For a Few Dollars More (1965)

Director: Sergio Leone

Now my records indicate I have seen this—I would’ve done so most likely in ’95 when I was doing film studies at UNSW and that particular class on film genres, wherein we studied the western and Fistful of Dollars was one of the films we looked at, and I do recall watching the rest of the “Dollars trilogy” and OUATIW as additional viewing—but damned if I could remember anything about it, other than the fact of having seen it some 20 years ago, so this was one of those rewatches that may as well be a first viewing… Anyway, a few days after I recently rewatched Fistful, ABC wheeled out this one late at night, but it was a pan/scanned print and I knew that wasn’t going to pass muster, so I invested in a proper digital edition for tonight’s viewing. This was clearly the right decision, cos more than a few of cinematographer Massimo Dallamano’s compositions (this being one of his last films in that job) would’ve suffered terribly from being cropped (even more so than in Fistful). This time Clint’s man with no name has a name, albeit one that no one’s entirely sure of apparently, and he’s kind of partnered with Lee Van Cleef as an army colonel turned bounty hunter; both of them find themselves in pursuit of the same criminal with a high price on his head, though for one of them the money isn’t the main attraction. The scene in which the two meet kind of sums the film up in some ways, taciturn hard men being taciturn and hard while letting their weaponry do the talking; if you ever thought guns acted as a kind of penis substitute, well, this scene is an outstanding bit of dick-swinging. Leone has clearly progressed from Fistful, and the film exudes a feeling of much greater confidence; he was clearly unafraid to let the film carry on with longish stretches of minimal to no dialogue. If the film does feel a bit self-conscious in some of its moves, and if in the end it’s perhaps slightly longer than necessary, it was still very pleasing to revisit; at least now I know what happens in it…

Django Unchained (2012)

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Dear Quentin: never attempt an Australian accent ever again. I know you love our genre films from decades gone by, but, shit.

Anyway, you may or may not have noticed (or care) that’s it’s been westerns all round this month, cos that’s this month’s ICM forum challenge… as such I decided it was time to venture into a modern example of same. Of course, these days they don’t make ’em like they used to, and indeed Tarantino’s apparent inspiration was more in the line of the spaghetti western rather than the classical model—although I don’t think either variant used the word “nigger” to quite the extent this film does. The choice of language was one of the film’s sore points for many people (the violence being the other), although I suppose it has the dubious virtue of probably being in keeping with the period (just before the US civil war); the violence, of course, well that’s Quentin’s thing, isn’t it? Actually, the film’s real problems are the music (frequently incongruous at best), the godawful pacing—really, I see no good reason why this had to be 165 minutes long—and the sometimes confused tone. I mean, the scene with the proto-Klansmen bitching about being unable to see out their hoods is golden, but it’s in the wrong film, this isn’t the comedy that scene should’ve been in. Most of the other moments of comparative levity seemed ill-judged too. As I do believe I’ve said before, Tarantino kind of lost me with the first Kill Bill, and I don’t think he’s fully won me back yet; there’s a really good two-hour film in here if someone could convince him to tighten about 30-40 minutes out of it. That said, he apparently has said he did cut about 90 minutes from his first edit, and has said he could envisage it as a four-hour film or miniseries. And I actually could kind of see it as the latter; I know everyone says long-form TV is the way ahead for drama these days, and for once I can see that idea working in this case. Maybe one series of seven episodes or something to see more of Django and Schultz’s bounty hunting adventures as they go in search of Broomhilda. Maybe if Django Unchained were delivered in that form, the pacing issues at least could be resolved somewhat…

High Plains Drifter (1973)

Director: Clint Eastwood

Obviously Clint was going to tackle a western at some point in his directorial career, and this was his first such film… unlike our last film, I kind of went into this one without as much positive anticipation; I first and last saw this probably some time in the late 90s, and liked it but was not hugely blown away. Having felt a bit let down by Rio Bravo on revisiting it, I was hoping I might have a better experience with HPD… and I’m not sure that I did, although I’ll say this much for it, it may be a slow burner like the earlier film but I had a somewhat greater sense of it all building up to something. That “something” is pretty fucking nasty, too; my old VHS of it was still rated R when I got it back in the day, and though it’s been rated down to M in more recent times… yeah.  If Eastwood’s latest man-with-no-name figure strikes terror into the good (?) townsfolk of Lago by his mere arrival there, his rather casual shooting of three men not long thereafter followed by the rape of one of the local women establishes the film as something hard and nasty; this is a hell of a putative hero. Clint himself is at his most muttering as the possibly supernatural figure (arguable; according to Wikipedia it kind of depends on which language you see the film in) on a quest for vengeance, coming to yet another corrupt western town (with almost everyone having been complicit to some degree in the pretty horrendous act he’s there to avenge) of the sort we’ve seen a few times so far this month and literally painting it red. Grim stuff, and such humour as there is tends to be kind of bleak; I’d actually kind of forgotten just how dark the thing really is. I still can’t say I’m bowled over by High Plains Drifter—it’s another one of those “good but not that good” films on the 1001 Movies list for me—but at least it was nice to actually see it in widescreen at last if nothing else…

Rio Bravo (1959)

Director: Howard Hawks

This was one I was looking forward to revisiting tonight, cos I recall having liked it a lot whenever I last saw it (early noughts). And, well, yeah, I… kind of didn’t like it so much tonight. I noted in my review of Silver Lode how High Noon… influenced that film, shall we say, and it influenced this one too, in the other direction; John Wayne (who apparently got offered the Will Kane role first but refused it because he supported the HUAC blacklist) and Howard Hawks were so disgruntled by it that they made this as a response… appalled by Zinnemann’s presentation of a sheriff begging for help and needing others to back him up, they instead went for a sheriff surrounded by so much help he can afford to refuse offers of it. It’s a classically “Hawks” macho set-up, which the DVD commentary compares to a family, Wayne the patriarch, Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson as the “sons”, Walter Brennan as the somewhat eccentric “uncle” perhaps… and, of course, Angie Dickinson as the somewhat token female who is, in her own way, as manly as the actual men. (The bromance is still more interesting than the romance.) Yet on this rewatch, I was kind of surprised by how relatively little happens in the 135 minutes Rio Bravo craps on for, which is possibly an odd thing to say given how many subplots it has, but it’s kind of light on action for the most part… and that was a bit of a problem for me, cos when you consider the actual narrative situation—sheriff has a local rancher locked up for murdering someone, the latter’s rather wealthy brother hires assorted scum to blockade the town and menace the sheriff so he can’t get out of the place—I was a bit surprised by how little tension it generated. The whole thing just felt plodding, although the commentary notes the slow pace is actually usually considered one of its selling points, letting Hawks have time to digress and build character relationships. And, yeah, he does that… I just felt he could’ve done it more tightly and at rather less length. Disappointed.

Blazing Saddles (1974)

Director: Mel Brooks

Well, this seemed like the most suitable thing to watch next, given both of the last two films I watched had a certain influence on it… also I was in the mood for something piss-funny and damned if this doesn’t fit that description just fine. Blazing Saddles is one of those “comfort food” films of mine, the sort of thing I’ll watch any time it comes on TV but usually I never think to actually own a copy for myself; this is one of the few exceptions—I got it on blu-ray from JB a while ago cos it was cheap (or there was a “buy 2 get 1 free” offer, I forget)—and I’m glad I did, it was welcome this afternoon. And yet I still remember my first viewing of it, enjoying it up to the climactic battle… and then you get that overhead shot that pulls back so you see a big wide aerial view of the set and indeed the rest of Burbank (where it was shot) and then we go into the musical stage… what the hell happened? The film was doing so well until that point… it took a few more viewings to realise that the outburst of “it’s only a movie” was, well, logical is hardly the right word but it now seems like the best “why the hell not” option; having broken the fourth wall a number of times, why shouldn’t the film take the remains of the fourth wall and just obliterate them… Also, I never realised until now that Richard Pryor was one of the co-writers, and was originally intended to play Bart, while Gene Wilder was originally cast as Hed(le)y and only became the alcoholic Waco Kid when Gig Young was fired from that part on account, ironically, of his own drinking problems. As it is, the casting in the finished work seems so right I can’t imagine the original casting being much better. Warner’s were appalled by it (particularly the numerous racial epithets, but Brooks was taking a swipe at the racism of earlier westerns like Warner’s themselves would’ve made back in the day), but were presumably calmed by the fact it returned nearly $120m at the box office (apparently it was only the tenth film ever to do so). Brash, crass, and completely unsubtle, and sometimes that’s perfectly fine; Blazing Saddles probably wouldn’t do any other way.

Dodge City (1939)

Director: Michael Curtiz

More wild frontier justice and stuff! This would’ve been one of the other big westerns of 1939 (I’m guessing, by the release dates, it would’ve been in production around the same time as Stagecoach), and it’s a markedly bigger-looking film than Destry, not least because it’s in colour; I don’t know what Destry cost, so I can’t compare the two on those terms, but apparently this one cost a million, which you can pretty much see on the screen. Quite apart from the Technicolor (which would’ve added to the cost by itself), this is a big production. Mind you, it seems a little bit torn about that bigness; you think at first it’s going to be one of those kind of self-consciously “epic” great-American-myth westerns, and to some extent it is (if a notably historically inaccurate one, and one in which the opening race between the horses and the steam train amusingly recalled Turksib for me), but then once the action starts in Dodge City itself—already a hotbed of violence and corruption where you can’t even take kids out for a Sunday school picnic without getting caught in crossfire—the film seems to kind of ease back on that and settle for, you know, a straighter version of Destry‘s story of a one-horse town being cleaned up by another actor making his western debut, i.e. Errol Flynn… the latter is a trail boss who rather reluctantly dons the sheriff’s badge in order to combat the criminal rule of an old opponent from out on the range. What kind of struck me was that, despite his adherence to the law, Flynn’s sheriff seems to come close to becoming a law unto himself in the process of civilising the place; maybe it’s just how I read the character, but it’s something the film doesn’t otherwise explore… Anyway, Dodge City was a big hit back in the day and I can understand why, though something about it didn’t quite engage me as I’d hoped it might. I must say the climax on the burning train is pretty amazing stuff, though.

Destry Rides Again (1939)

Director: George Marshall

So, Stagecoach basically revived the “A” western as a major box office draw after it had spent a lot of years in the Poverty Row wilderness, and I suppose this film—released at the other end of 1939—was one of the first “big” examples of the genre to benefit from John Ford’ example. Actually, it was in fact the second film of that title, Universal having previously made a film called Destry Rides Again in 1932 before they made this one… neither of them having anything to do with the book of the same name published in 1930; the “suggested by” caption in the opening credits here being a nice way to quietly admit the only thing the makers took from it was the title. Anyway, our setting is a kind of corrupt and wild old town called Bottleneck, where the local landowner makes a mockery of the law by, well, literally shooting it dead; the mayor appoints the town drunk, Wash, as the new sheriff after the previous one “leaves town” on the assumption he won’t repeat the latter’s error of actually trying to enforce the law. However, Wash is determined to take the job seriously, having served as deputy to legendary sheriff Tom Destry, and he summons the latter’s son to be his own deputy. Except that Tom junior isn’t quite the rootin’ tootin’ gunslinger his old man was. This was James Stewart’s first western, and he kind of inhabits Destry just by, you know, playing himself as I suppose he always did (can’t quite imagine Gary Cooper, the original choice for the role, doing it the same way), so surprising that he didn’t do another one until Winchester 73 in 1950… and Marlene Dietrich, bless her, who didn’t want to do a western at all and yet comes close to stealing the film from Stewart at times, particularly in that glorious catfight in the saloon. Actually, the really remarkable thing is just how, even though Destry is generally played for comedy, it could so easily be turned into a film noir or something and made really dark. It’s a funny film, brilliantly so at times, but that undercurrent is always there nagging away at the comedy. Great stuff.

Johnny Guitar (1954)

Director: Nicholas Ray

I’ve seen this called “the screen’s great kinky western”, which I suppose goes to show how loose a meaning the word “kinky” has for some people… anyway, I haven’t seen this in a lot of years either, but this time I do know many, i.e. 20, cos it was back in 1995 when I saw it as part of my uni studies, in a class on film genres; this was shown as an example of the western. I didn’t get the appeal of it then and I don’t get it much more now either. This review by Ivan Shreve goes into the McCarthy-era political undercurrents in some detail (speculating that star Sterling Hayden, who had been a HUAC informer, was probably cast as a “commie” character for ironic reasons), which are no doubt there if you want to see them, but there’s a rather more overt class war at work in the story, which is, basically, about a bunch of NIMBYs living in terror of the railroad coming through their area and bringing (shudder) other people to their town. Saloon keeper Vienna (Joan Crawford) is just the advance guard of this wave of foreign muck from the East… and her association with a band of outlaws is enough for some of the locals to demand she be hanged with them. This is the dispute into which Hayden’s title character wanders, and, well, yeah, I still don’t feel it. Rivalry and climactic shootout between two women who are more manly than some of the men in the film, sublimated (homo?-)sexual frustration, yeah, whatever. It’s kind of interesting that Crawford and her opposite number Mercedes McCambridge hated each other so much that it kind of spills into the film (and out of it; apparently Crawford did her best to sabotage McCambridge’s career in later years); unfortunately, the apparently equal loathing Hayden had for Crawford kind of kills the chemistry the two are supposed to have, which is a bit more fatal to the film. I don’t get it. Maybe I find the melodrama a bit much. Maybe I just find McCambridge too much (I think she hams it up something awful). Whatever, I know earlier American critics hated it (the French loved it, of course) but generally the critical pendulum has swung the other way since then, and clearly those people who think it’s one of the great films now are seeing something in it that is frankly invisible to me; I can’t call it actually bad as such, it’s too well made for that, but something about it just leaves me completely cold. And 110 minutes of it is far too much.

Silver Lode (1954)

Director: Allan Dwan

This film seems to cop many comparisons to High Noon, and I suppose some of them are fair; that film was a kind of allegory of McCarthyist Hollywood, and so is this one (rather less subtle about it, too, with the villain actually being called McCarty). There is, however, a fairly crucial distinction between the two: Gary Cooper’s sheriff in High Noon just has to deal with the impending threat of the killer coming after him and the moral cowardice of his fellow townsfolk, but John Payne’s relative newcomer, Ballard, has to face a threat that’s already there in town, and the townsfolk become an active part of that threat as the film progresses. Basically, it’s a small Western town, it’s the fourth of July, Ballard is getting married, and the festivities are kind of interrupted by the arrival of a US Marshall and his deputies, who’ve come to town with a warrant for Ballard’s arrest on a charge of murder. The dead man just so happens to be the Marshall’s brother, too. Now, we may guess there’s something not entirely right about this situation—and it’s not really spoiling anything to say that this proves to be the case—but the good people of Silver Lode are, evidently, a bit more impressed by McCarty’s authority (however “borrowed”), and the existing suspicions some have about Ballard—a recent arrival with an unknown past—gradually become amplified by McCarty’s allegations until the mob turns on Ballard when it looks like he’s killed the sheriff… and his situation is complicated somewhat by him having actually killed McCarty’s brother and actually being the gunslinger they fear he is. Dwan doesn’t use the “real-time” narrative method of High Noon, but he does a pretty splendid job of building the tension up; as I noted, Ballard has rather more to face than Will Kane does, and the ending of Silver Lode is rather more overtly angry than that of its putative model. Unfortunately I haven’t seen High Noon in more years than I can count (should remedy that), so I can’t say which of the two I prefer. Taking Silver Lode on its own terms, therefore, I enjoyed it greatly.

Ride Lonesome (1959)

Director: Budd Boetticher

An IMDB reviewer observes that the Italian title of this film was “Tree of Revenge” and says they prefer it to the original. Which is understandable, given that it makes a lot more sense than the original; Randolph Scott doesn’t exactly “ride lonesome” at any point but there is a tree and there is revenge to be had… Anyway, not having been much of a western watcher, I’ve pretty much missed out on Scott’s career, and I gather this is from the period that’s since come to be considered his high point, i.e. the “Ranown” pictures made near the end of that career. In it, he basically plays the upright character he seems to have mostly played, although I felt there was a curious ambiguity to him here… basically here he’s a bounty hunter who captures outlaw Billy John, who’s got a death sentence hanging over him, but Scott doesn’t really want him, he wants his brother Frank who he knows will come after him. However, no plan as simple as this can come off without some complication, which in this case happens to be a couple of other crooks who want Billy for their own purposes… Now, the 1001 Movies book reckons this one is distinguished from the other “Ranown” productions by the “optimism” of the ending, which is an interesting perspective, I suppose; Scott’s character is the good guy, yes, but there’s something purely functional, for want of a better word, about his relationship with Billy John, he really has no use for him beyond drawing Frank after him and quite clearly puts no particular value on his life beyond that. There really is something kind of grim about it in its own way. Ride Lonesome is also a film that’s as much about the landscapes in which it plays out, those landscapes being rendered in spectacular Cinemascope by cinematographer Charles Lawton Jr. Beautifully executed in pretty much every way, and the mere 73 minutes that it runs just proves what I’ve said before about the narrative economy of older films like this…

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