Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Jubal (1956)

Dir: Delmer Daves - Cast: Glenn Ford (Jubal), Ernest Borgnine (Shep Horgan), Rod Steiger (Pinky), Valerie French (Mae Horgan), Charles Bronson, Felicia Farr, Jack Elam

Although officially based on a novel by Paul Wellman, Jubal is widely regarded as an adaptation of Shakespeare's Othello, with Ernest Borgnine as Othello, Glenn Ford as Cassio and Rod Steiger as Iago. The script follows the play by and large but some characters have been merged and Steiger's Pinky (Iago's counterpart in the movie) has been given different motivations for his subversive activities.

Ford is Jubal (1), a man on the run (not for the law but for himself) who's given shelter on Shep Horgan's ranch. Horgan's right hand, Pinky, takes an immediate disliking to Jubal, who quickly becomes Shep's confidant. When Jubal is named forehand by Horgan, Pinky feels passed over and his envy grows when he discovers that Mrs. Horgan is openly flirting with Jubal. Mae Morgan is much younger than her husband and has never loved him; she married him on impulse because he promised her a palace (and gave her a ranch instead). Pinky has always lived under the idea that he could win Mrs. Horgan's heart, and is determined to destroy the man who has ruined his chances ...

Jubal was popular among critics, who praised is for its intelligent scripting and emotional depth, but to large audiences director Delmer Daves is better known for movies like the pro-Indian Broken Arrow  (1950) or the psychological drama 3:10 to Yuma (1957). Like most Shakespeare adaptations Jubal is a bit too talkative and explicatory, notably in relation to Ford's character, but even in western form it's easily sensed how strong the story material is. There's  hardly any action but suspense is mounting and due to the changes made to the storyline even those who know their Shakespeare will often wonder what's going to happen next. The Wyoming landscape is lush and green, and forms a perfect background for this stirring drama (or melodrama).

As said, some changes were made to Shakespeare's original storyline. This is understandable, some of  Shakespeare's plot devices are easily misunderstood when transferred to another period and place. The complex plot about trust, jealousy, betrayal and resentment has been turned into a romantic drama, more in keeping with expectations of fifties' audiences. The most important mutation is the omittance of the Roderigo character, in the play the person who is in love with Desdemona (and is manipulated by Iago). Roderigo was merged with Iago, who is now both Othello's (that is Shep's) frustrated right hand and Desdemona's (Mrs. Morgan's) frustrated lover. 

Thanks to this mutation the story may seem more neatly arranged (too many characters often hurt a script) but it has some side-effects which harm the Iago/Pinky character, played by Rod Steiger. In spite of the title, Othello is very much centered around Iago, who has more lines than the titular character. He's no doubt one of the most sinister villains in world literature, a manipulator and conspirator, vile but clever, skillful in deceiving others, almost charming in his persistent wickedness. This shrewd person is far removed from Steiger's loud-voiced, sexually obsessed Pinky, who's simply irritating and pathetic.

Like some have mentioned (2), Ford moves a little like James Dean in some scenes - shifting shyly away from people, smiling uncomfortably when making a revelation - apparently because his character was supposed to be a lot younger, and irresistible to women. Ford is not the greatest Don Juan in film history, but he's very good in these ambiguous roles of the stranger with a past, an intruder creating both uneasiness and expectations. Borgnine still seems in his Marty mood, copying the vivid portrayal of a warm-hearted but unattractive man that had brought him an Oscar the year before (3). Some of the supporting actors are very strong too, notably Charles Bronson as a drifter who befriends Ford and joins him as a cowpoke on Borgnine's ranch. Jack Elam is deliciously sinister as one of Steiger's dubious friends.

Jubal seems to have all one could ask for in a fifties western drama: great actors, great scenery, emotions flaring up ... even the action scenes, sparse and brief, are well-staged and exciting, and yet for decades it has been an almost completely forgotten movie. However, a few recent DVD and Blu-ray releases seem to have garnered some well-deserved attention for it. 

* (1) The name Jubal appears in the Hebrew Bible. He's a descendant of Cain and a brother of Jabal. There seems to be no symbolic connection to Ford's character.
Genesis 4,21:
His brother’s name was Jubal; he was the father of all who play stringed instruments and pipes.
* (3) Ironically, Steiger had also played the role of Marty, in the original teleplay by Paddy Chayefski, aired in 1953. The teleplay was adapted into a feature length movie in 1955. Chayefski also scripted the movie, but Borgnine took over the role from Steiger. His performance was widely praised, but Chayefsky himself seemed to have preferred Steiger in the part. Maybe Delmer Daves reckoned the rivalry between the Marty 1 & Marty 2 would help his movie. 

Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (1971)

  Dir: Philip Kaufman - Cast: Cliff Robertson (Cole Younger), Robert Duvall (Jesse James), Luke Askew (Jim Younger), John Pearce (Frank James), R. G. Armstrong,  Matt Clark, Donald Moffat, Dana Elcar, Wayne Sutherlin, Elisha Cook, Jack Manning

The off-told story of the raid - on September 7, 1876 - of the bank of Northfield Minnesota, the final act in the history of the infamous James-Younger gang. But this is not just another movie about the rise and fall of the gang. It opens with a narration which could be read as a valid excuse for their violent raids:

 "Everywhere men from the railroads  were driving poor, defenceless families from their homes."

The James-Younger gang had their origins in a group of Bushwackers and made their fame in a Post-war society that was still divided; some people (mainly farmers who thought the banks and railroads were a threat to their way of life) saw them as 18th Century Robin Hoods. In the film one more reference is made to the famous Robin from Sherwood, when the men are making fun about thieves who rob the rich to help the poor. By then it is clear that this bunch is no charitable society: they have some sympathy for the good and simple folk, but they're after personal gain and their behavior is all but chivalresque.

Jesse James (Robert Duvall), the leader of the gang, is presented as a homicidal maniac, impulsive and nervous, a Southerner who's still fighting his own Civil War. Cole Younger (Cliff Robertson) is a more introspective type, a calculating strategist and part-time philosopher, thinking about leaving criminal life. Traveling North, to Minnesota, both are  confronted with a world they don't know, symbolized by baseball, steam engines and Scandinavian accents that are alien to their ears; while Jesse holds on to the things he knows best (emptying his guns to unlock a vault with a time-lock), Cole tries to learn and adapt himself to modernity, but the baseball scene neatly illustrates that the shift is to brusque for a man of action: to put an end to a game that looks completely chaotic to him, he simply shoots the ball to pieces in mid-air.

Great attention has been given to period detail, resulting in an often stunningly beautiful movie and an incredible recreation of the Northfield main street anno 1876 - not in Northfield, but in Jacksonville, Oregon! (1). The casting is impressive, but I had doubts about Duvall's mannered interpretation of Jesse James; he shows all the characteristics (and tics) we have become familiar with, but in a less disciplined way, it all looks a little strained and unnatural here. The actual raid is less spectacular than Walter Hill's excessive, but elegant bloodletting in The Long Riders, but has a rough, authentic look, as if were watching some newsreels showing the incident. It's also closer to what really happened on that day in the sense that the members of the Younger clan weren't riddled with bullets in the streets of Northfield by the local citizens, but afterwards, by one of the several posses looking for them. However they were not shot while taking shelter in a brothel, but surrounded by the posse in a swamp near the town of Madelia. 

The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid was only moderately successful at the box-office but it was popular among critics. Movies like Bonnie & Clyde (clearly a major influence) and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid had introduced this quirky style, mixing comedy with gritty violence and social comment, and many film makers had adopted it, including Kaufman. It feels a bit dated today and the quirkiness occasionally gets in the way of the narrative. Some of the sequences - notably this baseball game - tend to drag.

The movie reflects the mood of the Vietnam era with its anti-capitalist and anti-corporate feelings; the gang members are outsiders whose war (and other) experiences make it hard for them to conform to a new era of unbridled materialism. They're hard-boiled criminals, but not more ruthless than the unscrupulous Pinkerton agents chasing them, or even the citizens of Northfield, who seem to enjoy the carnage. In this moral waste land, Kaufman clearly sides with the outlaws: The movie ends with a bizarre ritual of a heavily wounded Cole Younger shown, in ecce home style, in the streets of Northfield, his arms wide, as if impersonating a tortured Jesus. But this Jesus is cheered by the crowd.

Related text: An article on Arthur Penn's BONNIE & CLYDE will be published on Furious Cinema

(1) The film was mostly shot in Oregon and the landscape doesn't really correspond with Northfield  and its immediate surroundings, see: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0068661/trivia?tab=gf&ref_=tt_trv_gf 


* Civil War St. Louis, James & Youngers (website): http://www.civilwarstlouis.com/history/jamesnorthfield.htm 
* Philip French, Westerns, p. 170-171

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Seven Men from Now (1956)

Seven Men from Now was Budd Boetticher's personal favorite of the series of low-budget westerns he made in the late fifties, early sixties, known as the Ranown Cycle. However, if we respect the origins of the term 'Ranown cycle', it's not part of it: the five official entries were produced by RANdolph Scott and Harry Joe BrOWN - hence the name Ranown. Seven men from Now was produced by Batjac Productions, the company founded, in 1952, by John Wayne. Originally the Duke was supposed to star in it, but he chose to do John Ford's The Searchers instead.

Randolph Scott is Ben Stride, an aging ex-sheriff, who is looking for the seven men who killed his wife during a hold-up in the town of Silver Springs. Stride feels responsible for the death of his wife because she had taking over the job of sheriff after he had abandoned it. Stride meets a married couple, John and Annie Greer, whose wagon got stuck in the mud, and decides to stay with them when he discovers that John Greer was in Silver Springs on the fatal night and might have vital information on the identity of the killers; the trio is joined by Bill McMasters, a man who was thrown in jail by Stride on two occasions and is now traveling in the same direction ...

The script by Burt Kennedy (his first), became a sort of template for the cycle: there's the lonely man's quest, the desirable woman, the journey through open country, the stop halfway and the man-in-between who helps the hero against a common enemy but will face him in the film's climactic moments. At the same time the tone is a bit more relaxed and the ending more upbeat than in some of the later movies. In the final scene the woman (Gail Russell) tells the stagecoach driver to depart without her, because she wants to stay in town, with Ben Stride, who has accepted the job of deputy sheriff. In the later movies the possibility to start over again was only open to (one or more of) the people Scott had met on his journey, but never to Scott's character himself.

Scott is in every inch this stoic but determined man, a carved figure in a bleached landscape, inexorable for those who've done him wrong, but a gentle father - a true Mozes - to those who repent or are under his protection. Lee Marvin is ideally cast as the man-in-the-middle, who temporarily sides with Scott (even saving his life when he's threatened to be shot in the back) before facing him; he has a remarkable scene in which he delivers a speech about adultery, clearly suggesting that Ben Stride and Annie Greer are thinking about doing the same thing. Scott's reaction - surprise mixed with anger - tells us that Masters sensed what was going on before Scott was aware of it himself. Of all these men-in-the-middle who refuse to step aside, he's probably the one who fathoms Scott's character best, and yet he's unable to understand why Scott wants to bring the stolen money back to the its rightful owners. He's filmed standing beside the Wells Fargo strongbox containing the stolen money, a bemused smile on his face, and even in his dying moments one of his hands reaches for the box.

The films are so closely linked - often sharing similar characters, themes, plots and landscapes - that they're sometimes judged as one movie. Kennedy's laconic humor and those magnificent Lone Pine locations turn Seven Men from Now into a feast for the mind, the ear and the eye, but personally I prefer some of those later efforts, notably Ride Lonesome (1959) or Comanche Station (1960). I don't like Gail Russell in this role; she had formed a great couple with John Wayne in Angel and the Badman (1947) - and this was probably the reason why she was cast - but she hadn't worked in the business for five years due to her problems with alcohol and the liquor had clearly taken a heavy toll. Moreover the 'happy ending' doesn't fit the movie, even though it's subtly handled by Boetticher. 

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Tom Horn (1980)

Dir: William Wiard  - Cast: Steve McQueen, Linda Evans, Richard Farnsworth, Billy Green Bush, Slim Pickens, Elisha Cook, Geoffrey Lewis

Steven McQueen's penultimate movie deals with the downfall of the legendary lawman, scout, detective, hired gunman and convicted assassin Tom Horn (1860 – 1903). As an army scout Horn assisted in the capture of Geronimo, he served with Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders, and worked as a detective for the Pinkerton Agency, but when the film starts, he has become an anachronism, a lonely drifter in the quickly disappearing world, and the events inevitably lead to a foregone conclusion: on November 23, 1903, one day before his 43rd birthday, Tom Horn is hanged for the shooting of a 14-year old boy. 

McQueen, whose idea the film was, considered several big names as director - among them Don Siegel and Elliot Silverstein - but for various reasons they never made it past pre-production; the job eventually went to James Guercio (Electra Glide in Blue), but he was replaced - after only three days - by William Wiard, a man who had mainly worked for television. It is widely believed that McQueen directed large parts of the movie himself. The script - based on Horn's own writings - was rewritten on several occasions, and the original budget of $10 million was cut to a mere $3 million. Understandably it did not become the great movie McQueen must have had in mind. But it's by no means the complete failure some have made of it. 

The film opens with a scene in which Horn is provoked by another historic character, prize fighter and future world champion Jim Corbett. No match for the pugilist, he ends up in a stable, bruised and unconscious, but some people who witnessed the incident have recognized the famous gunman. One of them is John Cole, who tells Tom that he and his fellow ranchers have problems with cattle rustling. Horn proves much too good at his line of work, discomforting his superiors with a series of brutal 'executions'. Some of them have political aspirations, and are afraid that the public opinion will turn against Horn and those who hired him. When a young boy is shot, Tom Horn is accused of murder and eventually convicted to the gallows. 

In reality it is still debated whether Tom Horn committed the crime or not. Most historians think he didn't, and of those who think he did, the majority believes he fired the fatal shot without realizing  he was shooting at a 14-year old (1). In the movie it is strongly suggested that there was a set-up and in accordance with the elegiac westerns that had been popular in the decade before, Tom Horn is presented as a man who is too proud to leave the country when Coble, the man who originally hired him (and still a good friend), tells him he might be in trouble. When he's finally arrested, he refuses to answer to simple questions because he thinks the judge has already made up his mind. He then tries to break out of jail when it's far too late, and is immediately recaptured.

Steve McQueen had studied Horn's biography and followed his trail, from the very first beginnings on a ranch in Missouri; he had also spent many hours with writer Louis L'Amour, who was in possession of many of Tom Horn's letters. But when shooting started, McQueen was already terminally ill. He had trouble breathing and his behavior became increasingly unpredictable; soon the movie was as doomed as the man whose story was being told. 

Tom Horn became a critical and commercial failure, much to the grief of its star. It cannot be denied that it's a flawed movie; it often feels choppy and some of the flashbacks are so abrupt that they work downright confusing. However, recent comments have been far more positive; in retrospect McQueen's frail health contributes to the movie's feeling of doom, and Philip French calls it a  thoughtful and impressive movie in a 2004 revision of his original study of the western genre (2). The action scenes are brief and quick, but very brutal, and John Alonzo's cinematography is breathtaking. And if McQueen (understandably) seems a little absent-minded in some scenes, most supporting actors turn in very fine performances. Richard Farnsworth is a standout as his close friend John Coble, who believed in his innocence until the bitter end, and Linda Evans is endearing as the schoolteacher, a woman from Hawa├» who falls for the Old Westerner.


* Life of Tom Horn, Government Scout and Interpreter, Internet archives 
* Tom Horn Website 


* (1) Tom Horn was acquitted in a mock trial in 1993, see: Tom Horn Wikipedia page (under: Willie Nickell murder, Horn's arrest and trial); for a comment on the original case and the mock trial see also the Tom Horn website
* (2) Philip French, Westerns Revisited, p. 212-213

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...