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Saturday, May 24, 2014

High Plains Drifter (1973)




I

High Plains Drifter was Clint's first western as a director. The drifter from the title is a loner, a man with no name, and we first spot him when he's still a distant figure, a rider emerging from heat haze above the high plains. Eerie sounds, almost sounding like shrieks of people in agony, slowly blend into choral chants alternated with shreds of martial drums. The rider briefly overlooks the valley from his high position, then starts moving downhill, towards the tiny little town in the distance. His arrival in town - a tracking camera following him - has all the studied ingenuity of a Leone opening, but it's also filmed with a cold sovereignty reminiscent of the work of the other great director Clint had worked with, Don Siegel. The town is not a deserted, snow white Mexican village, but a lakefront settlement. The chants and drums have dissolved, the only sound interrupting the oppressive silence, is the cracking of a whip.

The opening of High Plains Drifter, is one of the best openings of a western movie ever. Like the overture of an opera, it introduces the overarching themes of the story: the significance of virtually every element - the eerie music, the ghost like figure, the cracking of the whip - will be explained later. We soon learn about the stranger's proficiency as a gunslinger when he's challenged by three rednecks, but we keep guessing who he is or what he's after. When people ask him: "What did you say your name was again?" he simply answers: "I didn't". He's not a man of many words and his deeds aren't always virtuous: in a highly controversial scene (apparently Clint came to regret it later), he drags a woman into a stable after she has provoked him, and rapes her. 

Flashbacks reveal that a man was whipped to death in a town street, with the townspeople cowardly watching. The killers were handed over to the authorities but are soon to be released from jail, and the townspeople fear that they will return to wreak havoc. When they ask the stranger to organize the town's defense, he accepts, but asks virtually unrestricted powers in return and immediately starts using them: he installs the midget Mordecai as sheriff, seduces the wife of the hotel-owner and provokes local storekeepers by distributing their merchandise. Shortly before the three released thugs arrive, he orders the townspeople to paint the town red and change its name into "hell". The finale takes place in a true inferno, the stranger picking the three men off one by one, killing them in gruesome fashion with the townspeople - again - cowardly watching.

By then we understand the stranger must be related to the man who was whipped to death, but his identity is only revealed in the dying moments of the movie. When he's about to leave the town of Lago, the midget he made sheriff and mayor, tells him he still doesn’t know his name. “Oh yes you do”, says the drifter, and the camera turns to the grave of the man who was whipped to death in the town’s main street years before, Marshall Jim Duncan. The most logical conclusion is that the drifter is a reincarnation of the murdered Marshall, so has avenged his own death.
II

It's often said that High Plains Drifter was inspired by an Italian western, Django, il Bastardo (1969, Sergio Garrone). But that movie was only released in the US in 1974 and it's highly doubtful that Eastwood ever saw it before he started working on High Plains Drifter. Furthermore he could easily have picked up the idea of ghost-like avenger elsewhere, it's a recurring theme in world literature.

Authors (and their readers) have always been fascinated by the idea of communication between the worlds of the living and the dead. Dracula, the prince of darkness, leaves his tomb in search for the virginal blood. In Greek and Roman literature we meet several stories about the living visiting the Underworld, the equivalent of the Afterlife, talking to deceased friends and relatives, usually learning something about the way they died. Often the visitor is asked by the dead to set a few thing right, to take revenge in their name. In the most famous revenge story of them all, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the ghost of a dead man appears to his son, and tells him how he was betrayed and killed. The idea is that the deceased can only find eternal peace when their worldly problems are solved. 

The western genre may be a bit too mundane to feature a character returning from the world of the dead, but there's one very famous western that might have inspired this story element. Several people attending pre-release showings of Sergio Leone's Once upon a Time in the West thought Harmonica was a ghost, and some say Leone even considered for a while to treat Harmonica as such, but rejected the idea after ample consideration. In his book about spaghetti westerns, Alex Cox notes that Harmonica has a habit of sliding into frame, stealthily, almost as if he's coming from another dimension (1).  It's unlikely that Eastwood saw Django the Bastard, but he most certainly saw Once Upon a Time in the West. When he received Ernest Tidyman's script for High Plains Drifter, it was incomplete and reportedly the holes in the script were filled up with black humor and allegory, influenced by Leone (2). 

III

High Plains Drifter pays homage to the two great directors Clint had worked with in the previous years, Sergio Leone and Don Siegel, but it's also a modern reading of the town westerns of the fifties, of which Fred Zinneman's High Noon (1952) is the most famous. In most of the town westerns, and High Noon in particular, the townspeople are described as contemptible and hypocritical, not able (or willing) to defend themselves against the forces of evil. For its safety the community depends on professionals, hired to do a dirty job. These men are feared, often admired for their skills, but not loved. Deep in their heart many community members despise them. High Plains Drifter (I always wondered if the "High" in the title was coincidental) outdoes High Noon in contempt for the community. The idea is pushed so far, that it threatens to backfire. 

Westerns are basically morality tales, the actions of the western hero an illustration of a moral code; in High Plains Drifter we seem to have wandered off into a moral wasteland, with a hero who's not only selfish or crude, but downright nasty and amoral. His behavior is all but exemplary, all sympathy we may feel for him, originates in our disdain for the other characters. In the original writings, the stranger was the dead Marshall's brother, but Clint preferred a less explicit, more allegorical explanation (3). He must have felt that the only way to make the stranger acceptable to us, was to add a mythological and religious dimension to the story, turning the stranger into a being coming from the other side to settle a few scores, so he can have eternal rest in the great beyond. 

IV

High Plains Drifter is a remarkably assured movie for a man who had directed only one movie before (the rather undistinguished thriller Play Misty for Me); some scenes are marvellous, such as the opening and the recurring flashbacks to the fatal night, shared by the stranger and Mordecai, progressively growing longer, revealing more of what happened, and why. But there are a few shortcomings; the humor is often a bit tasteless, especially when it's used as a counterpoint for the cruel, oppressive nature of the movie, and this rape scene remains a particularly unpleasant moment. Apparently Clint came to regret it later (4).

When he made High Plains Drifter, Clint was in his early forties, becoming fully aware of his screen image and the social impact it had. His art would evolve into a more placatory direction; he'd briefly turn to comedy (like many other directors in the course of the Seventies) and his next western, The Outlaw Josey Wales, is more about reconciliation than about revenge. A decade later, he would make a movie that almost reads like a revision of High Plains Drifter, Pale Rider: it also features a ghost-like avenger, but he comes to the aid of defenseless gold diggers and is known to them as 'Preacher', a Messenger from Heaven rather than a Messenger from Hell. 


Notes: 

(1) Alex Cox: 10,000 Ways to Die, A director’s take on the spaghetti western, p. 256
(2) Patrick McGilligan in: Clint: The Life and Legend (quoted on High plains drifter, Wiki Page)
(3) Inside the Actors Studio, interview with Clint Eastwood 
(4) Edward Buscombe, 100 Westerns, High plains drifter, p. 89
 


Monday, May 12, 2014

Gold of the Seven Saints (1961)





The last of a trio of westerns directed by Gordon Douglas, all starring Clint Walker, following Fort Dobbs (1958) & Yellowstone Kelly (1959). Unlike the other two, this one wasn't scripted by Burt Kennedy. It also stars a young Roger Moore, on the eve of his glory days as Simon Templar, that other Saint, not related to the Seven Saints of the title (a place never reached by the two heroes of this movie).

Walker and Moore are Jim Rainbolt and Shaun Garrett, two fur trappers who had the incredible luck to find gold. When Garrett is caught stealing a horse (for the transport of the gold) he buys himself free with one of the gold nuggets, attracting the attention of a man named McCrancken, who starts following the two friends with his men across the desert. When cornered, Jim and Shaun are first saved by a wandering doctor, Doc Gates (Chill Wills in an excellent performance), then by Gondora, a Mexican landowner and an old friend of Jim, but gold has a habit of turning friends into foes ...

The screenplay by Leigh Brackett and Leonard Freeman (based on a novel by Steve Frazee) is very lively, offering a series of tension-filled situations and plot twists, but it also creates some inconsistencies. The message seems to be that gold corrupts the soul, but unlike the heroes from Huston's The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Walker and Moore are saved from moral decay: they must face friends who have become enemies, but never try to double-cross each other; there are only a few vague references to betrayal in the scene in which Walker hides the gold and Moore remarks that he will need Walker to get to the treasure while Walker doesn't need anybody but himself. They never fight over their fortune, actually the only thing they fight over, is Leticia Roman, during a brief interval on Gondora's hacienda. And then there's this up-beat ending that has bemused viewers over the decades: The two lose the gold but remain friends, the film ends with laughter and the two only seem happy to make a new start. As someone put it, it's a convenient but unconvincing conclusion.

Shot in a warm black & white, in and around Arches National Park in Utah, the film has a glorious look. It often feels like a chase movie in slow-motion (the men slowed down by the landscape, the heat and the gold); it's slightly sluggish (the part on the hacienda is too long, with too many laughing Mexicans) but never dull. It's not particularly violent but the tone is rather cynical; there's a scene in which one of the villains (okay, he had it coming) receives a few gold nuggets when his leg is trapped under a boulder, so he'll "die rich". It's the type of grim, tongue-in-cheek humor that fits an actor like John Wayne or Clint Eastwood very well, but feels a little awkward when brought by a suave actor like Clint Walker. It just doesn't fit his image. 

Apart from this one scene, Walker is his usual immobile self. Moore is overdoing  his British accent (to impersonate an Irishman!), but the contrast with Walker works and it's easy to see how this charming young man could become a mega star.
 

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

100 Rifles (1968)




Dir: Tom Gries - Cast: Jim Brown, Raquel Welch, Burt Reynolds, Fernando Lamas, Hans Gudegast, Dan O'Herlihy, Michael Forest - Music: Jerry Goldsmith

100 Rifles is set in the Northern Mexican region of Sonora, at the beginning of the 20th Century, against the background of an ethnic cleansing by the Mexican government. Most of the Yaqui Indians have already been deported to Southern regions (where they were used as slaves), but small groups are continuing to resist subjugation (1). The story is about a black deputy sheriff from Arizona, Lyedecker, who accidentally becomes involved in their rebellion, when he crosses the border with Mexico to capture a half breed Indian who has robbed a bank and used the money to buy one hundred rifles to arm his people.

Lyedecker has a short time contract as a deputy in Phoenix, Arizona and hopes to get a permanent assignment by bringing the bank robber to justice. When Yaqui Joe (his mother was Yaqui, his father from Alabama) is arrested by general Verdugo of the federales, Lyedecker tries to intervene but is himself arrested. When both men are about to be executed, they're saved in the last minute by a rebellious group of Yaqui, led by a fiery red-headed woman called Sarita. She wants the black man to join the Yaqui in their fight against the federal troops, but like he says, their fight is not his business, and he never liked Indians anyway. But Sarita has other ways to convince a man …

100 Rifles was credited for being one of the first major Hollywood productions to offer an interracial sex scene, but critical reactions to it were lukewarm; many thought it was a confusing mix of ultra-violence and tongue-in-cheek humor with only few redeeming qualities, such as a scene in which the film’s heroin takes a public shower under a water tank. Like some other Hollywood westerns shot in Spain in the late sixties, 100 Rifles seems to have found its audience in the course of the years, and recent comments have been more favorable. 

It's often thought that the movie was influenced by the spaghetti westerns. There are indeed some similarities to the so-called Zapata westerns (Italian westerns set in Mexico), especially those of Sergio Corbucci: It features a beautiful woman alongside two rivaling macho men - one attached to a cause, the other only to himself – and also uses some familiar locations and faces, such as Aldo Sambrell and José Manuel Martin (as Welch’s father in the opening scene). But the feeling is different and the spaghetti westerns certainly weren’t the only source of inspiration. In one prolonged scene Brown and Reynolds are shackled to each other like Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis in The Defiant Ones (1958, Stanley Kramer). 

The historic background lends a socio-cultural dimension to the story, but the script never gets to the bottom of the conflict. General Verdugo has been given a German advisor, who proposes some radical solutions for the ‘Yaqui problem’ (these hints at extermination seem a little anachronistic), and there’s also a representative of the Southern Pacific Railroad, who’s appalled by Verdugo’s drastic measurements, but still wants the work on the railroad to continue (the familiar New world - Third World opposition). The story offers too many cliché situations (a fistfight near a cliff, several narrow escapes, the stubborn black man changing his mind about helping the Yaqui when the children are in danger, etc.), and there are also a few sudden transitions and other anomalies; according to French director Bertrand Tavernier - who seems to like Gries' work a lot - they were caused by 20th Century Fox' decision to re-edit the material against the director's wishes (2). 

100 Rifles has its share of flaws, but it’s fast paced and remarkably violent for a western predating The Wild Bunch by a year. The ‘sex scene’, which gave some notoriety to the movie, seems rather tame today, but that other (in)famous moment, Raquel taking a shower, is still quite provocative. The large-scale action is quite exciting (notably an assault on a train) and the movie stars three attractive young actors rising to stardom. Brown's laid-back style suits his character very well and Welch really gives her best as the fiery rebel leader; the part may be a bit beyond her as an actress, but she makes it up with her wardrobe (wearing a variety of shirts and tops that are two or three seizes too small). Burt Reynolds successfully hams it up as the halfbreed, playing the part in semi-comical style, almost as if he were meant to be Brown's sidekick. 

There are several hints that the film tried to say something about racial prejudice, but if so, its 'message' remains obscure; ironically, racial prejudice seemed to have caused some problems on the set. According to an article in a French magazine, Brown and Welch didn’t like each other. Welch thought Brown was insupportable and she was pissed off that he was top-billed, Brown thought Welch was prejudiced against black people and had expected him to behave like an Uncle Tom who was prepared to kiss her feet. Welch also had a bad time with her husband, who was on the set, when it came out that she was having an affair with one of the Spanish extras, who was subsequently fired (3). And oh yes, before I forget: the film also stars Soledad Miranda, and unlike La Welch, she goes for the full monty. 


Notes:

(1) The official Yaqui website (http://www.manataka.org/page129.html) says: 
"Yaqui families lived in the Gila and Santa Cruz River valleys since time immemorial. Around the turn of the century, these families, encouraged by farmers, politicians, and internal preferences, began moving into larger communities. Guadalupe took early form in 1880. Old Pascua Village was established in 1903. The Sonoran Governor Izabal had a policy to arrest and deport both peaceful and rebel Yaquis. This forced Yaquis to relocate to the Arizona communities and to join old family groups already in residence. Many Yaqui families moved to escape the violence of the 1910-1920 Mexican Revolution.

In 1916, Mexico had a constitutional governor named Adolpho de la Huerta, who was one-quarter Yaqui. He made the first attempts to restore Yaqui land and stop the bloodshed. But, the next president, Alvaro Obregon, changed the policy, and the Yaqui-Mexican wars continued." 

(2) In an interview, added as an extra feature to the French DVD, Les 100 Fusils (Sidonis)
(3) Ciné Revue, N° 18, May 4, 1972. According to the article, Welch had a brief affair with Spanish actor Sancho Gracia (his name is misspelled as Garcia).

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Fort Dobbs (1958) & Yellowstone Kelly (1959)



The lead actor of these two movies, Clint Walker, had become a star thanks to the TV-series Cheyenne, aired between 1955 and 1963. The show was the first hour-long western with continuing characters to last more than one season; it was also the first series to be made by a major Hollywood studio, Warner Brothers. The movies were a result of a conflict Walker had with the studio. Walker felt unhappy with the contract that paid him a mere $150 a week and had discovered that Warner had turned down some interesting features he could have done (1). Between 1958 and 1961 Walker would appear in three movies produced by Warner, all three westerns, all three directed by Gordon Douglas, two of them (co-)written by Burt Kennedy (2).

There's no doubt Warner Brothers wanted to capitalize on Walker's popularity and his image of a westerner with a good understanding of the red man. His character from the TV series, Cheyenne Bodie, had lived with the Cheyenne Indians after they had killed his parents. As an adult he had left the tribe and become a loner, a man living between the worlds of the red and white man. Both Fort Dobbs and Yellowstone Kelly were 'Indian westerns'. Neither of the two movies was particularly successful; like some have said, they illustrate the idea that people didn't want to pay for something they could watch for free at home.


FORT DOBBS (1958)

In Fort Dobbs Walker is Gar Davis, a man on the run for the law: he has shot a man who had been dallying with his wife and the sheriff and his posse are hot on his trail. He manages to shake them off by changing clothes with a man who was killed by Indians on the warpath, and pushing the dead body over a cliff. Like Randolph Scott in Comanche Station (1960), Davis recues a white woman (Virginia Mayo) from the Comanche and feels it's his obligation to bring her to safety - the Fort Dobbs from the title (not knowing that the fort has been attacked by the Comanche).

Fort Dobbs is leisurely paced, but easy to enjoy. For a fifties western, the Indians are rather anonymous, their hostilities mainly serving as a background for the interplay between the main characters. The script is strongly reminiscent of Kennedy's work for the duo Boetticher-Scott, but also bears some similarities to the John Wayne western Hondo.  Mayo lives - with her husband and young son - in a remote farm near Indian territory and when Walker arrives at her place, she's waiting for her husband to return from a business trip. Of course we immediately understand who this husband is, and why he won't ever come back. The film is cleverly plotted, but most twists and turns are predictable; when shady arms-dealer Brian Keith shows his repeating rifles, we know they will play a key role in the defense of the fort and Walker's redemption. The action is sparse but intense, and there's a great scene with Mayo and her son arriving in the fort, suddenly realizing that all soldiers have been slaughtered, a harrowing moment of shock and fear.

With his majestic appearance - he stood 6 feet 6 (1.98 m) with a 48 inch chest - Walker even seems to dwarf his horse. He made a fine cowboy but his acting range was limited; he was a gentle giant, lacking the features of a man like Randolph Scott, branded by nature, scarred for life. Mayo isn't bad as the frontierswoman caught in a stressful situation, and she has a memorable scene after Walker has saved her from drowning:  waking up, watching Walking polishing his rifle with a bare chest, she suddenly realizes that she's naked under her blanket, so Walker must have taken off her clothes after getting her out of the water. The scene is both funny and sexy, but it's also virtually the only moment in which the romance between the two characters seems to work. Brian Keith has no trouble stealing the movie as the gunrunner dreaming about making a fortune by selling his Henry repeating Rifles - the rifle that won the West - to no matter who.


YELLOWSTONE KELLY (1959)

Walker's character in this movie is more closely modeled after the character from the TV-series, a wanderer between the worlds of the white and the red man (even the name of the character seems to echo Cheyenne Bodie): he's a fur trapper living on Sioux land (with their permission) and also a bit of a doctor. As such, he's asked to save the life of a female Arapaho prisoner. Both a young warrior and the tribe's chief Gall (John Russell) are interested in her, but she rejects both men. After her recovery she manages to escape from the Sioux village and seeks refuge in Kelly's cabin. The Sioux want the beautiful woman back, and there's also the army, out for revenge for the events at Little Big Horn. It's up to our fur trapper to solve all these problems.

Apparently this movie was supposed to be directed by John Ford and star John Wayne, but they decided to do The Horse Soldiers instead. Kennedy's script was based on a novel by Heck Allen about a real-life person called Yellowstone Luther Kelly, an American soldier, scout, hunter and adventurer. Russell's character Gall is historic too (Gall was one of the war chief's leading the Sioux at Little Big Horn), but no real effort at authenticity is made, it all feels very Hollywood, very fifties, with a more sympathetic portrayal of the Native American culture and an interracial love affair to sugar the message. You don't know what Ford would've done with the material, but Yellowstone Kelly is quite enjoyable. Doulas builds up the tension adequately and handles the action - as usual - quite well. 

The movie also stars Edd "Kookie" Byrnes, who had become a well-known face (and forelock) thanks to his role in the TV-series 77 Sunset Strip ("Kookie, Kookie, lend me your comb!"). He's a tenderfoot who wants to become a trapper and therefore asks Walker to become his mentor; some early scenes with the two men seem to suggest a homosexual relationship, but the young man loses his head over the Arapaho woman as soon as he sets eyes on her. He's not the only one, actually all men in the movie seem to fall for her clear blue eyes (that's how Indians looked like in the fifties). Well, I would have fallen for her too ... 



Notes:

(2) The third movie, Gold of the Seven Saints, is different in style. It stars a young Roger Moore alongside Clint Walker and was not scripted by Burt Kennedy. It will be discussed on another occasion.