Posts tagged “Missouri Breaks

The Missouri Breaks (1976) Revisited


I’ve still got a long list of films that I have to revisit, not really giving them the attention respect they may deserve. Passing judgement on them too quickly or not understanding them. The Missouri Breaks (1976) I found to be flawed just over two years ago, focusing on the killings at the end of the film, It just didn’t work for me. The second time around with an understanding of westerns from that period I went into this film with more of an open mind, one that I hoped would expand my appreciation (or even produce one) of this film which is only remembered because it stars to heavy-weight actors Jack Nicholson and the unpredictable Marlon Brando who really shows he does’ really care about the role, just having a good time as infamous regulator (assassin) Lee Clayton who is as eccentric as we imagine Brando has become. Who by the late 1960’s was seen as unemployable, only Francis Ford Coppola dared take a chance with him, and it paid. Only ever having larger than life mysterious parts during the decade. Whereas Nicholsona man who could do no wrong creatively, working with everyone of the time practically.

Arthur Penn who before directed Little Big Man (1970) a spoof of the genre takes on a darker view of the genre. The frontiers of America have almost been tamed law is strengthening all the time, making it harder for bandits to have success. Something that has yet to properly reach this part of the county for Tom Logan (Nicholson) and his men who are in the business of horse rustling. The premise is pretty straight-forward, he and his men want to steal horses and sell them on.

It’s not your straight-forward western, having more of an off-beat feel, the comedy between the men in a love-hate relationship. Whilst over the civilised part of the country self-proclaimed law-man David Braxton (John McLiam) who rants nearly as much as Peter Finch‘s Howard Beale in Network (1976) having seen and done it all in the west, he believes he knows best. Carrying out justice from the beginning with a hanging of one of Logan’s friends. Something that horrifies Braxton’s daughter Jane (Kathleen Lloyd) a woman who was really meant for the civilised East.

The rustling of sheep is main threat to John McLaim who has already lost 7% per annum of his stock that year, yes he’s that accurate. Hiring renowned regulator (in other words assassin) to track down the rustlers who are operating in the area. Brando is in his element, just being himself which at times alienated me, flipping from one persona to another. He’s not trying to live up to his reputation, he’s just having fun with this character which in this film doesn’t fit. Again larger than life unlike Logan who feels threatened by men who are killing his friends unjustly, unlawfully and unfairly, there is away about dealing out justice and this just isn’t right. He can see everything around him slip away.

It’s the dynamic between the two leads which doesn’t really work for me as they play their odd game of cat and mouse. Clayton is a cunning character who knows he’s good at killing, a skill we see time and again to grisly effect. It’s still that last encounter as the men are killed one by one in quick succession, you don’t have time to really take it in, to know they are dead as the next one falls. He is indeed a fast worker. Then it’s the comeuppance the final kill that was not even worked up to, it just happens, its cowardly, not of the west, there is no honour in the kill, calculated too wait until Clayton is asleep. Maybe I’m reading the film wrong, that scene lacks the build-up, its all done before we know whats happened.

So I’m still sitting on the side same side of the fence I was a few years back. It’s a different kind of western, modern in the respect that all murders aren’t as we see them in the west, they are devious and cold, not these staged show-downs that we are used to. That is what it’s about which doesn’t sit with me.

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McCabe & Mrs Miller (1971)


McCabe & Mrs Miller (1971)

I originally dismissed McCabe & Mrs Miller (1971) on the basis that I could hardly hear the actors talking, the action was slow and the soundtrack was much the same too. Then as I learnt more about the film, the director, the 1970’s and revisionist westerns I had to return and find out what it was really about, instead of being shallow and dismissive. Finding something I have found before with other director such as Arthur Penn and Sam Peckinpah who left their mark on the then dying genre. Breathing new life into it, for however short a time it was. McCabe & Mrs Miller feels as modern as Unforgiven (1992) or Open Range (2003) (which I really should watch again). The tone and look of the film more realistic with Robert Altman in the chair, than most of my favourite westerns. The men and women in turn of the century America talking about modern issues, such as how to trim facial hair or to a buy out of property.

What begins as a lone man (John McCabe/ Warren Beatty) wanting to start out on his own a new brothel in an old mining town. He arrives complete with his own reputation that precedes him, a killer of a politician, someone to be feared or respected. He knows what he wants. He main weapons are really charm, cunning and little business acumen. All that he really needs. The townspeople led by Sheehan (Rene Auberjonois) welcome him and his new venture, a sure winner in a town populated of mainly men. Yet its not overtly adult, there are excited men, at the site of prostitutes in this mountain town, they are a welcome addition. Life just goes on.

Things are going along smoothly for McCabe until he encounters Constance Miller (Julie Christie) a professional Madam who knows a good thing when she see’s it, joining up with McCabe, they form a casual relationship, which on-screen is confused, we never know what they are, they share a bed, the profits, yet its never overtly dealt with, it’s private and confused, like life I guess. She shakes up the business, bringing a different class of prostitutes with her, something the clients will really like and pay good money for.

For a film set in a “whore house” we don’t really see any sex, we know it happens upstairs, it’s just a part of the fabric, so why show it? Things start to fall apart for McCabe with the arrival of two men wanting to buy him out, what could be a profitable venture for him goes ever so wrong, his bravado gets the better of him, and later it gets him.

Only two years into a new century, the ways of the old west, the “whore house” is still a nice venture, yet ways of doing business are changing, to McCabe’s misfortune treating it as a game and little else. He has something pretty good and doesn’t want to part with it. An independent man, who can support himself, proud of his empire, to give it up so easy is not his way. A way that is becoming more cut-throat.

The finale is not what I expected, the atmosphere shifts from a happy mining town, to one greedy for development and change. A quiet gun fight in the snow, are we seeing a legendary gunfighter take up his gun once more, or a man fighting for his life. Whilst Miller, a woman strong on the surface seems to give into addiction, something rarely seen in westerns, simply glossed over, everyone is having problems. The final shootout has more cunning here, unlike the poorly remade fight in The Missouri Breaks (1976) which felt hollow, there was no cunning or wanting to survive, unlike here in the heavy snow that made the stakes even for both men. As the old west was dying, so had the men who wouldn’t change with it.

I’m glad I finally revisited this gem, that pleased me on many levels, the lighting which was far more accurate, as I have worked with myself, reflecting more the time, left very much in the dark. Whilst the sound quality was poor, I soon adjusted and paid even more attention, adding another layer to this modern classic. Which would be far less without Leonard Cohen‘s soundtrack which swept us off to a bygone era when life was simpler yet so much harder. Coming across as bittersweet as Bob Dylan‘s in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973), demonstrating a real change in tone in the 70’s for the genre, using contemporary music for the soundtrack.

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