when you have to shoot… shoot… don’t talk: eli wallach

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Character actor Eli Wallach turns 97 years old today. I’ve said it for years that he’s right at the top of my list of people to have dinner with, because he’s a brilliant raconteur and you know the evening would be filled with entertaining stories. He’s long been a favorite and it’s difficult picking just one brilliant performance by him. I love so many of his scene-stealing roles in various movies: Baby Doll (his first feature), The Lineup (a nifty crime movie), The Magnificent Seven (one of the great first scenes), The Misfits, Lord Jim, and more recently in his memorable small role in The Ghost Writer.

He’ll always be Tuco to me, however. Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (Wallach plays “the Ugly”) is epic stuff, rich in visual texture and sublime in aural majesty. Like all of Leone’s movies, what makes them brilliant is the direction and the score by Ennio Morricone. Acting is always subservient to that. That doesn’t mean great performances can’t be seen in these movies. All three of the leads in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly are fantastic and Wallach in particular gives a ferociously entertaining performance.

There’s a little Tuco in all of us.

To celebrate this man’s latest birthday, here’s one of the final scenes in the movie, showing Tuco running through the cemetery looking for the grave of Arch Stanton… where the gold awaits. It’s a deliriously operatic moment and a fitting prologue to the violent showdown, which can be seen directly below it.

Happy birthday, Mr. Wallach.

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all according to the law: the great silence (1968)

 

The Italian film industry during the mid-to-late 1960s was cranking out Westerns at a prodigious rate, a trend that started after the box office success of Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars in 1964.  That movie was a gritty, ecstatically violent remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (which was loosely based on Dashiell Hammett’s crime novel Red Harvest), and it made an international star out of relatively unknown actor Clint Eastwood.  Hundreds of so-called spaghetti Westerns flooded the market over the next few years.  Many of them are excellent–Django, The Big Gundown, A Bullet for the General, to name a few–and they rank among the greatest Westerns ever made, especially Leone’s subsequent contributions to the genre–For a Few Dollars More, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and Once Upon a Time in the West.  But none of them can match the darkness awaiting you in Sergio Corbucci’s 1968 classic, The Great Silence.

“I’m going to shoot every one of these people here,” a bounty hunter named Loco (Klaus Kinski) states near the end of the movie to Pauline (Vonetta McGee), before he does just that.  Pauline’s husband was killed by Loco and she hires a mute bounty hunter, Silence (Jean-Louis Trintignant), to avenge his death.  Although Silence is a lethal killer and exudes a sexy coolness that was de rigueur for any antihero worth their leather chaps in those days, he’s sauntered into the wrong movie.  He’s doomed.

Corbucci’s world is dominated by corruption–the Utah town where the story is set is ruled by bounty hunters and venal authorities.  The majority of the townspeople–men like Pauline’s husband–have been branded outlaws because they’ve had to resort to stealing food to survive, which is why so many bounty hunters have swarmed into the area… business is a-boomin’.

Silence is a man of violence.  He makes his living off the blood of others, but he avenges the poor and is anti-authoritarian, another strong plus for any proper gunslinger in the age of rock ‘n’ roll.  John Wayne–who during the same time always represented larger-than-life father figures and men of the establishment–was square.  Duke represented the hardhats and Nixon’s Silent Majority.  He was your dad.

Silence, on the other hand, was who young guys wanted to be and who everyone wanted to be with.  He was lean, sharp, and European.  Trintignant was French and decidedly cool.  Arguably even cooler than Eastwood’s Man with No Name character.

But not even Silence could get out of Corbucci’s movie alive.  Evil is not vanquished.  There’s not even room for an ambiguous finale, a stalemate where Silence and Loco are allowed to go their separate ways, each the hero in their own narratives.  Silence dies, Pauline dies, the townspeople all die, and Loco and his men ride off to destroy the lives of others for another day.  Loco even plucks Silence’s pistol from his cold dead broken hand and keeps it for himself.

It sounds like a movie you’d never want to see unless you were a complete masochist, right?  It’s certainly not for the timid, but The Great Silence is also a movie of frail beauty and melancholy, something that you can’t really say about a lot of spaghetti Westerns.  But it’s not a particularly beautiful looking movie, despite its striking snowbound, mountainous setting.  The typical dusty and dry Almeria locale seen in countless Italian Westerns is gone.  Corbucci filmed in the Dolomites instead, isolating his characters in ice and snow, effectively stripping the movie of duels in the sun and horse chases across cracked earth.  Even Ennio Morricone’s score is plaintive and haunting, removed from his usual operatic majesty.

Then there’s Kinski.  A fixture in spaghetti Westerns, Kinski shines darkly here like never before.  At least, I’ve never seen him in anything that rivals this black-hearted bastard of a character.  It’s simply one of his finest performances, though not one sans humor.  Kinski’s eyes flash with secret wisdom throughout and there’s a moment of modest brilliance when a character shoots off his hat at one point and Kinski flicks back his head, his hair whipping back away from his eyes, as if to show that it was no big thing.  Even under pressure, he was going to remain unscathed.  Fearless.  And that as an actor, no indignity was going to seep into him.  Vonetta McGee and Trintignant are marvelous, as is Frank Wolff (an American character actor who worked plenty in Italian features, usually as a bad guy) who plays the local sheriff, the only decent authority figure in the movie.

The Great Silence has a lot going for it, despite its unapologetic nihilism.  It lacks the stylistic finesse of Leone, but its ruthless butchery of Old West mythology and its critique of unbridled capitalism and authority is spot on.  Perhaps not the kind of movie you want to pop on for a night of escapist entertainment, though it’s certainly satisfying and one of the great spaghetti Westerns.

The video at the top is a little homage I put together.  Another one of my experiments.  Hope you enjoy it.

the traitor klaus and me

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I’ve been guilty of spreading aural mayhem via mix tapes and discs to unsuspecting friends in the past. The “gifts” were never intended as unprovoked attacks or as some latent resentment finally manifesting itself in the guise of discordant electronic assaults, primitive black metal howls, Japanese noise punk, or stabs of 1980s hardcore. To balance out the aggression, I’d usually toss in some Italian film library tracks or some Eno or some “apocalyptic folk” or some Boyd Rice spoken word stuff to go with the misanthropy and martinis.

To no one’s surprise but my own, I rarely received requests for more tapes. I was even accused of attempted assault in one case. So, I quit making them. I took my finger off the record button.

Last year, I changed my tack when I made a mix disc for a long lost friend who had reemerged into my life. Wanting to document in impressionistic hues the last twenty years of my life (I hadn’t been in contact with this person for that long), I collected a wide range of music that, I thought, perfectly charted the highs and lows of my interior life sans the aural mayhem. Darkness as a theme was certainly not denied entrance, but it wouldn’t dominate (because that would be a lie) as it had in those other discs. The music this time around would actually be intended to be enjoyed, listened to, and would warrant repeat sessions.

One of my earlier victims had long promised me one of his own mix disc creations. I was never sure whether to be thankful, afraid, or resigned to the cold dish of you-know-what awaiting me. But as the weeks passed into months and then years, I realized that I was going to make it out of America with ear drums intact, spinal column in place, and ego still propped up.

Just days before I left my hometown (yet again), my friend brought me a package. This was no simple one disc toss off. This was an eleven disc boxed set. This was a gift, a touching memento, this was… demented. On the train back east, I pretended it didn’t exist. On the flight to Dublin, I vaguely remembered that my companion had it nestled securely inside her bag. I pulled out the monstrosity while in the west of Ireland, and marveled at each thematically structured disc:

Greatest Ballads of Porn: Matthew Sweet, The Stones, Neko Case, The Kinks, The Frogs, The Beach Boys, Warren Zevon, Otis Redding, among others.

Some of the Best Songs in the Lower Half of My Collection (S-Z): Tom Waits, Frank Zappa, Todd Rundgren, Zevon, XTC, The Vaselines, Television, Tenacious D, among others.

Fake Wes Anderson Imitation Soundtrack Made Cheaply and Carelessly for the Movie…: The Kinks, Richard and Linda Thompson, Simon and Garfunkel, Sleater-Kinney, Nilsson, The Soft Boys, among others.

Budget Makeout CD: Big Black, Mastodon, Metallica, Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, Naked City, Rush, Queens of the Stone Age, among others.

Schlochkenmachen: Sabbath, The Boredoms, Thinking Fellers Union Local 282, Styx, Beck, Dylan, Captain Beefheart, among others.

Vegetarian Skinheads Getting Pissed Viddying Oprah at the Pub; a Musical Odyssey: The Frogs, The Beatles, Patti Smith, Cheap Trick, The Buzzcocks, Elmore James, The Flaming Lips, The Handsome Family, among others.

The Traitor Klaus “What is Friend?”: Big Star, The Feelies, Gang of Four, Sonic Youth, The Black Keys, Gary Numan, The Clash, Elvis Costello, Neil Young, Ennio Morricone, among others.

The beauty of the selections was staggering. Also included were two discs of Blue Oyster Cult recordings (we share a love), a disc of Zeppelin, and a disc of jazz (Davis, Coltrane, Coleman). When I finally surrendered to the majesty of the collection, I can’t put into words how wondrous the journey was. It’s still going on….

What is friend? Oh yes, my comrades, I think I know the answer to that one.