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Westerns also are often about the end of the Old West, how lawlessness was superseded by the joys and pains of civilisation.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





Without Limits

Billy Crudup as Steve Prefontaine in Without Limits


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



3 November



Adolf Dassler born, 1900

On this day in 1900, Adolf Dassler, known to his friends as Adi, was born, in Herzogenaurach, Bavaria, Germany. A cobbler by training he started making his own sports shoes after returning from the First World War. He got his big break at the Amsterdam Olympics of 1928, where his running shoes were popular with athletes. At the 1936 Olympics Dassler offered Jesse Owens a pair of his running shoes, the first time an African American had had a sponsor. Dassler joined the Nazi party, along with his brother Rudolf, but later left the party and in fact shopped his brother to the occupying authorities as a member of the SS when the war ended. Shortly thereafter the Dassler brothers dissolved their company – Gebrüder Dassler Shuhfabrik (Dassler Brothers Shoes) – and went their separate ways, Adi to found Adidas (as in Adi Dassler) and Rudi to found Ruda, which later became Puma. Both companies are still headquartered in Herzogenaurach.



Without Limits (1998, dir: Robert Towne)

A fascinating and overlooked film co-written and directed by Robert Towne, the legendary writer of Chinatown, and starring Billy Crudup as charismatic runner Steve Prefontaine, whose antics off the track, long hair and Beatle moustache made him something of a countercultural pin-up in the early 1970s. Crudup was on the brink of great things when he made this – what happened there? – so was perfectly poised to play a natural talent on the verge of a breakthrough. It’s a hagiography, for sure, but it’s a nicely done one, and has fascinating info-gobbets about the making of the Nike running shoe, as developed by Bill Bowerman, Prefontaine’s trainer (and founder of Nike along with track star Phil Knight). Bowerman is played with subtlety and great grace by Donald Sutherland, and the scenes between the runner and the trainer – each wanting the same thing but with different ideas about getting there – sees both actors digging deep (as they always seem to say about runners). Tom Cruise is the film’s producer and it’s tempting to watch the whole film as a surrogate Cruise movie – topgunnin’ runner who does things his way, overcomes obstacles, refuses to play by the rules, throws the odd tantrum – a temptation that must be resisted. It’s the race scenes, ultimately, that make this film a success, Towne cleverly using original commentary to add verisimilitude as “Pre” pounds around the track, rarely pacing himself, going simply as fast as he could all the time, and in the process rewriting America running’s record books and changing the way amateur athletes were rewarded. He didn’t do the Nike brand any harm either.



Why Watch?


  • Billy Crudup warming up for the career that never was
  • Though far too old, Tom Cruise did consider himself for the title role
  • Conrad Hall’s cinematography
  • A sports movie which, unusually, isn’t about a team game


© Steve Morrissey 2013



Without Limits – at Amazon





Jesus’ Son

Samantha Morton and Billy Crudup in Jesus' Son



The son in question is played by Billy Crudup, a near schizo drug user on a no-brain road to nowhere. But never mind Crudup, wait till you see the performance by Samantha Morton. When she was cast in Sweet And Lowdown, Woody Allen’s uncharacteristically misogynist film, Allen had her playing a mute. Even so, she stole the film from under Sean Penn’s chiselled cheeks. Here it’s brave Crudup who’s standing too close to the flame. She plays the girlfriend, a hopeless smack-happy, grinning, winsome and overwhelmingly simpatico partner to FH (Crudup, who at the time seemed to be on the brink of something big). Together they bounce from balls-up to self-inflicted distress, shooting up all the way. If that sounds glum, be reassured, Jesus’ Son has its funny scenes too, hilariously funny at times. It also gets the early 1970s period about right and the support players are strong – Jack Black, Will Patton, Dennis Hopper, Denis Leary. But back to Morton, who is so good there’s the suspicion that someone upstairs decided that to keep the focus on the star she’s going to have to be struck dumb – hot dang, someone already did that. So instead Morton is killed off at around the halfway and point and the film immediately starts behaving slightly like a car that’s had the air let out of its tyres. It’s worth the ride before and after the jump.

© Steve Morrissey 2013


Jesus’ Son – at Amazon