Posts tagged “Karl Malden

Nevada Smith (1966) Revisited


It’s been a few years since I caught Nevada Smith (1966), then a few months ago we it was on as background, I had completely forgotten what the Western was actually about. Meaning it was time for a revisit. I’m doing quite a few in recent months, parts because I want to understand the films more, and there’s little to watch, this was a little of both really. I originally found the film to be about a mixed race half white/Kia whose out for revenge for the death of his parents at the hands of gold thieves meeting people along the way as he tracks down the three men responsible for the deaths. Which essentially the film is.

What else is this take on the other in the Wild West? Again the other’s played by a popular White actor Steve McQueen who is able to play the naive young man (white, Kiowa or mixed race) and draw in the audience which it clearly does. However as time has proven the draw if money takes away a decent representation of the Native American on film. Usually employing them in films more as extra’s, if on-screen they are not their for more than a few seconds, or pushed to the background to allowing the box-office draws or foreign English speaking actors caked in make-up to the fore. Its not practiced today in Hollywood (one lesson they have learned from except for Johnny Depp).

Nevada Smith begins being reminiscent of The Searchers (1956) (yes I know I keep returning to that film) but only briefly, where I wonder about the direction of the rest of the film. Instead of the white man being attacked the mixed race are attacked, leaving the often forgotten Native to fend for himself. Here we follow him after returning to the family home, complete with inset shot of the massacre in low light. Where we were once kept away believing the image would be too much for the audience to take in. We are still not given much information, even ten years later. We we are given a bleak description of how his parents were killed later on. Ford doesn’t like to linger with the images, the horrors of the Comanche are too much to accept. When it’s a white man inflicting the violence we can take more.

Moving away from that striking connection to the older film which it doesn’t try to replicate, instead it moves on making its own narrative. Instead of burying himself in hate for the killers of his family. Can this illiterate young man who can’t eve defend himself be a match for this killers who have not just skill but the edge of life experience on their side, whilst Smith has to learn all of this from scratch or die in the process.

In that process he is ready and pretty much willing to ignore his mixed heritage, adopting or assuming the ways of the White gunslinger. The preferred image of the Western. I don’t thin it would be the same film if he went around the film wearing his Native dress, the film would not have the same appeal, and would probably not one McQueen’s better films. It would lean more towards Burt Lancaster‘s role in Apache (1954) which is laughable (as straight as he may play the part) today.

Smith learns to draw and fire a gun, does his mixed heritage work to his advantage. However he also has to learn to read in order to pass himself as a white man, live in a white mans world that demands to be civilised not living as a savage Indian that may not understand, held back by these differences. If Smith accepted his Kiowa this would be a very different film, becoming in the eyes of a white audience a savage, played by a white man, he could be a more dangerous man to watch and fear also.

Moving away from the Native American themes (that dominate my own thinking at the moment) I can see a decent revenge film with the added texture. Looking at it today, it’s innocent but that doesn’t take away from the journey that Smith goes on to track his families killers, one by one he finds them and kills them as justice allows him. The deaths slowly reach Tom Fitch (Karl Malden) who begins to fear him. It takes the rest of the film for us to catch up with him, building him up to a dangerous man. Along the way Smith allows himself to be humiliated by others if it allows him to get to the next man. He does however use his skills and Kiowa knowledge to stay ahead of everyone (most of the time), right up to the end. helped with the christian intervention of Father Zaccardi (Raf Vallone) who introduces him to the bible. Allowing him to leave his Kiowa heritage for the white christian that was apparently waiting to come out. Or is it a combination of the two spiritual sides coming out and together, giving him a perspective on life that leads to the final showdown where violence is no substitute for forgiveness.

My thinking on the film has greatly improved or even deepened you might say, not the strongest of films exploring the Native American. The standard white cast and lead who we are supposed to accept as the other (without as much make as Lancaster). It was Hollywood of its day so what are we to know. We do have a decent revenge film which is entertaining which what you want at the end of the day, which I had the first time round, now its a richer experience.

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The Gunfighter (1950) Revisited


The Gunfighter (1950)I’ve watched two gunfighter westerns in a row now, Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957) and now The Gunfighter (1950), both of which I’ve not seen in sometime. Both sharing the theme of the life of the gunfighter, not having a place to call his own. A reputation built upon fear and sheer luck, not able to stay in one place for too long. I could stop the review there,I have just summed up The Gunfighter in a few sentences, but that wouldn’t do the film justice, which isn’t fair. So I will be going to explore this very short film that takes place mostly in a saloon bar-room. Used as a place of hide-out from the rest of the world that is wanting to put a bullet in him.

After running from one town at the beginning where he is tested by a “squirt” who wants to makes his mark in the world, to earn a name is gunned down legally (back in the Wild West) which at the time is still acceptable. The right to defend yourself is enshrined into the American Bill of Right you can understand the countries relationship with the deadly weapon. That hasn’t really changed much, of course you need a licence now and a motive for defence has to be rigorously tested in court. The Gunfighter explores the psyche of the gunfighter properly for the first time here. The giant men of the west such a Wyatt Earp, Billy the Kid and the likes are or were dangerous men who have been glorified. Earp did as we know become a marshal as I have recently seen portrayed by Burt Lancaster. Both Earp and Johnny Ringo (Gregory Peck (in The Gunfighter)) both have learnt from past gun-fights that it’s not really a life to aspire for. It’s an aspect masculinity that is really a flaw that needs to be kept in check. To know when to draw a gun, to defend oneself.

Packed into the short running time we have the repercussions of that last gunfight as three brothers come after him. That’s not before we discover how good Ringo is with a gun, he is not a man to be messed with. Or one that wants to mess around, wanting the quiet life nowbecoming to talk of the town where we spend the majority of the film. The saloon, his hide-out from the world, and probably where he killed most of his victims all over the West, it’s only the interior and people that change. It also reflects how trapped he is, unable to move freely for the reputation that precedes him. Boys skipping school to catch a glimpse of what they believe to be an idol in their town, seeing him as a role model and not a murderer.

It’s thanks to old friends such as Marshal Mark Strett (Millard Mitchell) that support him, keeping him safe from those wanting to try their luck with Ringo. Learning that Strett is himself a reformed gunfighter who went straight to now enforcing the law. We also have Mac the barman (Karl Malden) who is both in awe of Ringo yet is able to look beyond to see the man without the gun. A man who just wants to see his old flame, school teacher Peggy Walsh (Helen Westcott) who couldn’t accept him. Forcing him to leave her and his son behind.

The Gunfighter is not all about the action  that comes from bar-room brawls and quarrels that have to be sorted like gentlemen out of the street. Its about having to deal with your path in life and how it affects other people. Taking the route of violence may have its appeal at first, which wears off when you start to really hurt and kill. Summed up far better by William Munny (Clint Eastwood) years later in a few lines.

“It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man. Take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have.”

William Munny (Clint Eastwood) Unforgiven (1992)

When you look into the life of a gunfighter once the crowds have gone, what do you really have? People living in fear, families of victims wanting vengeance and justice, the fear of someone being faster than you are. That’s before you get the glory that comes with the title of being a gunfighter, not to be crossed or wronged. Losing out on having a family and a partner to call your own. The Gunfighter starts to take the western seriously, the figures of the West before were seen as heroic figures before the law takes them down or they change their ways. Now the western is growing up as the 1950’s are beginning.

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The Hanging Tree (1959)


The Hanging Tree (1959)

Noted as Gary Cooper‘s last starring western I knew  he had something special in The Man of the West (1958) could the same darkness be replicated? The answer is complicated really. One you don’t have Anthony Mann behind the camera, Man of the West was really his last great film before his death. What we have in The Hanging Tree (1959) is a film about our primitive urges as human beings, not exploring all of them in real depth but at least scratching under the surface of the idea to reveal just how easily lead we can be as a group, a society when pushed, and not even that hard.

When Dr. Joseph ‘Doc’ Frail (Cooper) rides into yet another boom town, gold is being found and spent. A good ol’ fashioned  hanging is taking place over a a crime that is never made clear. The whole town i is there, driven by revenge and a sense of justice, a law and order that they all get behind, you break the law and you break your neck. The Doc looks on saying little, is he different from these average townspeople who are hungry for gold, living on a shoe-string at times until their luck comes in. In this opening sequence you can see no expense is spared as the surrounding landscape is built upon to bring this gold-mining community alive of only for a few month as filming got under way in Washington-state, a landscape straight out of the classics which we identify as the old west, a perfect setting for a forgotten way of life.

We don’t have to wait long to discover what the Doc is like as he treats his first patient Rune (Ben Piazza) for a gunshot wound after stealing gold from another mans (Frenchy Plante (Karl Malden) mine. With no money to pay him for his services another method is needed, becoming his man-servant, a slave almost to the doctor, a public figure who the community should look-up to. A private arrangement based on blackmail brings these two men together, one of slave and master, both white so invisible to those around them. The Doc’s reputation is one that precedes him, one of dark acts that they cannot forget. Having both friends and enemies in the town.

A hard man who is tough to break until a stagecoach hold-up leaving one survivor who suffers badly under the sun. Its set-up like a car crash hit and run, rolling down the hill, minus the explosion. The Doc takes his time to visit his latest patient a foreign girl Elizabeth Mahler (Maria Schell) who is to become his most important patient after taking all kinds of payment for his work. From a simple kiss from a child on the cheek, to receiving horses. He’s more like the traditional image of Doc Holiday than your average frontier doctor wanting to treat the sick and heal the wounded after gun0fight. He does have compassion and drive to do his job, sometimes his motives can be questioned. 

Once he has comet the aid of Elizabeth he hardly leaves it until she is on the road to recover, when we see another side to Cooper’s character, something I didn’t find as Link Jones in Man of the West whose violent past came back to haunt him. Here we have a man driven by his urges, unable to shake them off, something bathing in them as he lashes out, especially opposite Frenchy who at least admits that he’s only human. You could say he’s a pervert by todays standard, washed down for the 1950’s. He can much like Rune can see through the doctors image to find a possessive figure who won’t let Elizabeth go once better.

When the three (Elizabeth, Rune and Frenchy) of them team up and stake a claim which is propped up by Doc behind the scenes. Never far away from the trio, pulling the strings, supporting Elizabeth, a confident woman who won’t take any messing about. When the success comes the trio’s away, striking gold, mayhem ensues in the town. Giving into basic urges following the few leading to destruction and eventually death in the town, bringing us back full circles, that little seen or spoken of tree of justice is brought back, Showing just how human and flawed we are, following the crowd, our greed and desire for safety are out of control, no measure of fairness, witness and crime and prosecute.

For Coopers last western, not quite his last leading role but certainly in the American frontier he has come full circle from being the all round hero who saves the day to being a flawed and complicated man. The male figure is not so straight forward in reality, not even in the west are things that simple, finding ways to survive, making mistakes in their past and trying to live with them. All in the midst of all the progress in the gold rush and the drive for law and order. What I can take away from this film is the landscapes and complicated characters who try to look into the darker side of life.

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One-Eyed Jacks (1961)


One-Eyed Jacks (1961)I watched this based on recommendation from a number of sources, One-Eyed Jacks (1961) is another of those misunderstood films on the time on release by a one-time actor/director, such as Charles Laughton who directed The Night of the Hunter (1955) which also fell foul to similar results. Both now highly regarded classics of both the Western and film noir respectively. One-Eyed Jacks  could have been more successful if it was made and released during the dark psychological 50’s. Even with the working combination of Marlon Brando and Karl Malden  in On The Waterfront (1954) and A Streetcar Names Desire (1951). Maybe it’s because the film so intensely charged that it was too much to see two men once bank robbers who rode together turn so viciously away from each other.

 With a dream western cast, calling in a huge number of supporting actors who are synonymous with the genre, from Hank Worden through to Katy Jurado and Slim Pickens I can only presume the rest were busy working with John Wayne or John Ford at the time of filming. It’s rich is passion and a dark heart that travels from Mexico to the coat of California as two men must find justice. With Brando in front and behind the camera we’ve a different kind of western, one that is brooding and dark, full of psychology, whilst the actor who had already done a  handful of westerns fits easily into the world he is bringing together. With heavy touches of visual theatrics, such as hiding the Mexicans in pursuit behind sandstorm, not properly insight to both Rio (Brando) or the audience who try to make out what they are seeing. This too is where a father/son like relationship that was once strong, built on a shared need for women and greed is broken when Dad Longworth leaves to buy new horses, taking the opportunity to start over again. Leaving Rio with little choice but to give himself up to the authorities that surround him. A price he will not forget to be repaid.

Jumping forward 5 years we see two men making a break from prison, nothing will stop these two men, Rio and Chico Modesto (Larry Duran) from freedom. With one goal, to find Dad Longworth ad kill him. It’s not the bandit after the sherif who put him behind bars, it’s the betrayed friend righting a wrong that he can’t forget. Meeting along the way, Bob Armory, one of Ben Johnson‘s finest performance outside of the Ford Stock Company and The Wild Bunch (1969) as another bandit who won’t be messed around when he joins up with Rio who has a bigger reputation with a gun. Who watching the changes in his new temperamental partner.

On arriving in California we find a now respectable Longworth, a reformed gun-man now as town sherif, with a Mexican family in his life. The life of freedom and abiding the law has paid off for him, everyone knows his past, a past he has chosen to rewrite for himself, which will soon be re-evaluated when Rio arrives to find him. Living the life he could have had, fuelling his anger, the need to kill him grows stronger still. Adding to that he meets Longworth’s step-daughter Louisa (Pina Pellicer) who becomes his love interest, yet bordering on incest, if only related by marriage.

Both men are very much the same, shaped by how events five years previously panned out, sending them both in different directions. Both a liars hiding their past from the women in their lives. It’s only a matter of time until they both can’t take anymore, who will shoot first? There are many opportunities to silence one another, the audience is left frustrated by the will they won’t they, not of love but kill, something not often replicated in the western. Surrounded by characters who are all playing against the type we usually see on-screen and so effectively too.

I’m pleased I’ve finally watched this sometimes forgotten classic, I wonder what else Brando may have directed if he wasn’t put off by the public response, with such adult themes. A film that was originally 5 hours long was recut into this still impressive form. Will we ever see that version, much like Cimino‘s Heaven’s Gate (1980) whose directors cut is 4 hours long. Brando’s reported in-experience behind the camera was sadly not seen for the genius he was today. Like so many actor/directors of his time that weren’t given the chance to make more, with visions so ahead of their time, it’s a case of if only.