Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated Westerns - Phil Nobile Jr. ""

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Underrated Westerns - Phil Nobile Jr.

This list is the first on my new Underrated Westerns series - look for more in the weeks to come!

Phil Nobile Jr is a writer and producer of non-fiction television content, and in his spare time is privileged to write about film for and its new print publication Birth.Movies.Death - More of a film enthusiast than a critic, Phil's first film memory is watching The Exorcist from the backseat of his parent's station wagon at the drive-in in 1973. You can find him on Twitter at @PhilNobileJr.

His column on what's interesting in the world of streaming movies at the moment - Phil's Big Streaming Pile - is always a great place to get recommendations.

THE HIRED HAND (1971) - When Easy Rider became a surprise box office hit, studios ran to play catch-up, and Universal greenlit a string of “youth market” pictures to cash in. Among them: Monte Hellman’s existential masterpiece Two-Lane Blacktop; Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie, and Peter Fonda’s The Hired Hand. Universal no doubt hoped the son of Henry Fonda starring in and directing a Western of his own would make quite a splash among the New Hollywood crowd, but the quiet story about fraternity, loyalty and fate came and went with little notice. Sundance released a nice special edition DVD a decade ago, but with no streaming option the film is today once again in danger of being forgotten. Co-starring Verna Bloom and Warren Oates at his peak, the film is in many ways the existential equal of Hellman’s more famous road movie. For my money, it’s in every way superior to Easy Rider, and it’s a shame Peter Fonda didn’t direct more.

KEOMA (1976) - There were other Italian Westerns after Keoma, but there’s something so exclamatory and bold and FINAL about the film that it certainly feels like The Last Spaghetti Western. To the right set of sensibilities, everything inKeoma is pure magic. Franco Nero’s eyes burn through his dusty face, the dusty landscape, the dusty frame. Enzo Castellari’s eye is so measured and painterly here that one wonders if it could possibly be the same director who, just a few years later, phoned in The Last Sharkor Escape From The Bronx. The story of Keoma (Nero), a half-breed shunned in his youth by his half-brothers, and forced to fight them to the death in adulthood, is appropriately operatic. “Operatic” could also be loosely applied to the score, carpeted with alternately croaking and shrieking vocals which narrate the tale so specifically that it would make Paul Schrader jealous. Everything in the film is so big and on its sleeve that Keoma can be a hard sell to newcomers. But as the final course of a twelve-year meal of Italian westerns, Keoma is the richest, sweetest of desserts.

5 CARD STUD (1968) - This Agatha Christie-esque story about a poker game-turned-lynch mob being murdered one by one is creaky for 1968, but that’s sort of the fun of it: the realization that they were making nostalgic throwbacks even back then. Dean Martin and Robert Mitchum would be fun to watch onscreen together even on their worst day, and this programmer isn’t even close to their worst day. Other familiar faces, including Denver Pyle and Roddy McDowall, make this a comfy Sunday afternoon programmer. Notable for being Inger Stevens’ last film appearance before she committed suicide in 1970.

CUT-THROATS NINE (1972) - Here’s a great minimalist Spanish Western that they keep threatening to remake. It maps a slasher/Ten Little Indians-type narrative onto its grisly palette, often getting surprisingly gory for 1972. Some Beach Red-type flashbacks sweeten the deal, and a protagonist switch (that beats the one from To Live And Die In LA to the screen by a dozen years) will knock you for a loop.

CHINA 9, LIBERTY 37 (1978) - Monte Hellman directed a pair of westerns back-to-back in the 60s - Ride In The Whirlwindand The Shooting. Either would be fine entries in any list of underrated Westerns, but my favorite of his forays into the genre is his 1978 “spaghetti western” (it’s often called such, but does the term apply when referring to shooting location and actors? It seems odd to use the phrase on a western made by an American). Though it’s one of Hellman’s more conventional narratives, his fascinations are still constantly below the surface, his keen observational eye helping the story avoid falling into cliche. The film offers up other pleasures, including Fabio Testi (Revolver, The Big Racket) and the achingly beautiful Jenny Agutter. The great character actor Sidney Lassick turns up, and the film boasts the unique screen credit "...and introducing Sam Peckinpah as Wilbur Olsen." For completists, it’s also noteworthy for being Warren Oates’ final Western, and he turns in his usual excellent performance.

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