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.

 

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.

HONOR BOUND….7 MEN FROM NOW (I Watch Westerns: Take Seven)

7 Men from Now (1956)
D. Budd Boetticher

(NOTE: Mild spoilers ahead, concerning the early part of the film.)

It’s common for the honor of one or two central characters to be tested in a western. It’s rare that everyone’s honor is tested.

Most of the values assumed by Burt Kennedy’s haiku-perfect script for 7 Men from Now, (sometimes rendered Seven Men from Now) the first of the magnificent string of westerns made by the director-star team of Budd Boetticher and Randolph Scott on shoestring budgets through the late fifties, have either vanished or gone underground. For three thousand years prior, those values–or, if you like, the value of those values–was unassailable. With sixty years of “progress,” we’ve managed to render them obsolete, which is why we ourselves will soon follow.

Meanwhile, we can have fun remembering.

You can’t have much more fun doing anything than watching Seven Men from Now, whether for the first or fiftieth time.

Nowadays, a man who sets out to avenge his wife’s death in a movie is a cartoon character, or else a mere projection of fantasy. The underlying urge is still understood–modern action movies thrive on revenge. Only it is bound to be rendered safely, in no more than two dimensions (and preferably fewer), devoid of emotional content that cuts any deeper than the thrill of seeing blood spurt (a thrill that animates a remarkable number of “intellectuals,” prone to bragging about their capacity for absorbing faux-violence from the cheap seats while calling for more, always in the name of “realism”).

Everyone knows that, in the real world–in what now passes for reality anyway–this is a job for law enforcement.

Of course, it was always a job for law enforcement, when and where they were up to the task, and the first brilliant stroke the creators of  7 Men from Now rendered, was having Scott play an ex-Sheriff, Ben Stride, who retains the moral authority of law and order, but no longer wears the badge that makes his authority official.

it was hardly the first time the idea had been tried, but Scott had reached a point in his life, and his career, where he carried the intrinsic weight of the contradiction like its own badge–one buried in his chest instead of resting on his shirt.

His test of honor is the simplest. Will he be able to kill the men who killed his wife?

The men on the run have robbed $20,000 in gold and they don’t know it’s his wife they’ve killed in the process. The outlaw who does, Bill Masters, doesn’t ride with them and he plans on parlaying his knowledge into some sort of edge that will give him possession of the gold.

He’s played by Lee Marvin in his early villain stage, so you know going in his code of honor is going to be a bit slipperier than Scott’s….or even those other outlaws.

It’s real, though. A good part of the plot involves finding its limit. The force of that journey is magnified considerably by his double testing of John Greer, a westward moving settler (a stolid Walter Reed) who is having his own manhood tested by the rigors of the trail, a plot twist you might not see coming, and his ability to hang on to his attractive wife, Annie (the always luminous Gail Russell), whose own hold on a wife’s honor is simultaneously stretched and burdened by her attraction to Stride (either because he’s Randolph Scott or because he’s a man who can handle the wilderness that has her husband buffaloed) and threatened by a leering Masters, who would count his reward far more than doubled if he landed her and the gold….and who is either perceptive or narcissistic enough to guess she might just go along if he’s the last man standing.

The tension in the plot, then, involves a good man who won’t dishonor a wedding vow, a woman who just might, a husband who depends on the men who are better than him being decent about it, and a bad man who wants what he wants but knows he’ll have to earn every bit of it.

In a modern context all of this would need explaining. (Anywhere it doesn’t need explaining isn’t modern yet.) And such explanations would  dispense with the narrative tension that 7 Men from Now ratchets, line by terse, stoic line.

There’s a deep enough mix of cynicism and romanticism in Marvin’s  remarkable performance (and perhaps even more remarkable presence, to speak of bygone concepts), to encompass everything Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah got up to when they set about to “revise” the western in the following decade, right down to a denouement that’s a full-blooded precursor of the self-destruction that swallows William Holden and company at the end of The Wild Bunch.

The principal difference–the one that will allow each present-day viewer to chalk up a clear preference, one way or the other (because before that, it’s a close run)–is that Marvin’s Bill Masters is more lucid about his aims and the crucial showdown in 7 Men from Now literally takes an eye-blink. For me, the impact is force-multiplied by the compression of time, rather than dispersed by arty slo-mo, but, of course, tastes will vary.

But this is not a simple case of the charismatic villain stealing the show. None of the formidable writing/directing/acting principles were ever better.

Scott’s Stride has a steely conviction that burns deep. He doesn’t strive to be likable. He has no interest in winning friends or influencing people and it’s clear that this isn’t merely a product of riding the revenge trail. We learn, early enough, that it’s the very quality that put his wife in danger.

Gail Russell’s job, playing Annie Greer, is to convey an attraction powerful enough to absorb such knowledge and remain torn between what she feels for Stride and what she owes her husband, even as it becomes clear that Stride would not be an easy man to live with and her husband grows into a figure of whom Marvin’s Masters can say “I was wrong Clete, he wasn’t half a man.”

That’s a tricky line to walk and Russell–one of those actresses who was forever accused of “playing herself” no matter how much one of her screen selves was unlike another–does it beautifully. (I’ve elsewhere called it the most affecting and unassuming performance ever given by a strikingly beautiful woman in a Hollywood film and I’ll stand by that….Did it help that her beauty had faded a touch through hard living and self torment? Maybe. Does it matter? No.)

One false note from the three leads, or even the supporting cast, and the spell would be broken.

It never breaks.

It’s easy enough to say “they don’t make ’em like that anymore” and easy enough for the response to be what a Bill Masters would want. You know: “Thank God for that.”

But the problem isn’t so much that we can’t now make a film like 7 Men from Now (not from lack of the talent–there’s always talent–or even will–put the talent at the disposal of a single strong, gifted personality and you’d be surprised what can result), as the reason we can’t.

It’s not that we can’t live it. We couldn’t “live” it in 1956, when the values that underpin it were still commonly recognized as virtues.

It’s that, absent those virtues, we can’t dream it.

The real residual value of the western (or any other marker of lost worlds, including rock and roll), isn’t what our present can take from it, but someone’s future.

Let’s all hope that future can arrive without an intervening collapse…

…but, hey, ya’ll know how I feel about that.

[NOTE: A recently acquired friend of the blog, the film critic, Blake Lucas, was preeminent in the restoration of 7 Men from Now a few years back. I’ve assured him that his place in heaven is secure.]

THE MARSHAL FROM WICHITA….JOEL McCREA (AFTER HE WAS JOEL McCREA) AS WYATT EARP (BEFORE HE WAS “WYATT EARP”) (I Watch Westerns: Take Five)

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Happy to be taking part in Toby Roan’s Joel McCrea Blogathon. Toby blogs at 50 Westerns from the 50’s, which is on my blog-roll and highly recommended for anyone seeking a better understanding of a bottomless subject. His comment section alone is more informative than a lot of books. Anyway, I picked McCrea’s turn as a pre-legend Wyatt Earp in Wichita, one of many superficially unassuming westerns that have grown with time and repeated viewings. Please take the time to click on the link provided and peruse the other entries….There’s always much to learn, even on an average day.

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By the time (1955) Joel McCrea played Wyatt Earp, in Jacques Tourneur’s Wichita, both men were at the height of their fame and iconography. McCrea had been a major Hollywood star for a generation. Earp had been a legend, both in his own mind and elsewhere, for nearly three-quarters of a century.

Nonetheless, on paper it  wasn’t the most natural pairing.

McCrea was sufficiently laconic to give Gary Cooper a run for his money, while Earp’s legend had grown, in part, because of his flamboyance–both as a lawman and a story-teller. Still, in the age just after the closing of the Frontier and just before our present Return to the Primitive, Civilization was thought best managed by the sort of man McCrea was best at portraying. It was what made him a star then and what now leaves him vulnerable to memory’s fast-fade. You don’t quite have to be an aficionado–of Hollywood or the Western–to recognize the value of McCrea’s name in a credit. But, each year more than than the last, it helps.

The Laconic Hero certainly wasn’t all he could play, even in westerns. He wasn’t Preston Sturges’s main boy for nothing, and, in a stone-cold classic like Colorado Territory, he was able to give his rock-solid persona the sort of tiny, invisible nudge (common to the great leading men of his day, virtually unheard of now that everyone’s been to “acting school”), that made him more than credible as the lone competent man in a brutal hole-in-the-wall hold-up gang…and, oh-by-the-way improve on Humphrey Bogart’s star-making turn in High Sierra (of which Colorado Territory was a superior western re-make).

Still, by the fifties, he had grown comfortable in his more basic man-of-the-west persona, and that’s certainly at the core of his presence throughout Wichita.

It’s also part of what makes the movie deceptively quiet. Despite a surfeit of plot and action, plenty of Tourneur’s always deft and subtly impressive visuals, and a strong cast even by fifties’ western standards (Edgar Buchanan, Vera Miles, Walter Coy, Lloyd Bridges, Jack Elam, Robert Wilke…like that, plus an especially fine turn from Wallace Ford as a newspaper editor who’s seen it all before), it can fool you into thinking not much is going on.

Wyatt Earp–not then a name carrying the particular weight that attaches to any version of the Dodge City or Tombstone tales upon which Earp’s legend was built–comes to Wichita to start a business. Then the usual stuff happens.

He averts a holdup at the bank where he is about to deposit his money….

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He turns down a marshal’s badge because he’s not interested….

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He then takes the badge when it becomes evident he’ll never get a business off the ground in any place as wild and lawless as Wichita (the woman is cradling her dead child, just shot through an open window by the cowpokes who have taken over the town…and whose business the town desperately needs)…

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So he tames the town…

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And keeps it tamed….

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To the point where he can enjoy the fruits of his labor…

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In part by wooing the town’s prettiest girl. (Miles, just before she altered the worlds of Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford. And, while she’s fine here–when was she not?–and you can already learn things by watching her, it’s clear Tourneur, one of the period’s finest directors, didn’t see the qualities they saw. One of the distinctions between even great talent and genius I suppose).

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More than all that, he begins to accept his destiny as a “natural born lawman….”

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The man who can turn this…

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and this…

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into this…

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and this…

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And make it stick until he and the girl can ride off into the sunset, where–having both his history and his myth handy–we know he will clean up other, even more raucous towns, and, unlike most legendary western characters, live to make sure at least some of the tales get told the way he wants them told.

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Simple enough. But that basic story rests inside a larger, subtler one, one which involves a hard-headed look at small town politics, the responsibilities of leadership and power, the testing of character and, yes, the fragility of Civilization. How close the run is between here…

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and here…

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and here…where even those who rejected Civilization a moment before are suddenly reminded of its virtues.

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By movie’s end, McCrea (and his legend) and Earp (and his legend) have merged in a way that hardly seemed possible at the beginning, when the “pilgrim, probably looking for something to eat” approached a cattle drive that would soon shape his destiny.

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In that beginning, McCrea’s at his most lock-jawed and generic. He really could be almost anybody and it’s only upon reflection that you realize how perfectly that suits the Wyatt Earp who, as a later Prophet might have had it, is busy being born. In the world of 1955, or 2016, we expect anyone playing Earp to have a star quality that’s evident from the moment we set eyes on him. But McCrea, who was perfectly capable of exuding that quality, holds it in check as he rides into the movie. It’s preparatory to his playing Earp as a character we don’t know, and who perhaps does not yet know himself. Once you realize that–and I confess it took me several viewings, though of course that’s an acknowledgement there was always plenty to draw me back–the movie itself gets a whole lot more interesting.

It’s credible that McCrea’s Earp is the kind of man a couple of cowpokes would take for an easy mark. And just as credible that they lose first their sense of superiority, and, consequently, their lives, for their mistake.

That’s the sort of duality McCrea’s rare breed of actor specialized in. He had company in this regard, but you wouldn’t need much more than a card table to seat them. Gary Cooper. Randolph Scott. Just then coming on the scene, James Garner. Maybe Jimmy Stewart at a stretch. But you could be as great as John Wayne or Robert Mitchum or Kirk Douglas and never convince an audience that the dumbest cowpoke ever born could mistake you for a mark.

McCrea splits the difference between “aw shucks” and “don’t push me” so easily it could take the viewer just as long to notice as his adversaries do, even in a film where the adversaries aren’t limited to the obvious bad guys. That he’ll tangle with Bridges, Elam, Buchanan, is clear enough. Here, as elsewhere, they were hired to be the sort of men Joel McCrea would have to dispense with. They, too, could do other things, but it’s not asked of them here at the birth of Wyatt Earp, where they do what they do as superbly as ever.

This Wyatt Earp’s biggest run-in, though, is with Walter Coy’s character, Sam McCoy, and not just because he’s Laurie McCoy’s (Miles) father.

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Coy was a fine actor who was often hired to play basically decent but feckless men. This might be his best turn. He shifts from glad-hander to big shot to concerned father to vengeful widower to the film’s chastened conscience as easily and naturally as McCrea shifts from wanderer to lawman and it’s these performances, along with Ford’s beautifully underplayed curmudgeon and (underutilized though she is) the early peek at Miles, already shouldering the permanently thankless burden of representing Civilization, a heartbeat before The Wrong Man and The Searchers, that give the film enduring interest.

I don’t know if the interest is bottomless…But I feel like I’m a long way from being done with it yet.

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THE LAST TEN WESTERNS I WATCHED…(I Watch Westerns: Take Three)

When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Machree comes to me, and I start watching westerns. The last few weeks were kind of odd in that none of the westerns I watched were by Ford, Hawks, Mann or Boetticher, so I thought it might make a fun post reinforcing my occasional off-hand suggestion that the genre is bottomless. Here’s a look:

April 27–Rimfire (1949, B. Reeves Eason, First Viewing)

rimfire2The essence: An innocent man is wrongly convicted of card-sharping in a “trial by acclamation” and subsequently hanged. (For card-sharping? Yep!) His ghost–or someone channeling it–wanders about, gunning for those who convicted him, offing them with solid gold bullets and dropping deuces and fours on the corpses. A Secret Service man, tracking the gold while he works under cover as a local deputy, tries to catch him between attempts at wooing the local blonde. That’s for starters. Is that enough to overcome indifferent acting by minor period stars, jittery direction and a choppy story-line with more subplots than War and Peace? I would never presume to judge. Each of us must find our own level in these matters. I wouldn’t be surprised, though, if Ian Fleming had this floating around in his subconscious. And I’d bet money Sergio Leone did.

April 26–Little Big Horn (1951, Charles Marquis Warren, First Viewing)

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This actually came in a cheapie double with Rimfire and the contrast couldn’t be starker. The basic story is based on a historical incident and involves a scout patrol which comes across signs that the Sioux are lying in wait for an unsuspecting General Custer. The movie consists of the patrol’s attempt to reach Custer in time. Of course you know they won’t, but it doesn’t matter because the real story is a truly complex study of male honor. Additionally, as a representation of the ethos of the U.S. Cavalry, it stands with John Ford’s famous trilogy and Ernest Haycox’s fine novel Bugles in the Afternoon. John Ireland and Lloyd Bridges, two actors who rarely got enough screen time, get plenty here and make the most of it. Neither man was ever better. The great Marie Windsor is sadly underused, but even that is a small quibble. A real find.

April 25–Rawhide (1951, Henry Hathaway, Umpteenth Viewing)

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Perfect. Along with Key Largo, one of my two favorite films using a common plot: innocents trapped by violent men waiting for an “event.” The setting here is a lonely stage stop. The event is an impending stage robbery. The cast is perfect, the plot unbreakable, the direction, by old pro Hathaway, taut as a piano wire. The denouement features a tension-filled “child in danger” sequence that’s on a level with Battleship Potemkin or Small Change and more fully integrated than either. (Note: I watched this in preparation for an upcoming blogathon where I’ll take a closer look at Jack Elam’s villain. The role was his career maker so watch for further thoughts here.)

April 24–The Last of the Mohicans (1992, Michael Mann, Third Viewing)

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Fenimore Cooper seems a natural for the movies. But this, likely the best adaptation of his work, is far more of a chore than it needs to be (though admittedly less of a chore than the thirties’ version with Randolph Scott). Mann shrouded the Fort William Henry battle scenes in an impenetrable darkness, only occasionally caught either the beauty or the mystery of the Appalachians and evidently convinced his female stars they were playing the Bronte sisters without the comedy. Past that, you have a depressingly inappropriate modernist score, Natty Bumppo transformed into “Nathaniel Poe,” perhaps so Daniel Day-Lewis can play him as a natural vessel for the Method and various English-actor types who deliver their lines as if they are simultaneously passing kidney stones.  Moderately worthwhile for Wes Studi’s definitive turn as Magua, a good surrender scene between the commanding French and English officers, and some occasionally haunting scenery that proves you can’t really turn off Appalachia’s beauty and mystery no matter how hard you try. (Note: I go back and forth on whether Drums Along the Mohawk, the Walter Edmonds novel, which shares its time and place with Cooper’s most famous novels and was filmed by John Ford in the late thirties, is really a western. But Cooper invented the form and nailed most of its elements in place. For whatever reason I have no such qualms about the Leatherstocking tales.)

April 23–The Last Hunt (1956, Richard Brooks, First Viewing)

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A brooding tale of the last days of the buffalo hunters. Robert Taylor takes a rare turn as a villain and he’s fine, though I couldn’t help feeling the movie might have been even better if he and Stewart Granger (who carried a tinge of self-contempt in his bones that came out of his eyes when he put on a cowboy hat) had switched places. The best performance in a solid cast is from Lloyd Nolan as an aging buffalo skinner. The plot is unusually existential. Civilization is not at stake. It’s barely felt. In that respect, it’s more noir than western. In one other respect it’s pure western: Death is real, right down to the last, genuinely chilling scene.

April 21–Drum Beat (1954, Delmer Daves, First Viewing)

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Alan Ladd as an Indian fighter trying to make peace among his enemies, in this case the Modocs of the Pacific Northwest, on orders from General Grant (played, not badly, but rather improbably by Hayden Rorke, who would make his last mark a decade later as the forever flummoxed base psychiatrist in I Dream of Jeannie). A bit staid, but, as one might expect with Delmer Daves at the helm,  it certainly has its moments, not a few of them provided by a very young Charles Bronson as the never-surrender Modoc war chief. Ladd is his usual fine, laconic self, but, a mere three years after Shane, he looks twenty years older in a part that might have been better served by his younger, more energetic self. Worthwhile for fans of Daves, Ladd or Bronson.

April17–Fury at Showdown (1957, Gerd Oswald, First Viewing)

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This one gets where it’s going. There is no especially striking aspect, but the story is a good one (good brother/bad brother, with bad brother trying to straighten up for his brother’s sake) and it’s well executed. Best performance is by Nick Adams, a James Dean/Elvis associate who has never impressed me anywhere else. John Derek is good enough as the lead. I can see why somebody thought he might be a star and I can see why he didn’t make it, though I’m sure I never would have guessed he would eventually be mostly famous for marrying exceptionally beautiful women.

April 17–Along Came Jones (1945, Stuart Heisler, Second Viewing)

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Gary Cooper spoofing himself. I hadn’t revisited this one in years and, upon doing so, I was reminded why there was no particular urgency. Cooper’s fine, but he’s saddled with an out-of-her-element Loretta Young and a script that frequently ambles when it should gallop. Still good for a few laughs, especially when Cooper’s hayseed is sparring with the ever reliable William Demarest. But, with Nunnally Johnson scripting, there was a chance for much more. A bit of a missed opportunity.

April 12–Roughshod (1949, Mark Robson, First Viewing)

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Nifty. I acquired it strictly for the purpose of investigating whether Gloria Grahame’s essence would translate to a western. It does. She’s superb and, more to the point, she’s Gloria Grahame. Oh, there’s a good story, too: Hookers…er, “showgirls,” with and without hearts of gold, try to survive any way they can while traveling from the town they’ve been kicked out of to the town where their dreams will come true (in California, of course). It’s well directed and, excepting Robert Sterling’s stolid but uninspiring presence in the lead, superbly played. Claude Jarman, Jr., one of the period’s finest child actors, is especially good in a part that could have gone wrong a hundred ways. And, after all that? Gloria Grahame is in it. She’s superb and she’s Gloria Grahame. So it’s like every other movie she was in where she was herself: A Gloria Grahame movie. There’s a reason they put her up front on the poster even if they billed her second on screen and fourth in the advertising. I might watch it again tonight.

April 11–Garden of Evil (1954, Henry Hathaway, Fourth Viewing)

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This one has grown on me. I liked it well enough when I first encountered it a few years ago. Watching it about once a year since, it’s gotten better every time. At this point, I’m almost ready to move it to the very first rank. Susan Hayward juggles a dying husband and the four hard men she’s hired to save both him and the fortune he’s excavated from a gold mine deep in Apache country. There’s a powerhouse cast, all in top form: Hayward, Gary Cooper, Richard Widmark, Hugh Marlowe, Cameron Mitchell, Mexican star Victor Manuel Mendoza and a red hot, if too-briefly seen, Rita Moreno. It winds and winds, rather like the mountain trails the plot traverses. That might be what deceived me into thinking it was a little slow the first time around. The more i watch, though, the deeper it gets. The climactic action sequences are of a high order. The final line is classic. And did I mention that, in a western, death actually hurts? That might be because, in the westerns Hollywood used to make, life was never merely existential or programmatic. Not even when they tried.

THE LAST TEN MOVIES I WATCHED….AND WHY I WATCHED THEM

I haven’t done any hard statistics on this, but the vast majority of my movie-watching these days is revisiting movies I’ve seen before and a fair amount is revisiting movies I’ve seen many times.

This habit has grown over the last ten to fifteen years and intensified a bit in the last year or so after I suspended (and ultimately disconnected) my television service. I might go a month without seeing anything new and I now tend to treat movies like music, so watching favorites is more like listening to familiar albums than, say, re-reading a novel.

Like albums, movies tend to draw me back for certain very particular reasons–the parts I never get tired of. Hence, the “why I watch” bit. I’m offering this up as a snapshot of the kind of thing I engage with and very rarely write about. And if I very rarely write about this stuff it isn’t because it’s not worth writing about, it’s just because there isn’t enough time in the world….So, for fun, in reverse order, ten days, ten movies:

Dec. 8–Scaramouche (1952, George Sidney, Umpteenth Viewing)

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For Eleanor Parker; for the greatest sword fight in movie history; and for one of the sweetest and bitterest final scenes. Besides, it was my birthday (very early hours). I was also impressed this time around by the scenes in the National Assembly, which present the real fight boiling underneath the burgeoning French Revolution as one between the aristocrats and the wannabes. A timeless theme if ever there was one and hardly relegated to the French (let alone the Hollywood version of the French), though they’ve certainly made an art form of it.

Dec. 6–Life of Crime (2014, Daniel Schechter, 2nd Viewing)

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For Jennifer Aniston, who reinforced everything I said here, and, yes, still definitely should have played at least one of the female roles in American Hustle.

Dec. 5–Saskatchewan (1954, Raoul Walsh, 2nd Viewing)

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For the scenery; for the measured and reasonably complex view of both Native American politics and the White Man’s code of military honor; for some fine action scenes involving canoes, of which there can never be enough;and for the memories of happy days a good friend and I spent honing our “It-ain’t-really-a-western-unless-Shelley-Winters-or-Joan-Blondell-shows-up” theory, which, for those of us born within a certain time span, has turned out to be surprisingly durable.

Dec. 5–Wagonmaster aka Wagon Master (1950, John Ford, Umpteenth Viewing)

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For a cast that, even within the context of John Ford’s oeuvre, reminds me remarkably, almost painfully, of the vanished people I grew up among (and no, they weren’t Mormons). That, plus all the usual reasons for watching any of Ford’s numerous masterworks. To take just one such: The long, gliding scene that begins with Joanne Dru’s showgirl turning down an invitation, offered at a “squaw dance,” by one of the outlaw band who have hitched a ride with the Mormon wagon train, and ends with the man being tied to a wagon wheel and whipped by the Mormons while the stoic Navajo elders look on. I’d have to revisit my Shakespeare to be sure, but it might be the most remarkable piece of compressed narrative that exists in any form.

Dec. 4–The War Wagon (1967, Burt Kennedy, Umpteenth Viewing, though the first in a very long while)

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For the memories; for “Mine was taller.”; and for Kirk Douglas finding all those different ways to jump on horses from every conceivable angle without, so far as I could tell, mangling his manhood!.

Dec. 2–7 Men From Now (1956, Budd Boetticher, Umpteenth Viewing)

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For Gail Russell; for Lee Marvin (“I was wrong Clete. He wasn’t half a man.”); for Randolph Scott’s finely wrought study in stoicism; and for the peerless storytelling, delivered with haiku-level perfection.

Dec. 1–Star Wars (1977, George Lucas, Umpteenth Viewing)

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Just gettin’ ready.

Nov. 30–Casablanca (1942, Michael Curtiz, Umpteenth Viewing)

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For Rick and Ilsa and Frenchie. And to hear Dooley Wilson sing “As Time Goes By.” What, there are other reasons? Sure, but who needs ’em.

Nov. 29–An American In Paris (1951, Vincente Minnelli, Umpteenth Viewing)

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For Leslie Caron, dancing or not, and for the glories of the vanished studio system.

Nov. 28–The Truth About Spring (1965, Richard Thorpe, Umpteenth Viewing)

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For Hayley Mills, decked in denim; for more deathless lines than I ever found in a classic screwball (“Tommy, if you dare shoot Ashton, I’ll never cook for you again!”); for the evocation of every Florida kid’s dream-life; for “Here’s one they won’t get. Here’s one for freedom.”; and for a chance to tell the lingering shade of that lucky little so-and-so, Jimmy MacArthur, who got out of the last frame with Hayley once and Janet Munro twice: “I ain’t sorry you’re dead!” and half-hope he won’t be able to decide whether I’m kidding. Oh, yeah, and: “Of Catfish Key….Da-h-h-ling.”

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (Shia LaBeouf Looks Back, Robert Ryan is Careful Not to Look Ahead)

The Company You Keep (2012)

I saw both Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps in theaters.

Though he was far from the worst thing in either, if Shia LaBeouf had been standing in the lobby of those theaters wearing exactly what he wore in the movies I had just seen, I probably would have walked right by him without a second glance.

The credits of The Company You Keep, Robert Redford’s casual, by-the-numbers mea culpa for Weatherman (where once again we learn that they were in it to save us from our poor, ignorant selves!…who knew?), were so stuffed with Oscar Winner/Nominee types that I didn’t even register the names of the actors if and when they rolled at the beginning. Figured I’d surely recognize anybody who had anything important to do.

So imagine my surprise when twenty minutes or so had passed and I had to look up the name of the youngish actor who was moving through this sedentary “thriller” like a lightning strike through a corn-field and it was….Shia LaBeouf.

Seriously, he was so quick on his feet, so much the only member of the cast who “got” the sixties, that I thought at some point they should just start playing early Who songs in the background every time he came on screen. And he kept it up almost the entire movie. Right up until the very end when the script (which had let everybody else down a long time since) finally let him down too.

Lightning strikes are tricky, so I don’t know if this was a one-time occurrence or he’s finally on to something. But I’m definitely going to start keeping watch.

The Naked Spur (1953)

I’ve probably seen this a dozen or so times. Like many great movies, it strikes different chords at each separate viewing. What really got through to me this time was Robert Ryan’s villain–or more accurately, how different he is from Robert Ryan’s several other distinctive villains in other good or great movies.

It’s an early version of the types who showed up in Budd Boetticher’s Ranown series with Randolph Scott a few years later, where they were typically played by Lee Marvin or Richard Boone or Claude Akins, all of whom were wonderful.

But Ryan’s take is more realistic, hence more chilling.

I’ve met this guy on occasion and, even when he isn’t a suspected murderer on the run, he really is like this.

In life and in the movies, he has a world of cunning. In most movies he also has a world of cool. It’s the type of part that was made for the always uninteresting belief that villains are inherently more interesting than the rest of us.

Except the way Ryan plays him, his Ben Vandergroat doesn’t have an ounce of cool. He’s grasping and desperate and manipulative, not merely slippery with sweat but greasy with it–as far as possible from the modern villain’s mask which so often calls to mind the cool shark gliding in the shark pool. (The actor even trades in his trademark rasp for a high-pitched not-quite-whine.)

It’s a testimony to the quality of the script, direction and cast that nothing else fades away once this is finally recognized by slow learners like me. If anything the stakes are intensified (it doesn’t hurt that the finale is one of history’s greatest sustained action sequences). The scariest thing in the world, after all–even scarier than nature–is a villain who is actually villainous. One who, lacking the cool villain’s essential sadism, controlled only by meanness, truly doesn’t care about anything like money or revenge or jealousy but only about his own survival.

I guess by the time he made The Naked Spur, Robert Ryan knew there’s no threat in this world quite as unsettling as simple human banality.