What’s he done this time? As a filmmaker who creates experiences that aren’t remotely like anything else out there, Quentin Tarantino has earned the curiosity. Like ’em or loathe ’em, Tarantino’s movies exist in their own distinctive, vacuum-packed world, strange missives from an unfettered imagination. He’s unfettered because his movies keep making money, but I wonder what the faithful will think of The Hateful Eight, a typically outrageous but even-chattier-than-usual extravaganza. Most of the film’s 187 minutes (with an intermission) take place inside a snowed-in frontier trading post, although the scenes outside Minnie’s Haberdashery are just as talkative and—despite the Western vistas in the background—claustrophobic.
[Originally published in Movietone News 36, October 1974]
Most people have been writing about My Name Is Nobody as though it were as unequivocally a Sergio Leone film as Once upon a Time in the West, Duck You Sucker, et al.; some reviewers haven’t troubled to mention the existence of Tonino Valerii (who is emphatically given directorial credit twice in the opening titles) while more scrupulous commentators have nodded toward Valerii while acclaiming My Name Is Nobody as “the most producer-directed movie since The Thing.” There’s no mistaking the Leone manner, the Leone themes, and the frequent instances of Leone power and feeling; the protégé has learned the master’s lessons well, and one feels certain he was largely executing Leone’s own detailed plan of the film. I’m sorry I muffed my chance to see Valerii’s own A Reason to Live, a Reason to Die a month or so ago (I loathe drive-ins) because I might have been better prepared to wade in and sort out the fine points of auteurship in the mise-en-scène. There are lapses in the film that mightn’t have occurred—or might have been more decisively compensated for—if Leone’s hand had been at the throttle. But there are also shots, sequences, and literally timeless moments in the movie that do no disservice to the memory of previous Leones—which is to say that My Name Is Nobody contains some of the most extravagantly exciting footage that’s going to appear on movie screens this year.
The spaghetti western was not an inherently political genre but in the 600+ Italo-Westerns that poured out in the decade or so of its brief reign, among the shamelessly derivative pictures cranked out to cash in on the boom started by Sergio Leone’s international hit A Fistful of Dollars are a handful that draw upon the currents of contemporary Italian and European cinema.
Sergio Sollima only directed three westerns but he brought political and allegorical elements to the familiar conventions.Face to Face (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray, DVD), his second western, is his most interesting. It is also one of the least known, having never received a legitimate American home video release in any format until now.
There are no imported Americans in this film. Gian Maria Volonté (the head villain in A Fistful of Dollars) takes the lead as Professor Brett Fletcher, a history teacher and intellectual who takes leave from his Eastern college (though only seen in interiors, it looks more European than American) and travels west for his health. Cuban-born Tomas Milian (who also starred in Sollima’s The Big Gundown) is the Mexican bandit Solomon ‘Beauregard’ Bennet, who enters the film in shackles. Fletcher’s kindness to the prisoner gives Bennet an opportunity to take him hostage and escape, but that same kindness leads to a tenuous truce that turns into friendship and later partnership.
A spaghetti western with French seasonings, Cemetery Without Crosses (1969) is a Franco-Italian co-production shot in Almeria, Spain, the definitive badlands landscape of the Euro-western. The director, screenwriters, two stars, and even composer are French and the supporting cast largely Italian. And while this is not shot in the widescreen dimension of CinemaScope, de rigueur for genre, is features the familiar conventions: taciturn anti-hero, bleak desert setting, spare style, mercenary characters, and a culture so steeped in corruption that the closest we get to justice is justified vengeance.
French movie star turned filmmaker Robert Hossein helms the film and casts Michèle Mercier, with whom he starred in a successful series of historical romances in France, as a frontier wife widowed in the first scene. The Rogers clan, the ruthless land barons of the territory, have been trying to drive them out of. When Maria’s husband and his two brothers rob the Rogers, they have all the excuse they need to execute him right in front of her eyes. Hungry for vengeance, she seeks out Manuel (Hossein), who lives in the saloon of a ghost town that looks like the abandoned set of some earlier western, not just empty but being reclaimed by the wind and the sand. He says that he’s hung up the gun but is coaxed into taking her job, in part by her husband’s share of the robbery, in part by whatever unspoken past is churned up in their long, lingering glances.
Man, Pride and Vengeance (Blue Underground, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) – There were hundreds of spaghetti westerns produced by Italian studios in the sixties and early seventies. Only a small percentage of them were particularly good, and fewer still genuinely great. You’d think we’d be running out of discoveries by now but Man, Pride and Vengeance (1967), from director Luigi Bazzoni and star Franco Nero, is a respectable find. Based on the novel Carmen by Prosper Merimee, with Nero as the loyal, straight-arrow soldier José demoted after he’s tricked by gypsy hellion Carmen (Tina Aumont), it’s the rare spaghetti western that is actually set in Spain, where it was shot.
In this take, José is has no fiancée to betray, which perhaps makes him more susceptible to Carmen’s flirtations, and Nero plays him as an affable career man whose equilibrium is completely upset by the surge of emotions—lust, rage, resentment, jealousy—that the wild free spirit brings out in him. Aumont makes a cheeky Carmen, not malicious so much as unapologetically mercenary and sexually independent but with a code of conduct that she follows faithfully. She pays her debts, which complicates José’s life more than he can handle. Soon he’s on the run from a murder charge and joins her criminal gang, where he meets her husband Garcia (Klaus Kinski), fresh out of prison and ready to take charge of the gang and take on anyone he sees as a threat. While José earns the nickname “Preacher” for his insistence on a disciplined plan and a non-violent execution of the stage robbery (both a moral and practical decision; murder brings out the soldiers in force), Garcia is like unstable dynamite pulled from the storage of a long prison sentence and ready to blow at the slightest nudge.
Day of the Outlaw (Timeless, DVD), a 1959 western set in a snowbound mountain town on the high frontier, is one of the toughest, most tension-filled pictures from Andre de Toth, a studio filmmaker who could be counted on to bring a savage edge to his assignments. The town is already coiled like a spring thanks to the tensions between imperious ranch baron Blaise Starrett (Robert Ryan) and a farmer (Alan Marshal) stringing barbed wire across the range—Blaise has come to town to either intimidate the proud farmer into back down or killing him to stop the wire—when an outlaw gang bursts in and essentially takes the town hostage. They’re on the run from the cavalry and their leader (Burl Ives) is bleeding out from a bullet wound, barely keeping his cutthroat gang in check.
The isolation of the town, a few building poking out of the muddy streets and surrounded by mountain ranges in the distance, feels even more adrift in the white blanket of snow cover and the wind howls through most every scene, enhancing the sense of desolation. It’s a spare visual design and de Toth leaves the dramatic compositions lean and simple and uncrowded. Ryan’s wound up stillness makes a great contrast to the increasingly jittery gang members, who pace and fiddle and keep moving toward the women. They look like they are about to fly apart like a bomb and start looting and raping, and the still intensity of Ives, who holds his gaze and his ground has he gives orders and watches over it all, is all that keeps it from combusting. A terrific, underappreciated western, it’s been on disc before in an edition now out of print. Timeless brings it back in a solid DVD edition at a bargain price. No supplements.
[Originally published in Movietone News 45, November 1975]
Colorado Territory, a remake of the High Sierra plot, is an early masterpiece of the pessimistic Western. It retains the High Sierra story and works variations on most of that film’s characters. But some significant changes are also made and the result, on the whole, is much more impressive. While High Sierra was set at the end of Dillinger-style gangsterism, Colorado Territory is given a setting that evokes the end of the Wild West. The Bogart figure is now Wes McQueen (Joel McCrea), “just a big Kansas jay,” escaping from jail and getting involved in one last train robbery. The Joan Leslie character becomes Julie Ann Winslow (Dorothy Malone), who is sexier and nastier than Velma was and who thus becomes a key to this version’s darker psychology. Velma’s father moves West for a better life and so does Julie Ann’s, but the latter’s dream paradise turns out to be a desert. The sentimentally symbolic dog of High Sierra is absent here, while the geographical symbolism is developed much more fully. Colorado (Virginia Mayo) is a disillusioned refugee of “the dancehall,” like her High Sierra counterpart (Ida Lupino), but here she is much more than a highly emotional spectator. High Sierra‘s cynical reporter (Jerome Cowan) is understandably missing here, but it’s intriguing to think of Brother Tomas (Frank Puglia), who watches over an all but abandoned mission, as his replacement.
[Originally published in Movietone News 45, November 1975]
One of the most memorable scenes in High Sierra takes place when Roy Earle (Humphrey Bogart) is driving towards Camp Shaw high in the mountains of California after being released from prison. The camera sweeps the Sierra peaks and pans down to Earle’s car as he pauses at the junction of the dirt road leading to his destination. When he starts out we see him, the mountains, and a string of pack horses led by a couple of dude ranch cowboys who are moving slowly in the opposite direction, emerging from the world Roy Earle is about to enter. It is all somehow safe and reassuring, and yet in retrospect the image becomes a fatefully and fatally ironic premonition of Roy Earle’s death at the hands of a cowboy who perches on a rocky ledge above him and picks him off with a highpowered rifle and telescopic sight. The seemingly innocent picturesqueness of the scene perfectly indexes the illusory safety of the place to which Roy Earle is retreating, at the same time it suggests one of many aspects of the mortality which stalks through the movie. Walsh doesn’t invoke that oddly incongruous cowboy image by mistake; Roy Earle, who is himself a mythic presence, is shot by a figure who not only seems to belong in some other corner of history but who might more comfortably inhabit a different cinematic genre. Cowboys shouldn’t be any more “real” than the ancient race of gangsters to which Roy and Big Mac belong, and yet it’s a cowboy who destroys the man and momentarily diminishes the mythic aura surrounding Roy Earle.
Day of Anger (Arrow / MVD, Blu-ray, DVD) is another reminder of why Lee Van Cleef became a major spaghetti western star. He doesn’t just dominate Day of Anger (1967), he owns the film as a Frank Talby, a smiling gunman who rides into the thoroughly corrupt town of Clifton, Arizona (which, of course, is actually Almería, Spain) to collect a debt and ends up adopting the Scott (Giuliano Gemma), turning the town bastard and whipping boy into a formidable gunman in five hard lessons (all helpfully numbered). Van Cleef is smooth and cool, at once ruthless and oddly likable, and Talby’s tough-love affection for Scott is beyond the call of manipulation. Next to the utterly corrupt folks who don’t even bother to hide their arrogance and bigotry, Talby is almost honest about his criminality. He wants his money, he wants to run the town, and he wants vengeance against the hypocrites who double-crossed him.
In Dogme director Kristian Levring’s harrowing 2000 film The King Is Alive, a clutch of mismatched folk variously afflicted by modern-day angst are stranded in the great void of an African desert. For distraction, they decide to perform King Lear, Shakespeare’s wrenching tale of despair and madness. For these lost souls, it’s the narrative containment of the play’s spiritually corrosive content that looks like something they might hold on to.
The Salvation, Levring’s strangely numinous Danish take on the American western, displays a similar faith in the power of fiction, to show and contain chaos and horror, ceremonially, artfully. That power in some fashion saves us—like the ritual of consuming a god’s blood and body. The ambiguous salvation promised in the movie’s title may well refer to the good work art can do for us.
As a Western shot by a Danish crew in South Africa, The Salvation already has a hodgepodge air about it. The movie never quite overcomes that sense of being assembled from different directions, but—with the help of two charismatic stars—it does conjure up its share of evocative genre moments. The hook is set early, as a terrible act of frontier violence and instant retribution blows apart the world of Danish immigrant Jon (Mads Mikkelsen). Now Jon and his brother Peter (cool customer Mikael Peresbrandt, a Hobbit veteran) are targeted for revenge by a very bad hombre (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) whose henchmen have the usual traits of bad hygiene and lousy marksmanship. There’s also a woman, played by the thankfully ubiquitous Eva Green, who does not speak. A wordless role is no problem for this French actress, who looks as though she might set fire to the entire worthless town with a glance.
[Originally published in Movietone News 40, April 1975]
I don’t read a note of music, so the language of this article is necessarily interpretive rather than technical. Also, the here-today-gone-tomorrow Duck, You Sucker has thus far eluded my company, so I have recourse only to the first four westerns that Morricone scored for Leone. —RCC
A soundtrack score is rarely significant enough to make or break a film. Generally the least obtrusive music is the most effective in creating mood or building atmosphere—the kind of music the pianists and organists used to improvise to accompany silent movies. If a film score is overly assertive it can do severe damage to a film, as Miklos Rozsa’s did to Hitchcock’s Spellbound, or as most of Maurice Jarre’s post–Lawrence of Arabia scores have done.
With this in mind, it is with the greatest of awe that I express my admiration for the brilliantly assertive yet totally un–self-serving scores that Ennio Morricone has composed for Sergio Leone’s “spaghetti westerns.” The unique, indefinable atmosphere which Leone’s films create is built in large part by the director’s tremendously personal style of mise-en-scène, shot composition, and montage, to be sure. But it is often Morricone’s music that turns the trick in creating that timeless, haunting aura, and lends an otherworldly, almost religious significance to the action it accompanies.
Tommy Lee Jones, as actor and director, clearly cares a lot about the Western. Is there an audience that cares with him? The once-dominant genre has declined so steeply since the 1970s that each new one is an event, and Jones has become one of the few people still riding herd on the form. (Though ailing at the movies, the myth of the West is alive and well in American politics, currently full of gun-totin’, hog-castratin’ candidates.) The Homesman is so good it makes you wish Jones could somehow make a Western a year, just to keep exploring the pockets of American frontier experience that still need filling in. This one offers a series of new wrinkles, beginning with its route: The story goes from west to east, the opposite of most Westerns.
Maybe the bar wasn’t set especially high, but let’s not dampen the rare, humble pleasure of declaring that a sequel is better than the original. Horrible Bosses 2 is looser and funnier than its 2011 predecessor; and if its R-rated comedy misses as often as it hits, at least the timing is there. The first film’s trio of losers—played by Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis, and Charlie Day—is now trying to go the self-employment route by creating a new bathing gadget. But their idiotic invention, the “Shower Buddy,” brings them into partnership with a corporate shark (Christoph Waltz) and his conniving son (a manic Chris Pine, from Star Trek). When the boys get screwed over, their response is to kidnap the son and hold him for ransom.
Frontier spinster Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) has known the man for about 24 hours, and only now asks his name. Sociability’s got nothing to do with it; she needs his moniker for a financial transaction. He thinks for a moment, and squints at her: “Let’s say George.” “George what?” Another moment for thought. “Briggs.” After saying the word, he seems to consider it for another moment, and likes it fine. He says “George Briggs” a couple more times, laughing and pronouncing it with a singsong lilt, as though charmed by the jig-like cheerfulness of the words.
It’s a signature beat for Tommy Lee Jones, who plays Briggs and who also directed, produced, and co-scripted The Homesman. Briggs has reason to be amused; just before Miss Cuddy found him, he’d been blasted with dynamite (for claim-jumping another man’s homestead) and left to die on the back of a horse, the rope around his neck tied to a tree branch above him.