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R.G. Armstrong

Review: White Lightning

[Originally published in Movietone News 25, September 1973]

The most interesting aspect of White Lightning is the squandering of available authenticity. Thanks to Fouad Said’s Cinemobile systems, there’s nowhere in this country a filmmaking crew can’t go and get a movie in the can. The latest Burt Reynolds venture, set in the Deep South, shores up its careless trashmanship with equally careless but atmospherically persuasive hunks of environment and lifestyle. The constant sheen of sweat on faces, the rotting-alive quality of colors and textures, the sense of both landscapes and society as a vast morass—these are commodities ripe for the taking, and they tend to condone the most accidental of scenarios by lending a general signification to anything that happens. Add to this the South’s conspicuous availability for mythmaking and the lackadaisical narrator is home free.

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Review: My Name Is Nobody

[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.

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Review: Race with the Devil

[Originally published in Movietone News 43, September 1975]

After witnessing a satanic episode of black rites and human sacrifice in some out-of-the-way Texas campsite and then trying in vain to get some action on the matter from the local police force, Peter Fonda remarks to Warren Oates, “Frank, they’re trying to screw with our brains.” Fonda’s face is dead earnest as he delivers the line, which seems like some wildly misplaced throwaway from a grade-Z science fiction flick, invested with about as much foreboding as an order for ham and eggs. It may be significant that he doesn’t say anything like, “They’re trying to fuck with our heads,” which might be edging a little too far in the direction of counter-kultcha lingo; after all, we don’t want to alienate anybody out there who might actually be getting off on Race with the Devil—an apt title indicating Starrett’s dual concentration on spooks and chases. Like a liberal politician, “screw with our brains” is restrained even in its most daring affectations of looseness, and its timidity is only accentuated by the ex-hip aura of Fonda, who’s getting a little older and a little safer than the free-spirited threat to conservative lifestyles Captain America represented in Easy Rider.

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The Beautiful and the Damned: Major Dundee

Sam Peckinpah’s much-messed-with 1965 film Major Dundee has just come out on Blu-ray from the boutique label Twilight Time. The two-disc set features both the 2005 reissue based on a preview version of the movie and the version released theatrically 48 years ago. Both are worth having, as the following Queen Anne & Magnolia News article from 2005 suggests. – RTJ

[Originally published in the Queen Anne News, April 11, 2005]

Sam Peckinpah was one of our great modern filmmakers, but for many his name summons up such a fearsome Hollywood legend, of blighted career, outrageous excess and epic self-destructiveness, that remembering the great films becomes secondary.

Richard Harris and Charlton Heston keep the flag aloft
Richard Harris and Charlton Heston keep the flag aloft

The legend began to lock into place with his third feature film, the 1965 Major Dundee—though it’s worth noting that even his universally admired second film, the elegiac Ride the High Country (1962), was nearly thrown away by its parent studio, only to be hailed as “the best American film of the year” by Newsweek magazine. Ride the High Country was a small film—a program picture, really—featuring two over-the-hill cowboy stars (Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott). Major Dundee would be, by mid-’60s terms, an epic, with a $4.5-million budget, two recently Oscared or Oscar-nominated stars—Charlton Heston and Richard Harris—and an international cast with more color and flair than, perhaps, any one motion picture could accommodate. It was also to be a film of vast and complex thematic ambitions, a dual character study that sought to refract not only the historical tensions of the Civil War–era frontier but also the fractious America of a century later, astir with the civil-rights movement and the beginnings of what we would come to know as the Vietnam era.

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Review: Stay Hungry

[Originally published in Movietone News 52, October 1976]

Bob Rafelson’s two previous films, Five Easy Pieces and The King of Marvin Gardens, were both unequivocally downers as far as the types of characters he chose to depict—uprooted failures, emotionally crippled losers—and their respective destinies on bleak, severely shrunken horizons are concerned. Nicholson’s wasted vitality in Five Easy Pieces and pathological introversions in Marvin Gardens are equally invested with a sense of the respective characters’ inabilities to cope with their problems, as well as suggestive of some unredeemable souring that arrested the maturing processes in their once-promising lives. If I didn’t exactly find anything of value about the characters in those films, I could at least pick up vibrations of a congealing, somehow consistent vision in the rather morbid cynicism that informs, especially, The King of Marvin Gardens, wherein Nicholson plays a withdrawn, late-night radio monologist whose hopelessly illusion-bound perspective gives the film’s spiritual and physical landscapes (the wasteland of Atlantic City in the winter, habitation not of beautiful women in bathing suits but of lowdown gangsters holed up inside ramshackle houses on the outskirts of some caved-in suburban tract) an unsettlingly tentative and dissolute quality.

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Review: Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid

[Originally published in Movietone News 23, May-June 1973]

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid vies with The Ballad of Cable Hogue as Sam Peckinpah’s most personal film. Not that Ride the High Country, Major Dundee, The Wild Bunch, Straw Dogs, Junior Bonner, The Getaway, or even that compromised early project The Deadly Companions could have been made by any other man. But those films at least flirt with conventional notions of how movies are built, notions derived from viewing other men’s work. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is thoroughly perverse in conception and realization—and in its refusal (several people have remarked it independently) to get out of one’s skull the day after one has seen it, and the day after that. It is not my intention, here, to do much more than to record my astonishment, admiration, and awe, and (since it has been graced by a particularly contemptible, willfully misrepresentative review in the local evening paper) to urge anyone who cares for movies to see the picture at the earliest opportunity. M-G-M hasn’t so much released the film as set it outside the company vault and wait to see whether some passerby notices; it opened locally at two drive-ins and a plaza twin in Bellevue. Impatient moviegoers are warned: aside from the generally known fact that Sheriff Pat Garrett was somehow involved in the death of William H. Bonney, alias Billy the Kid, the viewer has nothing to go on but his faith in the eventual emergence of a narrative; characters appear, seem to be known to the other characters, are not pointedly introduced or given time to develop the sort of identity we normally expect from a motion picture inhabitant, and may in fact die before we’re clear on who they were or why they appeared in the first place (though often we learn much more about them later, from the effect their absence has). Violence-baiters are also admonished: this is possibly Peckinpah’s bloodiest film, certainly the most carcass-strewn since The Wild Bunch; virtually every sequence is built around a killing, usually more than one.

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Short Notice: “The Marshal”

[Originally published as a “Short Notice” in Film Quarterly, Summer 1974]

“The Marshal” (episode No. 6211 of The Rifleman TV series). I recently had the extraordinary experience of showing Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country to a University of Washington film class and then going home to discover an ancestor of sorts on television. Knowing that Peckinpah had worked on The Rifleman, among other shows, and noticing that Warren Oates and James Drury were listed in the cast of that evening’s rerun, I tuned in. The episode indeed proved to be a Peckinpah: teleplay, direction, and a co-credit for story. A crucial installment in the development of the series, it introduced regular-to-be Paul Fix as Micah Torrance, a once-renowned lawman who had managed to live long enough to take off his badge—but only by losing his nerve and taking to the bottle. Torrance comes to the attention of Lucas McCain (Chuck Connors) and the town marshal, played by R.G. Armstrong (Ride the High Country, Major Dundee, Cable Hogue, Pat Garrett), and McCain sets about rehabilitating him by putting him to work on his ranch. About that time, Oates and brother Robert J. Wilke appear, hot on Torrance’s trail and determined to repay him for shooting them up in the line of duty some years previous. Drury, who played the least depraved of the Hammond boys in Ride the High Country, rides into town with them but pretends to only a loose affiliation; he affects a mellifluous manner and mocks their illiteracy—they are clearly akin to such “damn drygulchin’ Southern trash” as the Hammonds and the Strother Martin–L.Q. Jones types in later Peckinpah—while targeting Marshal Armstrong’s niece for seduction. If Drury’s motivation is ever declared, I missed it; but at any rate he has soon shot and killed Armstrong, then enticed McCain into town with the news that Oates and Wilke did it. There is a concluding fight, McCain falls wounded after downing Wilke, and Torrance—effectively if not actually one-armed like James Coburn’s Sam Potts in Major Dundee—manages to do for the others with a shotgun. The episode ends with McCain recuperating and Micah Torrance sporting the marshal’s badge he will wear throughout the rest of the series.

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