Sight and Sound ran an article on psychological Westerns, with a smaller side piece darker Westerns starring Robert Mitchum. I’ve been keeping a look out for these film, so far this year I’ve seen two – Track of the Cat (1954) and today Pursued (1947). I can’t begin the review without a brief look at Track of the Cat which just on a visual level is fascinating. The colour pallet restricted to black and white, with splashes of red, every other colour was muted down – unless you were Mitchum. He wasn’t even the overall focus of the film that saw a family restricted by the biting cold of the mountain snow. Even more so with the threat of a black cat that had been spotted. With a terrifying performance from Beulah Bondi as the matriarch who used the bible to keep her family in line. Not thinking about how the scriptures were doing more damage than good. Driving the husband and father Philip Tonge to drink, hiding a bottle of whiskey in every thinkable place, yes a serious look at alcoholism in the genre.
Coming back to the earlier film directed by a Western director Raoul Walsh in this black and white noiresque Western set again the barren landscape of Gallup, New Mexico, which mentions the Mexico Border war 1910-19, however the costume is very confusing as to the era it depicts until we return from the front lines. I’m reminded tonally of Ramrod (1947) which is more overt in it’s visual connection to noir, with Veronica Lake paired opposite Joel McCrea. I still find that film confusing even after a second watch a few years ago. Unlike the majority of of Pursued which as with most noirs that are told in flashback. With the arrival of Thor Callum (Teresa Wright) who rides into join a man in hiding with a burnt out wreck of a homestead. We find Jeb Rand (Mitchum) wounded, tired and scared.
Beginning the film where he began his short life as we fade into flashback. A young boy hiding in a basement is rescued by a woman Mrs Callum (Judith Anderson) who welcomes him to live with her two young children. Life is not safe for them as they are soon on the run themselves. It’s a film of great upheaval and change for everyone in the Callum family. It’s not just a time of change politically but also on a domestic level. With such a focus on the family the film leans more towards drama than action which the Western generally fits into. We meet the children who are able to hold more screen time, danger is slowly creeping into their lives when Jeb’s horse is shot dead from under him. My first reaction was that it’s pretty dark in any film to kill a child. Thankfully he lives to be filled with fear that he takes home to the family. A child who we know has been plagued with bad dreams which we see flash upon the screen throughout the film.
We also meet an embittered Grant Callum (Dean Jagger) who soon loses an arm, which doesn’t stop him trying to muddy Jeb’s family name. But why is he out to get Jeb, how can an innocent boy have incurred the anger of this man. The ex husband of Mrs Callum who is more than happy and capable to raise three children alone, shows little fear, aware of the reasons but these are not revealed to us. The audience is left in suspense for the films duration. Tensions introduced between brothers Jeb and Adam Callum (John Rodney) after Jeb returns home early from the border war. The vendetta against Jeb is about to enter a new adult phase of fateful violence that follows him like a curse. Pushing him away from his adoptive family and love Thor who for a long time shuns him for the hurt he causes.
The question of why looms heavy over the this film. Why is Grant Callum so determined to see Jeb outcast from those he loves, to get him alone and kill him. All whilst Jeb is tortured by his recurring dream that he struggles to understand he returns to to brotherly rivalry that ends in death. Leading to the a court case being heard with the dead body in the room. The pressure to do right by the deceased and the accused has never been so acute. Whatever the result Jeb is cast out by his family, trying to find a way back into their favor. Something made harder with the a new man in Thor’s life, which is manipulated by Grant who tries to further push Jeb into the line of fire.
Throughout the film I noticed that we were missing one key ingredient of the noir genre – the femme fatale which is revealed late on and maintained for a few minutes before we are drawn into the safety of a happy ending. The women save the day after the Callum en-masse close in on Jeb who was destined to meet the fate of the rest of his family. The ending allows the woman rarely to take control on-screen, unlike the man who is generally expected to. Where there is pretty much a happy ending here, I much prefer the bleakness of Track of the Cat that left a family forced to come together under extreme pressure after such heavy losses. The turmoil that the respective families go through can’t fairly be compared. It’s the intensity of the situations and how they are resolved and that makes for more dramatic ending. Maybe it’s due to more confidence in the director, the script or a combination of both and the times that the films are made in. Either way they are both very interesting and obscure Westerns that dare to push the boundaries of the genre as it blurs with another.
I’ve just shared a Museum of Modern Art post of a video that was an introduction to the Western genre. Not that I need much of an introduction, It’s a massive love of my life. What I was fascinated with was the question that the narrator/curator posed towards the end of the 13 minute video. Is the Western dead? Well looking at my first review of the year and films I have lined up to watch at home, I can safely say that it’s very much alive. Last night I was caught off-guard with Norwegian film – In Order of Disappearance/Kraftidioten (2014) that’s a million miles away on the surface of being a Western. Then I only have to think about films such as A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014) which flipped the genres gender conventions to create something refreshing. Released the same year In Order of Disappearance continues that reinvention of the genre. Moving the tropes and placing them in the snow of Norway.
We begin with a middle-aged couple, Nils Dickman (Stellan Skarsgård) is dressing for an award ceremony in his honor – citizen of the year. All for doing what – clearing the roads with his impressive snow-plow. Making our efforts in the UK to survive even just a week of snow look pathetic. A landscape that he has tamed, an immigrant who has made the land his own, as has accepted him as one of their own. So far it’s nothing out of the ordinary, a society has accepted a stranger. It’s the brutal scenes later that night, two younger men are grabbed at an airport, result in one being found dead the next morning. On learning that the dead man Ingvar (Aron Eskeland) is the son of Nils and his wife, being told that he died of an overdose. Something that the father doesn’t believe. Similar to a young man being found dead after a gunfight in the West, labelled a gunfighter after never picking up a gun in his life. A verdict that Nils won’t accept lying down, unlike his wife who wants to mourn and move on.
The screen cuts to an untranslated title card with a cross and a name, I learn that this is form the film is going to take, it takes a few times to see these title cards. Nils accidentally learns the truth about his son’s death he’s given a new purpose in life – to avenge his son. He’s the Norwegian Paul Kersey from Death Wish (1974) with a more focused reason for getting his gun out to take out the men behind his son’s death. It’s hard to believe that this man, whose only a few more years from retirement is full of vengeful energy that at times can be darkly comedic. Never underestimate the power if grief when it’s channeled through anger that sees a life being avenged far beyond the violence that took the first life.
The title cards allows the film to be broken up into chapters, one murder per chapter allows us to see a staggered progression. Nils is making his way through a mafia group lead by an emotionally driven Greven – Ole Forsby (Pål Sverre Hagen) a man-child who we learn has taken over the family drug business, having been spoiled as a child. A combination of his position and upbringing create a monster who we wait to lash out. All this is easily translatable to the West, the man with all the power, controlling a town, the local economy in his pockets, surrounded by men who are both dangerous, stupid and not to be trusted.
Unbeknownst to the mafia who believe this is a war between rival gangs, not a single man on a deadly mission to exact justice for his son, things become more complicated. With the arrival of the a Serbian on a drug run he gets caught up actually starting a war. It’s a level of violence that Nils was not prepared for. He’d already tried to get to Ole with no success after his assassin tried to manipulate the situation for himself. It’s easy to make the comparison again to the West, a lone man tries to avenge his son, knowing he’s getting closer, killing Native Americans or a gang in town, working from afar, an unknown can work more effectively. However the unconsidered variable could bring rival gangs or nations into what potentially could be a war.
Nils finally strikes where he can really hurt Ole, by kidnapping his son, unaware of the complexity of his situation he’s not just invited Ole and his men, but the Serbians lead by Papa (Bruno Ganz) which is a clever piece of casting, the old guard meeting the new and less experience, no less dangerous. You really have to be paying attention to the deaths and the relationship between the Ole’s men, how this ultimately affects the final outcome. It’s a quick battle before the arms are finally lowered, enough blood has been shared, leaving the survivors tired and wanting to just get on with the rest of their lives in peace.
In order of Disappearance does what it says on the tin, an orderly death count that builds up the tension between three different groups in a landscape that could easily kill anyone of them. Much like the Western it relies on the independent man to stand up for himself, take law into his own hands to see that justice’s done. However as with life, its more complicated than that. The first few deaths are treated more lightly, as they mount up we see less of them or they become more brutal, but the results are always felt. The release of tension at the end is well earned in the freezing landscape allowing you to breathe again. To say the Western is dead is giving up too easily, look hard and read between lines of films released today and you won’t have far to go.
For a while now I have been seeing Burt Lancaster as an actor whose more than just an actor. Every film he’s appeared in he bring an aura of majesty and mystery. As if he’s a legendary figure from the heavens who has graced us with his presence. He was born to be a leading man you could say. Even from his early films he had the ability to leave his mark on the screen, even when he wasn’t present. I’m not so much drawn to his physical presence, more the aura that he creates. His performances were always compelling, even when the script was poor, tearing out its pages and delivering a something far better. Drawing the audience under his spell. Looking over his credits I can see that once he began to really mature as an actor he rarely put a foot wrong. Being it as Wyatt Earp in The Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957) to his mesmerizing Oscar-winning performance in Elmer Gantry (1960). He wasn’t afraid to take on challenging material with directors such as John Frankenheimer one of Hollywoods more liberal thinkers. Before forming an interesting working relationship with Luchino Visconti which I really want to see more of. So why all this praise of Lancaster you may ask? I find that as he got older, he too like his work matured to the point that even when he’s on screen for a few minutes in Local Hero (1983) he brings with his something intangible by just being to the screen.
I want to focus my attention to the cult film, The Swimmer (1968) from his back catalogue. On the surface it looks very much like a product of its time. It’s not your standard piece of Hollywood film of the time. With the new wave just getting underway, this could be seen as a conservative attempt to reach a new audience with a familiar face. Lancaster who had been on the screen for just over 20 years had not really shown much sign of aging. When it comes to The Swimmer who can see he’s starting to get a middle-spread, not that it stops him from making s film where his only costume is a pair of trunks. Gone also is the trademark hair, it’s all down and floppy. He’s more concerned with character than his own image, his consideration for his craft has deepened. He’s not acting with his heart on his sleeve, these are the sleeves of the character he’s inhabiting.
The plot is pretty simple really, Ned Merrill (Lancaster) decides to swim his way back home, plotting a loose course across the Connecticut countryside stopping to swim through his neighbors pools. That wouldn’t be most people’s first choice of travel. It does suggest he’s a free-thinker, ready to try something new. Allowing us to make our way through the film, meeting all walks of life on the way. It also better reflects the culture of the time, the free thinkers, opening your mind to new experiences. This is as free as the affluent are going to get, traveling the back way home and having a cheeky splash in a few pools along the way, sounds like fun.
Ned’s idea’s met with bemusement and excitement as he announces his plan, it doesn’t take long for the sun to go behind the clouds. Filled with enthusiasm he begins to the trail, named after his wife, Lucinda who he mentions all the time, as he makes his way back home to her and his daughters playing tennis. He paints a wonderful image of the perfect family life, one that he sells to everyone he meets along the way. First encountering Julie Hooper (Janet Landgard) who he invites to follow him. We learn that she once baby sat his daughters years ago. They have a long association that he hopes he can deepen. Today these scenes play very differently, he’s not just another older guy going for the young innocent girl. In the light of the Weinstein is scandal, the scenes take on a more sinister tone. Thankfully Julie is able to save her self from a fate that too many have fallen for. The classic screen convention of older man and young woman/girl is not allowed to develop, there’s a break to reality, fear enters her mind and the audience allow her to run away.
Already we are seeing a man whose begin to come undone, he can’t control himself. For her she sees a man she once had a crush, now older and full of ideas that don’t make sense to her modern and maturing way of thinking. Ned moves on through garden after garden some visits are longer than others, where we learn more about him, none of it leaves us assured of his past or future. When he comes to an empty pool he can’t just skip it and move on he has to imagine it, everything has to as if he were really swimming. It’s a disturbing scene, joined by Howie Hunsacker (Bill Fiore) who can’t swim is lead with him, taking on a paternal role to the boy, allowing us to see another side to him.
Visually the film is very soft, the vaseline is smudged over the lens at times to create a dreamlike quality to the film, a dream that Ned is creating of the perfect life of the suburban man who we believe has it all, a beautiful wife and children whom he loves dearly. A job in the city and money, everything the middle-class aspire to achieve in life. We have to listen carefully for the cracks to begin to show. The swimmer begins to limp from pool to pool with a memory that fails him, whats happening to the man, has he lost his mind? Every scene after the first stop is constructed to slowly chip away at him mentally and physically to reveal a broken middle-aged man who as we learn by the end of the film hasn’t got it all. In fact his own may not even be his, his wife and children are now just a memory to him, a projection to his friends and neighbors who paint a more realistic image of the modern family, one that could be broken and dysfunctional.
I didn’t know what to expect from The Swimmer, I knew there would be pools, a few parties, but not the revelations along the way. The undoing of the man we thought we knew at the beginning of the film. Where did he come from, we’ll never know for sure. Clearly a vehicle for Lancaster who as much as he is on display doesn’t indulge in that fact. It could easily be re-written as a one-man play that delves into the mind of the modern man who constructs the ideal image he wishes to project, yet it’s those around him who chip away at him to reveal a broken man who crashes back down to reality. I said earlier that this was a product of it’s time, which in part it is, visually. Conceptually it is more relevant now, as we each construct images on social media of ourselves for the world to see. Hoping our audience will buy into the images and lifestyle we are projecting. The challenge that Ned sets himself opens him up to his eventual undoing, behind the profile is a life as anyone else’s.
It’s been a long week at home and I needed either a comedy that I could lose myself in and not have to do much thinking. Or really treat myself with a dissection of film history, gain an even better understanding an appreciation never go a-miss. I settled for 78/52 (2017) a very obscure title that needs the prior in-depth or nerdy knowledge of Alfred Hitchcock‘s Psycho (1960) which the second documentary in recent time to explore the director. Previously the taped conversations between Hitchcock and Truffuat in Hitchcock/Truffuat (2015) which were the basis for the bible as it known by famous film directors who have worn and tatty covers that they have in their possession.
The earlier piece was steering us towards the making and the influence of Vertigo and ultimately Psycho a film that has changed the medium of film making. It’s a natural progression to then make a documentary that builds on that discussion, focusing not just on the film, it’s that scene, the scene that has become part of popular culture to the point that you don’t even need to have previously seen the shower scene. A moment in film that has become ingrained into the language of film that it’s essential reading for all students and fans of the medium.
78/52 is very much a labour of love, the aesthetic of the film’s built around the film, there’s no contributor sat in-front of a green-screened image or a hotel room. Instead a faithful recreation of the Psycho motel sets has been built to sit the contributors both famous, obscure and really unknown if you don’t have a love of horror films. Writer/director Alexandre O. Philippe has really done his research in pulling this documentary together. Drawing us into the world of the America that has become cut-off from civilisation to find the motel that Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) found that led to her bloody demise, all filmed in black and white, even our contributors are brought into this world. The only jarring break to colour is for colour film clips which you get used to, once you except that its a back and white world we are in it’s excepted.
The first 3rd of the film is pure build up, as we learn – again the context behind the film, the behinds the scenes that is even left out of the fun film depiction of the making of the film Hitchcock (2012) that focuses more of the directors psyche rather than the minute detail of what is essentially 78 shots of film and 52 cuts in the editing room that ends all that build up. Exploring that drives that lead Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) to dress as his dead mother and kill what could easily be his latest victim. Looking at the state of films in the late 1950’s all that were begin to bubble over from innocence to a burst of sex of violence in the following decade, breaking free of the Hays code that had restrained them to conform to the strict moral virtues of the country and “Mothers knows best” that Hitchcock exploits to shock his audience who had seen nothing like it in America in mainstream cinemas around the world. We can see this all in Hitchock’s earlier films, the role of the mother, waking up America from it’s nieveity to the war in his native Europe. The drives in his works, the symbolism that was building up his thrillers before delivering his first horror, a film that he would never top. Leaving me wondering how the rest of the classic really can work or live up to all the build up to that scene. Leaving Marion’s sister and lover to workout what happened, the result of the shower scene and that comes after pales in comparison. Yet without that lesser part of the film we wouldn’t have understood the motivations and get the conclusion that we leave with.
What could have been a replay of the shower scene, including the undressing, stepping into the shower to the eventual and famous climatic murder and the disposing of the body. Every frame and cut’s dissected with equal measure. Getting insights from everyone from editors, directors and even Jamie Lee Curtis. Instead of the classic fun of stills we have an in-depth discussion of the scene. At times light whilst at others very insightful, putting Hitch on the couch for some psychoanalysis through various film clips. We can see his had been building up to this film for over thirty years, finally breaking free of the holds of his childhood, expressed through his films.
Lastly we see the cinematic influences of the shower scene of slasher horror and main-stream film, how much of an impact that the scene has had on the medium. Even with the utterly pointless Gus Van Sant remake that I have so far avoided. Just proving that remakes can be completely pointless. Mere exercises in replication in shot for shot films hold no interest for me, there’s no point, however its inclusion in the film makes that very point, without even saying much about it. All part of the relationship between the original and the development of film since it’s release.
Ultimately it’s a very well researched documentary that is at times light whilst at other moments deadly serious. Full of clips that are needed to build up a compelling argument that unpicks the shower scene that forever changed the face of film, without ignoring its own and the directors influences. I know I made the right choice night, enough to make me write this review so it must have been.
My practice has me in an interesting position, a white guy under the age of 30 who lives in the UK and loves Westerns. I’ve come to a point where I need to take a step back from making work in response to the genre and actually look at where I sit. The genre is essentially an American import to our country which had an impact with people of a certain age, who watched them in the cinema at the time of release. I want to know how I relate to them, how the films have informed them, the characters and the role models that have helped inform their gender. It’s a project, I say project as I don’t know the finished form apart from being a video piece at this stage that I will probably come back to over a long period of time.
One of the first steps is to collect information from those who actually saw the films at the cinemas up and down the UK and see where the research leads me. I’ve written a short survey which I’d like to share with those who grew up and watched Westerns in the 1950’s and 60’s. If that’s yourself or someone you know, please share the survey with them?
I can’t wait to see the results.