I’m really starting to kick myself that I haven’t yet seen Loving Vincent (2017), a painstakingly animated in the visceral style of Vincent Van Gogh’s iconic style. I’m actively on the case of finding it now. Last night I caught artist/director Julian Schnabel‘s adaptation of the tragic life of the abstract expressionist – Van Gogh. A subject that has been tackled multiple times on-screen. The controversial director has made creatives biopic his main subject of his work, looking at Basquiat (1996) for his first film before turning to more tragedy in The Driving Bell and the Butterfly (2007) about magazine editor Jean-Dominique Bauby who became paralysed in all but one eye. Now for his latest work he turns to one of the most depicted artists on put to film.
From the little I’ve seen the trailer for Loving Vincent, the aims to transport you into the world of Van Gogh’s work, where he’s best known and remembered to the world. Every depiction of the painter has tried to mimic his painterly style, the way he experienced the world around him. My recollections of Lust for Life (1956) staring Kirk Douglas who delved into the passion that drove the artist. Seeped in an extreme contrasting technicolor world that reflect the passion more so. We’ve moved away from the highly stylised use set-design and playing with colour levels to focus more on the psychological understanding of the man behind the art.
We all think we know the Van Gogh’s story, how he had a troubled life, spending much of it trying to find out what he wanted to do before discovering painting in the last ten years or so of his life. Admittedly I was wondering when the cutting of the ear would be handled and depicted. It could have been one of those nuts and bolts films that retread the same old story in another way. Adding to that the knowledge that a researcher Bernadette Murphy who had spent her life wanting to understand the man and the truth behind the incident surrounding his ear. Learning that it was delivered to young women who was a prostitute (a profession that was at the time regulated by the state). The cut was not as clean as first thought, leaving the lobe still attached to the head. Schnabel handled these details delicately, thoroughly, whilst still using some artistic licence of his own.
Initially I didn’t know what to think of At Eternity’s Gate (2018), I had to give myself time to acclimatize myself to this way of reading the film. The cinematography echoed Son of Saul (2015) in terms of claustrophobia, but not as tightly held. Instead it was far looser, disorienting at times, it could have been nauseous as it followed Van Gogh (Willem Dafoe) around, his every action’s reacted to, as if we were being thrown into his world with no way out for the first painting scene of Shoes (1886). Defoe who was rightly nominated but sadly overlooked for the Best Actor Oscar clearly took at lot of time in researching the role, learning to mimic his style and approaches to painting. Regarding the age of the Defoe in the role, being in his 60’s, when Van Gogh’s died in his 30’s is questionable. Something that has been dashed aside by Schnabel who in a Guardian interview stated –
“I’d say it was perfect casting,” he begins. “Obviously it was: he was nominated for [an Oscar]. I don’t care who won the Oscar. Willem gave the best performance of the year. He raised the bar. Christoph Waltz said: ‘That’s the bar.’ I don’t know what he did, he went into some other place that’s beyond the Oscars, beyond criticism.”
Clearly a director who sticks to his convictions and who doesn’t like to be criticised. Admittedly he does have a strong resemblance, maybe age is on his side. It also gives Dafoe a chance to bring to the role years of experience of creating dark and interesting characters to life.
Visually it takes sometime to adjust to this way of looking. With cuts to black where we have a number of insightful monologues. We enter the mind of Van Gogh however in more ways than just his thoughts. An attempts made the psychologically understand his perception of the world. Unnerving when these moments happen you soon adjust to the increasing instability in his mental stability. The journey is inevitable but nonetheless heartbreaking to watch unfold and even experience.
We’re not treading new ground that’s for sure, but we are treading into a more unconventional approach of interpreting and retelling it for an audience as we get to understand the artist in more detail, It’s not just a matter of recreating the moment he painted this painting and that. We don’t even see him paint his most famous pieces. A lot of attention to detail is on show here, from the costumes to the make-up. Even the ear incidents handled sensitively, we rarely see what becomes a brutal scar. Dafoe is the real star throughout, the agony his portrays as his talents are constantly questioned and tested by everyone he meets during the film. It’s not one for the average film-goer, it takes some patients to adjust. There are moments when I felt like it could have just been subtitled, others where the cast could have been Belgian/French, I’ve reached a point where the break from foreign back to English is too harsh, a stronger decisions made. However it’s a solid film that explores the tortured genius in a brave new light, which makes this one to admire.
My first encounter with The Last Train from Gun Hill (1959) was a few years ago when I was working on Dancing in the West (2013), which features a few pieces of found footage from the film. I have more in Iron Horse of the Studio (2015) which lifted the train outside and arriving into Gun Hill where the majority of the action takes place. Otherwise I had very little knowledge of the film beyond that fact it starred Kirk Douglas who arrives on the train.
But why does he arrive in Gun Hill asking for Craig Belden (Anthony Quinn). Away from anything even related to Trains we have a Native American mother and son, whose clearly mixed race, he has a white father. Riding through the woods on a horse drawn buggy. Passing Rick Belden (Earl Holliman) and Smithers (Brian G. Hutton) who are her attackers and killers. It’s pretty obvious what their intentions are they as they up alongside them. Throwing the boy aside, they don’t wait long before they rape and kill her. Usually it’s the white woman whose raped by the Native American in the classical form of the Western. Here the roles are reversed, the woman – Catherine Morgan (Ziva Rodann) whose seen as worthless and little more than a sexual plaything to be abused as if she has no soul – not in the Christian white man’s view.
Back in her home town, a group of boys are after a retelling of a classic gunfight from 9-10 years ago. Gun control has been enforced in this town, making it a far safer place to be, far from the crime committed in the wilderness of the frontier. Town Marshall Matt Morgan (Kirk Douglas) whose happy to retell the story, creating his own legend for awestruck kids who want to experience the danger of the past as modern day audiences do through watching these films. It’s only when he’s led by his son to his wife body. Clearly upset and equipped with evidence (a saddle with the initials B.C.) He knows where he must go, but doesn’t know what he will really find on arrival. His old friend Craig Belden, could he be the killer and rapist of his wife or is there more to this than meets the eye. Turning against a friend is something no man wants to do or takes lightly.
We haven’t even met patriarch and cattle baron Belden who has power not just over his son but also the town of Gun Hill. Not only does he want his saddle but he allows his son to be beaten up by his right hand-man. A sadistic side that is rarely seen, usually the father deals out the violence himself, not delegating to his staff, who happily take over. It’s a challenge to his son’s Rick manhood. He wants him to defend himself, not so much to win but to stand his ground. Belden could be compared with Broken Lance‘s (1954) Matt Devereaux (Spender Tracy) driven by power, mistrust and frustration. His whole family are slowly driven. Whilst a grief-stricken Morgan dressed in black throughout the rest of the film, arrives with the saddle in tow, he knows what he has to do is going to hurt. Is he an avenger of death in human form with the protection of a marshal’s badge, allowing him to deal out the justice he seeks, that any other man would have to be careful to achieve.
Gun Hill to Morgan is like traveling back in time to the lawless town he once tamed, except it’s not his to even attempt to tame. Instead to try and remove two elements to face justice back home. No one is prepared to help in, living in the pockect’s of his old friend who will allow safe passage on the last train if his son goes free. It’s a lot to ask of Morgan having come all this way to give up on his mission without so much as a fight. He does have one ally in the long-term girlfriend Linda (Carolyn Jones) who wont even go home with Belden. Her reluctance works in the favour of the visiting marshal, an angel you could say whose fighting her own conscience in a town that wants her to conform. Proposing a wager on her own success, only to withdraw when she realises she’s just as bad as them. A typical woman of the frontier whose in s relationship with the man of the town, only to see the error of her ways. However she’s soul searching throughout the film, making her stand apart from other women in the genre.
I come away from Gun Hill a western that really does manipulate the world it’s functioning in. retelling stories of the West as if it’s all be won. A Train that rides right into the middle of town to position it as the main focus of the film. Whilst a marshal is happy to stay in the comfort of a hotel room waiting for the right time to face the music of the town that wants him dead. The hotel room becomes his own prison and temporary marshals office, working away from home, the law never left him throughout his time in Gun Hill is short lived but he has an effect that hopefully will send ripples through the town. I’m glad I’ve been able to piece together the clips I’ve seen previously, making sense of them now has allowed me to see a more complex western that could be darker. Made up with solid performance by a cast who are enjoying a script that goes further than your standard corruption in town.
Another Western that I thought I would never see, so when it came up in the listings I grabbed the opportunity. A few weeks later I’ve finally caught this late period Western with an older Kirk Douglas. It first came to my attention when I found the trailer when I was working on Dancing in the West (2013), I eventually dropped the trailer from the final cut. The images of the trailer didn’t leave me, wanting to seek out the film which not so sought after in the genre. For me it was to see an older Douglas when his profile was not as strong as his son Michael. There’s enough room for two on the big screen – just.
Posse (1975) is not the longest of film by any stretch of the imagination, its straight into the action and it doesn’t really slow down, with a political edge that grabbed by attention. Texas State Marshall Howard Nightingale (Douglas) is leading a posse, we only know they are law by the badges they wear. Their actions are questionable, a nighttime raid on Jack Strawhorn’s (Bruce Dern) gang, having seen a great number of Westerns, there’s no honor in this raid, the men are caught off guard, with no chance to defend themselves. Even killed when they are clearly unarmed, which goes against the unspoken code which the audience has been educated in. All of Strawhorn’s men are killed within a few minutes, its systematic and cold, leaving the leader of the gang to ride off to fight another day.
The same systematic attacks carried out in daylight when the posse catch up with Strawhorn’s new less experience incompetent gang who are surrounded and killed one by one without really getting close. Strawhorn had briefed these men to shoot when they reach a certain point, no sooner. This doesn’t really sink in for them, firing when fired at, natural instincts come through, which the silent posse use to their advantage. Again these men are taken out one by one, some unarmed whilst others really don’t help themselves by getting in the line of fire. These are two sides where the leaders don’t directly get involved until the very end – could this be a proxy war in the West? Both men do deliver orders but don’t directly get involved until they are forced to. Nightingale finally arrests his man, bringing him one step closer to the office of Senator.
I’m reminded of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) which saw Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) who legend has it killed the outlaw Valance. This act raises his profile and helps him eventually reach the office of Senator. Except he knows he wasn’t the killer. His whole rise to power is based on a myth which he doesn’t argue with until the end of the film. Nightingale is purposefully building his own legend on the outlaws that he brings in or has killed. He is aware of his reputation and the power that it has to further his career.
We see that Nightingale has power or money at least, his own personal train that allows him to travel before breaking away with the horses that go with them. Pulling into Tesoto, a Texan town is later used for a political rally. A town where Strawhorn had previously shot a sheriff, leaving the town vulnerable to further attack, the arrival of Nightingale can only be a good thing. Bringing with him the man they wanted, Nightingale celebrated by most, but not all, the most influential man – the press – Harold Hellman (James Stacy) who won’t print favorable reports on the would be Senator.
With Strawthorn in jail, it’s time to ride the glory of the arrest, Nightingale holds an outdoor rally, which works pretty well for him, if only they went to the polls the next morning. Everything starts to go downhill from here on in. The train ride to the gallows comes to an abrupt end not too far out of town. Turning the tables on Nightingale who becomes powerless to do anything, his men are trailing behind unable to help. This is something I’ve never really seen, the hero so helpless to do anything up to the close of the film. Then again this is Douglas who has played some ambiguous conflicted men who we are somehow drawn to, neither good nor bad, this one is leaning towards the bad, riding on his political and legal powers to hopefully win the day.
None of that goes to plan, now a hostage, his men are forced to find the money to set him free, it’s the last job they’ll do for him before they cross over to other side and ride off Strawthorn. This is after they hear of their possible futures, less than desirable they hoped for. Less money for all, and for one less status, with that threat ahead they have to fight for themselves, and who can really blame them, with the opportunity they grab it with both hands. Leaving us with a very unusual ending in film, the hero is left alone, thwarted by the bad guy who rides off into the sunset. Yet our hero doesn’t really have the classic traits, sure he caught the bad guy, but he rode off with the men who first caught him. It shows the ambiguity of real life, also that politicians will always be politicians, using their position for their own gain.
Posse is a rarity for sure that uses the genre to look at politicians in more detail in the Western guise, the image of the squeaky clean politician who fights for his people is blown clear away. One of the more overt political Westerns, a politician displaying his power which ultimtely fails in public view. The image of Stoddard cannot exist here, he like the others is corrupt, using power to fight wars and gains that they can only do with position. Lastly the casting of Dern opposite Douglas is very clever, Dern plays a darker Douglas, going that step further from questionable to being the all out bad guy or “son of a b****” that made him go for the bleaker roles in the 1970’s.
On 16th January I presented my first film talk, the first in a series of community based talks about film, looking into films in more detail than before. The first was looking at It’s a Wonderful Life (1947) sharing my insights of the film with the general public. Below you can read the notes from the night.
Tonight I’d like to explore the darker side of It’s a Wonderful Life, (1946), Frank Capra’s Christmas classic that at the time of release got a mixed to luke-warm response from both critics and general public. His first film post WWII, it was also the flagship film for his new production company, Liberty films which he formed with fellow directors and comrades during the war George Stevens, and William Wyler. Both very different directors; Stevens known for his comedies, especially for the Tracy and Hepburn film; Woman of the Year (1942); where the famous affair began. Whereas Wyler had been making a range of films, a few with Bette Davis who he had affairs with. It wasn’t until he released Mrs Miniver (1942) about a middle class British family coping with war on the home front did his career begin to change for the better.
Turning back to Capra, he was a Sicilian immigrant who came to America in 1903 aged six with his family. He would later to move to Hollywood where he would direct a string of very successful comedies during the depression. Moving forward to just before It’s a Wonderful life was released in late 1946, he has spent the last the duration of the World War two, posted in Washington, holding the rank of Major, in command of the U.S. Film core, coordinating projects at home and out on the front line. Most notable colleagues under his command included John Ford, John Huston, William Wyler, who made propaganda films for both public and military consumption.
With exception to John Ford, he was the most successful of the fellow directors, having directed a number of successful comedies, earning himself 3 Best Director Oscars during the 1930’s alone. The films speak for themselves
It Happened One Night (1934) was the first film and comedy to winning the “Big 5” Best Actor, Actress, Writing, Director and Film. The film follows a journalist who will stop at nothing to get an exclusive story of a runaway socialite before her big wedding.
Mr Deeds Goes to Town (1936) won best director, second in a row, and his third nomination. A musician inherits a vast fortune, spending the rest of the film fighting off city slickers who will do anything for it.
You Can’t Take it With You (1938) won Best director and film for his studio Columbia. A rich Families son falls for a daughter from an eccentric family, who in turn lay in the way of the family business’s plans.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) most notable for the 12-minute filibuster by James Stewart picked up Best Original Screenplay. A naïve boy ranger’s leader is made governor of his state, when in Washington he finds corruption, not the high ideals who believes in.
All of these films came before Pearl Harbor in December 1942 when he would finish his on-going projects before enlisting. On returning to civilian life, his industry had changed beyond recognition, as much as they wanted him. He wrote in the New York Times about
‘Breaking Hollywood’s “Pattern of Sameness”…This war he wrote had caused American filmmakers to see movies that studios had been turning out “through their eyes” and to recoil from the “machine-like treatment” that, he contended, made most pictures look and sound the same. “Many of the men… producers, directors, scriptwriters returned from service with a firm resolve to remedy this,” he said; the production companies there were now forming would give each of them “freedom and liberty” to pursue “his own individual ideas on subject matter and material”
Five Came Back – Mark Harris – Pg. 419-20
What is this “Pattern of Sameness” that he was reacting to in his article? The article was setting out his opening of an independent studio – Liberty Studios that would produce films unhindered by the moguls. Something that more and more directors were beginning to do. Maybe this “Sameness” was a type of film he was not used to, or produced a negative response in him. Were these the films his contemporaries and even partners in his new venture were all making?
“…his fellow filmmakers, including his two new partners, were becoming more outspoken advocates for increased candour and frankness in Hollywood movies and a more adult approach to storytelling, he flinched at anything that smacked of controversy. Over the past several years he had become so enthralled by the use of film as propaganda that in peacetime he was finding it hard to think of movies in any other way. “ There are just two things that are important,” he told the Los Angeles Times in March. “One is to strengthen the individuals belief in himself, and the other, even more important right now, is to combat a modern trend towards atheism.”
Five Came Back – Mark Harris – Pg. 419-20
His fellow filmmakers were striving for more realism in their work, one response for wanting realism, a stylized realism is Film noir.
“The term “film noir” itself was coined by the French, always astute critics and avid fans of American culture from Alexis de Tocqueville through Charles Baudelaire to the young turks at Cahiers du cinema. It began to appear in French film criticism almost immediately after the conclusion of World War Two. Under Nazi Occupation the French had been deprived of American movies for almost five years; and when they finally began to watch them in late 1945, they noticed a darkening not only of mood but of the subject matter.”
Film Noir – Alain Silver & James Ursini – Pg 10
A new kind of American cinema was flooding into French cinemas.
I’d like to show the nightmare, or alternate reality sequence from the film now. However before I do, I’d like to share what I found in the sequence that fits into what makes a film noir a film noir. There a few themes and visual cues that can be attributed to the genre, each applied to different varieties within the genre, showing how flexible it is.
The Haunted Past –
“Noir protagonists are seldom creatures of the light. They are often escaping some past burdens, sometimes a traumatic incident from their past (as in Detour or Touch of Evil) o sometimes a crime committed out of passion (as in Out of the Past, Criss Cross and Double Indemnity). Occasionally they are simply fleeing their own demons created by ambiguous events buried in their past, as in In a Lonely Place.”
Film Noir – Alain Silver & James Ursini – Pg 15
For George he tries for the majority if the film to escape his hometown – Bedford Falls, which has always pulled him back at the last-minute. His father’s death, marriage to Mary, the Depression, His hearing that stopped him fighting during World War II, until finally he might be leaving to serve a jail sentence for bankruptcy.
The Fatalistic Nightmare – “The noir world revolves around causality. Events are linked like an unbreakable chain and lead inevitably to a heavily foreshadowed conclusion. It is a deterministic universe in which psychology…chance…and even structures of society…can ultimately override whatever good intentions and high hopes the main characters have.”
Film Noir – Alain Silver & James Ursini – Pg 15
You could say that George has been living a nightmare, until he enters into a world created by his desire to not exist.
These are only types of Noir narrative that apply to the film. The look of Noir has been applied to the alternate reality where George enters his Noir Nightmare, the look of the town, now named Pottersville, where we find all the business in town have sold out, part of Potters empire, populated with bars and clubs, another town to drown your sorrows, forget who you are and where you have come from, until reality will ultimately come for payment.
The lighting – Chiaroscuro Lighting. Low-key lighting, in the style of Rembrandt or Caravaggio, marks most noirs of the classic period. Shade and light play against each other not only in night exteriors but also in dimmed interiors shielded from daylight by curtains or Venetian blinds. Hard, unfiltered side light and rim outline and reveal only a portion of the face to create a dramatic tension all its own. Cinematographers such as, John F Seitz and John Alton took his style to the highest level in films like Out of the Past, Double Indemnity and T-Men. Their black and white photography with its high contrasts, stark day exteriors and realistic night work became the standard of the noir style.
Film Noir – Alain Silver & James Ursini – Pg 16
If we look at Out of the Past (1947) which follows a private investigator (Robert Mitchum) who has tried to escape his life, living in a small town as a mechanic, before his old life catches up with him in the form of Kirk Douglas. Here you can see the deep shadow that leaves the characters in almost darkness at times.
Whilst in Double Indemnity (1944) another prime example of the genre we can see how the lights are directed against the blinds, which act more like bars of a jail cell rather than an indicator of the time of day, Light and shadow are used to take us into a dark underworld that is lurking around the corner ready to consume you.
I’m going to play the nightmare sequence now (stills below), afterwards I’ll share some of my observations.
Capra essentially redressed and relight of Bedford Falls? I feel that Capra was reluctant to really delve into the genre he was resisting. He does however replicate the lighting, which is heavily stylised through the exterior scenes and those in the old Granville house, where he had previously (in his living life) threw stones at with Mary. However here it seems more stones have been thrown here, as it’s beyond a ghost house.
I also noticed that it’s the third time that he has jumped/fallen into the water, the first being to save his younger brother Harry’s life, the second as he literally and emotionally falls for Mary, his wife to be.
All I really remembered from The Hour of the Gun (1967) is mainly the blue skies and the train scenes which inspired a platform shelter I made a few years ago in the studio. After revisiting The Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957) I knew I would ultimately be taking a look at the later take on the Wyatt Earp biopic’s that was also directed by John Sturges which I’ve never known why. John Ford never thought to return to the town of Tombstone after My Darling Clementine (1946). Maybe it was a chance for Sturges to rewrite what he made a decade earlier. Feeling he could have served the legend more respectfully. I suppose he could have also wanted to carry on the legend beyond the gunfight at the infamous corral where the Clanton/Earp war came to a head.
I wonder what these two films would be like if played back to back? As one finishes at the gunfight, the later begins just before, no bravado, just silent build up, no dialogue, a few meetings of the eyes as both sides meet. Already the second half is more mature, we lose the big screen personalities of Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas for actors who can really be lost in the roles. James Garner (Earp) and Jason Robards (Doc Holiday) who are more suited, it’s not about the image of the actor, more about the legend which is being retold and extended. Going into more detail to the events after the gunfight that up to that point had been forgotten. That’s one thing film can do, draw on forgotten parts, all with a touch of Hollywood magic of course.
The first real attempt at full of realism of the events in both films comes in Tombstone (1993) and Wyatt Earp (1994) I still can’t decided which is the better film. Back to John Sturges gunfight we are now looking at the consequences of what was ultimately a questionable act by lawmen, who killed the Clanton’s with such force, the gunfight is over before you even realise it’s begun. We do still have Ike Clanton (Robert Ryan) who is out for revenge and power throughout the film. Even thought Ryan comes from the golden age of film, due to his age he’s better suited to the, never quite making it to the star status of his contemporaries but could easily act the socks off of them.
Looking at this as part of two the Wyatt Earp legend the characters are paired down to just a few brothers. We loose Holiday’s mistress friend Laura Denbow (Rhonda Fleming), written out completely, not even being mentioned. Its all about that important relationship and seeking revenge for the deaths and attacks on his family. Using the framework of the law to get revenge, loosely called justice, or his version of justice. Holiday becomes Earp’s conscience as Earp is more ready to release the lead from his six-shooter. And you can’t blame him. The law and order he has built up is being under-mind. His family at the receiving end of violence. What started out as a cattle war becomes a family war, there’s more at stake, more drama when blood is involved, both sides have been hurt here.
If I’m honest, this is not my favourite incarnation of the legend, however it does start to really explore what these two iconic men of the Wild West. They are not just cooped up in the towns the helped bring law and order to, We explore their lives beyond, as they travel the Arizona territory, trying to stay alive and settle the wrongs that have been made. The Hour of the Gun (1967) is a maturer take on a historical figure that he had not yet received. There are not great big set-pieces in this film that focuses more on character and fact which works in it’s favor. Maybe Sturges has matured also as a director, wanting to bring more truth the legend that has become that facts that everyone takes for granted.
I’ve been looking for this Western for a while now, catching it originally a few years ago and not completely understanding the subtleties of this actually quite dark film. Not on a Fordian scale, or even that of Budd Boetticher, we are returning to the murky realms of Robert Aldrich who could move from genre to genre with ease. Here in The Last Sunset (1961) he pits two leading men of Hollywood against each other. From the opening titles, if you look carefully, the same landscapes covered by two riders, taking the same path. We don’t tend to see that unless there is a chase midway into a film. It’s a chance for a double take, to question the audience attention to what is going on, to look beyond the surface of the image we are given.
We learn that Brendan ‘Bren’ O’Malley (Kirk Douglas) is on the run but in no real hurry. In fact he’s enjoying the chase, riding into the Brenkenridge Ranch, meeting Belle (Dorothy Malone) who lets him stay the night, O’Malley as like many of Douglas’s roles are neither good or bad, he’s elusive, charming with a dark streak that he carries it all off with a little too much confidence. With his time on-screen first we believe he’s the good guy as much as you can if you are familiar with Douglas’s past roles. Building up the role of Dana Stribling (Rock Hudson) who is after him. Instead of going into hiding he encourages John Brekenridge (Joseph Cotten) to take him on to lead his cattle North to Texas.
On the face if it we have a cattle drive with rivals who are waiting to kill each other, it’s anything but just that or we would have this film today, it would be a run of the mill Western that would have long been forgotten. If we under the surface we have a yearning in O’Malley for the past, an old flame in Belle who knows why he’s back. Making a deal with John for a 5th of the herd, and his wife. A very unusual deal to strike, luckily struck as John’s an alcoholic and a coward whose walked all over.
Add to that the 16-year-old daughter Melissa ‘Missy’ (Carol Lynley) who believes she’s a woman at her young age. Perceived as such in Mexico so acts that way. It’s not questioned by those around her. It’s not long for her to start falling O’Malley who at first has no interest. Cinematically this is a very dark area, even for the early 60’s leaning towards underage sex, is played innocently on-screen. O’Malley does little to encourage her. Its only when a seed that’s planted earlier in the film’s brought to light, a yellow dress that O’Malley last saw her mother at the same/similar age in that dress. Producing feelings in O’Malley to transfer his emotions from mother to daughter.
Yet the first half of the film there is a love-triangle form between O’Malley, Belle and Stribling, as John is blissfully unaware and drunk. Played by Cotten who I thought would be out-of-place, however its an interesting choice that pays off, the older man, a Confederate veteran who has a secret history of cowardice that has taken the form of alcoholism, he’s respected however by all in his company. Stribling doesn’t make a move on Belle, leaving him to fend of O’Malley who takes any chance he can get, again ignoring the admiring Missy. O’Malley taunts Belle, whistling a tune that’s repeated throughout, a motif that plays on our minds and that of Belle.
The Last Sunset’s filled with psychologically conflicted characters who are placed into this cattle drive which is not a jolly affair, darker than Tom Dunsons in Red River (1948) that sees two very different men pitted against each other. However 13 years later the Western has changed so much in that time. Good and evil becomes blurred here so they can live alongside each other for so long before the warrant that was originally raised can be fulfilled. Stribling having been made a deputy to ensure he can get justice for his sister. Even that isn’t black and white as we later find out.
The final twists which I had completely forgotten hit me as fresh as it would have originally. Maybe I should wait this long again to watch it (4 years I think?). Its a dramatic twist, the possibility that O’Malley might be Missy’s father. It would make sense. Of course there is no way to prove this, it’s down to belief alone that soon hits home for him. Leading up to a classic, fast paced edited showdown that leaves us on the edge of our seats. It’s a unique Western, much like others by Aldrich who also gave us to takes on the gunfight at the OK Corral and that’s just to begin with. He adds a psychological depth and uncertainty to his work they aren’t just a standard genre film.
I must confess that I first attempted to watch Mad City (1997) a few years ago, gave it a few minutes and gave up on what I thought was a cheap and stupid hostage film. Then a few months ago I shared Ace in the Hole (1951), which gained a response on Twitter. As I’ve been revisiting films I thought it should only fair to check this film out again when it made itself available to me. I couldn’t see the connection myself between the cynical Billy Wilder classic which I now can see is see is the first of its type of films about driven journalists to get their big story and of course claim all the glory for it too.
And so begins another compare and contrast review between the two films that are almost 50 years apart. The basic ideas of both films are the centre of them. We have a gap in-between with Network (1976) that shows how far the media will go for a story, brought bang up-to-date with Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (2013), which really show the extremes to which a New channel will go to for ratings.
However it’s not about ratings or readership for either Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) or for Brackett (Dustin Hoffman) who we find at the bottom of the barrel, an unknown little paper and a small local TV station who are in 9th place. It’s a more personal dilemma for these two who have reached personal rock-bottoms after a number events that have lead them almost give up on journalism altogether. It’s only by chance that they hit upon a story that gains more attention then they’ve had before, and not for wanting it. What makes them both stand apart is the men who play them. admittedly I think Douglas has this role nailed, the drive and determination come to the actor far easier than the more sensitive Hoffman who is by far the more versatile actor, so equal for different if that makes any sense.
If I leave Wilder’s original to focus on the latter which has more of an impact even nearly 20 years later if this film was to be made again it would be more like Nightcrawler (2014) , instead of waiting for the story to break you break into the story, capture and sell. Brackett is just a very lucky man in a bad situation, after recording a piece of “fluff” or public interest he unwittingly walks into a hostage situation led by recently fired Sam Baily (John Travolta) who wants to get his job back at the museum which is facing closure. So everyone’s going through bad times at the moments, the journalist stuck in a dead-end station, an unemployed security guard and a curator Blythe Danner is trying to keep her museum open. The next three days are the last thing she wants.
I think what makes this film that much darker than the cynical original is the effect that the journalist has on the public and other journalists who’re drawn to this story, well it’s not a story it’s a crime scene or situation that has developed and been moulded into a new-story that for the length of the film just keeps on giving. Brackett knows all the tricks in the book to ensure that everyone outside, even the police ensure he can carry on inside and out. He manipulates the seemingly innocent (to the attention) Sam who want his job back, he has no real plan, even though he carries a blunderbusses and a bag of dynamite. Caught in all of this are a class of children and a fatal mis-shooting that only makes the hostage situation worse. You could say Mad City is a combination of Ace in the Hole and Dog Day Afternoon (1975) which really does go all wrong too fast, played more for laughs than the drama that fuels the black comedy bank robbery.
Going back to Ace in the Hole again the attention that’s generated is only limited by the culture, and the technology. People come from all over the country to hear about the guy trapped in the abandoned hole. The advancement of technology has only blown a small town hostage into something far, far bigger than Tatum could imagine but would still have eaten it all up. Of course in both films all of this build up comes with its own consequences, as much as they believe they have been helping to build and maintain all comes crashing down before them. With the promise of a successful future they both grow a conscience, a shred of morality which they have been lacking, the public caught up in all of this hysteria are blameless in all of this.
Mad City is a clearly an update of Ace in the Hole which is much forgotten like this lesser known film with two strong actors. Why is that though? I think because the media moves so fast that the clunky kit that we see has been long lost. Journalists still run around like vultures for the next hot story, the public caught up in it can’t help but sell their story of the money is right. City is one of the lesser known films that you can still watch and not think what were those actors thinking?
A Western I have been aware of but have been purposely avoiding, mostly out of ignorance and not really wanting to see a Western with Sidney Poitier I just didn’t see him fitting into that genre easily. I’d only ever seen him in less than a handful of films. I guess what changed all that nonsense when I saw him being given a lifetime achievement Bafta award, a massive selection of his films made up his show-reel. He’s had a ground breaking career, during a time when African-American roles on-screen were relegated to butlers, housemaids, the help around the house, all using stereotyped voices that today is just plain embarrassing. I could go on about the history of the African-American on-screen plenty has already been written.
Instead I want to turn my attention to Buck and the Preacher (1972) which depicts the African-American in a new light. Gone are the stereotypes, the bumbling help who look up to their white employers who they idolize, with a few sayings that they have throughout the film. I get the sense more of a Black Spaghetti Western at times with this one. It’s not even that really, its something in between as it has a sense of something really important going on. We’re told in the prologue that the now free slaves after the Civil War are moving West themselves, in search of a better life, it’s already in the history of the genre. The war was fought for them yet we hardly see them on-screen in leading roles. The closest we get in Woody Strode in a handful of roles, even then its supporting at most. However these now free slaves are being treated nearly as badly as the Native American who are historically entering the closing days of their own freedom.
Enter our hero of the film, Buck (Poitier) whose paid to be wagon master to black wagon trains. They are the pioneers of the film, wanting to make their mark on the country that is still being tamed and won. It’s a story as inaccurate as it maybe that goes unspoken on-screen for the most part. You could call him the black Kirk Douglas of the film, who means as much business as any leading white actor, he knows what he wants, will do anything to achieve it, with a lot more drive behind him as he has both the history of his race but that of the genre and the medium on his shoulders. That’s a lot of weight to bring to the role. The nearest we get to his role today is Jamie Fox in Django Unchained (2012) his Tarantino‘s Blaxploitation meets Spaghetti Western. I’ll turn to that is more detail later. Back to Buck who is a serious man who you can see has a heart and will do what is necessary.
So a black man leading a wagon train is not just rare, at the time groundbreaking, the exclusivity of the white man and his family who’re lead by men who know the open country and can survive “Indian” raids without losing too many heads along the way. This the Native American as we know them, now they play a more substantial role that really brings them into the plot beyond being obstacles, they are substantial elements of the plot. First seeing them as the potential enemy before being revealed as the ally to the Buck and his partner Preacher (Harry Belafonte) – the comic relief. Buck is able to negotiate with the Natives for safe passage (see video) for his wagon train that is about to pass through. He could have easily just ridden along through, but he decides to ask permission, instead of taking his chances like his once slave owners may have done. He has learned respect where white man have not.
I don’t want to make this another study of the depiction of Native Americans but I can’t help it as their role’s transplanted to the Black characters who are wanting live the life of the White man, It’s all messing about with the genre that for decades had laid down the rule almost in stone of where everyone should be. The White men, for a while are ten men who are after Buck wanting to restore order, to pre-Civil war life, not accepting the changes, lead by Deshay (Cameron Mitchell) whose driven by racism, unable to the future like once town sheriff (John Kelly) who will allow anyone in his town as long as they obey the law, they can pass through unharmed. They are men from different sides of the war, most probably would have fought on different sides two. Its only when Deshay and most of his men are killed and robbed is the law on Buck’s back and rightly so, he’s broken the law, and wants to bring him in to face justice, a white man would face the same destiny.
It’s unusual to have a majority black cast, that’s supported by Harry Belafonte who is loosely a man of the cloth. Like most preachers in the genre, they usually carry a gun, or carried one in a previous life, ready to survive the open and dangerous wilderness which is the West. He is the other half of Buck, the excitement, the comedy and a more danger at his side. The opposite of determined Buck, are they the Black Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday, they are polar opposites yet work well together when pushed into a corner which makes the on-screen duo work. History would probably tell us differently.
Turning now briefly to Django Unchained you can see this is a very influential film. Again we have a freed slave, not so literally, the rise to glory is far quick, it’s an origin story to an extent. With Buck that’s already built-in with the prologue, he has a history of leading freed slaves to new lives, this time Colorado. The aim of Django was to find and free his wife Broomhilda von Shaft (Kerry Washington) yet he’s supported by a white man Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) he does enable him to get where other black men can’t. The White men are generally depicted as idiots and backward in their thinking, which is not so overt in the older film.
Looking at the film on the perspective as a Western it’s a bit of an oddity, the soundtrack is the first thing that hits you, it’s so unique, it doesn’t grate on your ears as much as it grabs you attention, informing you this is not your average Western, the protagonists not the usual white men, these are the underclass that are rising through, its a long fight that wont be won and some would argue is still not. In other respect the action and chase scene are as standard as any other Western, classical in style but modern in terms of themes which makes it really stand out in the genre.