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Bill McKinney

Review: Breakheart Pass

[Originally published in Movietone News 49, April 1976]

Right off, one should say that Lucien Ballard is one fine cinematographer, even though he didn’t get a chance to point his camera at anything very interesting in Breakheart Pass, a suspense ripoff dressed up as a quasi-Western. We just get a quick taste of the sort of thing he can do with Peckinpah, establishing a period feeling with a few deft swipes through a ramshackle hamlet as the movie begins, or the way he can light an exterior night scene to make the effect seem just part of the atmosphere. Most of the rest of the time we’re inside this train with most everybody in the cast, waiting as they get killed off one by one, and as it slowly becomes clear that the governor (Rich Crenna) and his henchmen are in cahoots with some toughies at the other end of the line, across Breakheart Pass, and that they’re all conspiring to take over a fort from the army and use it to receive illegal shipments of gold coming in from the fields.

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Review: The Outlaw Josey Wales

[Originally published in Movietone News 52, October 1976]

It isn’t too likely that a U.S. Senator would arrange the mass murder of several bands of Confederate renegades after their postwar surrender; less likely still that he would himself be present at the grisly deed; and least likely of all that the ex-Confederate officer charged with rounding up and bringing in the guerrillas would, upon watching the massacre, have no more to say than “Dammit, Senator, you told me those men would be decently treated!” There are only two ways to take an outrageously implausible story and turn it into the Winning of the West; and if you don’t have the audacity of a Sergio Leone you might just get by with the humble, trusting naïveté of Clint Eastwood. Eastwood has demonstrated, over the past few years, a steadily decreasing tendency to imitate his mentors (most notably Siegel and Leone) as he continues to develop a style of his own. Not surprisingly, it reminds me of the directorial style of another western legend who got behind the camera, John Wayne, in its penchant for relying on explicit, often moralistic dialogue, on larger-than-life heroes and villains (often viewed from low angles), and on the instant, positive expressiveness of a powerful screen presence (Eastwood’s own) more than acting versatility or directorial imagination.

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Review: The Outlaw Josey Wales

[Originally published in Movietone News 53, January 1977]

Clint Eastwood’s latest movie covers a lot of territory and glimpses a large enough cross-section of Western character types, Leone-ish villains, and just plain folks to fill an album of rare and intriguing daguerreotypes. People getting mixed up with and along with one another travel through raw frontier country, seemingly dissociated in their respective enterprises—running away from fascistic Yankee vigilantes, looking for new suckers to buy patent medicine, following a dream of a milk-and-honey land (described in a loving son’s letters) and ending up in a boom town gone bad, repaying the debt of a life saved with unflagging allegiance to the “outlaw” who saved it—but their variety and amicably contrary professions and predilections are among the film’s most likable features. As Josey Wales (Eastwood) moves from that richly colored, deep-wooded Missouri hills country to arid parts west beneath skies brushed a thin blue, where an abundance of rocky places accommodate the likes of bandits, Comanche, and the frontier flotsam of dying boom towns, one begins to feel that the landscapes of the movie are as various as Eastwood’s veritable throng of characters. The progression from East to West, from the cypress-dripping South of Siegel’s and Eastwood’s The Beguiled to starker outcroppings of men and stone that characterize a contemporary Western like Aldrich’s Ulzana’s Raid seems as natural as the accumulation of humankind that marks Wales’ journey.

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Blood and Ashes

[Originally published in Movietone News 53, January 1977]

Don Siegel, a man with an impressive history of making competent, toughminded, fast-moving films, admits that he’s trying to alter his “image” as an action director. In his most recent film, The Shootist, we can feel the tug between action and reflection, violence and elegy, present and past—opposing qualities that find a meeting ground in Siegel’s view of what itself is a contradictory environment of change and anachronism. This is turn-of-the-century Carson City, Nevada, outfitted with harbingers of the future such as trolleys on tracks and horseless carriages, but also retaining iconographic refuges of the Old West like the spacious Metropole Saloon. Scanning the borders of heroism, time, and fate within this world, Siegel’s style ranges from the intimate and discreet to the epic, the legendary and mythic mode of end-of-an-era Westerns—divergent strains of perspective (and The Shootist is very much a movie about various perspectives, mixing the larger context of legend with the intimacy of self-knowledge) that can unexpectedly coalesce within a single shot. Towards the end of the movie, when J.B. Books (John Wayne)—an aging gunman dying of cancer—prepares to go out to the Metropole to meet with three adversaries he’s treating to a showdown, there is something about John Wayne’s gestures and Siegel’s eye-level and respectfully unobtrusive camera that is both epically cumulative and heartwrenchingly personal. Very slowly and selfconsciously, Books places his guns just so in his belt, takes his hat from the peg on the wall and arranges it on his head, and checks his watch so as not to be late to this last appointment. (Books has opted to go down in a blaze of gunfire rather than succumb to the cancer attacking him relentlessly from the rear.) It is a painfully intimate moment, one which we feel almost indiscreet in witnessing. Nothing very important is happening—nothing more important than all the accoutrements of a man’s life getting arranged, put in order for his passing.

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Review: Bronco Billy

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

Clint Eastwood’s seventh excursion as director takes a stab at the territory of rustic fun, presumably as a follow-up to James Fargo’s Eastwood-starred Every Which Way But Loose. The problem is that the screenplay for Bronco Billy, which details the adventures of a modern-day cowboy and his tatterdemalion crew of helpmates in a threadbare touring Wild West show, is a ramshackle thing: poorly plotted, sloppily constructed, and teetering off into confusion halfway through – something from which the film doesn’t recover till the very end. That the movie nonetheless affords a moderate amount of entertainment, and seems in the memory to have given pleasure even though one might not recall the storyline, is due to the direction and the performers. It’s a perilous thing for any film to depend on sheer niceness to carry it through, but Bronco Billy just about manages it.

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Review: Bronco Billy

[Originally published in slightly different form in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

For his summer 1980 film, Clint Eastwood has chosen a sentimental, often corny script that layers screwball comedy conventions over the meanderings of a band of misfits who make a lifestyle, if not a living, out of being what they want rather than what they are. The script is the film’s greatest weakness, with its labored exposition, unmotivated dialogue, repetition without variation, insistent moralism, and tired rehashings of the bored-rich-girl-who-needs-a-good-screwing and living-sanely-in-an-insane-world clichés. But Bronco Billy’s aggressive sincerity overcomes the script’s problems. The notion of a band of drifters and dreamers, recalling Eastwood’s own The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) and Christmas 1978’s James Fargo–directed Eastwood hit Every Which Way But Loose, again provides an excuse for impromptu zaniness while pushing many of the same thematic buttons: menacing lawmen; the emptiness of wealth; the pre-eminence of the independent, self-motivated American; barroom brawls and good ol’ boys; the celebration of old-time chivalry (Bronco Billy as a Lone Ranger without a mask) and of strong women who deserve their men—in short, the reaffirmation of the same values upheld in country music and in the classic Western movie.

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