GOLDEN AGE WESTERNS–THE CANON (A Handy Ten, Times Two)

There is no way to limit Hollywood’s Golden Age westerns to a mere ten, or, as you’ll see, twenty, without seeming silly. You can do it with every other genre, even war films, even noir. The western is deeper at the high end, low end and every level in between, so I won’t be stopping here. A similar list of movies that aren’t as well known, will follow at some point.

But what with civilization crumbling faster every day, this seems like a good time to ruminate on the 1939-1962 period that defined what we thought of ourselves then and what troubles us now, as the thrashing about that was bound to follow the breakup of the Frozen Silence (1980-2016) proceeds apace and the past threatens to repeat its well-established pattern of eternal return to the anti-utopian verities. It won’t be long now before any discarded lessons contained herein will become valuable again.

Stagecoach (1939)
D. John Ford

There were other good westerns made in the late 30s, but John Ford’s return to the form–his first since his great silent Three Bad Men in 1926–is rightly regarded as lifting the game for his favorite genre. It wasn’t the first or last time he managed the trick, but it may have been the most influential. Rightly so. It made the western’s definitive star, John Wayne, solid box office, won Thomas Mitchell a well-deserved Oscar, and set Claire Trevor on a path to winning one later, some year when Vivien Leigh wasn’t making Gone With the Wind. They headed a deep, faultless cast, and the story, a series of intertwined character studies, grows like a fresh flower from the oldest dirt in the hills (or anyway Guy de Maupassant by way of Ernest Haycox).

After this, perhaps Ford’s most purely exciting and entertaining film, with action informing character, and character action, at lightning speed, the cliches that had propped up thousands of dime novels, silents, and serials for half a century were at last so well-defined the western–and the western alone–could go anywhere.

Destry Rides Again (1939)
D. George Marshall

And one of the first places it went, in the very same year, was a wiseacre spoof of itself. It’s prevented from stooping to parody by being a full-blooded western first, with a strong, well-developed, town-taming story that was pure Hollywood, owing little more than its title to Max Brand’s fine source novel. Highlights: Marlene Dietrich’s loose, unmannered performance, proof she should have done more westerns; Samuel S. Hinds’ tobacco-chawing judge, dispensing Boss Brian Donlevy’s mayhem with a firm, laconic hand; Mischa Auer’s seriously whipped “deputy”; and, the big screen’s greatest catfight, courtesy of Dietrich, the priceless Una Merkel, and “eight gallons of water.” Jimmy Stewart? Well, that’s a given, but it’s high even on his endless list of indelible performances.

The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)
D, William Wellman

Wellman made better westerns (my later list will feature at least a couple of them), but none quite so iconic. Matching Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s superb source novel scene-for-scene, it’s not an easy watch. Henry Fonda and Harry Morgan (neither ever better) are a couple of cowhands caught up in a lynch mob. Jane Darwell, two years after her salt-of-the-earth Oscar turn in The Grapes of Wrath, plays the Spirit of the Mob, a kind of Rocky Mountain Madame LeFarge, with such conviction you might never see her the same way again. Here and there it’s a touch heavy-handed, but given the subject matter, that’s almost unavoidable and easy to bear. Certainly easier than the final scenes which put a noose around the neck of anyone who has studied enough history to know how often man’s gift for folly, from which God has not made him exempt, is the real source of horror in the universe.

My Darling Clementine (1946)
D. John Ford

Returning after a seven-year break, Ford remakes the Western again and sets the stage for everything it would become. Henry Fonda and Victor Mature play a Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday who are sufficiently removed from history that Ford asked studio head Darryl Zanuck for permission to change the names. Zanuck had a studio to run. No way was he going to give up those names. Ford, typically, doubled-down and vouchsafed the historical accuracy of the obligatory gunfight, claiming Earp had told him all about it in their silent-era bull sessions. But Ford the tall tale-spinner never got in the way of Ford the Artist. Ford the Artist knew the real story was about the epic Loneliness of the Gunfighter and how thin the line between lawman and outlaw was in a lawless land. In other words, the tall tales were what mattered, not the tawdry facts, which would have held nobody’s interest for more than thirty seconds. A century-and-a-half later, the Earp story is still being told and retold. No one has come close to giving it the significance it acquired here, as a cautionary fable.

Canyon Passage (1946)
D. Jacques Tourneur

This isn’t a town-tamer epic so much as a town-being-born Narrative, with all the nuances and complexities that implies. Susan Hayward was on her way up, and you can already see why she will make it to the top. Playing friends who are growing apart and beginning to compete for the same woman, Dana Andrews and Brian Donlevy are at their respective peaks as are the arts of cinematography (courtesy of Edward Kronjager) and Technicolor. Not even Ford’s westerns ever looked more spectacular. Ward Bond shows yet again why he was Hollywood’s supreme character actor, this time portraying a terrifying, animalistic thug who would have been at home in Deadwood…or Deadwood. As usual, the second romantic subplot is a little weak, but not fatally so–once Susan Hayward’s on the screen, it’s not likely the hero will end up with anyone else. As with Stagecoach, the story is from Ernest Haycox, another fine western writer who has been neglected by our urgent need to forget. The fate of Andy Devine’s family is all the more devastating for being handled with gravitas but no fuss. Not as famous as most of the films here, but like all the rest, it grows with time and distance.

Red River (1946–Released 1948)
D. Howard Hawks

Proof that Howard Hawks could conjure an “all is now right with the world” ending out of any scenario. But don’t let that deter you. According to Joanne Dru, Hawks needed editing advice from Ford. That seems to have been the principal reason for the film’s release being delayed for two years. We have Hawks’ own word–every bit as reliable as Ford’s–that this is where Ford saw Wayne’s performance and said, “I never knew the big sunnava-bitch could act!” The discovery would alter the course of the western for decades to come. As for Red River itself, it has more than enough going for it to justify its place in the pantheon: It made Montgomery Clift’s reputation, there’s stellar work from Dru, John Ireland, Walter Brennan and a host of sidekicks. The story, about the first trail-drive from Texas to Kansas after the Civil War, is epic and intimate in equal measure. And, yes, as only the very stupid or the very misinformed would doubt going forward, the big sunnava-bitch could act.

THE CAVALRY TRILOGY (1948–1950)
D. John Ford

Fort Apache (1948)

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)

RIo Grande (1950)

John Ford’s three late-40s cavalry films have been considered a loose, informal trilogy almost since they were made. Themes certainly unite them, as does a keen eye for the details of cavalry life as men and women actually lived it in the post-Civil War generation during the conquest of what became the American Southwest. I’m treating them as one entry because there’s nothing else here I could leave off in good conscience–and certainly, none of these three could be left off!

What’s interesting narratively, is that each story stands alone at least as well as the three hang together. Ford viewed cavalry life as a continuum in three distinct modes, first as Tragedy (Fort Apache) then as a Comedy of Manners (She Wore a Yellow Ribbon) and finally as Elegy (Rio Grande). Anyone who thinks Ford glossed the men in “dirty shirt blue” should give his subsequent takes on the subject a gander (Sergeant Rutledge, Two Rode Together, even The Searchers) for a stark, sometimes corrosive contrast.

Most of Ford’s stock company features throughout this cycle of Tragedy-Comedy-Elegy, keeping things lively in one, two or all three pictures. Beyond that, look for a teenage Shirley Temple, luminous in Fort Apache, John Wayne at his most moving and eloquent in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Maureen O’Hara’s twirling parasol in Rio Grande (If Ford had given it to Phil Sheridan it would have been yet another historical touch he was accused of manufacturing). Those and a thousand other things. (Stanley Crouch, lifetime Crit-Illuminati member paid in full, once described Shirley Temple in Fort Apache as “somewhat monstrous.” Has any actress ever done a more valuable service than making Stanley Crouch look under the bed?)

And keep going back to them. There’s always more to learn.

Where they rode, that place became the United States of America.

Colorado Territory (1949)
D. Raoul Walsh

Perhaps the greatest western heist flick. It’s a train robbery this time (as opposed to a bank or stage), and a redemption story to boot. Walsh remade his own High Sierra, setting the modern gangster story that had made Humphrey Bogart a star back three-quarters of a century and mining even more gold from it. Joel McCrea didn’t know how to give a bad performance but this time, as “nothing but a big Kansas Jay,” he had a script that allowed him to be far better than good. Same for Virginia Mayo as a girl who’s been run out of all the best saloons in the territory and proves more honorable than either the thieves McCrea’s character has fallen back in with or the good girl (Dorothy Malone, always a welcome sight even in a stodgy role) he has fallen for. A strong story, a sterling character study of a man trying to escape his past, and nobody, but nobody, ever said Raoul Walsh was anything less than an action master of the highest order. The climax stings, no matter how often I watch it.

The Gunfighter (1950)
D. Henry King

The pinnacle of the gunfighter-tries-to-lay-down-his-guns narratives. Gregory Peck proved one of many western leading men who were more convincing playing an older man than a younger one. He’s not grizzled exactly, but there’s an old soul watching every single thing from behind those eyes. This is one where the bullets hit the bone. You can feel the weight of the lives, and souls, at stake, including eternal sidekick Millard Mitchell in the role of a well-spent lifetime. Peck’s aging gunfighter keeps looking for answers and the film doesn’t let you believe he’ll find them–but it lets you believe he believes.

Leads to killing in the end. One of those films where you know where it’s going but you can’t stop watching just the same.

WInchester ’73 (1950)
D. Anthony Mann

Outside of John Ford’s very best, perhaps the greatest and most influential western of the era. It remade Jimmy Stewart’s career, allowing him to keep all the associations of his past everyman roles while he re-invented himself as a western hero who, while still on the side of the angels, serves them with a touch of warrior madness in his soul. It also vaulted Anthony Mann, who had already made several fine noirs and historicals, to the top shelf of Hollywood directors, where he was to remain for more than a decade. It’s great enough that, except for Rock Hudson, who didn’t make a very convincing Indian, everyone associated with it would be remembered even if they had never done anything else.

Just on a side note, it was seeing Winchester ’73 on a big screen (after a dozen viewings on video), that made me realize no great film can be appreciated on a television set. When the bullets hit the rocks in the famous final shootout between Stewart and Stephen McNally, I felt like the shards were knicking my cheek.

High Noon (1952)
D. Fred Zinnemann

Of the many good things that can be said for High Noon, the best thing is that it troubles hidebound souls straight across the political divide. No ideology you bring to it can survive its scrutiny, which is why so many feign boredom or derision or simply run out of the room to keep from confronting it. Its primal power has rarely been matched even in this most primal of genres.

The constant repetition of the theme song, the ticking of the endless  array of clocks, Gary Cooper’s stone face, all work to set the audience on edge (or drive them batty), as the plot keeps us invested in that most nerve-wracking of existential questions: What happens under the pressure of time that doesn’t happen any other way?

It’s the question that drove Howard Hawks, John Wayne, Louis L’Amour and other giants of the genre to distraction when they came to assess the film as Realism. That is, they, and others felt compelled to demand strictures from High Noon they rarely paid the least attention elsewhere, including much of their own best work.

I love it myself, for all those reasons and more. But it really doesn’t matter. Like the next film here (which seems to elicit similar discomfort from the tepid and the passionate alike), it needs to be confronted. Be careful, though. Like the next film on the list, If you pay too much attention it might start to work you over. You might start finding a lot of elements, like Katy Jurado’s face, that won’t let you run and hide.

Priceless exchange overheard in the men’s room by the director following the not-very-promising debut of his only western: “What does an Austrian Jew know about making a western anyway?”

Shane (1953)
D. George Stevens

Jack Shaefer’s source novel has a gem-like purity. George Stevens, with memories of Dachau still playing in his head, both toughened and expanded it without losing the story’s central iconic force. Among the more famous exchanges, including the last one between Alan Ladd’s Shane and Jack Palance’s Jack Wilson so oft-quoted elsewhere, I like this one best:

Shane: What’s your offer, Ryker?
Rufus Ryker: To you, not a thing!
Shane: That’s too bad.
Ryker: Too bad?
Shane: Yeah, you’ve lived too long. Your kind of days are over.
Ryker: My days! What about yours, gunfighter?
Shane: The difference is I know it.

The tragedy is that Ryker’s “kind of days” are never over.

Except in the valley Shane rides out of, slumped in his saddle, the dreamland where he has obliterated himself and there is no more need for his guns…or any guns at all.

The man who filmed the ashes and bones at Dachau, another man who made only one western, must have wished it could be so–and must have known it could never be.

The Man From Laramie (1955)
D. Anthony Mann

Anthony Man and Jimmy Stewart again. Each of the five westerns they made together is a masterpiece and ranking them by quality is a fool’s errand. But, after Winchester ’73, this is the one that seems to carry the most canonical weight. Stewart ratchets up his a-man-against-himself-is-a-man-against-the-world persona to Shakespearean proportions. The story and cast (exceptional: Donald Crisp, Arthur Kennedy, Aline MacMahon, Alex Nicol and the great Cathy O’Donnell who makes even the obligatory ingenue role sing) are up to the task. It’s a stranger-in-town saga (Stewart, with a secret and a purpose of course), crossed with a family drama of an aging cattle king (Crisp) reaching the time of life when he must choose between the son he has (Nicol) and the son he wishes he had (Kennedy).

Anyway, he thinks Kennedy is the son he wishes he had.

Like I said, Shakesperean. At least.

The Searchers (1956)
D. John Ford

The apex, a narrative so densely layered it can no more be plumbed than Hamlet or the Illiad or War and Peace. It’s also a hellishly entertaining Saturday Matinee western. John Wayne’s performance was one of the handful that makes awards irrelevant. The greatest American director’s greatest film. If Ford had made noirs or musicals or horror films, one of those would be the defining American genre.

He made westerns.

7 Men From Now (1956)
D. Budd Boetticher

The first of the Ranown western cycle made by Boetticher, producer Harry Joe Brown, writer Burt Kennedy, and star Randolph Scott. They are all endlessly rewatchable. At least four, including this one, Comanche Station, The Tall T, and Ride Lonesome, are masterpieces. People debate endlessly about which is best but the four are on a level where rankings are silly. I’m choosing this one because it’s first, it has an astounding performance by Gail Russell which has grown with time (and which, according to the great critic Blake Lucas, who had a good bit to do with restoring 7 Men From Now, Boetticher’s favorite of his western leading ladies, all of whom were excellent), and it’s Lee Marvin’s definitive bad guy turn.

If there had been Oscar justice, Marvin would have won for his supporting role in the same year John Wayne won for his lead in The Searchers.

Oscar ain’t about justice.

3:10 to Yuma (1958)
D. Delmer Daves

A morality/mystery/miracle play all in one, which I wrote about at length here.

I said most of what I had to say there, so I won’t pontificate. This about sums it up:

However, he got there, Daves must have recognized that 3:10 to Yuma was a chance to merge the presumably old-fashioned prestige genre with the just-about-to-be-cool one (noir) he had helped pioneer in a way that was rare, if not unique.

I say “must have” because films that are better on the eighteenth viewing than on the first don’t happen by accident.

It’s a lot more than eighteen now. And it’s better still. Glenn Ford and Van Heflin, each at their very best, give one of the top ten “dual-performances” in any Hollywood film and I doubt I need to restrict that to Hollywood.

The film’s prestige has grown sufficiently to have a Criterion release in recent years. Any list of a hundred American films that fails to include it doesn’t have my serious attention.

Avoid the pointless remake.

Rio Bravo (1959)
D. Howard Hawks

The story has been told, again and again, that Howard Hawks and John Wayne were disgusted by films like High Noon and 3:10 to Yuma, where professional lawmen seek help from amateurs. It was the seeking that disturbed them, not whether Gary Cooper failed to find a Van Heflin in his particular town. It’s our good fortune that by the time they actually made  Rio Bravo, their “answer” film, all that preaching was conveniently tabled and they just went out and made one of the all-time pure entertainments (one where it should be said Wayne’s John T. Chance is helped by amateurs whether he likes it or not–it’s okay, apparently, as long as he didn’t ask for it!). Everyone’s great, with special kudos to Angie Dickinson, Walter Brennan in what might be his defining comic role, and Claude Akins, playing that rarest of men–one with no redeeming virtues whatsoever.

The story doesn’t bear too much scrutiny measured against history or common sense. Just as a for-instance, drunks don’t dry out after a two-year bender and start shooting like Annie Oakley the next day, as Dean Martin’s Dude does here. But it works within its own miracle play assumptions and achieves its own kind of perfection.

The reason I know is that except for The Searchers, I’ve watched it more than any film here.

The Magnificent Seven (1960)
D. John Sturges

John Sturges made better westerns (more on that later)..but this is by far his most iconic and well worthy of the canon. It’s a remake of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. You can fall short of that standard and still be damn good. The Magnificent Seven falls a bit short of that standard–and is still damn good. (Sturges said no less than Kurosawa told him so.) The story has professionals putting their lives on the line for Mexican villagers who are plagued by a band of outlaws. No doubt Howard Hawks and John Wayne approved!

Truth be told, the village scenes drag a bit and Horst Bucholz, a good actor, was a bit miscast, not so much because he doesn’t seem Mexican as because he seems urban and modern, which might just be a way of saying too European (a problem that did not extend to Yul Brynner, who according to Bucholz, was the only cast member to extend him either courtesy or respect).

But Sturges was an action master and there’s a raft of career-making performances by Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Robert Vaughn. That plus the great presences of Brynner and Eli Wallach as the outlaws’ leader make this an easy watch.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
D. John Ford

The direction of the country since its release–beginning with John Kennedy’s assassination a year later–has lifted this into competition with The Searchers as John Ford’s greatest, most prescient work. It would be great in any case. There’s definitive work from James Stewart, John Wayne, Lee Marvin, Woody Strode, Edmond O’Brien. Vera Miles gave one of the finest performances in American film. It’s also one of the great language films, the source of “Well, Pilgrim,” “Print the legend,” “You don’t own me” and much more.

And it contains the greatest line in American fiction, and the greatest line reading in American film, spoken by Miles’ Hallie Stoddard near the end:

Look at it. It was a wilderness. Now it’s a garden. Aren’t you proud?

Well, aren’t we?

Ride the High Country (1962)
D. Sam Peckinpah

Well, aren’t we?

There is almost no way to reconcile this film with Bloody Sam’s later, more famous exercises in style. It’s laconic, elegaic, sure-footed, unhurried, character-oriented, without a single false note. Here, he seems all but fated to pick up John Ford’s torch and carry it forward.

Fate, as it often does, had other plans. Peckinpah’s most famous film, The Wild Bunch, made a mere seven years later, is a lynchpin of another age, one that sought to extinguish not only all assurances but the traditions upon which they were based.

His later approach met with considerable short term success.

Whoever replaces us will get to decide what that’s worth. I don’t short The Wild Bunch‘s considerable virtues and I understand its reputation even if I don’t agree with it.

But for me, this film is worth far more.

Joel McCrea’s aging sheriff would have heard Hallie Stoddard’s question and answered: “Hell yes, I’m proud!”

But whoever was listening might have noted–might still note–that he was dying.

[NOTE: As I mentioned above, I’ll be doing another list of less well-known westerns from the same era. Give or take The Searchers, I think I can come up with a list of twenty that are just as good as what’s here, if not as iconic. Heck, I already have, and it wasn’t even hard.]

Til then….

THE LAST TEN MOVIES I WATCHED….AND WHY I WATCHED THEM (December, 2018 Edition)

Nov. 25-Henry V (1944, d. Laurence Olivier, Third Viewing)

Because I like Olivier doing Shakespeare better than I like him doing anything else even if he doesn’t break the droning mold the Brits have carved out for Shakespeare’s impossibly alive language. Everything is read like a sacred text (Renee Asherson, allowed to speak mostly French, comes off loosest and best). But the play-within-a-play narrative is ingenious and Olivier the director gave Olivier the actor a great stage with his stirring reenactment of Agincourt. Except for John Sturges in Escape From Fort Bravo, no one has ever caught the terror and excitement of a fleet of deadly arrows better. I’d be surprised if Sturges, one of the very greatest action directors, didn’t learn a thing or two from this one.

Nov. 26-Three Days of the Condor (1975, d. Sydney Pollack, Umpteenth Viewing)

For the great cast and tick-tock plot, of course. But, these days, mostly because I don’t want those evil bastards in the shadows to think getting away with it is the same as me not knowing they are there. Here of late, I try to watch either this or Wag the Dog at least once a month.

Dec. 2-El Dorado (1966, d. Howard Hawks, Umpteenth Viewing)

Heck, who doesn’t want to spend two hours with these guys, even if it’s to mark Michele Carey’s passing? Especially the “badge with a drunk pinned on it.” You can tell which one he is if you look close enough. Robert Mitchum was interviewed on late night TV years later and told the story of how he came to be hired. “Howard” he said, “What’s the story?” “Oh, no story Bob, just character.” I watched this with my Dad once and, when ithe credits rolled, he said: “What the hell was that supposed to be about?” I mumbled something that didn’t mean much. I forgot Mitchum’s story. It would have been the perfect answer. No story, Dad….just character. I guess where he is now, they’ve explained it all. ‘Cause I know they’re watching El Dorado.

Dec. 3-Live a Little, Love a Little (1968, d. Norman Taurog, Third Viewing)

While I was in a Michele Carey mood, I thought I might as well keep it going. She’s highly entertaining and Elvis seems to realize he might be on to something. Also better than usual music, including “A Little Less Conversation” which had to wait several decades for its time to come around. Dated, like all Sixties-Elvis movies, but fun.

Dec. 3-Girl Happy (1965, d. Boris Sagal, Umpteenth Viewing)

Maybe because it was the first Elvis movie I saw (on a black and white television, in 1976, after the lights were out), I have fond memories of this one. It was also the only Elvis movie I ever saw without being at all aware of any connotations that might come with the term “Elvis movie.”  That might be why it has held up whenever I’ve watched it on a semi-regular basis ever since. Elvis might have had better leading ladies than Shelley Fabares or Mary Ann Mobley…but he never had a better double-team. And I stand by “Wolf Call,” “The Meanest Girl in Town” and the title track as seductive, Devil’s Island pop-and-roll, I don’t care what anybody says!

Dec. 3-A Walk on the Moon (1999, d. Tony Goldwyn, First Viewing)

Because it was recommended over at Greil Marcus’s mailbag a while back and Diane Lane is a pretty good bet anytime. Diane Lane and Woodstock seemed an irresistible combination and it pays off in a lovely look at the limits of traditional family life colliding with the emerging counterculture. The best scene in the movie barely involves the fine cast. It’s a shot of nude bathers wandering into the upstate New York mountain not-exactly-resort lake where nice, working class Jewish families go to get away from the city. The director doesn’t overplay his hand. There’s a confrontation, but no “big scene.” Lane’s face is shown in reaction as she stands on the near shore, swathed in  safety. No dialogue. Just a glimpse of her face that says I wish I was over there. The implications of taking that step are the whole movie. It’s not a classic, but it’s a good film, and a rare look at what a revolution in mores really costs.

Dec. 4-Me Without You (2001, d. Sandra Goldbacher, Second Viewing)

Because it was time to revisit the lacerating performances by Anna Friel and, especially, Michelle Williams, as they come of age in end-of-the-century Britain. Williams was such an unknown (to me at least) and overpowering presence when I first saw this shortly after its release to video, that I didn’t fully appreciate Friel’s equally great performance, though I was aware it must have been better than good to have simply kept up. From this distance, I could see some of the plot machinations working themselves out, but it didn’t really matter. Once the characters are fully integrated into their own lives–and each other’s–the question of whether and how they can possibly remain friends is as fraught with peril as any “real” lives could be. Knowing how it ended did not make it less destabilizing. It was Goldbacher’s third feature. She’s made only one since. If making them takes as much out of her as watching this one does out of me, I’m not surprised.

Dec. 4-The Day of the Jackal (1973, d. Fred Zinnemann, Umpteenth Viewing)

For Edward Fox’s chilly and chilling performance as an assassin on the trail of Charles DeGaulle. I finally got around to reading the book in the last year or two and it proved even better–the question of whether “The Jackal” is a sociopath is held much longer, almost to the very end. But the suspense here–built by Fred Zinnemann’s docu-drama style–is real. Watching this always reminds me how little any of us know about what’s really going on. And you know how that twists my guts.

Dec. 5-I Know Where I’m Going (1945, d. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, Third Viewing)

To watch Wendy Hillerman and Roger Livesey play out one of the screen’s most realistically prosaic–and, paradoxically, hopelessly romantic–love stories. We know they’re meant for each other almost from the moment they meet. But do they know? Even on repeated viewings it’s not a settled question, perhaps because the evocation of the wild Scottish north country permits nothing to be taken for granted. Among the finest films in the English language, even if a fair bit of it is spoken in Gaelic.

Dec. 6-The Man From the Alamo (1953, d. Budd Boetticher, Fourth Viewing)

For another of Glenn Ford’s terse, un-heroic western heroes. Years before his collaborations with screenwriter Burt Kennedy and star Randolph Scott, Budd Beotticher proves he can get along without them (even if Kennedy is missed–there’s way too much exposition at the beginning). This one also shows he was a master of big action scenes before they gave way to the intimate, almost unbearably tense gunfights that were a staple of the films that later made his reputation. The story–of a man who leaves the Alamo in order to save his family, only to be branded a coward–is a good one and the climax is nearly as exciting as the best of John Ford or Anthony Mann. A good one to close the cycle on after subjecting myself to a more-than-usual amount of modern angst!

…Til next time!

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 to 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, no-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.

 

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 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)

SCARAMOUCHE

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)

Original Cinema Quad Poster - Movie Film Posters

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 (Burt Kennedy and James Garner Look at the Future Looking at the Past….Or Something Like That)

Support Your Local Sheriff (1969) (Burt Kennedy, director; starring James Garner, Joan Hackett, Bruce Dern, Walter Brennan and a cast sent from God.)

I mean, except for a nice Christmas and all, it’s been a dreary, slogging couple of weeks. So, with depression hovering, I did what I oft-times do and fired up a couple of westerns.

First up, was The Tin Star, Anthony Mann’s superbly balanced town-tamer from 1957, with Henry Fonda’s old school flint sparking Anthony Perkins’ whet-stone Methodology. This was my umpteenth visit and it never gets old.

Then, just by coincidence, my eyes roamed the shelves and alighted on this:

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Now, if anything, I’ve seen this even more often than The Tin Star…but I don’t think it ever made me laugh until I stopped breathing before (believe me, I’d remember, because not much ever does).

It may have just been the burden of the times being lifted for a few moments, but I suspect another element was the proximity (in my personal viewing lexicon) to this.

I mean, Support Your Local Sheriff is a specific kind of spoof–not only of westerns but of the “town-tamer” tropes in particular (there are plenty of direct references to Rio Bravo, My Darling Clementine and High Noon, among many others).

But, take all the elements…a reluctant sheriff:

SUPPORT5a wide open town…

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with muddy streets and, er, “construction issues”

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touchy moral dilemmas…

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shady back room deals…

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a winsome, “complicated” heroine…

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a bemused sidekick…

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villains who embody consummate evil…

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spine-tingling showdowns…

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further moral dilemmas…

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and a sort of happy ending…

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..and what have you got, but Deadwood with all the “realistic” dreariness supplanted by gut-busting laughter and touching human drama!

Not to mention a tight script, a dream cast (every one of whom would have served the “seriousness” of the later project better than their modern stand-ins) and a fine sense of the absurd.

A spot-on parody of the past is one thing.

But parodying the future forty years before it gets around to “revising” that same past?

That’s genius.