Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated Westerns - Jack Criddle ""

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Underrated Westerns - Jack Criddle

Jack Criddle is a Brooklyn-based filmmaker, editor, and audiovisual jack-of-all-trades. His recent credits include work as a key P.A. on a forthcoming Wilco concert film by Brendan Canty and Christoph Green, and as editor of instructional videos for In the rare moments when he's not working, he enjoys movies, cooking and a good book, and can be reached, or at @southboundsix on Twitter. 
"Westerns have a special place in my heart, because it's my dad's favorite genre. He grew up in Essex, UK, and like all boys his age, viewed the cowboys and Indians on TV and in the movies as larger-than-life, mythic figures. His interest in the history of the real West led him to discover that our family had a distant relative, Christopher Criddle, who immigrated to America and died with Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Needless to say, my dad's passion rubbed off on me. Three out of these five picks are movies that we rented from the local library or video store, and though they aren't as well-known as classics like THE SEARCHERS or BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID, they made an impression on me that has stayed with me over the years."

Rugged auteur Budd Boetticher made seven b-westerns in the 50's with the flinty, slightly over-the-hill Randolph Scott, who always played a man struggling to stay on the righteous path in a morally murky universe. THE TALL T is best know, but this one is my favorite. Scott is an ex-sherrif whose personal revenge mission is complicated when he agrees to act as a wagon guide to another pair of Boetticher archetypes - a strong, beautiful woman who's married to a cowardly heel. Stealing the show is villain Lee Marvin in one of his Lee Marvin-iest performances, as a loquacious crook with whom Scott forms an uneasy alliance.

Another great revenge western, this one from underrated director Henry King (THE GUNFIGHTER.) This film should be particularly shocking to those who identity Gregory Peck most with Atticus Finch. We're used to seeing him as characters of unquestionable moral fibre who always do the right thing. Here, the way in which King subverts his good-guy persona is fantastic. The picture starts as a blood-and-thunder revenger, in which we root for Peck to go after his wife's killers, and concludes as a scathing indictment of vigilantism. Lee Van Cleef, Henry Silva and Stephen Boyd round out a great supporting cast.

I understand that this film is as a beloved repertory house and TV stale in Cuba, although it's fairly unknown here. It certainly wasn't on my radar until I took a Cuban Cinema class with Prof. Jerry Carlson at CCNY. Director Julio Garcia Espinosa published an essay in the 60's called "For an Imperfect Cinema," in which he argued that the country's burgeoning film industry had a responsibility to produce films with a distinctly Cuban audience in mind, rather than to try and replicate Hollywood movies or European art cinema. His tale of a lovable rogue-turned-freedom fighter is a politically-minded but broadly funny, Tarantino-esque genre mashup of westerns, gangster movies and swashbucklers. Revolutionary art is rarely so much fun.

Charleton Heston is magnificently low-key here as an aging cowpoke hired to patrol a rich man's property. He finds Joan Hackett, a married woman separated from her husband, and her young son squatting in his winter cabin, and tentatively agrees to share it with them. Gradually, a romance blossoms between the two spiritually worn-down souls. I submit this film to anyone who thinks Charleton Heston was a gun-toting, monkey-hating ham: this is perhaps his best performance. However, the intensity we're used to seeing from him is ably provided by Donald Pleasance's villain, an evil preacher who is even more crazy than NIGHT OF THE HUNTER's Reverend Powell. 

Kevin Costner's best work as a director is this wonderful, traditional western concerned  with the end of the era of free-roaming cattle drovers and the rise of land barons, big business, commerce and corruption. Robert Duvall is in full LONESOME DOVE mode here, and is fantastic as an aging trail boss. Michael Gambon's villain is his scariest power-mad psychopath since THE COOK, THE THIEF, HIS WIFE AND HER LOVER, and Costner, Annette Bening, Diego Luna and Abraham Benrubi are all in fine form as various western archetypes. The final shoot-out at the end is one of the best in any film of recent memory. 

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