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….

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.

 

THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC (Foreign Films: First Journey)

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
D. Carl Th. Dreyer

(I had no existing category for this, so I’m creating a new one for Foreign Films….Hoping it will be an excuse to watch more of them!)

The Passion of Joan of Arc is a cinematic masterpiece with a hole in its head.

Its Danish director, Carl Th. Dreyer, is rightly hailed as a titan of form. His ability to create and sustain mood, especially through striking images (true cinema then) hasn’t been surpassed. This is the only film of his I’ve seen (there’s a box set sitting around that will allow me to correct that now that I’ve finally rewatched this one), but it’s enough to sustain a legacy. Likewise, Renee Falconetti’s performance in the lead role–mostly a series of agonizing closeups–deserves its legend.

Not, as it happens, as a portrait of Joan of Arc.

That doesn’t seem to be what Dreyer was after. What, exactly, he was after, is a bit vague, but my brief research confirms a suspicion: He prized technique as a means to an end, and the end was emotional resonance above all.

Including every other kind of sense.

On the surface, this Joan is as close to “realistic” as it’s possible to get in a drama. The sets and costumes effectively transport the viewer through time and space. Much of the script is taken directly from transcripts of her trial for heresy, for which she was ultimately condemned to be burned at the stake. The pedantry of the bureaucracy which judged her will be familiar to anyone who has ever taken on a government agency. And Dreyer’s technique serves the ends pursued–he portrays Joan as a hapless victim, a simple farm girl caught in a web of what we now call Kafkaesque evil from which there is no escape. In its single-minded pursuit of an emotional state–or, better yet, a state defined by one overriding emotion, fear–The Passion of Joan of Arc is never likely to be surpassed.

One wonders, though, just how lightly we can cast aside a historical figure’s essence and still acknowledge why we are interested in the first place?

I’m hardly one to cast aspersions on taking liberties with “facts” (which, in any case Passion does not do). I’d never recommend anyone take Hollywood’s views of Abraham Lincoln or Wyatt Earp (to name two subjects for John Ford, my favorite filmmaker), as historical gospel. But I never reach the end of Young Mr. Lincoln or My Darling Clementine with the feeling their subjects’ fundamental characters have been cast aside along with the usual historical details. The Lincoln who walks up the hill at the end of Young Mr. Lincoln (the film Sergei Eisenstein listed as the one he wished he had made, other than his own), is a man who has earned a march toward history. The Wyatt Earp who rides away at the end of Clementine, is a man who fully represents the fundamental social and spiritual isolation of the gunfighter.

The Joan of Arc who burns at the end of Passion (with Dreyer’s style and Falconetti’s performance allowing the viewer to burn with her–no small feat) is what she is in the first frame–a scared rabbit.

In this sense, focusing entirely on the trial seems to have been for the purpose of dramatic unity. It’s not a coda on great achievement, as Lincoln’s assassination–ritualized with unusual accuracy throughout Hollywood history, from The Birth of a Nation on down–invariably is, even in films that aren’t about Lincoln. It’s not a meeting with destiny. It’s a story unto itself.

If you entered it with no idea who Joan of Arc was, it would leave you baffled as to why anyone cared enough about her to burn her alive, let alone fight over her legacy.

Since when are epic heresy trials–designed to ensnare scared rabbits–the stuff of legend?

Well, since they involve Joan of Arc. That’s when.

So perhaps a little history is in order.

Jeanne d’Arc was born a French peasant in 1412, the darkest days of the Hundred Years War (which. to that point, had resulted in the English occupying much of France). She was given what amounted to a military commission in the French army in 1429, when she was seventeen. Sent to the besieged city of Orleans, she led (or inspired, or lucked into, depending on who’s telling the tale) a remarkable military turnaround which reversed the fortunes of a French aristocracy decimated at Agincourt in 1415. That reversal saw the French Dauphin, who had commissioned her, crowned king (her own prophecy) and, within a generation, the English driven from French soil for good. The latter might have happened earlier had she not been captured by her enemies in 1430 (perhaps with the collusion of her “friends”), put on trial for heresy, and burned at the stake in 1431.

It was a heady history for a girl who did not live to see her twentieth birthday.

That she was exceptionally brave and charismatic, and believed herself ordained by God to defeat the English enemy, is undisputed. That she was a military genius is not out of the question. That she, an illiterate peasant, defended herself at her trial with a deftness which often baffled her learned inquisitors (and has presented a conundrum for skeptical historians ever since), is counted as no less remarkable than her miraculous ascension.

One thing no reading of history or legend can reasonably suggest, let alone take for granted, is that she was a scared rabbit, able to function only sporadically, and then in the throes of religious fanaticism.

Yet this is the very thing The Passion of Joan of Arc asks us to accept. On one hand, it is as skeptical of her faith as the worst of her interrogators. On the other, it grants her no exceptionalism except her faith–leaves her reduced to the abject helplessness written in Falconetti’s face from the first frames….

Before consigning her to smoke and ash…

Just as her persecutors intended…

They cheated. And, by leaving the viewer no reason to admire Joan on specific grounds rooted in what we know of her character–including her devotion above all--Passion does too. Joan’s tragedy–great enough to engender comparisons to Christ, the only martyr more famous because the only one more remarkable–sears us not because it should never have befallen her, but because it should never happen to any poor soul.

Which means The Passion of Joan of Arc–for all its bold style and masterful techniquemight just as well have been about anyone who suffered a similar fate.

I wonder, as Dreyer must have, whether Marie Antoinette, who had her head chopped off for pretty specific reasons, too, would have sold more tickets….

Or gifted a century’s worth of crit-illuminati with a similar excuse to wink, nod and genuflect.

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.

 

WHAT WE SHOULD EXPECT FROM CRITICS (Seventh Maxim)

A quote–on Howard Hawks, as it happens, the irrelevance of which is parsed below:

A filmmaker of such varied skills also affected the outcome of a game played by my friends and me while waiting for our Film 101 course to start. We’d ask: “What was the best private eye movie ever made?” and “What was the best gangster film?” And so on till we had covered every genre from westerns to science fiction to screwball comedy. Then we’d vote and total up the score. The final list usually included these titles:

Best gangster film: “The Godfather,” “The Godfather II,” “Scarface” (the original).

Best private eye film: “The Maltese Falcon,” “The Big Sleep.”

Best western: “Red River,” “My Darling Clementine,” “Rio Bravo.”

Best screwball comedy: “Bringing Up Baby,” “The Lady Eve.”

Best comedy: “Duck Soup,” “His Girl Friday,” “A Night at the Opera.”

Best science fiction: “The Thing” (the original). (We could never decide if “2001” qualified.)

Six categories, 13 titles; six of the films belong to Hawks, who also directed our list’s fourth-best Hollywood musical, “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.”

(Source: Allen Barra, “Deep Shallow Enigma” Los Angeles Times, July 13, 1997)

Now, this is nothing to do with Howard Hawks* or movies generally because I’d say the same about any list a bunch of college kids came up with regarding pretty much any subject.

But, please, critics everywhere–including those who don’t share pure delusions like “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” being the “fourth-best Hollywood musical,”** or Barra’s “six categories” covering “every genre,”***–do remember this, the Seventh Maxim:

“What happens in college should stay in college.”

*(Another silly game people like to play is the “What movie can you sit down and watch any time?” Mine is El Dorado. Like I say, this isn’t about Howard Hawks.)

**(Though I do love it and actually prefer it to “Singin’ In the Rain,” which is regarded as the best by general consensus. But fourth best?….Uh, no.)

***(Barra’s categories are pretty much the ones regarded as important by collegiate sensibilities. Especially male collegiate sensibilities which tend to automatically reduce everything to the level of sports statistics. As someone who used to be trotted out in the pre-internet age if somebody wanted, say, to know who won the World Series in 1912 or the American League batting title in 1926, believe me, I know. Among the categories Barra and his friends left out: Horror, Women’s Pictures, Swashbucklers, Social Melodramas, Epics (Biblical and otherwise), Thrillers, Noir and War Movies. Not to mention that, as with other art forms, really great movies tend to defy genre anyway. Which is doubtless why, for instance, that most transcendent of all collegiate movies Citizen Kane is conveniently missing.)

 

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (Bobby Fuller on the Sunset Strip and John Ford at the OK Corral)

The Bobby Fuller Four–Celebrity Night at PJ’s (Recorded–1965, Initial Release Cancelled–1966, Officially Released–1997)

(Listening close for the first time in years. My original copy, included in the awe-inspiring 1997 box set The Bobby Fuller Four: Never To Be Forgotten, got away in the great CD sell-off of 2002 and was recently reacquired when the collector’s price that soared into the stratosphere during my period of indigence finally dropped back to earth. So….)

This is possibly the strangest recording ever made.

PJ’s was a Sunset Strip night club that had begun as a cool jazz venue in the early sixties and, as the decade progressed, transformed itself (at least part of the time) into a swingin’ dance club where the younger Hollywood set could go to Twist and Watusi (the sleeve for the album has photos of Fuller posed with Sally Field and Ann-Margret, not Twisting or Watusi-ing alas, but merely smiling professional smiles).

Bobby Fuller’s band had made their way to Los Angeles in the mid-sixties after slogging it out for years on the era’s West Texas equivalent of an indie circuit.

By dint of having become perhaps the best straight ahead rock and roll band in America (and it was an extremely competitive time!), they had fought their way to the top of the L.A. pack, releasing several singles that caught on in the local market and one (“Let Her Dance”) that nearly broke nationally, plus becoming a sort of quasi-house band at PJ’s itself, by then a top-of-the-line gig (the actual house band at the time was the Standells of “Dirty Water” fame, no mean straight ahead rock and roll outfit in their own right).

A month or two after the Bobby Fuller Four recorded this show, they would break all the way, when “I Fought the Law” reached the national Top Ten.

Six months after that, Fuller was found dead in his car.

The coroner checked “accident” and “suicide” on the cause-of-death form and put question marks next to both.

Perhaps not surprisingly, dozens of murder conspiracy rumors have circulated in the decades since, involving everyone from Frank Sinatra to Charles Manson to Elvis (who had Bobby snuffed in a dispute over a car, don’t you know–proving yet again that people didn’t start saying stupid stuff about Elvis just yesterday even if it seems like a lot of them were born then!…it’s all nicely chronicled in this set’s truly outstanding liner notes.)

There was no way for Fuller and his band to know fame and death were waiting in such short order when they played “Celebrity Night” on the Sunset Strip in December of 1965.

But they certainly sound like a band who could feel the world both opening up and closing down.

Hence the album’s mysterious and utterly unique pattern, which, with a single brief break for a ballad early on, plays out something like this for well over an hour:

The band storms through a ferocious piece of hard rock (beginning with the not-yet-a-hit “I Fought the Law,”) played exactly as though they were still trying to fight their way out of the gut-bucket beer-and-blood circuit back home, the kind of places where people are there to drink and dance and don’t much care who is providing the background noise.

Then they are met with a tepid round of Vegas-lounge style applause from a crowd who are clearly there to see and be seen and, well, don’t much care who is providing the background noise.

After the “applause” dies down, Bobby then says some version of “thank you very much ladies and gentleman,” sometimes with a little plug for the great life at PJ’s thrown in.

Then the band takes a deep, collective breath and plunges in again, harder and louder and faster than before.

Along the way, a curious kind of tension develops. The band seems to keep betting themselves that this time–THIS TIME!–they will pull it off. They will finally play loud enough, fast enough, tight enough, that the crowd will have to respond.

And each time the crowd does not.

So the band goes another round–cranks it up another notch.

And the crowd does not respond.

So the band goes another round–cranks it up another notch.

And the crowd does not respond.

So the band goes another round–cranks it up another notch.

And the crowd does not respond….

Ever.

Not even once.

And the band does not stop pushing.

Not even once.

All the way to the end, where the evening is concluded with a thunderous medley of “Money/Shakedown” and is met by a crowd…that does not respond.

The planned live album was cancelled.

The reasons why have never been any clearer than the cause of Fuller’s death.

What is clear is that, on a night in December in 1965, the Bobby Fuller Four had every reason to believe they were as good as anybody on a planet that, just for starters, held the Beatles and the Stones and the Who and the Rascals and (just down the street) the Byrds, and no reason at all to suspect that the Oscar bait in the seats could tell them from the Rat Pack.

Bobby, wherever you are, I just want you to know….I’m leaning suicide.

The Bobby Fuller Four “Let Her Dance/Another Sad and Lonely Night” (Shivaree, before a somewhat more receptive audience)

The Bobby Fuller Four “Miserlou” (Live recording…However, NOT done at PJ’s, so who knows if it would have made the difference!)

My Darling Clementine, John Ford directing, Henry Fonda and Victor Mature starring, 1946.

I’ve seen the film many times. I was, however, newly impressed by the gunfight sequence.

Wisely, the sequence, like the rest of the film–also wisely–has little to do with any of the rather mundane and highly insignificant historical events that actually took place in Tombstone in the early 1880’s (though Ford may or may not have been duped, by Wyatt Earp himself, into thinking his portrayal of the gunfight, at least, was accurate).

But it does, oh-by-the-way, (the sequence, not the film, which contains multitudes) invent the essence of Sergio Leone in much the same way that the climactic sequences of Ford’s last two Will Rogers movies had once invented the essence of Preston Sturges.

Off-handedly as it were and without fanfare.

Just another reminder that, in art, there is the thing and there is the shadow of the thing.

Say what you will about him, Ford was always the thing.

Here’s the sequence:

Gunfight scenes from My Darling Clementine