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.

… only one colossus: alexander revisited (2007)

Oliver Stone’s Alexander, released in 2004, is an easy movie to mock, let alone hate—it’s long, it’s about some king dude who lived, uh, lived a long time ago and like killed a bunch of people or something, and all of the actors talk in funny accents that aren’t American.  Oh, and the lead dude, he’s gay.  I think.  In fact, the whole movie is about gay people.  And that loudmouthed liberal Oliver Stone made it.  It’s stupid.  How do I know?  Well, I’ve never actually seen it.

A lot of people in the U.S. never saw it.  Before the movie plopped into theaters, rumors had already leaked that it was bad in that special way only bloated self-indulgent Hollywood studio projects can be.  There were also plenty of outraged citizens that were upset because Stone was going to portray the mighty Alexander as bisexual, which he was, and then a whole other group was mad because he wasn’t going to be bisexual enough.  It was also supposed to be boring, the worst cinematic sin of them all.  I’d initially wanted to see it, especially on the big screen, but I chickened out.  I’d wait for it to come out on DVD.  Also, at that time, I didn’t particularly like Colin Farrell or Angelina Jolie.  I still don’t care for La Jolie, although I’ve changed my mind about Farrell after he appeared in Terrence Malick’s The New World.  That lad’s got some acting chops after all.

I never did see the theatrical version of Alexander on DVD.  I took the leap sometime later when the second version of the film, the “director’s cut,” was released on disc.  You can scrupulously check Wikipedia if I’m right, but I think Stone lopped off 20 minutes from the theatrical version then added ten new minutes of footage or so.  I wanted to like it and approached it with an open mind, but so much of it felt off.  The varying acting styles were jarring, the pacing lead-footed, and the Freudian psychoanalyzing simplistic.  I was impressed with its scope, its grandness, and with Stone’s ambition in presenting his subject in such complex, deeply flawed terms.  But it just wasn’t very good, was it?

For some reason I checked the movie out again when Alexander Revisited: The Final Cut was released on DVD in 2007.  This was the longer, “road show” version of the movie, which added 30 minutes of new footage.  But more importantly, the movie was significantly re-edited and restructured.  This third, radically altered version was like watching an entirely different movie in many ways.  I sort of loved it, albeit the love one has for a crazy friend or ex-lover.  It’s not particular healthy, but what can I do?  I’m sort of a loose one when it comes to historical epics.  I realize that for an otherwise respectable, educated middle-aged American male, that’s akin to admitting you still like heavy metal or the band Rush.  Some would argue, that’s it’s just a step up from still living in your parents’ basement or storing your urine in large water cooler bottles and hiding it in your closet.  But I can’t take it back now, can I?  I dig epics, particularly set in ancient times.

Is there any cinematic genre more stylistically cumbersome or old fashioned than the historical epic?  It’s a genre steeped in the past, rooted in images of military might, and even in the best productions, despite grandiose scenes of well-staged battles and carnage, there are moments padded with sometimes excruciating sequences of old white guys standing around pontificating about the death of empire or conspiring to wage war against other nations.  That’s a huge generalization, of course, and perhaps unfair since there are a whole lot of movies of this ilk—I’m thinking of the Italian peplum genre from the 1960s, usually focusing on the heroic exploits of Hercules or Machiste or Samson—whose production values were so piss poor they couldn’t even pull off convincing action sequences, although they were still entertaining in many ways.  But at its best, the genre could do wonders, cinematically speaking.  I’m thinking here of Anthony Mann’s The Fall of the Roman Empire and El Cid; Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus; Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, Kagemusha, and Ran; William Wyler’s Ben-Hur; The 300 Spartans; the Taylor and Burton fiasco Cleopatra, that nevertheless has many extraordinary moments; and on and on.  And then there are the neo-epics, like Braveheart, Gladiator, Troy, and the like.  None of the latter ones are brilliant, but all of them have moments of great emotional power and melodramatic allure.

Alexander Revisited: The Final Cut may be the best of the newer crop.  I can feel you running away from your computer, if you haven’t already, but it’s true.  It’s still flawed, although many of the missteps of the earlier versions have now been corrected—pacing most of all—and despite its longer running time, it flows much easier, and dare I say, it’s even relaxed.  For me, there are always going to be campy excesses that simply don’t appeal—Jolie’s performance, for example.  However, a certain level of kitsch and melodrama are simply things one must put up with when watching historical epics of this kind.  It’s part of the territory, at least in the productions coming from the West.  As a fan, you learn to ignore it or revel in it.

Stone’s aggressively muscular style and penchant for hallucinatory visuals makes him perfectly suited for this genre.  I’m surprised it took him so long to embrace it.  But he embraced it with his characteristic gusto.  And while it’s not great cinema, it is a fascinating and intelligent failure that is far more interesting to me than any number of slick, impersonal Hollywood productions from the last decade.  Alexander Revisited may come wrapped in the guise of big budget entertainment, but it’s as personal as any so-called mumblecore toss-off and as politically resonant as any of the many anti-Bush documentaries that came out over the last decade.  While it’s certainly debatable whether one should glorify a butcher, however charismatic they perhaps were, as Stone does here, I do appreciate his (along with his fellow co-screenwriters Christopher Kyle and Laeta Kalogridis) intricate and sometimes contradictory appraisal of Alexander.  The movie is about the myth-making of Alexander as much as it is about the conqueror himself.  Also, Stone, quite simply, has the guts to risk playing the fool.  And I can’t help but admire that in a filmmaker.

So what’s with all the rambling about a movie much of the American critical establishment didn’t get and that audiences over here rejected outright?[1] Because I’m not alone in my appreciation of the movie.  Earlier this week I came across a blog post–written back in March–by Dennis Cozzalio at the nifty Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule on Alexander Revisited‘s first theatrical screening at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York.  Cozzalio also conducted an interview with director Oliver Stone, which offers plenty to ponder.  I don’t always link to other blogs here, but it was a nice surprise to see this movie given some proper attention after its initial beat down.  It’s a movie worthy of reappraisal and hopefully that theatrical screening won’t be the first and last we see of it.

[1] It did well overseas and on video, hence the multiple versions released.

not for sale: winchester ’73 (1950)

This is the first of five Westerns (eight films overall) that star Jimmy Stewart made with director Anthony Mann, inaugurating one of the most fascinating actor/director combos of the classic Hollywood era.  Mann, along with Alfred Hitchcock, realized that there was a wellspring of angst and turmoil underneath Stewart’s likable, American “everyman” persona, and that if guided in the right way Stewart would not alienate audiences but keep them transfixed despite the harder-edged tone of the film and character.  We would still be able to sympathize with Stewart’s character even when he tipped over into madness (however brief), because Jimmy Stewart would never exact vengeance for the pleasure of it.  He had to have a good reason to commit bloodshed, right?

Winchester ’73 originated at Universal Pictures with producer Aaron Rosenberg and Stewart attached but with no real script or director yet involved.  Screenwriter Borden Chase, a specialist in hard-hitting manly actioneers like The Fighting Seabees (1944) and Red River (1948), was brought aboard when the first screenwriter involved Robert Richards couldn’t get things cookin’, and it was Chase who was the one to see in Stewart the need for a new post-WWII toughness.  Stewart was desperate for a career resurrection after his last three films failed to connect with the box office.  He was more than a little game to forge into this new cinematic territory.  Only problem was, would audiences be ready for a tougher, more violent Jimmy Stewart?  John Wayne made gritty Westerns, not the guy more well-known for his easy going comedic and dramatic skills.  But Chase, who had grown up on the mean streets of New York City and in the 1920s served as gangster Frankie Yale’s chauffeur for a short time before Yale ended up a corpse, knew a killer when he saw one.  “[Jimmy Stewart] was in the Air Force, he knows how to kill,” Chase said in an interview with writer/film critic/professor of cinema studies Jim Kitses in 1970.  “You know, when you command a wing of fighters in a war, you’re not exactly soft.”

Anthony Mann, a journeyman director of considerable talent best known at that time for a series of hard-boiled pictures like T-Men (1947), Raw Deal (1948), and Border Incident (1949), was eventually hired to helm the picture on Stewart’s recommendation (they’d known each other years before) after Fritz Lang declined the job.  The resulting film became a huge success for the studio and specifically for Stewart who had taken a 50% share on the film’s profits instead of an upfront salary.  But the more important upswing surrounding Winchester ’73‘s success was that a new artistic partnership had been forged.  Over the next decade, Stewart and Mann would team up for seven other films–Bend of the River (1952), The Naked Spur (1953), Thunder Bay (1953), The Glenn Miller Story (1954), The Far Country (1955), Strategic Air Command (1955), and The Man from Laramie (1955)–most of them Westerns that are comparable in many ways to the finest of John Ford’s shoot ’em ups with John Wayne, though with far more Oedipal melodrama and intense psychological complexity bordering on the noirish than anything Ford and Duke would ever sully themselves with.   This was a new kind of Western in which conflict generated from within the main protagonist as much as it came from exterior dramatic circumstances.  The Mann/Stewart Westerns (three of them written with Chase) would betray the cracks deepening within the American postwar psyche, giving us doubt, turmoil, and showing a frightening, blinding rage hiding beneath the veneer of the good guy’s quest for redemption and honor.

In Winchester ’73, Stewart is no cowboy anti-hero, although he foreshadows how such a character would be shaped into misshapen idolization under the direction of Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah more than a decade later.  The significant nudge into more mature territory that Winchester ’73 was attempting, moving away from the oaters of the past where divisions between good and evil were clearly recognized and into more complex psychological terrain,  was the inevitable evolutionary step for a genre that had already changed drastically since the Edison company tried to capture the American West on film with the short Cripple Creek Baroom in 1898 and Edwin S. Porter made cinema history with the more narrative-driven one-reeler, The Great Train Robbery (1903).

Winchester ’73 centers on the fabled “Gun that Won the West” and the strange attraction it held for those who coveted such a tool to tame the land.

The 1873 model was a limited edition.  Highly prized for its accuracy, durability, and efficiency.

It was a rare and beautiful machine.

Lin McAdam (Stewart) and his sidekick “High-Spade” (Millard Mitchell) ride into Dodge City on the hunt for the man who killed McAdam’s father.

Vengeance is good and all, but not in Dodge City.

In town, Wyatt Earp (Will Geer) is the law and guns have no place there except when he wields one.

Or when you can shoot for fun.

A July 4th shooting contest to be exact.

Winner wins a Winchester ’73 rifle.

McAdam is a good shot.  He beats everyone but one fella…

Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally)…

The cagey bastard he’s been hunting…

Who also happens to be talented with the ways of the gun.

After a few rounds, the stalemate holds tough.

So it comes down to McAdam…

If he can shoot through the postage stamp fixed to a coin as it flies through the air…

He wins.

McAdam wins the rifle and is given the option to have his very own name engraved on the metal plate affixed to the weapon.

Being that McAdam is a no-nonsense kind of guy, he declines.

He’s got more important things to deal with…

Like chase down loser Dutch Henry who has just split town with his gang…

Or so we thought.

Seems ol’ Dutch doesn’t like to lose.

And he doesn’t like to be hunted, either.

Dutch wants the Winchester, too.

And he figures he’s mean enough to take it.

But this rage inside of McAdam is something fierce.

He’s been living with it so long.

It’s rooted deep within him…

This lonely wilderness of pain within.

He’s been living with it so long.

It’s so easy to get lost within it…

Forget why you’re on this path in the first place…

That’s why it’s important to remain clear…

Keep focused on the task at hand…

That’s what Pa always said, right?

If you don’t keep it together and work hard…

You’re liable to lose control of the situation…

You’re liable to get yourself hurt…

Or wind up something worse.

There are always tougher hombres out there.

Sometimes it’s best just to let them win the battle.

It’s not about the gun anyway.

It’s about the long-haul.

It’s about biding one’s time.

Remembering why you’re at this moment in the first place.

What it took to get there…

And all the suffering that came along with it.

The “winning of the West” wasn’t just about brute force.

For some men, like McAdam, it was about weighing your options…

Knowing when to lie down on the floorboards and take a beating…

Remaining cool… in the moment…

Because the cool guy is the one who gets the job done.

It’s all about balance.

Never letting the rage within consume you…

It’s the guy who eases back on the trigger who stays alive.

Because it’s the angry ones who get themselves killed…

And wind up the subject matter for another person’s idiosyncratic blog.

and it’s a battered old suitcase…

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Living abroad, basically out of a backpack, prevents one from maintaining the lifestyle of a pack rat. Before splitting from Portland for European lands, my comrade in mischief and I sold off hundreds of books to Powell’s Books. And what they wouldn’t take, we gave away. Although we started packing and getting rid of items a month in advance, the pressure to clear out our cluttered yet pleasantly comfortable apartment was cranked up pretty high those last two weeks. So plenty of books and VHS tapes went to neighbors, acquaintances, and strangers. What we chose to keep–still a good, solid library–got packed up and is supposedly safe and sound in some climate controlled wonderland waiting for us to return one day. My DVDs all went to a friend for safe keeping. No doubt they will be put to good use.

But some of my discs managed to escape being orphaned and are currently accompanying me on my journeys. In the past, when I had traveled “close to the ground,” the thought of having immediate access to films was absurd. And though I would occasionally dream of having films at my disposal, the idea was completely within the realm of science fiction. In the early 1990s, during my first lengthy trip to Europe, I was basically living in a cave. No, seriously. Well, it was a small, unheated one room flat with stone walls and only a wood stove to heat the place. I craved movies, but I craved heat even more. The last time that I was overseas for an extended period of time was 1996, DVDs were still a year away from entering the forum of mainstream acceptability, and therefore the idea of packing a bunch of them with me was ridiculous. I might as well have had access to a jet pack.

Not that I would want to take a traveling case of discs with me anyhow. Traveling, at least the way I’ve always done it, has been about surrendering the comforts of home, relinquishing the familiar, and attempting to reconnect with the alleyways of life.

Anyway, books were more transportable.

Things are different now. Because of work, I have to have access to films, or at least access to the machine that can bring them to life: a laptop. So I brought some with me and it ended up being a perfect opportunity to test out the “desert island” theory of film watching. You’re on a desert island and you can only bring twenty-five films. What films do you bring?

I stowed away a fair bit. Films that would inspire, would sharpen the intellectual batteries, would amuse, would withstand the repeat factor, and would continue to charge the imagination when nothing else would. There was also “homework” to consider, so a few of those ended up with me as well, though most of the required viewing is still back in Oregon awaiting orders to re-enlist for duty.

So what did make the cut? Obvious favorites, to be sure: Seven Samurai, Blade Runner (in all its permutations), Goodbye, Dragon Inn, Le Samurai, Heart of Glass, The Conformist, Curse of the Demon/Night of the Demon, Suspiria, the Sergio Leone westerns, Bad Timing, The Thin Red Line, The Searchers and some other Ford/Wayne westerns, The Wild Bunch, a whole lot of Mario Bava and other European horror films from the 1960s, Barry Lyndon, some Godard, some Truffaut, a couple of Japanese horror films, a couple of samurai films, all of the Val Lewton films, and Lifeforce. Yes, Lifeforce, the craptacular 1985 Tobe Hooper movie. I also tossed in Marcel Carné’s Children of Paradise because I’ve never seen it (an embarrassing admission) and what better time to watch it than when abroad and more likely to have a little time to spare for a 190 minute masterpiece. I’d received the Criterion Collection disc for a review that never panned out and was always waiting for that appropriate rainy day. Well, it took a few years and me having to leave my abode to do it, but I plan on watching it soon.

When planning my exile, I’d expected to watch plenty of films. I purchased a good, compact traveling case and stuffed it with digital goodies. Much to my surprise, my old ways have sort of kicked in again. I haven’t watched much. The first month we were too much on the go, getting acclimated to traveling again. But this last month we’ve been stationary, so we managed to watch The Devil’s Backbone, The Wicker Man (the original 1973 Robin Hardy film not the LaBute/Cage carnival of guffaws) and a couple of nights ago I settled into the Lewton/Robson film The Ghost Ship. More about that last one in a near-future post.

This new, more accommodating style of traveling is weird. I’m not complaining, mind you. But it’s still weird to have the luxury of being seemingly so far from “home,” so far from the familiar and yet be so connected. It’s not exactly like I’m in some mountain retreat at the moment, so I’m not too worked up about it. But it does make me wonder that if I was on a real desert island, I think watching a movie would be the last thing on my “to-do” list.