Archive for the ‘Genre Countdown: Westerns’ Category


By Peter Lenihan

Of all the very recognizable titles (think Rules of the Game, Tokyo Story, Seven Samurai, Vertigo, Citizen Kane) that appear on S&S lists decade in and decade out, Ford’s film is arguably the most controversial, and the fact that many people consider it to be one of the medium’s greatest masterpieces frustrates some in a way that may be unique even within the prissiest cinephilic circles. It is, of course, ultimately pretty irrelevant—polls can only track the critical fashions of a given moment and often inadvertently end up embalming the films that are most kinetic and alive. The Searchers isn’t always thought of as one of these, and I’m not sure any Hollywood director of Ford’s time moved the camera less frequently (it’s worth remembering here what Renoir said of The Informer), but it’s also true that few directors consistently filled the frame with as much movement as Ford was able to. Still, at some point the opening shot of The Searchers, complemented by Max Steiner’s lovely score, becomes indistinguishable from the fact that we are watching the shot, slavishly recreated in only the Lord knows how many fifth hand pastiches—the inky blacks of the opening title card slowly dissipating as Martha Edwards opens the door of her cabin and grasps one of the columns of the porch as she spots her brother-in-law (and, more likely than not, the love of her life) on the horizon. (more…)


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by Anubhav Bist

The little moments.
If you were to ask me what makes Howard Hawk’s 1959 western so special, thats what I would say. The little moments. For me, this could be something as quick as James T. Chance’s quirky reaction after Feathers says, “You forgot your pants,” (how he actual stops and thinks about it before realizing the joke); or the way Chance hands Dude his rolled up cigarette after Dude screw ups trying to roll his own, all while they talk about that fact that Feathers didn’t get on the stagecoach (a poignant gesture that’s subtle enough to just exist in that moment, without ever breaking the flow of their conversation). It seems so simple, until you realize that it’s anything but. In a way, that sums up Rio Bravo pretty well. A profound cinematic experience that masquerades as simple Hollywood entertainment.
Sheriff James T. Chance (John Wayne giving easily his greatest “John Wayne” performance) must find a way to keep a murder, who also happens to be the brother of a wealthy rancher with criminal connections, imprisoned until the US Marshal arrives. His only allies: his drunk partner Dude (Dean Martin giving arguably the film’s most memorable performance), his elderly cripple deputy Stumpy (Hawks regular and Western veteran Walter Brennan), a young hotshot gunslinger Colorado (pop star Ricky Nelson) and the mysterious female gambler Feathers (Angie Dickinson in one of her first big roles). (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

The following is the full content of a term paper handed in to a Professor Renaldo Ovest Spaghetti for a graduate course in Italian Cinema offered during the fall semester of 2007 at Montclair State University.  Spaghetti asked all the students in his class to adhere to a rigid scholarship and demanded a formal presentation.  He specifically asked that there be a minimum of five major references, all of which of course must be documented at the conclusion of the paper.  He strongly encouraged quotes and passages.  The veteran educator also made it clear that he was less interested in the gossipy aspects of Leone and his work with his actors and craftsmen, than he was with a probing analysis of the work, its themes and focus and the specifics as to why it has been held in such high regard since the time it was released 45 years ago.  Spaghetti also made it clear that anyone hell bent on denigrating the film, or even slighting it in direct comparison to its celebrated American contemporaries, would risk a lower grade.  The esteemed Professor asked that the word count for all papers fall between 4000 and 4300 words.  He also made it clear that the paper would be weighted to represent 50% of the final grade.  Class participation and a final exam would constitute the remainder of the criteria.

There are a good many of us who cannot get enough of Sergio Leone’s epic Western ‘Once Upon A Time in the West.  We play the highly choreographed showpiece sequences in the film over and over again as though they were favorite musical recordings.  We memorize the film’s concise, aphoristic dialogue.  And we find that the film stands up quite well to repeated viewings because, with its solemn, majestic gestures and allusive script, it never quite yields its full meaning.                              -John Fawell

There is indeed a sense of mystery ingrained in the visuals of one of cinema’s crowning glories, a film that has both grown in stature, and has repeatedly attracted the full range of hyperbolic overload from the critical establishment and the audiences who embrace the genres of the western and the epic.  Once Upon A Time in the West has furthermore maintained cross-over appeal to those who normally resist the western and its constricted trappings, and has long perceived the category as one with substantial limitations.  Yet the film, says Robert Cumbow in his seminal study The Films of Sergio Leone is more about the “country” than it is about the “west.”  As such we can confidently conclude that as a result of its employment of cinematic poetry and expressiveness it represents Leone’s most personal vision, and the film above all others in his canon that bears his personal stamp: it is rooted in the conventions of western melodrama and includes the implacable black-clad villain, the struggling landowner being menaced by the businessman out to gain for a lark, but yet defended to the death by the strong and silent type.  In addition, the oldest revenge motive in the genre – “You killed my brother” is amplified in an epic that within the genre parameters can safely be posed as all-encompassing. (more…)

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by Shubhajit Lahiri

John Ford reveled in the making of Westerns, for what is The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence if not an expression of his love affair with the genre? With its overarching themes of nostalgia and melancholia concerning the slow but sure demise of the iconic landscape, the movie remains a heartfelt and elegiac tone-poem to it. A number of films have in fact eulogized about the death of the West – the slow but inevitable disappearance of an era and a way of life. A key motif for most such films has been the juxtaposition between the Old West and the advent of law and civilization – and the two were seemingly irreconcilable and diametrically divergent. Ford’s 134th film (he would make just 6 more over the next decade) might just be the finest from that point of view. (more…)

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good 6

by Dean Treadway

Lynn and Buddy, my parents, somehow always knew I was going to be a movie nut. That’s the only explanation I have for them taking me to see so many kid-unfriendly movies at the drive-ins back in the ’70s (that and the fact they probably couldn’t afford a babysitter, with their civil servant jobs). But they never tried to shield me from very much (though, with sex scenes, they always told me to cover my eyes with the warning term “X-Rated!”). Given that I wasn’t left in tears or bedeviled by nightmares from the movies I saw with them, I guess they sensed everything was copacetic–certainly, child-rearing wasn’t as fraught with as many rules then as it is now. I was surely in their company when they first saw Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad and The Ugly upon its US release in the winter of 1968 (this 1966 film was finally released stateside in the last days of 1967). At this time, I was only a year old, so I have no recollections, obviously. What I do know is that it was one of my father’s favorite movies, and even my mom–a lifelong Hopalong Cassidy fan–dug it, too. So we went back to see it, over and over, whenever it popped up on drive-in screens as either a main or second feature (and it was definitely a ubiquitous title at Atlanta drive-ins up until the early 80s). Clearly, my parents cherished this movie, and wanted to catch it whenever they could, and on the big screen, where it still works its most forceful magic. (more…)

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wild 1

By Dean Treadway

For years, I had not seen Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch in full. I had caught bits of it on TV, or maybe at the drive-in, where my mom and dad had carried me along to check it out. I’m sure my dad liked it–most dads adore The Wild Bunch–but my mom, who’d had quite enough of seeing dead bodies returning from Vietnam on TV, felt sickened by violence in movies at the time (both Bonnie and Clyde, with its bullet-riddled climax, and M.A.S.H., with its comedic treatment of medical gore, had similarly made her ill; since, of course, she’s been inured to on-screen messiness). For my own part, I found the movie dull, even as a pretty with-it kid; somehow, Peckinpah had not gotten his hooks in me (I now see that The Wild Bunch is a movie that works least best on the young, and also I always knew that, on TV, it was being shown pan-and-scan, and that’s just a outright no-no with what any movie geek can see is a beautifully widescreen presentation).

It wasn’t until its 1995 restoration and re-release, when I was approaching my 30s, that I finally did my duty and caught The Wild Bunch on the big screen at a four-wall theater, as it was meant to be seen. Afterwards, I could’ve kicked myself twice, three times even for not previously grasping what a powerhouse masterpiece it was, for Peckinpah’s film finally bowled me over as it did almost everyone who saw it in the late 60s/early 70s (it’s certainly a movie that should be seen at least once at a theater; if you haven’t experienced it as such, you’re partially abandoning its strength). From its very first scene–that staccato credits sequence portraying the titular bunch trotting past a group of joyful kids cackling as thousands of fire ants overtake two deadly but hapless scorpions (a mirror of the film’s famous conclusion)–The Wild Bunch aims to encapsulate the brutality of criminally-minded men and, simultaneously, their deeply-held longing to regain some modicum of innocence, honor and compassion. In its dichotomies, Peckinpah’s picture is like no other. It set a template for a few decades worth of film output behind it.  (more…)

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by Brandie Ashe

In 1939, John Ford made what was arguably the most important film of his career: Stagecoach. Now, that is not to say that Stagecoach is necessarily his “best” film; that, of course, is a matter of opinion (and majority opinion over the years has tended to hand that title to Ford’s searing 1956 Western The Searchers, or the 1940 drama The Grapes of Wrath, or the three films in his so-called “Cavalry Trilogy,” or any number of the other films on his expansive resume). But what makes this movie–Ford’s first Western in more than a decade, and his first with sound–such a remarkable standout in the director’s impressive filmography is how, at the time, it added a refreshing new depth to the increasingly stale concept of the Western. With Stagecoach, Ford expands upon and enhances general Western tropes to craft an intriguing character study that transcends the prototypical cowboy yarn. The end result is one of the landmark movies of the genre, a classic so intricately and thoughtfully composed that it would influence an entire generation of filmmakers, including, by his own account, a young Orson Welles.

It also helps that Stagecoach happens to be one hell of an entertaining movie.


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mccabe-mrs-miller-1 (1)

by James Clark 

McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) is so unmistakably about dimming lights that we have to take special care not to miss its profoundly difficult discoveries and associated cinematic audacity. Brought to life in the rural-worshipping hippie era, it would seem to be some kind of paean to helpless victims ambushed in their modest pursuit of happiness by ruthlessly greedy commercial concerns. A hired killer, newly arrived in a recently founded Washington State mining town, in 1901, to dispose of an obstacle to maximum profits—being even possessed of a black moustache by which to emphasize his villainy—introduces a few of the settlement’s stakeholders to the technique of using Chinese migrant workers to go to their deaths for the cause of efficiency. “Do you know what the fine is for killing a Chinaman? $50, maximum…”

    Such a gambit would lend itself to a conventional melodrama, the ethos of hippiedom being, alas, not significantly more innovative than that of their grandparents. To find our way to Altman’s best shot (and, for such a spotty career as his, this film definitely displays the A-game), it is, I think, best to start with a barely noticeable moment, namely, a bouncy pony running through a snowdrift on one of the village’s trails while a snowstorm is in progress. This blip of infectious fizz occurs simultaneously with the hit man and his gang stalking the protagonist/obstacle amongst the clapboard structures and along a series of rickety rope and wooden footbridges lacing amidst the muck, ice and snow. Though not actually frisky, the outnumbered nonconformist stages a surprisingly bracing counter-attack, killing all three of his savage adversaries, but in the course of which succumbing to bullet wounds and, lurching through deep snow banks, collapsing in a spray of snowflakes much like those the pony kicked up. As the subsequent and final scene plays out, we see the protagonist, McCabe, becoming increasingly covered by snow, until his configuration could be that of a snow-covered, dead pony. (more…)

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By Stephen Mullen

Winchester 73 was the first collaboration between James Stewart and Anthony Mann, the beginning of an extremely successful partnership. The film itself is very innovative – it brought the influence of noir into the western, along with a complex narrative structure, complicated, morally ambiguous characters, classical influences, and psychological depth (and more than a hint of Freud). It may not have been the first western to do any of those things, but the sophistication and depth it brought to the combination helped define a new approach, anticipating revisionist westerns to come. It certainly anticipates Mann’s subsequent westerns, films with an expressionistic style that hovers between film noir and the kinds of family melodramas made by Nicholas Ray or Douglas Sirk, while never skimping on what you might call the conventional pleasures of the western. Mann takes full advantage of the trappings of the genre, telling his tales of psychological conflicts, bad families and tortured heroes through gunfights, chases, brawling, hats and guns and horses, Indians and card players, against a backdrop of magnificent landscapes. And all of it is integrated, the action sequences advance psychologically acute character arcs, the locations and sets shape the emotional trajectory of the films, creating films that reward infinite attention, without detracting from their effectiveness as entertainment. They are remarkable films. (more…)

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jesse 8

By Dean Treadway

The passage of time, and of eras, overwhelms the first frames as cinematographer Roger Deakins aims his camera into the ether, catching time-lapsed storm clouds speeding through the Missouri skies, with Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ tick-tocky score sounding like mournful timepieces ringing out the end of one hour, and the beginning of another. We first see Brad Pitt’s Jesse James as a pensive, well-loved 34-year-old family man fervently contemplating his humanity and his concomitant mortality. The eloquent narration–some of the best ever written for a film–begins by illustrating Jesse’s foibles, normalcies, lies, physical flaws, and almost superhuman charisma. Actor/filmmaker Hugh Ross is the unseen narrator, who speaks in third-person as if he were dissecting this tale’s movements with scientific fervor; his serious, folksy voice is perhaps the most important in the movie, because it’s the authoritative voice of human history–the same history that will ensnare and mangle the lives of our two title characters. Writer/director Andrew Dominik, working from Ron Hansen’s novel, laboriously crafts the language of this narration, making it feel like it was cribbed from an 1882 St. Louis newspaper. Even the film’s title–The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford–reads like a bold headline over a story one might’ve consumed the day following Ford’s notorious bullet. This use of antiquated speech, inspired by Hansen’s work, is one of many tricks that Dominik deftly employs as a time-travel devise in this masterful period piece. Often, experiencing this picture’s sights and sounds feels like being hypnotized and transported directly into the heel of the 19th Century. (more…)

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