The Salvation

Mads Mikkelsen takes aim in the western The Salvation

Anyone for a Danish western, a great one? Made by one of the Dogme boys? If you look up Dogme in the Wikipedia, it will tell you that this particularly austere style (no music, no lights, no effects) was founded by two Danes, Von Trier and Vinterberg, who were soon joined by two others, Kragh-Jacobsen and Levring.

And it’s possible to read this film as an announcement, shout, by the least known of those directors, Kristian Levring, that he doesn’t do that Dogme thing any more. Because The Salvation contains every big movie trick in the book – a lush score, arresting sets, cinematography snatched at the golden hour, melodramatic camera movements, sudden close-ups, varying depth of focus, operatic composition, fabulous landscapes, digital backgrounds, post-production colour tweaks, heavy filtration… and on it goes.

If Dogme aimed for some sort of puritan truth and simplicity, Levring is now aiming at high artifice, maximum referentiality, the mega-meta. Every scene, every shot looks like it’s been borrowed from another film, another director – Sergio Leone’s theatrical scale (reinforced by Kasper Winding’s Morricone-esque soundtrack), John Ford’s monumental locations, Peckinpah’s slo-mo gunplay, Aldrich’s codes of masculinity and concern with ageing.

The same goes for the plot, which is a man’s-gotta-do revenger starring Mads Mikkelsen as a husband welcoming his Danish-speaking wife to the New World in the opening scene. Within minutes the thick-tongued locals are eyeing the wife (Nanna Øland Fabricius), and scant but brutally tense minutes after that Mikkelsen is a man with blood on his hands and a price on his head.

Perhaps it is Levring’s Dogme background – which relies heavily on performance, since there isn’t much else to fall back on – but there’s a just-rightness about the acting throughout, everyone seeming to get that this is homage not pastiche, a serious film not a joke. The always underrated and almost infinitely versatile Mikkelsen’s talents for scowling and suppressed rage are brilliantly deployed, but it’s around the edges that some of the most satisfying performances can be seen. Douglas Henshall (where has he been?) is particularly good as the shifty local sheriff who’s also a preacher, Jonathan Pryce also playing with a familiar type as the cowardly mayor who’s also the undertaker, everyone being in the pocket of local badman Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who periodically rides into town to menace the locals and kill someone because he doesn’t like the tilt of his hat.

This brings us to Eva Green, the wife of the man Mikkelsen has killed, and sister in law of Morgan, whose tongue has to be rolled back into his mouth so he can speak whenever she’s around. She, by contrast, has no tongue at all, it having been cut out by Injuns. The wordless Green, actress to the last, responds by using the equipment left in her armoury to deliver a role that proves you can wring more nuance than you might expect using flashing eyes and a heaving bosom.

These two wrong ’uns, with Mikkelsen skirting round the edge, will eventually meet up in the sort of ghost town that hasn’t been seen on film for decades, in the sort of big shoot-out that eclipses even the one in James Mangold’s 3:10 to Yuma.

Familiar people, familiar locations, familiar plotlines. If Jens Schlosser’s cinematography weren’t so jaw-dropping magnificent, if everything else weren’t so composed and primped and placed and sweated over, and if it weren’t so full of real stuf – dirt and sex and death – you’d be tempted to think someone was having a laugh. But Levring leaves one reveal for his final shot, which not only fully explains what’s been going on, but historically re-situates the entire film, you could say the entire genre. As the hero rides off into the sunset – hell yes – it’s a brilliant way to finish.

The Salvation – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

© Steve Morrissey 2014

The Hi-Lo Country

Woody Harrelson and Billy Crudup in The Hi-Lo Country

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

16 July

 

Potsdam Conference, 1945

On this day in 1945, Joseph Stalin, Winston Churchill and Harry Truman arrived in Potsdam, where they were over the next two weeks to decide the shape of the world in the wake of the Second World War. The three powers had met before, at Yalta, in 1945 while the war was still coming to an end, when Franklin Roosevelt was still alive, and before then in Tehran in 1943, when it had started to look like the Allies might be triumphant. Germany had surrendered nine weeks before Potsdam, and the conference largely was about Germany’s punishment – borders were to be rolled back, the country partitioned, industry was to be dismantled, Germans in surrounding countries were to be expelled, reparations were to be paid. The conference also issued the Potsdam Declaration, calling on the unconditional surrender of Japan, or else it would face “prompt and utter destruction”.

 

 

 

The Hi-Lo Country (1998, dir: Stephen Frears)

Westerns so often set out to operate at a mythic level that it’s often a shock when something drifts by that locates what we’re watching in a specific time – a horseless carriage or a newspaper, say. Stephen Frears’s The Hi-Lo Country is every inch the classic western, yet it’s quite deliberately set in a recognisable time, right after the end of the Second World War, when men returned from vanquishing Hitler and tried to pick up where they had left off.
Westerns also are often about the end of the Old West, how lawlessness was superseded by the joys and pains of civilisation. Here the concern is the death of the New West, and how the mechanised world of agri-business was beginning to flex its muscles and kill off the guys-on-horseback model. But it would be too boring to watch something like that. So instead how about two rancher dudes who fall for the same gal, a gal who’s already married, to the foreman of their arch rival? Fleshing out the twin roles of the returning veterans are Billy Crudup as the go-getting Pete who fancies a bit of steering and rearing the old-fashioned way, Woody Harrelson as the hollering ball of tics Big Boy. Meanwhile, Patricia Arquette plays the no-good floozy Mona, who’s hot for Big Boy. And there’s a shimmering Penelope Cruz as Pete’s girlfriend Josepha, though it’s a half-hearted affair on his part since Pete’s in love with Mona. Sam Peckinpah spent years trying to get The Hi-Lo Country made but it was the British Frears who managed it. And he delivers the full western deal – saloons and cattle drives and poker games and rodeos and dance halls, with a Western swing soundtrack featuring Hank Williams, Merle Travis, a further injection of late-1940s modern to remind us that these guys are anachronisms and that they’re fighting a losing battle – man against mechanisation.
This theme apart, the film doesn’t break new ground in terms of style or content, and along with its side stories – of Sam Elliott the local cattle baron, Cole Hauser as Big Boy’s brother Little Boy – it also has a large number of horses to saddle up. This has led to it being marked down in some quarters. And it’s true that it does take its time getting going. But it’s a beautifully wrought character study once it does get moving, another of its joys being the way it luxuriates in the rolling New Mexico landscapes – captured beautifully by Frears regular Oliver Stapleton, who brings a touch of Leone to the table. It’s that sort of film.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Another enjoyably over-the-top Harrleson performance
  • An early English-speaking role for Cruz
  • Oliver Stapleton’s lush cinematography
  • A villainous Sam Elliott

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

The Hi-Lo Country – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

The Searchers

John Wayne in The Searchers

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

26 May

 

John Wayne born, 1907

On this day in 1907, Marion Robert Morrison was born, in Winterset, Iowa, USA. He was named after the Civil War veteran Marion Mitchell Morrison, and the young Marion’s middle name would be switched in favour of Mitchell when his parents decided to name their next son Robert. In any event Marion preferred the nickname Duke, which he picked up from his Airedale terrier pet, Duke – young Marion was initially Little Duke. Morrison went to the University of Southern California to study pre-law on a football scholarship, but a broken collarbone picked up while bodysurfing put paid to any hopes of playing football, and his university career too. Instead he started working at local film studio, in the props department before going on to pick up a few bit parts. He became friendly with director John Ford, who gave him work, but got his first starring role from Raoul Walsh, in 1930’s The Big Trail, though on Ford’s recommendation. Walsh also suggested the name change to John Wayne. The Big Trail, a big budget widescreeen epic, was a big bomb but it got Wayne noticed in the industry and he worked solidly in “poverty row” westerns for the next nine years until his breakthrough with John Ford and Stagecoach, in 1939. It made Wayne a star and he would remain one until he died 40 years later. Wayne did not serve during the Second World War, a fact he would later deeply regret, and which could always be used to call into question his increasingly strident patriotism – Wayne would turn down films if he thought them “unpatriotic”. The 1940s and 1950s was Wayne’s heyday, though he carried on playing “men’s men” right to the end – a cowboy, a pilot, a military man, a boxer, a detective, a sportsman, a vigilante, a gunman, a quencher of wildcat oil fires and Genghis Khan (not entirely successfully). In the Top Ten Money Makers Polls printed annually in the International Motion Picture Almanac – the truest real reflection of a star’s box office power – Wayne is still the actor with the most appearance, featuring on the list for 25 years.

 

 

 

The Searchers (1956, dir: John Ford)

John Ford’s The Searchers is a film that critics return to again and again. Not only because it features one of John Wayne’s best performances, and John Ford’s most iconic depiction of Monument Valley, but because the character at its centre is such an asshole. At a time when westerns were becoming increasingly revisionist, showing that the Indian or Native American was as much sinned against as sinning, The Searchers seemed to attempt to push this more enlightened view back into its box. The story is about Wayne’s Ethan Edwards searching for his niece (Natalie Wood), who has been kidnapped by the Comanches. He’s not out to rescue her though, he’s out to kill her, because she has become contaminated through exposure to Comanche ways. She’s become a redskin’s squaw – “The leavings of a Comanche buck” as Edwards puts it. What critics want to know is – what sort of a film are we watching? Is it a revenge thriller with sheer nastiness at its core? Or is it the journey of a bitter bigot towards redemption? Some people will always conflate the depiction of something with an endorsement of that thing, and in the case of The Searchers, about a racist killer hunting down a defenceless young woman who has been kidnapped, the suggestion regularly seems to be that the film is an endorsement of racism and the killing of the blameless. It isn’t, though in the shape of Ethan Edwards we are certainly being shown a man who doesn’t like Injuns. Is Edwards a psychopath, as Edwards’s travelling companion, the part-Comanche Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) increasingly comes to believe? It’s possible, though Ford and Wayne set up Edwards’s character so tenderly – he’s in love with his wife’s brother but only his eyes betray his emotion – that it takes us a while to realise that Edwards is not a representation of civilised society, in the way western heroes often are. Instead he’s an outsider, an obsessive whose side lost in the Civil War and is now busy consumed by another battle, and again he’s on the wrong side. For his part Wayne does what a man’s gotta do, and gives the lie to those who insist he can’t act – he’s as monumental as anything in Monumental Valley here, but with Wayne it’s all about the narrowing of the eyes. On a big screen easily read from the back in the dark, what more needs to be done? Wayne perfected the style of acting that Clint Eastwood would later borrow, and in The Searchers we also see the development of a style that Sergio Leone would appropriate – big, operatic, unafraid to take it slow, visually driven, iconic. The Searchers is a screen-grab sort of movie, in other words, and as it builds towards its climax, and Edwards closes in on his quarry after seven years of searching (two hours of screen time), the film itself becomes monumental. It’s no surprise that Paul Schrader and Martin Scorsese referenced it relentlessly in their Taxi Driver.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • The definitive John Ford film
  • The definitive John Wayne movie
  • Winton C Hoch’s cinematography
  • Its continuing influence

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

The Searchers – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Original art for the poster of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

9 January

 

 

Lee Van Cleef born, 1925

On this day in 1925, Clarence Leroy Van Cleef Jr was born, in New Jersey, USA.

Best known for his portrayal of baddies, Van Cleef served on submarine chasers in the Second World War before becoming a time and motion man after the war ended.

Not looking enough like a traditional penpusher to satisfy his colleagues, Lee was persuaded by them, and his friends, to give the stage and film world the benefit of his hawk nose and eyes, each of which was a different colour, thanks to the heterochromia iridium mutation.

Van Cleef’s career hit a high note early on when he was cast in 1952’s High Noon (he was taught to ride horses by Ron Howard’s father, Rance), after which he would regularly play black hats in a variety of film and TV offerings, generally of decreasing quality.

Whether this was down to poor choices, or Cleef’s serious drinking is moot, but by the time Sergio Leone came looking for him (Lee Marvin having turned Leone down) for A Few Dollars More, Van Cleef had become a carpenter/decorator and occasional artist; his face wasn’t even listed in the actors’ directories.

Leone cast him again in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and Van Cleef cashed in with a run of back-to-back productions that paid him handsomely. Once again the quality began to slide, though Van Cleef could always be relied on to deliver a “fresh from hell” performance, the distinctive eyes burning with intelligence and passion.

His last great role came in John Carpenter’s Escape from New York, in 1981, as the appropriately named Hauk (hawk, geddit?), with Kurt Russell deliberately aping Clint Eastwood as the badass Snake Plissken in what is essentially a futuristic western.

After which another slide. He died in 1989, aged only 64. Who knows what great role might have come along in another few years, and then again a few years after that.

 

 

 

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966, dir: Sergio Leone)

As I write this, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is the number 5 film on the IMDb’s top 250 list. Not bad for a western, hardly the hippest of genres right now.

It’s one of Sergio Leone’s best remembered spaghetti westerns, thanks in no small part to its title, and the fact that it refers to its three leads – the good being Clint Eastwood, the bad being Lee Van Cleef, the ugly being Eli Wallach.

Actually, the good/bad relative righteousness of those first two is partly what the film is about (but Wallach, we can all agree, is the Ugly). Told in great big operatic slabs, with faces treated in close-up as if they were something out of Monument Valley, it’s all about three men hunting for a vast amount of Civil War gold against the backdrop of a war that’s sputtering out. Each of the three needs the other two to stay alive to find the gold – each one has a fragment of the location – but once all three are in the cemetery where the gold is hidden, the power dynamic shifts, and we are treated to one of the most gloriously drawn out Mexican stand-offs in cinema history, a sequence of narrowed eyes, sweat, stubble and one of Ennio Morricone’s most recognisable soundtracks.

This remarkable score, which spent a year on the Billboard charts, comprises standard western fare (orchestra, choir), plus Morricone’s usual unusual instrumentation (ocarina, twangy guitar, jew’s harp) along with yodelling, shouting, whistling and gunshots. It’s a fitting soundtrack for the last of Leone’s Dollars trilogy. As far as Leone was concerned this was the last western he was ever going to make (he was strongarmed into Once Upon a Time in the West). So he’s going full tilt, especially towards the end, telling a story in pictures and sounds, using few words (the incessant babbling of Eli Wallach’s Tuco delivers very little information).

And the message? Greed, guns, they don’t mix.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • One of the greatest westerns ever made
  • One of Ennio Morricone’s greatest soundtracks
  • Tonino Delli Colli’s beautiful deep focus cinematography
  • The typical Leone long, dialogue-free opening sequence

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

El Topo

Alejandro Jodorowsky takes a dip in El Topo

 

 

Alejandro Jodorowsky’s 1970 movie is considered to be one of a handful that changed the way films were watched… and made. Signalling the shift into, and legitimisation of the hitherto critically rarely considered genre movie, El Topo simultaneously satirises and adds to its chosen area of operations. Which is the western, the spaghetti western to be more specific. Though Sergio Leone, or even Sergio Corbucci, never cranked out anything this sensationalist.

El Topo is the spaghetti western as travelling circus. It’s populated with cruel, cackling banditos, pinheads, armless and legless freaks, bare-breasted women, fly-covered corpses and even, at one point, spontaneously combusting rabbits. And all of the above are sewn into a plot that owes as much to mescal as surrealism, to which it owes a lot. And as surrealism is often the refuge of the artistic scoundrel – how can you reasonably set about critiquing a work that is said to spring from the unconscious? – El Topo is the sort of film that divides the critics. Its merits are many – though you can ignore the picaresque philosophical journey of El Topo (which translates as the Mole) from darkness towards light and still enjoy the film. And unlike many an experimental movie, it has the sort of production values that Leone or Fellini or Buñuel (all obvious influences) would be more than happy with.

© Steve Morrissey 2007

 

El Topo – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Duel in the Sun

Original foyer poster

Martin Scorsese reckons Duel in the Sun was the first film he ever saw and one of the reasons he became a director. It was made in the mid 1940s when David O Selznick was still basking in the glow of Gone with the Wind, in terms of bums on seats the biggest film ever made.

The legendary producer was also feeling pretty pleased with himself at having tempted Alfred Hitchcock to Hollywood, Rebecca and Spellbound being the result of that bit of handiwork.

Selznick was riding high. The stocky fortysomething was also riding a new starlet, 25-year-old Jennifer Jones. In a case of extreme hubris – those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make movie producers – Selznick decided that he was going to make a film to top Gone with the Wind, and simultaneously make his hot girlfriend into a huge star.

So he got King Vidor in as director and cast Jones as a mixed-race orphan girl (“built by the Devil to drive men crazy,” as the poster has it) who finds herself caught between decent Jesse (Joseph Cotten) and his sexually forward brother Lewt (Gregory Peck). It’s a tug of war between head and loins, and there’s no prizes for guessing which wins out, albeit in a torrid, sensationally destructive way (see Gone with the Wind for the template).

The critics called Selznick’s film a hymn to the folly of middle-aged desire, gave it the nickname Lust in the Dust and tried to laugh it off the screen. The public liked it though, but not enough to actually make it profitable – it was at the time the most expensive film ever made.

Fittingly, it’s shot in Technicolor, as every film as loud, lavish, exotic and gloriously camp as this should be.



Duel in the Sun – Watch it/buy it at Amazon


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© Steve Morrissey 2013

Once Upon a Time in the West

Henry Fonda is the baddie in Once Upon A Time In The West

 

 

 

By 1967, after countless Italian sword and sandal epics and three astonishingly successful spaghetti  Westerns (A Fistful Of Dollars, A Few Dollars More and The Good, The Bad And The Ugly), director Sergio Leone was tired of men in period costume and was eager to try his hand at something more contemporary.

It wasn’t to be. Paramount studios prevailed upon Leone to make one more western for them. In return they promised to fund his four-hour, four-decade overview of organised crime, Once Upon a Time in America. Leone’s fourth Western could easily have turned out to be a 90-minute contractual obligation, with Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and whoever was available squinting hard into the sun and doing little else. Instead he delivered C’Era Una Volta Il West (its Italian title), a Western that went beyond anything Paramount had any right to expect. Put simply, he gave them one of the best films ever made.

To do it, Leone sat down with two other pillars of Italian cinema – Bernardo Bertolucci (yet to make Last Tango In Paris) and Dario Argento (the one-man Italian horror industry) and came up with a simple plot about how the railroad brought about the end of the Old West. They then spent months obsessively watching and dissecting scores of classic American Westerns – films like The Iron Horse, Stagecoach, Shane and High Noon. It’s a working method that is now familiar but was then revolutionary. The result is not a film about the West, but a film about films about the West.

Not for nothing has Once Upon a Time in the West been dubbed “the world’s first postmodern movie”. But the Italian trio weren’t trying to get themselves into cultural studies courses of the future; they were trying to make the most audacious Western ever.

This audacity manifests itself in every fibre of the movie’s being, starting with the movie’s intensely slow pace, exemplified by the opening credit sequence which introduces us to what must surely be the movie’s main characters, only for those main characters to be mercilessly, shockingly, killed off almost immediately. We are then treated to the sight of the noblest American actor of them all, Henry Fonda, playing a deeply unpleasant baddie. Equally revisionist is the placing of a woman (Claudia Cardinale) at the centre of the story.

The rest is Leone as obsessive craftsman.  No Western ever looked better –Tonino Delli Colli used a deep-focus technique and exquisite Technicolor to make the most of locations like Monument Valley, John Ford’s Arizona stomping ground of decades before (a devil to colour-match when shooting shifted to Almeria, Spain). Nor are many Westerns lucky enough to have a score by Ennio Morricone – the man who had reinvented the sound of the Western in A Fistful Of Dollars. And on top of all that there’s a typical Italian obsession with clothes – the boots, coats, shirts and hats worn in this film are as carefully thought through as any other aspect of the production.

What it all adds up to is the most ornery, most stylish Western ever made.

When Leone delivered his elegy to the last days of the West, the studio did what studios often do when presented with a masterpiece – they freaked out. After getting a mixed reception at preview screenings and on a limited first run, the film eventually went on wide release in the USA with 30 minutes cut from its 165 minutes length (40 minutes if you take the 175-minute Italian version as your starting point).  It totally bombed.

Nowadays on DVD and theatrically you’re most likely to see a 159 minute version of the film, not perhaps exactly as the master film-maker intended. But it’s near enough in nearly all respects to appreciate the film’s true majesty.

© Steve Morrissey 2003

 

Once Upon a Time in the West – at Amazon