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ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD and the Art of Recreating an Era

29 Jul

Quentin Tarantino’s newest film offers a love-letter to the pop culture of the 1960s—films, television, music, celebrities, parties, etc. He takes the careers of three distinct individuals, two fictional, one real, employed in the film and TV industry in 1969 and uses incidents in their lives, including numerous flashbacks spanning the 1960s, to depict what it was like to live and work in the industry town of Los Angeles at the time. The key figure is Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a onetime star of a TV western now reduced to guest shots as “villain of the week” in assorted network TV dramas and faced with the dilemma of how to resuscitate his stardom or just settle for life as a working actor. The second figure is Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), Dalton’s stuntman, who, when not doubling Dalton in a film or TV role, is acting as Dalton’s chauffeur, handyman and paid companion. (Dalton lives in a sprawling ranch house on Cielo Drive in the Hollywood Hills, while Booth lives miles away in a trailer parked near an oil rig behind a drive-in theater in Van Nuys.)

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THE WILD BUNCH: 50th Anniversary of an American Classic

11 Jun

Sam Peckinpah’s provocative western, THE WILD BUNCH, opened in the U.S. on June 25, 1969, 50 years ago this month. I’ve seen the film many times over the years, including at least 20 times on the big screen and multiple times in a variety of formats: broadcast TV, VHS, DVD and Blu-ray. It was a sprawling epic western full of action, gunplay and bloodshed, rated R and featuring a predominantly male cast of Hollywood stars, dependable character actors, a couple of newcomers, and veteran Mexican performers, but only a handful of women with small speaking parts (mostly as prostitutes). The stars were William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan, Edmond O’Brien, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, Jaime Sanchez, Strother Martin, L.Q. Jones, and Emilio Fernandez. In the leadup to the film’s release, I saw all the print ads—in newspapers and on the subway–with lines like, “Nine men who came too late and stayed too long.” I read all the pre-release articles and finally the reviews–the negative ones which criticized the blood-spurting and called William Holden “dissipated” and the positive ones like Vincent Canby’s in The New York Times who ranked it way above the other big westerns of that season, TRUE GRIT and BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID. Sergio Leone’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST also opened that summer, a week after THE WILD BUNCH.

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Filming Across Cultures: Cowboys, Samurai and Kung Fu Champs in the 1970s

17 May

In the 1960s and 70s, the neighborhood theater functioned as a Cinematheque of global genre films, offering Italian westerns, French crime thrillers, English horror, Soviet fantasy, Japanese samurai films and Hong Kong kung fu films, among other genres. I still marvel at the recollection of seeing such international movie icons as John Wayne, Jean Gabin and Toshiro Mifune in new movies at local theaters when I was still a teenager. I once wrote about this particular movie culture in a chapter for a proposed book on 42nd Street theaters. I’d like to share an excerpt from the chapter, after a few paragraphs of introduction.

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BORDER RIVER (1954): Americans in Mexico

1 Mar

VERA CRUZ meets THE WILD BUNCH meets THE GETAWAY

BORDER RIVER (1954), an 80-minute Technicolor western from Universal Pictures starring Joel McCrea, Yvonne De Carlo and Pedro Armendariz, preceded all three action classics referenced above, yet has elements found in each. It offers a tale of Americans in Mexico caught up in the war between Emperor Maximilian and revolutionary leader Benito Juarez in 1865, foreshadowing Robert Aldrich’s VERA CRUZ, released much later in 1954 and following a group of American mercenaries in 1868, led by Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster, pictured below, working for Maximilian who are eventually forced to switch sides.

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Godzilla, Zatoichi and the Monkey King: The Best Foreign Genre Films of 1968

30 Dec

I’ve already written about my Hollywood favorites from 1968 in an earlier piece, so I wanted to focus on my favorite foreign genre films from 1968 before the 50th anniversary year was over, a group that has, in my opinion, held up much better critically over the years than their Hollywood counterparts. A lot was happening on the genre front back then, especially in Japan, Hong Kong, Italy and England. In Japan, there were numerous samurai, yakuza, giant monster and blind swordsman movies. Hong Kong’s Shaw Bros. studio gave us a host of swordplay mini-epics, several starring that swordswoman extraordinaire, Cheng Pei-Pei, as well as musicals, crime films and melodramas. Italy was turning out western after western, with all three major Sergios–Leone, Sollima and Corbucci–shining that year. England’s Hammer studio gave us exemplary horror films and France gave us BARBARELLA and THE BRIDE WORE BLACK.

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Jeff Chandler Centennial

15 Dec

Jeff Chandler would have turned 100 today, December 15, 2018. He died an untimely death in 1961 at the age of 42 after a back operation left him with blood poisoning, right after coming home from finishing his last film, a WWII movie shot in the Philippines called MERRILL’S MARAUDERS, which would be released a year after he died. Directed by Samuel Fuller and based on a true story, it was one of Chandler’s best films.

As a leading man under contract to Universal Pictures, Chandler occupied a unique position in the 1950s, the decade in which he did most of his major work. Tall, athletic, rugged and boasting sharp, protruding features—square jaw, dimpled chin, thick curling lips, long straight nose, high cheekbones, piercing eyes, dark, bushy eyebrows, and prematurely graying hair—Chandler found himself playing unsmiling officers, tribal chiefs and authority figures of various sorts in a wide range of genres, notably westerns, historical adventures, war movies, swashbucklers, and romantic melodramas. As an actor, he had a limited range, one he voluntarily adhered to, but did wonders within that range. As far as I can tell, he played a genuine villain only once—in the 1959 western, THE JAYHAWKERS, in which the hero was played by Fess Parker, TV’s Davy Crockett.

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Robert Aldrich Centennial

9 Aug

Robert Aldrich was born on August 9, 1918 and would have turned 100 today. (He died in 1983.) He was one of my earliest favorite movie directors. By the time I saw THE DIRTY DOZEN (pictured above, with Aldrich in the red sweater directing, with Charles Bronson on the right) in high school, I’d already seen three of his earlier films, two in theaters (THE LAST SUNSET, HUSH HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE) and one on TV (VERA CRUZ), and I loved DOZEN so much I made it a point to seek out every one of his films as they came out. In fact, just three weeks after I first saw DOZEN, I went to see his newest movie, TOO LATE THE HERO (1970) when it opened on Broadway. I missed the next one, THE GRISSOM GANG (1971), when it opened, but starting with ULZANA’S RAID (1972), a cavalry-and-Indians western starring Burt Lancaster, I saw every one of his remaining films in theaters on their original release. Also, as I began taking film classes in college and seeing movies in repertory theaters in Manhattan, I sought out Aldrich’s older films, especially as I learned of the high esteem he was held in by auteurists, and discovered for myself some of his very best films, including KISS ME DEADLY (1955), ATTACK (1956), and WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? (1962), not to mention the chance to see VERA CRUZ (1954) on the big screen. At the beginning of 2018, I finally caught up with Aldrich’s debut film, THE BIG LEAGUER (1953), a baseball drama starring Edward G. Robinson, and, as of this writing, I have only one Aldrich film left to see, the rarely-screened lesbian drama, THE KILLING OF SISTER GEORGE (1969).

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