Film critics Bruce Reid, Richard T. Jameson, Kathleen Murphy, and Robert Horton debate and discuss the recent restorations of film noir orphans Too Late for Tears and Woman on the Run, the legacy of Sam Peckinpah, Ben Wheatley’s new film High-Rise, and (non)critical opinions of Captain America: Civil War in the May 2016 edition of Framing Pictures from Scarecrow Video.
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 June edition will take place on Friday, June 10 at 7pm at the Scarecrow Video Screening Room. More information at the Framing Pictures Facebook page.
The Killer Elite / Noon Wine (1966) (Twilight Time, Blu-ray) – By even the most generous measure, The Killer Elite (1975) is one of Sam Peckinpah’s weakest film. Which, by Peckinpah standards, is still a cut above a great many films. He manages to get his own sensibility into the tale of black ops mercenaries in a culture of betrayal and retribution, with James Caan as the contract killer who returns from a crippling injury by sheer force of will and the desire for vengeance, and he stage some terrific set pieces to go with Caan’s brutal odyssey. It’s right in tune with the cinema of paranoia and conspiracy that bloomed in the seventies while also jumping on the martial arts craze with Caan taking on ninja warriors as well as his former partner (Robert Duvall). But it’s also a talky script and Peckinpah doesn’t really seem engaged in the stakes or the characters of this story, though Pack fans will appreciate appearances by Bo Hopkins and Gig Young.
What makes this disc essential is its very special supplements: the American home video debut of Peckinpah’s 1966 made-for-television drama Noon Wine, an intimate 52-minute production shot on a combination of film and videotape and broadcast on TV once. Adapted by Peckinpah from the short novel by Katherine Ann Porter, this is an intimate production shot in a stripped down style that puts the focus on character and language. Jason Robards and Olivia de Havilland are the frontier couple who hire a Swedish drifter (Per Oscarsson) as a ranch hand and Theodore Bikel the traveler who tries to poison their minds with stories that the Swede is a dangerous madman. Robards plays one of Peckinpah’s most nuanced characters and de Havilland is a quiet force of moral backbone. Lovely and devastating.
The master 2-inch tape was destroyed by ABC decades ago and until recently the only surviving copies were poor quality B&W kinescope recordings. This edition is mastered from 1-inch videotape copy of the master recording. It shows its age and provenance—lo-fidelity image, electric color, the occasional tape glitch—but looks remarkably good considering.
Both programs feature commentary by film historians and Peckinpah experts Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons, and Nick Redman, which is very useful for both and frankly a labor of love when it comes to Noon Wine. What a treat. Also includes the featurettes “Passion and Poetry: Sam’s Killer Elite” and “Promoting The Killer Elite” and trailers and TV and radio spots. There may not be much interest for this disc outside of seventies action completists and devoted Peckinpah fans, but it is essential for anyone who loved Peckinpah’s movies. This double-feature shows two sides of Sam at their most extreme.
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.
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.
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). MajorDundee 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.
[Originally published in Movietone News 54, June 1977]
War is an inescapably personal experience in Cross of Iron. Nearly always from middle-shot or closer, the soldiers see the enemy they fight: many die in the embraces of their killers. No field-size moving masses of men, no distant artillery, no “targets” and “objectives.” In Peckinpah’s war there are only people—confused, afraid, in pain, screaming for survival. Peckinpah carefully chooses images emblematic of the reality of war: a soldier’s neck emptying blood into the muddy water where he lies dead; a body that has been run over so many times it has become part of the road. The awful power of his combat scenes is heightened by contrasting qualities of light and sound for the out-of-combat sequences: the warm greens and yellows in the hospital scenes and in the idyllic field to which Sergeant Rolf Steyner’s platoon escapes after a hopeless battle in a burnt-out factory contrast starkly with the cold greens, dusty grays, muddy browns of the battle zone. The absolute silence before each of several attacks in the film serves to emphasize the fury of what follows. Never has Peckinpah’s rhythmic cutting between similar violent acts been so effective in establishing the inevitability and terrible beauty of the sense of community in the meeting—and the meting-out of death.
You’ve read the essays, now see the films. My post-script to the Sam Peckinpah series is a survey of Peckinpah on DVD and Blu-ray, with notes on print and mastering quality and details on supplements (where applicable). And with so many of Peckinpah’s films released in compromised versions and later reconstructed or amended with restored footage, I’ve also provided a guide through the incarnations available.
Consider this your guide to the Sam Peckinpah canon on home video (U.S. DVD releases only).
Sam Peckinpah began his career on television, writing scripts for numerous western shows (including numerous episodes of Gunsmoke) and creating a couple of landmark shows, and moved into the director’s chair with an episode of Broken Arrow in 1958. That show is not on DVD, nor are any of his most significant original TV plays—”Pericles on 31st Street” (1962) and “The Losers” (1963), both made for The Dick Powell Show, and “Noon Wine” (1966), shot on videotape for ABC Stage 67—or any episodes of The Westerner, arguably his greatest TV creation. Here’s what is available:
The Rifleman (1960) (MPI)
“The Marshal” (Season One, Ep. 4), “The Boarding House” (Season One, Ep. 22), “The Money Gun” (Season One, Ep. 33),“The Baby Sitter” (Season Two, Ep. 12)
Sam Peckinpah wrote “The Sharpshooter” for Dick Powell’s Zane Grey Theater, which became the pilot for The Rifleman (and rebroadcast as the first episode of the new series). MPI released 120 episodes of the half-hour western series over the six collections, not necessarily in order and certainly not comprehensive, but all of Peckinpah’s episodes are included. The single-disc “The Rifleman: Volume 1” (which was subsequently collected in the four-disc “The Rifleman: Boxed Set Collection 1”) features the Peckinpah-scripted pilot “Sharpshooter” and second episode “Home Ranch” along with “The Marshal,” the first episode of the show that he directed. “The Money Gun” (Season One, Ep. 33) is on “The Rifleman: Volume 2” (also collected in “The Rifleman: Boxed Set Collection 1”). “The Boarding House” is included in “The Rifleman: Boxed Set Collection 2” and “The Baby Sitter” is in “The Rifleman: Boxed Set Collection 3.” The MPI collections are no longer in print but feature good quality editions of the episodes and they may found for purchase used or for rent at your more auteur-oriented video stores, and these episodes are also available in the 16-disc/80-episode “The Rifleman Mega Pack,” the quality of which I cannot comment upon. Read More “Sam Peckinpah on DVD: A Guide to Resources”
[Originally published in Film Comment Volume 20 Number 2, March-April 1984]
Mandeville Canyon is a quiet, curvy stretch of road a good ten miles from Hollywood, lined with well-appointed homes generously separated by shrub and woodland. Where the grade begins to increase, as if the road aspired to eventually climbing out of the surrounding high hills, one’s eyes cast leftward toward a graciously imposing bluff. Ranks of white fence dominate the near horizon and reappear brokenly through the trees on the hillside beyond. From the road they’re the only visible sign of “Robert Taylor’s little cabin where he used to ride horses—in point of fact, a sprawling ranch house replete with baronial dining rooms, parlors, studies, bedrooms, and enough bars to keep the clientele of a metropolitan watering hole happy.
This particular late-afternoon in December 1982, the peace of Mandeville Canyon is not secure. As we park along the roadside and climb out for the walk up the long lane, an abrupt burst of light-machine-gun fire rips the twilight. We are undismayed; indeed, the effect is reassuring, even charming. Someone is tuning up for another night’s shooting on The Osterman Weekend,the first theatrical-movie version of a Robert Ludlum bestseller and the first film Sam Peckinpah has directed in five years.
[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August, 1978]
Convoycontinues Peckinpah’s voyage into “nihilist poetry,” in the phrase of Pauline Kael, which began to be dreamily insistent in The Killer Elite and became the whole show in Cross of Iron. At a glance, the new film looks closer to conventional narrative than that Yugoslav-based war picture, filmed in a nightmare neverneverland of green mud and orange blossoms of flame, with nary a Bo Hopkins or L.Q. Jones among Sgt. Steyner’s Teutonic Wild Bunch to certify the place as home. Convoyrumbles down a linear track in the modern American Southwest, accommodating a couple of days’ time in the lives of legendary badass trucker Rubber Ducky (Kris Kristofferson) and an ever-increasing number of his confreres, gathering initial impetus from a run-in with a trucker-hating, dirty-tricks-playing sheriff (Ernest Borgnine), and escalating through a series of deliriously ill-advised acts of rebellion that virtually compel the retributive/destructive force of The Law to come down on the vagabond heroesâ€”these “modern cowboys,” as both a fatuous politician and the logic of Peckinpah’s own career would have it. Rubber Duck and some half-dozen good buddies, barreling toward the state line, gradually find themselves the vanguard of a vast caravan and the focus of a boundless populist movement whereby all sorts of abused “little punks” (Frank Capra’s phrase this time) get to sound off about everything from Nam and Watergate to the infamous “double nickel” national speed limit, which restricts private-enterprise commerce and just plain interferes with a fella going down his own road (cf. Jr. Bonner)at his own good time. The poetry comes in less through the occasional overlap ballet of trucks amid backlighted dust clouds—a rather film-student-y idea carried off no better than the average film student might–than in the bemusement with which Peckinpah piles on the improbabilities. Finally, Rubber Ducky and cohorts are no more driving through a real piece of the American Southwest than Sgt. Steyner and his platoon were walking through a documentary version of the Second World War on the Russian front.
[Originally published in The Weekly (Seattle), May 25, 1977]
Hugging the wall of a trench, Steyner’s platoon looks up at a Russian tank clattering over their heads. They are the last Germans at this easternmost point on the Russian front, a rear guard where no rear guard was meant to be, deliberately stranded and now quite surrounded. They break for the nearby factory, spray the snipers out of the convoluted ductwork, but find no refuge there. The snout of another tank gun smashes through the wall, the machine following, climbing over brick and mortar and dead Germans and Russians. There is a tunnel. The platoon runs along it. In the eyehole of light behind them, the tank appears. The snout becomes an eye, and the eye a mouth, roaring after them. But only the tunnel remains to be destroyed. The platoon has risen out of a hole into sunlight, silence, and a field of the thickest, greenest grass this side of paradise.
People talk a lot about the violence in Sam Peckinpah’s films. Most of what they say has to do with drawing facile connections between bloodlust and macho sexuality, or tut-tutting over fascist mindsets, or announcing forthrightly that violence never settled anything and only begets more violence. This record is available at any number of reviewing stands and is suitable for playing at all the best parties.
The problem with these approaches to Peckinpah’s violence is that they all seek to ignore the man’s art, to seal it safely off behind a barrier of trendy labels and categories—somebody else’s categories. In so doing, ironically, they overlook how truly violent and anarchic his movies are. For Peckinpahâ€™s violence involves much more than an abundance of blood-spurting corpses and protracted death falls. It rages against the very structures of experience, explodes the linear reliability of perception and narrative, blows up the known world and then shudders as the chaos starts resolving back into the same old patterns.
[Originally published in Movietone News 50, June 1976]
Sam Peckinpah’s newest film opens with a whirling drill bit boring through a wall. But, whether by design or accident, The Killer Eliteis not the study of espionage screwings and counter-screwings it might have been. In fact, for all its action, it is essentially a talk film. Everybody talks at for-hire protection agent Mike Locken, though he’s almost never interested. His killer-corporation boss, visiting him in the hospital after Locken has been wounded, reflects on the irony of his own situation: “My father was a minister. That’s what he wanted me to be.” To this embarrassingly inappropriate reverie Locken retorts, “Who the hell cares?” winning the applause of the viewer impatient with Strange Interludes. “Heroism is Out,” another character reminds him; but Locken curiously doesn’t sense the sterility in a new age when murder is no longer the passionate response of an individual but the paid service of a corporation.