Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Seven Men From Now (1956) - Directed by Budd Boetticher

Note: This review appears on the Top 50 Westerns countdown at Wonders in the Dark, placing at #28. 

“The reason that people understand the westerns I made with Randy Scott is that they were simple…..nothing in those Scott pictures would make the audience say, “What did he mean? What was he trying to say?........I said it very simply, and that’s the way I make my pictures. One doesn’t have to sit there and say, “Well, I don’t know….ethically….and maybe he meant…” That’s a lot of crap: to be so artistic that you don’t make sense.”

Budd Boetticher - 1972 - Excerpt from The Director's Event

For it is indeed the most intelligent western I know while being at the same time the least intellectual, the most subtle and the least aestheticizing, the simplest and finest example of the form.

Andre Bazin - 1957 - Cahiers du Cinema

Through a series of 7 films that Budd Boetticher made in conjunction with his star Randolph Scott, the western saw some of its finest films get made. The best of the bunch, The Tall T, Ride Lonesome, Comanche Station, and especially Seven Men From Now were all written by Burt Kennedy. It was a tremendous stretch run for a director, writer, star combination, and it's really only in recent years that Boetticher's films have become more available and more lauded, finally landing Boetticher in the same discussion with Ford, Mann, and Leone (and I think Daves could be included as well). It turns out that Seven Men From Now, in particular, has been little seen for decades and only available in archive prints until about 2005. Because the film was produced under John Wayne's Batjac film company (as opposed to Ranown Productions), it had different distribution rights than the other films in the series, and after Wayne's death, the film remained in hiding for the most part. It's almost hard to believe that a film THIS good was so hard to see for so long. It is high time that this film gets seen because it's one of the most perfect westerns ever made, and is worthy of consideration for top 10 status. Perhaps in years to come, this film, and Boetticher's works in general, will continue to receive more recognition within the western genre.

Seven Men From Now was the first of the series, the best of the series, and laid the framework for the films in the Ranown cycle. Randolph Scott stars as Ben Stride, ex-sheriff, who is hunting a group of 7 criminals who stole $20,000 from the Wells Fargo freight office......and also killed Stride’s wife in the process. He’s out to track them down, kill them, and return the money. He lost his job following the event, so is now taking law into his own hands, not waiting for anyone else to do that job. He kills two of the men early in the film in an excellent setpiece in the rain, dropping us right in the middle of his quest. Then he comes across a married couple, John and Annie Grier (Walter Reed and Gail Russell) traveling west from Kansas City who are trying to reach California. He helps get their wagon out of a muddy ditch and then decides to ride along with them for a while. It is clear one of the reasons he stays with them is that he has eyes for Annie. They happen across two ex-cons, Bill (a brilliant Lee Marvin) and Clete (Don Barry), both of whom Stride once put behind bars. These two are tracking the same criminals and want the money for themselves. Friction builds as Stride and Annie begin to develop feelings for each other, while Bill begins to prod and tease them as he notices it, right in front of John, the husband. Before long, Stride steps aside from the group in order to face down the remaining criminals and deliver justice in the proverbial showdowns that ensue.

John Wayne's Batjac production company bought the script from Burt Kennedy, with the original intention of having Wayne star as the lead character. He was tied up with making The Searchers at the time though, and instead chose Randolph Scott to star, which I think was the perfect choice. Scott seems like some kind of perfect amalgam of all the great western lead actors, somehow encompassing the little bits and pieces that we like about Wayne, Fonda, Stewart, Eastwood etc., but is remarkably balanced, not dipping too far into any particular acting stereotype. I like his stoicism, his smirking nonchalance, his deft masculinity...... I almost can't even imagine Wayne in Scott's role here. Scott is far more down to earth, which fits Boetticher's simple, bare-bones aesthetic. What I find consistent in all of these films that Scott and Boetticher made together, is the genuine goodness of Scott’s characters, despite the fact that he often has reasons to be angry and vengeful: he is polite to women; he is chivalrous and does good deeds without expecting anything in return; he usually has a good degree of patience and calmness in the face of danger; he rarely ever raises his voice or speaks harshly of anyone. There's something so unassuming and unpretentious about him.  For me, he is the prototypical, no nonsense cowboy of all time. No wonder Andre Bazin likened Scott to William S. Hart. Nothing ever seems to phase this guy, not even in the final showdown in this film, when he’s hobbling on one good leg, using his shotgun as a cane, and has to face down Lee Marvin in a draw who has two guns and two good legs. Boetticher utilizes Scott's persona to build a simple purity of the western as artform, which appeals to true western aficionados. Boetticher stripped his works of over-reaching and complex, extracurricular contexts. They are not about unspoken backstory or some mystery, per se, to rely upon characterization (Mann), nor do they rely on the “kitchen sink” approach (throwing in comedy, romance, sentiment, action, social commentary etc.), like Ford uses, nor are they moral proverbs like Daves’s films (3:10 to Yuma, Jubal, Broken Arrow), nor are they social allegories (High Noon) or reflexive mythological examinations (Shane). They are in a sense, about the here and now....the ever present moment and the decisions made in those moments. Yes Stride has a backstory providing a set-up, but there isn't really anything hiding. The pre-destiny of the situation is written on Scott's face. It is about what Stride is doing in the moment as he rides, as he thinks, and as he talks. The purity of the storyline and lack of pretension reverts the western to its essentials. Many have often called Boetticher's films, "chamber westerns" and this is because they're so focused and lean, without a wasted moment, but they also contain a certain limited list of characters who are thrown together and must work out their problems in a relative isolated situation. Despite the simplicity, there is a remarkable range to Boetticher's best works...brutal and violent, austere and stoic, tender and sensitive, and nearly perfect in their clarity.  

One of the subtle charms of Seven Men from Now, is in fact the blossoming relationship between Annie and Stride. Both Scott and Gail Russell give beautiful performances. One never truly gets a direct sense that Scott's character is that interested in sex (Scott was reportedly gay, which lends interesting context to many of these films.) But they seem to have a mutual affinity for the sharing of each other's burdens. Gail Russell's performance is greatly enhanced when you understand that she hadn't appeared in a film in 5 years. She had been John Wayne's good friend, as they appeared in a few films together (namely Angel and the Badman), but severe alcoholism had stricken her career and by 1951, she was out of Hollywood. With Seven Men From Now, Wayne was able to provide a part to the 32 year-old Russell, whose naked, emotional tenderness adds so much to the film. She would in fact die from a heart attack due to alcoholism within 5 years of the release of this film. The yearning friendship of man and woman certainly makes for some wonderfully written moments between Scott and Russell, which keeps the film from becoming too masculine and linear for its own good, as the "uncool" aspect of a man and woman falling in love certainly doesn't fit well with the loner cowboy, masculine aesthetic. In fact, Boetticher routinely refuses to cooperate with or relate to cliches in his films, often giving us exactly the opposite of what we expect. For instance in Ride Lonesome, where Karen Steele appears as the curvaceous blonde, there is nary a whisp of interest from Scott's character at all. At the end of that film, the two part ways as nonchalantly as you please. Here in Seven Men From Now (where we have the loner cowboy on a complex, dogged mission) Stride is sidetracked by the potential love of a woman who's rather plain and is in fact married! There's even a sort-of "sex scene" between the two of them, as she lies in the wagon and he sleeps under the wagon to escape the whether, the two of them achingly close. We can also look at the final showdown here, as Boetticher undermines the rules of the western draw..... as when Scott and Marvin draw, we don't even see Scott pull his guns. Instead the camera stays on Marvin as he falls over. Speaking of Marvin, he's incredibly confident and effective here and it's easy to see how he became such a huge star after this. His projection and body language reek of attitude. Marvin's characterization is filled with warmth and life, making him likable to a point and rather intelligent, turning him into a bad guy whom we hate to see die at the end. Boetticher routinely populates his films with personality driven and rather flamboyant villains from Richard Boone, Henry Silva, Lee Van Cleef, Claude Akins etc., giving them a definitive, rounded humanism. 

Regarding Boetticher's approach, it would be a mistake to overanalyze his works, but there's simply too much to enjoy, like Kennedy's unadorned and propulsive script, which would be a hallmark of Boetticher's best works. Furthermore, William H. Clothier's cinematography creates some of the most beautiful and eye-catching visuals in any western film and the color palette is often striking. He was on contract to work with Wayne in his Batjac production company, and the two would collaborate together on 22 films. In particular, sequences involving Gail Russell hanging up the laundry, a particular scene where the wagon rolls away with Scott in the background, and the final showdown, are framed so perfectly, it's astounding. Ultimately though, the legend of a film like this boils down to the way that Boetticher strips everything to a series of man to man conflicts in the form of showdowns, both psychological and physical. Through this, we find the basis of the types of westerns that would be built in the decades to come.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

3:10 to Yuma (1957) - Directed by Delmer Daves

Note: This review appears on the Top 50 Westerns countdown at Wonders in the Dark, placing at #29.

Delmer Daves has usually been last in the line of discussion of the great western directors, if he gets mentioned at all. If one were to create a Mt. Rushmore of western film directors, it would look something like this: Ford, Mann, Leone,.....and in most circles Boetticher as well, would probably get all the attention. Maybe the recent Criterion releases of two of Daves's best films (including this one) will begin to highlight his career more. Those that forget to mention Daves in the discussion are certainly creating an oversight. His films stand among the best of the genre in the 1950’s, as he made a series of fascinating moral masterworks, unlike anything else. Daves’s works often incorporate what I call parables (and even one could label them as Biblical parables of sorts), providing a context and filter through which he examines our instincts, our responsibilities, temptations and our challenges as a human race, thereby taking a moral inventory of human nature. In these ways, Daves carves his own niche within the genre, adding this unique perspective not found in other films. 3:10 to Yuma is his most famous work, if also perhaps his best, weaving moral complexity with significant amounts of tension. It's an essential western masterpiece that is also a gateway into the rest of Daves's work.

3:10 to Yuma builds slowly toward a tense climax. It’s about a rancher named Dan Evans (Van Heflin), who with his two boys, happen to witness a stage coach robbery and murder by a gang leader named Ben Wade (Glenn Ford) and his gang. Through some chance happenings, a local posse is able to apprehend Wade in a local saloon, after Wade hangs around town a bit too long in town (for some hanky-panky with the saloon-girl Emmy in a small but terrific performance by a Delmer Daves regular, Felicia Farr). It becomes clear in these early scenes that Ford’s Wade is not only a ladies man, but has a convincing, rather cerebral way with people, and can be in fact, quite gentle and sensitive. In order to raise money for his flailing, drought-ridden farm, Evans decides to be part of a plan to get Wade on the 3:10 train to Yuma so he can be turned in to the Yuma Penitentiary. The train will arrive in a nearby town named Contention. Only, they need to keep Wade’s whereabouts a secret from the rest of his gang in order to prevent the group from descending upon them, and breaking him free. Evans ends up spending a tension-filled afternoon with Wade for several hours in a hotel room in Contention as they wait the afternoon away until the train arrives, in one of the great sequences in western film history.

And let’s discuss that sequence. The film is really a build-up to the final hour in which we watch the battle of wills and manhood between Ford’s Wade and Van Heflin’s Evans. With his short barreled shotgun at the ready, Van Heflin starts the afternoon cool and determined. Slowly, Wade, through a series of conversations, temptations, and bribes, begins to chip away at Evans’s crumbling fa├žade. Sweat begins to drip profusely from Van Heflin’s forehead and we sense as the other gang members learn of Wade’s whereabouts, that Evans begins to question whether this whole thing is worth it. Other men who've said they would help with the cause begin to abandon the efforts as odds become tougher, until Evans is the last man standing. Charles Lawton Jr.’s photography in this second half as it takes place in the room, is shaded with chiaroscuro, as light and shadow comes through the windowpanes, bathing the room in a sort of moral complexity. Nothing is completely illuminated....nothing is completely hidden. Morals begin to constrict, as a corruption and melding of good and evil come together. We sense Wade has a core of decency as we've seen him be sensitive throughout the film, particularly his gentle moments at Evans’s house before they head to Contention. We also begin to question Evans’s motives, as it appears like he’s being persuaded to take Wade’s bribes. Both men, Ford and Van Heflin might give the performances of their careers. Overall this section of the film is a worthy section to diagnose. We begin to see shades of Biblical implications. Wade’s bribes and lies begin to sound like Satan in the Garden of Eden, or when he tempted Jesus in the desert, promising riches and glory. In fact, the Biblical allegory angle also comes up when discussing the drought in the film, that is only broken once Evans is able to prove himself faithful to his cause. He holds firm at the end, and not only is his life spared, his cause emboldened, but the drought is lifted in a climactic thunderstorm that rains down upon the parched land. Some viewers wonder about the overheard, oncoming "thunderstorm" on the soundtrack near the end of the film, prior to the final showdown. All indications appear that Evans hears this alone and we hear what Evans hears. If this is the case, it's almost like a moral prodding or moral signpost, indicating to Evans that he is doing the right thing. These sorts of religious themes are rampant in Daves's best works. Think of The Last Wagon, where a Moses (Richard Widmark) leads his people through the desert. Think of The Hanging Tree, where there is an examination of a flawed Good Samaritan (Gary Cooper). Or even in Jubal, where the lure of sex is strong, but chastity is rewarded, recalling the story of Joseph and Potipher's wife. All of these historical recollections give Daves's films a timeless quality and a remarkable distillation of human nature, reminding us how our desires and temptations haven't changed much through the years. 

Daves’s film avoids relying on usual tropes in films like this, mainly because of his insistence on letting the rancher dictate the outcome. Based on a short story by Elmore Leonard, this is a film that lets the everyman be the hero. This isn’t Shane. There is no strapping gunfighter that will come along and make things easier for the common folk. This also isn’t High Noon, where the seasoned veteran stands up one last time. 3:10 to Yuma is in fact, the Everyman’s shining hour because it allows this rancher/husband/father a chance to stand up for himself and hold to his principles. Even if the initial prospect is for money, it turns out in the end, he does his job in the name of honor. Even after Evans realizes that he will have to do the entire job on his own, he clearly and succinctly views this opportunity as a way of proving himself....if not to his wife, or his children, or his town....but perhaps to a higher power. It would make perfect sense for Evans, without help from anyone, to give up. But, he decides to continue on by himself and succeeds through nothing less than his own sheer ingenuity and determination in the face of ridiculous odds, or perhaps a little help from above. People like Evans and his wife in this film are forced into tough decisions because of the hard-scrabble life they live. Here, the west is a place where these decisions are life and death and where every one of these decisions seems to operate in a complex shade of gray. Daves’s film allows this reality to unfold with precision.  

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Mercenary (1968) - Directed by Sergio Corbucci

In most circles, the discussion over which film is Corbucci’s best is usually over whether it’s his gothic-comic theatrics in Django or his bleak ultra-violent The Great Silence. Both are solid, with The Great Silence probably approaching true greatness more often than the somewhat simplistic but fun Django. The Mercenary is something altogether different, and for my money, my favorite of the Corbucci’s I’ve seen thus far. It sits most comfortably in the Zapata western subgenre, but is basically a spaghetti western in tone and execution. I like The Mercenary slightly better than The Great Silence because The Mercenary is self aware, sly, and takes itself less seriously, subverting the usual over-the-topness of the spaghetti western by over-amplifying everything but infusing a great deal of deadpan humor into its fantastic, explosive action. It’s almost like Corbucci already realized in 1968 the inherent potential pitfalls of a genre built upon heavy doses of spectacle…… Such spectacle was ripe for subversion, so Corbucci takes himself less serious here. 

The Mercenary (or as known in the U.S., A Professional Gun) is a story set during the 1910’s of the Mexican revolution. Spaghetti western veteran Franco Nero plays the Polish mercenary Sergei Kowalski. Sergei agrees to help some men carry silver across the border. A weirdo named Curly (Jack Palance) hears of the plan and kills a few of the men who are part of the silver deal. Sergei then ends up arriving at a town just as a Colonel Alfonso Garcia and his Mexican Army is about to put down some revolutionaries. Kowalski runs into the leader of the revolutionaries, Paco (Tony Musante), during the battle, and Paco pays Kowalski handsomely to get them out of trouble. Kowalski quickly employs his machine gun and dynamite tactics, thwarting the army and saving the day for the revolutionaries. Paco and Kowalski thus begin an odd relationship, sometimes together and sometimes at odds with each other as they fight their way across Mexico and as Kowalski shows Paco how to conduct the revolution. Curly comes back into the picture as the main nemesis when he attempts to track down both Paco and Kowalski to help the Mexican army and for his own personal gain as there is a price on their heads. It’s all rather convoluted as is expected, with crossings, double crossings etc, but part of the fun is the journey.

Corbucci might be the best action director of all the spaghetti western directors, and this film is exhibit A. It could really be described as a full blown action picture set out west, and a really good one at that. Lots of machine guns and explosions everywhere and there’s some great setpieces. Of particular note is that first sequence where Kowalski sets up the machine gun, mowing down the whole Mexican Army, before strapping dynamite to a car and driving it straight at the cannons. Another brilliant scene is when Paco, Kowalski and crew dress up as part of a parade on a float…..they quickly whip out their machine guns in mid-parade and mow down tons of soldiers. It’s a colorful and explosively photographed scene. Then there’s the huge battle sequence near the end of the film, where the Army employs an airplane to drop bombs on the town. Of course Kowalski is able to shoot it down with just his rifle! Amazing stuff and so brilliant, almost upping the ante with each additional scene. In the fantastically framed showdown sequence (one of the greatest of such scenes imaginable), Curly meets a clown-faced Paco in the middle of a bullfighting ring, while Kowalski referees the duel from the side, tolling a bell three times before Paco and Curly shoot each other with rifles. The joy of this scene is the close where Curly realizes he’s been shot by looking at his white carnation turning red.

Other terrific elements? Allejandro Alloa’s cinematography employs nice handheld shots and eye-catching compositions, in what is probably Corbucci’s most artistically framed film. Ennio Morricone adds another terrific score to the spaghetti western genre, this one is a whistle-infused score that is distinctive and beautiful in its lilting simplicity (Tarantino borrowed it in Kill Bill Vol 2). Franco Nero is terrifically deadpan and masculine as the Polish mercenary, employing a near-winking attitude throughout that keeps us on our toes. I particularly love the scene where he’s treated like royalty in the dessert and complains that he is too hot, so everyone empties their canteen into a wooden bucket so he can take a shower. Hilarious. I also love the moment when Kowalski is leading Paco with a rope behind his horse to turn him into the authorities to get his reward…..but then the Army comes by, letting Kowalski know that the reward on his own head is even higher than Paco’s. The next shot shows both of them being led by ropes behind the army as they’re taken to the firing squad. This sort of lightness of touch, amidst the explosive bombast is what is so appealing about this film. It’s incredibly balanced and nuanced and a testament to the kinds of layers that Corbucci infuses into his films. True it’s a rather blatant testosterone fest, but it's one of the best of its kind.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Meek's Cutoff (2010) - Directed by Kelly Reichardt

Note: This review is being re-posted with additional thoughts as part of the top 50 westerns countdown at Wonders in the Dark placing at #44. 

Tuck what is called Meek's Cutoff...a bad cutoff for all that tuck it. ...I will just say, pen and tong will both fall short when they grow to tell of the suffering the company went through.
-Samuel Parker, 1845

As Meek’s Cutoff opens, we see water. Cool, rushing water, providing a cleansing and peaceful sound. We see a group of pioneers trying to ford the river, up to the top of their wagon wheels in water. Up to their shoulders in water as they wade across, they linger nearby and fill up their buckets. They are lost, but at least they have water. Question is, when will they find more once they move on? Meek’s Cutoff is based on a true story that was documented in 1845 as a group of pioneers decided to hire Stephen Meek, a guide and trapper to lead them on a shortcut through central Oregon, to lead them to the Willamette Valley. He ended up getting them lost, as they wandered around the south-central deserts of Oregon as their water supply and patience wore out. Reichardt’s brilliant western captures the hardships of the wagon train existence with a chilling reality overshadowing even the beautiful images that fill the screen. In fact the dichotomy between the desperation of the pioneers and the beauty of the desert landscape is one of the film’s great tensions. The other great tension, is the battle of the sexes, as Reichardt examines the roles of women and men, subverting western traditions and elevating feminist themes to the fore while transcending any sense of gender based posturing by making her film as artfully and classically crafted as any western in recent memory.

Michelle Williams plays Emily Tetherow, one of these pioneers, who has a husband named Solomon (Will Patton). There are two other couples with them, The Gatelys and The Whites, each with their own wagon. Emily Tetherow is a fascinating character to watch. Her stern and dirtied face is able to appear just tough enough to compete with Stephen Meek, whom it’s clear she derides and blames for their plight, as she should. It’s also clear she holds some blame for the men in the troupe, as the women are never included in the discussions on what should be done with Meek and what they should do next. At one point in the film, the troupe captures a Native American and decides he might be the one to lead them to water. Emily does some kind things for him: feeding him, mending his moccasin, protecting his life in one instance. Yet it’s for realistic reasons she does this: She wants something in return from him and wants him to pay her back in return for her kindness. She also spends time communicating with the other women, Millie (Zoe Kazan), and Glory (Shirley Henderson) as they converse and commiserate on what to do next and when to speak up against Meek.

Now there are exceptions of course, but women have generally been mostly outsiders in the history of western cinema, and it is often a frustration of mine that women weren’t given meatier roles. Often relegated to stereotypical roles as school marms, prairie wives, or prostitutes, finding varied roles for women is hard to come by in most of the widely recognized classics of the genre. There are exceptions of course. A two-reeler from 1920 titled A Woman’s Vengeance bucks the trend with the portrayal of a female gunfighter. Additionally a two reeler by Griffith in 1914 titled  The Battle of Elderbush Gulch follows the exploits of a woman and some young children. But there are also feminist stepping stone type films that began to appear in the 1950’s, like Wellman’s Westward the Women (1951), an inspiring film involving a wagon train filled with women. It doesn’t take feminism to the next level though, because the wagon train is still led by a man played by Robert Wagner. This motif arises again in The Guns of Fort Petticoat (1957), starring Audie Murphy, which also portrays a group of women led by an “infallible” male leader. This is something that Reichardt may have picked up on, as she subverts this tradition in Meek’s Cutoff by portraying the male leader as an ineffective, irresponsible dolt. Other feminist westerns include Nicholas Ray’s gender-bending Johnny Guitar (1954), Jane Fonda in the comedy western Cat Ballou (1965), and Richard Pearce’s realist film Heartland (1979). But, if we’re talking about westerns directed by women though, the list is very short. We have Alice Guy-Blanche’s Algie the Miner (1912), Ruth Baldwin’s ’49-’17 (1917), Nell Shipman’s Something New (1920), Lina Wertmuller with at least co-credit in 1968’s Italian film Il mio corpo per un poker, and Maggie Greenwald’s The Ballad of Little Jo (1993).  Reichardt’s film isn’t the first truly feminist western, but it’s certainly one of the best if not THE best of its kind. Unlike the other films I mention, Reichardt really wants the visuals to recall classics like Ford’s Wagon Master in the visual scope, yet she subverts our traditional understanding of masculine heroism, undermining it through portraying a female character who draws a gun faster than her husband does, and through the bumbling lack of leadership from all of the males in the wagon train. But it’s not like Reichardt chooses to reverse gender roles here, as was often the traditional form of portraying feminism in other films. On the contrary, Emily, Millie and Glory are still very much women in the traditional roles of pioneer days, sewing, cooking and tending to familial needs. It is to Reichardt’s credit that she displays the strength of the women persevering through the hardships they encounter and allowing them to be strongly feminine in ways that are realistic, and necessary to the plot.

Much has been made of the fact that Reichardt chose to film in standard aspect ratio, rather than widescreen. What I think the ratio provides is more realism, which is essential to the film’s feel.  Widescreen photography lends to the potential capacity for creating larger compositions, and the wider the screen, the more elaborate the compositions can be. Compositions do not feel realist in principle, they can feel manipulative, as if the hand of the director or cinematographer can be felt as he/she placed everything just so. Having a smaller field of vision limits the potential for embellished compositions and I think that’s why Reichardt chose it. You will almost never see the groups of men and women framed together. They are nearly always framed separately, because in one sense, Reichardt wants it that way, but also the camera doesn’t allow them to be framed together. With the men and women often separated, it highlights how women were not included in these types of conversations that men had. As viewers, we’re often watching the film from the women’s point of view as we watch the men talking from a distance. But the film has much more going for it than just gender-based topics. Meek’s Cutoff works so well because it’s a deep meditation on quiet, mounting desperation. This film contains none of the tropes that cinema uses to trump up desolation, particularly in westerns. There are no gunfights, fisticuffs, or even loud verbal spars between people. Faces of the women and men appear tired and fearful as they begin to realize that death may soon be around the corner. Mostly the film lingers on the mounting escalation of dread among the few attempts at perseverance and hope. As things look bleaker and no water is found, hope begins to fade and desperation comes more to the fore. Reichardt forces you to stay in that moment with the wagon train, providing no exposition or conclusion, confronting the viewer with the eternal consequences of choice.

Monday, October 7, 2013

A Fistful of Dollars (1964) - Directed by Sergio Leone

Note: This essay appears at Wonders in the Dark as part of the Top 50 Westerns Countdown, placing at #45.

It wasn’t the first spaghetti western, but A Fistful of Dollars was certainly the one that really put the whole sub-genre on the map. This is the film that synthesized several key ingredients that would make the spaghetti western into influential cinema, namely the iconic “Man with No Name”….aka Clint Eastwood who dishes out hefty doses of justice and deadpan humor. There is also the presence of Ennio Morricone, who wrote so many fabulous scores for several spaghetti westerns and is nearly synonymous with the sub-genre, who provides a clanging and lilting score that in its own way, is as memorable and jaunty as anything he ever wrote. And of course the assured direction from Sergio Leone, whose confidence in what he was doing seems to ooze from just about every scene in the film. These three together helped take the spaghetti western from its low budget roots and turned it into a western revival, with a legacy and influence that has seemed to transcend the western altogether.

Although Leone would go on to create more lavishly spectacled and densely thematic works (particularly his magnificent Once Upon a Time in the West), there is a certain appeal in the taut economy of storyline here in A Fistful of Dollars. As “The Man with No Name” (Clint Eastwood) rides into a border town near Mexico, he is told of the local feud between two families, the Rojo clan, led by the evil Ramon (a deliciously vile Gian Maria Volonte), and the Baxters, led by Sheriff Baxter. The Man with No Name determines he can profit off of this feud by facilitating the escalating violence and looking for ways of exploiting the situation. He winds up in the middle of some controversy when he sees some gold being stolen by Ramon and his gang, whereupon he sells information to both families to get them to engage in a fight over the “survivors” of the massacre. While this is going on, TMWNN learns of a woman named Marisol who is being held captive by Ramon, keeping her from her husband and small boy. TMWNN finds a way to free her from her captors, but Ramon and crew find out about this and soon beat him to a pulp (I’m not sure which film Eastwood looks worse in….this one after the beating or in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly after the walk through the desert with Eli Wallach). Through pluck and ingenuity, he escapes, and as Ramon believes the Baxters are hiding him, he and his gang set fire to the Baxter house and murder the entire family. TMWNN heals up and returns to town to exact revenge upon Ramon and rid the town of the Rojo clan in a fantastic showdown.

It’s well known that this film borrows significantly from the plot of Yojimbo, Akira Kurosawa’s wonderful 1961 work that already was borrowing on iconography of westerns to begin with. A Fistful of Dollars is basically a remake of Yojimbo, and in fact Toho films sued Leone and the producers for the Asian rights to the film after they saw it and determined how much it borrowed from their film. During the early 60’s, in fact, the melding of the samurai concept and the western had already occurred a few years earlier in the blockbuster western, The Magnificent Seven (based on The Seven Samurai). But, Leone adds so many of his own elements to the film. First and foremost, was getting Clint Eastwood to play the lead, who at the time was mostly known for his work in the Rawhide TV series. Eastwood came to Italy, without being able to speak any Italian, and in fact was making very little money on this low budget film. One of the key elements for why I think Eastwood is so effective in this film and the entire Dollars trilogy, is that he doesn’t do anything quickly. He moves slowly. Eastwood even talks as if he’s just awakened from a nap. It's not quite a whisper, but not really projecting either. Everything with Eastwood is smooth and subtle, highlighting a hyper-cool machismo…..he’s cool and he knows it. But the effect of all this languorous moving and talking, is that the action moments come across as that much more impactful. He moves deliberately and smooth and slow with everything he does, except when he shoots….and Leone often makes a point of showing us his hands as he shoots the gun as this is the only time he moves with any quickness whatsoever. Eastwood’s deadpan humor also goes a long way here, allowing him to subvert his own approach and keep the pastiche from getting too thick. Eastwood’s emblematic portrayal of The Man with No Name, adds to what I consider to be a critical element of the spaghetti western, which is the meditation on the masculine identity. In Eastwood’s Man with No Name, we have the ideal personification of a man who asks for nothing, needs nothing and relies upon only himself for sustenance, using ingenuity, skill, and his sly humor to get him through. It is Eastwood's alone-ness and self sufficiency that recalls classics of the western genre, but in this case, there is a self-awareness subverting the traditional intent. This is a quality that would come up not just in other Leone films, but in many of the great spaghetti westerns, particularly those from Corbucci, like Django, and The Mercenary. Just about the only glimpse into The Man’s past is after he helps the family, the woman asks…“Why do you do this for us?”. He replies,“Why? Cause I knew someone like you once and there was no one there to help." Leone also plays upon reference points of western culture and iconography, elevating the images, the characters, and the sounds into a kind of reflexive mythology, incorporating elements from other westerns, most often recalling George Stevens' Shane. Speaking of sounds, Morricone's soundtrack here is loaded with what sounds like noises....whistles and clanging things that give a sort of caricatured personality to the proceedings. Leone and Morricone were always on some kind of miraculous level. Yes the music isn't as iconic as in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, but the understated and comedic matter-of-factness of the score here fits very well with Leone's more simple approach in this film. In addition to the music, the visuals are rife with close-ups and attention-grabbing widescreen framing, reflecting the self awareness inherent to the spaghetti subgenre, as it reflects a post-western consciousness. A Fistful of Dollars isn't just a western..... it's a western that knows it's a western.

In a significant supporting role, Gian Maria Volonte is Ramon, the personification of evil. His evil is best seen in the sequence where he massacres the Mexican army with the Gatling gun and there’s this certain way that he grimaces with pleasure every time he shoots the gun. There’s also that dark, violent and nasty set piece where Ramon’s crew burns down the Baxter house and massacres the family, including Baxter’s wife in cold blood. Eastwood is watching the whole massacre from his concealed location in the coffin after he got beat up. This sets up a brilliant denouement where Eastwood not only wants revenge for Ramon’s treatment of him, but also their full-on display of evil incarnate, setting up a herculean confrontation where Eastwood must take on Ramon and his whole clan (Not without some help from a protective bullet proof breastplate). In the final showdown, Leone pulls together all the elements that would become iconic about the spaghetti western…. the drawn out suspense, the machismo and taunting, the sweaty close-ups, the clanging score, the art of surprise. A Fistful of Dollars must be recognized historically and cinematically for what it represents and what it popularized. True there are better spaghetti westerns, but few are as unassuming and compact as this one can be, as Eastwood’s understated humor and the short running time seem to reflect a “less is more” approach that I find immensely likable.