POST-GOLDEN AGE WESTERNS….A HANDY TEN

The “Golden Age” of the Hollywood western is generally conceded to have stretched from 1946 to 1962. It’s bounded by the respective releases of John Ford’s My Darling Clementine in the former year* and Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country in the latter.

Based on the films each man released in ’62, the hand-off from Ford to Peckinpah should have been a natural one. What happened instead was what we like to call The Sixties.

All that’s beyond the scope of what I’m after here, which is simply to suggest some films for viewing that, taken together, make up an impressive legacy of their own. Call them markers on a trail to what might have been…

The Shooting (1966)
D. Monte Hellman

Harrowing. This film is as unsettling as In a Lonely Place…perhaps more so, because it doesn’t have Humphrey Bogart’s, or even Gloria Grahame’s, level of star power to supply a set of foundational assumptions. With this and Ride in the Whirlwind, Hellman invented what came to be called Acid Westerns. That’s a ridiculous moniker (did anyone think to call Lonely Place Acid Noir? As though it’s destabilizing qualities were merely hallucinatory? Thought not.) When Warren Oates is the stable one, you’re in another land alright. But it’s one that could only be reached through the gateway of the western–not a pill. Next to this, the best spaghetti westerns and The Wild Bunch look silly and ham-handed. Not to mention light-hearted.

Hombre (1966)
D. Martin Ritt

Strong by any standard. One of Newman’s signature “H” movies (The Hustler, Hud, Harper) and perhaps the best. Not least because his character has no redeeming quality except that he’s right. This is Stagecoach turned into a nightmare. One where the characters never quite wake up. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Martin Ritt (who made an awful lot of good movies for a guy who doesn’t get talked about much) watched a lot of Boetticher-Scott westerns somewhere along the way. Or maybe Elmore Leonard (who wrote the source material for this and Boetticher’s The Tall T–as here, Richard Boone played the villain) just brought certain qualities out of people.

True Grit (1969)
D. Henry Hathaway

Don’t sleep on this one just because John Wayne’s Oscar winning performance is larger than life even by his standards or because there’s been a fine remake. Kim Darby is still the definitive Mattie Ross. George MacDonald Fraser’s assertion that the line readings throughout are the closest we’ll ever have to hearing Victorian western speech as it was actually spoken makes it plain this is a window into a lost world. Charles Portis’ source novel provided dozens of memorable lines…and Marguerite Roberts’ script added a few more, without missing a beat. I still wish they had kept Portis’ ending, but everything else is in place. For Wayne and Darby and a host of fine characterizations (Strother Martin and Robert Duval are especially memorable) it will always be worth revisiting.

Bad Company (1972)
D. Robert Benton

One of the best roles Jeff Bridges ever had while he quietly went about being the best actor of his generation. Here, he and an equally effective Barry Brown are green as grass Civil War draft-dodgers heading west….and finding out maybe marching off the war wouldn’t have been such a bad idea after all. Bridges’ brand of American innocence is even funnier–and warmer–in a western setting. It’s a shame he didn’t come along twenty years earlier, when he might have made a dozen of these.

Ulzana’s Raid (1972)
D. Robert Aldrich

Aldrich and star Burt Lancaster had been players in the Golden Age and even made a couple of fine westerns together (Apache and the wonderful Vera Cruz, with Gary Cooper). This gave them an opportunity to raise their game and they were more than up to the task. Lancaster was never better than as a grizzled scout trying to help a green lieutenant (a superbly callow, but learning fast, Bruce Davison), track down a renegade Apache band and perhaps even live to tell the tale. This might be seen as re-revisionist western–a kind of answer film to Arthur Penn’s misguided Little Big Man, which had perverted Thomas Berger’s great novel from comedy into parody, and presented the warrior cultures of the Plains Indians (in that case the Cheyenne, who held the U.S. Cavalry at bay for forty years) as peace loving flower children. No one, at least, will emerge from watching Ulzana’s Raid for the first or twentieth time under any misapprehension that Apaches would have been at home in the Age of Aquarius….or welcomed hippies into their own age.

The Shootist (1976)
D. Don Siegel

A setup to be sure. John Wayne, cancer victim and last of the Golden Age cowboys, playing John Bernard Books, cancer victim and last of the Old West gunfighters. But, with the great Don Siegel (like Martin Ritt, an underappreciated pro’s pro) at the helm, an impeccable cast (Lauren Bacall, Ron Howard, James Stewart, Richard Boone–one could go on) and a lean, well-measured script, it defies expectations and transcends its own nostalgia. It self-consciously echoes a hundred westerns, none more than Shane. Except this time, the gunfighter does not ride out of the valley. And it isn’t clear what he has done for Civilization–except represent the best of what it inevitably washes away.

The Quick and the Dead (1987)
D. Robert Day

In the eighties, the western was represented most ably on television, with adaptations of Louis L’Amour (usually starring either Sam Eiliott or Tom Selleck) leading the way. This and the Selleck vehicle, Crossfire Trail, are my own favorites and can stand for the lot–fine westerns that might not have stood out in the Golden Age, but certainly would have held their own. Elliott and Selleck, both excellent, are a wash and Crossfire Trail gave Wilfred Brimley the role of a lifetime. Still, I’m giving this one the edge because it has a slightly more expansive story and a fine performance by the always under-utilized Kate Capshaw, as an eastern woman adapting to the mindset of the frontier more rapidly  than her husband (an equally good Tom Conti), in part because she grasps how vulnerable any woman (let alone one as fetching as Kate Capshaw) is in a land where the law is what you make it.

Lonesome Dove (Miniseries) (1989)
D. Simon Wincer

Speaking of television….This epic mini-series blew the doors open when it first aired. There was serious talk of the western being revived in a way that hasn’t really occurred since. And it’s all that. None of the fine cast were ever better, and, though the story is an old one (it’s about a cattle drive after all), the mini-series length gave Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duval, among others, a scope rarely afforded elsewhere. They took full advantage. The effect on Duval’s career was unfortunate. He’s satisfied himself with playing old coots ever since, with markedly diminishing returns. Jones didn’t get his mojo back until he learned to laugh at himself in the Men in Black series. But that doesn’t diminish what they did here, in the company of the strongest female cast to appear in any western (again, the length matters)–Anjelica Huston, Diane Lane, Glenne Headly, all superb. The other volumes in the Lonesome Dove series are good, especially Streets of Laredo, with James Garner and Sissy Spacek taking over the Jones and Lane roles (and being everything you would expect from those two). I also recommend Larry McMurtry’s source books. But the space opened up here has never been filled by anything else, making it, in its own way, as epic as anything done by the old masters.

Appaloosa (2008)
D. Ed Harris

An entertaining, if troubling, update on the town-taming ethos. The set up is similar to Warlock, Edward Dmytryk’s entertaining, if troubling, take on the town-taming ethos from 1959. I like Appaloosa better. The story is tighter, the grim psychology more relentless and logical. And there’s a rare good middle-age role for Renee Zellweger. Those who worry about the western (or any action) genre bleeding into fascism will not be comforted, but not being comforted is a symptom of the concerned citizen and you could spend your life worrying about subjects a lot less worthy of your time and attention. And I’m normally not big on actors directing, but Ed Harris does a lovely, understated job here. No fancy camera tricks, just straight, non-nonsense storytelling that lets the good actors (including himself) do their thing.

True Grit (2010)
D. Joel and Ethan Coen

It feels a little odd to include both versions of True Grit on such a small list. Thee are other worthy candidates even if I did leave off spaghetti westerns (God help me, I do like Sergio Leone), Peckinpah (I like several of his later westerns, including, until the end, The Wild Bunch–that’s the part that excites a lot of people but seems to me senseless bluster), or spoofs (highly recommend the Kennedy/Garner Support duo and Waterhole #3).

But I can’t choose between them and I certainly can’t leave them both off. This has the advantage of great atmosphere and sticks reasonably close to Portis’ story and language. Jeff Bridges proves again that a lot was lost when he didn’t get to make more westerns. Matt Damon acquits himself well. Hailee Steinfeld makes for a compelling contrast to Kim Darby’s Mattie Ross and gives the role her own stamp–maybe proving that, like Rooster Cogburn, Mattie’s just a great character, open to a wide array of interpretations. And the Coens more or less restored the book’s ending, pulling the punch only slightly by not having the older Mattie recite the entire last paragraph of the novel, which gets my vote for the finest ending of any American novel. It was a hit and, once more, there was talk of reviving the western. There always will be such talk–the western is in our DNA. But if we have to live with what we have, it’s still a lifetime investment getting to know the best of it. If you want to take that journey, everything here is worth adding to your list.

**NOTE: Howard Hawks’ Red River was shot in 1946 but not released until 1948. According to one of the film’s stars, Joanne Dru, the main reason was trouble in the editing room, resolved when Hawks sought Ford’s advice (Ford did not, so far as I know, do any actual editing but made some key suggestions). Hawks later admitted to Peter Bogdanovich that Ford was always in his head anyway. I mention it only to illustrate that Ford was always in everybody’s head. Regarding anyone who’s up to any good, he still is, even if they’ve never heard of him.

 

SCENE STEALER (Dorothy Malone, R.I.P.)

In Hollywood from the early forties, Texas-raised Dorothy Malone got her first big break in 1946, when she played a bookstore clerk in the Bogart/Bacall classic The Big Sleep. Ever after, the world has been divided into two kinds of people. Those who think, no matter who killed the chauffeur, the movie should have been about her….and the rest of you schlubs.

Stealing scenes from Bogey didn’t turn into anything big. Even winning an Oscar for Written on the Wind a decade later didn’t turn into anything really big because Hollywood still didn’t know quite what to do with her. The closest she ever came to being a household name was starring in the TV version of Peyton Place and even that level of fame didn’t last. Who now watches reruns of Peyton Place? Not enough to insure immortality I’ll bet.

She deserved better and probably knew it, but she kept a sense of humor about it. On screen, no matter the part, she had the kind of presence that can only come from those who don’t take themselves any more seriously than is required to not be taken for a sucker.

She probably left her deepest imprint on fifties-era westerns (I can highly recommend the tense, chamber-piece Quantez but she was also the best thing going in Warlock, among many others). The Texas accent she once quipped about losing as the big accomplishment of her days as a contract player at RKO may not have left a mark on her speech but the upbringing behind it gave her a no-nonsense quality that fit the genre hand-in-glove. In the movies I’ve seen, she never struck a false note. I doubt she knew how. When she was tired of Hollywood, she went back to Texas, where she passed away this week at 93.

No doubt still casting a cold eye on the inherent silliness of fame and the fleeting nature of all glory.

FLORIDA ON FILM….A HANDY TEN

I like this map because it represents the absurdist nature of the Sunshine State perfectly. Palm trees in the Panhandle? Scholars in Gainesville? Salvador Dali got nothing on us! Oh, wait. Did I mention his museum is in St. Pete?

A few months back, I posted a list of recommended Civil War films (which I now take the opportunity to re-recommend) and came up with the concept of “A Handy Ten.” I’ve decided to make that a category, with the Civil War post the first entry (now duly noted and categorized). It won’t just be for films. I hope it will prove useful for large subjects and small. The “Civil War on film” is a pretty big subject. “Florida on film” is a medium-sized subject. I tried to watch or re-watch as many Florida-themed films as I could. My range of familiarity is by no means exhaustive (really disappointed that Victor Nunez’s Ruby in Paradise and Gal Young ‘Un are not on DVD…On the strength of his Ulee’s Gold, which didn’t quite make the cut, I would have gotten hold of those if they had been available), but the state has certainly inspired a lot of takes, and from some very odd angles.

Here’s a Florida boy’s handy ten…

Citizen Kane (1941)
D. Orson Welles

Not a “Florida” movie? Have you forgotten the location of Xanadu? Have you forgotten where the word “Rosebud” was uttered? Have you forgotten that it didn’t really make sense for such things to happen or be located anywhere else, not even California?

California might do for Hearst Castle or some such. But that’s mere reality.

No, Xanadu could only be in the future home of Disney World, which, unlike its Cali predecessor, has swamped an entire region of the state and become not so much a theme park as a life-style, spreading like fertilizer, burying any hint of the “old Florida” underneath as surely as Charles Foster Kane buried himself.

Re-inventing the “Florida as Destination” movie (The Ghost Goes West is an earlier, happier, example) is hardly the first thing Citizen Kane is known for…but none of the other things it’s known for have had any greater effect.

These days Xanadu is called Mar-a-Lago.

Dreams, people. Dreams! It’s what even the nightmares are made of.

The Palm Beach Story (1942)
D. Preston Sturges

…And yachts!

Yeah, they have those in Cali as well, but The Quail and Ale Club never rode west of the Smokies, so to Florida we go, with this re-re-invention of the Florida as Destination movie, which, had mobsters taken it to heart the way Walt Disney and Donald Trump did Xanadu, would have made Florida the new Reno.

We got the lottery instead. Probably because the state has been run for decades by people who make The Quail and Alers look like the Jedi.

One of Sturges’ indestructible comedies (to my mind, more indestructible than anything he did except The Lady Eve, which will still be standing when the last diamond is ground to dust). Ring Lardner did fine work in a similar vein in print a generation earlier, but nobody got the Florida Adventure on film quite like this movie, which almost ends happily if, in true Florida Dreamer fashion, you don’t look too close.

Key Largo (1948)
D. John Huston

Of course Florida makes a great setting for a definitive gangster film. Chicago and New York are just big, grimy cities. Florida’s a dream. Except in Key Largo, where it’s a creeping nightmare, a hurricane-haunted ghost world that Edward G. Robinson’s Johnny Rocco has to pass through on his way to Paradise.

John Huston is a favorite director of mine (somewhere in my American Top Five at least) and Key Largo may be my favorite of his films. There’s competition to be sure, but, filming in the Keys, no director has gotten the feel of the Florida landscape, or it’s peculiar semi-tropical atmospherics quite as right (down to its endless, flat highways, which feature in a stunning opening sequence that catches something about Florida that’s similar to what Touch of Evil‘s opening sequence catches about Mexico, namely that, if you don’t happen to belong there, you probably shouldn’t stay).

Perhaps the story–a good one, involving Humphrey Bogart’s half-brave serviceman, home from the war, trying to outlast and outwit Rocco’s gang in Lionel Barrymore’s classic Old Florida hotel while storms rage within and without–is merely taut and well-made, rather than terribly original. But for a sense of Florida as a place that is never quite settled, even by constantly shifting and grinding American standards, this is definitive, even down to a reasonably sympathetic view of the local Indians. There’s fine work from an Oscar-winning Claire Trevor and Lauren Bacall (as Barrymore’s daughter and Bogart’s love interest), plus a for-once convincing crew of hoodlums.

But the land and the air are the show, eclipsing even Robinson’s towering performance. Key Largo, in permanent competition with the following year’s White Heat as the greatest American gangster film,  has been in the DNA of every Florida noir since.

Seminole (1953)
D. Budd Boetticher

Good, swift entertainment from Boetticher, a few years before he began his cycle of classic westerns with Randolph Scott. There’s little fealty to history in its story of the United States army clashing with the Seminoles under their most famous chief, Osceola (a scenery-chewing, not terribly convincing Anthony Quinn). There’s much else going for it, though–Rock Hudson, more relaxed than he would be again until McMillan and Wife in the 70s, plus Boetticher’s usual sure-footed, no-nonsense direction, some terrific action scenes and a rare and compelling early look at Lee Marvin playing someone on the side of the angels (which didn’t happen again for years) and, perhaps drawing on his own military experience, giving a definitive portrayal of a type usually reduced to cliches: the career sergeant, caught between command and his troops, right and wrong, duty and justice. Of the few given the opportunity, no one’s done it better.

But it’s as a Florida movie that Seminole leaves a lasting mark. Nothing has come close to this one in catching the feel of the Florida swamps, or the difficulties inherent in trying to root out a people who owe their survival to centuries-earned knowledge of an impossible landscape (in this case, the Florida Everglades). Every American military commander or political leader preparing to send troops to yet another foreign jungle or desert or mountain range, where they will be pitted against locals who know how to turn every inch of the ground to their advantage, should be required to watch Seminole so they might be reminded of why, in what is now the United States, only one Indian tribe–the Florida branch of the Seminoles–has never signed a peace treaty.

“The Girl in the Bottle” (Pilot Episode of I Dream of Jeannie) (1965)
D. Gene Nelson

Dr. Bellows: “That image of a beautiful girl on a desert island was your mother.”

Major Nelson: “My mother’s in Salt Lake City.”

Dr. Bellows: “I’m a psychiatrist. I know a mother when I see one!”

So far as I know, not a single foot of the original series was shot in its nominal setting of Cocoa Beach. That’s okay. The astronauts were all living and training in Texas by then anyway.

Come on now. You didn’t think they were gonna set a story about a genie and an astronaut in Texas? They sent them to Texas because it looked like the moon.

Not even Barbara Eden could have saved that concept. They needed the idea of Florida, and, frankly they got it. In the neighborhoods I lived in, Dr. Bellows and Major Nelson would have fit right in.

And I’m only a little disappointed that the pilot didn’t feature the snow-capped mountain peaks of Cocoa Beach.

That came later in the series.

Did I say something about our knack for inspiring Dali-esque absurdism?

Night Moves (1975)
D. Arthur Penn

Pervert: “There ought to be a law.”

Non-pervert: “….There is.”

Set partly in California, it finds life–and death–in Florida, mostly by living out the tragic implications Key Largo couldn’t quite face.

This time the good guy doesn’t win.

Mostly because there are no good guys.

This time, the boat that was a ride to shore in The Palm Beach Story, and a testing ground in Key Largo, is a coffin, circling round and round.

Florida in the 70s–the place that left California behind and made its own way.

Definitive. After The Miracle Worker, Arthur Penn’s best movie. After The Conversation, Gene Hackman’s best performance. Plus everything Melanie Griffith would ever be.

Body Heat (1981)
D. Lawrence Kasdan

On celluloid, all the happy, spring break, astronaut movies were set in the New Florida, where all the famous beaches and tourist attractions are (now including the Kennedy Space Center, which these days is basically a museum).

The noir stories are set in the Old Florida, where the beach bums and white trash and old money live.

Same places of course. For movie or mythic purposes, everything below Gainesville is the same place.

Body Heat was filmed in Palm Beach County, which is just north of Miami. But the most noir-ish real life experience I ever had was when I was thirteen and my Dad and I were painting a banker’s house in Ormond Beach, which is connected at the hip to Daytona, a good two hundred miles north, straight up US 1.

You pass the hospital where I was born along the way.

Anyway, he and I were staying in the house during the week and going home on weekends. One night we ventured out for some reason (to eat? a baseball game? the Boardwalk?…the memory hazes). On the way back from wherever we had gone, he drove down the main drag, where the big, flashy hotels loomed over the only beach in Florida you can drive on–a detail lost on the makers of The Right Stuff, who think you can drive on Cocoa Beach without Jeannie’s help, a fact which kept it well off this list–in a gaudy, neon-filled, row.

In those days, there were such things as pay phones. For some reason, the stretch of highway that led south from Daytona’s hotel strip had one phone booth, free-standing in the middle of nowhere, meaning a hundred yards or so from the last hotel and maybe half that far past the last cone of light.

As we passed the phone booth on the way towards the hotel strip, an extraordinarily beautiful girl stepped into the booth’s milky light and lifted the receiver.

I can see her yet: Twentyish, blue jeans, white blouse, dark tan, shag haircut, sandals.

All very 1974.

The inside of the phone booth was the only spot of light for fifty yards around and it was impossible to tell, from the girl’s body language, whether the call was prearranged or an emergency, something she did every day or never, whether she was in deep trouble or simply casually phoning a friend.

The night and the setting–and the distance from civilization, so close and yet so far–said it could be anything.

I always thought there was a story there, if not a hundred stories.

At least one of those stories was later turned into a movie and that movie is Body Heat, one of the few masterful modern noirs.

Kathleen Turner didn’t look anything like that girl and didn’t generate anything like the same vibe.

But it was her, a few years on….I know it was her.

Doing just what I was afraid she might.

Being very, very bad.

“Brother’s Keeper” (Pilot Episode of Miami Vice) (1984)
D. Thomas Carter

It hit like an atom bomb in ’84 and the New Golden Age of Television hasn’t dimmed the afterglow. Not only does the series still pack a punch–the pilot still hits the hardest.

By this time, of course, South Florida really was the most dangerous place in the developed world (or maybe just the world). The bad wind from Johnny Rocco’s ghost-world had blown up to the mainland and the corpses-in-waiting were toting machine guns. Brian DePalma tried to catch the new vibe in an update of Scarface and just came off looking silly. Michael Mann’s TV show, filled with castoffs and never weres, caught all the dread–and the deadpan humor no absurdist landscape can do without–DePalma and a hammy-even-by-his-standards Al Pacino missed.

I know, there’s a movie of Miami Vice, too. I just don’t know why.

How were they going to improve anything this perfect?

It has the best quality of all, too.

When I’m only thinking about it, I think I must have dreamed it.

And that was before Edward James Olmos came on board.

Matinee (1993)
D. Joe Dante

Nothing’s more Florida than the Cuban Missile Crisis. You know why? Because when Cronkite or Brinkley or Huntley or that other guy nobody remembers used to come on the air and intone about Cuba being ninety miles away from the United States or, better yet, the “US mainland,” what they meant was ninety miles away from the coast of Florida. And that’s what they meant when they said Cuba was ninety miles away from the coast of Florida too.

Freakin’ National Guard used to roll past my house.

Ask William Castle! Er, I mean, John Goodman. Er, I mean…Lawrence Woolsey.

Yeah, him. Go ahead. Ask him.

He knows! That’s why he headed to Florida–not your podunk state–when it was time to promote Mant!

Because where else would he go? Ten years later, we were laughing at the memory of when our older brothers and sisters had to duck under their school desks to protect themselves from the nuclear bombs!

Bunch of maroons. They deserved a Lawrence Woolsey.

Never catch anybody pulling the wool over our eyes that way. We were just waiting around for the eighties, when we could be the guinea pigs for the Cowboys running the Cocaine capital of the world.

We’ll show ’em!

Still scarier than Scarface, too, which I’m told is a big favorite to this day among a certain class of Cocaine Cowboy morons.

To hell with them and to hell with Castro.

Go Mant!

Men in Black III (2012)
D. Barry Sonnenfeld

The quality of mercy is not strained.

Strange, but, except for Love and Mercy, nothing in any movie this century affected me the way the Cape Kennedy scenes did in this movie. (And, yes, it was Cape Kennedy then, in the moment just after and before it was Cape Canaveral). Somehow or other, seeing it in the theater, the sublime silliness of the Men in Black franchise was submerged, for just a moment, under a sense of wonder.

I know what it felt like to watch the first moonshot come off the launch pad. I was there. I was eight years old.

In boyhood, it felt like a moment when time travel was possible, even inevitable, even mundane….like a concept that had already been accepted as reality. It felt like we had already been to the moon and back and were ready to move on to the next thing.

And who cared what that was.

If you could dream it, my friends’ dads could build it.

At fifty-something (and I watched MIB III again before I wrote this, just to be sure), that moment feels like a missed opportunity, a hole in time that matches perfectly to a time travel plot in a silly movie about the secret society of men who protect us from aliens.

We like to think we could put a man on the moon again. If we only had a reason. If only we really wanted to.

I wonder.

But at least we can still make movies about the time when we could.

That’s not nothing.

And all those movies have to come to Florida sooner or later.

Because, unless the Men in Black really are out there–hiding something from us, protecting us from our own ignorance–nobody sent any men to the moon from anywhere else on this earth.

Get to know this list here well enough and you might just find yourself a little closer to understanding why.

Like Xanadu and Mar-a-Lago and unconquered Indian tribes, some things can only happen in Florida.