Friday, December 12, 2014

Decision at Sundown (1957)

Dir: Budd Boetticher - Cast: Randolph Scott, John Carroll, Karen Steele, Valerie French, Noah Beery Jr., Andrew Duggan, John Archer

Decision at Sundown is an atypical entry in the Ranown Cycle, the series of collaborations of the duo Boetticher-Scott. It’s a revenge movie, Scott looking for the murderer of his wife, but it does not concentrate on the journey, but on the destination. For three years Scott has been looking for Tate Kimbrough, the man he holds responsible for the suicide of his wife Mary, and now his friend Sam (Noah Beery Jr.) has located him in the town of Sundown. All cards seem on the table when Bart Allison rides into the town, but there’s a problem: it’s Kimbrough’s wedding day, and even a man as determined as Bart Allison, feels he’ll have to postpone the execution, at least until the wedding ceremony is over.

Allison’s announcement that Mrs. Kimbrough will be a widow by sundown causes a lot of discomfort among the townspeople; Kimbrough had virtually taken over their town and some of them think this is the moment to regain their dignity by standing up against him. Moreover Kimbrough’s bride to be (Barbara Steele) starts having second thoughts about the marriage (could Tate really be a heartless swindler?). But it isn’t an easy afternoon for Allison either: when Sam reveals the truth about what happened between Mary and Tate, he must accept she was to blame for it, not Tate; there are even indications that Allison was aware of his wife’s infidelity but had chosen to disregard Mary’s dubious conduct.

The film sets out as a straightforward revenge movie, but it goes in a direction you don’t really expect it to go, with a hero who’s not really a hero and a villain who is not as bad as we thought he was. Bart Allison is one of Boetticher’s darkest heroes, an obsessed man, consumed by the thought of revenge to the point of madness: even when he can no longer deny the truth, he still wants revenge (like Glenn Erisson has pointed out, the movie could easily be remade with Scott as the villain instead of the hero). The villain, Tate Kimbrough, becomes more human as the story progresses, almost sympathetic, but he just can’t give up his old habits: when Allison arrives in Sundown, he’s about to marry a woman he doesn’t really love, giving a cold shoulder to the saloon girl Ruby, his long-time mistress and the true love of his live.

Few fans of the director count Decison at Sundown among his very best work; the script by Charles Lang (who also scripted Buchanan Rides Alone) is cleverly constructed, but the drama feels a bit forced. The surprise ending - Ruby talking (and shooting) some sense into these two pigheaded fools - is most certainly different, it actually keeps surprising you, even if you’ve seen it before. It also makes up for some of the misogynist tendencies of the script. John Carroll is believable as the not so villainous ladies' man, but I’m not sure how younger viewers will react to the character, and especially his looks. Carroll’s character is a Don Juan of the Clark Gable type and apparently these types of guys where considered to be irresistible to women back then, but I wonder if there are still many women who think Gable and Carrol are attractive. The times they are a’ changing, and so are we.

Monday, December 1, 2014

A Time for Killing (1967)

Dir: Phil Karlson, Roger Corman - Cast: Inger Stevens, Glenn Ford, George Hamilton, Paul Petersen, Timothy Carey, Kenneth Tobey, Harry Dean Stanton, Harrison Ford

Made in 1967, this movie never had a fair chance; in Europe it was washed away by the flood of spaghetti westerns, at home it was dismissed by critics for both its shortcomings (which are obvious) and its brutalities. The project was started under a different title, A Long Ride Home (still used in some markets), and was to be directed by Roger Corman. Some sources mention that Corman was replaced before shooting started, others sustain that he left the production halfway through, after he had clashed with actor George Hamilton over the movie’s infamous rape scene (1). Colombia hired Phil Karlson, who had done the Matt Helm movie The Silencers for them, to finish the movie.

A Time for Killing is part of a series of westerns concentrating on the conflicts of Union troops and their Confederate prisoners in the final days of the Civil War. It’s quite unique in the sense that no real possibility of reconciliation is suggested. In the opening scene a Confederate prisoner, still a teenager, is sentenced to death for having killed a guard during an unsuccessful attempt to escape. The firing squad is replaced by a group of orderlies, no trained marksman who only manage to wound the young man. It’s therefore up to major Wolcott (Ford) to finish the job. It’s a cruel and grotesque scene, reflecting the bleak and pessimistic vision on war (and mankind) that will be unfolded in the remainder of the film.

Knowing that the war is about to end, major Wollcott, an honorable man, promises the prisoners that similar things won’t happen again when they give up any possible  escape attempts. The prisoners seem to respond positively to this offer, but a vindictive Confederate officer Bentley (Hamilton) organizes a mass escape. Wolcott is blamed for what happened and ordered to lead the pursuit party, and things get even more personal for him when Bentley kidnaps his bride to be, the missionary woman Emily (Stevens). After several attempts to shake off Wolcott, Bentley rapes Emily in the desert and flies to Mexico. At this point things have gone too far, for all persons concerned: it’s actually Emily who asks Wollcott to cross the Mexican border and hunt down the maniac who scandalized her …

With a Confederate officer who refuses to give up the fight and a bleak, downbeat ending, we’re not far removed from the insane world of Corbucci’s The Hellbenders, made one year earlier. We’re also close to Peckinpah’s depiction of the post-civil war society in Major Dundee: a world torn apart, inhabited by frustrated people who may descend into violence and madness at any minute. The flaws of A Time for Killing are many: the editing is choppy and the film often feels jumpy, as if scenes are missing (the running time of a mere 88 minutes suggest there might have been some pre-release tampering). There’s some ‘Fordian’ comic relief which seems even more out of place here than in Ford’s own movies, and there’s also too much Hollywood sentimentality of men deploring their situation and expressing their wish to return home (referring to the film’s original title, A Long Ride Home).

Brutally violent (although not as sadistic as The Hunting Party, which it most probably inspired), A Time for Killing is not great, but I found it more rewarding than many American westerns of the same period. Western fans should give it a try. Look quickly for Harry Dean Stanton and a very young Harrison Ford: he’s the heavily side-burned Union soldier who give some assistance during the execution scene.


* (1) Robert Towne was originally hired to script the movie (from the novel The Southern Blade by Nelson and Shirley Wolford) and Monte Hellman was signed on as editor. Hellman told his biographer Brad Stevens that het he worked several weeks on the movie, and then resigned to show his sympathy with Corman, so it seems unlikely that Corman was replaced before shooting started. See: Brad Stevens, Monte Hellman: His Life and Films, p. 71

Friday, November 14, 2014

The Last Wagon (1956)

Dir: Delmer Daves - Cast: Richard Widmark, Felicia Farr, Susan Kohner, Tommy Rettig, Stephanie Griffin, George Mathews, Carl Benton Reid, James Dury 

In the opening scene we watch Richard Widmark killing an opponent in cold blood; he first shoots the man off his horse, then finishes him off, mercilessly. In the next few minutes Widmark kills two others, again without mercy, before he’s finally overpowered by a fourth person, a man wearing a sheriff’s star. It’s quite a remarkable opening, deliberately creating doubts about who is good and who is bad. Things get even more complicated: the sheriff ties the captured Widmark to a tree and starts torturing him, both mentally and physically. When the people of a wagon train show up, the sheriff asks them if he and his prisoner may join them on their way to Tucson; the request is granted, but the sheriff’s cruel behavior soon causes feelings of distress among the people of the wagon train and a young boy and his big sister start sympathizing with him, even though they’re told he’s a cold-blooded murderer ... 

The Last Wagon was Delmer Daves’ follow-up to his own, immensely successful Broken Arrow, which had opened up the market for liberal, pro-Indian westerns. Racial prejudice is again a central theme, but in many aspects The Last Wagon is a counterpoint to the more suave Broken Arrow:  the ‘hero’ is not a peace maker who becomes friends with a wise Indian chief, but a white man - knick-named “Comanche Todd" - who has lived with the Comanche and has learned to live and think like an Indian. He gets the chance to redeem himself and proof that he’s a good person when he miraculously survives a bloody nocturnal raid on the camp by the Apache (a common enemy of whites and Comanche). Six youngsters - among them the boy and his big sister - have also survived the massacre because they were off for a swimming party (and some romance) during the raid. Widmark is the only one who lead them through the Canyon of Death, the only one who can save their lives ...

The journey to safety through hostile Indian territory becomes a rite de passage for all concerned: they all become better people, notably a snooty white girl who hates Indians, including her half-breed sister, her only living relative after the death of their mutual father. The script is clichéd, but the whole thing is so elegantly put together that we can easily overlook its predictability. The actors are very good in their stereotyped roles (kudos go to George Mathews as the sadistic sheriff) and Wilfred Cline’s breathtaking cinematography of the Arizona landscape gives the film a bold, almost biblical look, not too far removed from the Boetticher-Scott collaborations of the Ranown Cycle. The problem of the movie is the ending (probably imposed on the director by the studio) a sort of coda in which Widmark’s character is acquitted of all charges. It’s stated that he took four lives but saved six, and therefore has payed his ‘debt’ to society.

Of course we understand very soon that Widmark’s character, Comanche Todd, can’t be all bad, if only because the man who’s supposed to bring him in, Sheriff Harper, is so much worse, but he remains a murderer, a man who has killed several people in cold blood, among them a sheriff and three deputies, and it’s not easy to see how he could ever be pardoned for this. It is revealed that he became a wanted man after he had killed the three men who had raped and killed his Indian wife and slaughtered his two half-breed kids; so far so good - we can understand that a man desires to avenge his murdered wife and kids, especially in the context of a western movie - but it is also suggested that these three killers and rapist are no other than sheriff Harper’s deputies, but ... they can’t be: The sheriff and his men were chasing Todd for killing the Harper brothers.

The conclusion must be that Comanche Todd was acquitted on false grounds: he killed more than four people (at least seven), and therefore took more lives than he saved. But I guess it’s too late for a revision.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Pardners (1956)

Dir: Norman Taurog - Cast: Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, Agnes Moorehead, Lori Nelson, Jackie Loughery, Lon Chaney, Lee van Cleef, Jeff Morrow

The penultimate movie of the legendary duo Martin and Lewis, consisting of the singer Dean Martin and the comedian Jerry Lewis. They appeared together on stage for the first time at the Atlantic City Club 500 on July 25, 1946, and would become, in the years to come, America’s most popular comedy duo thanks to a NBC radio series and numerous appearances in television shows and movies. Pardners was their only trip out West.

In the beginning of the film Martin and Lewis are seen as two aging cowboys. The ranch of Slim Mosely (Martin) and his partner Wade Kinsley (Lewis) is attacked by a gang of outlaws known as the Masked Raiders and both men are killed. Their two children, also called Slim & Wade, are raised separately in New York City. In 1910, 25 years after the events, Slim jr. has become a rodeo rider while the inept Wade jr. has become a spoiled momma’s boy. When Slim travels West to take part in a rodeo contest, Wade decides to accompany them because he has always dreamed of becoming a cowboy. The West is not what it used to be, but the masked raiders are still terrorizing the territory and when a new sheriff is needed because the old one was killed by the raiders, the totally inept Wade is elected because Slim has told everybody that he’s a famous gunslinger ...

The problem of the Martin and Lewis vehicles is that they were no more than a series of vaudeville acts disguised as movies and that neither of the two stars had reached his artistic zenith yet. Lewis was recognized by many as the true creative force of the duo, but by this time he was still relying too much on his routines of the simpleton with the high pitched voice while Dino was still working on his unique style that would turn him into the most popular entertainers of the mid-20th Century, second only to Frank Sinatra. Most of their outings are diverting, but hardly any of them is memorable. Pardners is no exception.

As a western parody, it’s an ordinary affair; the script by Sidney Sheldon is loosely based on the Bing Crosby vehicle Rhytm on the Range (also directed by Norman Taurog), but also shows some similarities to That’s My Boy, an earlier movie starring the tandem Martin & Lewis. As always Martin plays the straight guy while Lewis plays the fool, and of course all of Martin’s plans and intentions are frustrated by Lewis’s desire to help him. But eventually they become real friends and also manage to avenge their fathers’ deaths. As a comedy it works by fits and starts; it’s pretty noisy, Lewis overdoing things and Dino singing a couple of humdrum songs, but there are a few great moments, the absolute highlight a hilarious scene - grade A Lewis - of Jerry trying to roll a cigarette. It also has a great cast of supporting players, with Lee van Cleef, Jack Elam and Lon Chaney making their appearance as baddies.

It’s often said that Pardners was ironically titled because the two were already on the way to their breakup. Once good friends their relationship had turned sour, basically because Martin felt unhappy playing second fiddle to Lewis. To squash the rumors of a possible split, a coda was added to the movie: when “The End” appears on the screen, the two shoot down the letters and tell us they’re not ready for the end: they’re still good friends and enjoy making movies together. As we all know, it didn’t work out; the theatrical release of this movie coincided with their last appearance together on stage: on July 25, 1956, exactly ten years after their first appearance, Dean Martin walked off the stage at the New York City Copacabana Club.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Taxi Driver

I - A young man with a sleep disorder

Robert de Niro is a Vietnam veteran with a sleep disorder called Travis Bickle. After he has entered an office to apply for a job the following conversation ensues:

"Some. Here and there."


"How's your driving record. Clean?"
"It's clean, real clean. Like my conscience."

Travis Bickle's conscience is clean. The problem is that in his opinion Travis Bickle is virtually the only one in town with a clear conscience. Look at his description of nightlife:

"All the animals come out at night - whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal. Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets."

Today many people think Taxi Driver is one of the very best movies of the seventies - probably even the best - but when it was first released, it got mixed reviews. To some it was a masterpiece, others thought it was a cold-blooded, repulsive descent into the underbelly of modern city life. It was awarded the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, but was overlooked by The Academy. The Oscar for best motion picture went that year to (believe it or not) ... Rocky.

Taxi Driver will make many of us think of the shooting incidents in the US that fill the headlines on regular intervals. Often the perpetrator turns out to be one of those quiet young men who think the world is sick and needs to be cleaned up. Like some have said: the movie seems a frighteningly plausible case history of such a person (1).

Travis identifies himself with two persons, Betsy, a young woman he's attracted to, and Iris, a twelve year old hooker he feels responsible for. Betsy is a volunteer for the campaign of Charles Palantine, a senator running for president. Travis thinks Betsy and he are soul mates, so Palantine must be a good man, that is: a man who wants to clean up the dirt. When he's rejected by Betsy (after taking her to a sex movie on a first date!) and subsequently finds out what Palantine really stands for, he decides to kill him. In the meantime he has bought four pistols and a jungle knife, and practiced his skill every night in front of the mirror:

"You talkin' to me? You talkin' to me? Then who the hell else are you talking to ... you talking to me? Well I'm the only one here. Who the fuck do you think you're talking to?"

He has decided to give a large part of the money he has earned to Iris, so she can return to her parents. But when he's about to draw his gun, he is recognized by a secret service agent he has once spoken to, and flees from the spot in panic ...

... and freaks out ... In one desperate and outrageous attempt, Travis tries to clean up the brothel where Iris is abused night after night. Three persons are killed in the delirious gunfight and Travis himself is badly wounded. Iris ends up sitting beside the heavily bleeding man, crying, frightened, traumatized ...

II - Who is Travis Bickle?

A lot of confusion was created by the film's coda, in which a recovered Travis Bickle seems to have become a popular hero. We see him reading a letter, sent to him by Iris' parents, who thank him for all the things he has done for her. She's doing well, and she's attending school again, so he's told. The scene seems to deny the entire movie. All of a sudden we're supposed to see Travis as a (successful) vigilante. Wasn't he a psycho after all? Or is Scorsese mocking the media, who create popular heroes whenever they (or the world) needs one?

Some have interpreted the scene as a hallucination of a dying Travis Bickle. Both Scorsese and Schrader have nourished the idea with statements about the nature of the things happening in Taxi Driver. They reflect a state of restricted awareness, that makes a person wonder whether he's awake or sleeping (2). Schrader's major source of inspiration, was Dostoïevski's Notes from the Underground, about an embittered, nameless man, who has withdrawn from society and analyses modern life - and rejects it because it is impious and devoid of reason. Dostoïevski's novella is - like Taxi Driver - a first person narrative, and the same term - restricted awareness - has often been used for the state of mind of the underground man; furthermore we don't know if the narrator of a first person narrative is reliable: his account of the events might not be in accordance with the facts.

There are also similarities to the endings of some of John Ford's westerns, such as Fort Apache and The Man who shot Liberty Valance, in which a man is declared a hero although he doesn't really deserve this honor. Both Scorsese and Schrader have declared that a third Ford movie, The Searchers, was a conscious influence. According to Robin Wood, Travis Bickle is on one hand a western hero transplanted in a modern urban wilderness - he derives in particular from Ethan Edwards (John Wayne's character in The Searchers) - but also related to the psychopaths and monsters of contemporary horror movies. In other words: he represents two opposite archetypes. This clash of artistic personalities, would also reflect the national ideological dilemma of the American nation in the mid-seventies (3).

III - Not the last word

The last word has not been spoken about this movie and its protagonist, the insomniac Travis Bickle. Like some of Franz Kafka's novels, it seems open to radically different, often conflicting interpretations. We are afraid of Travis Bickle and won't accept him as a popular hero, yet we sympathize with him when he unleashes his demons. These contradictions don't hurt the movie's poignancy, but make it, quite on the contrary, only more powerful.

The build-up to the devastating finale is unequaled in the history of cinema. From the very first moment, Taxi Driver feels like a descent into a maelstrom. The bloody shootout in the brothel, is as shocking today as it was nearly forty years ago. The almost laconic, yet haunting score by Bernard Hermann (unfortunately his last) is a perfect counterpoint to the claustrophobic action. Several scenes, like De Niro in front of the mirror, are part of the collective memory of mankind. Film making at its zenith.

1976 - Dir: Martin Scorsese - Cast: Robert de Niro (Travis Bickle), Jodie Foster (Iris), Harvey Keitel (Sport), Cybill Shepard (Betsy), Albert Brooks (Tom), Leonard Harris (Senator Charles Palantine), Peter Boyle (Wizard), Martin Scorsese (Cuckold Husband), Joe Spinell (Personnel Officer)


* (1) Variety Movie Guide, Edited by Derek Elley, New York, 2000
* (2) On the film's Wiki Page a reference is made to Scorsese on Scorsese, a series of interviews with the director. Scorsese told the interviewer that "(...) the film arose from [the] feeling that movies are like dreams, or like taking dope (...); he added that he "(...) [had] tried to induce the feeling of being almost awake."
* (3) Robin Wood on Taxi Driver, in: The International Dictionary of Films and Film Makers, New York, 1985.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Last Sunset (1961)

In spite of story elements such as a cattle trek and a marshal on the trail of a wanted man, this is not an ordinary western, not by any stretch of the imagination. It's a low-key study of sexual obsessions, with Kirk Douglas as the good-for-nothing, but sympathetic philanderer returning to the woman he once deserted, but falling for her daughter, the spitting image of the girl he once loved.

Kirk Douglas is the man on the run, Rock Hudson the lawman in possession of a warrant to arrest him. Douglas has crossed the Mexican border and turned up at the ranch of a drunken cattleman John Beckenridge (Joseph Cotton) and his wife Belle (Dorothy Malone), who happens to be his old flame. Beckenridge offers Douglas a job as a trail boss for a drive back to where he came from, and surprisingly he accepts, probably because Belle and her blossoming daughter Missy will accompany the men. Hudson has followed Douglas into Mexico, but having no authority to arrest him on foreign soil, he joins the drive as well, planning to arrest him upon their arrival in Texas. After Belle’s husband is killed in a barroom brawl, Douglas asks for her hand, but she prefers the lawman to her former lover; Douglas then turns to her daughter Missy, who was already infatuated with him, and sleeps with the young girl. But then Belle reveals a dark secret that will change all things and lead to an emotionally devastating finale ...

* the following paragraph contains spoilers *

The movie has been described as Freudian, and with a story about sexual frustrations and neurosis, it’s hard not to think of good old Sigmund, but instead of illustrating an Oedipus complex, the story is closer to Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, the play that gave the Freudian complex its name. In other words, it's more Rex than Complex. The Freudian theory says that a father and a son are each other's rivals, because the son secretly desires to sleep with his mother. In Sophocles' play the son accidently kills his father and sleeps with his mother, causing the woman to kill herself, because she had not recognized her own son. The ending of The Last Sunset is a bit similar, with Douglas using an empty gun in the final duel with his opponent (Rock Hudson) after he has been told that the girl he slept with, is his own daughter.

The Last Sunset is a bit of a slow starter, and like many western from the period, it suffers from a stark contrast between good-looking, atmospheric location work (in Mexico) and unconvincing interior shots; there are also a few awkward (if funny) musical interludes (imagine Kirk Douglas singing in Spanish!). As usual, it’s the more irresponsible character of the two leads who gets most attention; Hudson’s lawman is a bit bland, but Douglas’ black-clad opportunist is a typical Aldrich character: behind their macho posturings, they often conceal a deeply insecure nature, and we sympathize with them because they’re vulnerable in spite of their bravura. In a nice example of a negative phallic symbol, Douglas wears a small derringer behind his waist belt instead of a large six shooter in a holster.

This is not a perfect movie; Dalton Trumbo’s literate script, rife with allusions and classical references, may feel a little overwrought and some thought - for good reasons - it was more drama than western (or even more melodrama than drama), but once the story picks up, and we get familiar with these odd characters, it's as compelling and fascinating as any other thing Aldrich has ever done. And note this final duel. Sergio Leone must have had it in mind when developing his ritualistic style of filming shootouts (and the build-up to them).


Joseph Breuer, Peter Gay (editor), The Freud Reader, New York, 1989
Standaard Woordenboek of de Oudheid, Antwerp 1970
DVD Savant, The Last Sunset, review by Glenn Erickson

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Naked Spur (1953)

Dir: Anthony Mann - Cast: James Stewart (Howard Kemp), Janet Leigh (Lina), Robert Ryan (Ben), Ralph Meeker (Anderson), Millard Mitchell (Tate)

The third western collaboration of the duo Mann-Stewart, usually called one of their best. It’s no doubt the most intense of the lot.

James Stewart is Kemp, a frontiersman turned bounty hunter after he had lost his ranch in the Civil War. Kemp is after the outlaw Ben Vandergroat, wanted for killing a Marshall. Vandergroat has fled into the mountains and Kemp is forced to accept the help of two men, who both hope to collect a part of the reward money: Jesse Tate, an old gold prospector who thinks Kemp is a sheriff, and Roy Anderson, a Union soldier who has been discharged from the army dishonerably. With the assistance of these two, Kemp finally captures Vandergroat and his companion, who turns out to be a young woman, Lina Patch (Janet Leigh), the daughter of Vandergroat’s former partner, who thinks her father’s friend is innocent.

As more often in Mann’s work, the beauty of nature is perfectly played against the nature of man, the rockslides and raging rapids mirroring the despair of the characters involved. Only gradually we learn how desperate - and far gone - they all are: Kemp not just lost his ranch when he was off to fight in the Civil War, his fiancee sold it and ran off with an other man; Lina clings to Ben because he was the only person on earth she could turn to after losing both her parents; Ben seems an amiable villain, intelligent and cheerful, until we learn that he’s as mentally unstable as Kemp, the man who has been chasing him like a dog; both men are on the edge of insanity.

The cinematography, by William Mellor, is impressive, with the camera often showing the events from the perspective of the characters; in some scenes - like the finale or the scene with Stewart, climbing a cliff, being scared off by a rockslide - the effect is stunning. The magnificent landscape is at the same time so terrifying, that we get the feeling that it’s closing in the characters rather than offering them a way out. 

The movie developes like a hostage drama, albeit one with the villain as the hostage, not the hero and his family. Ryan’s character soon starts playing off his captors against one another: he's getting on old timer Tate with stories about gold treasures hidden in the mountains and also encourages Lina to use her charms because he has noticed that both Kemp and Anderson are attracted to her. It all leads to a finale on a cliff, high above a howling river in the deep, in which the characters not only face each other, but also themselves. 

The tight script, by Sam Rolfe and Harold Jack, is perfectly functional, but might show some weaknesses when observed more carefully; the sequence with the Indians (who are quickly disposed of) looks perfunctory and the redemptive finale may lead to some frowning as well, but both direction and performances are so strong that you hardly notice the imperfections. Stewart and Ryan are a perfect match as the hunter and his prey (who becomes his taunter), but Janet Leigh almost steals away the film from them as the tomboy who dreams about traveling to California with a man who cares for her.


Paul Simpson, The Rough Guide to Westerns
Ozus’ World, Movie Reviews, The Naked Spur, reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
DVD Savant, James Stewart, the Signature Collection, The Naked Spur, reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Custer of the West (1967)

Robert Shaw (George Armstrong Custer), Mary Ure (Elizabeth Custer), Ty Hardin (Major Marcus Reno), Jeffrey Hunter (Captain Frederick Benteen), Lawrence Tierney (General Philip Sheridan), Kieron Moore (Chief Dull Knife), Robert Ryan (Sgt. Mulligan)

An overlong, episodic biopic of the controversial Civil War veteran and Indian fighter George Armstrong Custer. It was supposed to be directed by Akira Kurosawa, but he was replaced by Robert Siodmark. Custer had been portrayed as an idealist in Walsh’s They Died with their Boots on and would be portrayed as a vainglorious fool in Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man. Custer of the West tries to cover a middle ground, but is less successful in this aspect than the 1991 TV Miniseries Son of Morning Star.

The movie opens with a short montage depicting Custer’s Civil War exploits and follows his career until his famous Last Stand at the Little Big Horn, on June 26, 1976. After the war, Custer is offered a couple of easy jobs by his Civil War commander general Sheridan, but he prefers action. He’s then sent West to secure the peace at the frontier (by the man who thinks the only good Indian is a dead Indian) and told that his job won’t be a pleasant one. The script depicts him, at the same time, as a glory-hunting opportunist and a loyal, sincere army man, prepared to make unpopular decisions if necessary. He is blamed, by his superiors, for the onslaught on a peaceful Cheyenne village, but newspapers on the East Coast have turned him into a folk hero, and when he clashes with people in high places (among them the president’s brother) he has become too popular to be kicked out of the army. His unheroic death on the battlefield will finally turn him into a legend.

Custer, George Armstrong
Custer remains a historic person whose character and motives are difficult to fathom; most commentators have described him as a ‘media personality’: he valued good public relations and took care of his image; he hated politicians but had political ambitions himself; he was stringent, tenacious, hard to himself and to others, and while he could be generous to friends, he was bitter and implacable to enemies (1). Portraying such a enigmatic and controversial personality, is always risky. Little Big Man and Son of Morning Star probably work better because they are first-person narratives: Little Big Man is ‘told’ by Jack Crabb, supposedly the last survivor of Custer’s Last Stand, Son of Morning Star is told by two different characters who have known Custer. While a third person narrative suggests objectivity, a first-person narrative leaves more room for interpretation: it is essentially subjective, presenting the facts from a personal angle (and in the case of Jack Crabb we have reasons to believe that the facts have been given a twist in his personal account).

Custer, Robert Shaw
Most of these qualities attributed to the historical character, are highlighted in the script (there’s a protracted scene in which Custer imposes his own tenacity on his men) but there’s too much psycho-babble and the script also mixes historic events with fictional incidents, such as an Indian attack on a train and a man escaping down rapids; some of these sequences are spectacular (the escape down the rapids is edge-of-your-seat material), others seem to be there only for the intended Cinerama presentation. Robert Ryan has a nice cameo as a gold-hungry deserter, but his sequence feels detached from the rest of the movie.

Shaw almost overcomes the script’s indecisiveness with a strong performance and Ty Hardin and Jeffrey Hunter aren’t too bad as his two junior officers, one of them a hard-drinking Indian hater, the other a more pensive type, susceptible to the plight of the Indians. Produced by Philip Yordan, it might have been intended as an epic in the style of Lawrence of Arabia rather than a western (2). Some of the cinematography of the Spanish landscape (falling in for the Dakotas) is impressive, and the film is well-produced, but Lawrence it ain’t. The action scenes are quite violent for a movie aimed at large audiences and the representation of the conclusive battle at the Little Big Horn may not be accurate (we don’t know how Custer died but he most certainly wasn’t ‘saved for the last’) but it’s an exciting spectacle and the final scene, Custer overlooking the battlefield, refusing the walk away from it alive when he’s offered to do so, has a certain grandeur and a sense of fatality that the rest of the movie lacks.

Little Big Horn, Spain


* (1)
* (2) Custer Of the West, DVD Savant Review by Glenn Erickson

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Glory Guys (1965)

Dir: Arnold Laven - Cast: Tom Tryon, Harve Presnell, Senta Berger, Michael Anderson Jr., Slim Pickens, James Caan, Andrew Duggan -  Written by: Sam Peckinpah - Music: Riz Ortolani - Cinematography: James Wong Howe

A fictionalized western drama, based on Custer’s Last Stand, telling the story of an onerous officer who sends all of his men to death in a disastrous campaign against the Sioux. The script was written by no other than Sam Peckinpah and based on a novel by Hoffman Birney called The Dice of God. Peckinpah wrote the script between November 1956 and March 1957, at a salary of $500 a week (1) but it was only filmed a decade later, without any invlovement of Peckinpah.

With its colorful depiction of army life in an around an army outpost the film is often compared to John Ford’s Fort Apache, also inspired by Custer’s Last Stand. But instead of concentrating on the Custer-like commander, General McCabe, the story is told from the viewpoint of a collection of characters and the women in their lives. Captain Demas Harrod (Tryon) has served under McCabe before and knows the man is capable of anything; in a campaign against the Apache, an entire regiment was slaughtered because McCabe thought the men were expendable. Harrod has an eye on a young widow (Senta Berger) but she’s also courted by army scout Sol Rogers (Presnell), who hasn’t asked her hand yet, but is sure she’ll have him. Slim Pickens is the drill sergeant who has the thankless task to get a troupe of incompetent new recruits into shape; among them are a young James Caan as a hard-drinking rake with an Irish accent and an even younger Michael Anderson Jr. as a lad who ran away from a shotgun wedding.

By the time the movie went into production, Peckinpah was working on his own version of the Custer myth, and it’s clear that his writings for The Glory Guys served as a reference point for Major Dundee. The structure of the movie and several plot elements are similar; both films depict the enlistment and training of recruits who are eventually led to the battlefield, both are shot on location in Mexico and in both cases the protracted action sequence near the end takes place near a river. Pickens, Berger and Anderson Jr. appear in both films and the character played by Anderson Jr. is almost a copy from the boy he played in Dundee. But in Dundee, Peckinpah shifted his attention to the character of the Ahab-like commander, and also gave the story more depth by presenting it as a post-Civil War drama about resentment and reconciliation.

With a love triangle and some vaudeville type of humor thrown in, The Glory Guys is an often lumbering cavalry versus Indians affair, but it builds up to an exciting climax, worth waiting for. There are also a couple of vintage Peckinpah moments such as a helpless young trooper being viciously beaten up by law men in a dark alley and a macabre - but rather funny - scene with a simulated Indian attack (a recruit almost strangling a fake Indian!), echoing a scene from The Deadly Companions, with Indian ‘playing’ a stagecoach robbery. Tryon and Presnell are no more than adequate as the two men vying for Berger’s attention (with his fifties hairdo Presnell doesn’t look like an army scout), but Pickens is a delight, playing the sergeant in his trademark, semi-comical style. Laven’s directional style is routine, but James Wong Howe’s cinematography is breathtaking, especially during the elaborated battle sequence, a truly amazing visual experience that must have shocked cinemagoers in those days.


* (1) David Weddle, If they Move ... Kill 'Em, p. 137-139

Monday, June 30, 2014

Rio Conchos (1964)

(1965, Gordon Douglas)

Cast:‭ ‬Stuart Whitman,‭ ‬Richard Boone,‭ ‬Tony Franciosa, ‭ ‬Jim Brown,‭ ‬Wende Wagner,‭ ‬Warner Anderson,‭ ‬Rodolfo Acosta,‭ ‬Edmond O’Brien

Rio Conchos opens with a rather shocking scene of a white man shooting a couple of Indians from a distance in cold blood.‭ ‬What makes the scene even more uncomfortable,‭ ‬is the fact that the victims were burying one of their own.‭

The shooter is Jim Lassiter‭ (‬Richard Boone‭) ‬an ex-Confederate officer who has turned into an Apache killer after ‬the tribe has tortured his wife and children to death.‭ ‬He’s arrested by the U.S.‭ ‬Army because he’s in possession of a rifle that is part of a cache of U.S.‭ ‬Army rifles,‭ ‬stolen by a group of southern renegades,‭ ‬led by a man called Pardee.‭ ‬The renegades are now living south of the border and Pardee has planned to continue his war against the Union by arming the Apaches.‭ ‬Lassiter is offered a chance to regain his freedom if he’s willing to lead an illegal search party into Mexico along with the officer, Captain Haven, who was responsible for the shipment of weapons.‭ Haven is accompanied by his own (‬black) sergeant  and to ‘balance’ the group,‭ ‬Lassiter appoints his own‭ ‘‬sergeant‭’‬,‭ ‬a knife-wielding and womanizing Mexican adventurer called Rodriguez,‭ ‬who was about to be hanged by the Army.

Although Whitman is top-billed (1),‭ ‬the film belongs to Richard Boone.‭ He’s the central character and the other characters take shape in contrast to his obsessed Apache killer.‭ ‬Captain Haven is as persistent as he is, but he’s a more calculating type of person, often a bit hesitant.‭ ‬Rodriguez‭ (‬Tony Franciosa‭) ‬is as vigorous as Lassiter,‭ ‬but while Lassiter is loyal to a friend,‭ ‬Rodriguez is unreliable.‭ ‬The film also marks former football star Jim Brown’s acting debut.‭ ‬He has only a few lines,‭ ‬but his laid-back acting style and monolithic presence are very effective.‭ ‬There’s also a small but pivotal role for Wende Wagner as a woman warrior who understands that the very weapons administered to her people by Pardee,‭ ‬will eventually lead to their downfall.

Rio Conchos was released in 1964 and for a Hollywood western of the mid-sixties, it is surprisingly violent and cynical. It bears some resemblance to a type of war-adventure movies that flourished in this period (2), usually offering a group of morally ambiguous anti-heroes sent on a mission behind enemy lines. The philosophy of these movies often is that no-goods in daily life, make dirty heroes in wartime. But Rio Conchos is set after the war and remains firmly rooted in the western tradition.

There are also some similarities to the‭ ‬1961‭ ‬John Wayne vehicle The Comancheros.‭ ‬Two common factors are Stuart Whitman (‬who appears in both movies)‭ ‬and screenwriter Clair Huffaker (‬who contributed to both scripts).‭ For Rio Conchos Huffaker adapted his own novel (‬called Guns of Rio Conchos‭) to the screen, but only a few minor story elements of the novel made it to the script (3)‬.‭ ‬Another John Wayne western that must have influenced Rio Conchos,‭ ‬is John Ford’s The Searchers.‭ ‬There’s a crucial scene echoing the famous scene in The Searchers,‭ ‬in which Ethan Edwards kills as many buffaloes as possible,‭ ‬so that‭ ‘‬no Indian will have them‭’‬.‭ ‬The corresponding scene in Rio Conchos is far more brutal.‭ ‬When Boone and Brown‭ (‬the black army sergeant‭) ‬are watching an Apache warrior burn to death,‭ ‬a laughing Boone yells:

“‬Let‭ ‘‬m burn‭! ‬Let‭ ‘‬m burn‭!

But Brown releases the man from his sufferings,‭ ‬noticing laconically:

“‬Doin‭’ ‬like they do,‭ ‬don’t make it right‭”

With his sturdy physique and rugged face,‭ ‬Boone was the ideal actor to play a man full of hatred,‭ ‬who may explode any minute.‭ ‬He actually explodes when he’s confronted with the Apache chief Bloodshirt‭ (‬Rodolpho Acosta in a small but essential role‭)‬,‭ ‬who recognizes him as the famous‭ ‘‬murderer of his people‭’‬.‭ ‬In other words:‭ ‬the men are each others counterparts,‭ ‬direct opponents,‭ ‬but not that different.‭ ‬Bloodshirt is the murderer of Boone’s family,‭ ‬Lassiter is the murderer of Bloodshirt’s people.

Apart from Lassiter the most important character in the movie is Pardee,‭ ‬the renegade Confederate officer,‭ ‬an obsessed man,‭ ‬living in an improvised southern mansion,‭ an almost surrealist location, ‬no more than a façade and a couple of supporting walls (4).‭ It seems likely that Pardee was based on the character Kurtz from Joseph Conrad’s famous novel Heart of Darkness‭ (‬turned into a Vietnam movie by Francis Ford Coppola as Apocalypse Now‭)‬.‭ ‬Like Kurtz,‭ ‬Pardee only appears in the final stages of the narrative,‭ and when Lassiter is confronted with him,‭ ‬it becomes clear that the journey has been a sort of purification rite:‭ ‬the man who was slowly turning mad,‭ ‬now looks in the face of utter madness.

Rio Conchos isn’t perfect; some of the ethnic stereotypes (notably those of Mexicans) are mere caricatures and the racial and social issues that are raised, are hinted at, but not really analyzed or studied in depth. But it’s a great transitional movie, gritty and exciting, a forerunner of revisionist movies like Soldier Blue, Little Big Man or Ulzana’s Raid, that would treat the historic conflict in terms of racial hatred and genocide.


This is a slightly altered and extended version of an article previously published on Furious Cinema


* (1) On posters Whitman’s name was listed first, but Boone’s name was placed a bit higher. Warner Bros. had introduced the idea on the posters for Key Largo which had Humphrey Bogart’s name more to the left and Edward G. Robinson’s name elevated a little. The idea most probably was that both actors were equally important and therefore ‘shared’ top-billing.
* (2) Most of these war/adventure movies of the dirty kind were made in the second half of the decade, but there were earlier examples, notably The Guns of Navarone
* (3) See: (see also note 2)
* (4) I’m not the only one who saw some surrealist qualities in Pardee’s improvised headquarters; Philip French (one of the first major film critics to notice the special qualities of the movie) writes: (...) through the windows of the Palladian facade one can see the sky - and [the mansion] has the same disturbing qualities as a Margritte. Philip French, Landscape, Violence, Poker, in: Westerns, Aspects of a movie genre, p. 62

Monday, June 16, 2014

The Tall T

The opening of The Tall T, the second of the Bud Boetticher-Randolph Scott collaborations, is  surprisingly benevolent. Scott is a former ramrod called Pat Brennan, who's on his way to his old boss to bargain over a bull. During a stop at an isolated stagecoach station, he promises the young son of the station holder to buy some striped candy for him in town. The boy's father says Mr. Brennan has no time for such a thing, but Brennan counters the argument: Sure he has time for this.

Boetticher never got closer to create a warm feeling of security in the tradition of the John Ford cavalry westerns, in which the cavalry fort was treated as a safe haven in the wilderness. This station may be small, but it's a warm place, a home for travelers in the middle of nowhere. We seem to have arrived in a more gentle world than the bleak universe described in most other Boetticher westerns, but the opening is delusive: the journey will lead Brennan back to this station, and things will look radically different upon his return.

After his visit to town, Brennan loses his horse in a bet so he must continue his journey on foot. He is picked up by a stagecoach driver, his old time friend Ed Rintoon; also on board are a newly married couple, Willard and Doretta. The stagecoach makes a stop at the station, so Brennan can deliver the candy to the boy, but at this point the kind movie takes a very dark turn: the place has been overtaken by a ruthless bandit, Usher, and his pair of henchmen, Chink and Billy Jack. Rintoon is shot when he reaches for his gun and Brennan soon discovers that the father and the boy have been murdered in cold blood by the bandits. When Willard informs Usher that his father-in-law would pay for Doretta's save return, the gang leader sends him with a ransom note note of $50,000 ...

Instead of being one of the most warm-hearted movies of the Ranown Cycle, The Tall T is the bleakest and grittiest of them all. The violence is rather brutal and graphic for a film of '57 and it expresses a very dark, pessimistic vision on the human condition: all characters seem to be lost in life. Usher saves Brennan's life because he prefers to talk to him rather than to the two youngsters he's traveling with, Chink a psycho who made his first kill at the age of eleven (his own father) and Billy Jack, a stray cat who doesn't even know how old he is ("Mainly young"). Willard is a coward who only married Doretta for her money; Doretta is frustrated about her plain looks and married Willard because she feared to become an old maid ...

I have always enjoyed the movie, but it has never been a special favorite. Boeticher's best movies describe a journey through open country, with the travelers pausing somewhere, but not for long. The Tall T is a hostage drama and the action is largely confined to the lair the villains have chosen; the camera remains with the hostages and their guard(s) while others ride off. The film was shot on those magnificent Lone Pine locations - forever Boetticher territory - but the beauty created is more static, less filmic. 

That said, the film has a lot to speak for it: some great tension is created and the casting is brilliant. Henry Silva and Skip Homeier are perfectly believable as Chink and Billy Jack, two rebels without a cause, but full of suppressed anger and sexual desire, and former Mrs. Tarzan Maureen O'Sullivan convincingly embodies the suppressed sexuality of a middle-aged woman, homely looking, but attractive enough to put some notions into a young man's head. But at the core of the story, and the drama, is of course this confrontation of Scott's character with the bandit leader Usher, played to perfection by Richard Boone. Like most other Boetticher villains, he's Scott's mirrored image, not the incarnation of evil, but the incarnation of Scott's fears, an inner demon that can only be exorcized in the classic genre ritual of the duel to the death. If he doesn't stand up against Usher, he'll be exactly like him. He cannot let it happen:

Brennan: I'm going to finish this once and for all.
Doretta: Oh, but why?
Brennan: Some things a man can't ride around. 

Dir: Budd Boetticher - Cast: Randolph Scott (Brennan), Richard Bonne (Usher), Maureen O'Sullivan (Doretta), Skip Homeier (Billy Jack), Henry Silva (Chink), John Hubbard (Willard), Arthur Hunnicut (Rintoon)

Man of the West (1958)

  In 1958 this movie was panned by critics for its melodramatic overtones while fans of the director weren’t happy by Mann’s decision to...