When I first read a pre-production description of Quentin Tarantino’s THE HATEFUL EIGHT and its tale of hardbitten characters waiting out a blizzard in a mountain outpost in the post-Civil War west after a stagecoach drops off its quartet of passengers, joining four suspicious characters who are already there, I immediately thought of several films with similar plots, but the ones that first leapt to mind were a western from 1951 and a samurai film from 1970.
The western is Henry Hathaway’s RAWHIDE (1951), about two people being held captive at a stagecoach relay station by fugitive outlaws waiting for a gold shipment due to pass through on an eastbound stage, and the samurai film is Hiroshi Inagaki’s MACHIBUSE (aka INCIDENT AT BLOOD PASS, 1970), about a samurai-for-hire (“yojimbo”) given an assignment to go to an inn at a mountain pass and wait for instructions. While there, he encounters a host of motley characters, some with hidden agendas. When I thought about it some more, I also came up with HANGMAN’S KNOT (1952), directed by Roy Huggins, about a group of Confederate soldiers out west who’ve just robbed a Union Army gold shipment and killed all its guards only to learn that the war is over, which means they’re now wanted for murder. They take over a way station and hold the workers and passengers there hostage while a posse waits outside eager to lay siege to the place and take the gold themselves.
Budd Boetticher’s THE TALL T (1957) also came to mind, although it is not confined to a single location, but starts out at a stage relay station, which the outlaws have taken over, and then moves to the outlaws’ hideout while two stage passengers are held captive awaiting a ransom for one of them.
Over the summer, I saw a Japanese thriller, Seijun Suzuki’s EIGHT HOURS OF FEAR (1957), about a group of bus passengers being held hostage by a pair of bank robbers on the run as the bus makes its way through a wintry mountain landscape.
Then, after some on-line discussion, I remembered THE BLACK TAVERN (1972), a Hong Kong swordplay film about bandits taking over an inn and pretending to be its employees to wait for a gold shipment being brought by a high official with a small party of armed guards.
This, in turn, made me recall–and re-watch—King Hu’s THE FATE OF LEE KHAN (1973), which is set in a desert inn and involves all sorts of political intrigue as a top government official, Lee Khan, travels undercover and stops at the inn where rebel operatives are all employed and no one is sure who to trust. This film, of course, echoes King Hu’s earlier film, DRAGON INN (1967), about undercover fighters escorting children of an executed noble to safety while fending off assassins sent to kill them at a desert inn. This was remade as DRAGON INN (1992), starring Brigitte Lin and Maggie Cheung, with Tony Leung Ka Fai and Donnie Yen in supporting roles, which was the very first Hong Kong movie I saw in a Chinatown theater.
Then, only recently, I learned of an episode of the TV series, “The Rebel,” entitled “Fair Game” (1960), in which stage passengers have to spend the night at a stage way station, with two of them being a bounty hunter and his female prisoner. When someone poisons the water, killing one of the group, Johnny Yuma, the rebel of the title, takes charge of things and seeks to find out who’s behind the foul play.
If we want to go back even further we can cite the Warner Bros. classic, THE PETRIFIED FOREST (1936), which starred Bette Davis and Leslie Howard and made a star out of Humphrey Bogart. In this film, fugitive killer Duke Mantee (Bogart) and his gang take over a diner out in the Arizona desert and hold its occupants hostage. I’m sure there are even earlier films with some semblance of this plot.
Now, having seen THE HATEFUL EIGHT, I can see specific connections to the episode of “The Rebel” and to THE TALL T, a general similarity to RAWHIDE and only generic parallels with the others. So I thought it would be a good time to discuss a handful of these films in terms of how they use this familiar genre setup and how well they succeed at providing a pay-off to the elaborate build-up. I will try my best to avoid any spoilers for HATEFUL EIGHT.
The earliest film I’m going to discuss is RAWHIDE, which, in many ways, offers the closest model to HATEFUL EIGHT, in terms of setting and structure, given that most of the action takes place indoors or in the immediate area around the relay station and the protagonists are faced with greater odds and have to wait for an opportunity to turn the tables. Here, Tom Owens (Tyrone Power) works as assistant to the station manager (Edgar Buchanan) when word comes of four prison escapees who’ve robbed a stage and are still in the area. As a result, a woman passenger (Susan Hayward) with a baby on the stage that’s just arrived is ordered off, by virtue of “company rules,” and told to stay in the station till the next stage. She’s furious at this inconvenience and protests loudly until Tom is forced to grab her and restrain her from getting back on the stage.
Long story short: the four escapees show up, shoot and kill the manager and hold Tom and the woman, Vinnie Holt, and her baby, captive while planning to rob a gold-laden stage due the next day. The gang leader, Rafe Zimmerman (Hugh Marlowe), thinks that Tom and Vinnie are married and, after some resistance by Vinnie, the two captives conclude it’s safer for her to let Zimmerman think that, since it means they’ll stay in the same room and can work together on an escape plan. When a regular stage stops that night, filled with passengers (including a New York newspaper reporter), Tom has to pretend everything is fine and conduct business as usual under the watchful eyes of Zimmerman, who has taken on the identity of the sheriff of Huntsville, the site of the prison he’s escaped from. Everything goes without a hitch and the next day, they wait for the gold stage.
The build-up is beautifully done and the characters (in a screenplay by Dudley Nichols) are all believable and expertly created. Power plays an ordinary working man thrust into a situation where he has to call on reserves of courage and resourcefulness he didn’t know he had. Hayward plays a struggling single woman eager to get to a promised job back east and has had to care for the baby, her niece Callie, since her sister and brother-in-law had been killed in a bar incident in a mining camp. She has to fend off crude advances by one of the escapees (Jack Elam), learn to accept the married-with-child subterfuge, and work furiously with Tom to dig an escape hole through the adobe wall hidden by the bed. Hayward’s strong and determined and never once strikes a false note. If there’s any character who provides an emotional core to the proceedings it’s her. Hugh Marlowe, as the villain, is never quite as obviously menacing or formidable as, say, an expert villain like Jack Palance, Richard Boone or Dan Duryea would have been. But he’s playing the part of a man who’d come from wealth and class and became a murderer after a failed love affair. As such, the actor is quite believable, especially in the tensions that come into play with his career criminal companions, played by Dean Jagger, George Tobias and Jack Elam. He’s not used to this life nor to these kinds of people and he is clearly drawn more to Tom’s character, whom he recognizes as a man he might have befriended had he not turned bad. There’s a scene at the dinner table with the passengers of the evening stage where Zimmerman has to pretend he’s the sheriff and speak with some authority and knowledge and he clearly seems comfortable playing this role.
The problem I have with RAWHIDE, though, is that after all the suspenseful build-up, the tables turn only when tensions between two of the bad guys erupt into sudden, psychotic violence, and not through any planning or quick thinking by the protagonists, who then take advantage of the disruption to get the upper hand. It happens too quickly and gets tidied up too easily. The pay-off should have been earned with a little more strategizing and risk. It’s a short movie (86 minutes), so maybe they could have added a scene or two to make the finale more intricate. In fact, after re-watching the film on Encore Western yesterday, I thought of a different turn of events to resolve this plot that would have worked for me, although I suspect I’m just channeling the ending of another, similarly-themed movie, the identity of which escapes me for now.
THE TALL T (1957)
THE TALL T is based on a long short story by Elmore Leonard, which I read last summer and which reads like a treatment for the movie, with much of the original dialogue kept intact in Burt Kennedy’s screenplay. Kennedy adds a 20-minute prologue dramatizing some of the background information that had been alluded to in the story and letting us get to know some of the characters a little before the impending confrontation. Long story short: Pat Brennan (Randolph Scott) a local rancher, having lost his horse, hitches a ride on a stagecoach that had been hired as a private coach by Willard Mims (John Hubbard) and his new bride, Doretta (Maureen O’Sullivan), the aging daughter of his boss, a local copper baron based in Contention, Arizona. When they show up at the way station, the manager and his son are nowhere to be found and three outlaws get the drop on them, killing the driver (Arthur Hunnicutt) and taking the other three prisoner. They had planned to rob a gold-laden stagecoach scheduled to pass through later that afternoon, but the privately chartered coach had shown up first, putting a hitch in their plans.
Mims, who’d married Doretta strictly for mercenary reasons, thinks fast and offers to take a note to her rich father from the outlaws demanding a ransom in exchange for her, thus giving the outlaws what they want and saving his and his wife’s lives. Brennan hides the truth about Mims’ offer from Doretta, claiming it was the outlaws’ idea. The outlaw leader, Usher (Richard Boone) has to keep a tight leash on his hotheaded young charges, Billy Jack (Skip Homeier) and Chink (Henry Silva), particularly the latter who has already killed the father and son who ran the station and dumped their bodies in a well and is the one who shot the driver.
Eventually, while Billy Jack and Mims head into town to contact the copper baron, the rest of the group leaves the station to hide out in a shack up in the nearby mountains. Billy Jack and Mims return, having secured the promise of a ransom of $50,000 to be delivered the next day. Eager to leave and save his own skin, Mims meets a bad end and Brennan has to reveal to Doretta the truth of his behavior. As in RAWHIDE, he and Doretta have to act as a couple and work together to devise an escape plan when the opportunity arises. Like Zimmerman in RAWHIDE, Usher is not a lowlife criminal, but a man of some upbringing who has wound up in the outlaw game, saddled with “animals” like Chink and Billy Jack. He likes Brennan and clearly doesn’t relish killing him. Brennan plays his cards close to the vest and does what he can to earn Usher’s respect while not displaying any vulnerability despite knowing he’ll eventually be killed when he’s outlived his usefulness if he’s unable to turn the tables by then. When the balance finally shifts, it struck me as pretty plausible and satisfying. The pay-off seemed worthy of the build-up. And it’s all told in a taut 77 minutes.
There are elements in it that are definitely echoed in THE HATEFUL EIGHT. If I singled them out, that would constitute too much of a spoiler. If you’ve seen THE TALL T before seeing HATEFUL EIGHT, you’ll recognize what I’m referring to pretty quickly. And if you watch them in reverse order, you’ll nod your head in recognition as well while watching THE TALL T.
INCIDENT AT BLOOD PASS (1970)
MACHIBUSE (INCIDENT AT BLOOD PASS) gives us a character who is hired by a local official and assigned to head to a specific site and wait there until it becomes obvious what he’s supposed to do. Eager for the assignment, the yojimbo (Toshiro Mifune, playing a variation of a character he’d played three times before) trots off to a mountain pass and takes up residence at a sprawling inn. On the way, he rescues a woman (Rurika Asaoka) from an abusive husband and leaves her with the inn staff who hire her to help with the expected influx of festival goers in a week or so. Mifune drinks sake and waits, biding his time till it becomes clear what he’s expected to do. Numerous characters show up and not all may be what they say they are. The abusive husband even shows up looking to make amends. As such, he and his wife recall the shaky newlyweds in THE TALL T and an equally shaky affianced couple in HANGMAN’S KNOT.
Now I’ll let excerpts from my IMDB review fill in the rest:
Shintaro Katsu (known for playing the title role of the blind swordsman in the Zatoichi series) plays an exiled doctor to whom there is more than meets the eye. A young wife whom Mifune rescued from an abusive husband gets a job at the inn and falls for Mifune. A young gambler arouses the passions of the innkeeper’s pretty granddaughter. A zealous constable arrives holding a con man prisoner and proceeds to repulse everyone with his overbearing arrogance. When two of the con man’s confederates come to try to free him, Mifune sides with the constable and fights and kills one while the other gets away to alert his gang. When the gang arrives that night, they hold everyone in the inn hostage and, not long afterwards, Mifune learns his true mission. A lot of tension is generated as the characters gather, romances develop, alliances form, and the audience is kept guessing as to who’s really who and what’s really what. Eventually we learn that the criminal gang is waiting to rob a caravan of the Shogun’s gold scheduled to come through the pass the next day and the stage is set for a major action setpiece.
The film is structured like a play, with most of the action taking place within the sprawling mountain inn where the characters all congregate. It recalls any number of Hollywood crime dramas and westerns where gangsters or outlaws hold a group of people hostage for an extended period while the hero waits for his chance to turn the tables on them. The characters here are all fascinating and well-etched and the conflicts that emerge develop naturally and believably from the volatile mix. In addition, they’re all extremely well acted in a piece that’s beautifully photographed and staged. Unfortunately, the payoff for all the waiting and suspense is surprisingly weak. Fans of Mifune and samurai films routinely expect a major sword duel between the hero and his antagonist to close the film, but it never happens here. A good reason is given for averting the confrontation with Mifune’s opponent (who will go unidentified so as to avoid a spoiler), but it leaves the audience hanging. The final action, when it does occur, is run through rather quickly, relegated to the simple matter of rounding up and apprehending the criminals rather than releasing any tensions or providing cathartic bursts of violence. The first 5/6 of the movie is so good that it remains worth seeing, but don’t expect an action-packed finale.
At 117 minutes, MACHIBUSE is the longest of the precursors under discussion.
THE BLACK TAVERN (1972)
THE BLACK TAVERN, produced by Shaw Bros. and directed by Teddy Yip Wing-Cho, with fight choreography by the great Simon Hsu, focuses on various robbery plans aimed at a retiring official who is reportedly traveling out of the region with a case of precious gems under not-so-heavy guard. The main action centers around an outlaw gang, led by Zheng Shoushan, known as the “Whip Master” (Ku Feng), who arrive at the remote “Gao Family Inn” pretending to be the official, Hai Gangfeng, and his party. The inn is run by a group of scoundrels themselves who aim to rob Hai Gangfeng, but Zheng and his team, including his two daughters, take on the staff and workers in a pitched battle that ends with all the inn staff dead and Zheng and his crew taking over the inn and staffing it themselves in preparation for Hai Gangfeng’s planned stop the next day.
Earlier in the film, a lone swordsman, Zha Xiaoyu (Kang Hua), had gained Zheng’s confidence when he showed up to defend Zheng & company from robbers thinking they were Hai Gangfeng and his party. Zha, too, is at the inn and helps out in the fighting, making Zheng think he’s on their side. Eventually, the real Hai Gangfeng (Yang Chi-Ching) and his party show up and Zheng and his team do everything to play their parts and make their visitors’ stay comfortable while waiting for the opportunity to carry out their own robbery plan. In the meantime, however, all sorts of other characters show up, including a mysterious lone swordswoman (Shih Szu), a beggar monk who sings for his supper (Dean Shek), and a variety of miscreants seeking Hai Gangfeng’s treasure, including “the Three-Headed Cobra,” fighters known as Tiger, Leopard and Bear, and their Viking helmeted leader, and “the Five Ghosts of Xiang Xi,” killers dressed as hopping corpses guided by a fake Taoist priest (Wu Ma). Eventually, the other robbers are killed off in a series of elaborate fight scenes and the final confrontation is between Zheng and his gang on one side and the mysterious swordswoman and Zha Xiaoyu, revealed to be her partner, on the other. The excitement never lets up for the film’s entire 83-minute running time.
The whole thing is action- rather than character-oriented, but the three lead actors (Ku Feng, Kang Hua, Shih Szu) are so damn good, you’re totally invested in everything they do. Ku Feng practices the most crafty and insidious villainy in the whole film yet commands our sympathy for a good deal of it. All he has to do is glower, smirk, or arch an eyebrow and the gestures speak volumes. Kang Hua plays it close to the vest so that we’re never quite sure what his agenda is and when it’s revealed, the whole thing falls into place and our sympathies shift rather quickly. Shih Szu is more of a straightforward heroine and her character doesn’t really come into play in a major way until the final third when she finally confronts the Whip Master in a series of grueling fight scenes that showcase the actress’s own considerable fighting skills and it’s well worth the wait.
THE BLACK TAVERN probably owes more to King Hu’s DRAGON INN (1967) than to any of the other films I’ve cited here, as well as tons of other Hong Kong kung fu films with settings like this. It’s just a little more intricate than usual and boasts a continually expanding set of characters. The difference between this and something like THE HATEFUL EIGHT is that we generally know what most of the characters’ agendas are as the film plays out. The only real mystery in it is where Kang Hua’s sympathies lie, but he’s such a pivotal character that it’s quite enough to sustain the narrative momentum all the way through.
THE HATEFUL EIGHT (2015)
Finally, we get to Quentin Tarantino’s 8th film, THE HATEFUL EIGHT, seen in 70mm at the AMC Loew’s Lincoln Square. At 175 minutes (plus a 12-minute intermission), it’s twice as long as most of the films I’ve cited above. There’s two solid hours of build-up as four of the main characters meet on the road and take a stage ride to “Minnie’s Haberdashery,” a combination general store/saloon/relay station, where four other characters sit and wait, each with their own separate stories, some or all of which may be completely false. The absence of the station’s regular staff is noted and explained away, but not terribly convincingly, as the new visitors, including two competing bounty hunters, played by Kurt Russell and Samuel L. Jackson, above, slowly pick holes in the story. All this leads to a final hour that gives us a detailed flashback setting up the whole situation and an explosive final confrontation between one set of characters and another, with a surprise alliance thrown into the mix.
I don’t know why it needed to be so long. I understand that Tarantino was trying to tell a larger story of North-South/black-white tension in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War and attempting to effect a reconciliation. That part of it is actually quite touching and it recalls the aforementioned HANGMAN’S KNOT, which closes with the beginnings of a North-South reconciliation. However, it could have been told in a much shorter time. And, after two-plus hours of build-up, the final confrontation is handled in a way that makes poor use of some key characters and undercuts suspense at several turns, opting for a set of resolutions that struck me as simply too easy. After so much investment, the pay-off, in short, was unsatisfying. It seems to me that Tarantino’s message was more important to him than the narrative. And for a film that makes highly touted use of 70mm film, the majority of it is set in a dark interior that seems to offer little opportunity for creative use of that format.
I did like Ennio Morricone’s score, though. He uses themes from his scores for EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC (1977) and THE THING (1982), but the rest of his score, sparse though it may be, sounds more like something he would have composed for any of the Italian giallo films he did back in the 1970s. (Think Dario Argento.) It’s nice to see a new western with a (mostly) original Morricone score.
Still, despite my misgivings, THE HATEFUL EIGHT was worth seeing, especially if you’re a fan of either westerns or Tarantino or, like me, both. It may be an ambitious failure, but the performances are great and the characters are interesting and there’s a cinematic grandeur to it that’s hard to find elsewhere in the digital/CGI era. I’m glad I saw it in its roadshow version. I imagine I’ll see it again before too long and my opinion may soften.
In any event, I was happy for the opportunity to revisit the other films I wrote about here and I hope to get to some of the others, e.g. DRAGON INN (1992) and to see for the first time its 2011 remake, FLYING SWORDS OF DRAGON GATE. Now, if only the original DRAGON INN (1967) would come out on a proper domestic disc release. I saw it once at Anthology Film Archives and I’d love to see it several more times. (I’ve read rumors of a planned Criterion edition this year. Let’s hope.)