El Dorado [1966)

Funny thing about Westerns…

Sometimes you seen ’em, but you done FORGET you seen ’em.

And this one is that type of affair.

Except that it’s a masterpiece.

This here film takes multiple viewings to fully appreciate the craftsmanship at work.

Because back in those heady nouvelle vague days, it seems that the Cahiers crowd were known as the Hitchcocko-Hawksians.

I may be borrowing a term from Richard Brody’s book on Godard.

But he may have been borrowing it from elsewheres.

I don’t rightly know.

But El Dorado is certainly the spitting image of another film…by the same auteur.

Yes, Rio Bravo was the first incarnation.

1959.

It’s the one that gets all the praise.

But if my eyes and heart don’t deceive me, Robert Mitchum is a better actor than Dean Martin.

[as much as I love Dino]

And James Caan bests Ricky Nelson as well.

But it’s hard to replace Walter Brennan.

Damn near impossible.

That said, Arthur Hunnicutt is pretty darn fabulous in El Dorado.

But let’s get back to those Hitchcocko-Hawksians.

The first part is probably pretty self-explanatory.

These Cahiers du cinéma film critics revered Alfred Hitchcock.

Above all else.

Hell!

Before Truffaut did his book of interviews with Hitch (1967), Chabrol had written a monograph on the master (1957).

To be more exact, Chabrol cowrote the book with Rohmer.

Might as well say Rivette (“Rivette!”) just to round out les cinq.

Like the Mighty Handful (Balakirev, Cui, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Borodin), and one short of les six (Auric, Durey, Honegger, Milhaud, Poulenc, and Tailleferre), the Cahiers crew were the Hitchcocko-Hawksians.

But what of that second seme?

Indeed, it was Howard Hawks.

The director of our film.

And an auteur which Jean-Luc Godard has gone on about at length…in a profusion of praise.

But why are we even talking about these Westerns?

What do El Dorado and Rio Bravo have in common besides diagesis and director?

Ah yes:  John Wayne!

In El Dorado, our villain is Ed Asner.

Quite rich when considering that he was one of the very few to be a true hero in America after 9/11.

That’s right.

Ed Asner was on the front lines of getting the truth.

And we never got the truth.

Not from any official source.

But that’s ok.

Because we have gathered the general gist of the situation.

And so Ed Asner’s most important performance was what he did in real life.

To try and honor those 3000 souls who perished and were draped in a lie.

But we’re in Texas.

And Texas is a lonesome land.

Inhospitable.

And we aim here to mainly talk about the examples of the silver screen.

In Technicolor.

“details…deliberately left out” says Wikipedia…

Ah yes…something David Ray Griffin spotted with his razor-sharp mind.

“Omissions and distortions”, he called it.

That is the beauty of film.

It gets deep.

It burrows.

And it fuses to what we have experienced as visceral verities.

Charlene Holt was actually from Texas.

And she is every bit the female lead here.

Charming.  Strong.  Sexy.

I won’t go comparing her to Angie Dickinson, but let’s just say that Ms. Holt fit the bill.

To a T.

T for Texas.

And Ms. Holt passed on (God rest her soul) in Tennessee.

We get horses and streams.

Rifles and pistols.

And a lot of earthy talk.

As you can tell.

Gets under your skin.

Your tongue.

Burrows.

Say, was you ever bit by a dead bee?

[Oops, wrong funnyman.  And Hemingway.]

Pound born in Idaho.  And Papa H died there.

Because the pain was too much.

Gut shot.

You can’t turn your back in these parts.

Gotta waddle out backwards.

On yer horse.

In high heels.

And keep your peripheral sharp.

Cardsharp, not shark.

Tiburon country.

Anyone missing Angie Dickinson likely ogled Michele Carey for the better part of El Dorado.

Though the appearances were brief.

John Wayne turns the other cheek.

Smears blood on the cowhide.

Get outta here.

Tough guy gets back on his horse.

Always guns in the river.

But you gotta retrieve it.

Dr. Fix (Paul Fix) isn’t up to the procedure.

Doesn’t wanna bungle a good man.

Tells him take care uh that whens you get tuh proper chirurgien.

Christopher George looks spitting Willem Dafoe.

Ping!

But the real story is Diamond Joe.

Or so.

It seems under the bridge.

Natchez.  Matches.

Jarmusch maybe…

Always.

Revenge.

Gotta git your own justice.

Around these skillet lickers.

Like the freaks from Octopussy, knife to a gunfight.

Had to saw off a holstered piece at the Swede.

Following me?

If the top is a high hat, Mississippi’s is low.

I think Tom Petty adopted one.

Mine never fit quite right.

From crown to gun butt…soft wobble with every bump.

But enough phrenology.

Only love can break your heart.  Neil Young said that.

And I know all too well.

Stuck behind an 18-wheeler from Dallas.

And the rains set in.

And Górecki just makes you cry even more.

Feels like an addiction.

And sometimes you substitute one addiction for another.

Because you got an empty place there in your ribcage.

Friendship rides in least expected.

Crusty.

Professional killer don’t have no friends.

A liability.

Can’t get too connected.

Go soft./

Stayed in Mississippi a day too long.  Bob Dylan said that.

And I think maybe he meant Robert Johnson.

When the poison of whisky ain’t enough.  I said that.

Not enough holes in the world get a rise outta me at Royal Albert.

But I’m not too worried about it.

Just modulating grammar.

Because El Dorado is filled with sine qua non dialogue.

Seeming hapex legomenon with every breath.

Latin/Greek shift.

Cipher.

A lot of soap.

Running joke.

The others’ll come to me.

Maybe.

High low, do-si-do.

My uncle died with a stack of VHS Westerns on his TV set.

That smoking’ll kill you.

Two uncles.

But only one owned a square dance barn.

So that no matter how Cahiers I get, I’ll always be from Texas.

City boy.

Country heart.

Not even aware how much of a rube I really am.

It’s a concoction you gotta pinch the nose to force down.

A medicine resembling asphalt.

Alcohol, 4 days

No punctuation.

I’m just lucky to never have done more’n cowboy tobacco.

But Texas is lonesome.

Unless you’re riding with John Bell Hood.

In which case you’re shitting yourself with fear.

Itch on the back of your neck.

But learn to play a good bugle.

Close quarters combat.

Urban warfare.

In the Wild West.

Two walk forward, two reverse.

To slap a RICO charge on a greasy bastard.

Like the goddamned Great Gate of Kiev.

And back to the five.

A gamelan of adobe marksmanship.

Distraction.

Diversion.

Deputy was just the courage.  Pin on “I do”.

We think Pecos.

Information travels.

And to have a leg up.

[no pun]

Old wounds and creaky bones.

Been knocked down too many times.

Fallen off my horse.

[shift]

We don’t negotiate with terrorists.

But do we terrorize negotiators?

Turns out the whole thing was about water.

When it’s dry.

And you gotta wake up.

And you didn’t just win the Super Bowl.

Why you can’t take a giant leap in chess.

Giant steps.

Because your plan sucks.

Just showing up is pretty damned brave.

Every day.

Fight.

[And I didn’t even get to Edith Head and Nelson Riddle]

-PD

True Grit [1969)

To get through life, you need grit.

Toughness.

I know of no tougher people than my parents.

And they have been an infinite inspiration to me.

So it is a pleasure to review what is one of my dad’s favorite films.

He always told me to watch this, but I guess I had some subliminal aversion to Westerns.

Well, dear friends, this here is a masterpiece.

I haven’t written much about Westerns (aside from the three Clint Eastwood spaghetti Westerns I reviewed long ago).

I know the genre is not everyone’s cup of tea.

Jean-Luc Godard commented once that his soulmate Anne-Marie Miéville really couldn’t stand this genre, whereas Monsieur Godard has been open about his admiration for John Ford and other directors of the American Western.

But here we have a film by Henry Hathaway.

Sure, John Wayne is in the movie (big league!), but it was Hathaway behind the camera ostensibly calling the shots.

You might know Hathaway from the film noir Call Northside 777.

Or perhaps The Desert Fox:  The Story of Rommel (starring the inimitable James Mason).

But he also directed Rawhide and The Sons of Katie Elder (another flick starring The Duke).

But let’s bring out the big gun.

John Wayne was born Marion (!) Robert Morrison in Winterset, Iowa.

That’s right.  Not Texas.  Not Oklahoma.

Iowa.

So how did John Wayne become such a badass?

Much of it might be attributable to his attention to detail.

And just what (or who) was he paying attention to?

Wyatt Earp.

That’s right.

Deputy sheriff of Tombstone, Arizona.

But let’s get on to this fantastic film, shall we?

The real surprise is Kim Darby.

Sure, Glen Campbell is great here, but Darby is sensational!

And though this might be thought of as Kim Darby’s only significant film role of her career, it is timeless.

She knocked it out of the park as Mattie Ross.

All our actors are gritty, but the real toss-up is between Kim Darby (who was 22 at the time) and John Wayne (who was 62).

Toughness is the theme of the movie.

He or she who is toughest will overcome.

Sure, some obstacles are insurmountable.

But GRIT will get you through some harrowing situations.

It’s almost funny when a film (like this one) includes minor roles for the likes of Dennis Hopper and Robert Duvall.  Duvall’s role is a bit more substantial, but the main focus is on the troika of Campbell, Darby, and Wayne (particularly the latter two).

Fans of the recent film Sicario will notice precursors to “rough justice” present all throughout True Grit.

But director Hathaway manages to make a G-rated film.

For that and other reasons, I am recommending this as a family film (though it may be unsuitable for particularly young ones).

The narrative device which keeps the film “all ages” is that Mattie is supposed to be 14 years old (though, as stated, Kim Darby [Mattie] was actually 22).

The action of our film centers around Fort Smith, Arkansas (at first) and later in the “Indian Territory” around McAlester, Oklahoma.

The film features prominently a Colt Model 1848 Percussion Army Revolver a.k.a. Colt Dragoon Revolver (.44 caliber).

Firearms aside, John Wayne is magnificent in the denouement when he takes on four armed horsemen.

That said, a Sharps rifle comes in particular handy for Wayne in a near-death imbroglio.

Glen Campbell’s greatest moment is just getting on the horse and setting the beast in motion.

It is this scene in which Campbell proves himself to be just as gritty as Darby and Wayne.

But the film is not over yet.

And we see John Wayne take action:  as a leader!

Doing what needs to be done!

But the scene which brought tears to my eyes was when John Wayne bet on the toughness of Kim Darby.

And that is the message.

What great encouragement it is when people have faith in us!

When they say, “I know you can do it!”

We may not believe it ourselves, but their faith lifts us up.

We think, “Maybe they know something I don’t.”

When we’re at our lowest point.

Those who stand beside us with compassion are displaying that priceless characteristic of true grit.

The very end of the film is quite touching as well.

We see an actor 40 years younger than her leading man offer a hand of friendship with an act of love.

It’s not even romantic.

It’s just classy.

Humane.

In truth, very poetic.

I wholeheartedly recommend this film for all doubters of John Wayne and the Western genre in general.

Yee-Haw!

-PD

Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo [1966)

This movie’s reputation does not precede it in one key sense.  Namely, this is a bizarre film.  Of all the far out stuff I watch it therefore takes something special for me to proclaim such.  Maybe, if we are well-informed, we expect weird when we sit down to view Holy Mountain.  With The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly we probably just expect another Spaghetti Western.

Not only does the film under review perhaps epitomize the genre, but it also sets itself apart with a story which must be seen to be truly appreciated.  I will, of course, try to avoid spoiling the drama by giving away too much.

It will suffice to discuss a few general points.  Why do I say this film is bizarre?  We can start with the title(s).  If we translate directly, we would get The Good, The Ugly, The Bad.  Not quite an arresting turn-of-phrase.  Therefore, we ponder the usual translation:  The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

There are several important concepts wrapped up in this title alone.  First, the direct translation and the “axiomatic” translation (respectively) transpose the word order.  If we were thoughtless, we would ignore this minor detail.  But since this film relies so heavily on a strange (subversion of?) moralizing, we cannot pass over even this aspect.

The literal translation would (literally) have us place “ugly” somewhere between good and bad (or good and evil if we are feeling particularly Nietzschean).

For those of us who root for the underdog (myself included), we might start off rooting for “ugly” (or “the ugly one”).

In the axiomatic translation, “ugly” is an afterthought (so to speak).  It is last in order.

I’m not sure if the Sermon on the Mount was in the back of the minds of the producers of the film (wow…), but we wonder whether the first will be last and the last will be first.

One thing is certain:  the greyscale of life is fully on display in this Technicolor teaching piece.  What is weird (bizarre) is the lesson being taught.  It is horribly (gloriously?) muddied.

The good is not good.  The ugly is also bad (above and beyond ugly).  The bad is, well, bad…

But if bad is only bad in relation to good (Hegel?), then the bad isn’t so bad…

In other words, it doesn’t take a whole hell of a lot to be good in this world.

And so…presented with this trio of characters, we are unsure who will “win”…indeed, has anyone really excelled in their typecast?

I should mention that, in my opinion, ugly is not so ugly.  All three of these mugs are a little rough around the edges.

In fact, the first face we see in the movie is the one we might assume to be Ugly.  He is not.  The real Ugly is merely not-traditionally-handsome (I suppose).  We should also consider the mannerist interpretation:  an ugly manner vs. a refined sensibility.  It could be argued that Bad (here) is much more refined (though he tortures Ugly…literally).  Ah, but NOT literally.  Rather, he has someone do it for him.  Now, isn’t that the height of refinement???

I will give away one thing.  Good is really Good at least once in this film.  A dying soldier…bleeding to death…and Good gives him his coat.  But not only that.  No.  Good gives him a few puffs on a cigar (which, as it turns out, helps him transition more peacefully to the next world).  It is the most touching moment of the film.  To be sure, this is not a Hallmark movie.  It’s a rough, win-at-all-costs affair.  A bit like real life.

And who is the real STAR of this film?  As fate would have it, the most interesting and entertaining character is Ugly (Eli Wallach).  Eastwood is great as always.  Lee Van Cleef is great.  But Wallach is beyond great!  He’s disgusting.  He’s hilarious.  He’s endearing.  He’s vicious.  He’s cruel.  He’s greedy.  He’s human.

Sergio Leone once again outdid himself.  Greed may have never been portrayed in all of its dizzying rush better than when Wallach goes sprinting with joy and anticipation in search of a grave (a long story…).  Morricone’s music is at least another order of magnitude better here than in his previous collaboration with Leone and Eastwood.

This is a damn good film.  Happy viewing!

-PD

Per qualche dollaro in piu [1965)

My oh my.  How time does fly.

If you don’t write, you lose your touch.

And anyway, we lose our nerve.

Nerve.  This film is all about nerve.

This was the second collaboration between Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood.

This time, another strong element was added:  Lee Van Cleef.

The name may not sound familiar, but if you see this film you will never forget this iconic actor.

In truth, this picture is very similar to the first Leone/Eastwood collaboration.

Most of the novelty here can be found in the director having a third variable (Van Cleef) with which to work.

Gian Maria Volonté is back, but he’s not the same villain he was last time.  He is and he isn’t.

Same for Eastwood.  The same, but different.

Leone, though, had grown as a filmmaker.  Maybe not by leaps and bounds, but there are flashes of brilliance which catch the desert sun differently here than in A Fistful of Dollars.

And why do I insist on the Italian title?  Because this really is a sophisticated Western.

In other words, it is foreign to the mainstream of English language movies.

Though the genre is American, the craft is distinctly European.

Klaus Kinski has a relatively minor role in this film as a hunchback.

Really, I would advise starting with A Fistful of Dollars and then moving on to this film.

This one is really for those who couldn’t get enough the first time around.

I count myself among those.

In other words, this film does not necessarily “stand alone” very well unless you have the experience of A Fistful of Dollars under your belt.

I should really mention Ennio Morricone.  He is, without doubt, one of the greatest film composers to ever live.  Witness, for instance, his deft compositional touch as he weaves the film score around the sound of a musical pocket watch which is chiming during a tense standoff.  There is a real magic–a synergy between Morricone and Leone.

Though I could dissect this movie as a precursor to the Reaper vs. Predator drones, I’ll leave that for another time.  Though I could let the title, For a Few Dollars More, lead me into a diatribe about the Greek debt crisis and the venal German/IMF response, I shall leave that for other political film critics reviewing Spaghetti Westerns this week.

What we have here is a movie.  I’m tired.  I don’t want a war.

-PD

Per un pugno di dollari [1964)

They say the pen is mightier than the sword.

And so we place into a single room

the greatest writer of all time

and a schmuck with a sword.

The writer has his pen…for self-defense.

But we feel the Yojimbo trappings are too antiquated (1961)

so we give the bard a typewriter…no, a laptop

and the schmuck…a gun.

Who will draw first?

For speed, it is the gun which wins (assuming the schmuck knows how to fire it).

It is a big assumption.

So, let us add some lag time…

as the schmuck experiments with the mechanics of his weapon.

And then we stop the test and replace the schmuck with a professional assassin.

By now the poet is sweating blood.

Will he hit “send” in time?

Ah, but now we have overshot the mark with our rhetoric.

So let us back up to the computing of the 1960s.

Computation #1:  Westerns are no longer in vogue.  American Westerns are the subject of ridicule in Italy.  Laughable.

Enter Sergio Leone into the equation.

A smart guy.  Sees a gap in the market.  How would Rossellini direct a Western?  Or Fellini?

Do they make revolvers that hold 8 1/2 bullets?

And who gets the half-a-bullet?

I had intended to talk about Guantanamo Bay.  Moral disgust.

But the sands of time in the Tabernas Desert are pouring away…a steady stream of grains.

And so the faceoff makes imperative that I get the most bang for my click.

Eastwood.  Leone.  Savio.  Savio?  Morricone.  Ah, that’s better.

Gian Maria Volonté (the bad guy) would go on to play in the first (and one would assume only) Marxist Western.  A subgenre which never really caught on.  The film Vent d’est (1970)–director Godard–filming location Mozambique.

Sounds too weird to be true, right?  Just don’t be fooled by Robert Enrico’s Vent d’est from 1993.

Just because a film is Franco-Swiss (like Godard, Franco-Swiss)…uh-uh, not the same thing.

But the assassin schmuck is getting the lay of the land.  I digress, I die.

I am not the worst writer to ever live.  Give me time.  I may yet claim that title.

We cannot, however, forget Marianne Koch.  So long…

Never forget a woman from Munich.  The beautiful Renate Knaup, for instance.

A double umlaut for your trouble.  Amon Düül II.  Zwei.

But time is unkind to me…merciless.

Will we reach José Calvo in time?  With our heart of iron?

Well hello Joe, what do you know?  The “Man with No Name” and Une Femme est une femme.

I’ve hardly talked about the film.  That’s what some call “no spoilers”…

But I can make no such guarantee.

Only brilliance.  Leone.  Eastwood.  As good a Western as could possibly be made.

A triumph.

If you feel your heart in your throat…your tears well up

then maybe you think of Guantanamo Bay.

Inmates list.

One by one.

No charges.

No charges.

Suicide.

No charges.

Certainly it would help to know that Abdul so-and-so knocked off an Army Ranger medic.

The medic part is no superfluous detail.

But the rest?

No charges.

No charges.

Held for three years.

No charges.

It seems, from the outside, that the war has been run by the CIA.

There are no armies to battle.

No high-value targets.  I’m not the first to comment on the ludicrous situation of a $200,000 bomb being dropped on a mud hut.

Bad guys torture.

Idiots torture.

And so Clint Eastwood does not torture.  Here.  In 1964.

If you jump down the rabbit hole you will be disgusted.

How does this in any way have to do with a Spaghetti Western?

It is the message.

We might not have a hell of a lot of time.

Find the quote by the general…about the detainees at Guantanamo who arrived with mental problems and left with “none.”

That’s rich.

I also have a bridge to sell you in Arizona.  And I’ll throw in the Seven Dwarfs as maintenance crew.

You see, it’s a hell of a lot easier to just write a film review and not worry about all this stuff.

That’s what happens in totalitarian countries.

Hang on, someone’s knocking at my door…

-PD