Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Pale Rider (1985)

I - Shane redux

The story told here, is one of the oldest (and most prolific) in the history of the western movie, that of the mysterious stranger coming to the aid of poor defenceless people threatened by a local tyrant. Nearly all elements of Shane (1953) are copied, but usually with a minor twist. Eastwood himself is the stranger, and his arrival is accompanied by a teenage girl reading in the Bible about the horseman of the Apocalypse riding a pale horse, named Death, and hell followed him

The settlers from Shane, have become a group a prospectors, threatened by a man called LaHood, a big time miner who wants to lay his hand on their claims, if necessary by brute force. The stranger befriends Hull, the leader of the prospectors, a single man who lives with a woman called Sarah and her blossoming, 14-year old daughter Megan. Both women are attracted to the mysterious stranger, who is called  "Preacher" by the prospectors, because he wears a white clerical collar. An alarmed LaHood first offers the prospectors a good price for their claims, but when they decide to stay, he contracts a group of hired guns, assembled by a man called Stockburn. 

In an interview, Eastwood called the hero of this movie an 'in and out ghost', insinuating, so it seems, that the title character is a dead man coming back from 'the other side' (1). There's some evidence for this theory in the movie when six scars from  bullet wounds are visible on his back: So many wounds in such a vital area of the body must have been mortal. The same amount of wounds, in the same pattern, will be inflicted on Stockburn, the leader of the hired killers, suggesting that he was the man who killed the Preacher in his former life. 

II - But not just a Shane redux ...

Pale Rider is strongly reminiscent of Eastwood's own High Plains Drifter, his first western as director. Like the Preacher, the Drifter was thought to be a ghost by many, a man who came back from the other side to avenge his own death. It has often been suggested that High Plains Drifter was based on an Italian western, Sergio Garrone's Django il Bastardo, but in an essay (2) I have pointed out that it's more likely that he was based on the character Harmonica from Sergio Leone's C'era una Volta il West (Once Upon a Time in the West). Several people attending pre-release showings of Once upon a Time in the West thought Harmonica was a ghost, and apparently Leone considered to treat him as such for a while, but later rejected the idea. In his book on spaghetti westerns, Alex Cox states that the ghost-like avenger from Django the Bastard was also based on Harmonica (3).

All Eastwood's westerns are evaluations, in revisionist style, of the genre and his own part in the history of film making. Both High Plains Drifter and Pale Rider are comments on spaghetti westerns, but also on classic American westerns: If Pale Rider is a re-interpretation of the Shane myth, High Plains Drifter is a modern (and more extreme) reading of Hollywood's town westerns from the fifties, notably Fred Zinneman's High Noon (the ‘High’ in the title probably was a deliberate reference to Zinneman’s movie): In most town westerns the townspeople are described as contemptible and hypocritical (4); for their safety, they hire a professional, and close their eyes while he's doing their dirty job. In High Plains Drifter, the citizens of the town of Lago remain passive while the man they hired is killed before their very eyes. What if Will Kane, the sheriff from High Noon, was killed in the streets of Hadleyville, and came back from the death to get even with the citizens that had so cowardly deserted him? The answer is that the experience would have turned him into some kind of No Name: in High Plains Drifter it's High Noon for No Name.

Within Eastwood's body of work, High Plains Drifter and Pale Rider are separated by The Outlaw Josey Wales, a film set in a post-war society, with a message of reconciliation. In many ways, Pale Rider offers a more positive reading of subjects treated in High Plains Drifter: again it's a story about a community, but the prospectors are a far more benevolent bunch than the citizens of Lago. The man coming to their rescue is a man of God, while the stranger from High Plains Drifter seemed more like a messenger from hell. A comment made by the Preacher about the way the prospectors can resist LaHoods, puts a similar statement, made by Harmonica (about Morton, the ruthless businessman from Once Upon a Time in the West) in more positive light: The Preacher says the prospectors can resist the LaHoods of this world by sticking together, Harmonica predicted that new Mortons would come along, and wipe out that ancient race called Man. 

III - The identity of the Preacher

After ample consideration, Leone had rejected the idea to treat Harmonica as a ghost, and it's said that the controversial ‘nursing scene’ with Bronson making a sling for his wounded arm, was shot in order to convince viewers Harmonica was real (5). Garrone and Eastwood seem to have developed an idea that was present in rudimentary form in Leone's masterpiece. Pale Rider does not include any conclusive evidence to the nature and past of the 'Preacher'; it's still possible to read the events in a more allegorical way and see him as a knight errant, responding to the prayers of a virgin. After all he sleeps with the woman, which seems to make him  'human', and the anti-corporate message (pro-prospectors, anti-hydraulic mining) has a down-to-earth quality too. Some have interpreted as an illustration of Devine Retribution (6); this reading would turn the Preacher in an avenging angel, sent (back) to earth by God himself (but the question would remain if we were to take all these thing literally or explain them in an allegorical sense). Anyway, knight errant, ghost or God's own avenging angel, who is this Preacher? 

Once upon a Time in the West is not the only spaghetti western that is referred to in Pale Rider. The introduction of the Preacher is reminiscent of Sergio Corbucci's Il Grande Silenzio (1968), in which the protagonist, a mute gunslinger, is presented in similar fashion (7). There have been some persistent rumours that Eastwood was interested in a remake of The Great Silence. He never made it, but ideas, props and story elements kept popping in his own westerns and those of others he starred in (8). The mute in The Great Silence is a bounty hunter, but one of a peculiar kind: instead of bounties, he hunts down other bounty hunters. It's tempting to suggest that the hints that the Preacher met Stockburn in the past, reveal something about the Preacher's own identity. Was he a hired killer too, in the past, or in a previous life? In that case he would, like the mute in The Great Silence, have made the decision to turn against his own kind: a hired killer who kills hired killers

IV - Evaluation

Eastwoods body of work shows a development towards a more conciliatory attitude. Pale Rider is still an avenger, but he acts in God's way,  and the violence in the movie is never gratuitous. Note also that the spaghetti westerns were known for their virulent anti-clerical tendencies. The star seems concerned with his own 'violent past' in movie history, but also with the acceptance of violence exercised in the name of the law, a recurring theme in his movies. Whatever you are, whoever you might be, violence takes away a part of you. Note also that Stockburn is referred to as a 'Marshal', which makes his actions no less than legal butchery, an idea that would eventually lead to Eastwood's philosophical anti-western Unforgiven.

Some of the Biblical parallels may feel a little heavy-handed, but the similar pattern of wounds inflicted on the Preacher and Stockburn, give the film a distinctive circular character, symbolising the eternal alternation of life and death, also symbolized by some other story elements. Eastwood's Apocalyptic Rider brings death and destruction, but only to facilitate the resurrection of life, impersonated by the young flourishing girl, who experiences the blossoming of her sexual needs. It's a bit ponderous, slow-moving, and some even think it only truly comes to life after the arrival of Stockburn and his men, but thanks to Bruce Surtees' magnificent cinematography it has a glorious look. It is true that John Russell turns in a masterful, chilling performance as the hired killer who meets his match in a memorable, beautifully staged, almost gothic finale. Actually most performances are fine, including the one by Eastwood himself. It's hard to imagine any other actor who could breathe life in such an enigmatic character as the Preacher. Clint's strong screen presence makes all the difference. 

Related writings:




* (1) "In and out ghost": Interview with Clint Eastwood (Go to Audio, you may have to download Real Player to listen to the recording)

* (2)  See: Ghost and Avengers, part 1, # Harmonica and Mortimer, first paragraph
* (3) Alex Cox, 10,000 Ways to Die, p. 253-257. In his comment on Django, the Bastard, Alex Cox draws some parallels between the behavior of the Django from Garrone's movie and Harmonica:  both characters repeatedly slide in and out of frame. This also exactly how the Preacher behaves: he appears and disappears, like an 'in and out ghost'

* (4) Don Graham, High Noon, in: Western Movies, edited by William T. Pilkington and Don Graham, Albuquerque, 1979

* (5) Trevor Willsmer – Once upon there was the West … - Booklet added to the Paramount Special Collector’s Edition

* (6) Devine Retribution. According to some parts of the dialogue parallel St. Paul's teaching on the subject in Romans (notably 12:19-21). In these verses it is underlined that people should be a loving community ('stick together' as The Preacher calls it) and trust on God for retribution: Vengeance is mine, I will repay.

* (7) A female character from the movie introduces Silence like this in a conversaton: "Once, my husband told me of this man. He avenges our wrongs. And the bounty killers sure do tremble when he appears. They call him 'silence', because wherever he goes, the silence of death follows."

* (8) Paul Simpson, The Rough Guide to Westerns, p. 157-158

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Bells of San Angelo (1947)

Dir: William Witney – Cast: Roy Rogers (Roy Rogers), Trigger (Trigger), Dale Evans (Lee Madison), Andy Devine (Cookie), John McGuire, Fritz Leiber, Sons of the Pioneers – Screenplay: Sloan Nibley, from a story by Paul Gangelin

In this enjoyable action movie, his second in color, singing cowboy Roy Rogers is a border investigator called Roy Rogers (he usually played 'himself') on the trail of a group of smugglers, operating from a Silver Mine. He manages to expose the villains with the help of the sheriff and a female writer of western fiction – visiting the frontier to see what she’s writing about - played by his (then still future) wife Dale Evans.

This was the first so-called ‘violent’ Roy Rogers movie. Director Witney and screenwriter Nibley wanted to change the image of the singing cowboy, so there are a few bloody noses during the fistfights, and several villains are shot during the final shootout at the mine. Of course none of the violence will upset today’s viewers, but note that the film was attacked for it upon its initial release. At one point, halfway the movie, Rogers is seriously beaten up by the villains, a thing that shocked many of his fans. Critics were more pleased: the film was made shortly after WWII and many of them thought the upbeat, joyful atmosphere of the pre-war Rogers movies was no longer appropriate. In spite of all this, there are still quite a lot of songs, performed not only by Rogers and Dale Evans, but also by musical ensemble Sons of the Pioneers.

Bells of San Angelo turned out to be a good change of pace for Rogers. However, Sloan Nibley’s script is rather straightforward and the self-referential aspects – Rogers playing Rogers – aren't used to add a touch of self-parody (which would’ve been welcome) to either the story or Rogers performance. But then again: it would’ve been welcomed by us, contemporary fans of the man most probably liked to believe in what they saw. 

As a result, the film may seem a bit silly today, but director Witney keeps up the pace and Rogers is remarkably good in the fight scenes. The usual comic relief is delivered by Andy Devine; most people will know him from John Ford’s The Man who shot Liberty Valence, in which he was a particular nuisance as the ever-whining, ever-hungry sheriff Appleyard. In this movie he’s less irritating, but still always hungry (note the name Cookie), and not very funny.

ROY ROGERS, born Leonard Franklin Slye (1911 – 1998), appeared in over a hundred movies, often with his wife Dale Evans, his horse Trigger (a beautiful Palomino) and his dog Bullet (a German Sheperd). Most of the films provided Roy with a comical sidekick, usually Gabby Hayes or Pat Brady. Rogers and Evans also had a radio show, The Roy Rogers Show,; it was moved to television between 1951 and 1957. Along with Gene Autry, he is probably the most famous of the so-called Singing Cowboys. He was also called King of the Cowboys.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Death of a Gunfighter (1969)

Dir: Robert Totten, Don Siegel - Cast: Richard Widmark, Carroll O'Connor, Lena Horne, Dub Taylor, John Saxon, Morgan Woodward, Jacqueline Scott 

(Note: if you haven't watched this movie yet, you might want to check it out first; this review contains spoilers)

This is an intriguing, low-spirited western, in many ways a grim comment on the town westerns of the fifties. However, it's best known for creating the pseudonymous "Alan Smithee", used when directors who were members of the Directors Guild of America disowned their own movie. Reportedly Widmark and the original director (Robert Totten, a TV director making his feature debut) fell out and eventually Don Siegel was asked to take over the movie. When it was finished, Siegel refused to take screen credit for his work, but Widmark didn't want Totten's name on the credits. The film was then credited to the fictitious "Alan Smithee". 

Richard Widmark plays an aging town marshal, Frank Patch ("Old Patch"), who was appointed by the townspeople when the West was still Wild and the town needed a trigger-happy lawman for its protection. Today the marshal has become an anachronism, a man who could scare off the new investors the townspeople are trying to attract. When Frank kills a drunken citizen in self-defense, the townspeople sustain the killing was unnecessary and ask Old Patch to leave, but Frank refuses, because they had told him he could be their marshal as long as he desired ...

There's some good camerawork on display, but the film often has the look of a TV movie, and therefore some have concluded that it was Totten who must have done most of the directing; others have noticed similarities to Siegel's 1976 The Shootist (The Duke's Last Hurrah) and therefore concluded it should be considered as a Siegel movie. Only years after the release of the movie it became publically known that Allan Smithee was a fictitious name, and the "new director" was praised for his work; Roger Ebert said the young man allowed the story to develop in a natural way and also called the movie one of those rare efforts to populate the West with real people living in  a real historic time. Other comments have been more reticent; while Ebert thinks the movie is populated with real people, Philip French thinks the townspeople are mere caricatures; French also notices that the 'liberal' sentiments are presented in rather unsubtle manner. Ron Scheer likes the movie to a certain degree, but thinks the storytelling gets a little confusing along the way and also has problems with the film's bloody finale.

As said, the film reads like a comment on fifties westerns, notably High Noon. Those films had brought the town community front and center, as Don Graham put it in an essay on High Noon. Until then their main function had been to set in high relief the superior skills of the hero and the villain. Now they were shown with all their human failings and defects, and the results weren't always pleasing. The script of Death of a Gunfighter is literate, expressing America's ambiguous relationship with guns and law enforcement; it shows how a once welcomed lawman of the Wyatt Earp type, could become a nuisance and possible danger when he refused to change his habits. At the same time it shows he hypocrisy of the townspeople who have hired a person to do their 'dirty work' but simply decide to get rid of him when he has become an obstacle for their future plans. The town council has planned the departure of the man from the past, but doesn't know how to proceed after his refusal, other than to do it 'his' way, that is: shoot him to pieces in the town's street. 

An aging Richard Widmark is exactly the right man for the job: occasionally you get the odd feeling that he is Old Patch, a man who has outlived his own time. He is surrounded by a very fine ensemble of character players you know from numerous other westerns. Carrol O'Connor (in his pre-Archie Bunker days) is a bit of a surprise as the vile business man hatching plots against the marshal, ruining other people's lives in the process.  So far so good, but there are a few drawbacks. Lena Horne is underused as the woman Widmark all of a sudden decides to marry: a black singer and saloon owner (and former prostitute) who has been his misstress for years, and  there's also a superfluous subplot involving John Saxon as a county sheriff of Greek descent who happens to be a former prot├ęge of Old Patch. Both subplots, and the characters they're feature (one black, one Greek) are supposed to underline the moral superiority of Widmark's character. Like Philip French stated, it all feels very 'liberal', and very unsubtle ...

And then there's this violent, melodramatic ending. Like Ron Scheer I have some serious reservations about it. This is what Ron has to say about the final scene:

"It’s no easy task to pull off a story about a tough but likable lawman who gets shot down in cold blood. To raise that kind of unhappy ending to the level of tragedy, he has to do something or be someone who earns his death."

The ending in particular reminds us of Siegel's The Shootist; we get the idea that Old Patch stages his own death, as if he desires to create a final act to his own show. But in the case of The Shootist, the arranged 'ultimate shootout' was indeed a last hurrah, an honorable homage to a man, an era and a myth. In the case of this movie, the final act feels like pseudo-execution, more suited to a criminal than to a lawman who has served his town loyally over the years. And indeed: the cruelty and excessive bloodletting of the movie's finale, seems inspired by Arthur Penn's Bonnie & Clyde, released one year before.


* Don Graham, High Noon, 1979, University of New Mexico Press

* Philip French, Westerns, Aspects of a movie genre, London, 2005


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...