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.

 

FAVORITE FILMS….FOR EACH YEAR OF MY LIFE…BY DECADE…CUE THE OUGHTS

As I feared, slim pickings (which get worse in the teens). These fillms are fine, but except for 2001 and 2006, none of these would have been real contenders eve in the nineties, which was much weaker than the three decades preceding.

I don’t think this Decline of Civilization thing is all in my head. If I ever start to doubt myself, I’ll just go back and read the long lists of titles of the films released since 2000. It’s not conducive to any pretty pictures, either on-screen or in my head.

But I’m soldiering on as there are still some worthwhile films and we must do what we must do…Civilization won’t be resuscitated by failing to finish what we start!

2000 Nurse Betty (Neil LaBute) (over Proof of Life…speaking of fallen civilizations, don’t watch this movie unless you’re prepared to witness a completely gratuitous and hyper-realistic scalping scene…the compensation is stellar work from Renee Zellweger and Morgan Freeman plus Chris Rock justifying his fame)

2001 Me Without You (Sandra Goldbacher) (nothing close…and no shame on the year, which can’t be said for some other years in this decade)

2002 Ripley’s Game (Liliana Cavani) (over The Good Girl…not quite as good as The Talented Mr. Ripley from the previous decade, but further proof that Miss Highsmith’s terrifying age as arrived and a career defining role for John Malkovich even if he’s about as far from the Ripley Highsmith imagined as it’s possible to get without bringing spacemen into it.)

2003 Finding Nemo (Andrew Stanton) (fun movie, but you know things are going south when something like this stands alone)

2004 The Incredibles (Brad Bird) (and ditto)

2005 Walk the Line (James Mangold) (over Proof…and I’ll say this much, it’s been an excellent century for musical biopics and small blonde actresses)

2006 Infamous (Douglas McGrath) (over The Break-Up…an unlikely step up from the previous year’s more celebrated and excellent-in-its-own-right Capote…with Toby Jones narrowly besting Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Truman Capote and Sandra Bullock, earning the Oscar they later gave for some hokey nonsense or other, ever-so-quietly laying Catherine Keener’s Harper Lee in the shade)

2007 The Brave One (Neil Jordan) (over Zodiac and Michael Clayton, which isn’t saying much)

2008 Appaloosa (Ed Harris) (over Iron Man and The Dark Knight, which might be saying even less…good western which, in the fifties, would have been one of a thousand)

2009  My One and Only (Richard Loncraine) (fun road trip movie, loosely based on George Hamilton’s childhood, with a rare turn by Renee Zellweger–who also lit up Appaloosa–as a style of southern belle who has rarely been portrayed as accurately or sensitively….over The Hurt Locker and Up…if Up had been released as a short, consisting of its first fifteen minutes, it would have quadrupled the national suicide rate and been the film of the new millennium…which still wouldn’t have deserved it)

BATTLE OF THE BANDS….ER, MAKE THAT “BATTLE OF THE BIG-HAIRED SEVENTIES’ ERA POP STARS, AT LEAST ONE OF WHICH HAD A SUSPICIOUSLY FLIMSY RELATIONSHIP TO THE PLANET EARTH !” (Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose End #74)

Steven Rubio has a post today on pop songs that become indelibly linked with a movie scene (you can find Renee Zellwegger’s fabulous lip sync of a cover version of Eric Carmen’s “All By Myself” at the beginning of Bridget Jones’s Diary if you follow the link).

Great as Renee is, I can’t ever quite link “All By Myself” to anything but the summer of 1977 when, right in the middle of two summer weeks at my brother’s house that were otherwise among the happiest days of my life, I played my newly acquired 45 of Carmen’s record on the stereo nobody used except when I was visiting. (To tell the truth, I had bought the 45 for “Never Gonna Fall In Love Again,” which was on the flip-side of one of those Golden Oldie two-fers. The two “oldies” had, respectively, entered the charts all of eighteen and fourteen months previously. As I’ve mentioned before, Pop Time moved much, much faster then.)

It was the middle of the afternoon and I was all alone in the house (a big two-story job in what came to be called the “Research Triangle” in North Carolina–my brother and his wife still live there). I had a connection to “All By Myself” that day, the first time I ever dropped a needle on it, that I never had with it, or any other record, before that day, and, thankfully, never had again.

I say thankfully, because, while nothing happens in a vacuum, hearing the record, and, at sixteen, relating to it a little too closely, tipped me over into a series of bouts of depression that kept me on the thin edge of suicide until seven years later, when, under another very particular set of circumstances which I’ll probably write about some day, hearing the Go-Go’s’ “Beneath the Blue Sky” drove the dark clouds away mysteriously, instantaneously and for good.

What I mean to say is, even with three decades of rationality and restored sanity to serve as a defensive barrier, I can never really hear “All By Myself” casually, not even when Renee Zellweger is lip-syncing a cover version.

So, having a little time on my hands this afternoon, I went off on a slight tangent, which involved a realization that I could finally access Carmen’s original version of my favorite composition of his, which I knew only through Shaun Cassidy’s version, through this eternally wonderful and surprising new device called YouTube!

Funny enough, Shaun Cassidy records written by Eric Carmen (the other big one was the equally luminous “Hey Deanie”) more than occasionally helped me keep my equilibrium through the exceptionally dark days of 1978 and ’79. I don’t know if that qualifies as Irony. Suffice it to say I could never be ashamed of my taste in those days. It would be the same as being ashamed of surviving.

So, in more or less ascending order, (not necessarily the order in which I found them)….

Thanks Eric.

I think.

And I’m really glad this didn’t lead me all the way into an exposition of my theory of beautiful aliens surely passing among us based on my understanding of the way Shaun Cassidy and Debbie Harry did or did not pronounce the word “guitar” on various of their recordings.

That could have been stressful.

I mean, who knows if those creatures are still friendly?

(PUBLIC WARNING: If you follow the above links, please beware of the addictive nature of the Raspberries and Badfinger videos that continually pop up on the right of your screen. Should you choose to access these videos, this blog cannot be held legally or morally responsible for what happens to the rest of your day!)