Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated Westerns - John D'Amico ""

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Underrated Westerns - John D'Amico

John D'Amico is a New York City based filmmaker and theorist who
writes for and On Twitter @jodamico1.


PBS’s American Playhouse is one of the unsung titans of American culture. Diverse in a way that’s almost unimaginable on television now, the show offered up 12 years of powerful dramas of American life, from For Colored Girls to Bill Duke’s version of A Raisin in the Sun. American Playhouse didn’t create the for-theaters The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez, but they did manage to premiere it during their 1982 season, a decision which ending up costing the film dearly — after all, what kind of movie theater would want to run a film everyone already saw for free?

It’s a shame Gregorio Cortez had such lousy distribution because, looking back, it’s one of the most mature and powerful films of the drama-parched 1980s. Edward James Olmos lays down a typically intense performance as the titular Cortez, a Mexican man on the run after a mistranslation leads to the death of an American sheriff. Quaking handheld photography and a muted color palette give it all a raw tactility too often missing from the era and the genre (and also point the way to the director’s later work directing Olmos in Battlestar Galactica).

Like in John Boorman’s Hell in the Pacific, the Americans in this film speak in unsubtitled English and the Mexicans in unsubtitled Spanish, putting the cruel comedy of race relations on painfully vivid display.

A GUNFIGHT (1971) dir. Lamont Johnson
Sometimes you see the most amazing stuff when an actor realizes he’s past his prime and incorporates that into his work. Case in point: A Gunfight, a film that, for the most part, is only remembered now as the source of Johnny Cash saying “you stay the hell away from me” in the “Hurt” music video. It deserves another look. Directed by television fixture Lamont Johnson, we spend an hour and a half with an aging Johnny Cash and Kirk Douglas as rival gunfighters eying each other for an exhibition duel. Cash is great and Douglas is even better, clawing with the desperation of a man whose only skills are nothing to be proud of it. It’s all very Hemingway - not just for the bullfighting motif but also the depiction of violence as something both lamentable and essential. But let’s not lose sight of the real draw here: Johnny Cash and Kirk Douglas playing rival gunfighters.

GUNSLINGER (1956) dir. Roger Corman
Corman was always at his best when he was at his most progressive (just look at his masterpiece The Intruder), and this more liberal riff on Johnny Guitar is nothing if not ahead of its time. The editing is clunky and doesn’t have Nicholas Ray's poetry but it has its own ugly, angry intelligence. Like most great westerns of the ‘50s, it views death as a joyless grotesquerie, and its flat style robs us of the aesthetic joy of watching men die. We face the hypocrisies of the cowboy life head-on, just like in the same year’s much larger The Searchers. John Ireland and Beverly Garland put in good work on a script that’s simple and strong. Corman’s eye is a little too lackadaisical to give us anything approaching a realistic western town, but that sort of emphasizes the stage play simplicity of it all. Despite all that it got thrown to the wolves in Mystery Science Theater 3000.

AT HOME AMONG STRANGERS (1974) dir. NikitaMikhalkov
The Soviets always made interesting westerns. A lot of them, like The Sons of Great Bear, anticipated the revisionist westerns of the 1970s and viewed American expansion from the perspective of the Native Americans. For my money, though, the most exciting westerns from the USSR are the so-called “easterns,” films that reinterpreted the characters and situational archetypes of the American westerns in their own outback, the steppes.

At Home Among Strangers is the best of the lot, maybe even my pick for the best Soviet movie of the 1970s. Shot in pale, hazy blue-green color, until the money ran out and they had to switch to high contrast black and white film stock, it’s a story of a train robbery in the 1917 Revolution. Weaving between color and monochrome, reassessing the birth of the Soviet Union through the expansion of the United States, folding the best kind of slouching naturalism in with majestic camera gymnastics, there’s an unpredictable tension to every frame.

On top of that, the action scenes are terribly exciting and the camerawork, though a little heavy on the zoom lens, is sometimes preposterously good.

LAW OF VENGEANCE (aka TO THE LAST MAN) (1933) dir. Henry Hathaway
Pre-Stagecoach sound westerns are perceived, not entirely without merit, as a dead zone, but I promise you just will not be able to believe how good this one is. The jewel in the usually underwhelming Henry Hathaway’s crown, it’s darker than you’d expect – a brooding, impeccably paced thriller. Shot like a silent, with some great camera movements and among the absolute coolest credits sequence I'm aware of - the names appear at the bottom third during the actors' first shots. It's well written, well acted (who knew Buster Crabbe had it in him?), and well shot, and unlike so many of these oaters, it has heart and style.

THE PILGRIM (1916) dir. Frank Borzage
It’s about time we take another look at the work of FrankBorzage. Maybe no dramatic filmmaker ever had a tighter rein on the human heart. The Pilgrim will illustrate that beyond my meager ability to verbalize it.

A major inspiration on My Darling Clementine (they have the same ending almost beat-for-beat), it’s almost overwhelmingly tender, a softhearted story of the impact of violence on the human psyche. In just 30 minutes in the nascent years of narrative filmmaking, it's a strong contender for the most softhearted and mature western ever made. What a treasure this is — a subtle, understated, tender romance of the west just ONE year after Birth of a Nation. Frank Borzage got there, and it took the rest of the art decades to catch up. I love it so much recorded a commentary for it:

THE NAKED DAWN (1955) dir. Edgar G. Ulmer
It’s funny how we remember them, because westerns of the 1950s were some of the most pacifistic films I’m aware of. For the most part they’re terrified of violence and appalled by death. This isn’t a prerequisite for great filmmaking, but it helps. Here veteran no-budget filmmaker Edgar Ulmer employs a series of long still takes that give an otherwise standard love triangle an impressive gravity. The film that convinced Francois Truffaut that he could make Jules and Jim, its core romance is far more of a draw than its gunplay. Proof that the genre is full of unexpected fruit.

THE RAID (1954) dir. Hugo Fregonese
Is it still a western if it’s set in Vermont? The preposterous true story of a Confederate assault on a Canadian border town, The Raid holds a Sword of Damocles (and a young Lee Marvin) over our head with Hitchcock-like sadism. We watch and wait, hoping for hearts to melt and fortunes to change, and it all charges forward to one of the most aggressive and powerful endings of the era. One of a kind.

TRACK OF THE CAT (1954) dir. William A. Wellman
One of the reasons I love westerns is that for whatever reason, the genre seems unusually equipped to deal with simple premises. This one is as simple as it gets: One frozen night, Robert Mitchum sets out to kill the cougar that killed his brother.

Over that framework we get a Tennessee Williams family drama striped with a landbound Moby Dick. It’s as well shot as anything ever made. Some of the frames have to be seen to be believed. It’s essentially a black and white film shot in color. Bursts of red physically assail our eyes over a canvas of white walls, white snow, gray skies, and black shadows. Its pale coldness will make you shiver. It's achingly beautiful and heartbreaking in that small Raymond Carver kind of way in which a single gesture can mean the world.

Director William Wellman, who’s made a handful of the best movies ever made, reaches his zenith here.

It feels appropriate ending here. As the story goes, right before Ward Bond died, he invited his friends and coworkers John Wayne, John Carradine, Ken Curtis, and John Ford aboard the television show he headlined. An aging Ford, patron saint of westerns and the greatest filmmaker of his generation, puts his indelible stamp on this story of a Civil War doctor, the only time John Wayne was ever credited with his real name. Ward Bond’s show was spun off from Ford’s underrated Wagon Master, and all this intertextuality makes it fit right in with The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance as the men’s goodbye to the genre they made, the genre which made them. A fine episode of television made all the more powerful if you have a fondness for the massive creative talent behind it.

1 comment:

Blake Lucas said...

I appreciate what you wrote about THE PILGRIM because although I don't know this film yet, a friend recently gave me a disc he made simply labeled Frank Borzage Westerns so I'm guessing this is on it. I will make a point to see it soon.

I especially support your choice of THE RAID, one of the unsung masterpieces of American cinema that I wish were more widely known. Yes, it's set in Vermont but with the iconography of the actors, the redressed Fox Western town, and the relationship of the Civil War with the West that is a part of so many Westerns, I personally do include this when I think of the genre.