Tag Archives: Clint Eastwood

Shooting Stars, Part 1

Nicholas Chennault ~ April 13, 2015

Shooting Stars: A Ranking of the 29 Greatest Western Actors Since 1939
Part 1—The Top Five

ShootStarsYoungWayneshootist-books

1.  John Wayne  [The Big Trail, Stagecoach, Red River, Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Rio Grande, Angel and the Badman, The Searchers, Rio Bravo, The Horse Soldiers, The Alamo, North to Alaska, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, McLintock!, The Sons of Katie Elder, The Comancheros, El Dorado, The War Wagon, Chisum, Cahill US Marshal, Rio Lobo, The Train Robbers, Big Jake, The Cowboys, The Shootist, et al.]

Wayne’s image is the first that comes to mind when we consider westerns between 1939 and the present.  He made many forgettable westerns while learning his craft during the 1930s in low-budget quickies, but beginning with Stagecoach in 1939 he made a surprising number of appearances in really good westerns.  While his career in westerns included a number of duds and clunkers, particularly toward the end (The Undefeated, Rio Lobo, The Train Robbers, etc.), for a long period he was consistently good—and often great.

Although, like most male stars, he sometimes seemed to show up in roles too young for him as he aged, he was more successful than most at playing age-appropriate roles as he grew older.  He successfully played older than he was in Red River and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and he moved into more mature roles naturally in The Searchers and Rio Bravo.  (He’s probably too old for Angie Dickinson in Rio Bravo, but somehow it works.)  He even made a couple of great westerns during the final stage of his career (The Cowboys, The Shootist).

Some of his position at the top of this list is due to his long-time relationship with John Ford, the greatest director of westerns, which helped both of them earn their pre-eminence in the field.  But he also made very good westerns with directors Howard Hawks, John Farrow, Don Siegel and others.

ShootStarsEast2unforgiven1

2.  Clint Eastwood  [A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Hang ‘Em High, Paint Your Wagon, High Plains Drifter, The Beguiled, Joe Kidd, Two Mules for Sister Sara, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Bronco Billy, Pale Rider, Unforgiven; Rawhide on television]

Eastwood is the greatest living star in westerns, although he is now in his 80s and is unlikely to make any more westerns either as a leading man or as a director.  Remarkably, he accomplished this mostly during a period when westerns were out of cinematic fashion; although he didn’t appear in nearly the number of westerns John Wayne did, his high position on the list results from the unusually high quality of the few westerns he did make.  Beginning with his central role in Sergio Leone’s influential Man With No Name Trilogy in the 1960s, he went on to appear in good westerns in the 1970s (Hang ‘Em High, for example) and to direct better ones with himself as the star (High Plains Drifter, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Pale Rider, Unforgiven).  Director Eastwood benefited from having an iconic western star (actor Eastwood) at the center of his films, and he knew how to use him.

ShootStarsYoungStewShootStarsStewBend

3.  James Stewart  [Destry Rides Again, Winchester ’73, The Naked Spur, The Man from Laramie, Night Passage, Two Rode Together, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Bend of the River, The Far Country, Shenandoah, How the West Was Won, Firecreek, The Rare Breed, Bandolero!, The Cheyenne Social Club, The Shootist, et al.]

Before leaving for World War II, he made his reputation in modern films by Frank Capra and The Philadelphia Story (1940), directed by George Cukor.  His only western in that period was 1939’s Destry Rides Again.  Upon returning from the war, he revived his film career once again with Capra (It’s a Wonderful Life) and by working with such directors as Alfred Hitchcock, Delmer Daves and Anthony Mann.  His high position on this list is due to the five films he made with Mann, in which he usually played a character on the psychological edge in some way.  Between them, Mann and Stewart re-defined in many ways the world of western movies and the stories they told.  The quality of westerns he made in the 1960s after his relationship with Mann fell apart tails off noticeably, although he made three late westerns with John Ford, one of which is particularly memorable (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance).

ShootStarsYoungCoophighnooncooper2

4.  Gary Cooper  [The Virginian (1930),The Spoilers (1930), Fighting Caravans, The Plainsman, The Westerner, Along Came Jones, Dallas, High Noon, Garden of Evil, Springfield Rifle, Vera Cruz, Man of the West, The Hanging Tree, They Came to Cordura, etc.]

Dave Kehr sees him as John Wayne’s principal rival.  “Cooper, for whom the words lanky and laconic seem to have been invented, was identified by the Department of the Treasury as the nation’s highest paid wage earner in 1939….the mildly satiric Westerner (William Wyler, 1940) already finds Cooper playing an inflated archetype — the Man of the West — rather than a character, much as he would in his most overrated film, Fred Zinnemann’s didactic political fable High Noon (1952).”

In his biography of Gary Cooper, Gary Cooper, American Hero (Robert Hale, London, 2001), Jeffrey Myers quotes Robert Warshow’s essay on westerns:  “The romantic image of the cowboy as the embodiment of male freedom, courage and honor was created by men who had lived a rugged life in the West:  in words by Teddy Roosevelt and Owen Wister, in art by Frederic Remington and Charles Russell, and in film, preeminently, by Gary Cooper.”  Cooper was an authentic westerner from Montana, and he had a natural way with western roles.  Cooper would challenge John Wayne for the top spot on this list, except that he didn’t make many westerns during the 1940s when his career was at its peak.  His reputation in westerns was substantially made by movies released before 1939, until he revived his career in the 1950s beginning with High Noon.  One consequence of this career arc is that in several of his best westerns from the 1950s he seems too old for the roles in which he’s cast.  He’s good enough that we mostly look past that, though.

ShootStarDuvallLD___^_

5.  Robert Duvall  [True Grit, Lawman, The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid, Joe Kidd, Tender Mercies, Lonesome Dove, Geronimo: An American Legend, Broken Trail, Open Range]

His position on this list comes from what Duvall refers to as his Trail Boss Trilogy (Lonesome Dove, Broken Trail, Open Range).  In all of them he plays a trail boss moving his herd somewhere against considerable obstacles.  These three are of surprisingly high quality, despite the fact that two of them were not movies but were made-for-television miniseries.  Like Wayne, Eastwood and Stewart, Duvall has benefited from working with unusually capable directors of westerns, John Sturges, Simon Wincer, Walter Hill and Kevin Costner among them.  His Augustus McCrae (Lonesome Dove) is one of the most indelible characters in the history of westerns.

At an age similar to Eastwood’s, his career also took place largely during a period when not many westerns were made.  His Best Actor Oscar comes from a modern western of sorts; he played country singer Mac Sledge in Tender Mercies (1983).  If you like him in more traditional westerns, give Tender Mercies a try.  He is one of the pre-eminent movie actors of his time generally, not just in westerns.  Unlike the others this high on the list, he has seldom played a conventional romantic lead.

To continue the list of top stars in westerns, see Shooting Stars, Part 2 and Shooting Stars, Part 3.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestEmail this to someone

Paint Your Wagon

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 29, 2015

Paint Your Wagon—Lee Marvin, Clint Eastwood, Jean Seberg, Harve Presnell, Ray Walston (1969; Dir: Josh Logan)

PaintWagonPosterPaintWagonSpan

Of course Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood are naturals for westerns, but for musicals?  Not so much.  So the question for Paint Your Wagon is:  Is it more a western or more a musical?  Despite the fact that it has Broadway star Harve Presnell (as gambler Rotten Luck Willie) on hand to sing the major musical number “They Call the Wind Maria,” Presnell’s big-time voice simply emphasizes that Marvin, Eastwood and Jean Seberg (whose singing is dubbed but still not impressive) are not really singers themselves.  The musical numbers mostly aren’t terribly memorable or well sung, but this isn’t very satisfying as a western, either.

By 1960, Alan Jay Lerner (the lyricist) and Frederick Loewe (the composer) were the apparent successors to Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II as the pre-eminent team turning out musicals for the stage and movies (My Fair Lady, Gigi, Brigadoon, Camelot).  Josh Logan, as a director, was known principally for his work in big stage and movie plays and musicals.  By the end of the decade, though, large-scale movie musicals were becoming an endangered species despite the success of Funny Girl (1968), and Paint Your Wagon and Hello, Dolly represented the last gasp of the genre.  This is perhaps the least memorable of all the movies made of Lerner and Loewe musicals.  And the American public seemed to be losing its taste for such things in any event.

PaintWagonEastwoodMarv

Pardner (Clint Eastwood) and Ben Rumson (Lee Marvin) make a discovery.

In the gold country of northern California, statehood seems imminent, so it is about 1850.  A landslide kills a Michigan farmer making his way to the goldfields and injures his brother (Clint Eastwood).  As Ben Rumson (Lee Marvin) and others prepare to bury the deceased brother, they discover gold in the grave.  A mining camp (No Name City) springs up on the site, and Rumson and the brother, known only as Pardner, become partners in a gold claim.

Jacob Woodling (John Mitchum), a Mormon with two wives, is passing through; they are enthralling to the exclusively male inhabitants of No Name City.  The wives don’t get along and the Woodlings need money, so Jacob is willing to auction off the younger wife, Elizabeth (Jean Seberg), with her consent.  An inebriated Ben Rumson buys her for $800, and she agrees to the arrangement if he’ll build her a permanent cabin.  He does.

Clint Eastwood, Jean Seberg, and Lee Marvin in Paint Your Wagon, 1969.

The newly married couple and their Pardner (Clint Eastwood, Jean Seberg and Lee Marvin).

In order to divert unwanted attention from his wife, the only woman in the vicinity, Rumson leads an expedition to hijack a stage carrying six “French bawds.”  They set up an establishment in No Name City and the settlement grows like a weed.  While Rumson was gone, Pardner and Elizabeth formed a relationship, and Rumson, Pardner and Elizabeth become a more or less comfortable threesome.  But matters are complicated by the arrival of a preacher, and by the Fentys, a farming family recovering after a near-death experience while trapped in the mountains.  They are staying at the Rumson cabin and are religious people who would be horrified at the unorthodox relationships in the household.  So Ben moves (temporarily) to accommodations in town, while he corrupts the Fenty’s son Horton (Tom Ligon), who takes readily to liquor, gambling and loose women.

[Spoilers follow.]  Meanwhile, Ben and Mad Jack Duncan (Ray Walston) tunnel under the establishments in town in order to get the gold dust that falls through the floorboards.  With Rumson and Duncan having honeycombed the town with tunnels, those tunnels and the town itself begin to collapse during a large bull vs. bear sporting event.  Rather than rebuild, most of the inhabitants of No Name City decide to move on, including Ben Rumson.  Elizabeth has always been adamant that she wants to stay permanently with her cabin, but after the influence of the Fentys she is no longer comfortable with her former domestic arrangements.  But Pardner stays with her, and with the departure of Rumson her situation becomes more conventional.  His name turns out to be Sylvester Newel, although he is still addressed as Pardner.

PaintWagonBehindScenesPaintWagonLernerEastwood

The cast and director behind the scenes during filming; Alan Jay Lerner chats with Clint Eastwood.

The play was first produced on Broadway in 1951 and took eighteen years to make its way to film.  It was not thought to represent Lerner and Loewe’s very best work.  The film is said to bear little relation to the original play, however.  After the success of several musical films in the 1960s, most notably My Fair Lady (1964) and The Sound of Music (1965), producers went looking for other projects to make, and the idea of Paint Your Wagon was revived for consideration.  The original plot, about an inter-ethnic love story, was discarded as being too dated.  The only elements retained from the original were the title, the Gold Rush setting and about half of the songs. In the play, Elizabeth has a very minor role, Pardner does not even appear, and Ben Rumson dies at the end.

There was a lot of talent at work on this film, with a big budget that unintentionally got bigger as production went along.  In addition to director Logan and the Lerner-Loewe team, the principal writer in adapting Lerner’s screenplay was Paddy Chayefsky.  Additional music is by André Previn, and Nelson Riddle and Roger Wagner conducted.  Incidental music is provided by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, whose members show up as extras and townspeople.  The movie was sumptuously shot by William A. Fraker near Baker, Oregon, and Big Bear Lake in California, and it’s long at 158 minutes (more than two and a half hours).  It often feels slow, with excessive drunken roistering by Rumson.  The collapsing tunnels and town sequence takes too long and is too elaborately staged.  (“Over-produced” is the term Roger Ebert used.)  The central conflict, with the evolution of Elizabeth’s domestic arrangements, does not feel all that organic or convincing.  For a fan of westerns, the principal interest in this is as a curiosity, to watch Eastwood and Marvin, both normally excellent actors, out of their element in a musical.  Although he appears much older in the film, Marvin was in fact only six years older than Eastwood at the time.  Marvin’s version of “Wand’rin’ Star” rose to No. 1 on the charts in the U.K., strangely enough.

PaintWagonPosterMaxPaintWagonSwed

Relics of another era:  A poster by psychedelic master Peter Max; and a Swedish poster.

Lee Marvin was set to star in The Wild Bunch, but Paramount offered him $1 million plus a percentage to star in this one instead.  Apparently Josh Logan found Lee Marvin’s drunken roistering excessive as well, especially that not captured on film.  Unlike normal film practices, the liquids Marvin consumed on film were mostly actual liquor.  “Not since Attila the Hun swept across Europe, leaving five hundred years of total blackness, has there been a man like Lee Marvin,” according to Logan.  Eastwood and Seberg, both married to other parties at the time, engaged in an intense affiar during filming.  Eastwood apparently found it easier to walk away from than Seberg did.

For another western comedy that starts with the discovery of gold in a grave, see Support Your Local Sheriff (also 1969).

Save

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestEmail this to someone

High Plains Drifter

Nicholas Chennault ~ June 9, 2014

High Plains Drifter—Clint Eastwood, Verna Bloom, Marianna Hill, Billy Curtis, Geoffrey Lewis (1973; Dir:  Clint Eastwood)

HighPDPosterHPDGraphic

Ben Manciewicz referred to this as an “allegorical morality tale,” heavily laced with understated mysticism.  It was the second movie directed by Clint Eastwood, his first western as a director, and the movie by Eastwood that most overtly shows the influence of Sergio Leone, one of his mentors.

This first shot is Leone-esque, with a lone rider approaching the camera from a distance through a haze.  (There will be a bookend of that shot at the end of the movie, with the lone rider leaving at a distance into a similar haze.)  Clint Eastwood is the Mysterious Stranger, one of his specialties, and, as with the earlier Leone trilogy, he is never really named.  He rides into the mining town of Lago (“Lake”), where the general vibe is fearful and unfriendly.  After an initial drink, he goes to get a shave and bath.  At the barber shop, three thugs insult and attack him until he shoots all three of them.  Outside he is repeatedly insulted by Callie Travers (Marianna Hill); he drags her into a stable and rapes her, although she appears to get into it.

HighPlainsEastwThe Mysterious Stranger rides in.

The name Billy Borders is mentioned to the Stranger:  “Don’t know the man,’ he confesses.  “You didn’t have much time to,” the sheriff replies, “because you shot him yesterday.  Billy, he wasn’t a loved man.  He didn’t have much personality and what he did have was all bad.”

It turns out that the three thugs had been hired by the town to defend it against three outlaws (Stacey Bridges and the Carlin brothers) being released from the territorial prison, and whom the town suspects harbor resentments against the citizens of Lago for sending them to prison.  Now the citizens approach the stranger to defend them, promising him anything in town that he wants.  He puts that to the test, giving blankets and candy to Indians and taking new boots for himself, and requiring the town to paint all building and structures red.  He appoints the town dwarf Mordecai (Billy Curtis) sheriff and mayor.  As he sleeps, the Stranger dreams of a man with a badge being whipped to death by three men with bullwhips.  Various townspeople refer to young Marshal Duncan, who was killed by being whipped to death.  There is some kind of collective guilt in their past related to this event.  The Marshal had discovered that the basis of the town’s prosperity, a mine, was actually on government land and not on the private property owned by the town.  He was going to report this to the authorities, so no one felt obliged to intervene when he met his vicious end.  His body is now lying outside the town in an unmarked grave: “They say the dead don’t rest without a marker of some kind…  He’s the reason this town’s afraid of strangers.”  The Stranger sees it differently:  “It’s what people know about themselves inside that makes them afraid.”

HighPlainsEastw3

The Stranger is not a typical western hero, but a morally ambiguous man given to cruelty.  He also rapes Sara Belding, who deserves it even less than Callie Travers, but who similarly seems to get into it.  Some of the townspeople turn on the Stranger, and he blows up three who try to kill him in his hotel room.  He shoots and wounds at least one of another group of assailants, who escapes out of town only to be killed by the three approaching outlaws.  The Stranger sets up the town’s defenses but leaves before the outlaws arrive.

Mordecai:  “What happens after?

The Stranger:  “Hmm?”

Mordecai:  “What do we do when it’s over?”

The Stranger:  “Then you live with it.”

HighPlainsLagoRed

Lago, now painted bright red, waiting for the outlaws.

[Spoilers of a sort follow.]  The citizens are unable to carry out the Stranger’s plan, and the three outlaws take over, with several of the townspeople being shot or otherwise killed.  With much of the town in flames, as the outlaws drink in the saloon a whip comes out of the night and drags out one outlaw standing near the bat-wing doors.  Sounds of him being whipped to death are heard, and we see his body lying in the street.  As the two remaining outlaws hunt the source of the whip, it comes from above, wraps around the neck of one and lifts him off the ground, hanging him.  That leaves only the outlaw leader Stacey Bridges (Geoffrey Lewis), who sees the long-coated stranger, pulls a gun on him and is shot several times for his pains.

As the Stranger leaves Lago, he passes the sign where the town name “Lago” has been painted over in red with “Hell.”  Mordecai is putting the final touches on a tombstone in the local cemetery as the Stranger rides past.  Mordecai says, “I still don’t know your name,” and the Stranger responds, “Yes, you do.”  And the camera shows that Mordecai’s tombstone reads “Marshal Jim Duncan,” who no longer has an unmarked grave.  Among the other graves near Duncan’s are those of S. Leone, Donald Siegel and Brian G. Hutton (director of Where Eagles Dare and Kelly’s Heroes)–all directors of films Eastwood has appeared in to date.  The Stranger rides off into the haze, just as he came.

HighPlainsDirHighPlainsDwarf

Director Eastwood setting up a scene from the top of a red building; horsing around with Mordecai (Billy Curtis) behind the scenes.

The identity of the Stranger is left ambiguous.  One version of the script had him as Duncan’s brother, but Eastwood liked the ambiguity of not being too explicit and took that reference out.  The Stranger is a figure of heartless retribution for crimes left mostly vague, not an admirable hero.  Echoes of this Stranger will reappear in kinder and more sympathetic form in Eastwood’s Pale Rider more than a decade later.  The camera work (the long shots of lone riders, the frequent tight 2/3-face closeups) are reminiscent of the spaghetti westerns that made Eastwood’s movie career, as are other surreal touches, such as the dwarf.  The heavy ambient noises (the hoofs of the Stranger’s horse, the constant sound of the wind, the disproportionately loud jangle of the Stranger’s spurs, for example) also make it seem like a spaghetti western.  It is the most existential and supernatural of Eastwood’s works as director.  While not his strongest western, it’s a cult favorite in some circles.

It confirmed him on his path to becoming a major director.  He brought High Plains Drifter in two days ahead of schedule and under budget, and it was one of the highest-grossing westerns of the 1970s.  His next western would be the classic The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976).  He was a bright spot in a decade not otherwise known for westerns.  His star was rising as John Wayne’s was fading (The Cowboys [1972] and The Shootist [1976]).  Shot on location at California’s eerie Mono Lake, 300 miles from Los Angeles on the Nevada border.  Bruce Surtees was the cinematographer.  Written by Ernest Tidyman (Shaft, The French Connection).  105 minutes.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestEmail this to someone

Great Directors: Clint Eastwood

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 25, 2014

Clint Eastwood

EastwoodDir 

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.

EastwoodDirRawhide

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.

EastwoodDirDrifter

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. 

EastwoodDirLetters

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.

EastwoodDirUnforgiven Unforgiven, 1992.

“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.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestEmail this to someone

Joe Kidd

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 24, 2014

Joe Kidd—Clint Eastwood, Robert Duvall, John Saxon, Don Stroud, Stella Garcia (1972; Dir:  John Sturges)

JoeKiddPosterJoeKiddDanish

One of the last films directed by John Sturges, with a screenplay written by Elmore Leonard.  The plot is similar to that of Valdez is Coming, which was also based on a novel by Leonard and made about the same time.  This is more predictable than Valdez, mostly by having Clint Eastwood playing Clint Eastwood in the title role but also by having a less organic plot.

This story is set in pre-statehood New Mexico Territory in 1912, starting in the small town of Sinola.  Joe Kidd (Eastwood) is a former bounty hunter and tracker hired by big rancher Frank Harlan (Robert Duvall) to help his band of well-armed thugs find Luis Chama (John Saxon), a local Latino bandit chieftain/freedom fighter/land-reform agitator.  As Harlan shows himself to be merciless and his thugs brutalize those of Latino descent they come across, Kidd realizes his mistake.  He’s fired by Harlan before he can quit, and manages to escape with Chama’s girlfriend Helen Sanchez (Stella Garcia), only to find that Chama is not as noble as the native populace would like to believe, either.  There’s a great chase through the mountains, as Kidd hunts Harlan, who’s hunting Chama and Kidd.

JoeKiddShooting

Joe Kidd (Clint Eastwood) uses an unusual modern pistol to defend himself and Helen Sanchez (Stella Garcia).

Helen Sanchez:  “He is right.  We must give ourselves up, don’t you see?  There is no other way.”

Luis Chama [clearly not a proto-feminist]:  “I do not care what you think.  I take you along for cold nights and days when there is nothing to do.  Not to hear you talk.”

Kidd leads Harlan and his men back to town, where the fight concludes in a not-terribly-believable fight, with lots of bullets flying and an improbable train crash.

Interesting elements:  (a) The brick-red pants Eastwood wears throughout the movie.  This must be an early 1970s thing.  Compare them with the red pants worn by Jim Brown in Take a Hard Ride, for example.  (b) The specialized “modern” firearms used by Harlan’s men, including the Mauser C96 pistol-with-a-stock (1896) used by Lamarr Sims (Don Stroud) and the long-range rifle–a Remington-Keene sporter (1880)–used by Olin Mingo (James Wainwright).  Special care is also shown with Frank Harlan’s Custom Savage 99 (1899) and Joe Kidd’s Cased Ross Rifle model M-10 (1910).  Apparently Elmore Leonard was behind the scrupulousness about period weaponry.  (c) Harlan’s repeated deliberate mispronunciation of Chama’s name (as “Louis Chayma”).  It gets irritating, as perhaps it’s meant to do.

JoeKiddMauser C96 “Broomhandle” Mauser

Set in 1912 New Mexico, and shot at Lone Pine and Old Tucson.  This is not one of Eastwood’s best, or Sturges’, although it’s watchable.  Apparently director Sturges commented in 1978, “There are a lot of holes in Joe Kidd–some in the script that were never fixed and some resulting from cuts made because scenes just didn’t play.”  The Harlan thugs are too unrelievedly bad and despicable, and the plot is a bit outlandish (the big finale involving a train and a not-well-choreographed shootout).  With the Sturges-Eastwood-Duvall-Leonard team, one hopes this would be better than it turns out to be.  Not a long movie, at 88 minutes.  The score is by Lalo Schifrin, who did the memorable Mission:  Impossible theme.  For another western interested in post-frontier technology and weaponry, see Big Jake, set in 1909 and made about the same time as this one.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestEmail this to someone

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.

scorseseHugo

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.

SearchersMonumentValley

·         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.

Grey_Fox_posterThousandPiecesPoster

·         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
EastwoodDrifter

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

DeTothAndre de Toth

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)     

Lang  Fritz Lang

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)

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestEmail this to someone

Hang ‘Em High

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 14, 2013

Hang ‘Em High—Clint Eastwood, Inger Stevens, Pat Hingle, Ed Begley, Bruce Dern, L.Q. Jones, Arlene Golonka, Alan Hale, Jr., Ben Johnson, James MacArthur, Dennis Hopper, Ned Romero, Bob Steele (1968; Dir:  Ted Post)

HangHighPosterHangHighJap

This grim western is a meditation (mixed with a lot of action) on justice and hanging, sort of like The Ox-Bow Incident with more action and less talk.  One injustice piles on another, with a faulty human justice system thrown into the mix. 

In Oklahoma Territory in 1889, former St. Louis lawman Jed Cooper (Clint Eastwood) has bought a herd of cattle, but they turn out to be stolen.  A posse catches up with him and blames him for the rustling and for the murder of the previous owner.  (To this point, in just a few minutes the plot is the same as that of The Ox-Bow Incident, without any of the ambivalence or remorse by some of the lynchers.)  They hang him and ride off; he is found by Marshal Dave Bliss (Ben Johnson) and cut down before he dies. 

HangHighGallowsHangHighEastwood

Hauled off in a paddy wagon to Fort Grant, Judge Fenton (Pat Hingle) sets him free and makes him a federal marshal, one of only 19 for the entire Indian Territory.  Cooper then goes after those who hanged him.  On his first trip, he captures Stone (Alan Hale, Jr.), a blacksmith who was part of the group, and Miller (Bruce Dern), a drifter who has killed the owner of a herd of cattle and enlisted two boys to help him.  Miller is pretty loathsome and worthy of hanging, but the boys aren’t.  Fenton won’t listen to Cooper and they hang the boys anyway.  The sequence in which six men are hanged is lengthy and oppressive.

Three of those in the original posse, led by Capt. Wilson (Ed Begley) come to Fort Grant and ambush Cooper in a local brothel during the hanging.  He is nursed back to health by storekeeper Rachel Warren (the haunted Inger Stevens), who meets each new group of prisoners, looking for the men who killed her husband Paul and raped her.  (The unfortunate Stevens seems to have often played a woman who is raped, as here and in A Time for Killing.)  Cooper and Rachel take to each other, but Cooper still has to go after Capt. Wilson.  He kills two of the three remaining, and Wilson hangs himself.  Cooper then tries to resign, but Fenton talks him into remaining as the price for releasing an old and dying prisoner.  At the end of the film, Cooper rides off on yet another mission for the judge.  We don’t know if he and Rachel ever do get together.

HangHighShooting

The movie clearly doesn’t much like hanging, but there are no unmitigated good guys, either—not even Eastwood’s character.  The music, by Dominic Frontiere, is obviously influenced by Morricone’s scores for Sergio Leone.  The titles are in lurid red, as was in fashion in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  This was filmed in New Mexico, and some of the territory (the white sand desert, for example) doesn’t look much like Oklahoma. 

This was Eastwood’s first western after his appearance in Sergio Leone’s very successful trilogy, and it offers the appearances of several themes that would continue through Eastwood’s career:  The lawman who has issues with authority (Dirty Harry); the mysterious gunman who comes back from the dead (High Plains Drifter, Pale Rider); and delivering prisoners against great odds (Coogan’s Bluff, Joe Kidd, The Gauntlet).  The lovely Inger Stevens appeared in several westerns about this time:  A Time for Killing, Firecreek, Five Card Stud.

HangHighCast

The principal cast:  Stevens, Eastwood, Hingle, Begley and Arlene Golonka.

There are a number of throw-away roles by well-known actors here:  Ben Johnson as the marshal who cuts down Cooper and takes him to Fort Grant; a young Dennis Hopper as a crazed “prophet” killed by Marshal Dave Bliss when he tries to escape; James MacArthur as a preacher during the mass hanging; Ned Romero as Charley Blackfoot, an Indian member of the party that hanged Cooper initially; Bob Steele as another member of the hanging party in one of his last film roles.  Pat Hingle is particularly effective as Judge Fenton, obviously based on Isaac Parker, the hanging judge at Fort Smith, Arkansas.  The appalling conditions under which prisoners are held at Fort Grant in this movie are apparently a fairly accurate representation of the prison at Fort Smith.  This was the first film produced by Malpaso, Eastwood’s production company.  Director Ted Post, who also did the second Dirty Harry movie with Eastwood, spent most of his career in television.

For another good western about a man who survives an unfair lynching and seeks revenge, see Dana Andrews (previously successfully lynched in The Ox-Bow Incident) digging up the past in Three Hours to Kill (1954).

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestEmail this to someone

Great Performances in Westerns, Part 5

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 7, 2013

Richard Farnsworth as Bill Miner in The Grey Fox

richardfarnsworthG Fox 3

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).

 CostnerDances2

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. 

CostnerOpenRange1CostnerOpenRange2

  • 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. 

GreeneDances

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.

EastwoodWales1EastwoodUnforgiven1

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.

GeorgeWales2

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.

James Stewart - destry rides again - & Marlene Dietrich

  • 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.

StewartNakedSpur

  • 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.

StewartLibertyValance

  • 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.

RideDevilWright

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.

RyanDayOutlaw2

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.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestEmail this to someone

Two Mules for Sister Sara

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 27, 2013

Two Mules For Sister Sara—Clint Eastwood, Shirley MacLaine, Manuel Fabregas (1970; Dir:  Don Siegel)

TwoMulesPosterTwoMulesPoster2

This one stars Clint Eastwood and Shirley MacLaine.  It’s directed by Don Siegel, from a story by Budd Boetticher, with music by Ennio Morricone.  All of that sounds great, right?  Somehow this is less than the sum of its parts.  Clint Eastwood has cited Don Siegel (director of Dirty Harry and The Shootist) as one of his two greatest directorial influences, along with Sergio Leone; he dedicated his last western, Unforgiven, to them. 

This features Clint in his early 1970s leather hat period (albeit the hat appears to be basically of the same design as he wears in the Dollars trilogy and Pale Rider; leather would be hotter than felt, though).  He is Hogan, a Civil War veteran and mercenary working for the Juaristas battling occupying French soldiers in northern Mexico in the 1860s.  In the movie’s opening scenes, he rescues an unclad Shirley MacLaine from three very unsavory American bandidos. 

TwoMulesEastwoodMacLaine

When she dresses, he’s surprised to find she’s a nun—Sister Sara.  She’s also working for the Juaristas, it turns out.  Hogan has agreed to help Col. Beltran (Manuel Fabregas) take the French garrison in Chihuahua in exchange for half the treasury.  Sister Sara knows the garrison well, having taught the French soldiers Spanish there before they discovered she was working for the Juaristas.  Together they devise a plan for attacking the garrison with Juarista support, so Hogan can collect his treasury, Sara can help the Juaristas, and Col. Beltran can root out the French from his country. 

TwoMulesEastwoodShoots

On their way to Chihuahua, Hogan is shot with a Yaqui arrow and Sara has to help him blow up a railroad trestle with a train full of French troops going to reinforce Chihuahua.  Arriving in Chihuahua, Sara leads them to a house with a tunnel going into the garrison—a house of ill repute, as matters develop.  Sara is a resident of the place who has disguised herself as a nun to escape French retribution.  They storm the garrison, Hogan gets his treasury, and in the end Hogan and Sara ride off together, this time with Sara in a more suitable bright scarlet. 

TwoMulesRedSara Now Red Sara.

It’s unclear what the two mules of the title refer to.  The pairing of a profane adventurer with a woman of God echoes The African Queen.  In fact, MacLaine was said to get along with neither Eastwood nor director Siegel.  As with many films from the early 1970s, much of the blood looks like red paint.  Watchable, but the script has some clunky dialogue and the story doesn’t hang together real well.  Some have suggested it would work better if Sara stayed a nun.  Story by Budd Boetticher, music by Ennio Morricone.  In color, filmed in Mexico.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestEmail this to someone

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Nicholas Chennault ~ October 23, 2013

The Good, the Bad & the Ugly—Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, Eli Wallach, Aldo Sambrell (1966; Dir:  Sergio Leone)

good-bad-ugly-poster

There are different versions of this floating around.  The one I saw most recently said it was the “extended English language version,” about three hours long.  That leaves Sergio Leone to take half an hour introducing the three principal characters, which he does in reverse order:  the ugly (Wallach’s Tuco), the bad (Van Cleef’s Sentenza-Angel Eyes) and then the good (Eastwood’s Blondie).  In particular, the sequence introducing Tuco is very reminiscent of the early part of Once Upon a Time in the West, with anonymous gunmen waiting without dialogue on a dusty and wind-swept western street and the camera frequently cutting to 2/3-face closeups.  The production values are higher than the first two in Leone’s “Dollar” or “Man With No Name” trilogy, and he clearly has a larger budget and more time to spend with his directorial tropes and mannerisms.  As in other Leone films, the dubbing is sometimes a distraction to American viewers.  Aside from the three leads, the cast was almost entirely composed of non-English speakers.

After the introductions, it is clear that Tuco and Blondie are running a scam by which Blondie turns in Tuco for the reward on his head (either $2000 or $3000).  As Tuco is being hung on horseback, Blondie springs him by severing the rope with a well-placed bullet and making the authorities duck for cover.  They move on to another town and repeat the scam.  (There’s no suggestion about what would happen if the hanging were from a gallows, rather than from horseback.)  Tuco wants a larger share than half, and he and Blondie take turns betraying each other. 

goodbadWallachEast

Meanwhile, Angel Eyes is in pursuit of $200,000 in gold.  Tuco and Blondie get wind of the same pot of gold from a dying Confederate soldier who tells Tuco the general location and Blondie the specific spot, so they then need each other to find the gold.  Disguised as Confederates, Tuco and Blondie are captured by Union soldiers and taken to a prison camp, where the sadistic sergeant turns out to be Angel Eyes.  Ultimately the three end up at a cemetery where the loot is buried and have a three-way shootout, in which Angel Eyes is killed by Blondie and Tuco finds out he has no ammunition in his gun.

Good-Bad-Ugly-VanCleef

Not much time was spent trying to come up with a story that would hang together well; it’s all about atmosphere, mood and composition.  Theoretically it takes place in the west during the Civil War.  There are references to Glorieta, and that presumably means New Mexico, where the only Civil War battle in the west took place at Glorieta Pass.  It wasn’t as big a clash as depicted in this movie.  There are also troops using trains, and there were no trains in New Mexico until about a decade after the war.  Some say this is Leone’s masterpiece; others would claim that honor for Once Upon a Time in the West.  Still others would say that For a Few Dollars More is a better movie than either.  This is brilliantly directed and beautifully filmed but short on story and cohesiveness considering its length.

The Eastwood and Van Cleef characters look just the same as they did in For a Few Dollars More, but there’s really no continuity with them from movie to movie.  Each film stands alone.  At the end of the movie, Eastwood is wearing the same sheepskin vest and serape that he wore in the other two movies.  In terms of time, this should be the last, but it’s probably the earliest, taking place during the Civil War.  In particular, Van Cleef turned out to be a sort of a good guy in For a Few Dollars More; here, he’s the Bad, and he has little of the gentlemanly quality from the prior movie.  The two movies made him a star of sorts, though, and he had a lucrative career in spaghetti westerns at this late stage.

goodbadShootout

Three-Way Shootout.

The music by Ennio Morricone is brilliant, but during the movie it’s kind of intrusive and loud.  The theme is perhaps the most familiar of any of the music from the Leone-Morricone collaboration over the years.  The direction by Sergio Leone was influential, particularly for Eastwood.  Although it’s better done (and has better production values) than most spaghetti westerns, it still has the subgenre’s weaknesses:  the interminable tight close-ups where nothing seems to be happening except sweating, the long shots of desolate landscape and a very small rider or person, the taste for the over-the-top violent and the surreal, the wildly improbable marksmanship.  Eastwood’s character is seldom without a slender cigar in his teeth, but those teeth are very white for a constant smoker.  Between playing Tuco Ramirez in this movie and Calvera in The Magnificent Seven, Eli Wallach made himself the quintessential cinematic Mexican bandit chieftain, but there’s a fair amount of the stereotype in his portrayal, too, emphasized by the frequent lingering close-ups and lots of braying laughter. 

There are lots of shots of drawn-out slow movement around almost abstract landscapes.  There is also a brilliantly edited shot where Tuco is about to shoot Eastwood. who has a noose around his neck; cut to cannon shooting, cut back to destroyed building where Tuco has fallen through a floor or two and the now empty noose where Eastwood was.  Filmed in Spain.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestEmail this to someone