Johnny Guitar: Olive Signature (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD) – Joan Crawford’s Vienna is the most masculine of women western heroes. A former saloon girl who earned her way to owning her own gambling house, she’s a mature woman with a history and she’s not ashamed of what she did to carve out her claim for a future.
Directed by Nicholas Ray and starring Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge as frontier entrepreneurs in a war of wills, the 1954 Johnny Guitar is one of the most unusual westerns of its era, or any era for that matter. It’s dense with psychological thickets and political reverberations (including a not-so-veiled allegory for the McCarthy witch-hunts in Hollywood), designed with color both expressive and explosive, and directed with the grace of a symphony and the drama of an opera.
Sterling Hayden plays the title character, a lanky, affable cowboy who wanders into Vienna’s saloon in the opening minutes and serves as witness to the dramas bubbling up in this frontier community in the hills. But his acts of heroism aside, he’s the equivalent of the stalwart girlfriend watching the showdown between Vienna and the Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge). She’s the town banker and moral arbiter whose power is threatened by Vienna (her saloon is built on the site of the railway line) and whose shameful desire for a bad boy miner (Scott Brady) flares up into vengeance against Crawford, the object of his desire.
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.
Sergio Leone is unarguably the godfather of spaghetti westerns. He directed its first international smash of the genre, defined the spare, savage style and mercenary sensibility, and made stars of journeymen actors Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef. But he was far from the only director who made his mark in the genre. Among the filmmakers who carved out their own style in the genre were Sergio Corbucci, Damiano Damiani, Enzo G. Castillari, and Sergio Sollima, whose trilogy of films with Tomas Milian take a more politically charged approach to the brutal tales of greed and betrayal and revenge that ground most spaghetti western scripts.
The Big Gundown (1966), Sollima’s first spaghetti western, stars Lee Van Cleef in a rare heroic role as Jonathan Corbett, a dogged lawman without a badge who applies an unwavering sense of justice. Fresh off For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Van Cleef was an instant icon of the genre; the American posters even promoted the film with a reference to his Leone success: “Mr. Ugly is back.” (Never mind that he was actually “the bad” man of the trio.) Sollima casts him as an unusual kind of hero who hunts down wanted men yet refuses to collect the bounty on their heads. His code is honorable (he literally hands a ragged band of outlaws a chance to go out shooting rather than face the rope) but unforgiving, an Old Testament angel as gunslinger passing judgment on the wanted men of his promised land of Texas. His lean features, windblown face, and hard, piercing eyes makes him stand out in the cast of Italian and European actors standing in for American settlers and Mexican peasants.
It’s hard to believe that The Big Gundown (Grindhouse, Blu-ray+DVD Combo), easily one of the best spaghetti westerns ever made, has never been on home video in the U.S. in any legitimate form before. It features Lee Van Cleef in a rare heroic role as Jonathan Corbett, a dogged lawman without a badge who applies an unwavering and unforgiving sense of justice, and Tomas Milian as Cuchillo, the Mexican peasant outlaw accused of raping and killing a 12-year-old girl. Cuchillo is more con man and frontier rascal than hardened criminal, but his antics and his survival instincts still manage to get a few unsavory types killed in the proverbial crossfire while Corbett’s obsessive pursuit of justice brings its own collateral damage. But in the savage frontier societies of this spaghetti western culture, that still makes them the good guys.
Director Sergio Sollima is not the stylist that Sergio Leone was and doesn’t have Leone’s operatic approach to conflict on the desert frontier, but with his screenwriting collaborator Sergio Donati he certainly had a way with portraying the corruption of the American dream on the frontier. Van Cleef’s Corbett is a humorless, unstoppable force and Milian’s Cuchillo a wily, earthy Bugs Bunny playing pranks on his escape, but both are pawns in a game of power and money. Which, of course, they learn in due course as the pursuit crosses the border into Mexico and the forces of law and order sent by a would-be railroad baron become ruthless vigilantes. Ennio Morricone provides a suitably spare score and Almeria, Spain, and surrounding areas double for the towns and the beautiful but hostile desert plains.
This debut release is a true labor of love from Grindhouse, a four-disc Blu-ray+DVD+CD Combo that features both the original English-language release version expanded with three additional scenes not seen in American release prints, and the complete Italian director’s cut, which runs 15 longer than the expanded American version (a complete list of cuts is listed in a DVD-ROM supplement on the DVD). The American version is mastered from a 2k digital restoration and the Italian cut uses some of these elements, which makes it relatively easy to spot the footage unique to this version (the drop in video quality is not dramatic but it is noticeable). Both version are presented on separate Blu-ray discs, with the DVD featuring the expanded American cut and a CD soundtrack with Ennio Morricone’s score.
Also features interviews with director Sergio Sollima, co-writer Sergio Donati and star Tomas Milian, commentary by western film experts C. Courtney Joyner and Henry C. Parke, galleries of stills, trailers and TV spots, and a booklet with notes by Joyner Euro-music expert Gergely Hubai.
Himalaya (Kino Lorber, Blu-ray, DVD) (Dec 31) – Director Eric Valli, a former National Geographic documentarian, hauled his crew up to the high passes and mountain lakes of the Himalayas to shoot this simple, almost mythic survival adventure, but this no documentary. It could be 2 or 200 years ago that this tribe makes its trade pilgrimage through the mountains to the low land. At stake is the stubborn pride of the old former chief reclaiming his position when his son is killed, and the sense of responsibility of the rebellious young natural leader when he sees blind emotion leading the old man’s determination to make the journey without him.
There’s a certain hit of a European creator turning the adventure of an almost primitive culture into a pseudo-mythic journey and the simplicity of this tale threatens to collapse into cliché at times, but the iconic power and directness of the non-actors and the sheer magnificence of the imagery pulls this caravan over the trickiest terrain. Features commentary by director Eric Valli, a 26-minute “making of” documentary, and the original EPK (electronic press kit) for the film.
Nightmare City (Raro, Blu-ray, DVD) (Dec 31), also known as City of the Walking Dead, is the notorious goremeister Umberto Lenzi’s 1981 pseudo zombie thriller. These are actually radioactive mutants, the victims of a deadly spill from a local nuclear plant disaster, but they have an unhealthy hunger for human flesh just the same. Hugo Stiglitz (yes, the inspiration for the name of the Tarantino character in Inglourious Basterds) is the journalist sent to cover the accident and Laura Trotter is his medical doctor wife, who do their best the evade the flesh eating ghouls while the army (led by Mel Ferrer) just seems to annoy them.
Previously on DVD in the US, this edition features a new HD master. Italian and English language versions with optional English subtitles, plus an interview with director Umberto Lenzi, trailers, and a booklet.
“Kansas City Confidential” (HD Cinema Classics/Film Chest)
The first of three collaborations between Phil Karlson, a director who graduated from B-movies with a strong storytelling punch and a tough, two-fisted sensibility, and John Payne, a former light romantic lead and bland song-and-dance man of Fox musicals, was a career changer for both of them. Payne was already reinventing himself as a hard, taciturn lead in the westerns and action films when he connected up with Karlson and (according to the director) they came up with the story: “he and I loaded with a bottle of Scotch. We wrote the entire script and then we turned it over to a writer to put it in screenplay form.”
Kansas City Confidential opens on Preston Foster, a mystery man with a stopwatch and a checklist casing a bankfront, piecing together his plan and his crew, a real rogues gallery of desperate thugs all but blackmailed by this mystery man in a mask into filling out his strike force. The robbery is executed with clockwork timing and Karlson directs the scene with terse efficiency, snappy momentum and crack timing. It’s also where we get our first real look at delivery man Joe (Payne), the hard-luck working class guy flipped off by fate when the armored car heist uses his florist deliveries as cover and leaves him to take the fall: a patsy to give them camouflage and the cops a distraction as they make their getaway. He’s a decorated soldier and survivor, a war hero who took the hard knocks that came his way and rolled with the punches, but is almost knocked down for the count with this sucker punch. His name is smeared in the press and his livelihood stolen by suspicion, but he’s resourceful, resilient and unflinching when it comes to taking the hit. He follows his only lead out of the states and into a sleepy little Mexican vacation spot where a payoff already complicated by double-dealing and double crosses gets a new player.
The hoods in this film are a triumvirate of essential B-movie thugs with attitude and an edge of psychosis: a beady-eyed Neville Brand, a smiling cobra of a Lee Van Cleef and a skinny, sweaty Jack Elam, who later played his cock-eyed looks for shaggy humor but here works his gargoyle face for underworld shiftiness. They give the film a shot of raw menace, a trio of thugs who are quick with a gun and slow to trust anyone and would just as soon solve a problem with a bullet. Foster, never the most dynamic of screen professionals, doesn’t exactly radiate authority as a criminal mastermind but part of the film’s fun is the play of false identities and double lives and Foster’s ex-cop with a grudge is all about appearing innocent while pulling the strings behind the scenes. His revenge on his forced retirement is a doozy that, if all goes to plan, will leave both rich and a hero.
[originally published in Film Comment Vol. 9 No. 2, March-April, 1973]
Early in 1967, United Artists undertook a massive publicity campaign to sell the country on a recent acquisition that had broken box-office records in its native Italy and might, just might do the same in the States. After all, its inspiration was Americanâ€”what more American than the Western? And its star was American: Clint Eastwoodâ€”true, the all-but-forgotten second lead of a TV series long sold into syndication, but the genuine article all the same. He sported a bit of stubble now, and had perfected a disinterested visual snarl that Rowdy Yates rarely had call to flash. And then there was the topography, animal and mineral. It would be hard to find corners of the American West more convincing than (and as undespoiled as) the Spanish canyons and deserts that served as exteriors alongside the CinecittÃ interiors. And the faces of the supporting castâ€”swarthy, oily, Fellinily grotesque, latitudes and longitudes and generations and cultures away from any Central Casting selectionsâ€”became landscapes themselves in huge, flyspecked closeup. The music capped and integrated the rest: memories of the Mascot-Monogram stock libraries filtered through a modern and European sensibility, the result an idiosyncratic, eclectic, delaying-then-surging score full of war whoops, hoofbeats, church bells, and hammers snicking back to full cock; it was startling, unnerving, and frequently breathtaking in its sense of aspiration and grandeur, and it somehow complemented the bizarre exoticism of the film, the familiar made fresh, new, and neurotically contemporary. A Fistful of Dollars swept the nation and “spaghetti Western” became a catchword.
A Fistful of Dollars won general audiences for its stylish embellishments of the new sadism and a narrower, more discerning audience for the perverse originality of the man whose talent embraced most if not all of the preceding categoriesâ€”director Sergio Leone. Leone was original, and then again he wasn’t: almost scene for scene, his movie was an uncredited swipe of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. A lone gunman (Eastwood) rides into a border town where two equally reprehensible gangs are vying for control. He demonstrates his lethal competence to the satisfaction of both sides but will work for neither very long. Instead he arranges deception after deception calculated to keep the rivals at one another’s throats until all have been annihilated.