines making their way through the jungle, stalked by Japs. To give the film at least some western feel, the Japanese soldiers are replaced by Seminole Indians.

Four Yellownecks, that is Southern deserters, are running away from the battlefields for various reasons (one is a thief in possession of a sum of gold he has stolen from the Confederacy, the other is a Brit who has only recently arrived in the new world and has no sympathy for either side, etc.). They are joined by a disgraced officer, a Colonel who was drunk at a crucial moment. The four dream of reaching the coast and making it to Cuba, although none of them has any idea how to make the crossing; the Colonel knows they're fools, who will never reach the promised land, but he has no other choice than joining them. Apart from the hostile Indians, the men have to deal with snakes, gators, insects, and even a hurricane. 

It would be interesting to know what the film makers had in mind with this very unusual story about losers. You'd rather expect this type of narrative more in the early 70s (when directors and screenwriters seemed obsessed with showing the horrors and insanity of war)  than in the mid-fifties. It's an interesting movie but uneven movie, the premise is believable, or at least imaginable, but at the same time the action feels a little overwrought and over-dramatized (the Colonel dying in full delirium tremens, etc.). The actors do their job pretty well, delivering their solemn lines (often pure soliloquies) with aptness and conviction. Best known actor is probably Kroeger, who plays the thief.

Technically there are a few problems: the film was made on a tight budget and the gators look laughably unreal in a couple of scenes. There a scene with quicksand that'll make you cringe and a person also dies within seconds from a rattle-snake bite. The hurricane scene, on the other hand, looks suspiciously realistic. And indeed, the crew was surprised by a real hurricane during the shooting of the movie, and decided to take advantage of the situation.

Yellowneck is available on You Tube. The print (like the movie itself) is not great, but very watchable. 

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Vera Cruz (1954)

It's often said that Vera Cruz didn't do well when it was first released and was dismissed by contemporary critics. In reality is was one of the most successful western from the 50s, equaling the box-office results of movies like Rio Bravo and The Searchers. Various critics had some reservations about the cynical behavior of the movie's protagonists, but its reputation of a repudiated movie seems largely due to a negative review in the New York Post by the influential Bosley Crowther, in which the movie was called 'atrocious'. 

Gary Cooper is Ben Trade, a Civil War veteran traveling south to proof his luck in Mexico; he hopes to make some money, to start a new life as a farmer back home. After an incident involving a horse, he's joined by fortune hunter Joe Erin, the leader of a small gang of no-goods. The men are hired by Habsburg Emperor Maximiliam  - a puppet dictator put on the throne by Napoleon III - to escort French countess Duvarre to the port of Vera Cruz. The men discover that the stagecoach is transporting $ 3 million dollars in gold (to be used in Europe to hire more troops for Maximilian) hidden in a case under the seat. While the group is being followed by the Juaristas, who think the gold belongs to the Mexican people, a battle of wits ensues, with a variety of people trying to lay their hands on the gold, including a sexy spy of the Juaristas, who's also having an eye on Cooper ...

With a storyline about American gunmen traveling south to sell their gun to the highest bidder, Vera Cruz is heralding the South-of-the-border type of Hollywood westerns of the next decade, like John Sturges' The Magnificent Seven, Richard Brooks' The Professionals or Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch. In recent years it has also become popular to emphasize its influence on Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns - or spaghetti westerns in general; some have even called it the pivotal Hollywood movie in the development of the Italian Western, the movie that started it all.

Vera Cruz was no doubt an influential movie, but I don't think it can be called a blueprint for the Italian western (1). There's Lancaster's portrayal of a smiling, slightly sadistic anti-hero and there's also a shooting contest in spaghetti western style, but the movie lacks the intense close-ups and ritual build-ups to western duels of Leone's style of film making. The setting and storyline are closer to Corbucci's Zapata westerns than Leone's Dollar movies, but even though some have interpreted it as a comment on American foreign politics - more notably the CIA adventurism in Central America during the Eisenhower years (2) - Vera Cruz is not really a political movie.  It is subversive in tackling the image of the traditional western hero, but its protagonists are opportunists, no revolutionaries; they finally end up on different sides in the conflict, but more for personal than ideological reasons.

Cooper is as dry as ever and seems a bit too old to play a man who lost some of his best years, but reckons he has still has half a life ahead of him; he also looks too old to flirt with the young and sexy Montiel. Lancaster overplays his part of the conniving, often immoral rascal, showing his white teeth at every opportunity, but alongside Cooper it all works pretty well. As said, his sophisticated villain could've been an anti-hero in a spaghetti western. Giuliano Gemma (a great Lancaster fan) clearly modeled Ringo after Joe Erin, but note that Ringo and Erin are in fact each other's opposites: the arrogant and seemingly dishonest Ringo eventually proves that he's a decent man, while the charming and seemingly honorable Erin turns out to be a ruthless killer. He rams a lance in a defenseless victim's neck and in one scene, cornered by an army of Juaristas, he even threatens to kill a group of local children if the Mexicans won't let him walk away.

Vera Cruz is a fine movie, but it's not without flaws. It has a great supporting cast, but most supporting actors have little to do; I nearly missed Charles Bronson entirely. Even with a running time of a mere 90 minutes the movie slightly drags in the middle and while it is overall entertaining, it only becomes truly spectacular in that large-scale, surprisingly violent finale, with the two heroes and their French allies facing (and mowing down) hundreds of armed Mexicans, all dressed in an angelic white. There's no doubt that Peckinpah studied this sequence before shooting the balletic finale of The Wild Bunch

Dir: Robert Aldrich - Cast: Gary Cooper (Ben Trane), Burt Lancaster (Joe Erin), Denise Darcel (Countess Marie Duvarre), Cesar Romero (Marquis Henri de Labordere), Sara Montiel (Nina), George Macready (Emperor Maximillian), Jack Elam, Ernest Borgnine, James McCallion, Morris Ankrum (General Ramírez), Charles Bronson


* (1) Philip French, Westerns, aspects of a movie genre, p. 108
* (2) Glenn Erickson, DVD Savant review: Vera Cruz 

Friday, June 14, 2013

Yellow Sky (1948)

Director: William Wellman - Cast: Gregory Peck, Anne Baxter, Richard Widmark, John Russel, Harry Morgan, Robert Arthur, James Barton, Charles Kemper 

An often overlooked movie from the director of the better remembered The Ox-Bow Incident. Gregory Peck is "Stretch" Dawson, a gang leader who leads his men into a wasteland of salt flats when they're persecuted by the army after a bank robbery.  Almost dying of thirst, they arrive in a mysterious ghost town, only inhabited by an old man and his granddaughter, an tomboy who handles a gun and a rifle as good as any man. One of the gang members, the well-dressed but sneaky gambler Dude (Widmark) reckons there must be a reason for the old man and the girl to stay in the deserted mining town: they must have found gold in one of the old mine-shafts. Gold and a girl: that’s all it takes to drive already riotous men crazy. After a violent incident the old prospector confesses he has found gold and offers the men a fifty-fifty deal. They accept, but once the gold is extracted from the mine, they decide to claim it all. 

Beautifully shot, in a stark black and white, Yellow Sky is one of the best looking and most atmospheric westerns of the forties. It was based on a story by W.H. Burnett, an author of noir thrillers, best known for his novel High Sierra, filmed twice by Raoul Walsh (1). The story of Yellow Sky is a reworking of the familiar gangster saga of an innocent family held hostage by a gang of hardened criminals. But in those stories it usually is the family father who redeems himself by confronting those who threaten his family, here it’s the leader of the criminals who proves he is a righteous and courageous man. Before changing sides he confesses to the prospector and the girl that he was brought up with the bible and that it was the Civil War that made him go astray.

The dreamlike atmosphere almost made me believe the ghost town was a fata morgana, with the Peck character dreaming the events happening in it. The desert setting underlines the outlandish nature of the narrative, vaguely echoing some of those Biblical tales of temptation, traditionally set in the desert. Several critics have emphasized the – rather obvious - similarities to Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the old man and the granddaughter unmistakably modeled after Prospero and Miranda. What seems a tight and straightforward movie at first sight, soon turns out to be a multi-layered, highly symbolic tale, populated with characters that are all but one-dimensional. Even Widmark’s gambler is a tormented bloke, who likes to share his existential doubts with others at the camp fire. 

After  the spectacular opening and the escape to the salt flats, the action is confined to a handful of locations in and around this ghost town, which leads to a certain lack of momentum in the movie's second half. It's one of the few (minor) flaws of an otherwise very fine movie; another one is a tagged-on happy ending with Peck riding into town and returning the money he stole in the beginning of the movie. It seems completely wrong and above all redundant: the film already had a perfect ending, with a cleverly ‘disguised’ shootout and Baxter finding Peck on the floor of the dilapidated saloon. It's a marvelous scene, grim and spooky, perfectly capturing the nightmarish mood of the entire picture: we only see Peck entering the saloon, but then remain with Baxter, who's anxiously waiting outside and only enters the saloon after the shots have died away. It seems to have inspired Sergio Leone to the opening scene of The Good, the Bad & the Ugly, in which the camera does not follow the three hired killers looking for Tuco inside the building (2). 

Performances are uniformly excellent: Peck is ideally cast as the seemingly mean gang leader who isn't a bad guy after all. The crucial scene in which he reveals that he's a man from a good family and could read the Bible at the age of seven, seems a bit of an afterthought, as if Peck’s redemption needed an explanatory note, but Peck is one of those actors who manage to make such a scene work by playing it with the right combination of assurance and reserve. Widmark is at his very best here, as the deceitful gambler who still carries a bullet in his chest from a man he cheated, and Baxter is a delight as the tomboy, wild as a bobcat, seductive as a siren. Among the supporting actors are Charles Kemper, who plays a character knicknamed Walrus (!) and John Russel, who had a fine career as a supporting actor in westerns: most people will know him as Stockburn from Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider.


* (1) Walsh first filmed it as a noir thriller, under the original title High Sierra, then turned it into a (superior) western called Colorado Territory.

* (2) This opening scene is of course also set in a ghost town, but the town in Yellow Sky reminded me more of the ghost town in Robert Hossein's Cemetery without Crosses (Une Corde, un Colt); Leone and Hossein were friends, the film might have been a favorite of both men. 

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Winchester '73 (1950)

Director: Anthony Mann - Cast: James Stewart, Shelley Winters, Stephen McNally, Dan Durya, John McIntire, Charles Drake, Millard Mitchell, Will Greer, Jay C. Flippen, Rock Hudson (1)

The first of five westerns directed by Anthony Mann starring James Stewart. The original director was Fritz Lang, but he was replaced by Mann after a series of conflicts. Mann was Stewart's choice and he changed the entire idea of the movie by shifting the rifle to the centre of the plot, turning it into a 'character': while passing from hand to hand, it leads us through a series of interrelated episodes, culminating in a protracted shootout set between the rocks. Winchester '73 was an unexpected success and largely responsible for renewed popularity of the western genre in the fifties (2). It established one of the most remarkable collaborations between a western director and actor in the history of film making, equaling the Ford-Wayne, Leone-Eastwood and Boetticher-Scott collaborations. 

Stewart is a young cowboy called Lin McAdam who arrives in the town of Dodge City, on the 4th or July, to compete in a shooting contest. The prize is a Winchester rifle, referred to as 'one-of-a-thousand', a firearm so perfect Winchester won't sell it. Lin is told by the sheriff, Wyatt Earp, that his major rival will be a man who has inscribed under the name of Dutch Henry Brown. In reality, Brown is Lin's brother Matthew, who might have killed their father. Lin wins the rifle but it's stolen from him by Matthew, who flees the town before Wyatt Earp can do something. And this is only the beginning of the journey, both for the brothers and the rifle ...

The film did at least two things for the genre: it created a new image for Jimmy Stewart and it introduced filmgoers to Freudian family drama's and revenge plots. The Mann westerns featured a new type of western hero, the obsessed, almost neurotic drifter, and Stewart's name will forever be identified with this type of character. There's one iconic scene, late into the movie, in which Stewart twists Dan Durya's arm, the camera revealing all the suppressed anger that has been waiting to explode one day. The script of Winchester '73 respects the triangular aspect of most Freudian westerns, with two rivaling sons and a troubled father, but in this particular case the father is an absent father. The rifle his sons are vying for, is a symbol of the man who has taught them everything: the holes they shoot in the target are in the same pattern, they have become their father's very picture, but each others' counterparts.
Mann, is this man angry
Mann had a background in noir, a genre that also featured neurotic heroes, but noir is an urban genre, offering a limited room for manoeuvre, and he needed the open space of the western genre to fully develop his poignant, energetic directional style. The idea of the trapped noir hero is still present in Winchester '73, notably in this protracted shootout between the rocks, with the ricocheting bullets threatening to close Stewart in like a fly in a spider's web. Shelley Winters' Lola, at the same time a femme fatale and a tart with the heart, is noirish too, she could have been a character in a Raymond Chandler novel.

The movie may feel a little over-symbolic in some places: apart from the rifle symbolizing the absent father and he marksmanship he stood for, the story of the lost father is also paralleled with Custer's defeat at Little Big Horn - this all becomes a bit too obvious after a while, but otherwise it's first-rate in virtually every aspect. The episodic structure works remarkably well and the film is over before you know it, but in this particular case, this could be interpreted as a shortcoming: some supporting actors (McIntire, Flippen, Durya) are so strong that we get the idea their characters are carried off too soon. If only this movie could've been a little longer ...


* (1) I had watched Winchester '73 several times before, but never realized Rock Hudson was in it. He plays the India Chief Young Bull, who steal the rifle from gun runner John McIntire.

* (2)  Leonard Maltin, Movie Guide - Another very successful western from the same year, 1950, was Broken Arrow, also starring Jimmy Stewart. If Winchester '73 was of importance for the development of the psychological, Freudian western, Broken Arrow was the most influential of the pro-Indian westerns. Anthony Mann also made a - relatively unknown - pro Indian western himself, still released in the pivotal year 1950: Devil's Doorway.

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...