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.

 

EROTICISM AS SOFT PORN HATE SEX (Segue of the Day: 11/28/17)

NOTE TO SELF; There. That oughta make me go viral….

Last Tango in Paris (1972)
D. Bernardo Bertolucci

The Executioner’s Song (1982)
D. Lawrence Schiller

NOTE TO READERS: Spoilers included.

After I finally caught up with Last Tango in Paris over the weekend–because what else would you watch when you’re existentially depressed?–I found myself wondering (as I often do with these “edgy” films of yesteryear) what all the fuss was about.

I thought I’d give Pauline Kael a try and her contemporary essay is worth reading, if only so you can have an idea of what such debates were like in Last Tango‘s day, a day when “eroticism” was still going to rescue the day in poor old American Life and Art.

Not surprisingly, her essay is mostly about Marlon Brando. Brando had made himself the point of every film he had ever made to date. Once or twice he stooped to interpret a character, but this wasn’t one of those times. No matter how hard the intelligentsia rooted for him, he could never quite get out of his own way. All of which means neither Pauline Kael nor anyone else was likely to explain what Brando himself failed to deliver, which is any reason a young woman as lovely, charismatic and, yes, erotic, as Maria Schneider, about to be engaged herself (to a dweeb, which might have been it’s own explanation if it was say, Paul Newman’s or Alain Delon’s bones she wanted to jump if he just happened along, or if the most erotic scene in the movie weren’t her and the dweeb’s “Oui/No” argument over who is proposing to who), would stoop to anonymous hate sex with anybody as creepy and dessicated as Brando’s “Paul.”

Kael took the position that Brando’s, and, perhaps, “Paul’s” as well, was a tragic character, a sensitive Americano, led on to his doom by a Euro-trash Cookie. We’re supposed to be really sad when she shoots him.

I thought she was about a day late. I was rooting for her to off him right after he anally raped her (in the film’s most famous scene and one which Schneider was not prepared for by either Bertolucci or Brando). Evidently, they didn’t think enough of her acting skills and figured they could only get what they wanted by “surprising” her with a little improv.

They might have been wrong about that, because Schneider’s lovely, lethal and unaffected performance is the only thing time hasn’t burned away in a film that promises to drown you in Art from the first frame.

Why all this put me in a mood to finally re-watch The Executioner’s Song, which I hadn’t seen since the eighties–and certainly hadn’t forgotten–I don’t know. But perhaps Schneider’s presence/performance (and reading about her subsequent reluctance to take her clothes off for the camera) was bound to call up Rosanna Arquette some way or other.

Arquette expressed a similar reluctance to shuck her clothes after her experience with The Executioner’s Song, and she was able to at least cut back on–though not eliminate–the fantasy nude scenes until her real-life encounters with Harvey Weinstein reduced her to taking anything she could get to keep working (whilst being given all kinds of grief from Kael’s natural inheritors–Greil Marcus, Charles Taylor, et al, for tanking her own career). One can respect her choices, but it’s easy to see why male directors became a little disoriented.

Arquette’s Nicole Baker–the real life girlfriend of murderer Gary Gilmore (played in a  very Brando-esque turn by Tommy Lee Jones, who, to be fair, was at least channeling a real-life narcissistic sociopath and was operating with a script that managed to flatten actors as gifted as Eli Wallach and Christine Lahti)–is never so alive as when she’s either got her clothes off (“You and seven other motherfuckers!”) or is trying to scheme her way out of them.

She’s still trying when the only place she and Jones/Gilmore can get it on is the conjugal visit room next to Death Row in the State Pen, where she must have known it was likely to end up all along, even when she, Arquette/Baker, was pulling guns on Jones/Gilmore and withholding herself, maybe, just maybe, with thoughts of driving him to murder.

It’s a lived-in performance and should have had more screen time. It’s also a short, but significant, evolution beyond Maria Schneider in Tango: Yeah, I might have shot him, just like that chick in Last Tango, but he was bound for the firing squad anyway so why bother? Especially when we could get in on right there in the Big House while his lawyers were exhausting his appeals and it won’t even matter if they won’t let me take my clothes off in there. Might even work a double suicide attempt–in which neither of us will quite manage to die–while we’re at it.

One wonders if Nicole Baker had seen Last Tango.

Hard to believe Rosanna Arquette–along with everybody else involved with The Executioner’s Song–hadn’t.

In which case it doesn’t matter what Baker knew. Once Rosanna Arquette got hold of it, with Maria Schneider’s ghost at her back, it wasn’t Nicole Baker’s story anymore anyway.

It wasn’t even Gary Gilmore’s.

But, to Baker’s credit, even Rosanna Arquette never had a better one.

Story, I mean….