Saturday, April 19, 2014

Duel at Diablo (1966)

Dir: Ralph Nelson - Cast: James Garner (Jess Remsberg), Sidney Poitier (Toller), Dennis Weaver (Willard Grange), Bibi Andersson (Ellen Grange), Bill Travers (Lieutenant "Scotty" McAllister), John Hoyt (Chata), John Hubbard (Major Novak)

While looking for the murderer of his (Indian) wife, former army scout Jess Remsberg saves the life of another woman, who was persecuted by two Apaches in the desert. When he brings her to an army outpost, it transpires that she was abducted by Apaches two years earlier and has a child with one of them. Therefore she's no longer welcome with her husband, a tradesman called Grange, while others consider her to be the perfect rape victim. In the meantime Jess is hired to guide a cavalry unit to another fort. Along for the ride are also this tradesman, Mr. Grange, and a man called Todder, a former Cavalry sergeant, now a horse breaker selling horses to the service. And out there is a group of Apaches who have escaped from the reservation ...

Duel at Diablo is an odd western, fast-paced, violent, but also confusing, with a script that offers - as one critic mentioned it (1) - a grab bag of characters and ideas tossed together like a salad. On the surface, things seem okay: the different story lines are neatly tied together by the fact that all three lead characters - the scout, the horse breaker, the tradesman - are doing business with the Cavalry, but with one of the key characters (Toddler, played by Sidney Poitier) being Afro-American and two mixed relationships central to the plot, one assumes that the movie also tries to make a point about racial prejudice; if it does, this point is pretty obscure.

Abductions of white women and mixed relationships had of course been treated before in western movies, most notably in John Ford's The Searchers and a series of pro-Indian westerns from the fifties like Broken Arrow or The Indian Fighter; with the name of the director (Ralph Nelson, best known for his violent pro-Indian pamphlet Soldier Blue, made half a decade later) in mind, it seems logical to assume that Duel at Diablo elaborates on this tradition, but it feels more like a comment on it. Unlike Candice Bergen in Soldier Blue, the woman in this movie (Bergman actress Bibi Andersson) shows no real sympathy for the people she has lived with, and this apathy is mutual: when she returns to the Apache, to claim her child, their leader threatens to bury her alive, apparently because he holds her responsible for the death of his son (the father of her child). The Apaches are depicted as mean and cruel and no attention is given to their fate, no explanation is given why they escaped from the reservation. Only in the final moments of the movie one of the characters - Garner  - asks himself why on earth they would ever want to stay there.

The film was based on a novel by Marvin H. Albert, who also co-wrote the script. The story delivers enough complications and thrills for a exciting cavalry versus Indians movie, seasoned with some thriller aspects. So if the film fails as a revisionist western, it succeeds as an action movie (and it might have influenced the structurally rather similar - but intellectually more complex Ulzana's Raid). For most part, it's concerned with the cavalry unit being ambushed (and subsequently cornered) by the renegade Apaches who are after the ammunition the unit is transporting to the other fort. There are two well-staged, bloody battle sequences and in-between the infant becomes a bone of contention between the different groups and the mystery of the murder of Jess Remsberg's wife is solved. Nelson handles the action effectively and keeps the narrative moving, helped by a rousing, catchy score by  Neil Hefty.

For a movie released in the mid sixties, Duel at Diablo is remarkably violent; we're still far removed from the spurting blood and hacked limbs of Nelson's own Soldier Blue, but we get arrows penetrating bodies, protracted scenes of torture, vicious hand-to-hand combat and attempted gang rape. Both James Garner and Dennis Weaver were cast against type as taciturn scout and the hypocritical - yet not completely insensible - tradesman. Sidney Poitier's character of Toller, the horse breaker and former army sergeant, is as erratic as the movie itself: he smokes cigars, chews his words, and for some reason he's dressed like a sophisticated cardsharp. 

Most commentators have noted that there were no black officers in the army at the time of the Indian wars, and Nelson seemed to have realized this: Toller's race is never referred to in the movie. 

(1) Holly D. Ordway on DVD Talk.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Posse (1975)

Two years after his first foray into direction, Scalawag (a comic adaptation of Stevenson's Treasure Island), Kirk Douglas came up with this grim political western about an ambitious lawman who thinks the arrest of notorious outlaw will pave his way to Washington. 

Douglas is US Marshall Howard Nightingale, who has assembled an elite posse to track down bank robber Jack Strawhorn (Bruce Dern) and his gang. He has selected and trained the posse members personally, and turned them into hardened killers. In the film's opening scene, we witness how the gang's hideaway in the mountains is sieged by Nightingale and his men. The cabin is set ablaze and all gang members are mercilessly killed, but Strawhorn himself escapes. With the credits rolling over the screen, we see Nightingale holding up a wanted poster, saying:

"If I don't get him, I don't get elected."

Strawhorn is arrested a little later and shown, triumphantly, to the people of Tesola, whose money he had stolen. There's no longer any doubt that the townspeople will vote for Mr. Nightingale, so it's time for a speech and a party. But once again Strawhorn escapes and this time he manages to turn the odds completely ...

Douglas being a long-time liberal, many have interpreted Posse as a post-Watergate movie; the reading seems to impose itself, but there are a few problems. Nightingale is presented as an opportunist who uses the arrest of a notorious criminal to further his political ambitions; he's ruthless, but in a strict sense he's not doing anything illegal. In the end Posse is more a morality tale than a political allegory: Nightingale is a hypocrite, but not a criminal, and his biggest 'sin' seems to be that he's over-ambitious (1). When Douglas made Posse, he was in a bad mood; he had played Randle McMurphy in the stage version of One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, but the production company decided that he was too old for the role in the screen version that was produced by - of all people - his own son Michael (2). After this frustrating experience he decided to direct, produce and star in this cynical western instead; there's some reason to believe that the morality tale about the rise and fall of a would-be politician, is as much about his own frustrated ambitions (3).

It might also have been a deliberate choice to do a western. The genre had its last upswing in the first half of the Seventies with a series of revisionist westerns, most of them set towards the end of the West. In many ways Douglas' Nightingale is similar to Henry Fonda's Frank (a gunslinger who wants to become a businessman) from Once Upon a Time in the West: Like Frank, Howard Nightingale fails to make the transition to a new era and a new world. All possible political subtexts put aside, Posse is also a movie about an aging man who's beaten by a shrewd young man who doesn't want to be the sacrificed pawn in Nightingale's political chess game.

Dern was asked by Douglas to think of himself as a kind of Gary Cooper while playing the bank robber, that is: as if he, the outlaw, were the hero of the movie. It's in this reversal of roles that the movie works best, thanks to an intelligent script and the strong performances by the two leads. Douglas is very convincing as the scheming would-be politician, a man reaching for the sky, but like his movie character, he has to acknowledge the superiority of Dern, who is brilliant as the effervescent, astute outlaw. The script, based on a short story by Christopher Knopf, was written by Knopf himself and William Roberts, best known for turning Kurosawa's Seven Samurai into The Magnificent Seven; it's cleverly plotted and has a nice circular character, with Strawhorn using Nightingale's every possible weakness (his pride, his aspirations, his disturbed relationship with his men, who fear to be dumped when their boss goes to Washington) to turn the tide; the ending is particularly fine, with Nightingale's posse members becoming Strawhorn's gang members, that is: replacing the men they have slaughtered in the opening scene.

Posse isn't perfect; the first half hour is fast moving - and surprisingly violent - and the finale is most certainly different, but the mid-section plods and visually it's a rather bland affair. Douglas asked his screenwriters to create a role for James Stacey, a young actor who had lost an arm and a leg in a motorcycle accident; it's a sympathetic gesture, but the character of the skeptical newspaper man seems no more than a gimmick. Otherwise the supporting actors are well-cast, with Luke Askew, Bo Hopkins, Bill Burton, Louie Elias and Gus Greymountain forming one hellova posse. 


(1) Vincent Canby, Genial Posse: Witty Western, Favors Outlaw, The New York Times, June 5, 1975: "It's one of the ironies of this country, where tremendous ambition is as essential as money in the achievement of political success, that we should automatically consider ambition to be a sin. It's as if we wished that Presidents could be brought by storks."

(2) Turner Classic movie Reviews: Posse, by Frank Miller

(3) The experience was even made worse by Kirk's other son Joel, who would be his assistant-director on Posse, left the project to join Michael's production of One flew over the Cuckoo's Nest. 

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...