Thursday, May 05, 2011

Penny Thoughts ’11: April 29-May 5

Winchester ’73 (1950) ***½
Director: Anthony Mann
Writers: Robert L. Richards, Borden Chase, Stuart N. Lake
Starring: James Stewart, Stephen McNally, Shelley Winters, John McIntire, Dan Duryea, Millard Mitchell, Charles Drake, Rock Hudson, Will Greer, Jay C. Flippen

I finally got around to watching one of my father’s favorite westerns this week in his honor. I never really saw Jimmy Stewart as a western star until a few years ago when I saw him in the wonderful overlooked movie “The Far Country”. Soon after I watched perhaps the best western ever made “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”, and I was sold on Stewart as a perfect western hero.

“Whinchester ‘73” is often sited as one of his best westerns. It’s unique, in that it represents a few historical points in our nation’s western fascination without actually being about them. Wyatt Earp and Dodge City play a prominent role in the plot’s set up, and Custer’s last stand at Little Big Horn throws some complications into the mechanisms of a simple plot about two men fighting for the possession of a rare Winchester ’73 riffle.

Stewart plays off of his nice guy image, as he always does in his best westerns, as a good man that skirts along the edge of his own dark musings. The relationship he holds with his nemesis contains dark secrets. The riffle makes a wonderful MacGuffin for the plot, which brings Stewart into contact with various western types and scenarios. I can understand why “Winchester ‘73” is considered such a pinnacle of the genre. Look for a young Rock Hudson as a blatantly white Native American chief.

Open Range (2003) ***½
Director: Kevin Costner
Writers: Craig Storper, Lauran Paine (novel)
Starring: Kevin Costner, Robert Duvall, Annette Bening, Michael Gambon, Michael Jeter, Diego Luna, James Russo, Abraham Benrubi

“Open Range” contains one of the best shootouts I’ve ever seen in a western. It begins with startling brutality in an action scene that goes against all conventions. After a gun for hire has been hyped against the lowly open range cattlemen for half the movie, the audience finally meets him for the big showdown. Before any bullets have been fired, the character played by Kevin Costner walks up to the hired gun and asks if he was the one who killed their friend. As soon as the bad guy ace answers ‘yes’, Costner shoots him point blank right in the head. All that build up and the flashy gunfighter is the first to drop. Genius.

The rest of the gunfight has an air of realism to it that few others do in westerns. No one is a great shot. There are misfires. Stray bullets hit horses and bystanders. But, Perhaps the most powerful element (which is probably not very realistic) is the volume of the gunshots. The whole gunfight is very much in the audience’s face, and the sound effects play to this fact. The pistols sound like large caliber riffles, and the riffles sound like cannons when they’re fired.

The gunfight is only one reason why I like this western so much. There are some great parallels between the heroes’ plight and those of the people at the mercy of big corporations, specifically big oil companies. That analogy in particular is quite ironic since Costner’s oil separation equipment helped to bail BP out of their gulf spill last summer. But, the gunfight is one of the most memorable aspects of this particular western.

Django (1966) **
Director: Sergio Corbucci
Writers: Sergio Corbucci, Bruno Corbucci, Franco Rossetti
Staring: Franco Nero, José Bódalo, Loredana Nusciak, Gino Pernice, Eduardo Fajardo

“Django” is a rather sad imitation of the Man With No Name spaghetti westerns made by Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood. Franco Nero plays the titular Django, who might be better off if he had no name so the audience wouldn’t have to suffer through the sappy title song. Nero has the same gristly, sandy-haired, blue-eyed look of Eastwood, but Django talks too much to maintain his aloof posturing. The villains are caricatures of the Pancho Villa-type Mexican and steely-eyed White rancher, who for some reason is given a military rank although he has no uniform to indicate any form of service to anyone but himself.

The movie has all the broad strokes of the spaghetti western correct, but the details are a bit off and distract from the gritty reality of the desert that this subgenre is usually about. The coffin that Django drags behind him everywhere is a little too kitschy. The low budget is apparent in the economy of locations used. You can see large truck tire tracks in the mud going through the film’s central location. The crippling of Django’s hands in the film’s final act makes any plausible outcome impossible. And, the notion of love that works its way into Django’s unlikely relationship with a whore who doesn’t seem to do much whoring is ill suited to the material. “Django” might make for a good cult following, but could never overcome its shortcomings to hold any value to a larger audience.

The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (1972) **
Director/Writer: Philip Kaufman
Starring: Cliff Robertson, Robert Duvall, Luke Askew, R.G. Armstrong, John Pearce, Matt Clark, Wayne Sutherlin

What a strange account of the famous Younger-James gang Philip Kaufman’s “The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid” makes. It obvious Kaufman intended his film as a deconstruction of the great western myth of these famous outlaws. Unfortunately, he makes them into such strange individuals, I’m not entirely sure the film plays as he intended. Many of the elements contained within his retelling of the gang’s failed attempt to rob what was billed as the biggest bank in the Midwest in the little hovel of Northfield, Minnesota are no less than pure comedy. The comedy doesn’t mix well with the rather serious nature of the practices of these marauders.

Robert Duvall’s Jesse James is a psychopath, and while Cliff Robertson presents Cole Younger as the mild tempered mastermind of the group, he’s really not all that bright. The movie looks and feels gritty, but is delivered with an “aw shucks” attitude that doesn’t account for the innocent civilians hurt and killed in the gang’s actions. And, I don’t understand why they even bothered to present Pinkerton’s ineffective and rather monotonous involvement.

The Naked Spur (1953) ***
Director: Anthony Mann
Writers: Sam Rolfe, Harold Jack Bloom
Starring: James Stewart, Janet Leigh, Robert Ryan, Ralph Meeker, Millard Mitchell

“The Naked Spur” find’s Jimmy Stewart once again teetering between right and wrong under the direction of Anthony Mann. Stewart is a bounty hunter who winds up taking on some unintended partners on a bounty that he hopes will give him enough money to buy his ranch back. The back-story is quite rich, and Mann and his writers do a good job throwing the audience right into the action from the opening scenes.  It’s a fairly claustrophobic story that involves only five characters, but the beautiful Colorado Rockies photography by William Mellor opens the mood up and gives us a good solid western.


Hunter Furnish said...

Have you heard the rumors of Tarantino's next film being "Django Unlimited?" A western could be pretty awesome with him, even for people like me who aren't the biggest fans of the genre. Time will tell, I suppose.

Andrew D. Wells said...

His next will be Kill Bill, Vol. 3, but he has talked of writing a script titled "Django Unlimited". Now, that's a "Django" I'm excited for. Not so sure about KB v3, I thought that one was finished.