Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated Westerns - Jon Abrams (The Final Roundup!) ""

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Underrated Westerns - Jon Abrams (The Final Roundup!)

Jon Abrams is a writer and sometime cartoonist out of New York. He has written for Paracinema and writes regularly at Daily Grindhouse.  Check out his homepage, Demon’s Resumeand check him out on Twitter:@jonnyabomb.
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PURSUED (1947)
It’s pushing the parameters of the task at hand to call PURSUED an “underrated” Western. It’s been name-checked by Martin Scorsese on several occasions. That kind of rating is right on the level. But the further we get from the days of the Hollywood studio system – and we were pretty far already by the time I took my first look at these movies – the less certain we can be that all of us have seen the same basics. It’s fair to assume any decent film enthusiast has seen THE SEARCHERS, but less apparent that THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE is as familiar, and MY DARLING CLEMENTINE even less likely. And these are John Ford movies – Ford has plenty more name recognition than Raoul Walsh, whose most widely-known movie, I’d wager, isWHITE HEAT. Raoul Walsh was a studio craftsman who, like many directors at the time, was comfortably crossing genre boundaries. He made plenty of gangster pictures and plenty of Westerns, butPURSUED is a case where the two genres merged like fingers clasped in desperate last-minute prayer.
Like John Ford’s MY DARLING CLEMENTINE,PURSUED is a Western shot (in this case by the legendary James Wong Howe) a whole lot like a film noir. But Ford’s movie only really looked like noir. Its thematic pre-occupations are consistent with Ford’s other work – the loner who joins a community and also the one who doesn’t.MY DARLING CLEMENTINEis a John Ford Western, only darker. On the other hand, with PURSUED Walsh takes the frontier terrain and has Howe flood it with ink. Darkness so fully infestsPURSUED that only one star could bear it.
Robert Mitchum started in war movies and certainly made his share of Westerns, but he was best suited for film noir. His heavy-lidded gaze wasn’t quite an Eastwood squint, but it did befit a guy who seemed at ease in dimly-lit saloons and back alleys. The doomed romanticism of Mitchum’s onscreen aura most often cast him in the hero mold, but he was a darker hero who thrived in the films of a dark era, far from the bullish American-ism of John Wayne and no closer to the steadfast nobility of Henry Fonda. Mitchum never looked as comfortable in the wide open expanses of the Western, which is why PURSUED turns the lights down for him.
At the same time, Mitchum plays a more tortured role here than he did almost anywhere else. His character, Jeb Rand, is plagued into adulthood by the childhood memories of his family being killed in front of him. He survived and was taken in by a woman known as Mrs. Callum –Judith Anderson, more likable here but better known as the spooky governess in Alfred Hitchcock’s REBECCA(not the most reassuring parental figure Walsh could have cast). Jeb is brought up alongside Callum’s two children, Adam and Thor, the latter played by the lovely Teresa Wright, another Hitchcock alumna who starred in SHADOW OF A DOUBT. Jeb loves Thor and the feeling is mutual, and if that bothers the viewer than Adam can serve as a stand-in, because he’s opposed to the union. Adam isn’t Jeb’s only problem, since far more nefarious is another, elder Callum, Grant (Dean Jagger, BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK), a manipulator and murderer who turns out to be the one who originally massacred the Rand family.
Obviously, there’s more than enough explosive interpersonal psychodrama to the story already, but what makes PURSUED even more uncommon is the punctuation of the flashbacks. They have a potent energy even now; no doubt they were incredibly intense in 1947. Jeb Rand is pursued at points by Grant Callum, yes, but more than that, Jeb Rand is pursued by his nightmarish past. That’s what it’s all about, and though I’ve emphasized the uncommon psychology of the piece, it’s still a Raoul Walsh movie, generally more exciting than therapy.
THE HILLS RUN RED (1966)
In hindsight, THE HILLS RUN RED looks more like the title for a horror movie than for a Western. It might make you think of THE HILLS HAVE EYES. It might even make you think of THE HILLS RUN RED, a lesser-known and more recent slasher flick which may or may not have taken the inspiration. THE HILLS RUN RED is a 1966 “spaghetti” Western that came very near the beginning of the onslaught of foreign-made action films about the American West, one of the most incongruous of all genres and therefore maybe my single favorite.
It isn’t clear which was the first “spaghetti” Western, or when exactly it was released. It wasn’t A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, although the success of that one essentially ignited the entire movement, along with establishing the template, solidified by 1965’s FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE. In “spaghetti” Westerns, the heroes were overall more ambiguously heroic, the villains were far more vicious, and the action more explicitly violent than any Hollywood Westerns not made by Sam Peckinpah. Sometimes the hero is helped by a veteran killer (played inTHE HILLS RUN RED by Dan Duryea), sometimes he has a comedy sidekick, and sometimes he has to go it alone. By 1966 there were a few dozen “spaghetti” Westerns – the most significant entries from that year were Sergio Leone’s THE GOOD THE BAD & THE UGLY, Sergio Corbucci’sDJANGO, and arguably Damiano Damiani’s A BULLET FOR THE GENERAL. Most aficionados don’t rank THE HILLS RUN RED as highly, which is probably fair.
But I’m into THE HILLS RUN RED for several reasons. If director Carlo Lizzani doesn’t have the bombastic visuals and controlled compositions of a Sergio Leone (because no one does!), there’s still a pretty great Ennio Morricone score – not his finest, but one of his very many pleasurable ones. If the violence isn’t quite as horrific and wince-inducing as you’ll find in a Corbucci Western, it’s still fairly intense when it comes – screenwriter Piero Regnoli wrote as many horror movies as anything (NIGHTMARE CITY, the sorta-zombie epic with pivotal aerobics scenes, is one of his). And if star Jeffrey Hunter doesn’t quite have the charisma of a Clint Eastwood or a Franco Nero, there’s always supreme wackadoo Henry Silva as the villainous “Mendez” – he’s Lee Van Cleef if Lee Van Cleef had been a total weirdo. It’s one of the strangest, most enjoyable performances the genre ever produced, and apparently it made Silva’s name overseas, leading to a lucrative overseas career that found him anchoring crime films with unsurpassed kookiness.
Lastly, I like THE HILLS RUN RED because it has the one thing the Leone/Eastwood trio of films don’t – a compelling female lead. Nicoletta Machiavelli (great name) didn’t make a whole lot of movies, and you can probably only see her in Corbucci’s NAVAJO JOE and in an uncredited cameo in Sergio Sollima’s FACE TO FACE, but she’ll stay with you. For my money she’s one of the three most gorgeous women ever to appear in a “spaghetti” Western, and while unfortunately women didn’t usually get enough to do in Westerns and this is not really an exception, she has an intriguing sadness to her. You don’t often get the sense – in any action movie of any era – that anyone is particularly affected by the carnage they’ve witnessed, but she provides that here.

COMPAÑEROS (1970)

With DJANGO, Sergio Corbucci made the single most influential “spaghetti” Western outside of A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, and with THE GREAT SILENCE, Corbucci made a straight-up masterpiece, regardless of genre. But DJANGO is pretty damn grisly and THE GREAT SILENCE quite possibly has the downiest down ending of any movie I’ve ever seen. With COMPAÑEROS he had a little more fun.
COMPAÑEROS borders on slapstick, quite frankly. The odd-couple pairing of the two heroes is apparent before either of them says a word: Cuban-born Tomás Milián, as he so often did, plays a Mexican, in this case a beret-wearing revolutionary, whereas the very Italian Franco Nero goes very blond to play very Swedish. Nero is uncommonly animated in the role, where he plays a mercenary come to Mexico during the revolution and reluctantly paired with Milián’s character, who nicknames Nero “The Penguin.”
There is, no doubt, plenty to be said about Italian filmmakers using American genre trappings to make a period film about Mexican politics, but that isn’t as fun to talk about as Jack Palance’s character, an American who is out to destroy Nero. I know I said Henry Silva was pretty weird in THE HILLS RUN REDbut I’m pretty sure Jack Palance out-freaks him here. Palance plays the part with a wooden arm, which he lost when his pet hawk pecked it off to save him from a crucifixion (long story, but it’s why he hates the Penguin). That might be a somewhat atypical tale which is why Palance’s character carries the simple name of “John.” Another thing to know about John is that he’s a total stoner. Homes beat Cheech & Chong to the movies by eight years.
At one point John gets the better of his two enemies, and has them buried up to their necks in sand. This is surely upsetting to those in that predicament, but to the rest of us that is never not funny. COMPAÑEROS is maybe the single best guys-buried-up-to-their-necks-in-sand movies in a highly limited subgenre that also includes CREEPSHOWTHE SCORPION KING, and ONE CRAZY SUMMER. This movie truly is an odd duck – sorry: penguin – but it’s as fun as the Ennio Morricone theme song is rousing. Just try to get it out of your head. Don’t worry, you won’t want to.
TAKE A HARD RIDE (1975)
This is one of those movies that sounds so great it can’t help but disappoint. For example, I have always deliberately avoided the movieCONGO because I have the vague awareness that it pits some combination of Bruce Campbell, Ernie Hudson, Tim Curry, and Joe Don Baker against a small army of super-intelligent gorillas. There is just no way the movie they made can ever match the one that exists already in my head.
So it is with TAKE A HARD RIDE, directed by Antonio Margheriti, who the year before had made a Shaw Brothers Western teaming Lee Van Cleef with Hong Kong kung fu film star Lo Lieh. This time Van Cleef is back to playing the heavy, again a bounty hunter as he had been in FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE and THE BIG GUNDOWN. His quarry: Jim Brown, Fred Williamson, and occasionally Jim Kelly, just for that kung fu flavor. Van Cleef and Brown had teamed up before in EL CONDOR but now you get to see them as adversaries.
One of a few strange things about TAKE A HARD RIDE is that, its Italian director and Spanish locations aside, it’s a “spaghetti” Western written by Americans, co-produced by 20th Century Fox, and sporting a [very fine] score by Jerry Goldsmith. It’s spaghetti-and-ketchup. I love the title, but there’s not overly much to love otherwise. Antonio Margheriti was an astoundingly prolific filmmaker but I’ve never seen a film of his I found particularly interesting anywhere past the concept and casting. TAKE A HARD RIDE feels slack, even dull, and that’s sometimes during scenes where things are exploding. Also Lee Van Cleef sports a truly unfortunate hairdo in this movie. Not sure why nobody attended to that.
But still, what this movie does for the imagination – imagine how cool it could have been! THE GOOD THE BAD & THE UGLY with Jim Brown and Fred Williamson.THE GOOD THE BAD & THE UGLY is probably my favorite movie but this could potentially have bested it. You’d have to send Sergio Leone in for that mission.
THE GREAT NORTHFIELD MINNESOTA RAID (1972)
The eccentric, tremendously enjoyable 1972 Western THE GREAT NORTHFIELD MINNESOTA RAID is a lesser-known trinket in the filmography of its writer & director, Philip Kaufman, who is probably best known for THE RIGHT STUFF, which he made a decade later.  What those two films have in common is their exploration of male comraderie and conflict, resentment and jealousy in the face of fame, and how these positive and negative emotions can so often be intertwined.
In THE GREAT NORTHFIELD MINNESOTA RAID, Kaufman looks at the notorious Old West outlaw James/Younger gang, who have been examined and demythologized in films as diverse as JESSE JAMES(1939), THE LONG RIDERS(1980), and THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD (2007).
Cliff Robertson, who helped produce the film, is charming and intense in one of his career-best roles as Cole Younger, the perpetually underrated cohort of Jesse James.  If you only know and love Cliff Robertson from his role as Uncle Ben in the Sam Raimi SPIDER-MAN films, you’ll be elated at what a jaw-busting shit-kicker he is in this film.  Robertson’s innate likability centers the film, and gives it what melancholy it has, as the more notorious and much more vicious Jesse James chafes under Cole Younger’s leadership to the point that it eventually splits the gang.
Jesse James is played, inTHE GREAT NORTHFIELD MINNESOTA RAID, by none other than ROBERT DUVALL!  Here, Duvall was already more than a decade into his legendary career, and at this point, rapidly accelerating in the widespread esteem that he’s enjoyed ever since — this was the first of his movies to be released after THE GODFATHER (also in 1972).  The topic of fame is a pertinent one because it factors into the tension between the two lead characters, James and Younger, just as much as their bank-robbing methodology does.  Cliff Robertson may even have been the bigger star at the time, but Duvall’s Jesse James is more showy, more attention-grabbing, more impudent.  For modern audiences, Duvall is probably the more recognizable, which works even more to the proper effect.  While we relate to and care more for Cliff Robertson’s portrayal, we also understand why Jesse James is the more famous name.  But it’s quite clear why Cole Younger lived the longer life.
THE GREAT NORTHFIELD MINNESOTA RAID, has plenty more to recommend it:  The cinematography is by the late, great Bruce Surtees (DIRTY HARRYHIGH PLAINS DRIFTERWHITE DOG).  There are some terrifically edited shoot-outs, a naked lady, a man with no mouth (the great, recently-departed character actor Luke Askew), and, in a fascinating digression, an entire old-fashioned baseball game.
This is an entertaining, poppy, tonally-fascinating American Western, and a compelling deconstruction of myth and legend on the part of Philip Kaufman – particularly considering that he was only four years away from writingTHE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES, one of the greatest, most savage deconstructionist Westerns ever made.  Not a bad warm-up at all.

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