Tag Archives: Trains

Union Pacific

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 15, 2013

Union Pacific—Joel McCrea, Robert Preston, Brian Donlevy, Barbara Stanwyck (1939; Dir:  Cecil B. Demille)

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In the movies’ greatest year, we had this rare western by one of the cinema’s greatest showmen.  It obviously had a big budget, being made in the DeMille style, and was promoted very expensively.  As well as being a great year for movies generally, 1939 was also a good year for westerns, with this, Dodge City, Stagecoach, Destry Rides Again, Frontier Marshal and the misbegotten curiosity The Oklahoma Kid.

UnionPacificLeads The romantic triangle.

Joel McCrea, a bigger star than John Wayne at the time, is Jeff Butler, a troubleshooter for the Union Pacific Railroad at the End of Track, wearing two guns with pistol butts facing forward.  His childhood and Civil War friend is Dick Allen (Robert Preston, charming in his first big part), now in the process of drifting over to the dark side for a big score.  They are both romantically interested in Molly Monahan, played with a painfully thick Irish brogue by Barbara Stanwyck.  Brian Donlevy, as one would expect, is the principal villain as Sid Campeau, the slimy saloon owner who corrupts Allen.  (See a young Anthony Quinn briefly as a sleazy gambler and Campeau confederate Jack Cordray, who tries to shoot Butler in the back.  The screen’s original Tarzan, Elmo Lincoln, is said to be an uncredited player in this, too.)

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Its overarching story is the driving of the Union Pacific railroad line westward after the Civil War to meet the Central Pacific, overcoming all obstacles:  outlaws, Indians, snow, unmet payrolls and unfriendly mountain terrain.  The golden spike used in the meeting-of-the-lines scene is the real spike from 1869, borrowed from Stanford University.  McCrea and Preston are very good in this, Stanwyck a little less so, although that may not be her fault with her part written so faux-Irish.  Butler ultimately values his friendship with Allen and is able to escape hanging his friend, even when it becomes obvious that Allen has been involved in train robberies.  As one would expect, Allen redeems himself as he dies at the end.  At this stage of his career, Preston seemed to specialize in this kind of a role–the friend who goes bad (see North West Mounted Police, Whispering Smith and Blood on the Moon, for example).

UnionPacificIndianAttack Indian attack!

There’s a fair amount of spectacle here, with two train crashes (one caused by Indians, one caused by snow) and a major Indian attack, in addition to the nefarious outlaws.  It’s in black and white, but so were most movies in 1939, especially westerns.  (The exception:  see Dodge City, below.)  Compare this with the later (1941) technological western and winning-of-the-west epic Western Union, featuring Randolph Scott as the conflicted lead who has to sort out his loyalties while (a) being tempted by the dark side and (b) playing off straight arrow Robert Young.  Both movies are quite watchable.

DeMille didn’t make many westerns, but some would say that he invented the feature-length western with The Squaw Man in 1914.  By 1939, he’d been making movies for more than 25 years already.

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Once Upon a Time in the West

Nicholas Chennault ~ October 24, 2013

Once Upon A Time In The West—Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, Jason Robards, Claudia Cardinale, Gabriele Ferzetti, Woody Strode, Jack Elam, Lionel Stander, Keenan Wynn (1968; Dir:  Sergio Leone)

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Leone takes his leisurely time getting into the movie.  The lengthy introductory sequence and credits aren’t done until almost half an hour into the film.  It’s interesting to watch as an exercise in filmmaking, and it’s very atmospheric, with little dialogue.

Some think that this spaghetti western may be Leone’s masterpiece and one of the ten greatest westerns ever.  Leone had a bigger budget to work with than with any of his Clint Eastwood trilogy.  Visually, it’s probably his best.  There’s a shot where Harmonica (Charles Bronson as an Eastwood-esque mysterious stranger) looks out a doorway at people building the new town of Sweetwater, and the scene is beautifully composed.  It has a very good cast, with the exception of Cardinale, whose voice is dubbed to get rid of her accent.  Frank (Henry Fonda, in a rare bad-guy role) is a killer-for-hire, now working for a ruthless crippled railroad baron (Gabriele Ferzetti).  He disposes of Brett McBain, owner of a ranch with water that could delay the railroad, not realizing that McBain’s new wife Jill (Cardinale), a New Orleans prostitute, is about to arrive and will have to be dealt with as well.  Harmonica and Cheyenne (Jason Robards) are more or less good guys—Harmonica of mysterious origins and Cheyenne as a local bandit chieftain falsely blamed for the McBain killings.  Obviously all this will get sorted out, but it will take its time.

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Henry Fonda as Frank the killer, in dark makeup to emphasize blue eyes.

Even if it’s very well done, this movie still has many of the weaknesses of its subgenre:  Less emphasis on storytelling, more on insistent reaching for emotional reactions through visual images and close-ups; over-the-top violence, although not nearly as bad as in The Wild Bunch, which was in production at the same time; lingering close-ups on faces (frequently from below) and eyes.  It’s a self-conscious epic, slow-moving and seemingly in love with the process of conceiving and making the movie rather than with the story it’s telling.  That deprives it of narrative thrust, but may make it more attractive to auteurs.  The dialogue is extremely sparse, even though the movie is 164 minutes long.  Henry Fonda’s eyes seem abnormally blue, because he’s wearing lots of dark facial makeup; so is Charles Bronson.  The gorgeous cinematography makes some of the best use of Monument Valley since John Ford.  Some of the movie was filmed in Spain.  A buggy ride taken by Cardinale and Paolo Stoppa starts in Spain and ends up in Monument Valley in the U.S.  The music is by Ennio Morricone, including some nice symphonic stretches but notable mostly for effective use of the harmonica, identified with Bronson’s character.  Bernardo Bertolucci (director of Last Tango in Paris in the early 1970s) was one of the writers, along with Dario Argento, who became a one-man Italian horror film industry. 

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The voices are a bit of a problem, too, for a big-budget film.  The Italian mode of filmmaking involved shooting film without recording any sound, leaving all sound and dialogue to be dubbed in later.  That means there’s usually some form of disconnect with the film, especially when, as with Claudia Cardinale, the sound you hear when she speaks isn’t her own voice.  In the lengthy opening sequence, with the creaking sound of the windmill and Jack Elam’s killer trying fitfully to get a fly off his face without using his hands, Elam has only a few words of dialogue, but it’s jarring that they’re not in his voice.  (His mismatched eyes and rough features have never been so lovingly captured on film, though.)  Bronson, Robards and Fonda, at least, are recognizable by their voices, but sometimes the modulation and ambient sound seem wrong.  That’s true with the harmonica theme, too, when Bronson’s supposed to be playing it and the acoustics are wrong. 

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Harmonica (Charles Bronson) gets the drop on Frank (Henry Fonda).

Leone and his collaborators reportedly immersed themselves in watching the great westerns before making this, and there are lots of references from these films.  Both Clint Eastwood and James Coburn are said to have turned down the role of Harmonica.  Robert Ryan was to have played the sheriff (actually played by Keenan Wynn), but had to back out when his role in The Wild Bunch got larger.  John Landis is a stunt double.  This was Leone’s last western, unless you count Duck, You Sucker, a story set during the Mexican revolution for which Leone served as producer and perhaps director.

Debate as you may whether this is one of the ten best, or even one of the 55 greatest westerns.  What cannot be debated is that to have any kind of informed opinion you have to see this and Leone’s Man with No Name Trilogy.  They represent the very best of spaghetti westerns and a new approach that has influenced western movies ever since.

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Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 27, 2013

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid—Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Katharine Ross (1969; Dir:  George Roy Hill)

While True Grit in the same year was a backward-looking western playing off the traditions of the genre, Butch Cassidy looks ahead.  The language and humor are modern, and were more revolutionary when this movie was released than they seem now.  There are more overtly and self-consciously cinematic techniques used.  For example, the movie occasionally slides into sepia tones to reproduce the effects of old photographs; it even opens with such a sequence as it introduces Butch and Sundance to us.  And the “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” interlude where Butch rides a bicycle and frolics with Etta Place and a belligerent bull is reminiscent of the singing scene from Rio Bravo, although Burt Bacharach’s music here is better, if more irrelevant to what’s going on in the rest of the movie.  The soundtrack was immensely popular in its time, and the “Raindrops” song won an Oscar for Best Song.

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Paul Newman, of course, plays Butch Cassidy and Robert Redford is the Sundance Kid.  They were so good in these roles that they touched off a vogue in “buddy” movies, where the primary relationship was a friendship between two males.  The peak of this trend was 1973’s The Sting with the same stars and director, which won the Best Picture Academy Award.  Butch Cassidy is so enjoyable that it has a lot of re-watchability.  For someone who is not familiar with westerns, this movie might be a good place to start.

The plot deals with the late stages of the career of the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang.   Historically, it was sometimes called the Wild Bunch, not to be confused with the fictional outlaws in the Peckinpah movie with that title or with the Doolin-Dalton gang based in Oklahoma, sometimes referred to by that name.  The gang is led by mastermind Butch Cassidy, who is slowly coming to the conclusion that there isn’t much future in the train-robbing business at the end of the 19th century, as the railroads devote more resources to his capture and become better at pursuing him. 

The movie opens with two brilliant sequences.  First, with the opening credits, is a pseudo-version of The Great Train Robbery, followed by a sepia-toned card game that establishes the tone for the movie with its dialogue, as well as setting the characters for Butch and Sundance.  As the movie goes to full color, it features two actual train robberies and their aftermath.  Butch and Sundance escape their relentless pursuers, but only with great difficulty.  They take temporary refuge with Etta Place, a rural school teacher and the girlfriend of Sundance, with whom Butch enjoys the musical bicycle interlude.  Etta is played by the luminous Katharine Ross, then best known for her breakthrough role a couple of years earlier in The Graduate.  (These two movies represent the peak of her cinematic career.)  And Etta doesn’t come between Butch and Sundance.

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Foolin’ around, during a musical interlude that shows off the David-Bacharach music but doesn’t do much to advance the plot.

Using their ill-gotten train-robbery gains, the trio stops in New York to see the sights on the way to South America.  They travel to Bolivia and try to go straight, but that doesn’t work for them and they take up bank robbery again as Los Bandidos Yanquis.  Eventually tracked down by the Bolivian army in the small town of San Vicente, they shoot it out, ending the movie with the famous final freeze-frame shot of the wounded Butch and Sundance emerging with guns blazing from the room where they’ve taken cover.  For many, it’s a more effective end for characters we’ve come to care about than the final slow-motion violence of The Wild Bunch or Bonnie and Clyde.

Butch was an immensely attractive character, both in real life and as portrayed by Newman in this movie.  It is now hard to imagine anybody but Redford as Sundance, although the role reportedly almost went to Steve McQueen.  Newman and Redford are very persuasive, both in their individual roles and as friends.  The cast is excellent, top to bottom.  Ross is very good, although there are times when her character seems extraneous.  The various members of the gang are very good, too, although Ted Cassidy is physically much larger than the actual Harvey Logan, the meanest and perhaps most dangerous man in the gang.  (See the famous photograph of the bunch taken in Fort Worth, where Harvey Logan appears much more innocuous.)  Strother Martin makes a memorable appearance as a “colorful” Bolivian mine manager.  Jeff Corey, who was the killer Tom Chaney in True Grit, is a sympathetic sheriff here.  This was also the film debut of Ross’s future husband, Sam Elliott, but he’s hard to spot.

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The famous photograph of the Wild Bunch taken in Fort Worth in 1901, with Sundance in the left front and Butch in the right front.  Harvey Logan is standing on the right.

There is violence in this movie, and not just from blowing up safes and railroad cars.  Aside from all the shooting in the final scene, there is also a scene where Butch and Sundance take back from Bolivian bandits the mine payroll they were hired to protect.  In Bonnie and Clyde fashion, the shootout and the resulting deaths are in slow motion–except here the slow motion is stopped with the hail of bullets, so the last image of the two is of them in action.

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Butch and Sundance take on the Bolivian army.

The script by William Goldman (The Princess Bride) is an acknowledged gem, and it won the Academy Award for Best Screenplay.  Lines from it are bandied between aficionados of the genre:  “Rules, in a knife fight?”  “Can I move?  I’m better when I move.”  “Woodcock, is that you?”  “Think you used enough dynamite there, Butch?”  “You just keep thinkin’, Butch.  That’s what you’re good at.”  “If he’d just pay me what he’s spending to make me stop robbing him, I’d stop robbing him.”  “Who are those guys?”  “Boy, I got vision, and the rest of the world wears bifocals.”  The squabbling of Butch and Sundance sometimes sounds like an old married couple, but it’s effective.  The film was included at no. 73 on the American Film Institute’s list of the greatest American films of all time (http://www.afi.com/100years/movies10.aspx).

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As with True Grit, much of the movie was shot in Colorado; the Bolivian scenes were shot in Mexico.  The cinematographer was the excellent Conrad Hall, who won the Oscar for Best Cinematography for his work here.  The movie was nominated for Best Picture but lost to Midnight Cowboy.

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