Sunday, August 13, 2017

Late Summer Western #10: Chisum **1/2 (1970)

An agreeable "by the numbers" Western, Chisum features John Wayne teaming up with Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid to fight corrupt cattle barons. The story flows along well enough and it's a bit moving to see an aging John Wayne entering the final decade of his film career. The character sketches of Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett are one dimensional, but nicely plays upon the mythology of two friends destined to become famous enemies.  Fans of Westerns will recognize players from classics of previous years. Highlights include a shoot out at the end and even some musical interludes. President Richard Nixon screened the film and praised it for its "law and order" themes and for the good guys prevailing over the bad (not sure if Billy the Kid was a good guy). The appeal to Nixon (and his fellow squares) makes sense; the 1970s were the decade of moral ambiguity, making Chisum seem a tad anachronistic. Still worth a look as a textbook example of genre.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Late Summer Western #9: Bad Girls ** (1994)

Bad Girls was a well intentioned Western that dared to be different by casting four female leads. Unfortunately, the movie is a complete mess. Andie MacDowell, Drew Barrymore, Madeline Stowe, and Mary Stuart Masterson star as four "fallen women" who end up becoming legendary gunslingers.  It's as if the writers took a crash course on Westerns and included every cliché imaginable.  Meanwhile, the action scenes are choppy and poorly edited. Anything good to say about Bad Girls? The four leads are all iconic actresses of the 1990s - so Bad Girls is a must watch for fanatics of the decade's cinema.  Robert Loggia appears in a few scenes as a grizzled (and incoherent) old dude. There's a Jerry Goldsmith score. According to IMDB the production was plagued with problems. It shows.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Late Summer Western #8: Rio Bravo **** (1959)

One of the ultimate "hangout" movies, Rio Bravo consists mostly of dialogue and brief moments of intense action. Quentin Tarantino has repeatedly cited Rio Bravo as having a substantial influence on his film education.  The influence shows in Quentin's films, with their preference for dialogue punctuated by action instead of the reverse. An unconventional Western, Rio Bravo dares to immerse movie goers in character study and nuance.

John Wayne is Sheriff John T. Chance, a seasoned officer of the law attempting to hold a dangerous man in jail, the brother of a local strong man. To help him, Chance recruits his former deputy and struggling alcoholic "Dude" (Dean Martin), a young gunfighter Colorado (Ricky Nelson), and his cranky friend Stumpy (Walter Brennan). When not attending to business, Chance flirts with Feathers (Angie Dickinson), a saloon gambler. The premise is one Hawks would revisit in two other movies El Dorado (1967) and his final picture Rio Lobo (1970).

On the Blu-Ray Commentary Track film critic Richard Schickel and director John Carpenter speak at length on the "Hawks" style. Carpenter has cited Rio Bravo as a major influence on his own films, especially his 1976 cult film Assault on Precinct 13. The premise, what modern critics would call a siege narrative, features a group of people facing overwhelming odds in a claustrophobic setting.

Carpenter praised how Hawks favored simple shots and compositions, a style that allowed the story to unfold in a naturalistic way. Schickel alluded to Rio Bravo being a response to television, a medium Hawks found to be simplistic due to its clipped narratives that favored economy over in depth story telling. Hawks also wanted to make a statement about the 1952 classic film High Noon, a film he considered to be a ludicrous study of courage.  Hawks was more concerned with how professionals handled a tense situation.

Rio Bravo feels claustrophobic, but not in a negative way. It's a breeze to spend time with these characters.  There's Leigh Brackett's pulpy dialogue, an unforegettable scene of Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson crooning "My Rifle, My Pony, and Me," and the measured tone throughout.


Rio Bravo gains resonance after repeated viewings.  Wayne carries the film with ease, while the supporting cast provides comic relief and poignancy to the story.  A film that can be appreciated on many levels: the acting and direction, it's attitude towards violence and ethics in the Old West, and its influence on subsequent filmmakers.



Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Late Summer Western #7: Seraphim Falls ***1/2 (2006)

Starring Liam Neeson (Carver) and Pierce Brosnan (Gideon), Seraphim Falls is a tale of revenge and redemption set a few years after the Civil War.  Both stars deliver stoic performances as two men on both sides of the same coin.  For reasons unknown, Carver intends to kill Gideon, searching him to the ends of the earth. With a posse in tow, Carver chases Gideon through the harsh environs of the frontier. The film begins as an adventure story.  As the film moves along the landscape changes from snowy mountains to arid deserts, the situations and characters introduced become increasingly surreal. Jack London meets Sergio Leone. John Toll's cinematography captures the harsh grandeur of the landscape in a gritty and often violent tale. Many character actors appear in memorable small roles, Anjelica Huston appears in a crucial scene towards the end.  Seraphim Falls attests that Westerns remain an ideal genre to explore mythical themes in new and innovative ways.  Highly recommended.

Late Summer Western #6: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance ***1/2 (1962)

One of John Ford's last great Westerns, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a complicated film operating on many levels.

The film begins with aging Senator Ranse Stoddard (James Stewart) arriving in a former frontier town to attend the funeral of a friend Tom Doniphon (John Wayne). Then the story flashes back to Rance's arrival in the town as a young man about thirty years earlier (both Stewart and Wayne were twice the age of their characters). He wants to practice law, taking the advice of Horace Greeley to go west.  Upon arrival, his caravan gets held up by the nasty outlaw Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin). Ranse gets nursed back to health by his future wife Hallie (Vera Miles).

Enter Tom Doniphon, a mysterious local, the only one with the courage to stand up to Liberty Valence. Although Ranse has the courage to challenge Liberty, he stands no chance in a physical confrontation. And he detests guns. Rance builds a successful law practice and leads a movement for the territory to become a state, defying the large landowners.  The frontier is closing, a place where old values are in decline and newer ones are taking over.

That's the dichotomy between Rance and Tom. The man of thought vs the man of action. In The Searchers Ford's suggests that John Wayne's character Ethan, a ruthless Indian hater, has no place in the "civilization" emerging in the West. In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, Wayne lets Rance take credit for ending the threat to the town, even letting him take Hallie as his wife (suggested she and Tom were together). These characters become archetypes of the American mythos.

The theme of civilization is further emphasized in Ford's depiction of the democracy emerging in the west.  Rance teaches a class on civics and instructs the ruffians of the frontier on the merits of voting and civic duty.  Ford's portrayal an emerging democracy looks a little hokey, yet the message is clear: democracy, as flawed as it is, stands as a workable alternative to a culture based on fear and violence.  

A troubled production, Ford and Wayne feuded throughout.  The two aging stars, Stewart and Wayne in a young man's story, adds a layer of melancholy.  What seems to be a story of courage becomes something else, a commentary on history and the inevitable mythmaking that distorts rather than shines a light, cinema being one of the biggest culprits. 

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence is a fascinating Western, a commentary on the genre itself.  It would be a compelling story to revisit in a remake.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Late Summer Western #5 Winchester '73 *** (1950)

Winchester '73 traces the tale of a rifle through the maelstrom of the Old West. The story begins on the Centennial Day (July 4, 1876) in Dodge City, with Wyatt Earp presiding as Marshall. Lin McAdam (James Stewart) and his partner are in pursuit of a fugitive and take part in a shooting contest, Lin ends up winning a Winchester 1873 rifle, the most coveted gun in the West. What follows is a compelling journey featuring outlaws, Native Americans, and settlers.  At around 90 minutes, director Anthony Mann packed in quite a bit of story. Critics credit Winchester '73 for revitalizing the Western genre for the 1950s, a genre that would dominate the decade on film and television. Stewart's career also received a boost, introducing a more subdued and contemplative style. He would go on to star in many Westerns during the decade. Stewart's performance displayed a serious tone that would add poignancy to his Westerns to differentiate him his pal John Wayne. Shot in vibrant black and white, Winchester '73 tells a clever story with menacing villians and biblical irony.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Late Summer Western #4: Ride in the Whirlwind *** (1966)

Monte Hellman's second Western of 1966 Ride in the Whirlwind, written by Jack Nicholson, is slightly less experimental, but no less compelling, than its predecessor The Shooting.  The plot involves a gang of outlaws led by Harry Dean Stanton who are being chased by vigilantes, meanwhile a group of cowboys led by Jack Nicholson take refuge with the outlaws and are mistaken for being perpetrators of crimes they did not commit. Ride in the Whirlwind reminded me of an early Stanley Kubrick film with its deliberate pacing and fascination with triangular conflicts.  And the Utah landscape is a character in itself, desolate and beautiful. In both Hellman films, the West is an unforgiving place, marking a clear departure from the familiar Hollywood productions of John Ford and Howard Hawks. The sense of isolation, cruelty, and its anti-romantic tone mark these two Monte Hellman films as landmarks in the Western genre.