Archive for the ‘Western’ Category

Sergeant Rutledge (John Ford, 1960)








Notice my trend of posting at least 6 or 8 screenshots in all my write-ups of Ford movies, as opposed to my normal one shot for everything else?  It’s ‘cuz by now it’s blatantly obvious to me that Ford was a master like few others – hell, like pretty much no other – of composing incredible images, split moments where lighting and staging of characters and objects evokes artful symmetry and painting-like perfection without calling too much attention to themselves, and I couldn’t possibly pick just one to show.  “Sergeant Rutledge” is no different, as the story of a black sergeant with a previously outstanding reputation on trial for the murder of his superior officer and rape/murder of that officer’s daughter looks as pretty as anything else Ford has done.  And unlike, say, “Fort Apache” or “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,” which I felt were gorgeous but needed some more oomph by way of emotional involvement, “Sergeant Rutledge” has the goods to back up the pretty pictures. 

Ford has never really been one to go for utter realism, and indeed “Sergeant Rutledge” has some of those exciting shootouts, or some of those hollow performances (Jeffrey Hunter and Constance Towers, who got the top two billings as Rutledge’s defense counsel Cantrell and Cantrell’s love interest Mary, leave a lot to be desired), but “Sergeant Rutledge” lacks realism for different reasons than those.  Some images both astounding and surreal give a particularly bizarre feel to the proceedings, make the flashbacks and the courtroom scenes themselves dreamlike, and make Rutledge into something of a mythic folk hero, complete with heroic poses set to epic ballads (Cap-tain BUFFALO!).  The way Rutledge is portrayed as larger-than-life and mythic in some instances is downright peculiar, but even then that just contributes even more to this intangibly bizarre world where past and present intermingle and nothing’s as it seems.  Scenes like Rutledge and Mary holing themselves up in a rail station against Apaches on a stormy night are incredibly atmospheric and suspenseful, as we often hear nothing but the wind outside, and Rutledge, who we were only just introduced to moments before in a startling entrance, might be friend or might be foe, but is for sure mysterious and dare I say, exotic, especially thrust into this situation with the helpless white damsel Mary.  When a scene like that is placed next to a courtroom scene taking place long after – a courtroom scene that dissolves into surreal silhouettes and darkness to signify a flashback – past and present are equally surreal, and an easy-to-follow beginning-to-end chronological story structure becomes irrelevant. 

That’s what I really liked about “Sergeant Rutledge”, how we’re presented with the aftermath of the crime in snippets of flashback from unreliable narrators – the flashbacks are rather straightforward, but the bias of the witnesses – including Rutledge himself – telling their segments of the story add some juice to it.  We never see the crime itself, so the flashbacks via witness testimony are more of a character-builder (or legend-builder) than anything, as we see Mary, Cantrell and an imprisoned Rutledge and their men, one of the first all-black cavalry following the Civil War, make the trek across Monument Valley (where else? 😛 ) with Apaches at their heels.  It’s really tense stuff, a few good men against the elements in a desperate situation in the middle of nowhere.  There’s a nice camaraderie between the men, like they’re family, and we get to like Rutledge, even if the glorifying of the character into an epic folk hero goes a little over the top.  He’s heroic and duty-bound, even if he’s not exactly forthcoming about what happened at that crime scene, and Woody Strode’s fantastic as the titular sergeant.  His obstinacy in refusing to pander to a biased legal system by proclaiming his innocence or surrendering quietly leads to some speeches on the plight of the black man in a white world that’s an important theme, sure, but one that’s shoved in our face a little too much and a little too politicized a la the lectured-to-us plight of the workers in “The Grapes of Wrath.”  But boy does Strode deliver those otherwise-manipulative speeches well – his Rutledge is a man of honor, a barely-convincing face of stoicism concealing rage at the system that’s put him in a trial for his life, and it all leads to a teary-eyed breakdown on the stand that just about had ME in tears.  This is a fine western and courtroom drama with an innovative chronological structure and enthralling mystery – so enthralling that the cobbled-together, 11th hour revelation can be forgiven, as can Jeffrey Hunter’s not-so-gripping job as the do-no-wrong lieutenant and counsel and friend of Rutledge.  Even some out-of-left-field comic relief involving the grumpy curmudgeon of a president of the court-martial and his fellow board members provides a welcome respite from the downer that is Rutledge’s unenviable situation (though the president’s INSANELY over-the-top and irritating wife doesn’t fare nearly as well – she really needed to die).  But at the center of it all is Rutledge, who probably could’ve been fleshed out more, sure, but what good would that have been when every aspect of him – his innocence or guilt, his motives in trying to escape and then turn around and help his regiment at the turn of a dime, his almost frighteningly stoic/blank face, his near-mythic heroism, is so obviously supposed to be an enigma?

8.5/10

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John Ford’s unofficial Cavalry trilogy, parts 2 and 3: She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) and Rio Grande (1950)

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (John Ford, 1949)




 Good God, why does this movie look like it takes place in the deepest depths of Hades?  Why is everyone so stiff and hackneyed and have a stick up their ass?   Why is the score so irritatingly over-the-top and distracting?  Why is there an immense and awe-inspiring monument in every single shot of this movie?

Bottom-line, when John Wayne wasn’t pouring a cocktail of goat’s blood and water from the River Styx onto his wife’s grave, this was a mostly dull, sometimes bizarre, and overall expendable second part of Ford’s unofficial cavalry trilogy.  It’s about as straight-up cowboys vs. Indians as a cowboys vs. Indians movie can get (if you sub out cowboys for soldiers) – white man good, red man bad, ready set go (even the Indians in “Fort Apache,” which I didn’t love either, were infinitely more dynamic and interesting than these Indians, apart from one scene towards the end between Wayne and an old chief).  Even some GREAT images and moments… 

 
 
 
 

…that scream ‘epic’ are window dressing, trying to make something more epic than it really is.  Sorry, Ford, you’re not fooling me this time.  I see past your devious plot to blind us with astounding shots  .  It’s little more than a good guy vs. bad guy, point A to point B journey/adventure movie (ride along-action scene-ride along-action scene-ride along-fight over the girl-ride along-action scene-pretty sunset), except the characters we follow on the journey have barely a shred of the depth that even the characters in “Stagecoach” had.  John Wayne, at least, largely avoids that dubious fate of depthlessness as the captain on the verge of retirement going on one last mission (is there a more clichéd character type by now than the old veteran going out gloriously on one last job?  ), particularly in a touching scene involving a gift from his loyal and grateful cavalry.  But as cool as he is, he’s still a stereotype, in a movie filled with predictable stereotypes and plot (even though there’s a Three Stooges-esque barroom brawl from another dimension tossed into the second hour for some reason.  I dunno…  ).  Once again John Ford shows how gifted he was at creating magnificent pictures, only this time he forgot to put very many characters or plights of consequence in those pictures.  Pretty, but boring.

6/10

 

Rio Grande (John Ford, 1950)




I liked it.  Easily my favorite of the three films in the so-called cavalry trilogy, which is ironic considering it might be John Wayne’s weakest (though still solid) of his three performances in those films (I dunno, seems like with that drawl becoming more pronounced here, even though this was just a year after “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,” he might’ve just been coming into the phase of his career where he was starting to become a parody of himself.  Just a thought  ).  Nevertheless, unlike in “Fort Apache” and “Yellow Ribbon”, the characters in “Rio Grande” are…gasp…interesting!  The dynamics between Wayne’s Col. Kirby Yorke (the same Kirby Yorke as in “Fort Apache”, perhaps?  If so, the implications when you consider the similarities and differences between the younger and elder Yorke become fascinating) and the son he’s unexpectedly reunited with after 15 years, and with his estranged wife Kathleen (Maureen O’Hara), actually give weight to the well-treaded territory of soldiers making a stand against the dreaded Indian menace.  I liked how the Indians barely figured into the movie until at least well-past the halfway point – gave us a chance to get to know the main players more easily than in the prior films, and the Indians were arguably more menacing as an off-screen but oft-mentioned threat than as a constant on-screen presence.  Despite stiff performances all-around, there is tension between Yorke Sr. and Yorke Jr., both awkwardly trying to put duty before love and maintain the professional relationship between soldier and superior officer, despite it being blatantly obvious that they need each other more than either will admit.  I also liked the sense of camaraderie between the soldiers, something I felt was sorely lacking in “Fort Apache” and “Yellow Ribbon.”  In those films the soldiers, just as much as the Indians they were arbitrarily fighting for the sake of fighting, were cardboard cutouts.  Here, though, we see young Jeff Yorke and his fellow soldiers master Roman-style horse riding or resolving disputes with very public fistfights or sing and play guitar together in their tent under the night sky.  Even a subplot involving a nice, easygoing young soldier who inexplicably faces arrest for a prior manslaughter is much less superfluous than you’d expect, and culminates with a nice coming-together of that story with the others – a satisfying chance at redemption for that young soldier, his friend Jeff Yorke, and Kirby Yorke himself in a thrilling climax.

Bottom-line, the goings-on at the army base in this film, at least compared to the other two, actually feel organic and genuine, where everyone has something at stake, for their own reasons at first, united in an important common goal at the end.  Little moments like Kirby and Kathleen being serenaded one night is a lovely little departure from an otherwise ordinary plot, and adds character to the awkward but civil relationship between the estranged spouses, both looking out for their son in different ways, but ways each of them sees as fitting, and both clearly longing for the better times that they had in the past, but unable to express that outright.  If the performances leave something to be desired (I wonder if a lady/damsel fainting at the first sight of an Indian party was actually commonplace in 50s cinema?  Either way,  ), at least moments like that serenade or Kathleen admiring a music box (which is obviously an important item from the past, even if we aren’t told so explicitly), or young and inexperienced soldiers bonding and maturing into soldiers and good friends before our eyes, make up for it.  The last portion of the film, involving kidnapped children, is, granted, more of white man vs. faceless, pure-evil Indians we’ve seen before (and Monument Valley’s still there, though the cinematography and majestic shots of that famous valley are thankfully toned down and revolve around the story at hand rather than the story revolving around the shots.  As gorgeous as some of the images were in “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon”, some of the most gorgeous I’ve ever seen, in fact, seemed like they were just there for the sake of being a travelogue.  Not here.).  However, a thrilling-as-hell horse chase between a soldier carrying a crucial message and his Indian pursuers, and a final grand standoff at a church, actually feel like they’re happening for a reason, because this time I actually cared who was being chased and who’s children were in danger and whether Jeff Yorke would live through the ordeal to finally gain his father’s respect.  This wasn’t perfect, with the Indians being as one-dimensional as ever (more one-dimensional than in both “Fort Apache” and “Yellow Ribbon,” even) and a domestic family storyline that still poured on the schmaltz a bit, but it was sure as hell a step in the right direction for the Ford-ian Western.

7.5/10

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and on a final but VERY vital note,

if Klaus Kinski and Gary Busey had a baby!

A couple of John Fords: The Whole Town’s Talking (1935) and Fort Apache (1948)

The Whole Town’s Talking (1935)

THIS was directed by John Ford? A light, funny little semi-parody of gangster movies and tale of mistaken identity? If you just showed me this movie without credits, I wouldn’tve guessed in a million years that John Ford of all people helmed it…but hey, I’ll take it. Edward G. Robinson is fantastic, as usual, this time in a dual role, showing both sides of a range you never would’ve guessed he had – a meek, shy and soft-spoken bookkeeper, and the nasty, fast-talking gangster he gets mistaken for – the persona you’d much more readily associate Robinson with. But, he pulls off both roles very nicely (it really is incredible how different these two characters, being played by the same actor, are), and while some of the movie is incredibly dated (that black doorman at the bank…  ), many of the situations that arise from an unassuming bureaucrat being mistaken for ‘Killer’ Mannion are very clever and funny – even moments of slapstick aren’t overdone, but are more in-the-moment than anything, making the humor that much more endearing (Robinson can do obnoxious drunk like no other 😛 ). I’ve only seen three of Edward G. Robinson’s performances (well, 4 if you count this movie’s as two…), but I think he’s shooting right up my list of favorite actors regardless. This movie’s nothing profound, but it was cute, and I liked it 🙂

7.5/10

 

Fort Apache (1948)



 

jesus christ, Shirley Temple got HOT!

Well, when I wasn’t thinking about the things I would do to America’s former sweetheart in a sleazy motel room, I was pretty much bored. You’ve seen one 2-hour excuse to show off Monument Valley, you’ve seen ’em all, and “Fort Apache” was one of ’em all. Some shots of desert, some trouble at home at a remote army base, some stock chase/action scenes between army ‘n Indians, that just about sums it up. Even John Ford’s bizarre brand of comic relief, namely involving inexperienced soldiers and their horses in some really weird slapstick, is just plain strange, and Fonda stick out like a fucking sore thumb. I’d compare his go as a stubborn, bloodthirsty or glorythirsty or both Lieutenant Colonel to, say, Jimmy Stewart in Hitchcock’s “Rope” – in both cases, a great actor in the prime of his career, practically dumped into a movie where it just doesn’t feel like he belongs. On the bright side, though, John Wayne’s pretty damn good as the captain – charismatic, honorable in sympathizing with the Indians, basically the foil to the bullheaded Fonda, and doesn’t yet have that stroke victim drawl the uninitiated would associate with John Wayne. But, at least until the finale, Wayne is woefully underused, in favor of trying to build up Fonda’s assholeishness for some kind of redemption that, while portrayed heroically at the end, feels disingenuous, and a sub-plot involving Fonda’s daughter (Temple  …can’t act to save her life, but  ) and her romance with the young officer who, of course, daddy doesn’t approve of, that has its moments but falls a bit flat like most everything else. If it wasn’t for little moments like the drunk serenading the happy couple and the O’Rourke family on their porch one night (a most-decidedly Ford-ian moment 🙂 ), and a climax that ends things on an incredibly strong note, as Fonda’s near-crazed Lt. Col. Thursday and his men take on the Indians (who’re portrayed in a more positive light than negative, so the question of which side to root for is surprisingly, and nicely, complex), “Fort Apache” would be utterly forgettable. As it stands, it’s still one of the weaker Ford’s I’ve seen, but the last reel or so saves it from oblivion

6.5/10

McCabe & Mrs. Miller (Robert Altman, 1971)

As far as I remember, other than a scant moment or two, every outdoor scene in “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” occurs at best under dreary cloud cover and at worst in pouring rain or stifling snowfall.  It’s a testament to just how dreary this movie is, how despite the enormous success of gambler and hustler McCabe and professional madame Constance Miller’s business venture in the wilderness town of Presbyterian Church, they’re doomed to unhappiness, or worse.  Sure, outside forces inevitably contribute to McCabe’s potential doom in the form of three hit men hired by the mining company McCabe refuses to sell his holdings to (that’s where the traditional Western comes in), but even more so from within, and from just the dreariness and purposelessness of that shitty little town.  As the rain falls the night the hit men come to town, and the snow falls when McCabe becomes desperate, the world is falling apart around the cowardly but assured McCabe and the outwardly-confident but opium-addicted Constance.  Talk about a far-cry from traditional Westerns with a glaring sun, brutal heat, blowing sand, rowdy saloons, and good guys vs. bad guys meeting on Main Street.  And indeed, “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” is precisely the anti-Western that Robert Altman was going for, but for more reasons than just the weather.  As in many of Altman’s movies, a traditional event-driven plot doesn’t exist here – no proper introductions to the characters, no plot-driven back-and-forth dialogue, no rhyme or reason or logical chain of events chronicling McCabe’s transition from successful saloon (and town) owner to wanted man.  All Altman is interested in is establishing mood, and above all, place.  Presbyterian Church is a wet, dank, gloomy place, both the origin and product of McCabe and Constance’s demons, and the star of the show – the people are just living in it.  Forget trying to get a read on the other characters, from the intimidating bear of a hit man to the sleazy lawyer to the stupid but well-meaning kid who rides into town looking for the best whores in the West, that’d be impossible…and forget trying to read McCabe and Mrs. Miller.  Constance has her demons, a forlorn opium addict hiding behind the image of an assured businesswoman who can get away with pushing around her wet noodle of a partner McCabe, and McCabe is a nervous coward hiding behind nice clothes and a might-be true legend of killing a man at the poker table a while back.  Everything’s about false facades concealing characters’ true selves – true selves that we can’t get to or begin to comprehend.  In almost any other movie that’d mean nothing more than shallow, one-dimensional characters, but in this movie, and in the town of Presbyterian Church, it’s a perfect fit.

From the very first scene, where McCabe arrives in town and organizes a card game in the run-down but busy inn, what we see is vintage Altman.  In so many of his films, including this film’s predecessor “MASH,” Altman the filmmaker is intent on capturing everything that shouldn’t be seen in a typical movie.  As McCabe makes his way towards the table, we’re bombarded with barely-distinguishable dialogue from all sides – nonchalant conversations amongst all the degenerates in that room that have nothing to do with the “main” character and “main” plot, but just add to place.  They’re periphery conversations from characters that are periphery to the forefront, but in an Altman movie the periphery is the forefront.  Real life doesn’t come to a halt so that two important people can face each other and have a flawless, distinct, uninterrupted conversation.  People interrupt each other and have conversations on the side about dinner last night or that whore someone screwed or a hand they were cheated out of.  An almost obsessive concentration on those peripheral characters and the seemingly trivial conversations they hold has been Altman’s shtick from movie to movie .  A lot of the time (even in “McCabe”) it’s irritating and a sound editor’s nightmare, but if anything it’s the stuff that verisimilitude is made of – the stuff that gives this dank place and its inhabitants life and realism.  Many places in many films, from the futuristic Los Angeles of “Blade Runner” to the border town of “Touch of Evil” to the Venice of “Don’t Look Now” establish mood to the point of becoming characters in and of themselves, but Presbyterian Church, with its frozen pond, snow-covered drifts, run-down shanties, and shady characters, towers above them all.  In no Western I’ve seen before this, not even the alleged king of all anti-Westerns “Unforgiven,” have I been so convinced that what I was seeing wasn’t some fantasy land inhabited by heroic and villainous archetypes, but a real place with real people, whose actions have real consequences.

If you asked me right now for the name of any character in this movie besides McCabe or Mrs. Miller, I couldn’t do it.  In a way that’s a shame, but in another way, isn’t that usually the case day-to-day, when the easiest way to identify a person isn’t by name, but by face and behavior?  That’s the vibe that Altman nails in “McCabe & Mrs. Miller”: impenetrable but real characters.  It’s a slippery slope to attempt, one that Altman himself hasn’t been as successful traversing in other films, but here the benefits outweigh the detriments.  But side-characters ain’t the only ones who’re hard to read.  McCabe and Constance themselves, depending on your point of view, are either incredibly complex or incredibly one-dimensional.  Either way, they’re tough to get a read on.  McCabe’s mostly that mumbling, awkward buffoon trying to pass himself off as an authority figure, and Constance is mostly the no-nonsense business woman who gives McCabe one hell of a pitch to partner up in the whoring industry and looks after her girls like they’re family.  These are stock character types, rather shallow, but then there’s these little behavioral abnormalities in these two most interesting characters, little things that are never explained but make you raise an eyebrow.  Like, for instance, how McCabe stares as Constance takes a customer upstairs while he’s discussing business.  Has he fallen for her?  If so, why does he so readily pay her for her services (yes, they have sex, a fact that’s never directly alluded to but just assumed, like so many other things in the film)?  And what’s with that goofy, opium-induced grin that Constance gives McCabe from under the covers?  Everything about these two people is about facade and trying to work together as business partners, and the little quirks that’re never explained, but only seen in passing.  Sometimes, the less that’s clear about a character, the more interesting they are.  Warren Beatty is magnificent as McCabe, one moment cynical and shrewd as a leading citizen of Presbyterian Church, the next drunkenly bold as a businessman, the next a stuttering wreck when trying to strike up a conversation with Constance or trying to negotiate with the incredibly amused hit men.  Julie Christie is less successful as Constance Miller, her Cockney accent more grating than anything, but some wonderful moments of quiet introspection (many of those while under the influence of opium) make up for it.  They couldn’t possibly be more mismatched as potential lovers, or even partners for that matter – Constance diligently business-oriented and McCabe unable to add and subtract numbers in his head – but through events that are both their doing and uncontrollable, they’re entwined by fate, even if that fate is to be separated by both distance and mindset once the credits roll.

The best, and most heartbreaking, scene in the entire film is one that doesn’t even involve the two people in the title.  That goofy and dim, but nice, kid who came to town for the whores comes face-to-face with one of the cocky, cruel, trigger-happy hit men on a shoddy bridge on the way to the store to buy, of all things, a pair of socks.  On that cold, dreary day like so many others in this town, on a rickety bridge above a frozen pond, this suspenseful and ultimately tragic encounter between the ignorant and the evil, is a summation of the entire film around it: how through no fault of their own, bad things can just happen to…well, not good people, but just people minding their own business.  Those bad things, like in more traditional westerns, are as sudden as a shot from a gun, but this movie in particular focuses on the sense of dread before the plunge.  The rain and snow-covered town (photographed magnificently by Vilmos Zsigmond – rarely has a near-barren wasteland and stifling dreariness looked so beautiful), the lamentful songs by Leonard Cohen that act as the only music in the film, the cold silence from the townspeople when the kid meets the gunslinger on the bridge, the so-called “showdown” between McCabe and the hit men that spans the entire town in a fascinating twist on the High Noon-esque climactic shootout -everything about the atmosphere of “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” is about impending dread and stifling unhappiness, and all that dread is compacted into an awkward meeting on that bridge.  In a movie where the characters and their motivations are as complex as they are unreadable, where the result of McCabe’s foolish gamble is both incredibly surprising and practically pre-ordained, it makes sense that that image of McCabe in the final moments is as indistinguishable as it is.  On a good day, the hopes and dreams of John McCabe and Constance Miller are just put on the back burner by an air of dread.  On a bad day, that dread manifests itself.  A wickedly cynical outlook, sure, but hey, that’s just another one of Robert Altman’s trademarks.  Only in Presbyterian Church.

9/10

High Noon (Fred Zinnemann, 1952)

Clearly the prototypical Western is completely fine with sacrificing some realism and natural, introspective characters to get that mythic quality (at least, that is, until Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven came along). The protagonist, whether that’s the lawman or a criminal with a heart of gold, is ascended to legendary status, providing vigilante justice on his own, without even a semblance of fear in doing what he deems to be out of necessity. The Western hero is really anything but a realistic, life-like person per sé, but rather pure metaphor – a one-man army that represents what society deems the highest standard of heroic machismo. The inevitable face-off and gunfight between anti-hero and villain(s) becomes so much more: it’s a mythic visualizing of our wildest fantasies, and these figures might as well be clichéd cartoon characters in a bad Western, but in the great Western, they’re templates for just about anything: masculinity, honor, bravery (a la High Noon), the decline of an entire era (think The Wild Bunch, Once Upon a Time in the West), or the potential in each of us for good and/or evil (The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly) – complete with a chivalry-type code of conduct and combat that really defines the modern myth at its finest.

At least, that’s what I’ve gotten out of the relatively few Westerns I’ve seen and actually liked. I gotta admit, though, that the very best Westerns I’ve seen were mainly made by either a fat Italian (Sergio Leone, of course) or a Japanese legend (Kurosawa, and of course his Yojimbo isn’t really a Western at all, but basically a Samurai taking the role of fearless cowboy in a wretched town). I figured to edumacate myself, I’d watch High Noon, perhaps the most famous of all Westerns, and while it certainly wasn’t a transcendent experience, I’m certainly glad I fit this one in.

One of my favorite Westerns is Once Upon a Time in the West, mainly for its aesthetic value and some truly awe-inspiring set pieces (the loooong wait for the train and subsequent stand-off with Harmonica, that famous introduction of Henry Fonda as a murderer of an entire family, the final stand-off between Harmonica and Frank, even moments of quiet introspection as the gorgeous Claudia Cardinale simply looks into a mirror and considers her hopeless situation). I thought the story was kind of weak and could’ve been handled better, clearly something of a placeholder for those scenes of really mythic quality, showing a filmmaker at his utmost prowess. Well, after watching High Noon, I realize now just how much I was giving OUATITW the shaft…no offense to High Noon (clearly a very well-made and solid piece of celluloid), but OUATITW really has not a cliché to speak of, as all the pieces just come together perfectly for what’s still one of my all-time favorite endings. Must be those Italian productions that’re immune to the age-old American Western clichés…

Anyway, the clichés…and yes, High Noon has a lot of ’em. Just about every scene of dialogue involved some kind of motivational speech as the people try to convince each other and you of what a true man/hero is (Will Kane, obviously), the importance of doing what’s right despite the odds, coming together as a community, and all that jazz. I’m perfectly aware of the movie’s parallel to the Committee of Un-American Activities, but it’s those old-school motivational speeches that completely do away with subtlety that just get to me. It isn’t until the very end of the film, when not a word is spoken between the forlorn Kane and his bride, that actions truly speak louder than words and the damn movie finally gets it right.

Another thing that kind of got to me until the very end: Will Kane. Maybe it’s just Gary Cooper’s acting style that got to me, but especially in those dialogue-driven scenes, for the main hero he seemed awfully bland and like a blank slate to me….so bland that a lot of the time he just seemed to be going through the motions of an aged, past-his-prime star, making his fistfight with Lloyd Bridges very awkward. But then I got to thinking about Cooper’s Will Kane, and took a second look at just those moments where he’s walking, or addressing a crowd, or writing his will, and I actually see a long-time lawman who’s beyond burned out who just wants out of it but keeps going because of that sense of duty and justice common in so many Western heroes. Here’s a man who’s sick of it all, perhaps even manifesting itself physically with all those pained and wary looks on Gary Cooper’s face, so that it’s not what Gary Cooper does that makes his performance effective, but what he doesn’t do.

I really, really liked how the movie basically took place in real-time. That clock, slowly but surely making its way towards noon, practically teases you and teases Will Kane, as you know that the inevitable is coming. Scene after scene show the simplest of things, like our bandits sitting around at the train station or Will Kane walking through the town in his desperate search for deputies, but that blandness gives way to suspense nonetheless. You can feel the tension making its way through the town and those in it – they and we know that a storm’s coming, slowly but surely. The music and the Oscar-winning song that permeate the entire movie really add to that…there’s that basic beat that reminded me of Seven Samurai almost, and that combined with the almost jolly nature of the song really made things uneasy, especially as Will Kane makes his hopeless march through the town: a man on a hopeless, desperate mission.

Speaking of those scenes, this might just be my interpretation of it all, but it seemed like Will Kane was meant to be dwarfed by his surroundings…the buildings and their shadows, the barn, even the crowds who politely turn on him. A lot of the shots of him are either from way up or from below, so that he’s always in a vulnerable position…and how appropriate. Only about an hour and a half elapse in the movie, but in that short time our hero basically loses all hope, loses touch with reality, and picks himself back up in a great final shootout that almost felt like a silent movie in its focus on the action in a cause-and-effect kind of way, if that at all makes sense. In the end High Noon’s still an American Western that’s plagued by the clichés of the American Western, but shitty dialogue aside, it’s Will Kane’s presence alone that elevates him to that status of good Western hero, so that he and the town of Hadleyville are myth and metaphor, rather than mere man and town.

8.5/10

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik, 2007)

First off, I’m just tired of this whole “Malick-esque” observation everybody’s making about this movie, whether that’s a compliment or a criticism, so I’m just glancing over it.  Just look at the damn thing for its own merits or faults.  The bottom-line is that this is a movie that looks great and tells its story in a subdued way that becomes more compelling as it goes along, but it’s also way too long, extremely uneven in the middle, and has little if any of the cohesion or economic pace of a Malick film.  I was actually ready to label this as one of the biggest movie-watching disappointments i’ve had in a long time, until it really found itself in its dynamic, complex portrayal of the bizarre relationship between Jesse James and Bob Ford.  In fact, I think what I most appreciated about this movie is something i would’ve hated in other movies: an inability to get a grasp of who Jesse James, one of the main characters, really is.  Is he mad and power-hungry?  An icon inspiring fear in all who know him?  Depressed and regretful of the life he’s made for himself?  A world-weary family man?  All of the above?  I have no idea, and I think that was the whole point in making Jesse James such a strange film character: both nearly impossible to characterize and awe-inspiring at the same time…in other words, seen exactly from the point of view of Bob Ford, which is why the last third of the film is by far the best, when it gains a focus on one particular relationship and takes it to its conclusion in a scene nearly perfect in its use of suspense and questions (I don’t think I’m giving anything away with that movie title, and in asking just what the hell Jesse James was thinking in taking off his guns and turning his back on the kid to clean a fucking picture.  And I don’t think we’re meant to know).  That one scene may’ve been the best and most complex acting Brad Pitt’s ever done, not to mention the emergence of Casey Affleck from Ben’s little brother to major dramatic actor.  If only the rest of the movie had the solidity of the last section, this would’ve been the masterpiece I’d been waiting months to see.

8.5/10

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (John Huston, 1948)

Bogart’s fucking crazy!  And I loved every second of it!  For the entire movie, I kept thinking how separate from the glamorous, chintzy, politically correct Hollywood Studio System this was.  This is two hours of pure grit: a brutal bar beat-up, madness represented physically and mentally, death via machete, executions, the one half-decent character shot down without having a say in the matter, and an ending so macabre and cruel to the characters we end up rooting for that we can’t help but do what they do: laugh.  And of course I already mentioned a stark-raving mad, talking-to-himself Bogart, but the key here is John Huston’s old man.  Walter Huston practically set the precedent here for the image of the grizzled prospector, with the fast (often incomprehensible) talk, that dance, and his wisdom in the face of his partners’ madness.  It’s an adventure movie that’s so great and so ahead of its time because the titular gold may as well be a macguffin.  This is a story of the madness that can come out of anybody when greed comes into the picture, and here’s a movie that defies pretty much all of the conventions of 1940s Hollywood to present that in as stark a way as possible.

9.5/10

Stagecoach (John Ford, 1939)

Some incredible moments, namely the big chase scene (some unbelievable shots in there), John Wayne’s entrance, and the final stand-off (excellent use of shadows and camerawork there)…even if that whole final stand-off and the last part of the movie were the very definition of ‘tacked on.’  And yes, I actually liked the Doc character’s little evolution (probably because I had to watch this for my film studies class and we have to say which character “evolved” or something like that…).  As dated as it is, the movie pretty much set the stage for the quintissential Western in the decades to follow, evil and non-speaking Indians and all…not sure whether that’s a good or bad thing  😕

8.5/10