Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Underrated Westerns - Blake Lucas

Blake Lucas is a writer and film critic living in Los Angeles. Some of his writing on cinema may be found in the anthologies The Western ReaderThe Film Comedy Reader and The Science Fiction Film Reader, in Defining Moments in Movies (The Little Black Book: Movies in U.K. and Australia), and in The Film Journal and Undercurrent online, as well as in over 100 individual essays on films, filmmakers, film history and film theory in Magill's Survey of Cinema (English-Language, Silent and Foreign Language) and Magill's Cinema Annuals, and in a monograph on John Ford translated into French (“Vers le nouveau monde”) for a 1995 retrospective at the Cannes Film Festival. Formerly a regular film critic for the LA Reader before that weekly closed.

I will cut to the chase.  Though I am one whose embrace of world cinema is wide, the Western at its peak is a genre without equal—as an artistic form, as entertainment that any audience can warm up to, as sophisticated reflection of history reimagined as myth.  This being the case, all but a very few great Westerns may be said to be underrated.  Very few were ever prestige seeking, but that is one of their strengths.  They could just do whatever they wanted and needed to do—and unselfconsciously, though I’d have to qualify that with more recent Westerns.  The height of classicism and fullest flowering of the Western was surely the postwar years 1946-1962, and especially the 1950s, so all my choices are from that decade of so many outstanding Westerns.  I’ve gone to movies no one else here has chosen (I will qualify that with one that was mentioned in passing), and as many underrated movies I might have gone with have already been chosen by other contributors, that made it easier.  But that said, I could not have come up with a group that would have satisfied me more than this one in any event.

THE LAST POSSE (1953; directed by Alfred Werker)
In this 73-minute black-and-white gem, the unexpected hero is a legendary lawman who has aged into a weary and seemingly ineffectual alcoholic (Broderick Crawford) and the posse after the outlaws don’t even want him with them, but he goes anyway.  Beginning as the posse returns to town after their eventful mission, most of the story is unusually told in flashbacks revolving around a young man (John Derek) and his relationships with both Crawford’s character and the powerful rancher (Charles Bickford) who raised him, with the story going in dramatic, unexpected directions out on the trail before it resolves.  Crawford is not the first actor I would think of as the center of a Western, but he is superb, while the rest of a fine cast includes Skip Homeier and Wanda Hendrix; and as in so many memorable Westerns, expressive Lone Pine locations serve for exteriors.  The 50s is a treasure trove of movies like this one, but one reason it’s close to my heart is that I’m certain it was the first time I went to a first-run double feature and the unheralded Western serving as co-feature was by far the more memorable of the two movies (for the record, the main feature was the good enough SOUTH SEA WOMAN).

FOUR GUNS TO THE BORDER  (1954: directed by Richard Carlson)
 Sometimes one sees a movie at what is in one way or another an impressionable age, and returning to it as an adult, it is no longer as striking or provocative, but that has not been the case for me with this still too little known Technicolor work from Universal-International, film for film the studio I would give an edge for Westerns of this period, always so resourcefully but beautifully produced.  Derived from a story by Louis L’Amour, the film concerns four outlaws (Rory Calhoun, John McIntire, George Nader, Jay Silverheels) who encounter an old gunfighter (Walter Brennan) and his beautiful young daughter (Colleen Miller) at a way station in the desert en route to a robbery in a town that has bitter memories for Calhoun’s character.  What happens at the 26-minute mark is extraordinary—arainswept nocturnal encounter between Calhoun and Miller that remains, through its six-minute length, one of the most beautiful and erotic love scenes you will ever see in a movie.  Creatively and lovingly realized by actor-turned-director Carlson and with cinematography by the great Russell Metty worthy of his films with Douglas Sirk, the sequence is also part of a rich redemption narrative that is exciting and absorbing throughout.

THE LAST OF THE FAST GUNS (1958; directed by George Sherman)
David P. Harmon’s wonderful original screenplay for this fortunately fell into the hands of Sherman, my choice for most underrated of the greatest Western directors (and the only one in my top tier represented in these choices), who, in his full artistic maturity and in a period of relative independence, returned to U-I for this project which he filmed (in ‘Scope and color) in awesome Mexican locations I have not seen in any other movie.  The premise of the story—the eponymous gunfighter (Jock Mahoney) is hired to search for a missing man south of the border—is only the beginning of a rich parable which does have all the resonance of that great title, as the hero, dressed in black, journeys into the mountains with a new, sympathetic friend (Gilbert Roland), dressed in white, and meets a priest (Eduard Franz) who is attuned to the gunman’s soul and sees his deep yearning for inner peace.  Along the way, the movie quietly and movingly evokes a present Western twilight, and once more, redemption and renewal, the leading themes of 50s Westerns, are treated with artful simplicity, and even more satisfyingly than usual.  For me, there is no Western at once so unknown and so worthy of discovery as this one.

THESE THOUSAND HILLS (1959; directed by Richard Fleischer)
Adapted from a novel by A. B. Guthrie, Jr. that was the last part of an ambitious trilogy of the West (THE BIG SKY and THE WAY WEST were the others), this handsome Foxproduction in ‘Scope and Color with great Colorado locations appears to have been an “A” film but in what may be the Western’s best year, it was still released as a co-feature to a weak adaptation of THE SOUND AND THE FURY when that came out in wide release in L.A. .  And it’s been mostly neglected ever since for reasons I cannot fathom.  Fleischer finds just the right blend of action and reflection in telling the story of an ambitious cowhand and his rise, the emphasis on the absorbing relationships that mark his eventful passage, with a terrific cast led by Don Murray, Lee Remick, Stuart Whitman, Patricia Owens and Richard Egan making their archetypal characters fresh—near the start of her great career, Lee Remick is especially memorable as the sometime prostitute who loves him not wisely but too well.  All the usual elements of Western narratives are here, but not playing out in the usual way, a mark of the genre’s maturity, and while director Fleischer was not a specialist, he fashions a Western just as knowing of the genre as those who were.

My lengthy essay on this film may be found here:

DAY OF THE OUTLAW (1959; Andre De Toth)
Of my five choices, this one is nearest to not being underrated, as it has become much known to genre aficionados and admirers of De Toth over the years.  Still, that reputation is relative and this is a movie that deserves more than appreciation by the happy few.  To begin with, its stark black-and-white cinematography by the great Russell Harlan (who had made a similarly strongcontribution to De Toth’s first Western, RAMROD) makes as much of bleak winter as any movie ever has; one can almost feel the chilling cold that pervades it.  And that’s appropriate, because the protagonist, Robert Ryan, an angry rancher ready to turn on his neighbors, is a spiritually frozen man—and Ryan invests this character with the deep reserves of bitterness and alienation that he could commandbetter than any other American actor.  The ultimate salvation of such a character, in the expressive snows of the movie’s last reels after Burl Ives and his renegades take over the town, is one of the things that most moves me in Westerns.  The deep cast here includes not only Ives, powerful as usual, but also the underrated Tina Louise as Ryan’s troubled love interest, and one of the most iconic of heavies, Jack Lambert, in one of his best roles.

[Note: After the five movies directed by Gordon Douglas that he chose, Jim Healy named this among five other Westerns that he cited without commentary.]

Monday, April 21, 2014


I was obsessed with Garfield as a kid. I devoured Garfield books by the dozens. There was something remarkably humorous and addictive about his irreverent personality. I even turned my son onto his books at a young age and he was a big hit. When I first heard of Heathcliff as a character, I think I assumed he was some kind of Garfield ripoff, so I started watching regularly. Heathcliff had a different kind of smart-alec nature to him and was considerably more active than Garfield, but I was immediately taken by him as a character. Certainly a big part of his personality came from the man who voiced him , the incomparable Mel Blanc himself. I'm not sure I knew at the time that Blanc was the master voice behind so many Looney Tunes characters that I loved, but subconsciously that must have crept into my head. Heathcliff certainly has a kinship with Bugs Bunny in a lot of ways. Feels like they'd hang out and have beers together (or carrot juice and milk) if they knew each other (though it'd be odd to hear Mel Blanc talk to himself in these similar voices). Both are incorrigible rascals who seem to always be one step ahead of their potential adversaries. Both Bugs and Heathcliff are both memorable rebellious iconoclasts. Heathcliff doesn't quite live up to Bugs, he's a orange ball of furry fun. Also, it's neat to hear Blanc voicing many of the side characters in the show as well. I could listen to him read the phone book. In addition to Blanc, the familiar voice of June Foray (most know as Rocket J. Squirrel) creeps into several episodes as regular side characters.
As for Dingbat and his pals The Creeps (a pumpkin and a skeleton), I'd never seen them before somehow. I'd seen Heathcliff perhaps as a part of his own show in some later incarnation. Regardless, this gang of nutty characters was right up my and my daughter's alleys. My daughter is somewhat obsessed with vampires at the moment, and comically ghoulish cartoons in general. This gang reminded me slightly of THE GROOVIE GHOULIES, another older cartoon that my wife used to love that my daughter is a big fan of. She's also obsessed with the recent live-action film VAMPIRE DOG (starring Norm MacDonald as the voice of the titular lead), so Dingbat (also a vampire dog) was a home run. We just love Halloween-y cartoons in general in our house. GROOVIE GHOULIES, THE DRAK PACK, THE ADDAMS FAMILY and so forth are all cherished here. Dingbat and his cronies are dopey, but quite fun indeed. And, as a bonus, Dingbat himself is voiced by the equally legendary Frank Welker. My daughter and I both being huge Scooby-Doo fans were quite pleased by this fact.

I think I was on board with Jonny Quest from the opening drum and horn notes of the original theme song. It truly is one of the great theme songs ever, cartoon or otherwise. I was absolutely captivated by the reruns of the 1960s version of the animated show as a kid. There was this sense of danger to them that was unlike a lot of the other cartoons I was watching at the time. Maybe it was me relating to a "kids in peril" scenario as I did in some of the films of the 1980s that I loved. 
I can't recall if I had also seen this 1980s reboot of the show, but I feel like I might have. It reminds me a bit of G.I. JOE in terms of the animation style. Regardless this is a really fun set from Warner Archive. What's not to love about the Quest clan and all their various gadgetry? It's still a pleasure to watch. I think they may have even amped up the gadgets and vehicles quotient in this reboot. Jonny Quest was and is one of those shows that truly defined 'adventure' for me as a youngster. He was equal parts James Bond jr. and Indiana Jones jr. It's easily one of the best shows in the entire Hanna-Barbera canon. These new adventures feel a touch more modern technologically, but that same sense of Quest magic, fantasy and adventure are still there from the original series. It' great to see Jonny, Hadji, Race, Bandit and Dr. Quest back together again. Highly recommended.

Saturday, April 19, 2014


MR. HOBBS TAKES A VACATION (1962; Henry Koster)
This movie owns with a shot of a rocket going into space. Jimmy Stewart explains that part of the reason man has even taken to leaving the planet in the first place is because it's so darned crowded down here on earth.
I love that there was ever a time when families took a month long vacation together in the summer. Roger Hobbs (Jimmy Stewart) takes his family on vacation to the seaside for the summer and things wrought with trouble. First off, they've rented a dilapidated beach house with some 'slight' plumbing issues. Secondly, they've brought their youngest children with them, one a boy obsessed with TV, the other a bored teenage girl with braces. His other two older children arrive at the beach house later with their families. Instead of having a relaxing vacation (He keeps trying to read War And Peace on the beach but can't seem to get past page one), Hobbs is put through the comic trials and tribulations of trying to entertain his kids and deal with their various dysfunctionalities. Each scenario starts off with the best intentions and veers most often into disastrous territory. Hobbs always seems to be able to have end up having a moment or two of true connection with each of his kids. Overall it's a very pleasant light comedy held together by Jimmy Stewart and his affable charm. I've associated Stewart with a great patriarchal energy ever since seeing IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE at a very young age. He can be such a warm, nurturing, humorous presence it's no wonder he was the icon of cinema he became. He's quite good in these type of fatherly roles. In fact, Julie Kirgo's wonderful essay (included with this disc) makes a very apt and interesting connection between George Bailey and Roger Dobbs in that they are at two ends of fatherhood. George is just kind of getting going, he is "staring into the abyss" as Kirgo puts it, and Hobbs is more of a late era Stewart character - she calls it his, "grumpy, beset family man" phase. She also draws comparisons between Hobbs and Spencer Tracy's paterfamilias in FATHER OF THE BRIDE. The two are certainly if the same ilk indeed. Henry Koster directed this film and he and Stewart had collaborated previously on HARVEY back in 1950. The cast in MR. HOBBS is highlighted by the lovely Maureen O'Hara as Stewart 's wife John Saxon as his college professor son in law and Fabian as the fella who takes a shine to his daughter. The plucky score is by Henry Mancini (one of my favorite composers) and this disc features the Twilight Time signature isolated score track for your enjoyment.
I think that the thing I enjoy most about films like this from the early 1960s is this more relaxed sense of the pace of life in general. Seeing a movie like this makes me oddly nostalgic for that time though I never lived through it. I feel like the general attitude towards work and taking big chunks of time off has changed a lot since that time. It may just be me, but I rarely hear of people I know taking a month off of work even in the summer. As a father of two I would truly cherish time like this with my children. Even if the plumbing wasn't working.

BROADWAY DANNY ROSE (1984; Woody Allen)
in a career as long and varied as Woody Allen's it's easy for a film or three to get lost and nearly disappear. This most commonly happens with the more mediocre efforts in a filmography this vast, but there are often some buried gems in there to be rooted out as well. BROADWAY DANNY ROSE is one of those gems. Like another of his lost-in-the-shuffle comedies ZELIG, this film has a slightly different story style than some of his others. ZELIG is of course a faux documentary and is told in that style, while DANNY ROSE is conjured narratively by a group of old comedians telling stories in New York's famous Carnegie Deli. Both films are lovely black and white, and both were shot by the incomparable Gordon Willis. If ever there were a man whose films should have some sort of legally mandated release on Blu-ray, it's the films of Gordon Wills. Being as MANHATTAN is easily one of the most gorgeous movies ever made to my mind, it's always a pleasure to see Allen and Willis collaborate (especially in black & white).  Though DANNY ROSE can't possibly live up to MANHATTAN, it is nonetheless a lovely looking film. One shot that Woody and Gordon Willis seem to like is the long shot with people walking and talking in the streets of New York. Several of those here. There's even a sort of reprise of Woody running down the street as he did in MANHATTAN. What's most enjoyable about this movie though is the Danny Rose character. It's just an inherently funny idea that there was this fourth rate theatrical manager who had a blind xylophone player, a one-legged tap dancer, some balloon folders and a dude with a bird act. Woody's classic nebbish persona slots right in to the Danny character. All his nervous anxiety and paranoid comments play perfectly. What's great about Danny Rose the character and this movie though is they both have a good deal of heart to them. The main story of the film shows the crazy adventure Danny ends up going on when he's trying to do his best to please his star client (an over-the-hill, one-hit-wonder crooner from the 1950s). Danny is sent on an errand to go and retrieve his client's mistress and things go from bad to worse to worser. The mistress is a mobster gal portrayed by Mia Farrow. Both she and Woody play great off of each other (this was a time when they were a bit more fond of each other than they are presently) and it made me think a bit of their relationship in CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS (though both his and her characters are much different in that film). Overall though, this is a good little movie and I'd say better than a lot of Woody's output in the past 10-15 years. Well worth watching if you're a fan of his that hasn't bothered to see it yet.

RITA, SUE AND BOB TOO (1987; Alan Clarke)
Though I've come to discover that this film was something of a cult item, I had not heard of it until this Twilight Time Blu-ray release. I had heard of Alan Clarke and was familiar with some of his films like SCUM and THE FIRM. I was also aware of MADE IN BRITAIN, though I hadn't seen that either. Being that the Clarke films I had seen were pretty gritty, violent tales involving gangs, punks and such, this movie was something of a surprise (though it still very much feels like an Alan Clarke film). It focuses on a sexual fling between an older married man and two teenage girls from a lower income area. This film reminded me a bit of a grittier Mike Leigh kinda thing. Don't get me wrong, I know Leigh can get a bit gritty in films like NAKED (which I adore), but for the most part his movies are softer comedies. This film, while it has some comedic elements is far from the sex farce that the title might suggest. The universe that these girls live in is a tough one and that certainly flies in the face of some of the lighter moments.
Alan Clarke's style here (and in general) lends to the gritty feeling and gives a certain immediacy via a lot of hand-held camerawork. Apparently Clarke's own cinematographer was said to have called Clarke's films "walking movies" or something to that effect because of all of the 'walk and talk' kind of shots in them. It's a style that meshes quite well with showing British life on the lower socio-economic side of things and immersing us in this world. One thing that really makes this film compelling is the performances by the two lead girls, Michelle Holmes (Sure) and Siobhan Finneran (Rita). Both ladies are perfectly convincing in their roles and quite charming. Their portrayed naivety certainly brings an undercurrent of sadness to the film, but it is nonetheless quite engaging. There's something about these two plucky spirits up against an often rather unpleasant world that also reminded me a bit of Todd Solondz's film WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE in some small way.
Included on this Blu-ray is a wonderful commentary from Twilight Time regulars Nick Redman and Julie Kirgo (who writes the excellent essays include with each Twilight Time release). Lots of great detail here regarding the cast, Alan Clarke (and his abilities as a filmmaker as well as casting) and British cinema of this period as well. 

Keep up to date on all the Twilight Time release news at their Facebook page:

Friday, April 18, 2014

Warner Archive Instant Cult Picks - SLITHER (1973)

Howard Zieff's SLITHER (not to be confused with James Gunn's film of the same name) opens on character actor extraordinaire Richard B. Schull singin "Happy Days Are Here Again" as James Caan looks on. We come to learn that Caan's character has just gotten out of prison. Richard B. Schull looks and feels a great deal like a poor man's version of Walter Matthau. They have very similar faces and manners of speech. Anyway, in this story he picks up James Caan from prison and immediately ends up entangling him in a quest to find the man who knows where some stashed loot is from a old heist he was a part of. From there springs one of those "freewheelin'" 70s narratives, part road picture and part Hitchcock/comedy thriller. Caan meets up with an odd woman played by Sally Kellerman on the side of the road and he's sort of swept off onto a small adventure. I find that Kellerman is at her best playing this sort of bohemian, off-center kind of gal. She has an extemporaneous charm about her and a certain sexiness to her in this sorta role (moreso when she was a brunette than a blonde in my opinion). Even the timbre of her voice can be pretty sexy. She sometimes feels like the antecendent to the "manic pixie dreamgirl" type that we've become accustomed to seeing in films today. Kellerman has this energy about her as if she always about to say, "Do you wanna do something crazy?" and that works well with a character like this. There are certain times when her energy can be a bit too much for me, (a bit overly dramatic I guess) but here she fits in well. This character seems just bi-polar enough to turn on Caan at any minute and it keeps him uneasy. Kellerman rounds out an amazing cast of oddballs which also includes Peter Boyle, Louise Lasser, Allen Garfield and Alex Rocco. If you are fans of all these actors (as I am) the film should please you on that level if nothing else.
This movie has an interesting lineage in that it was written by W.D. Richter - he of BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA and BUCKAROO BANZAI fame. SLITHER can't stack up against those cult classics, but there's a certain offbeat sensibility that shines through I think. There are just a lot of nutty characters running around in this film. It feels like a less comedic AFTER HOURS-y kind of universe and I like that. It's also a somewhat meandering narrative, the kind that were more prevalent in the 1970s, and I miss them. They had a sense of unpredictability and of a story unfolding that seems antiquated now. Not to rant too much, but movies today aren't given this kind of breathing room or time to gently find their way. Seems films now need to be a bit more direct in their approach to narrative in general. Thankfully there are still lots from this period like SLITHER to revisit. 
 As mentioned above, it is currently streaming via Warner Archive Instant:
(which has a 2 week free trial if you haven't jumped on board yet)

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Underrated Westerns - Steve Q

Steve Q blogs about terrible movies at http://zerostarcinema.blogspot.com and can be found on Twitter at @Amy_Surplice.
Assuming you've see all the great westerns, and all of the cult westerns, that leaves ten thousand B westerns, which are very rarely more than passable. Here are five that are better than average.

Trail of Robin Hood (1950)
Roy Rogers and a dozen other B western stars help to deliver Christmas trees for a man whose business is being threatened by big business. That makes for a very unusual western!

Gun Code (1940)
Tim McCoy, before his Rough Riders days, seeks vengeance on the men that blackmailed his father. This thin plot makes for a very good, seldom seen film.

The Narrow Trail (1917)
William S. Hart was the first cowboy hero, playing complicated characters (usually outlaws that do good things). This film is a tribute to his horse, which was nearly as famous as he was at the time. This kind of film was not uncommon in B westerns decades later.

Valley of the Sun (1942)
Between being a chorus girl and being a star, Lucille Ball made a number of interesting films, including this, her only western. It has moments of comedy, but is a true western. Sir Cedric Hardwicke also stars.

Harlem Rides the Range (1939)
This western with an all-black cast is from the era of race films, which are underseen today. Herb Jeffries stars. He finds a dying man, falls in love with a picture of the man's daughter, loses a glove, gets implicated in the murder, exonerates himself and meets the girl. He also sings (quite well).

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Underrated Westerns - Eric J. Lawrence

Eric J. Lawrence is the Music Librarian over at KCRW(a wonderful radio station) and I have been a fan of his radio show there for more than 10 years now. It is truly my favorite radio program out there. Quite an eclectic mix of new and old songs, it's described on KCRW's site as thus:
"A musical line-up of criminally overlooked tunes, hidden gems, guilty pleasures and standout selections from the latest releases... from Jacques Brel to Mott the Hoople to Gary Numan to the Fall, and everything in between. Like playing poker with dogs -- only better."
I can't really recommend the show higher than a decade of listenership can I? Check it out!

Eric is also an adventurous cinephile whose tastes I respect very much. In fact, it was he who first turned me onto THE MASK OF DIMITRIOS which has slowly become one of my very favorite films. 
For more cool film recommendations, check out his 'Film Discoveries' lists for 2011, 2012 & 2013 below:


Find him on Twitter at @ericjlawrence:

Beaten to the punch by earlier commentators on the films I would include as my definitive “Underrated Westerns” (i.e. Wagon Master (John Ford, 1950), Seven Men from Now (Budd Boetticher, 1959), The Bravados (Henry King, 1958) and Warlock (Edward Dmytryk, 1959)), I fill out my list with some Western films that don’t necessarily hold up as absolute gems, but which have some interesting points of merit nonetheless:

Rawhide (Ray Taylor, 1938)
This program-filling oater features Smith Ballew (one of the second-tier of cinematic “singing cowboys”), but the real star of the show is baseball legend Lou Gehrig, playing himself!  Retiring from baseball in order to help his sister on her Montana ranch, Lou, with the help of cowboy lawyer Ballew, confronts the corrupt “Ranchers Protective League,” who have been extorting the local ranchers.  Gehrig doesn’t do much shootin’, but he does do some rough ridin’, and he even pitches some billiard balls as the villains during the de rigueur ballroom brawl.  Also notable for being a Western set in contemporary times, this one works as a goofy precursor to Space Jam!
The Kentuckian (Burt Lancaster, 1955)
Burt’s first (and only solo) directing gig, this CinemaScope flick is also set in an infrequent place & era: 1820s Kentucky, which certainly qualifies as the Wild West for the time.  Burt plays a frontiersman and single parent who aims to head to Texas to stake his claim.  But circumstances force him to consider settling down to be a local merchant like his older brother.  In between there are bullwhip fights, scamming riverboat gamblers, Hatfield & McCoy-like family fueds, an attractive indentured servant to be bought out, a comely schoolmarm and a ridiculously oversized hunting horn. The climatic shoot-out is cool in part because they’re dealing with single-shot muskets where lots can happen while you reload!  Lots of familiar Western actors named John are present (John McIntire, John Carradine, John Litel), but the Cracker Jack prize is Walter Matthau making his film debut as a whip-crackin’ baddie!
Comanche Station (Budd Boetticher, 1960)
I wrote about this Randolph Scott-starring picture as part of my favorite discoveries of 2011, but it worth repeating.  The final film in Boetticher’s beloved Ranown Cycle, it remains a favorite for the strength of Scott’s unyielding character, the barren but starkly beautiful Lone Pine locations, and for the appearance of Claude Akins as the snide villain of the piece.
The Deadly Companions (Sam Peckinpah, 1961)
Although he had disowned it later, this was Sam Peckinpah’s film debut, and while it shows his greenness as times (and is also certainly hurt by his lack of control of the script, etc.), it also serves as an indicator of what Peckinpah was to become as a director.  Brian Keith (often overlooked as a Western star) plays an ex-army officer who accidentally shoots and kills the young son of a saloon dancer (played by the strong-willed Maureen O’Hara) and out of guilt insists on helping bury him in nearby Apache territory.  Fairly grim, but minus the overt brutality of Peckinpah’s later films, this one also features Chill Wills & Steve Cochran as hired (and borderline psychotic) crooks and Strother Martin as a frontier parson just trying to get on with his sermon.  Minor Peckinpah, but that’s still better than most directors’ A-game!

A Genius, Two Partners and a Dupe (Damiano Damiani & Sergio Leone, 1975)
One of the last true Spaghetti Westerns, this Terence Hill-starring vehicle serves as an unofficial sequel to My Name Is Nobody and the prior Trinity films, and while nowhere near as solid as those films, it has some interesting twists.  Such as an opening sequence directed by Sergio Leone, the last he would do in a Western (the bulk of the film was directed by Damiano Damiani); some oddball casting (Klaus Kinski as a Doc Holiday-like character, Miou-Miou as the love interest & Patrick McGoohan as a racist calvary major); and a truly weird Ennio Morricone soundtrack.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Underrated Westerns - Will Johnson

Will Johnson is a writer and actor in Dallas, TX. He can be followed on twitter @BingoLollipop. If you must, you can also visit his semi abandoned blog at geekflix.blogspot.com . Will is also part of the Cinema Shame project, where penitent film writers watch glaring omissions in their film knowledge for the first time -cinemashame.wordpress.com . 

Westerns are one of my favorite genres. Growing up in Texas, my father and grandfathers were huge fans of what I affectionately called "cowboy shows". Below are some of my favorite westerns that I never hear too much about. 

The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972)
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is probably my favorite western. There’s just something about Redford and Newman in that movie that makes being an outlaw look like a lot of fun. In The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, Newman brings that same kind of charm to a different sort of character.

When the outlaw Roy Bean comes into Vinegaroon, Texas he is quickly set upon by the resident ne’er-do-wells and robbed of his ill gotten gains. Once he regains his strength, he returns to town and kills everyone who did him wrong and declares himself the Judge of the area. After recruiting a band of outlaws as Marshalls, Bean continues to dispense his hanging justice and build up the little town west of the Pecos.

The film features a great supporting cast including Ned Beatty, RoddyMcDowall, Anthony Perkins, a gorgeous Victoria Principal, and StacyKeach as the albino killer, Bad Bob. Long stretches of the film feel like a collection of vignettes, but it never grows tiresome or feels like it’s spinning its wheels. Of course, a lot of what happens isn’t entirely historically accurate, but as the tagline reminds us, "it should be".

John Huston directs this tall tale of a western, and even appears in a brief scene as Grizzly Adams. All in all, it’s a very fun time and should definitely be better known.

Zachariah (1971)
Billed as the first “electric western”, Zachariah takes Herman Hesse’ snovel Siddhartha and turns it into a psychedelic western fable with lots of philosophical pondering. It is kind of a mess in places, trying to blend the rampant  gunplay of the genre with the pacifist leanings of the underlying philosophy behind the source material. 

That doesn't mean the movie isn't a fun one, however. From Joe Walsh playing electric in a saloon to a young Don Johnson as the angst ridden antagonist, there's a lot to love about this wonderful experiment from an experimental time. I'm particularly fond of Country Joe and the Fish as a group of bank robbers.

The Villain (1979)
I’ll be very upfront about this – The Villain is not a great movie. In fact, it’s not even a particularly good movie. What it is, however, is a showcase of the stunts director Hal Needham learned during his tenure as the hardest working stuntman on western TV. Every scene feels like a setup for the next Looney Tunes style stunt with hit or miss jokes thrown in for good measure.

The Villain is definitely a novelty western, made more so by the fact that it is one of the earliest film roles of a certain Austrian bodybuilder who went on to become more than a little famous. Schwarzenegger plays Handsome Stranger (actual name), a gee whiz good guy who has to protect Charming Jones (Ann-Margret) from the titular villain, Avery Jones (Looney Tunes references abound).

Avery, played by the legendary Kirk Douglas, is the Coyote to the heroes’ roadrunner. He keeps coming up with ridiculous plans, and they always backfire on him – usually with a pretty well done old style stunt involved in the proceedings. You get the feeling that this film wanted to be another Blazing Saddles, but its humor never hits those highs. It is a fascinating watch, though, especially for stunt enthusiasts and fans of the three leads.

The Big Trail (1930)
This is the film that almost made widescreen a thing decades before it finally caught on. For years, I saw copies of this taken from the fullscreen version, and it was a quaint early John Wayne film. The Fox Grandeur widesreen print, which was shot separately and concurrently with the fullscreen version, was made available a while back, and I now regard this film as a fascinating glimpse into an alternate universe of film - a universe where John Wayne became a huge star years earlier, and widescreen epics with casts of thousands were a thing in the very early 30's. Of course, in that universe, the Great Depression never happened. That's what killed Grandeur, a lack of funds to upgrade enough theaters for it to catch on.

The Grandeur cut of The Big Trail is a fascinating watch. John Wayne is sooo young, and the proceedings are sooo big. In the background of almost any scene, there are thousands of extras acting out pioneer living. The scope of it all is just overwhelming for a film from 1930.

Seraphim Falls (2006)
This is a fairly recent film, but it came and went without many giving it a look- which is  a shame. In it, Pierce Brosnan plays the pursued and Liam Neeson plays the vengeful pursuer. The exact reason why these two are chasing each other across the vastness of a beautifully shot West is slowly revealed over the course of the movie, which leaves you to wonder who's the good guy and who's the bad guy. That moral greyness lends itself to an almost biblical western, starting in the white snowy heaven of the mountains and ending in the hell of the desert. 

Dirty Little Billy (1972)
The story of Billy the Kid has been told a million times on screen. Usually, though, they cover the same territory- Regulators, Lincoln County War, Pat Garrett, running from the law, and death (or lack thereof). Dirty Little Billy is different, though. It starts with a young William Bonny coming to New Mexico with his parents and follows him as he rebels and starts hanging out with local hooligans. It’s kind of a “Billy Begins” film.

Michael Pollard gets a rare lead role in this, and his Billy the Kid is different from most takes on the historical character. His Billy is a little more reserved and awkward. The events in the film get him to the point we usually meet him, but it doesn’t go too far into the familiar territory of Young Guns and the like.  Instead, this film is more of a slow character piece, showing us how the man who could "make you famous" started down that road towards Lincoln County.

Skin Game (1971)
Along with the Spaghetti Westerns of Lore, Quentin Tarantino named this film as an inspiration for DjangoUnchained. It’s not hard to see the connection when you watch Skin Game, as it tackles a lot of the same themes that Tarantino’s recent blockbuster touched on.

Skin Game tells the story of two con men who make their way around the slave driven south, duping would be slave owners out of their hard earned money. The game goes like this: James Garner comes into town with Lou Gossett in tow. They make their way to a saloon where Garner announces that he has to reluctantly sell his longtime slave. Gossett begs not to be sold, and the bids start mounting up until Gossett is sold. Garner leaves with the money, then returns to free his friend from his newfound bondage.

This goes well for a while, until they come up against a super evil EdAsner and they have to play the game for one last time with Gossett’s freedom on the line.

Despite the heavy themes, Skin Game manages to keep things fairly light, and a lot of humor is found in the interactions between Gossett and Garner. The real treat in this film, though, is watching Ed Asner go full on Simon Legree. I would be hard pressed to find another film whereAsner is anywhere near this unlikeable. 

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