Category Archives: Directors and Actors

Great Directors: Clint Eastwood

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 25, 2014

Clint Eastwood

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Many of the best directors of western movies were paired with a specific actor—one with whom they liked to work and with whom they did some of their best work.  For example, John Ford-John Wayne, Anthony Mann-James Stewart, Budd Boetticher-Randolph Scott are well-known teams.  The best living director of westerns is Clint Eastwood, who is also similarly paired with the greatest star of western movies in the post-John Wayne era:  Clint Eastwood, the actor.  Neither of them has made a western in more than twenty years, and it appears increasingly unlikely that either of them will again, since they are in their 80s.

Clint Eastwood directed three of the 55 great westerns, and his star in all three was Clint Eastwood:  The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), Pale Rider (1985), and Unforgiven (1992).  Although he has appeared in many of the films he has directed, he has also received acclaim as a director for films in which he does not appear as an actor, such as Mystic River (2003) and Letters from Iwo Jima (2006), for which he received Academy Award nominations.  So we can assume that if he were so inclined and could find the right lead actor, he could do an excellent job on a western in which he himself did not star.

Clinton Eastwood Jr. was born in San Francisco, California, in 1930.  After a stint in the army at Fort Ord in the early 1950s, he was hired by Universal as an actor in 1954, although he had little experience.  He was criticized for his stiff manner, his squint, and for hissing his lines through his teeth, features that would become lifelong trademarks as an actor.  He had a number of mostly uncredited bit parts in movies and television before being cast in 1958 as Rowdy Yates in Rawhide, an hour-long television series about cattle drives.

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Young Clint Eastwood as Rowdy Yates in Rawhide.

In 1963 he got the chance to work in Spain for the relatively unknown Italian director Sergio Leone in A Fistful of Dollars.  He was to be paid $15,000 with a bonus of a Mercedes upon completion, for eleven weeks’ work.  “In Rawhide I did get awfully tired of playing the conventional white hat.  The hero who kisses old ladies and dogs and was kind to everybody.  I decided it was time to be an anti-hero.”  That was his big break as an actor in movies.  It led to two more spaghetti westerns with Leone (For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) and international stardom in westerns.  He starred in Hang ‘Em High, Coogan’s Bluff for director Don Siegel and Where Eagles Dare, moving out of the strictly western star category and into action roles with the Dirty Harry movies, again with Siegel.  He continued to make westerns such as Two Mules for Sister Sara, but not exclusively.

In 1967 Eastwood formed Malpaso, his own production company.  In late 1970 he started directing his first film, Play Misty for Me, in which he starred with Jessica Walter.  It was well-received on its release the following year and established that Eastwood could direct and star in a film at the same time.  In 1973 he directed his first western, High Plains Drifter, involving a mysterious stranger in a brooding western town, themes that he would revisit in Pale Rider.  Eastwood released the first (and for many, still the favorite) of his great westerns in 1976, The Outlaw Josey Wales, although the western as a movie genre was waning.  It was one of Time’s “Top 10 Films of the Year.”  He continued his success as an action star, making five Dirty Harry movies in all (directing the fourth) and Escape from Alcatraz in 1979.

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Directing High Plains Drifter, 1973.

In the 1980s, he made films with western connections that were not traditional westerns, such as Bronco Billy and Honkytonk Man.  And finally in 1985 he released Pale Rider, a variation of the Shane-Mysterious Stranger themes, which received a certain amount of critical acclaim and did well at the box office, too.  With various ups and down, Eastwood was in a quieter period of his career, until in 1992 he made and starred in Unforgiven from a script that had been kicking around Hollywood for a couple of decades.  It opened to his strongest critical reception yet.  In addition to making money, it won the Academy Awards for Best Picture (going to Eastwood, since he had produced) and for Best Director, firmly placing Eastwood in the top echelons of the directing profession.  It was to be his final western.

Eastwood has since won another Best Picture and Best Director Academy Award, this time for Million Dollar Baby (2004).  He was nominated again in both categories for Mystic River (2003), although he didn’t win.  In 2006 he released two films about the World War II battle for the island of Iwo Jima:  Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, the second from the Japanese point of view.  They were both well-reviewed; if anything, the second had a stronger reception, being nominated both for Best Picture and Best Director Academy Awards. 

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Directing Letters from Iwo Jima, 2006.

Known as a fan of jazz, Eastwood has increasingly provided the music for his films, having composed the film scores for Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Flags of Our Fathers, Grace is Gone, Changeling, Hereafter, J. Edgar and the original piano compositions for In the Line of Fire. He wrote and performed the song heard over the credits of Gran Torino.

Eastwood continued his success as a director with Gran Torino (2009) and Invictus (2009), based on the story of the South African team at the 1995 Rugby World Cup.  He dedicated Unforgiven “To Sergio and Don,” an apparent reference to Sergio Leone and Don Siegel as his mentors in directing.  Having now directed over 30 movies, he is one of the few successful actors to have enjoyed a similar level of achievement as a director.  Unlike such directors as George Stevens or William Wyler, he is known for his efficiency as a director, reducing the number of takes of scenes, streamlining filming time and bringing movies in under budget.  He works without the formality of storyboards (meaning that he does that work in his head before shooting), and without yelling “Action!” and “Cut,” which he thinks interrupts the actors’ processes.  Like Woody Allen, he is thought of as an “actor’s director,” meaning that he is very careful in casting his films and mostly lets his actors bring to their performances what he saw in them initially and whatever their imaginations may provide, with only the occasional suggestion.  Eastwood is fond of low-key lighting and back-lighting, which tend to give his movies a noir-ish feel.

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“Everybody wonders why I continue working at this stage.  I keep working because there’s always new stories. … And as long as people want me to tell them, I’ll be there doing them.”  (2010)  Nearing 84, he seems unlikely to come out with another western, but fans can always hope.  “Westerns.  A period gone by, the pioneer, the loner operating by himself, without benefit of society.  It usually has something to do with some sort of vengeance; he takes care of the vengeance himself, doesn’t call the police.  Like Robin Hood.  It’s the last masculine frontier.  Romantic myth, I guess, though it’s hard to think about anything romantic today.  In a Western you can think, Jesus, there was a time when man was alone, on horseback, out there where man hasn’t spoiled the land yet.”—Eastwood, on the allure of portraying western loners, quoted in Michael Munn’s Clint Eastwood: Hollywood’s Loner (1992).

The best biographical look at Eastwood and his work to date is probably by his friend, film critic and historian Richard Schickel, with his 1996 Clint Eastwood:  A Biography and Clint Eastwood:  A Retrospective (2010).  Obviously, the definitive work on Eastwood has yet to be written.

EastwoodDirPaleRider Pale Rider, 1985.

Eastwood Essentials:  The Outlaw Josey Wales, Pale Rider, Unforgiven.

Second-Rank Eastwood:  High Plains Drifter, Bronco Billy, Honkytonk Man.

Eastwood Non-Western Essentials:  Play Misty for Me, Heartbreak Ridge, The Bridges of Madison County, Space Cowboys, Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Flags of Our Fathers, Letters from Iwo Jima, Gran Torino, Invictus.

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Great Directors: Anthony Mann

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 19, 2014

Anthony Mann

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“He was less reckless than Sam Fuller, less passionate than Nicholas Ray, yet in the framework of the Western he hit on an almost perfect form with more consistency than either of his peers—and fueled it with pain.” – Tom Charity, The Rough Guide to Film, 2007.

Anthony Mann was born in 1906 in San Diego with the name Emil Anton Bundesmann, to an Austrian Catholic father and a Jewish Bavarian mother.  He was only 60 when he died of a heart attack in Berlin in 1967 while filming A Dandy in Aspic.

He started out as an actor, appearing in plays off Broadway in New York City, moving into directing.  Among many others he worked with the young James Stewart during the 1930s.  In 1938 he moved to Hollywood and joined the Selznick organization as a casting director and talent scout.  In 1942 he became an assistant director and moved into directing low-budget crime films for RKO and Republic.  During the 1940s he was known principally as a director of films noirs.

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Paula Raymond and Robert Taylor in Devil’s Doorway, 1950.

His first western was Devil’s Doorway in 1950, which showed both the social concerns and the interest in the psychological roots of action and violence that had marked his earlier work.  The noir sensibility had already been evident in such westerns by other directors as Yellow Sky and Blood on the Moon from the late 1940s, but it was strongly present in Mann’s work in westerns as well.  The same year he directed the family saga-range melodrama The Furies as well.  For Mann, westerns were his opening to becoming a front-rank director.  His westerns were commercially successful, and he became known as the father of the psychological western.  And James Stewart re-invigorated his career through his work with Mann and with Alfred Hitchcock in the 1950s.

His first major production was Winchester ’73 in 1950; he was recommended as a director by James Stewart, with whom he had worked in the 1930s.  The partnership was very successful.  In addition to the five westerns they made together in the early 1950s, they also made The Glenn Miller Story and Strategic Air Command.  Mann and Stewart are linked together in cinematic history as much as John Ford and John Wayne.  The two had a falling-out over Night Passage in 1957, Mann left the production, and the two never worked together again.  Mann was the initial director of Spartacus but left after disagreements with the star-producer Kirk Douglas, to be replaced by the more amenable Stanley Kubrick.

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Mann directing Walter Brennan and James Stewart in The Far Country, 1954.

Even without the collaboration with Stewart, Mann continued to make good westerns in the 1950s:  The Last Frontier with Victor Mature, The Tin Star with Anthony Perkins and Henry Fonda, and Man of the West with Gary Cooper.  About 1960, he increasingly moved toward historical epics, such as the remake of Cimarron, El Cid and The Fall of the Roman Empire—a long way from the films noirs in which he made his initial reputation and the westerns with a psychological edge that made him a front-rank director.

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Mann directing Charlton Heston in El Cid, 1961.

In retrospect, his directorial career seems to divide neatly into three parts. “Though he incidentally directed films in various genres (the musical, the war movie, the spy drama), Anthony Mann’s career falls into three clearly marked phases:  the early period of low-budget, B-feature films noir; the central, most celebrated period of westerns, mostly with James Stewart; and his involvement in the epic (with Samuel Bronston as producer).   All three periods produced distinguished work, but it is the body of work from the middle period in which Mann’s achievement is most consistent and on which his reputation largely depends.” – Robin Wood, International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, 1991.

The best comprehensive look at Mann’s work is probably film historian Jeanine Basinger’s  Anthony Mann, initially written in the 1970s but updated and expanded in recent years (2007).

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Shooting Julie London and Gary Cooper in Man of the West, 1958.

Mann Essentials:  Winchester ’73, Bend of the River, The Naked Spur, The Far Country, The Man from Laramie, The Tin Star, Man of the West.

Second-Rank Mann:  Devil’s Doorway, The Furies, The Last Frontier, Cimarron.

Mann Non-Western Essentials:  T-Men, Raw Deal, The Glenn Miller Story, Strategic Air Command, El Cid, The Fall of the Roman Empire.

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Great Directors: Howard Hawks

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 23, 2014

Howard Hawks

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“I’m a storyteller – that’s the chief function of a director.  And they’re moving pictures.  Let’s make ‘em move!”

The Gray Fox (as Hawks is called in the subtitle of a biography by Todd McCarthy) was a contemporary of John Ford and rivals Ford’s record of brilliant films across a spectrum of movie genres.  He only made five westerns, but four of them are great or near-great, and he was much better at gangster movies and comedies than Ford.  His films continue to rank very high in re-watchability, and they are known for assertive female roles in a pre-feminist age.  Many of his films seem to examine a Hemingway-esque vision of what it means to be a man (Only Angels Have Wings, To Have and Have Not [based on a Hemingway story] and Rio Bravo, for example).  

Howard Hawks was born into a wealthy family in Indiana in 1896.  They settled in Pasadena, California, before 1910, but he attended Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire and Cornell, majoring in mechanical engineering.  Returning to California in 1916, he met fledgling director Victor Fleming while racing cars, and Fleming’s connections drew him into the movie business.   By the end of April 1917 Hawks was working on Cecil B. DeMille’s The Little American, where he met and befriended the then eighteen-year-old slate boy James Wong Howe.  Hawks next worked on the Mary Pickford film The Little Princess, directed by Marshall Neilan.  According to Hawks, Neilan did not show up to work one day and the resourceful Hawks offered to direct a scene himself, which Pickford agreed to allow.

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He began to direct more regularly, along with serving irregularly in the U.S. Army Air Service during World War I.  He was discharged as a Second Lieutenant without having seen active duty.  Hawks used his family money to make a loan to Jack Warner, and that gave him an in at Warner Brothers as a producer.  But by 1923, he decided he wanted to direct, rather than produce.  He became a story editor for Jesse Lasky (later Paramount), based on a recommendation by Irving Thalberg, and had his first official screenplay credit in 1924 on Tiger Love.  He moved to MGM in 1925 based on a promise by Thalberg that he could direct.  He quickly moved on to Fox, where he directed eight films over the next three years, making the transition from silents to talkies.  He would be an active director for the next 45 years.  After the expiration of his contract with Fox in 1929, he remained an independent director for the rest of his career.

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Hawks’ first talkie, The Dawn Patrol, with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Richard Barthelmess, was remade in 1938 with Errol Flynn and David Niven by a different director.  Barthelmess would show up again in a Hawks flying movie in 1939 (Only Angels Have Wings), a comeback role for him and one of his last.

In 1928, Hawks married Athole Shearer, Norma’s sister.  His brothers Kenneth and Bill married Mary Astor and Bessie Love, so the family became even better connected in the industry.  In all, Hawks would be married three times.  Kenneth, also an up-and-coming young director, died in a spectacular and much-publicized airplane collision over Santa Monica Bay in 1930 while filming Such Men Are Dangerous.

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As Hawks’ career as a director took off in the 1930s, he showed his versatility.  After his first talkie, The Dawn Patrol (1930), he made the first great gangster movie, Scarface (1932).  He proceeded to show a deft touch with screwball comedies, including Twentieth Century (1934), Bringing Up Baby (1938), His Girl Friday (1940) and Ball of Fire (1941).  His best films of the period also include male action films like Only Angels Have Wings (1939), Sergeant York (1941, for which he received his only nomination for  the Best Director Oscar), To Have and Have Not (1944) and, edging into film noir, The Big Sleep (1946). 

He cast young model Lauren Bacall in her first role in To Have and Have Not, where she met Humphrey Bogart.  Her character is called Slim, like Hawks’ wife at the time, and her assertiveness and manner of speaking are characteristic of the typical Hawks female.  Among the writers he worked with on this project and others from the period were his favorites William Faulkner, Jules Furthmann and Leigh Brackett.  Hawks was a friend of author Ernest Hemingway, and apparently To Have and Have Not arose from a bet by Hawks that he could make a good movie out of Hemingway’s worst story.  He did.

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Hawks directing Red River, with John Wayne and Joanne Dru.

In 1941, he had started directing The Outlaw, Howard Hughes’ Billy the Kid movie, but he didn’t finish it and was uncredited on the project—just as well, since it’s kind of a cinematic bomb.  In 1946 Hawks made his first western (if you don’t count Viva Villa!, the 1934 biopic about the Mexican revolutionary), the classic Red River, starring John Wayne and introducing Montgomery Clift.  It is the first great cattle drive western, and it finally convinced John Ford that John Wayne could really act.  Wayne went on to his long-term partnership with Ford, making the Cavalry Trilogy, The Searchers and others, but he also continued to work with Hawks, appearing in four of Hawks’ five westerns and in Hatari! (1962).  The release of Red River was delayed for a couple of years while Howard Hughes raised spurious legal claims against it, but upon its eventual release, it was a great box office and critical success.

The second of Hawks’ five westerns was 1952’s The Big Sky, with Kirk Douglas and Arthur Hunnicutt, a mountain man-fur trading story set in the 1830s and based on a best-selling novel by A.B. Guthrie.  It’s not often seen now, because (a) the film was mutilated in the cutting room by the studio to shorten it, and the footage that was removed has mostly been lost, and (b) it’s not available on DVD.  But it is an excellent western, the second-best mountain man movie yet made, after Jeremiah Johnson.

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Blocking out a fight scene with Kirk Douglas for The Big Sky, directing Angie Dickinson in Rio Bravo.

Hawks’ third western was another classic, Rio Bravo in 1959, with John Wayne, Dean Martin, Angie Dickinson and Ricky Nelson.  Hawks said he made it in part as his take on the High Noon situation.  In the Hawks version, the beleaguered sheriff John T. Chance does not go around asking for help from townspeople but puts together a team consisting of himself, a drunk former deputy (Dean Martin, effective in an early movie role), a gimpy jailer (veteran character actor Walter Brennan) and a young untested gunman (singer-television actor Ricky Nelson) to fight much greater numbers.  It was taken as a commercial sort of film and not given much critical attention on its release, but time has shown it to be one of the very best westerns and a film with high re-watchability.  Angie Dickinson’s female gambler-dance hall girl Feathers is quite similar in her assertiveness to Slim in To Have and Have Not.  With writers Jules Furthmann and Leigh Brackett the same on both projects, the dialogue even sounds quite similar.

Hawks liked Rio Bravo so well that he used the story twice more for the basis of his last two westerns, both times with John Wayne again.  El Dorado (1966) is mostly successful, although not a classic like Rio Bravo.  Starring Robert Mitchum as a drunken sheriff with Wayne’s ethical gunman, it’s quite worth watching.   He made the story again in his last movie and last western, Rio Lobo (1970), and it’s not a very good movie—his only western dud.  Hawks died in 1977.

HawksFaulkner Working with William Faulkner.

Among the themes to which Hawks returned in his movies is an examination of male bonding and what it means to be a man.  Those are strongly present in his first talkie, Dawn Patrol (1930, with obvious connections to his World War I flying experiences), and he comes back to it throughout his career.  Compare Only Angels Have Wings from 1939 and Rio Bravo from twenty years later in that regard.  He’s more persuasive than Sam Peckinpah in dealing with those themes, in part because he doesn’t take his eye off the story and doesn’t lose his footing in self-indulgence as Peckinpah sometimes could.

Hawks didn’t win the awards that John Ford did, but his best work in a variety of genres is still widely watched.  Some would say that it ages better than Ford’s work, not being hampered by Fordian nostalgia and sentimentality.  In general, his work does not have the visual sense of Ford’s best movies; although Hawks’ visuals are less obtrusive, he is fine visually without calling much attention to that aspect of his work.  He was known for the use of overlapping dialogue in his films (Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday), including his westerns; see, for example, Red River and Rio Bravo., especially in male-female interchanges.  He is remembered now as one of the great directors of Hollywood’s golden age, into the 1960s.  Hawks’ own definition of what constitutes a good movie is revealing of his no-nonsense style:  “Three great scenes, no bad ones.”  Hawks also defined a good director as “someone who doesn’t annoy you.”  If what he made was art, he didn’t want to talk about it that way.  His reputation as a director is higher now than it was during his lifetime.

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Hawks Western Essentials:  Red River, The Big Sky, Rio Bravo

Second-Rank Hawks:  El Dorado

Don’t Bother:  Rio Lobo

Hawks Non-Western Essentials:  Scarface, Twentieth Century, Bringing Up Baby, Only Angels Have Wings, His Girl Friday, Ball of Fire, Sergeant York, To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, Monkey Business, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

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Great Directors: John Ford

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 15, 2014

John Ford.

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Even those who are not fond of John Ford concede that he’s probably the greatest director of westerns ever.  And it’s not even close.  Ford made more great westerns than anybody else, even if most of his work in silent films has disappeared.  He pioneered location shooting, being the first to use the dramatic landscape of Monument Valley as a setting.  He was also known for a certain kind of long shot, showing his human protagonists against a vast western terrain and sky.  He made a star of John Wayne, the biggest star western movies have yet seen, although he’s not the one who gave Wayne his first starring role.  (That would be Raoul Walsh, in 1931’s The Big Trail.)  Ford’s visual sense remains with you after his movies are over. 

Born John Martin Feeney in Maine in 1894, Ford was the son of Irish immigrants.  He moved to California and began working in film production in 1914 with his older brother Francis (1881-1953), using “Jack Ford” as a professional name.  Ford had an uncredited appearance as a Klansman in D.W. Griffith’s classic Birth of a Nation, as the man who lifts up one side of his hood so he can see clearly.  Despite an often combative relationship with Francis, within three years Jack had progressed to become his brother’s chief assistant and often worked as his cameraman.  By the time Jack Ford was given his first break as a director in 1917, Francis’ career as a director was hitting the skids, and he ceased working as a director soon afterward.

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Ford as a young director, and directing 1924’s The Iron Horse (on the right).

Ford started working as a director in 1917, probably on the silent two-reeler The Tornado, and he was an active director for the next fifty years.  Of the seventy silent movies he made, sixty are considered to be “lost.”  Although he made westerns almost from the start, he did not specialize in them at this stage of his career.  He made everything else, too.  He made 25 films with silent western star Harry Carey, only two of which survive.   Of his surviving silent westerns, probably the two best are The Iron Horse (1924), an epic account of the building of the first transcontinental railroad, which was one of the biggest cinematic successes of the 1920s, and Three Bad Men (1926), his last silent western.  He would not make another western for thirteen years, until Stagecoach in 1939.

However, when he did make another western, Stagecoach revolutionized how Hollywood saw western films.  The genre had mostly fallen out of favor with the studios in the late 1920s, and almost all westerns made during the 1930s were low-budget quickies.  Stagecoach was not expensive to make, but it had a good story, an excellent acting ensemble, strong visuals both in the landscape and in shot composition, and state of the art stunt work for its day.  Westerns were starting to be a more significant cinematic art form.  Reportedly, Orson Welles watched Stagecoach forty times as part of his preparation for making Citizen Kane.

This immediate pre-World War II period was also the time when Ford was making such box office and critical successes as Drums Along the Mohawk, Young Mr. Lincoln, The Grapes of Wrath and How Green Was My Valley—a remarkable string for anybody.  The last won both Best Picture and Best Director Academy Awards.

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Ford-Fonda Prewar Collaborations:  Young Mr. Lincoln, and The Grapes of Wrath.

He made documentaries for the Navy during the war, and was wounded during filming on Midway during the Battle of Midway.  He won two more Academy Awards for this documentary work.  It was on his return from the war that his impressive string of westerns began, with the story of Wyatt Earp in Tombstone in My Darling Clementine, followed by his cavalry trilogy (Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande), 3 Godfathers and Wagon Master.

Writer Nunnally Johnson said of Ford and his need for control (not uncommon among directors), “I think John Ford almost dies because he can’t write.  It just runs him nuts, that he has thoughts and ideas and has never trained himself to put them down on paper.  And I’ve found that true of so many directors.  They’re just so thwarted.”  But as a writer, Johnson also thought that writers were among the least appreciated participants in the movie processes.

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In the 1950s, he didn’t make as many westerns.  He won another Best Director Oscar for The Quiet Man in 1952; it was his fourth such award.  But one western he did make during the 1950s was one of his very best:  The Searchers, with John Wayne and Jeffrey Hunter.  And he closed the decade with the Civil War cavalry story The Horse Soldiers, with John Wayne and William Holden.  As he moved into the 1960s, his best remaining western was 1962’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.  There were other good westerns—Two Rode Together, Sergeant Rutledge and Cheyenne Autumn—but they were not among his greatest.  His health declined in the late 1960s, and he died in 1973.

Ford was known for “cutting with the camera,” especially when he was younger.  That meant shooting only the film he wanted to use, and it also meant visualizing the finished film as it was being shot.  According to Ford that practice reduced opportunities for the studios to mess around with his work.  He did that with Stagecoach, for example.  While it saved on film and gave him a greater degree of control over the final results, it was in effect working without a net.  “I don’t give ’em a lot of film to play with.  In fact, Eastman used to complain that I exposed so little film.  I do cut in the camera.  Otherwise, if you give them a lot of film ‘the committee’ takes over.  They start juggling scenes around and taking out this and putting in that.  They can’t do it with my pictures.  I cut in the camera and that’s it.  There’s not a lot of film left on the floor when I’m finished.”

He was also known for having a recurring cast of characters, most of whom are still strongly associated with his work today.  Most prominent among these was John Wayne, although he also used Henry Fonda and James Stewart, among the biggest stars of their time.  It was the supporting characters who came back time after time:  Ward Bond, Mae Marsh, Victor McLaglen, Jane Darwell, Harry Carey, Harry Carey, Jr., John Qualen, George O’ Brien and a number of others.   There have even been books written about “the John Ford stock company.”  (See Bill Levy’s Lest We Forget, 2013.)  Loyalty was important to Ford.

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Ford with a portrait and an Oscar, and an aging Ford in his natural habitat.

That doesn’t mean he was always pleasant to work with; he was known for riding even his stars and treating them badly during shooting.  He thought it produced better performances, and he’s not the only great director to take that approach.  In 1955, Warner Brothers hired Ford to direct Mr. Roberts, with Henry Fonda, who had played the role on Broadway and who had misgivings about some of Ford’s direction.  In a meeting with Fonda and producer Leland Hayward, Ford lost his temper and punched Fonda, creating a lasting rift between the two.  After repeated clashes during the filming of 3 Godfathers, Pedro Armendariz would never work with Ford again.  Some stars, like Wayne, would put up with Ford’s sometimes abusive style.  Maureen O’Hara said of him, “John Ford was the world’s greatest storyteller because he was the world’s most convincing liar.  He rarely told the truth and rarely lived the truth.”  Taking its title from Ford’s last silent western, the 2013 book Three Bad Men by Scott Allen Nollen applied that title to Ford, Ward Bond, and John Wayne, in part because of their politics.  That’s too harsh, but Ford could be difficult to work with and in his private life as well.  And he was always one to tend his own legend, too.

On the other hand, a story is also told about how during the McCarthy era of the 1950s, he bluntly and effectively stood up to a bullying Cecil B. DeMille, who was trying to get Joseph L. Mankiewicz removed as head of the Directors’ Guild of America and require a loyalty oath.  After four hours of DeMille and his supporters dominating the meeting, Ford stood and made this statement:  “My name’s John Ford.  I make Westerns.  I don’t think there’s anyone in this room who knows more about what the American public wants than Cecil B. DeMille—and he certainly knows how to give it to them…. [looking at DeMille]  But I don’t like you, C.B.  I don’t like what you stand for and I don’t like what you’ve been saying here tonight.”  After the vote, Mankiewicz remained president.

Ford’s work can sometimes seem old-fashioned, and it probably did in his day to some degree.  His occasional sentimentality, nostalgia and fondness for a certain kind of comic relief do not always play well today.  But for Ford, more than for any other director, you can’t know westerns without being familiar with his work.  There have been a number of biographies of Ford; my favorite is Scott Eyman’s Print the Legend:  the Life and Times of John Ford.  Ingmar Bergman called him “the best director in the world.”  Frank Capra referred to him as “the king of directors.”  And Alfred Hitchcock said that “A John Ford film is a visual gratification.” 

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Directing The Horse Soldiers, 1959.

Ford Essentials:  Ford has a larger body of must-see work than any other director of westerns.  These include Stagecoach, My Darling Clementine, Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, The Searchers, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

Second-Rank Ford:  Not as good as his top-flight work, most John Ford westerns are nevertheless well worth watching.  These include Drums Along the Mohawk, 3 Godfathers, Rio Grande, Wagon Master (said to have been a personal favorite of Ford’s), The Horse Soldiers, Two Rode Together, Sergeant Rutledge and Cheyenne Autumn.  Counting the Essentials and the Second-Rank, that makes fourteen westerns.

Non-Western Essentials:  The Informer, Young Mr. Lincoln, The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley, and The Quiet Man.

Best Director Oscars:  A four-time winner of the Best Director Academy Award, Ford won for The Informer (1935), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), How Green Was My Valley (1941), and The Quiet Man (1952).  Interestingly, none of those was a western, although he was nominated for Stagecoach in 1939.

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Calling the Shots: Great Directors of Westerns

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 26, 2013

Calling the Shots:  Great Directors of Westerns

“A director must be a policeman, a midwife, a psychoanalyst, a sycophant and a bastard.”  Billy Wilder.

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What makes a director of westerns great?  Criteria include the following: 

·         Ability to tell stories:  Does the story flow?  How well can a viewer follow it?  Some directors are interested in mood and style to the exclusion of story.  They can also be great directors, but westerns are rooted in stories, and in certain kinds of stories.  If there is inadequate attention to story, or if it’s hard to follow and doesn’t flow, or if it causes the viewer’s attention to wander, the other elements of the film had better be unusually strong to retain our interest.  Some directors seem less interested in story and are still great.  Consider Howard Hawks, who in recruiting Robert Mitchum for El Dorado in 1966, responded to Mitchum’s questions about the movie by telling him the story didn’t matter because the movie had “some great characters.”  And Sergio Leone would often not pay much attention to plot and story while he was playing with mood and visual style.  But they’re both great directors of westerns nevertheless.

·         Visual style:  Film is primarily a visual medium, and those directors who are remembered as the greatest either have their own distinctive visual styles or are linked for several movies with an excellent cinematographer.  It can be hard to distinguish which parts of the visual style are the responsibility of the director and which of the cinematographer.  But the director bears the ultimate responsibility for how the movie works, and they both have to perform well to score high in this area.  Think of Sam Peckinpah and Lucien Ballard in this context, or John Ford and Winton Hoch.

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·         Use of actors:  It’s no accident that certain particularly effective directors develop relationships with actors that they tend use over and over again.  They tend to reinforce each other’s strengths.  John Ford and John Wayne are the best-known such director-actor pairing, but Anthony Mann-James Stewart, Budd Boetticher-Randolph Scott and Sergio Leone-Clint Eastwood also come quickly to mind.  Ford and Wayne worked together from 1939 until the end of Ford’s career in the 1960s, but more frequently these actor-director partnerships flourish for five years or less.  The best directors often get good (or even great) performances out of actors that don’t do as well in other contexts.  Think of Howard Hawks’ use of Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson (and maybe Angie Dickinson) in Rio Bravo.  That’s one of the things that tends to make us think of Hawks as a great director.

·         Connection with traditional themes:  Sam Peckinpah’s connection with traditional western themes often causes questions in the mind of his viewers, but it’s undeniably there—sometimes revisionist in sensibility, but always there.  This is one of John Ford‘s strengths, too, although he can also seem too connected with nostalgic Americana.  Other directors who are great seem to lack the sense of connection and go straight for the revisionist elements.  These may produce great movies but not necessarily great westerns.  That’s one reason why there has been a discussion for decades about how great McCabe and Mrs. Miller by Robert Altman is.  Some think it’s one of the greatest westerns, but it has a fairly low sense of connection with traditional themes and remains rooted pretty firmly in the early 1970s.  Altman was a great director, and you couldn’t consider you’d seen his best work without watching McCabe, but it’s not inarguably a great western. 

·         Innovation:  In westerns, as in other genres of movies, it can get tiresome to watch the same movies over and over under other names.  Something has to be different, and the great ones bring innovation with them.  John Ford’s stories often seem based in a nostalgic Americana from another era, but he was the first to see the possibilities of Monument Valley as a location and nobody has used it more effectively.  And his visual sense was cutting-edge in its time.  Anthony Mann’s anguished protagonists (usually played by James Stewart) were different than what had been seen in westerns before, but they ushered in perhaps the greatest era of western movie-making in the 1950s.  Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah were innovators whose innovations have stuck in the genre.

·         Body of work:  It’s pretty hard to be considered a great director of westerns with only one western.  That means, in a film-making business where not that many westerns are made, that there are few directors you can point to as up-and-coming directors of westerns.  A director of a great western (Michael Mann with Last of the Mohicans, James Mangold with 3:10 to Yuma, the Coen brothers with True Grit) might make only one western in an entire career.  So one of the considerations in being a great director of westerns is to ask, “What is the totality of his work in the genre?”  Not every western John Ford or Howard Hawks made was great, but you have to take them all into account, the great and the less-great, when assessing the director. 

·        Influence on others:  If you have any sense of cinematic history, it’s impossible to watch violence in a current western without considering how The Wild Bunch changed the depiction of violence on film.  Certain kinds of shot (a rider in the distance, a tight close-up focusing on the eyes) remind one of Sergio Leone’s style, as does music involving chanting or whistling.  Effective use of wide desert vistas, especially the geological formations in Monument Valley, calls John Ford to mind.

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·         Film-making adventurousness:  Doing something new is always a risk, because films are marketed along traditional lines, pitching them in ways that have worked before.  Studio executives always want something that’s worked before, as opposed to something different.  Doing the different thing may produce a great western without producing the kind of financial returns that get a studio’s or distributor’s attention.  The Grey Fox, A Thousand Pieces of Gold and Lone Star were modestly successful films that were great westerns without spawning a horde of imitators, or, in the case of two of those, without even being available on DVD.  But the urge to do something in a different way will be essential to keeping the westerns genre (or any other) alive.  It’s a constant process of referring to the past (since the western as a genre relates uniquely to the history of America’s west) and infusing it with something new.  That challenge can be having the discipline and skill to balance the urge to reach for one’s own vision without tipping over into self-indulgence (the curse of Sam Peckinpah).

Having said all that, below is a an idiosyncratic and fairly short personal list containing a ranking of the greatest directors of western movies.  This will be followed by short lists of directors that might be great if we expanded the list a bit, lists of the greatest directors of westerns still working, and some others.  Each of the greatest directors and the near-greats will get an individual future post.

The Greatest Directors of Westerns Since 1939

  1.  John Ford
  2.  Anthony Mann
  3. Howard Hawks
  4. Sam Peckinpah
  5. Budd Boetticher
  6. Sergio Leone
  7. Clint Eastwood
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Clint Eastwood on the set of High Plains Drifter, 1973.

Near-Great Directors of Westerns

  1. Walter Hill
  2. Kevin Costner
  3. John Sturges
  4. Delmer Daves
  5. Simon Wincer
  6. William Wellman

Greatest Directors of Westerns Now Working

(Those Who Have Made More Than One).  If any of these guys made one more great western, and maybe just one more good one, they’d vault on to the list of greatest directors.  Eastwood’s last western was Unforgiven, more than twenty years ago, and he’s now in his 80s.  Walter Hill is getting up there, too.  But Costner and Wincer could each come up with something, although Costner doesn’t often direct any more.

  1. Clint Eastwood (already on the Greatest Directors list)
  2. Walter Hill
  3. Kevin Costner
  4. Simon Wincer
  5. The Coen Brothers

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Notable Directors of Westerns

1.  Henry Hathaway (North to Alaska, True Grit, The Sons of Katie Elder, Rawhide)
2.  Raoul Walsh (The Big Trail, They Died With Their Boots On, San Antonio, Colorado Territory, The Tall Men)
3.  Andre de Toth (Ramrod, Carson City, Riding Shotgun, Day of the Outlaw, The Bounty Hunter)
4.  Jacques Tourneur (Canyon Passage, Stars in My Crown, Stranger on Horseback, Wichita)
5.  Edward Dmytryk (Warlock, Alvarez Kelly, Broken Lance)
6.  Don Siegel (The Shootist, Two Mules for Sister Sara)
7.  Andrew V. McLaglen (Cahill U.S. Marshal, Shenandoah, The Way West, McLintock!)
8.  Burt Kennedy (Support Your Local Sheriff, Support Your Local Gunfighter, The War Wagon, The Train Robbers)

Antonia Bird in 2004. Antonia Bird

Female Directors of Westerns

They’re still quite rare.  Most of these are within the last twenty years.  But one of them, Nancy Kelly, made a western that’s on the list of 55 great westerns.  Now, if somebody would only issue a DVD of A Thousand Pieces of Gold.  After all, there are many others not so great for which a DVD is available.  (The MfTV designation means it was made for television.)

Lina Wertmuller, The Belle Starr Story

Maggie Greenwald, The Ballad of Little Jo (MfTV)

Nancy Kelly, A Thousand Pieces of Gold

Antonia Bird, Ravenous

Randa Haines, The Outsider (MfTV)

Kelly Reichardt, Meek’s Cutoff 

Suza Lambert Bowzer, A River of Skulls

Rachel Talalay, Hannah’s Law (MfTV)     

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One-Eyed Directors of Westerns

Raoul Walsh and Andre de Toth were both genuinely one-eyed.  The others tended, especially as they got older, to wear an eye patch over a weaker eye.  Two of these directors even made 3-D films during the brief fad for those in the early 1950s:  House of Wax and The Stranger Wore a Gun by Andre de Toth, and Gun Fury by Raoul Walsh.  With only one eye, they could of course not see the 3-D effects at all.

John Ford

Raoul Walsh (The Big Trail, They Died With Their Boots On, San Antonio, Colorado Territory, The Tall Men, etc.)

Fritz Lang (The Return of Frank James, Western Union, Rancho Notorious)

Andre de Toth (Ramrod, Carson City, Riding Shotgun, The Bounty Hunter, Day of the Outlaw)

Nicholas Ray (Johnny Guitar)

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Great Performances in Westerns, Women’s Division

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 10, 2013

This is the seventh and final post on great performances in westerns, and this one deals only with performances by women.  There are far fewer of these than there are for male actors, for at least three reasons:  (1) The population of the American frontier as it developed tended to be heavily male.  It was a rough place for women, and there weren’t that many of them, comparatively.  (2) Partly for the same reason, westerns have mostly featured active male roles, with females more the object that males fought over, defended or reformed for.  Female roles tended to be passive.  (3) When westerns were made featuring women in more prominent or active roles, they often tended not to be very good or not to do well at the box office because they didn’t meet the expectations of the usual audience for a western. 

However, as one thinks back over westerns since 1939, a few female performances come to mind.  If we were giving lifetime achievement awards, special honors might go to Joanne Dru (Red River, Wagon Master, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon) and Katy Jurado (High Noon, Man from Del Rio, The Badlanders), both of whom show up in several westerns.  If you have suggestions about other performances that should be on the list, leave a comment.

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Dallas (Claire Trevor) and the Ringo Kid (John Wayne) confront their pasts in Lordsburg.

Claire Trevor as Dallas in Stagecoach

At the time Stagecoach was released in 1939, Claire Trevor was the biggest star in an ensemble film.  She received higher billing and was paid more than fledgling star John Wayne.  She is the most memorable single figure in Stagecoach aside from Wayne.  Her surprisingly sweet bad girl Dallas (how could anybody object to a prostitute/dance hall girl this nice, even in 1939?) forms a relationship with Wayne that seems doomed from the start for a variety of reasons.  One of the tensions in the movie is how explicit she’s going to get with the Ringo Kid about her past, and how quickly he’ll run when she does—not that he seems like a great catch himself, given his own past.  As he puts it, “I guess you can’t expect to break out of prison and into society the same week.”  Trevor tended to show up in films noir in the 1940s, and her best-known role to modern audiences is in Key Largo, as Edward G. Robinson’s alcoholic moll.  She’s very good in that, too, and won an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress for her performance.  Trevor and Wayne were paired three more times in films, but never as memorably as in Stagecoach.

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Marlene Dietrich as Frenchy in Destry Rides Again

James Stewart in his first western as the eponymous Destry would not have been nearly as effective without the cosmopolitan saloon girl Frenchy, played by Marlene Dietrich, to play against.  She’s corrupt, she’s in cahoots with the sleazy, crooked saloon owner Kent (veteran screen heavy Brian Donlevy), she has cheated men out of their land, and she’s either testing or attracted to the apparently naïve Destry, new sheriff.  So the central conflict (aside from the usual and less interesting “Will Destry get the bad guys?”) is whether this will be a real attraction and, if so, how it will work out.  Ironically named (she’s obviously German, not French), she doesn’t really have much of a singing voice, but she delivers one of the most memorable musical numbers ever in a western in a cabaret style, with “See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have.”  She doesn’t back off from a fight, and she’s the catalyst for the winning strategy in the final battle.  She’s the most interesting character in the film, and she played variations on this character in The Spoilers (1942) and in Fritz Lang’s Rancho Notorious (1952).  In two of these three films, her characters were so morally compromised that the only way to redeem them cinematically was to have her take a bullet for somebody else.

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Gail Russell as Penelope Worth in Angel and the Badman

John Wayne is young-ish, handsome and charming in his first effort at both starring and producing.  But it’s the luminous Gail Russell who really makes the story work as Penelope Worth, a young Quaker woman from Pennsylvania, who quickly falls in love with and reforms Wayne’s quasi-outlaw Quirt Evans.  The story glosses over some not-entirely-believable points (Penny’s miraculous recovery, the marshal’s sudden unexpected appearance at the end), and the technical qualities of the sound and film aren’t what you’d hope for 1947 in many of the prints and DVD transfers now in circulation.  But the movie works and it’s delightful, mostly because we believe that Evans would fall in real love with such a warm and honest (and gorgeous) religious woman.  She’s good again in one of her last roles in another Wayne production, Seven Men from Now, with Randolph Scott, before her tragic early death at 36 from an alcohol-related heart attack.

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Loretta Young as Rachel in Rachel and the Stranger

Loretta Young wasn’t in many westerns (this and 1945’s Along Came Jones), but when she was, she was in the center of them.  Not only does the title signal that the movie’s about her character, but how interesting or convincing the movie is depends mostly on her character.  Her supposed husband, played by William Holden, is mopey for most of the film.  But Rachel, as a bond servant sold to a husband she doesn’t know but goes with, is elegant and quietly reveals aspects of Rachel’s character and background as the movie goes along.  One can see why both William Holden and Robert Mitchum would want her by the end of this movie set on the colonial frontier.  Mitchum comes to that conclusion very quickly; it takes Holden most of the movie and an attack by hostile Shawnees to get there.

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Virginia Mayo as Colorado Carson in Colorado Territory

She’s known mostly for her performances in films noir and gangster movies–think White Heat, with James Cagney.  Here Mayo brings a noir sensibility to Raoul Walsh’s remake of his classic High Sierra, this one set in 1870s Colorado Territory (presumably before it became a state in 1876).  As Colorado Carson, a half-Pueblo saloon girl from El Paso, she is immediately attracted to decent outlaw Wes McQueen (Joel McCrea) although she is wanted by the sleazier members of his gang.  She spends most of the movie trying to persuade McQueen that she is more his kind than Dorothy Malone’s Julie Ann.  By the end of the movie, we agree with her, and so does McQueen.  The colorful Italian poster for the movie features her in the forefront, depicting a version of the movie’s final scene.  Physically, the role of a part-Indian wouldn’t seem to fit her light coloring and eyes, and initially the dark makeup is a little distracting.  But we soon forget that and believe her.  Her best other performance in a western is in Fort Dobbs, with Clint Walker.  See her also in Budd Boetticher’s Westbound, with Randolph Scott, and in The Tall Stranger, with Joel McCrea.

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The ensemble in Westward the Women

This is the story of a wagon train of women headed for California in the 1850s to find husbands.  They have a variety of backstories, but they’re compelling as all this develops, led by Hope Emerson and Denise Darcel.  Darcel plays a Frenchwoman of dubious background who comes to be the romantic interest of the somewhat unwilling wagonmaster Robert Taylor.  Hope Emerson, at six feet two inches tall, plays a widow from a seafaring family in New Bedford, Massachusetts, who takes on many of the most difficult tasks first–and inevitably ends up with a short husband.  The women are well-differentiated and seem to be generally courageous in varying ways and of authentic-seeming character.  Some of that is good directing and some of it is good editing, but what we know as we watch is that there are strong and interesting characters on the screen in this underappreciated film.  The DVD from Warner Brothers Archive features an interesting commentary by film historian Scott Eyman, who points out that many of the women in this film were not actresses first, but stuntwomen.

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Joan Crawford as Vienna in Johnny Guitar

This strange Nicholas Ray western with noir overtones and bright colors has become a cult favorite in some circles.  Joan Crawford chews the scenery as only she knew how, as Vienna, an Arizona saloon owner at odds with neighboring cattlemen and especially with an obsessive Mercedes McCambridge, local rancher and banker.  She’s constantly dealing with undefined relationships and past relationships that aren’t past, as well as lynch mobs, sympathetic outlaws and Sterling Hayden, the Johnny Guitar of the title—a conflicted and curiously passive gunman.  In addition to the near-surreal direction, the climax of this movie features an all-female gunfight between Crawford and McCambridge.  Crawford can easily seem overbearing in some roles, but that approach works to make Vienna interesting in this film.  She’s strong, independent and doesn’t back down from bankers, mobs, gunmen or outlaws.  The problem here is in finding a male in the movie to match with her.  By more than one account, she did not get on well with co-stars Hayden and McCambridge or director Ray, and generally despised the movie.  This film might make an interesting double feature with Rancho Notorious featuring Marlene Dietrich, a couple of entries in the movie-queens-as-cattle-queens trend of the 1950s.  Maybe you’re not allowed to do that without Barbara Stanwyck in the mix somewhere.

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Angie Dickinson as Feathers in Rio Bravo

Feathers is a typically Hawksian female, assertive and inclined to be frank about what she wants.  She’s a female gambler and former dance hall girl with attitude.  Compare Angie Dickinson in this movie with the Lauren Bacall character in Howard Hawks’ To Have and Have Not, for example.  Both of them are very young women interested in men substantially older than they who are capable but for the moment beleaguered by the situation in which they find themselves.  The female dialogue sounds very similar (some screenwriters were the same), but it works–and the performances work–in both cases.  Angie Dickinson puts her own twist on the dialogue and has more vulnerability than Bacall showed, once embattled Sheriff John T. Chance (John Wayne) gets past her outer shell. 

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Joan Hackett as Prudy Perkins in Support Your Local Sheriff and as Catherine Allen in Will Penny

These two roles couldn’t be more different.  Prudy Perkins is the feisty, opinionated, accident-prone daughter of the local mayor who develops a romantic relationship with new sheriff Jason McCullough (James Garner) after McCullough keeps catching her in personally embarrassing situations in the successful western comedy-satire Support Your Local Sheriff.  And Catherine Allen is a young widow with a son, stranded on their way to Oregon.  She quietly forms a relationship with seasoned cowhand Will Penny (Charlton Heston) when the three of them are caught in a remote line cabin during the winter.  The question is whether, after a lifetime of independence and with fading career prospects as the western frontier closes down, Will Penny can step up to such a relationship and its responsibilities.  Hackett’s Catherine Allen makes the notion very appealing.  The success of the film depends on her performance and that of Charlton Heston as Will Penny, and they are both good.  (Heston could have been on the great performances list for this movie, too.)  After these two successes, one would think that Hackett’s career would take off, but she went mostly into television work and died at 53.  She was said to be a demanding perfectionist with strong political, environmental, social activist and other opinions who was not always easy to work with.  From the evidence of these two films, she was also a very good actress.

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Rosalind Chao as Lalu/China Polly in A Thousand Pieces of Gold

A Thousand Pieces of Gold is an atypical western in that (a) it focuses primarily on the development of a male-female relationship and (b) the principal character is a Chinese woman in the American west.  It succeeds on both counts, in large part because Rosalind Chao is both convincing and interesting as Lalu/China Polly.  This was a small movie that has not been available on DVD, so it is not well-known or frequently seen these days.  Sold by her family in China, Polly quietly forges her own way as the center of the movie, as men with varying agendas try to take her over.  She forcibly causes Hong King (David Paul Hong) to reconsider his plan to make her a prostitute in his saloon.  She resists Charlie Bemis’s entreaties to stay with him because she plans to return to China.  China Polly and Charlie Bemis were an historical couple in Idaho, and this is an excellent telling of their story.  And it works mostly because of the depth and attractiveness of Chao in the central role.

missing-blanchett Wearing Clint Eastwood’s hat.

Cate Blanchett as Magdalena (Maggie) Gilkeson in The Missing

Australian actress Cate Blanchett seems to be Meryl Streep’s successor as the premier actress of her time, and this is her only western (so far).  She’s very good as a local New Mexico healer, estranged daughter of Samuel Jones (Tommy Lee Jones), and mother of an abducted daughter (Evan Rachel Wood).  Ostensibly, the movie’s plot is about recovering the daughter taken by renegades, but an equal part of the interest is in watching her work out and recover her relationship with her long absent father.  She’s strong, independent, capable in many ways (although not as good with wilderness or Apaches as her father), and kind of a symbol of traditional Christianity against the animism her father has adopted.  She fights, learns to relate to Indians herself, saves herself and her children, and is generally admirable.  It’s a layered performance by an intelligent and versatile actress, and she’s well worth watching here.  Jenna Wood, playing her younger daughter Dot, is also very good in this film, as is Tommy Lee Jones.

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Annette Bening as Sue Barlow in Open Range

Always a capable actress, Annette Bening hasn’t been in many movies of any kind over the last twenty years, let alone westerns.  Her character is not one of the principals in this range war saga—hers is a supporting role.  But her performance as the doctor’s spinster sister Sue in the town of Harmonville and her reticent, mature romance with cowboy/gunman Charley Waite (Kevin Costner) give the movie an unusual depth and re-watchability.  She conveys intelligence, self-reliance, resolve, independence and a quiet charm in the role.  It is not just Waite who is taken with her; his older partner Boss Spearman (Robert Duvall) clearly thinks she’s a very good catch for Waite and refers to her as “the brains of the outfit.”  

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Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross in True Grit

Reprising a role played by the forthright Kim Darby in 1969, Steinfeld as the 14-year-old Mattie Ross plays an Arkansas girl who hires rough marshal Rooster Cogburn to join her on a manhunt into the Indian Territory in search of her father’s killer.  A third member of their party is a dandy-ish Texas Ranger, and the relationships between the three of them provide much of the interest for the film.  In her first movie role, Hailee Steinfeld had to be able to show youth (that was the easy part), determination, independence and, yes, grit, and do it convincingly using period language.  She could easily have become irritating if her performance was not carefully modulated.  In addition, she had to hold her own with two excellent actors, Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon.  She does all of that well, more persuasively than Darby did for many—and Darby wasn’t bad.  Watch them both and draw your own conclusions.

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Great Performances in Westerns, Part 6

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 9, 2013

Robert Mitchum as Clint Tollinger in Man With the Gun

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Clint Tollinger comes into the town of Sheridan looking for a new horse shoe and his ex-wife.  Because of his reputation as a town tamer, Tollinger is recruited to clean up Sheridan, especially in resisting the forces of local cattle baron Dave Holman.  He’s up to the task, but the townfolk don’t always like his approach or the results.  In his middle period as an actor,  Mitchum has a noir feel to him in this role.  His earlier westerns (such as Blood on the Moon and Pursued) generally work better than his later ones (The Wonderful Country), although he’s not bad as the alcoholic sheriff J.P. Harrah in El Dorado.  For a superb non-western performance, catch him in one of the quintessential noir movies, Out of the Past.  He was also very good at playing bad guys, as he did in the original Cape Fear, The Night of the Hunter and Five Card Stud.  Even when he was a good guy, he seemed on the verge of becoming a bad guy, and that possibility added an edge to his performances.

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Kirk Douglas as Matt Morgan in Last Train to Gun Hill

Kirk Douglas was in a surprising number of westerns, and he’s fairly good in many of them, although he tends to seem both urban and egocentric.  He was one of the biggest stars of his time, and Last Train from Gun Hill, directed by John Sturges, is one of his best westerns.   Matt Morgan is a sheriff married to an Indian wife.  She is raped and murdered by two young men, one of them the son of Morgan’s old friend Craig Belden (Anthony Quinn).  The core of the movie follows Morgan on his expedition to Gun Hill to retrieve the evildoers, and his resulting battles with Belden, with a variety of gunmen and with his own drive for vengeance.  Quinn is excellent here, too, and Carolyn Jones is good.  If you like Douglas’ style in this one, try him in The Big Sky, as Doc Holliday in Gunfight at the OK Corral and with John Wayne in The War Wagon.

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Anthony Quinn as Bob Kallen in The Ride Back

Anthony Quinn was in a surprising number of westerns from his early days in the movies, usually in small roles where he is an Indian, a villain or both (see The Plainsman, Union Pacific and The Ox-Bow Incident, for example).  During the 1950s he was more often a supporting character, and was always interesting.  Look for him, for example, as magnetic and multi-dimensional bad guys in Last Train from Gun Hill and Warlock (both from 1959).  He was also one of the leads in two smaller westerns:  The Ride Back and Man from Del Rio.  The Ride Back is really a two-man film, with Quinn and William Conrad, and they’re both excellent.  Quinn’s Bob Kallen is, like Quinn himself, half-Mexican; a dangerous gunman, he’s wanted back in Texas for a shooting that may have been justified.  He’s better with people and with guns than Conrad’s Chris Hamish and is constantly calculating how to play that next, spending most of the short film on an edge but going along for the moment with Conrad’s deputy sheriff.  He could play ethnic convincingly, and his career of the 1960s blossomed in those roles.  Look for him in The Guns of Navarone, Zorba the Greek (perhaps his signature role of the 1960s), Lawrence of Arabia and in a mural on the side of a building in downtown Los Angeles.  He’s one of those actors like Lee Marvin, who was almost always worth watching no matter what he was in.

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Spencer Tracy as Major Robert Rogers in Northwest Passage and as John J. Macreedy in Bad Day at Black Rock

Spencer Tracy was one of the best actors of his time, beginning about 1935, and his performances wear pretty well.  He didn’t make many westerns, but in these unconventional two he was excellent.

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  • As Major Robert Rogers, he leads Rogers’ Rangers during the French and Indian War, in their arduous and perilous raid on the Abenaki village of St. Francis in eastern Canada.  He projects decisive leadership when things are going well, harder leadership when men have to be left behind, and harder yet on the return trip when provisions are low and his men are being hunted on all sides.  He finally almost cracks when his beleaguered men reach Fort Wentworth, only to find it abandoned and without the supplies he had been promising his emaciated men.  His is the performance that holds attention during the movie, notwithstanding the supposed leads of Robert Young and Walter Brennan.  This movie wasn’t often seen, since it only became available on DVD in December 2011.

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  • Tracy’s career was on its downhill side and he was struggling with alcoholism when he was cast as the lead in this John Sturges modern western with a noir feel.  One-armed John J. Macreedy is getting backed into corners as soon as he steps off the train in Black Rock, and he’s quietly up to the challenges he faces.  Almost always he faces them with an even temper, but he also has mostly believable physical confrontations with Ernest Borgnine and Robert Ryan.  By the end he has sorted out the local mystery and all the bad guys before he gets back on the train.  This may be one of the best films set in the modern west, and Tracy was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actor for his performance in it.

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Dean Martin as Dude (Borachon) in Rio Bravo

In movies he usually played some form of caricature of himself, but Dean Martin could actually act when given good material and direction as he was in his first movie, Rio Bravo.  As Dude, the now-alcoholic former deputy of Sheriff John T. Chance (John Wayne), Martin is convincing in his booziness and in his rehabilitation.  His barroom scene when he and Chance follow a killer into a bar where everybody thinks of him as a drunk is a classic.  You can see both desperation and calculation as he tries to figure out what to do.  He’s also pretty good in The Sons of Katie Elder (again with Wayne) and bearable in Bandolero! and Five Card Stud.

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Brad Pitt as Jesse James in The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford

Jesse James has often been portrayed on film, including by his son Jesse Edward James at age 46 in the silent film Jesse James Under the Black Flag (1921) and by Tyrone Power (1939).  His historical charisma is elusive, and for some reason it’s harder to portray him than it is his brother Frank, who has been done well by Henry Fonda (twice) and Stacy Keach, among others.  Brad Pitt may be the best Jesse on film, in this beautifully-shot retelling of the Ron Hansen novel with the cumbersome title.  He’s charismatic, dangerous and a bit tired of it all at the end of his life, coolly playing with and pushing those around him.  This isn’t the best movie about Jesse and the James-Younger gang; that would be The Long Riders.  But Brad does make a better Jesse than the remote James Keach does in Walter Hill’s film.  This one is worth watching for the gorgeous cinematography and for Pitt’s performance in a notoriously difficult role.

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Robert Taylor as Buck Wyatt in Westward the Women

As an actor, Taylor was beautiful but not terribly expressive.  He could be a bit wooden sometimes, but this stoic quality is not always a detriment in westerns if the actor is well-directed in well-written material.  This underrated wagon train movie is really an ensemble effort, but Taylor’s wagonmaster Buck Wyatt is the dominant character.  He’s on screen most of the time, and he’s very good.  Taylor’s notable career in westerns begins with his performance as Billy the Kid (1941), mostly wearing his signature black, when he was more than ten years older than the Kid ever became.  Beginning in the late 1940s, he started to do more westerns:  Ambush and Devil’s Doorway (an early Anthony Mann western) are watchable.  In the 1950s his best westerns were with directors John Sturges and Robert Parrish:  The Law and Jake Wade and Saddle the Wind.

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Burl Ives in Day of the Outlaw

This wintry low-budget western noir is superbly cast in its two leading roles, and it wouldn’t work well otherwise.  Robert Ryan is head rancher Blaise Starrett, whose town is invaded by a band of military renegades led by Burl Ives as the dying Jack Bruhn.  It’s only his will and his leadership abilities that are keeping his lowlifes in line at all, and it’s a constant exercise in balancing what can be done with what basic decency requires even from a renegade.  Bruhn, whose past participation in some notable Civil War-era military mess in Utah is only alluded to and never much described, still has some kernel of that decency but can’t let it come to the fore lest his men rebel and tear him to shreds.  It’s always interesting to see what he’ll allow and what he won’t, what he can control and what he can’t, and what will happen if/when he dies.  The rotund Ives was best known in the 1950s as a singer of folk-type music, but he could also be very effective in Big Daddy-type roles (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof).  For his other western in such a role, see him in the large-scale The Big Country, for which he won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.  He also played a singing hotel desk clerk in Station West, with Dick Powell.

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Ben Foster as Charlie Prince in 3:10 to Yuma

Ben Foster was unknown to many moviegoers when he showed up as outlaw chieftain Ben Wade’s principal lieutenant Charlie Prince in this remake.  But he captured the screen as a bad guy trying to rescue his boss.  Partly it’s good production design with his costume, partly it’s written as a juicier role than in the original, but mostly it’s Foster’s compelling performance in one of the best westerns in recent decades.  Even though he’s a supporting character and not one of the principals, it’s no accident that it’s Foster’s Charlie Prince on some of the most prominent posters for this movie.  He tends to linger in the memory, and his performance is one of the reasons many rate the remake higher than the original.

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Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn in True Grit

He’s a different kind of one-eyed marshal Rooster Cogburn than John Wayne was, symbolized by his wearing the patch on his right eye instead of the left, as Wayne did.  He is surrounded by a better ensemble of actors (Matt Damon, Hailee Steinfeld) than Wayne was and doesn’t have to carry the entire movie the same way.  However, he is still central to the story, and his Rooster Cogburn is fun to watch and quite believable, even if it can be hard to understand what he’s saying at times.  In a role created by the most iconic of western stars, Bridges stands up to Wayne’s performance by disappearing more into the part and coming up with a harder-edged Cogburn.  He didn’t win a Best Actor Oscar for this, but he was nominated.  You should watch both versions.

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Christoph Waltz as Dr. King Schultz in Django Unchained

The Vienna-born Waltz, in his second film with Quentin Tarantino, was reportedly reluctant to take on the role of the loquacious German-born, bounty-hunting dentist in Django Unchained.  He only did so upon being assured that his character would have no negatives—other than his profession of killing people, presumably.  His smooth brand of courtliness toward most people around him, including the newly-freed slave Django, provides a counterpoint to the hardness he displays in his profession, causing the viewer to constantly balance the two and wonder which will dominate in any situation.  He holds the screen well and less abrasively than other characters.  Coming into his own in Hollywood in middle age, he hasn’t been in other westerns.  But he played an excellent Nazi villain in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, and he won the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for both that role and this one.

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Great Performances in Westerns, Part 5

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 7, 2013

Richard Farnsworth as Bill Miner in The Grey Fox

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Richard Farnsworth as Bill Miner, and the real Bill Miner.

After a lifetime as a stuntman and extra, Farnsworth had an unusual resurgence as a leading man toward the end of his career, and this was one of his three best roles—perhaps the very best.  His understated style and low-key charm, with a soft voice, warmly reticent smile around a white moustache, and expressive blue eyes are his trademarks.  He was unexpectedly cast as the lead in this low-budget Canadian production from 1982.  He plays Bill Miner, a one-time stagecoach robber who has spent most of his adult life as a prisoner in California’s San Quentin prison and is now released into a more modern west he doesn’t quite understand.  We relate to his charm and apparent affection for people, however, as he tries to reshape his outlaw career into something more modern.  It’s a seldom-seen gem of a movie, and it all depends on Farnsworth.  He’s magnificent.  For his other great roles, see him as Matthew Cuthbert in the Canadian television miniseries Anne of Green Gables (1985) and as Alvin Straight, driving a yard tractor to visit his brother before his own death, in The Straight Story (1999).

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Kevin Costner as Lt. John Dunbar in Dances With Wolves and as Charley Waite in Open Range

People are ambivalent about Costner as an actor, with some of his highest visibility coming in large-scale action turkeys like Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves; Waterworld, and The Postman.  (They’re surprisingly watchable, even when Costner is obviously miscast, as he was in Robin Hood.)  However, he seems to have an affinity for westerns, both as an actor and as a director, as demonstrated by these two films in which he performed both functions.  For his first western, see him as young scapegrace Jake in Silverado.  If you like him in these roles, look at his four baseball movies:  Bull Durham, Field of Dreams, For the Love of the Game and The Upside of Anger.  He’s a better actor than he is generally considered in the twilight of his film career.

  • In Dances With Wolves, he’s not only the lead as Lt. John Dunbar, Civil War hero and budding anthropologist, but he’s alone much of the time he’s on the screen.  And he’s the sole decent white man in the entire movie.  He won Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director (unusual for a western), and he carries this lengthy movie as an actor. 

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  • In Open Range, he is again the director and also a lead as Charley Waite, but as Charley he gives more space to other leads (Robert Duvall, principally, and Annette Bening).  Charley is a more dour character—a cowboy with a backstory as a gunfighter, and Costner is excellent and persuasive.  His look is very authentic, too.  His achievements in these two movies as director and actor draw inevitable comparisons with Clint Eastwood.  He just hasn’t made as many westerns as Eastwood. 

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Graham Greene as Kicking Bird in Dances With Wolves

If Costner as Lt. Dunbar carries Dancing With Wolves as the only white man with whom we feel much sympathy, it is Canadian Oneida character actor Graham Greene who provides the human face of the Sioux/Lakota with whom Dunbar interacts throughout the movie.  (Rodney A. Grant provides a kind of younger, harder-nosed counterpoint to Greene.)  As the Lakota chief Kicking Bird, Greene approaches Dunbar as a human he doesn’t understand, and it enables Dunbar and Kicking Bird eventually to bridge the sizable linguistic and cultural gulf between them.  Greene’s understated but excellent performance emphasizes the Indians’ basic humanity.  For a brief performance with more humor, see Greene in Maverick and fleetingly in Gunless.

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Clint Eastwood as Josey Wales in The Outlaw Josey Wales and as William Munny in Unforgiven

Eastwood was his own director in both these movies, and that makes his achievement even more remarkable.  By now, at the end of his career, Eastwood is acknowledged as a masterful director.  Although the stories in both these movies are built around his character, he is generous in allowing others juicy parts as well.  Josey Wales is a quintessential Eastwood character, with his squint, his soft-spoken but hard-bitten way with words, and his ability to draw other characters to him sometimes against his own choice—not to mention his handy way with guns and with tobacco juice.  William Munny is even more hard-bitten, and at bottom may not be a very good person, as we see him forced more and more into an old life and the use of devastating old skills through the movie.  He is what Josey Wales might have become.  Together with his early work with Sergio Leone in the Dollar trilogy and Pale Rider, these roles and the rest of his career present the most impressive body of acting work in the genre since John Wayne.  And Wayne never wore the director’s hat as successfully as either Eastwood or Costner.

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Chief Dan George as Lone Watie in The Outlaw Josey Wales

Notable especially for its warm, understated humor and elegant humanity, Chief Dan George’s performance as aging Cherokee Lone Watie stands with Graham Greene in Dances With Wolves as the two best performances by Native Americans in westerns.  Time after time, George steals scenes from Eastwood’s Josey Wales.  On rewatching the film, George’s performance is one of the principal joys that one looks for.  He came to acting very late in his life and really has no comparably excellent parts in other films.  But look for him as Old Lodge Skins, Dustin Hoffman’s adoptive Cheyenne grandfather, in Little Big Man as well; he’s the best thing in that film, and was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his work there.

 

James Stewart as Destry in Destry Rides Again, as Howard Kemp in The Naked Spur and as Ransom Stoddard in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

One of the best-known, most popular and most versatile actors of his time, Stewart also worked with a range of some of the best directors of his era.  In westerns, they included Anthony Mann and John Ford; in mysteries and thrillers, Alfred Hitchcock; in populist fare, Frank Capra.  He was kind of an American everyman, perhaps Henry Fonda’s only equal in that kind of role.

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  • In his early career, Stewart didn’t make many westerns.  But in 1939 (the same year he did Mr. Smith Goes to Washington with Frank Capra), he starred as an offbeat kind of lawman in Destry Rides Again.  Played with warmth, gentleness and an often exaggerated version of his signature drawl, this was one of the most memorable westerns in a good year for the genre.  It has been remade more than once, but never as successfully as this original.  It must be admitted that Stewart is helped greatly by having Marlene Dietrich to play off.  With Smith in 1939 and with The Philadelphia Story coming the next year, you can’t even say Destry represents his best performance of this early phase of his career.  But Destry’s very memorable and bears rewatching more than 70 years later.  If you like this gentle Stewart approach, try 1950’s excellent Harvey, even if it isn’t a western.  Late in his career, Stewart again played a western mostly for laughs in The Cheyenne Social Club, with Henry Fonda as his costar.

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  • After his return from World War II, Stewart remade his career in his work with Alfred Hitchcock (Rear Window, Vertigo, The Man Who Knew Too Much), Capra (It’s a Wonderful Life) and his westerns with Anthony Mann.  One of his best roles with Mann was the reluctant and psychologically-damaged bounty hunter Howard Kemp in The Naked Spur.  Mann heroes are never all good, and Kemp is perhaps the most overtly conflicted of all of them.  But he holds it together and begins a comeback in the course of this film.  All of Stewart’s five westerns with Mann are worth watching:  Winchester ’73, The Far Country, Bend of the River and The Man from Laramie in addition to this one.

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  • Stewart made three movies with John Ford, and his most prominent role was as Ransom Stoddard, eastern lawyer out to remake the west in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.  There’s a lot of ambivalence in the film between his reliance on law and Tom Doniphan’s (John Wayne’s) more direct approach to the violence of Lee Marvin’s Liberty Valance.  Stoddard may be admirable in his way, but his approach wouldn’t have worked without Tom Doniphan’s, too, as the film shows.  Stewart seems miscast as Wyatt Earp in Ford’s Cheyenne Autumn, but the entire Earp interlude in that film is ill-conceived.  If you like Stewart in Liberty Valance in the late phase of his career, look for him in Two Rode Together, Shenandoah and How the West Was Won.

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Jeffrey Wright as Daniel Holt in Ride With the Devil

He starts out as a minor supporting character in a large cast.  By the end of this underrated Civil War film, he is one of the two principal remaining characters.  Their parting, at the end of the movie, is one of its most wrenching scenes, and Wright carries more than half of its dramatic weight, much of it without words.  (There’s good direction and editing at work here, too.)  Wright’s character Daniel Holt is a freed slave who fights for the south as a Missouri bushwhacker out of loyalty to George Clyde (Simon Baker), the man who freed him.  The motivations of such a man would be hard for modern audiences to understand under any circumstances, and Holt starts out carefully and enigmatically in a group of men who are not entirely sympathetic to him.  His friendship with Jake Roedel (Tobey Maguire) develops over the course of the film and becomes its strongest emotional current by the end.  Wright is a superb actor who has been seen principally in a variety of supporting and character roles.  Here he is excellent.

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Robert Ryan as Blaise Starrett in Day of the Outlaw

Robert Ryan was an excellent and versatile actor, and he seldom played unalloyed good characters.  In Day of the Outlaw, he plays the improbably-named Blaise Starrett, the founder and largest rancher in the remote town of Bitters in wintry Wyoming.  Starrett is at odds with local farmers as the movie starts, and he’s having an affair with the wife of one of them.  A gang of outlaws led by ex-army officer Jack Bruhn (Burl Ives) moves in, interrupting the confrontation between Starrett and the farmers and replacing it with another.  Starrett doesn’t care for the few farmers and townspeople, but his sense of responsibility kicks in and he tries to figure out how best to try to protect them.  He’s the only one in town with the competence to do anything.  If you like him here, try The Proud Ones.  Later in his career he was principally a supporting character, as in The Wild Bunch, Lawman, and The Professionals.  For Ryan in bad guy roles, see him in The Naked Spur, Bad Day at Black Rock and Hour of the Gun, in which he played a more cerebral Ike Clanton than usually seen in the Wyatt Earp story.

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Great Performances in Westerns, Part 4

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 6, 2013

Glenn Ford as Ben Wade and Van Heflin as Dan Evans in 3:10 to Yuma

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The two are inseparable, because it’s the tension between them and the opposite ideas they represent that make this movie work.  In large part, that’s because neither of them is quite what he seems.  Ford’s Wade claims to be an unrepentant outlaw, but he’s drawn to the decency he sees in Heflin’s Evans.  Evans is decent, but by the end of the movie he has shown the development of a quiet heroism that no one else in the movie will step up to.  And that makes a difference even to Wade.  For other really good performances by these two, look for Ford in Cowboy, Jubal (both with excellent director Delmer Daves) and The Sheepman and Heflin in Shane.

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Christian Bale as Dan Evans in 3:10 to Yuma

It’s somewhat the same story, but there are differences, especially in how things end.   Russell Crowe is excellent as the captured outlaw leader Ben Wade, but the Dan Evans role as a desperate honest rancher is harder.  How do you make quasi-ineffective decency attractive, both to the movie audience and convincingly to the other characters?  Evans gradually becomes less ineffective and more heroic, to us, to Wade and to his own son.  He doesn’t ask for their admiration, but by the end of the movie he has it.                        

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Alan Ladd as Shane in Shane

Movie roles don’t come any more iconic than Shane, the mysterious gunfighter in the film with his name as its title.  The entire movie revolves around him, as its title implies.  As an actor, Ladd has some drawbacks to overcome:  his small size works against him in a couple of fight scenes; his urban-seeming reserve nevertheless works to lend him some mystery as a western gunman; and he was not a natural either with guns or horses.  Maybe some of his success in this role is due to brilliant direction by George Stevens, who was into an amazing string of movies at the time Shane was made.  But when the film ends, it’s Ladd as Shane that we remember.  He makes almost as big an impression on us as he does on young Brandon de Wilde in the movie.  Ladd made a number of westerns during his career, although none of them are as strong as Shane.  The next best is probably Branded; after that try The Badlanders, Red Mountain and Saskatchewan. 

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Bruce Dern as Asa Watts (Long Hair) in The Cowboys

The role of demented ex-con Asa Watts gave Bruce Dern the chance to both kill John Wayne and to chew the scenery in one of the best bad-guy performances ever in a western.  He’s exactly what’s needed in this role—never quite convincing in his belated attempts at sincerity, and clearly psychotic as he takes on Wayne and his boys.  In Dern’s long career as a supporting actor, this is one of the roles that defines him.  For a similar role, see him as a villain fighting Charlton Heston in Will PennyFor a comedic variant on this role, see him as ne’er-do-well miscreant Joe Danby in Support Your Local Sheriff.  He plays an outlaw who may be more sympathetic than any of the lawmen in the revisionist PosseIn a more sympathetic role late in his career, catch him as an aging lawman on a manhunt south of the border in the made-for-television Hard Ground.

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Gary Cooper as Will Kane in High Noon

Cooper was too old for the part, and presumably for the young Grace Kelly as his romantic interest, when he played Will Kane.  But his particular style of underplaying worked magnificently in this role, and it revitalized his career.  Besieged on every side by a resentful deputy, by old relationships, by evasive townspeople, and most of all by the advancing hour with its approaching confrontation with evildoers, Kane takes the strain and steps up to do what a man’s got to do.  This, Alan Ladd’s Shane and John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards are the iconic roles of the western in the 1950s.  A westerner from Montana himself, Cooper always had both a good feel for playing western roles and a Gregory Peck-like way of projecting a basic decency.  See him also in Man of the West, a later role for which he was also too old, The Hanging Tree, Vera Cruz and Garden of Evil.  For a younger Gary Cooper, see him as Wild Bill Hickok in The Plainsman and as a friend of Judge Roy Bean in The Westerner.  He’s even good as a quasi-comic singing cowboy in Along Came Jones, although he clearly can’t sing.

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Yul Brynner as Chris Adams in The Magnificent Seven

One of the most memorable roles in Brynner’s long and varied career is as the enigmatic Chris Adams, the leader of the Seven.  His accent is hard to place, and Brad Dexter refers to him, not entirely convincingly, as “You old Cajun.”  In the end, we go with him, though, through the tryouts, the planning, the initial confrontations with the bandits, and the outright battles.  We don’t really know him any better as he and Steve McQueen ride out of the village they have saved, though.  But there’s a reason he reprised this role at least twice—once in the first of the sequels and again as a robotic version of his character in Westworld.  And it’s a version of this role he plays in the spaghetti western Adios, Sabata and in Invitation to a Gunfighter.  The role had become iconic, although Brynner didn’t make many westerns.

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Steve McQueen as Vin in The Magnificent Seven

This was McQueen’s breakthough role in movies, although he had become a television star of sorts as the moral bounty hunter Josh Randall in Wanted:  Dead or Alive.  Seemingly a natural for westerns, he nevertheless didn’t make very many of them; his career flowered as the genre was going through one of its numerous fades.  Vin is a rootless cowboy who steps up to help Chris Adams drive a hearse with an unwanted Indian corpse to Boot Hill, in one of the movie’s most memorable scenes.  It’s even more interesting if one considers that McQueen didn’t get along well with Brynner and was looking for ways to make Vin more noticeable with bits of business (shaking shotgun shells, taking off his hat to scan the horizon, etc.).  It works for him; he pretty much steals the scene, and it’s interesting to watch from that perspective.  Notwithstanding the lack of personal chemistry between the actors, the relationship between the characters works, too.  The only other westerns in his body of work were Nevada Smith (1966) and Tom Horn (1980, when the actor was already dying).  McQueen and director Sturges would have another significant success with the non-western The Great Escape,1963.

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Kevin Kline as Paden in Silverado

Silverado is really an ensemble movie, but the character most at the heart of it is Kevin Kline’s Paden.  He never actually loses his temper or composure, even in the most threatening or dire circumstances.  He has a native elegance and competence, but we never learn as much about his backstory as we do about the other major chatacters.  We discover that Paden rode with Cobb’s outlaws for a time and has a quixotically humane streak along with a fondness for saloons, but that’s all we know.  The result is that he’s a bit enigmatic.  For all we know, after the action shown in the movie, Paden lives out his days as a saloon proprietor with Linda Hunt in the town of Silverado, although he’s been instrumental in wiping out the largest rancher in the area.  The character works, although in a way it cries out for a real romantic relationship, aside from his friendship with Hunt’s character.  There’s an allusion to an attraction to Rosanna Arquette’s settler character, but it’s not very developed or persuasive, with the feeling that much of it was left on the cutting room floor.  Kline’s film career largely took place during a period when not many westerns were made, and this may be his only such movie.  For other roles showcasing his sly humor, see Soapdish, Princess Cariboo (in a minor role with wife Phoebe Cates as the lead) and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, not to mention The Big Chill, another ensemble movie by Lawrence Kasdan from the early 1980s.

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Great Performances in Westerns, Part 3

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 5, 2013

Burt Lancaster as Bill Dolworth in The Professionals

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As one of the leading actors of the 1950s and 1960s (and one of the most versatile), it’s a little unusual to find Burt Lancaster as something other than the lead, but he was willing to do whatever interested him.  Here, he’s a supporting actor, although an important one.  Bill Dolworth is a former participant in a Mexican civil war, a dynamiter and demolitions expert, a womanizer, and a man of action.   A garrulous counterpart to Lee Marvin’s taciturn leader, he pushes the action forward with his trademark athleticism and big smile.  Some would claim that Lancaster’s leading performances in Lawman and Valdez Is Coming belong on this list, too, and maybe the old scout in Ulzana’s Raid.  Along with perhaps his charismatic mostly-bad guy in Vera Cruz, and his Wyatt Earp in Gunfight at the OK Corral, although this last is eclipsed by Henry Fonda and Kurt Russell in the same role.

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Joel McCrea as Steve Judd in Ride the High Country , Rev. Josiah Dozier Gray in Stars in My Crown, and Jeff Butler in Union Pacific

Excellent in westerns generally, his greatest western role was one of his last.  However, McCrea was good in any number of smaller movies, such as Ramrod, Colorado Territory, Four Faces West, Stars in My Crown and Trooper Hook, which are not so well remembered today.

  • As aging lawman-turned-bank guard Steve Judd, McCrea was the heart of Sam Peckinpah’s classic Ride the High Country.  Playing with another retired legend of the western screen, Randolph Scott, Judd never wavers in his view of right and wrong and where he stands in that spectrum, come what may.  His signature line in this role:  “All I want is to enter my house justified.”  And he does, against significant odds. 

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  • Shortly after the Civil War, the former soldier Rev. Josiah Dozier Gray shows up in the small town of Walesburg, Tennessee, preaching his first sermon in a saloon with his guns drawn in Stars in My Crown (1950).  He builds a church, marries, adopts a son and becomes part of the life of the town, fighting typhoid and racist nightriders as he can.  He also must fight his way through his own crises of faith and conquer other issues that don’t yield to conventional weapons.  McCrea usually projected a quality of moral decency, even when playing an outlaw (Four Faces West, Colorado Territory).  This role is the epitome of that decency, and it’s a measure of his performance here that we not only believe him, we understand why the rest of the town believes him, too, in their various ways.  McCrea said that this was his favorite of all his movies.  He played variations on this role as the town doctor in The Oklahoman and as a circuit-riding judge in Stranger on Horseback.

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  • 1939’s epic Union Pacific provides a defining role for the younger McCrea, who was a bigger star than John Wayne at the time.  Directed by Cecil B. DeMille, it has DeMille’s signature scope and train crashes (two of them).  McCrea as railroad troubleshooter Jeff Butler fends off bad guys, romances an Irish Barbara Stanwyck, deals with a best friend gone bad (Robert Preston) and fights both Indians and the elements to get the trains through.  It’s still a highly watchable movie.

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Randolph Scott as Gil Westrum in Ride the High Country

At mid-century (1950), Randolph Scott was the biggest male box office star in the country, appearing almost exclusively in westerns by then.  The westerns he was making at that time are now mostly forgotten, and his very best work was still ahead of him.  In his last movie, he was very memorably partnered with Joel McCrea as a couple of underappreciated old timers taking a job guarding a bank’s gold, just to finish out their string.  Scott’s Gil Westrum is a little more elusive than McCrea’s Steve Judd, but in the end they stand together.  Scott was usually thought to be a more inexpressive actor than McCrea, perhaps more in the stone-faced William S. Hart mold, but they were both perfect here.  In fact, Scott could be on this list with his best performances for director Budd Boetticher in the late 1950s:  Seven Men From Now, The Tall T, Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station, a remarkable string.  He was also very good as a conflicted good-guy/bad-guy in the early 1940s in Virginia City and Western Union.

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William Holden as Pike Bishop in The Wild Bunch and as Capt. Roper in Escape from Fort Bravo

An excellent actor with a bit of an urban edge, Holden found a way to be effective in westerns, usually with some form of a hard-bitten personality and his ability to project unquestioned competence.  In addition to these two performances, he’s also very good as the doctor in The Horse Soldiers and the horse trader-cattleman in Alvarez Kelly, two Civil War epics.  In two of his earliest movie roles, see him with Jean Arthur in Arizona and with Glenn Ford in Texas.

  • Pike Bishop, the leader of the aging Wild Bunch, is a signature role for Holden, along with the screenwriter-gigolo he played in Sunset Boulevard.  Bishop’s the one who articulates, as far as it can be articulated, the reason the outlaw band is still together:  “We’re not gonna get rid of anybody!  We’re gonna stick together, just like it used to be!  When you side with a man, you stay with him!  And if you can’t do that, you’re like some animal.  You’re finished!  We’re finished!  All of us!”  They all know it’s not like it used to be, and none more than Bishop himself.  And that’s why he gives the fatalistic words “Let’s go,” as they suit up and head into what they know will be their final battle.  The honor he espouses rings a bit hollow, and it’s not worth as much as they’d like to think.  But in the end it’s all they have, and Bishop is its embodiment.  The way he plays it makes the movie convincingly like a Greek tragedy.

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  • Almost twenty years earlier in his career, Holden was excellent as the relentless Captain Roper, a Union cavalry officer in charge of holding John Forsyth’s Confederates in an Arizona stockade in a desert teeming with hostile Apaches.  Holden keeps the relentless edge and humanizes Roper over the course of the film as he gets to know Eleanor Parker’s Confederate spy, although the end needs a bit more exposition than it gets.

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Gregory Peck as Jimmy Ringo in The Gunfighter

Peck was like Joel McCrea in naturally projecting a basic decency that usually made him the moral center of his films.  Usually, but not always, as he showed in Duel in the Sun and Billy Two Hats, in both of which he was less decent and also less convincing.  As Jimmy Ringo in The Gunfighter, he wears a peculiar short-brimmed black hat as he tries to retire from the gunfighter life and reclaim a family long lost to him.  This film is probably the definitive statement of the proposition (later expressed by Burt Lancaster in Lawman) that you can’t walk away from your past.  You are what you’ve made yourself.  Peck also projects a wary, dangerous edge as he tries to fend off the inevitable challengers drawn by his reputation.  For a more obviously decent good guy, see his performances in the epic The Big Country and in The Bravados.  For an even earlier western with noir-ish elements, see him in Yellow Sky.

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Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp in My Darling Clementine and as Clay Blaisdell in Warlock

For his ability to play the decent mid-American—the guy who rises to the occasion as we’d all like to think we would—Fonda was the definitive Wyatt Earp.  But he also liked to play against that decency, and he was remarkably good in many of those those performances, too. 

  • The story told in My Darling Clementine bears little resemblance to the actual historical events it is supposedly based on, but there’s never been a better Wyatt Earp, either in terms of unbending but not necessarily confrontational straight-ahead decency, or the western images with Fonda as their focus.  As you think of this film, it’s almost impossible to do it without seeing Fonda tipping back in a chair on the wooden sidewalk with his foot propped against a post, or dancing with Clementine on an outdoor floor, with the Monument Valley sky above them.  For a similar role, see Fonda as the cowhand with moral questions about a posse’s conduct in The Ox-Bow Incident.  Incident was his last film before leaving for World War II, and Clementine was his first after returning.

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  • Fonda always had a taste (and a talent) for playing against his natural mid-American type and decent image.  One very good expression of that is Clay Blaisdell in Warlock.  Blaisdell is a gunman with some remaining decency in him, which he disclaims and tries to suppress, mostly successfully.  But that tension fuels the movie.  And the movie has excellent supporting roles played by Richard Widmark and Anthony Quinn as well.  For variations on Fonda as western blackguard, see The Tin Star, in which he returns to his basic decency by the end of the movie, and Once Upon a Time in the West, where as the gunman Frank he may never have had any decency in those chillingly-blue eyes in a darkly made-up face.  He’s also very good as the unlikeable martinet commanding Fort Apache.

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James Garner as Jason McCullough in Support Your Local Sheriff

Nobody’s ever been better than Garner at projecting easy-going good humor in a western, as he showed beginning with his television role as Bret Maverick.  However, the ultimate expression of this ability found a perfect vehicle and team in Support Your Local Sheriff, where he carries the movie lightly and very successfully without the slightest crack in that façade.  It’s hard to envision anybody else playing that role.  Both Mel Gibson (Maverick) and John Wayne (North to Alaska) tried variations on the role.  They’re good actors but not as good at this kind of role.  Not that the good-humored façade couldn’t crack; Garner was also superb in some of his grimmer performances, such as haunted scout Jess Remburg in Duel at Diablo or a dark and relentless Wyatt Earp in Hour of the Gun.  For more light Garner, see Support Your Local Gunfighter, Skin Game, and, late in his career, Sunset and Maverick.

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Jack Elam as Jake in Support Your Local Sheriff

Yes, it was a supporting performance.  With those crazy eyes, Elam was a lifelong character actor, spending a couple of decades as movie villains both modern and western.  And he was brilliant as Jake, the town “character” turned reluctant deputy, a riff on the Dean Martin role in Rio Bravo.  He went on, as he says, to become “one of the most beloved figures in western history.”  Or at least the history of western films.  This performance moved him from the bad-guy henchman roles he’d had for twenty years (look for him in Rawhide, Ride, Vaquero!, The Man from Laramie, The Comancheros and The Last Sunset, for example) into higher-profile and more varied characters.  For a similar role, see Support Your Local Gunfighter, where most of the team from the first movie was re-assembled, with slightly less success.  And of course he spends 20 memorable minutes waiting on a railway platform, often in close-up, in the prologue of Once Upon a Time in the WestNot bad for the one-time studio accountant.

 

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