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Warren Oates

Review: Kid Blue

[Originally published in Movietone News 26, October 1973]

Kid Blue, completed more than a year ago, enjoyed a belated and unsuccessful release and arrived in the Jet City even later. Reportedly Twentieth Century Fox advertised the picture as a straight western somewhere in the country and failed to find an audience for it (whatever audience they did reach with such a pitch would surely have been grievously disappointed). The film and the rest of the nation will have a second chance to get together after a New York Film Festival showcasing offers a proper reintroduction. Meanwhile, the Harvard Exit has scored another audience coup—not so spectacular as with such earlier previously-ignored-elsewhere pix as The Conformist, Taking Off, and The Emigrants, but not bad at all. Unfortunately the sizable weeknight audience I saw the film with tended to turn on at just those places where the filmmakers lost either perspective or their artistic souls.

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Blu-ray: ‘Private Property’ rediscovered and restored

privatepropertyPrivate Property (Cinelicious, Blu-ray+DVD) – Put this 1960 film in the “Lost and Found” category. The directorial debut by Leslie Stevens, a playwright and screenwriter and protégé of Orson Welles, it’s a neat little sexually-charged psychological thriller set in the sunny California culture of affluence and trophy wives and drifting hitchhikers crossing the stratified social borders.

Corey Allen and Warren Oates are Duke and Boots, the George and Lenny of angry drifters, and Kate Manx is the beautiful trophy wife that Duke spots on the Pacific Coast Highway in a white Corvette. They coerce a travelling salesman to follow that car and trail her to her Hollywood Hills home, taking up residence in a vacant home next door. They ogle her through the second floor window as Anne sunbathes and skinny dips, and then they insinuate themselves into her home. A student of the Method school, Allen plays Duke as an angry young con man who has perfected the sensitive soul act, while Manx, who was Stevens’ wife at the time, is a limited actress who Stevens directs to an effective performance. Oates is the revelation, walking that tightrope between loyalty and suspicion, slowly figuring out Duke’s games but slow to act until practically pushed into action.

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Video: Framing Pictures – August 2016

Film critics Bruce Reid, Richard T. Jameson, and Robert Horton discuss the careers and legacies of actor Warren Oates and director Hector Babenco, praise Hirokazu Kore-Eda’s Our Little Sister (2016), and engage with Oscar Micheaux’s landmark race film Within Our Gates (1920) in the August 2016 edition of Framing Pictures, now available to stream via The Seattle Channel.

These discussions are held in the screening room of Scarecrow Video on the second Friday of every month and are free to attend. The video appears a few weeks later on the Seattle Channel.

The September edition will take place on Friday, September 9 at 7pm at the Scarecrow Video Screening Room. More information at the Framing Pictures Facebook page.

Review: Dillinger

[Originally published in Movietone News 24, July-August 1973]

That our final glimpse of John Dillinger should be out of focus is appropriate. Dillinger promised to be an exciting directorial debut for John Milius—promised especially hard in the first quarter of an hour—and the role of Dillinger himself presented Warren Oates with the perfect opportunity to etch one of the great characterizations of the American screen, as well as to win widespread recognition at long last. That Oates has failed to achieve either scarcely seems his fault since, whenever he is given screen time, he hovers on the verge of discovering a dangerous and original persona—and, it must be added, he looks historically perfect, unsettlingly so. But Dillinger and anyone else resembling a character are essentially lost sight of, except as gunmen and targets, from about the midpoint of the film onward—that is, starting with the Mason City, Iowa, massacre. The mayhem is powerfully filmed and individual shots are often vividly visualized, but Milius fails completely to give sequences or whole sections of the film any cohesion or sense of purpose beyond slam slam slam.

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Blu-ray: ‘Dillinger’ by Milius

John Dillinger was the most notorious of the Depression-era gangsters and his exploits (and attendant newspaper coverage) made him a romantic anti-hero to many of the folks who felt betrayed by the bankers and businessmen of the country.

DillingerDillinger (Arrow, Blu-ray+DVD), the 1973 gangster film and directorial debut of John Milius, plays on that image of the gentleman gangster who courted the public and the press while he robbed banks across the American Midwest. It was one of the best of the many period gangster films that poured out in the wake of Bonnie and Clyde and made anti-heroes of outlaws.

Warren Oates stars as Dillinger and it is great casting; not only does he resemble the real-life gangster but he brings a rugged charm to the role, whether cautioning bystanders and bank tellers during the robberies (“This could be one of the big moments in your life,” he says at one point. “Don’t make it your last”) or genially bantering with the press after he’s arrested the first time. Ben Johnson plays Melvin Purvis, the Midwest FBI agent who made Dillinger a priority as his fame became an embarrassment for the Bureau. The film covers his brief rampage across the Midwest states, his romance with Billy Frechette (Michelle Philips), his flamboyant prison break, the supergang that included Pretty Boy Floyd (Steve Kanaly) and the bloodthirsty Baby Face Nelson (Richard Dreyfuss), and his bloody demise outside of a Chicago movie theater in 1934 in the company of “the lady in red” (played by Cloris Leachman). Harry Dean Stanton, Geoffrey Lewis, John P. Ryan, and Frank McRae co-star as members of Dillinger’s gang through the years and Milius gives them all distinctive parts.

Milius was one of the highest paid screenwriters in Hollywood when he made the film for AIP, taking a cut in exchange for the chance to direct, and AIP (famed for drive-in pictures) poured money into this film in hopes of a mainstream breakthrough and a little prestige. Though small by studio standards, it was the biggest budget of any AIP picture to that time and Milius creates a terrific evocation of the era and delivers impressive action scenes, shoot-outs, and car chases on a tight budget.

Arrow’s edition is restored in 2K from the original 35m interpositive and features both Blu-ray and DVD versions of the film with commentary by film historian Stephen Prince and new interviews with producer Lawrence Gordon (10 minutes), director of photography Jules Brenner (12 minutes), and composer Barry De Vorzon (12 minutes), plus an isolated music and effects track and bonus booklet.

More classics on Blu-ray and DVD at Cinephiled

Review: Badlands

[Originally published in Movietone News 33, July 1974]

Art, because it creates its own reality, can’t be self-deluding, no matter how “unreal” it may seem. What it can do is distort reality by rearranging life’s subject matter into new and unfamiliar forms. Thus, in Badlands, Terrence Malick’s first directorial project, Kit Carruthers’ personal fantasy is distinct from Malick’s artistic fantasy, although the two run closely parallel and indeed often seem inseparable. Kit (played by Martin Sheen) insulates himself within the brash shield of a James Dean tough-guy image to the point where, by the end of the movie, all he is concerned with is going out in style. Reality, for Kit, ultimately becomes irrelevant, just as, in a similar sense, our normal conceptions of what goes on in the world apply less and less to what we are seeing on the screen as the movie progresses.

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Review: The White Dawn

[Originally published in Movietone News 36, October 1974]

At times one feels that the elemental motions induced by the instinct to survive almost dictate a pace of their own in this movie about the initial contact between a group of nomadic Eskimos and the English-speaking world back in the days when New Bedford sailors scoured the northern reaches of the continent in search of whales. There is a certain natural sense of episodic movement in the migration of a people from one village site to another as the food supply runs low and new, richer hunting grounds must be found. There is an ease and unhurriedness in the way the camera lingers on the things Eskimos really do (or did) with their time which avoids being static because it’s really pretty interesting, whether we are witnessing the hunting of seals or the building of an igloo or the ritual pairing-off of couples following an evening of vaguely familiar-seeming games and frenzied dancing by a few of the local boys decked out in antlers. Even without the story of three sailors who are stranded somewhere in Baffin Bay and subsequently rescued by Eskimos, this would make an engaging documentary on a foreign culture; and in fact it is so difficult not to be genuinely moved by the warmth and humanness which flows so generously from The White Dawn that one is tempted to believe it a better film than, perhaps, it is.

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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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Review: ‘92 in the Shade’

[Originally published in Movietone News 45, November 1975]

Anyone seeking evidence that more writers should turn director ought to consider Tom McGuane in quarantine. 92 in the Shade has about as much structure and consistency, not to say appeal, as an ice cream sandwich that has lain in the sun since last weekend. There is scarcely any evidence that someone directed it, although a manneristic and absolutely pointless derivation from some better movie—e.g., a drifting Long Goodbye–like coverage of a jailhouse interview between Peter Fonda and Warren Oates—suggests occasionally that someone thought he was directing. Perhaps the shade of Robert Altman also hangs over the non-readings one strains to make sense of (though I stopped straining before very long); McGuane must have assumed that mumbled, slurred speech—preferably delivered through a mouth full of food and/or drink—has some near-mystical value in the contemporary cinema, else why would he sabotage so much of his own dialogue? But even on that level, the screenplay sounds like someone else’s idea of McGuane dialogue more often than it approaches the real thing (as, delightfully, in Rancho Deluxe).

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Videodrone Classic: ‘Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia’

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (Twilight Time, Blu-Ray), one of Sam Peckinpah’s personal favorites of his films (and the rare Peckinpah film not to get reworked by the studio), opens on an idyllic river scene with a pregnant girl soaking her feet in the lazy current with a beatific smile on her face. In his great westerns, the river scenes are the brief escapes from violent lives in his character, reprieves in the middle of the drama before they march back out to meet their fates. This comes before the story even begins and once the spell is broken by the violence of a brutal father, a Mexican crime lord played by Peckinpah regular Emilio Fernández, and a $1 million bounty placed on the head of Alfredo Garcia, the father of the unborn child, there is little peace or paradise to be found.

Warren Oates stars as Benny, a grubby lounge pianist playing for tourists in a Mexican dive when a couple of American hitmen (Robert Webber and Gig Young) saunter in looking for information on “an old friend.” Benny thinks he’s hit the jackpot—a whopping $10,00 for giving them proof that Alfredo Garcia is dead (yes, they want his head)—but it costs him everything that matters and the tawdry treasure hunt turns into a revenge drama.

It plays like a pulp noir thriller by way of a road movie of the damned, marinated in mescal and left to rot in the desert sun. Benny’s not that smart or savvy but Peckinpah clearly loves this small-timer with his wrinkled white linen suit and clip-on tie and bad cantina sing-along songs. He may be a loser but he truly loves his philandering girl Elita (Isela Vega) and he develops more backbone with every stage of the odyssey. When he’s double crossed, he literally drags himself out of a shallow grave and returns with vengeance on his mind, fueled by rage, tequila, and a perverse loyalty to the rotting head he’s come to talk to like a father confessor. The film opened to scathing, outraged reviews (one notable exception was Roger Ebert, who called it “some kind of bizarre masterpiece”) but has since been embraced as a perverse masterpiece, the ultimate cult film in the career of a defiantly confrontational director.

Twilight Time gives the Blu-ray debut of this film more original supplements than any previous release from the label. The 55-minute documentary Passion & Poetry: Sam’s Favorite Film is a new production from German filmmaker and Peckinpah fan Mike Siegel featuring a wealth of interviews with Peckinpah actors and collaborators. A new commentary track by Peckinpah historian and Twilight Time co-founder Nick Redman with Alfred Garcia co-writer and executive producer Gordon T. Dawson is paired with a track by Peckinpah scholars Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons, David Weddle and Redman previously recorded for the film’s DVD debut. There’s a new 25-minute video interview with Peckinpah biographer Garner Simmons, who was on the set of Alfredo Garcia, and a gallery of stills and promotional art, plus Twilight Time’s trademark isolated musical score and an eight-page booklet with an essay by Julie Kirgo. Limited to 3000 copies, available exclusively from Screen Archives and TCM.

More cult and classic releases on Blu-ray and DVD at Cinephiled

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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Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia

[originally published in The Austin Chronicle, October 22, 1999]

Nowadays, most movies look factory-made, mechanically repeating cast, storyline, or F/X from the last big blockbuster. They touch us skin-deep, ask nothing of us but box-office, kill time and vanish. In contrast, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is like getting accosted by a wild-eyed Ancient Mariner, a colorful dreg who draws you willy-nilly into his tragi-comic tale about an albatross, love, and death. The grizzled fellow’s story literally rubs your nose in the stink and sweat of Mexico, Sam Peckinpah’s earthiest haven from the Dream Factory. Playing Head‘s anti-hero Benny is anti-star Warren Oates, five-foot-three sleazebag, he of sheepish gaze and shit-eating grin. Suffering through an ever more hallucinatory journey, this latter-day Bogey pursues Peckinpavian Treasure of the Sierra Madre: a rotting head. Not politely stowed off screen, not tricked out in horror-movie makeup, but an inescapably flesh-and-blood thing that oozes, draws moscas, thunks off a car seat — and grossest insult, this revolting memento mori is flung right into our collective face!

Peckinpah means for his Head, his movie, to be hard to take. Every frame, cut, dissolve, line of dialogue, performance is chosen, sewn together to weave a seamless, searing pattern, its style inextricable from its substance. This black-humored parable exposes cruel conception and labor, the ugly agony of an outlaw artist’s desperation to make movies in spite of heartless moneymen in Muzak’d executive suites — and his own self-crucifying sins. Pulling critics and consumers down into the bloody muck of his artworld getting born, Peckinpah revels in images of himself as whore, martyr, vengeful creator.

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Peckinpah Doesn’t Sing Along

Sam Peckinpah
Sam Peckinpah

Sam Peckinpah, arguably the foremost American director to emerge during the sixties, developed—not to say cultivated—a persona that made his name virtually synonymous with “excessive screen violence.” While the accent was often placed on the noun, the first adjective also fit: Peckinpah was a man of appetites—the Randolph Scott character in Ride The High Country (1962) humorously cites “Appetite” as a book of the Bible—and excess was something that, when Peckinpah thought it called for, he embraced. He was capable of subtlety and emotional precision (as in the lyrically evocative Ballad Of Cable Hogue, 1970) and his excesses were purposeful; his blue-nosed detractors showed how badly they were missing the point when they claimed his violence was gratuitous. Still, from both choice and instinct, the place we now call over the top was one he often visited. Altogether an ornery cuss: combative and so confrontational the highfalutin term “transgressive” might almost fit if it didn’t sound so self-conscious and his sensibility hadn’t been, at bottom, so old school. And he willfully, almost wantonly worked without a net, and not always in a good way: given the chance recently, I couldn’t bring myself to revisit Straw Dogs (1971), which I recall all too vividly as having little to sustain the gothically creepy violence beyond pretentiously half-baked—and more than half-daft—pop anthropology, leavened with misogyny.

At his best, he could examine the moral and dramatic dimensions of masculine codes of conduct, loyalty, and integrity in a shifting and shifty western landscape with enormous force and power, orchestrating them to a sublimely resonant and cathartic culmination in the baroquely apocalyptic final shootout in The Wild Bunch (1969). High Country has a final shootout, with some of its resonance flowing from the Joel McCrea character’s statement of the Peckinpah moral code circa 1962: “All I want is to enter my house justified.”

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Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia

[Originally published in Film Comment Volume 17 Number 1, January/February 1981]

“Ah know you. You’re the guy in the hole.”
—Gold Hat to Fred C. Dobbs, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

Toward the end of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, just before his self-shattering execution of Kris Kristofferson’s Billy, James Coburn as Pat Garrett stops to exchange a few words with a coffinmaker, mysteriously at work in the gathering dusk. Addressed as Will, this artisan declines the offer of a comradely drink, then leans over his handiwork and says, “So you finally figured it out?” The speaker is Sam Peckinpah, and he seems to have something more in mind than Garrett’s determining that his quarry can be found within the adobe walls of Fort Sumner.

The effect of this apparition and query is disorienting, to say the least. Scarcely the artist off paring his nails in the wings, Peckinpah, instigator of this and so many other desperate quests for self-definition, materializes in the midst of mythic action as if to ascertain the degree of enlightenment his own imaginative creation has achieved. He even provides his principal player with a last rueful cue for action: “Ya better get it over with. ”

That’s all one hears in the theatrical release prints of the film: this dark, broody, heartbreakingly beautiful movie was to become, at the hands of MGM president James Aubrey, one of the most mangled works in Peckinpah’s much-mangled oeuvre. For whatever reason, network-TV prints of the picture include some reinstated scenes and parts of scenes (while lacking, of course, much of the R-rated material on Panavision view in theaters). On TV, the two foregoing remarks form part of a longer speech. Over the child’s coffin he is working on, the grizzled framer of death-as-apotheosis announces his own projected itinerary even as his latest stellar surrogate approaches the end of his particular road: “Know what I’m gonna do? Put everything I own right here [in the coffin], bury it, and leave the territory.” And then: “When are you gonna learn you can’t trust anybody—not even yourself, Garrett?”

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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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