Rating: The Good – 77.5 Genre: Western Duration: 115 mins Director: Ed Harris Stars: Ed Harris, Viggo Mortensen, Lance Henriksen
Written, directed, and starring Ed Harris, Appaloosa isn’t merely a revisiting of the quintessential American film genre nor is it exactly a revisioning (which is, in its own way, kind of refreshing). It’s more a slowly exhaled understanding of what makes it so damn special as a context for storytelling. A celebration of its principles like the restoration of a great art without the controversy of compromising any of its natural glory. Harris and Viggo Mortensen are the hired guns Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch, brought into the town of Appaloosa to offer protection from Jeremy Irons’ ruthless rancher Randall Bragg, who killed the last sheriff when the latter attempted to arrest two of his men for rape. Recalling the rich and intriguing relationship of Fonda and Quinn in 1959’s Warlock, Harris and his faithful companion are a thoughtful yet hardened pair of lawmen who live by the gun and wield it like it comes naturally. The film’s broader comprehension of life on the frontier is reflected at a personal level within their dynamic, the edges and corners of which being exposed only when Rene Zwellweger’s woman of questionable motives enters the fray and attempts to destabilise it. Plot comes to the fore here in wonderfully unobtrusive manner and it offers a circuitous and totally understated testing of marrow and allegiances alike. Gnarly old Lance Henriksen pops up as a notorious colleague from Cole’s past and matters come to a head in blistering showdown that ups the ante on where the Unforgiven left off. Robert Knott and Harris penned the words that so adequately express the grizzled sentiment and honest wonderings of the men and women of this world and there’s plenty of perceptive and expertly timed humour to be discovered along the way. But it’s Harris and Mortensen who shine most bright under the prairie sun, the mutual respect shared by their characters translating fluently at the acting level. Characterisation helps mightily of course and you’d have to delve deep into the history of the western to find a couple of gun-slingers as intriguing not to mention as cool as these here guys. Harris shows a steady and considered touch behind the camera and lets it all play out with the ease of the era in which it was set. You won’t see anything new in Appaloosa but a visit every now and then will remind you of why the western has and always will be so cherished.
Rating: The Good – 77.8 Genre: Western Duration: 122 mins Director: Edward Dmytryk Stars: Richard Widmark, Henry Fonda, Anthony Quinn
Terrific western about the scared townsfolk of Warlock who unofficially hire a feared gunman and his disturbingly protective assistant to marshal a gang of cut throats. However, when a outlaw turned hero is formally instated as sheriff, the question of who’s in charge becomes a defining feature of the town’s battle with the outlaws. Some films work simply on the basis of their writing and there’s little doubt that the intriguing characterisation and dialogue on display here would probably make a success out of Warlock even if it didn’t possess a truly outstanding cast, all of whom, act their chaps off. With Richard Widmark headlining as the modestly capable sheriff, his nuanced likability offers a warm contrast to the more interesting dynamic shared between Henry Fonda’s expert gunslinger and Anthony Quinn’s grisly defender. The latter are immense with Fonda in particular relishing the darker meat to his role with one of the genre’s better turns. Quinn is the unknown factor and his slippery personality keeps the audience firmly hooked. Based on Oakley Hall’s novel and adapted by Robert Alan Arthur, Warlock is rich in thematic depth without getting too aloof from the genre’s more modest origins while the always excellent Edward Dmytryk solidly balances the unintuitively related subplots and serves up some intense showdowns as he goes. We could’ve stood to have seen more of Widmark and of his attempt to make a life in the town but Dmytryk clearly saw it as a trade-off worth making.
Rating: The Good – 87.3 Genre: Western Duration: 97 mins Director: John Ford Stars: Henry Fonda, Linda Darnell, Victor Mature
Few if any directors had an eye for scene composition and linearity like the master John Ford had and this here classic is about as good an example of it as you will find. Henry Fonda and Victor Mature play the legendary duo of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday who along with Virgil (Tim Holt) and Morgan (Ford regular Ward Bond) Earp get drawn into a blood feud with the nasty Clanton clan. That genial old soul, Walter Brennan, plays their murderous patriarch is just one of several factors that makes Ford’s treatment of Earp’s time in Tombstone arguably the most memorable of the lot. Another is Fonda who compliments his oak exterior with all manner of playfulness that gives the Old West legend a genuine humanity and, with that, the edge on the likes of Russell or Costner (to name but a few). Mature didn’t always seem comfortable in his acting skin but he too counts as one of Ford’s aces as he captures the contradictory mystique of his character with presence and pathos alike. Holt and Bond are nothing more than bit players but Linda Darnell turns in a typically brash performance that further embellishes the movie’s emotional quotient.
They’re all aided considerably by Samuel G. Engels’ script which is a veritable peach of mouth watering turns of phrase but, also, seems a little conflicted in how it incorporates the titular Clementine into a plot that inevitably builds towards the showdown at the OK Corral. Cathy Downs does what she can as the woman caught between two friends but her character remains of side interest only. Needless to say, all fall in the shadow of Ford on this one for My Darling Clementine is just a spellbinding testament to the art of the visual pattern. If there was one film that could, on its own, instruct film students in composition, it would be this one. Sight lines that expand the psychological space by drawing our gaze out into the vastness of the desert, dusty light that silhouettes the famed characters of western lore in all of their immortal glory, and action sequences staged with a sniper’s eye for detail not to mention his/her patience. An aesthetic not easily matched nor ever forgotten.
Rating: The Good – 84.3 Genre: Western Duration: 88 mins Director: Robert Wise Stars: Robert Mitchum, Barbara Bel Geddes, Robert Preston
Robert Wise impressed across a number of genres during his career and this contribution to the great American movie form was one of his most significant, even it is has gone relatively unacknowledged. Blood on the Moon is a shadowy western noir that embraces the crime genre’s visual and writing conventions head on and pits hardened, sharp talking men and women against one another amid silhouette and darting slits of light. That everyone is sporting Stetsons and six shooters and fighting cattle wars is the only thing that reminds us we’re in the Old West.
Robert Mitchum is the drifter who finds himself drafted into one side of a complicated conflict in which his old friend (a loathsome Robert Preston) is manipulating two sides in a open range dispute against the other for his own aims. Lille Hayward’s dialogue is slick with insight and street (prairie) smarts to the extent that the cast and director alike seem inspired by it. Mitchum’s typically soulful presence is the central pillar to the movie’s success and that it’s one of his more endearing performances says a lot. Balancing the self preservation instincts of the great noir anti-heroes with the morality of the Old West champion, he foreshadows the great characters of the spaghetti western nearly two decades earlier. Barbara Bell Geddes makes the most of her plucky character in whom her affection for Mitchum’s gun hand represents an interesting conflict.
But Wise deserves the last mention for Blood on the Moon is certainly one of the more striking westerns to behold both flush with moodiness and overflowing with dusty grit. There was a time when cinema and television was inundated with westerns to the point that cinema goers became jaded with the genre. Despite a few efforts to rejuvenate its look and style in the late 50’s and 60’s, it never really recovered. That Blood on the Moon came at the height of the genre’s popularity makes Wise’s project all the impressive and indeed prescient. If others had taken more notice, the western might have survived.
Rating: The Good – 89.4 Genre: Western Duration: 110 mins Director: George Roy Hill Stars: Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Katharine Ross
George Roy Hill’s iconic western is an inspired piece of film-making that takes a very different approach to the archetypal western. Adopting a humorous and light-hearted approach for much of the film, it gives the genre the time to breathe that it normally doesn’t receive and in focusing on one of the eras most legendary friendships it romanticises the old west in a manner more touching too. This was the first joint outing for Paul Newman and Robert Redford and they form an irresistible duo that easily goes down as the best on-screen partnership the medium has offered up. The two play off each other seamlessly and deliver two fascinating and novel characterisations. Newman is hysterical as the every-man Butch, the leader of the infamous Hole-in-the-Wall gang, while Redford is pitch perfect as the lightning fast gunslinger.
The action only kicks in about half way through when in the midst of all the gang’s usual shenanigans, a breakneck chase suddenly erupts which sees Butch and Sundance being pursued across mountain and desert by a ruthless posse of specialists. Hill’s decision to never show the faces of the posse was inspired and it gives the near half-hour long pursuit a real edge. In fact, there’s arguably not another chase sequence that is as electric or effectively shot as this one. Katherine Ross comes to the fore more in the final act as the woman in the middle but never in between and adds a nice counterpoint to the pair.
Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid is really a perfect film which plays by its own rules. The level of ingenuity and innovation that Hill brings to the shooting of it from the fleeting use of monochrome to the integration of Burt Bacharach’s counter-intuitive yet seminal soundtrack, ensures that there’s not a frame in it where you don’t notice something special. It’s also a genuinely funny and at times hysterical film thanks chiefly to the telepathic understanding shared between the leads but also William Goldman’s sublime script. With a movie that boasts such perfection it is, therefore, quite fitting that Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid signs off with one of the great cinematic salutes and in doing so immortalises its two heroes in splendid fashion. Cinema magic.
Rating: The Good – 88.3 Genre: Thriller, Mystery Duration: 81 mins Director: John Sturges Stars: Spencer Tracy, Robert Ryan, Anne Francis, Lee Marvin
“I’m half horse, half alligator. Mess with me and I’ll kick a lung out of ya.” Lee Marvin, Robert Ryan, Ernest Borgnine, and the immortal Spencer Tracy star in this gritty WW II era western. Tracy stars as a disabled veteran who arrives in a one-horse town to look up the father of a Japanese-American soldier who saved his life whilst giving up his own in the process. Met with paranoia, aggression, and fear he soon begins to suspect that the townspeople are guilty of a dark secret concerning the Japanese father. Tracy was always the best at playing the iron willed moral compass of a film and in this film he hones that skill to a fine point in what must be one of his finest performances. The bad guys are all played with suitable menace with Marvin and Ryan standing out in particular. Director John Sturges lets the considerable tension simmer just beneath the surface for most of the film but when Tracy squares off against the various villains that tension becomes palpable. Though the drama builds up slowly, Sturges gives the story a real sense of urgency beginning with that thumping introduction as the camera moves in on Tracy’s train hurtling through the desert towards the dark truth. There are some truly outstanding action sequences including a tasty fight between Borgnine and Tracy where the latter gives us one of the earliest glimpses of martial arts fighting in a Hollywood picture. Bad Day at Black Rock is a remarkable film defined by some career-best performances, a brave story, and some extremely inspired direction that was well ahead of its time.
Rating: The Good – 92.5 Genre: Western Duration: 119 mins Director: John Ford Stars: John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles
Bookended by perhaps the greatest opening and closing shots of any film, the image of the great western frontier captured from the dark recesses of the family homestead says it all. The Searchers is an awe-inspiring and sweeping meditation on family and uncharted territory (both physical and spiritual). It begins with the return of civil war veteran, Ethan Edwards (John Wayne), to his brother’s home only for the family to be massacred a short time afterwards by a Comanche war party out for revenge. All are killed except for his young niece who they kidnapped instead and Ethan sets out after her but not necessarily with the intention of taking her back. Aware of this, his part Indian nephew sets out with him in order to ensure that his sister is rescued and not killed by the bitter and deeply prejudiced Ethan. The Searchers is a complex and deeply profound examination of love, devotion, and bitterness shot magnificently by a master director at the height of his powers. It also gives us the Duke’s best performance as he towers over everyone else on screen in both the physical and acting sense. It’s not an easy watch in parts but those darker moments are offset by some genuinely funny moments such as the fight between Martin and the fiancé of his would-be bride. But when it does return to darker territory the result is one of the most complicated and fascinating movie going experiences.
Rating: The Good – 85.3 Genre: Western Duration: 123 mins Director: John Ford Stars: James Stewart, John Wayne, Vera Miles, Lee Marvin
John Ford didn’t do one dimensional westerns and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is certainly no exception. James Stewart plays a senator who returns to the town where he made his reputation by killing a local villain years earlier. The film then jumps back to that time as he beings to recount the tale of how he made his name and of his complicated relationship with the one man who the outlaws were afraid of (John Wayne of course!).
The early scenes are beautifully crafted and set up the sentiments of the back-story in a touching and patient manner. There’s a wonderful sense of familiarity as we’re brought back to the time when the now booming town of Shinbone was ruled by gun law. Stewart is terrific in the lead and Lee Marvin made a mean outlaw but John Wayne is the most memorable as the fearless gunfighter forced to make a sacrifice.
As most of the action takes place in the town, we don’t have the wide sweeping shots that defined Stagecoach and The Searchers. However, this is still a great looking film as Ford gives Shinbone a character of its own through his trademark staging and use of light. All told, this is a more pensive and slow burning Western than we typically see but no less rewarding.
Rating: The Good – 95.7 Genre: Western Duration: 175 mins Director: Sergio Leone Stars: Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, Claudia Cardinale
Sergio Leone’s meta-western was the first true revisionist western. The man with no name is not Clint but Bronson and he’s not as much a man as he is the embodiment of a dying breed of men and the western genre itself. The plot is inconsequential as it is merely a vehicle for Leone, Dario Argento, Bernardo Bertolucci, and Sergio Donati to anthologise and meta-analyse the genre, celebrate its glory, and lament what they saw as its inevitable demise. But what a vehicle it is. From the beginning of the first reel, Leone is reaching into our psyches, tantalising us with familiar shots and references to half-remembered images from the westerns of yesteryear. He scales the story both wide and narrow, subverting our expectations (“that was Henry Fonda right?”), deconstructing mythology, and employing the most audacious yet subtly appropriate use of metaphor in the history of the medium (he got up!). And all this ticks along to Ennio Morrincone’s spell-binding score, themed perfectly to the four main characters played memorably by Charles Bronson, Jason Robards, Henry Fonda, and Claudia Cardinale.
Rating: The Good – 78.5 Genre: Western Duration: 105 mins Director: Robert Aldrich Stars: Burt Lancaster, Bruce Davison, Jorge Luke
Burt Lancaster shines in this sublime western, which approaches a staple story line (soldiers vs Indians) from a much more complex and therefore rewarding angle than typically seen. Lancaster is terrific as the ageing Indian hunter McIntosh, who is called into track and stop an Apache war party which is raiding and pillaging the local territories. Initially, the young lieutenant in charge of his troop (Bruce Davison) isn’t too impressed with McIntosh’s Indian strategies, sensibilities, and even sensitivities but he comes to respect him and his Indian scout (the regally poised Jorge Luke) as they get them ever closer to their quarry.
Ulzana’s Raid is as intelligent a western as you’ll see in terms of how the drama unfolds. As McIntosh and his scout forensically follow every clue and devise one unorthodox strategy after another, the audience is slowly exposed to the real point of the film. Coming as it did at the tail-end of the genre’s decline in popularity, it sets itself up as a sombre evaluation of that genre’s latent propaganda. But rather than becoming a morose drama punctuated by bleak moments of violence, through some mature writing and direction, Ulzana’s Raid manages to maintain an adventuresome quality which balances dialogue-centred reflection with a series of innovative action sequences.
With previous films such as The Dirty Dozen and the similarly underrated (and equally brave) Attack under his belt, Robert Aldrich was no stranger to the action genre. However, he hits the pinnacle of his action direction here. The battle scenes are expertly conceived and nothing short of a joy to watch. It’s not that they are particularly big or shot on a grand on scale that makes them so rewarding. It’s that they are smart. The battles in this film are more a battle of wits than brawn and by taking his time and stretching them out on a broad canvas, Aldrich shoots them with a complementary grace. Ulzana’s Raid can be a disturbing film as it doesn’t shy away from the manner in which the Apache treated and dispatched their victims but even this is dealt with intelligently. Everything truly terrible happens just out of sight of the camera. This gives the horror an additional sting but it allows us to consider the behaviour of the Apache intellectually and so properly place it in its appropriate context.
The driving force of this film is undoubtedly Alan Sharp’s laconic script which like Aldrich’s direction doesn’t pull any punches with what it says but is just as economical. At first blush, Ulzana’s Raid might ostensibly come across as just another western with uncomfortable shades of anti native-Americanism (and it could’ve been just that) but through the subtlety of Sharp’s dialogue and indeed plot structure, it ultimately becomes something much more interesting and rich. This is a slow inward examination of belief, morality, and fortitude that absolutely refuses to hit its audience over the head with rhetoric. And the fact that it tells a gripping story along the way makes it all the more rewarding.
The second installment in the story of the Bride’s quest for revenge against the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad who left her for dead four years earlier is a very different animal to the first film in pace, style, focus, and even the genres it reinvents. And these are only four of many reasons why Quentin Tarantino was right to tell the story over two volumes. Much more dialogue driven than Vol. 1, we learn a lot more about the primary characters that feature in this volume including the Bride and we also get to see Bill himself (in a career best performance by David Carradine). Thus, the acting comes to the fore here and Carradine, Daryl Hannah, and Michael Madsen don’t disappoint as they give us some of the most unique action villains that have ever graced the silver screen. As in Vol. 1, there is an array of fascinating secondary characters populating the background to this story who together with the actors who play them (e.g., Gordon Lui, Michael Parks, and Carradine himself) represent a knowing and sometimes audacious nod to the genres that Kill Bill is exploring. For example, the old Shaw Bros. super villain (quite possibly the best in the genre’s illustrious history), Pai Mei emerges in stupendous fashion with a show stealing performance by Lui. These characters are largely responsible for the funnier moments (of which their are plenty) with Bud’s boss Larry (Larry Bishop) being a particular highlight. Although, the action takes a back seat to the dialogue in Kill Bill Vol. 2, there are no fewer than three sublime action sequences, the first being the best martial arts training sequence since The 36th Chamber of the Shaolin and the last (the ultimate showdown between the Bride and Bill) being the swiftest and most explosive duel since Sanjuro. File under cinematic masterclass.
Rating: The Good – 85.5 Genre: Western Duration: 145 mins Director: Sam Peckinpah Stars: William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan
Sam Peckinpah chipped in with his own meta-analysis of the Western in this uniquely poignant tale of an ageing group of outlaws and the extinction they face at the hands of politicians, modern war-mongers, and their mechanisms of change. Like Leone did in Once Upon a Time in the West, Peckinpah breaks the “rules” of film making to telling effect by beginning the film in a manner more suited to the end of the more traditional westerns. Picking up where most leave off, he then proceeds to fold back the genre with a majestic grace so that from early on in The Wild Bunch, there is a clear sense that the outlaws are wandering into a changed world which has no place for them. There is a brutal beauty as well as sadness to this and Peckinpah catches both superbly. It seems fitting too that the sterling cast gave their most memorable performances in a film of this stature. William Holden is supreme as he gives us one of the most iconic western anti-heroes, Pike Bishop, and he is matched every step of the way by Ernest Borgnine as Dutch Engstrom. Robert Ryan is also excellent as the ambiguously placed Deke Thornton. The violence and action have been much talked about but whatever your take is, there is no disputing the artistry in the choreography of the first and last scenes in particular. And like everything else in The Wild Bunch, the violence tells its own part of the story too.