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…

Bucking Broadway (1917)

Director: John Ford

Recently I watched Brownlow & Gill’s legendary Hollywood series, one episode of which is dedicated to the western. It was an interesting and useful reminder that the last days of the old West overlapped somewhat with the early days of Hollywood; many of the early screen cowboys (including this film’s star, Harry Carey) had been actual cowboys not long before, and some parts of California were still being settled while the film industry was growing there. Useful, because I think the western genre mostly seems to be associated with the three or four decades after the Civil War, so that when we first see the villain of the piece make his appearance in an automobile it seems… a bit jarring. Here you think you’re watching a story taking place in maybe the 1870s or 1880s, and, oh, fuck, it’s the modern (well, 1917) world after all… Anyway, this is us almost at the start of John Ford’s directorial career, and I suspect it’s that particular credit which made the rediscovery of this film in 2002 a kind of big thing, from a lesser director it wouldn’t seem like a big deal. Cos as a film, it’s not a big deal, it’s a small thing and I suppose that’s the charm of it; it’s a simple story of a man (Carey) working as a ranch foreman out in Wyoming who falls in love with the owner’s daughter, she then being spirited away by the aforementioned villain, a city slicker from the east coast. Revenge ensues. As I said, a small tale, but perfectly well-made, and culminating in an absolutely fantastic climactic dust-up, performed, filmed and edited with thrilling vigour. Obviously this early in his career, Ford had yet to blossom into the giant of later years (even though this was something like the sixth feature he’d made just that year—ah, the mighty work rate of the old-school Hollywood filmmaker, eh), but it’s still a film with its own virtues, and not the least of those is the 54-minute running time, with everything in its right proportion and nothing wasted, and worth it for that outstanding climax…

Herschell Gordon Lewis: The Godfather of Gore (2010)

Directors: Frank Henenlotter, Jimmy Maslon

There are some outstanding comments uttered in the delightful course of this film, one in particular pertaining to Lewis’ 1967 opus A Taste of Blood, where he says he had trouble with his cameraman because the latter “wanted to make a good movie”. If that doesn’t sum up Lewis’ whole filmmaking career, I don’t know what does. It’s quite appropriate that Something Weird should produce a doco about the man who gave them their name; the good people at SWV have an obvious affection for him and his films, and that’s communicated perfectly in the documentary. Henenlotter & Maslon survey Lewis’ whole career, more or less, with interviews with Lewis himself and a remarkable number of his collaborators, a generous selection of clips from the majority of his films (including one that was never actually finished; there’s even more in the copious deleted scenes on the DVD), though obviously it leans most heavily on Blood Feast and Two Thousand Maniacs!; along the way, not only do you get a very neat potted history of one of the more peculiar careers in film history (this is a man who got Colonel Sanders—yes, THAT one—to appear in one of his films), you get a fascinating insight into a kind of underground cinema that doesn’t really exist any more—not least because it was cinema, it showed on big screens rather than going straight to video like it would a couple of decades later—it was peculiar to a time when Hollywood had yet to latch onto sex and/or violence as money spinners in the way exploitation filmmakers like Lewis did. The documentary is also fairly blunt about its subject’s artistic shortcomings (there is a glorious moment in one of the deleted scenes where Henenlotter holds up a poster for a double bill of The Gruesome Twosome and Something Weird which proudly calls the latter “god awful”), but Lewis himself has never had any illusions about his own work; the films have no pretensions to anything and neither does their creator, and I think that’s why there’s something likeable about him even when you consider how much money-grasping and cynicism really underlies his work. There’s something kind of charming about the cheapness of these films and sometimes the inventiveness that resulted therefrom that almost redeems them. Almost. Terrific viewing.

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

Director: Lewis Milestone

So today is the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli landings, which fact is something I think most Australians are probably sick of hearing about by now; there’s been talk of “Gallipoli fatigue” in recent weeks as media outlets have been forced to admit their commemorative programming just hasn’t been drawing the audiences they’ve hoped for. Now that the big day has actually passed, I daresay we can now resume our lives and carry on, but I still felt I should watch something to commemorate it myself. The obvious and logical thing to do would’ve been to watch Peter Weir’s Gallipoli (which I recently saw accused of kind of kickstarting the “Gallipoli industry” as it now exists), but 1) I don’t actually own it and anyway 2) why on Earth would I do the obvious and logical thing? As such, I went for something that, in its way, might be more suitable (and, amusingly enough, it apparently also played its first New York session on this day 85 years ago)…

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Now, I’ve said before that early talkies can be a bit of a grind, especially since so few of them have incidental music, just opening and closing music… and Lewis Milestone didn’t even want that much; he wanted no end music and the film was only restored to his original intention (as much as it could be with something like 15-20 minutes apparently lost for good) long after his death. And AQotWF is surely a grind, but not for the usual early talkie reasons. It’s just really fucking heavy. The length is a bit wilting and the narrative perhaps too episodic to counteract that, and yet it’s still one of the very best films to have emerged from that difficult time when Hollywood was still getting a grip on an industry-changing technology called sound. It was a fairly big production (and must have been a reasonably quick one, too, given the original German novel only appeared in January 1929), and you can see that throughout the film (there’s some great deep focus stuff that lets you see—especially on blu-ray—just how much business Milestone could fit into a frame). It’s also pretty unrelenting in its bitterness; the film’s tendency to heavy-handedness and speechifying is undeniable, but it’s also impressive in its determination to be as brutal as a film made in 1929/30 could be…

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…indeed, every time I see the film I’m amazed yet again by the above shot. I know no one took the Production Code too seriously before 1934, but I still can’t believe those disembodied hands that a German shell just forcibly separated from their former owner actually made it into the film. I’ve seen far more explicitly graphic things than that, obviously, but something about that is still kind of shocking.

Not everyone appreciated the film’s many virtues, of course. It was banned in this country, which is faintly ironic given how one of our supposed defining myths is, lest we forget, a catastrophic and pointless wartime engagement of the sort this film depicts. And it was banned in France until the 1960s, and in Italy and Austria until the 1980s (though Wiki implies it may have been shown before then and no one realised the ban had never actually been lifted). And as for Germany, well, yeah. The book had caused a stink of its own, so the film was going to do the same thing, with the Nazis pestering the few cinemas showing it and eventually banning the thing. So many films that were controversial a long time ago kind of lose their strength with time. Not All Quiet, which is still kind of overpowering in its grimness. On a day which causes so much angst in certain quarters of this country about the glorification of war as part of the national narrative, I was pleased to see again a film that resolutely refuses to do so.

Drive (2011)

Director: Nicolas Winding Refn

I recall this film drawing quite a lot of hype and praise a few years ago, and of course, being me, I never got around to actually seeing the film to decide for myself if it was worth that praise. With SBS2 showing it tonight as part of their “ultraviolence” series, though, the opportunity presented itself and I decided it’d be remiss to pass it up (particularly since, as of this writing, it’s on the 1001 Movies list, although given the attrition rate of more recent films that may not last). I knew practically nothing about it, too, beyond the fact it was supposedly an action film of some description directed by the guy who made those Pusher films and starring Ryan Gosling, and that apparently the latter played a character with no name and not much more dialogue. Which proved to be the case… with the possible exception of the “action film” bit. Apparently the film was originally planned as a big Hollywood blockbuster, and I probably imagined (insofar as I thought about it at all) that’s what the film indeed was. Except it’s not, really… somewhere along the way the thing went from a big-budget major film to a comparatively cheap ($15m, or a lot less than these things tend to cost nowadays) indie job, and the end result is about as relatively understated as films of this sort probably get. I say relatively because, well, SBS ran it in their “ultraviolence” series for a good reason. It may be less heavy on the big flashy action than most Hollywood films of its ilk (and most of its viewers probably expected), but JESUS FUCKING HELL CHRIST when it does come to the outbursts of violence, Winding Refn surely delivers (most notably the elevator head-stomping), and the general underplayed tone of the film just makes them feel that much nastier. I’m not 100% convinced the film is quite the masterpiece some think it is, but it certainly was rather more interesting than I’d kind of thought it would be…

A Fistful of Dollars (1964)

Director: Sergio Leone

I’ve seen this a few times over the years, but tonight might be the first time I’ve watched it and actually enjoyed it. Not the first spaghetti western, but the one that seems to have really made the form viable in Italy, where there was still a market for westerns despite the genre fading in the US, even if they were ripped off from Japanese films. Or Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo in particular. Kurosawa’s studio did not appreciate “Bob Robertson” lifting from their film, despite Yojimbo itself being a knock-off of two Dashiell Hammett novels, and the legal battle kept it off American screens until 1967, whereupon star Clint Eastwood—already an icon in Italy—suddenly became a major drawcard. And yeah, it is, basically, just Yojimbo all’Italiana; the similarities are too great to deny. It does nothing particularly original, except perhaps make the hard-boiled style of Hammett’s novels a major part of the film’s style and tone. It might be a blazing hot near-desert setting but the film itself is cold as can be. Awfully well-shot coldness, mind you; even American critics who loathed it on its initial release (apparently most of them) admitted that little. And maybe that’s why I finally got it tonight. Any time I’ve seen it over the last 20 years has been a shitty cropped version (even the version I saw a few years ago on TV was cropped for widescreen broadcast). Short of seeing an original film print, the best way I was going to see it would be an anamorphic digital version on a widescreen TV, and tonight I finally did that. And I could see that it’s not particularly a masterpiece or anything, but it actually is a well-made film within its admitted limitations—it was clearly not a hugely expensive production—certainly better than I once would’ve given it credit for being, and the screen compositions are great and also bound to suffer if viewed at any less than this evening’s conditions. Clint? Well, he kind of plays himself, I suppose, always did, but he’s kind of perfect for this “man with no name” gunslinger character. It’s kind of amazing that Eastwood was something like the tenth actor Leone approached for the role, he being the first that was both willing and able to take it (not to mention cheap enough for Leone to afford), cos he just seems so right. So yeah, after 20 years, I think I finally get some of the fuss at last… I’ll take that.

Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation! (2008)

Director: Mark Hartley

Reaching for the comfort food again. This is such a joy, it was when I first saw it at the preview theatrette under the State Theatre in 2008, it was again tonight after I’d rummaged through a pile of DVDs to find it, the opportunity to hate-watch those unspeakable bores Phillip Adams (who still won’t admit The Naked Bunyip was, in its own way, just as exploitative as any of the later genre films he hates) and Bob Ellis (hey Bob! Any more guesses as to when the Abbott government will collapse?) is always good, and the sheer enthusiasm of the film for its subject—the wacky world of Australian genre filmmaking in the 1970s and 1980s—is completely winning. Particularly Quentin Tarantino; I know some people were a bit grumpy at having this American tell us how great our popular cinema back then was (though I gather his participation was kind of a necessary condition for getting the film funded and made at all), but his pleasure at these films is so explosive and genuine that it feels churlish to complain about his presence. And to be sure not everyone in the doco is equally enthusiastic about their participation in the sometimes shabbier end of the Australian film industry revival (I’ve been kind of hard about some of the fruits of same myself in the past); the somewhat cavalier attitudes evinced in the making of a number of the films under discussion—particularly when it came to the safety of stuntmen and actors—can’t always be regarded as admirable as such, so some of the mixed feelings are perfectly understandable. Yet sometimes all you can do is admire the sheer nerve and gall on display; it stuns me that Grant Page in particular is not only still alive but actually having something of a late-career renaissance in the 21st century. Not Quite Hollywood is pretty damn good as an actual piece of filmmaking in its own right, sharply edited and stylish, and a terrific primer on a side of the industry I daresay most of our guardians of film-cultural taste still wish had never happened…

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