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Monday, February 8, 2016

Hannie Caulder




Of all the oddities of the Western Wonderland of the early seventies, this must be one of the oddest. Like many westerns of the period it was shot in Spain and offers a cast of familiar faces as well as a few surprise appearances; it also tries to outdo the violent and perverted tendencies of the previous decade with lots of blood and a particularly nasty rape scene. With Ernest Borgnine, Jack Elam and Strother Martin playing the baddies in the style of the Three Stooges, this may sound like a half-baked American pseudo spaghetti, but the film is British, which explains some of the surprise appearances, such as Christopher Lee, Mr. Dracula himself, as a gunsmith, and Diana Dors as a prostitute.

In the opening minutes three outlaw brothers try to rob a bank in a sleepy Mexican border town. It’s an outrageous scene, with so much blood spilled, that it comes close to parody. Director Kennedy had done a few good western comedies (notably the excellent Support your local Sheriff), and the scene was probably meant as a spoofy version of the opening scene of The Wild Bunch, but it’s so gross, and at the same time so stupid, that it fails in every aspect. After all, even outlaws as inept as the Clemens brothers wouldn’t have robbed a bank with a regiment of federales sleeping on the porch of a town building. The next scene is the infamous rape scene, with the brothers not only raping a woman (played by a thirty-one year old Raquel Welch), but also killing her husband and burning down her house. The sequence is filmed with an almost total lack of subtlety or restraint. And again so much blood is spilled & spattered that the killing of the husband looks like a ritual slaughter.

Surprisingly the movie finds the right tone as it goes along. A key element is a strong performance by the much underrated Robert Culp as a bearded and spectacled bounty hunter, hired by Welch to turn her into a proficient gunwoman who can get even with the thugs who ruined her life. He gives her the shooting lessons she’s asking for, warning her at the same time of the ultimate futility of the revenge mission she has planned. Culp’s wonderfully reserved performance provides the movie with exactly the right counterbalance for the outlandish atmosphere. The shooting lessons are wisely nested in a carefully handled interlude involving Christopher Lee as a gunsmith with more children than you can think of. This is all handled with so much care, that we seem to have wandered into another movie. The scene eventually culminates into a bloody shootout with a Mexican gang of cutthroats, which seems a bit thrown in, but also leads the film to its final act, describing Welch’s revenge.


Once past the first ten, fifteen minutes, Hannie Caulder is a surprisingly enjoyable western, although the would-be mystical ending is weak (what’s all this nonsense with Stephen Boyd - dressed in black - supposed to mean?). Even some of the comedy starts to work (Borginine and Martin starting to fight while trying to rob a stagecoach!). Edward Scaife’s lush cinematography of the Spanish locations is admirable. I wasn’t too pleased with Ken Thorne’s score. It occasionally reminded me of Jerry Fielding’s magnificent score for The Wild Bunch, but never seems to find the right balance between classic and modernist influences. Too much old school in a modern context. But of course in this movie everything (direction, landscape & score) plays second fiddle to Welch, and she had never looked better and would never look as good again as she did in Hannie Caulder. A promotion pic of her in her poncho, and no more than a poncho, became one the most iconic images in the history of film making.

***
Dir: Burt Kennedy - Cast: Raquel Welch (Hannie Caulder), Robert Culp (Thomas Luther Price), Ernest Borgnine (Emmett Clemens), Jack Elam (Frank Clemens), Strother Martin (Rufus Clemens), Christopher Lee (Bailey), Stephen Boyd, Aldo Sambrell, Brian Lightburn, Luis Barboo, Diana Dors (Madam)

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Three Amigos




Steve Martin, Chevy Chase and Martin Short are The Three Amigos, a comedy team from Hollywood’s silent era (probably inspired by The Ritz Brothers). After being sacked by the studio they receive a telegram from a Mexican woman named Carmen, who wants them to come to her little hometown Santo Poco, south of the border, and do some work for the locals. The three think they’re asked to perform their singing cowboy routines, but no: the seƱorita had accidently seen their adventures on a big screen and thinks they will be able to defend the town against real bandidos ...

As one might expect in a comedy, the three amigos are the last to understand the seriousness of the situation: the town of Santo Poco is visited on regular intervals by the notorious bandit El Guapo, who has discovered the racketeering business and is asking increasingly more money for his services from the poor villagers. And as you might expect (again) in a comedy, the three manage to do what they were hired for, in spite of their own incompetence. And they do this - the film makers know their stuff - by rallying the villagers to stand up for themselves and organize their own defence; in other words, the three amigos become the magnificent three.

As a comedy Three Amigos is not without merit, but knowing that three of the most popular American comedians from the period are in it, one would have expected it to be funnier. The script offers all three of them a few opportunities to show what they’re capable of, but only in one scene, set around a campfire, there’s something like a synergetic effect, otherwise the best moments come from individual efforts, and the three never really feel like a team. In one scene, Short and Martin perform a song and dance number in a cantina; it’s a nice and funny scene but you wonder what Chase is doing while they’re performing their act: it turns out that he was playing the piano - at least that’s what we’re supposed to believe.



Three Amigos has its moments and I noticed that it also has its fans: some critical notes from my part on facebook led to some spiteful remarks. I therefore gave it another chance. It’s actually not bad and some of the solo bits and vignettes are even pretty good. Kai Wulff is hilarious as the German who has always idolized Short’s skills as a gunslinger and therefore challenges him to a duel and ... is outdrawn by him! Alfonso Arau - best known to western buffs as one of the baddies from The Wild Bunch - has the movie’s best remembered line as the villain El Guapo, after watching the three performing their routine:


"I like these guys. They are funny guys. Kill only one of them."

Randy Newman is mentioned as co-author of the script; he wrote three songs for the movie and also has a ‚cameo’ as a singing bush (maybe he wrote his own lines). Let’s say that his songs are better than his performance ...

***
Dir: John Landis - Cast: Chevy Chase (Dusty Bottoms), Steve Martin (Lucky Day), Martin Short (Ned Nederlander), Joe Mantegna (Harry Flugleman), Alfonso Arau (El Guapo), Loyda Ramos (Conchita), Patrice Martinez (Carmen), Kai Wulff (The German)