If I’m honest I wasn’t going to write about Rawhide (1951) I was only watching it as it sounded good from the description so there I went and recorded it on a whim almost. It doesn’t even conform to the themes I’m exploring in my work at present, or the exploration of that film I’ve mentioned far too often recently. It also bares no relation to the later long Western TV series (1959-65) which introduced us to Clint Eastwood the rest they say is history in regards that show. The film of the same name is much more forgotten today, with two actors that I have to admit aren’t my favourite either, Tyrone Power and Susan Hayward are two that have never really excited me. It seems the more I explore I find myself going in directions I never imagined. Part of that’s down to the film’s director Henry Hathaway who never failed to deliver a decent film which this is.
It’s a Western in the classical form which is something I’ve not been watching a lot of recently, wanting or finding more in the films I’ve been choosing. It’s a good old-fashioned good versus bad which is the foundation of the film, the setting of a stagecoach station is more familiar after both Comanche Station (1960) ans more recently The Hateful Eight (2015) which itself has stronger connections with the spaghetti Western The Great Silence (1968) which are more obvious and far stronger, I can’t say too much as I have yet to see the film, for now I’ll let this video do the explaining.
I can instead draw on the slightly weaker connections to Rawhide, so there will be a few spoilers here. Again most of the action takes place in a stagecoach station, yet we start at very different points. There’s a mythical introduction of the Overland Express, a stagecoach that ran from California to St Louis and back again, taking only 25 days. For the time revolutionary, today it’s incredibly slow, the nearest we’d get today is a bullet train, how times have changed. That establishes the world are going to spend the film in before moving into the characters that are treated more unconventionally. Unlike Quentin Tarantino‘s film that merely uses the stagecoach as a form of transport to bring half the characters to Minnie’s where they’re snowed in for the rest of the film. We don’t have that claustrophobia or collection of colourful characters in the earlier film which allows the characters to move more freely.
Where it really begins to show comparisons is in the big reveal in Eight when we have the long flashback and the previous parts are revealed. When the work that the four we meet at the making preparations to the guests who are yet to arrive. Of course its more overt in the later film, with the older its only a small portion of the film as Rafe Zimmerman (Hugh Marlowe) and his gang of fellow in-mates who have just escaped are preparing for the evening stage to come in. The act of fooling the passengers whilst Tom Owens (Power) and Vinnie Holt (Hayward) who are held prisoner have to fight for freedom, hopefully getting word to the morning stage which is carrying the gold that Zimmerman is waiting for.
Moving away from that connection I have to look at how the characters are dealt with, the order which they’re killed off, which is rather out of traditional sequence. We begin with Stage boss Sam Todd (Edgar Buchanan) who is usually the drunk comic relief, I’d have hoped he would have had more screen time looking at his billing in the film, compared to others. Shot down in the first 10 minutes which is quite brave for a popular supporting actor. Then at the end of the film (yes more spoilers) Zimmerman’s shot by one of his own men Tevis (Jack Elam) who is woman hungry and uncontrollable, leaving the last gunfight to take place between Tevis and Owens. Traditionally this should have been between Owens and Zimmerman, however a risks taken here, its more realistic to see infighting of a gang that crumbles at the end when it becomes all too much.
There is no real clear hero, at least a male hero as we find when the final shots come from the only woman (Hayward) in the film, much the same as Marshal Will Kane’s Quaker wife Amy Fowler Kane (Grace Kelly) who saves her husband. These two women break the mold of gunfighter’s, picking up a gun and saving the day. Owens is too much f a coward, dropping his gun at the sight of a child being shot at, instead of preventing that atrocious act being seen through. What this shows it a few things, that not all men are built to carry a gun and fight with it. Women are more than able to defend themselves. Children were also involved in these dangerous gunfight’s, something we also see in The Deadly Companions (1961) where a child’s death is at the centre of the film. The child in the earlier plays a much smaller part, which is built up for tension at the end, dangers being directed at the little girl whose in the care of her Aunt who was only trying to bring her to her paternal grandparents. This is years before we have women and children thrown into the action of The Wild Bunch (1969). Tame for sure but you have to start somewhere.
Looking quickly at the Susan Hayward who as beautiful her screen presence is she’s easily suits the West, adding both beauty whilst not being afraid to muck in as we see her digging a hole. Most women of the West are either farmers wives or dancers, she is clearly neither of those types. A single woman who takes a big risk to travel across the country with a young child in tow. I might be looking out for more of her work in future. The rests of the cast are all well-defined, I see similarities in Gratz (George Tobias) and O.B. (James Parks) yet the latter is more educated than the Mexican who simply follows orders and can’t see what is really going on around him.
Made at the beginning of the 1950’s we have a decade of more emotion and psychology entering the genre. Its a small injection of something different to the genre that is about to be shaken from its classic form to reveal more exciting imagery and ideas.
The road to this Western has been a bumpy one, the film was initially announced before the script was later leaked, which caused Quentin Tarantino to throw his toys out of the pram, it happen that scripts get leaked, all to do with his massive ego which you can see in The Hateful Eight (2015). Thankfully he calmed down enough to film it for. We’ve been teased with trailers that had no footage, he wanted to wet our appetites without even a single frame of footage being exposed. And that’s another thing, he has celebrated the fact that it was filmed traditionally on a format that is rarely seen, Ultra Panavision 70 even when film has only been saved by himself and few other die-hard directors for the medium. Its been quite a journey for the film.
Staying with the format of the film, I’m not sure that from where I sat (in packed screen near the front) that I got the full impact. There is something to be said for seeing a physical print of a film, when its projected through light the image has more authenticity, the grain, the noise of the image that bounces on the screen. Its more alive than a crystal clean image that has been delivered on a memory card or transmitted to the cinema. I did however feel overpowered by the commanding presence of the format, not the medium but the screen ratio that forced you at times to move your had to take in all of the action that was at times wall to wall. There are moments when we have just met a few of the 8 that conversations are all you see, the characters heads fill the frame to the point that they are spilling out over the frame. These close-ups are intense, not those of Sergio Leone but something else that draws into the conversation and you don’t want to leave, you’re trapped.
Technically the format has restricted the box-office return that the film will ultimately make. In the UK alone 4 cinema chains cannot show the film as they are no longer equipped with film projectors. It shows the current state of film, but I don’t hear the director complaining, more concerned with the format that its projected in. Previously talking about a roadshow format that could allow audiences to see the film. A very old way of seeing a film. Gone are the days are staggered release in a country, this would however make it more of an event that simply choosing your time and go which we are used to today.
Ok so less about the technicalities of the film and more about the plot, trying to be as a spoiler free as I can. A few days ago I caught Reservoir Dogs (1992) which this has long been compared with. Which to a point it is, and zero to do with Rio Bravo (1959) which I thought, however a strong influence over the length of the dialogue, as much as we don’t just hang with these 8 people we are instead kept in a state of tension as discussion tightens and tightens as the film progresses. That’s after a long stretch on the snowy road up to Minnie’s Haberdashery where the film revolves. We meet one half of the group that will occupy the wood cabin in the snow-storm. Tarantino regular Samuel L. Jackson returns to another role as Major Marquis Warren, tailor made for the actor who chews up the dialogue and regurgitates is deliciously on the ears. Opposite a semi-regular Kurt Russell as John Ruth the hangman accompanied by his latest bounty in chains, the devilish Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who we are encouraged to feel sorry for. A beaten woman in chains, yet holds her own in the face of a black soldier who fought in the recent civil war.
There are political and racial tensions in the film which do indeed reflect America today, as there isn’t a week goes by when a black person is shot and for very little reason. Something that has seen Tarantino in the news for as he campaigns against. With the arrival of a Confederate soldier Sheriff Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) who has some great lines. I can’t imagine another actor in the role (besides Billy-Bob Thornton) make the balance between comedy and outright racism for other Civil War veteran. The Sheriff of Red Rock, the next town where everyone is heading, for a new job, to die and other to collect payment.
When we finally arrive at Minnie’s we still have to wait before they are still in the same room. It’s all about build-up as we meet the other characters who have already escape the storm. Having just met these we have to start all over again. Most have already been in director/writers films so do take easily to the dialogue. Two from Dogs Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth) and Joe Gage (Michael Madsen) who each have the backstories. I personally took to the old cowboy Gage, the centre of the Western genre, waiting to get home to see his mother for Christmas. Of course this is all surface which we have to interrogate between them all. Its all about what we listen and understand. There is one dangerous conversation between Maj. Warren and General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern) that ends badly for one of them. As an event is grusesomely retold for those in the cabin and us in the audience. It’s also good to see Dern on-screen whose gaining another audience as a cranky old man who can surely bite, the grey hair is only a facade when it comes to Dern.
The structure of the film is broken into 5 chapters, 2 on the road and 3 in the cabin, something that you don’t see in the genre. It helps to structure the film, and allows to breath if only for a moment. I felt the narration by Tarantino just wasn’t necessary, if it was really needed, someone else could have taken on that role. It all adds to the stroking of his ego which is massive to say the least with the comments he has come out with. You easily take out the narration and just carry on. The flashback sequence which does explain a lot goes someway to giving some characters more time.
As with all Tarantino films violence is at the centre, well tale end of the film, its all stacked up and shared out in the last 45 minutes as characters are killed off in shocking order. Saying little as possible, pay no attention to the billing as no-one is safe with a gun in your hand. It’s always a pleasure to see a Tarantino film if only for the dialogue, he’s tried something new year, well rehashed and shaken up as an Agatha Christie as learn who these people are. Heaps of talking, but where I get frustrated with Christie there is no action. There is always the intent of violence. it switches from character to character in the room. They discuss politics, justice and everything in between, opinions are strong and forthright.
Even if Leigh is the only female and gets a lot of grief and violence in her direction she is just as strong as her male counterparts in the film. Westerns are traditionally male heavy which maybe right or wrong, that’s a discussion for another article. What does it however add to the genre though? Its heavily stylized, still violent and rooted in the same era as most Westerns. It’s very contemporary still but not a light watch, it demands your time which is what you can go easier on the classics if you wanted and still enjoy it as a whole.
As I did a few years back I had to go back to an old Quentin Tarantino film before I go to see his latest offering The Hateful Eight (2015). Just by reading the premise of his second Western you can draw comparisons to Reservoir Dogs (1992) his debut film that feels a life time ago. To put things into perspective I was 3 years old when this film was released. Today as it was then it was seen as innovative, twist narrative film on its head, backwards and out the other-side. I could have said this was a revisit, which technically it is for me, however I was not really aware of Tarantino’s effect of film with his debut. Looking at the length of his latest film it wraps up at nearly 3 hours. This is almost half that, I’m guessing if he had the money he would have made it longer, or had he not thought about getting carried away. Dogs feels far longer than it is, packed with conversations that feel like you are listening in on something mundane, yet you can’t generally write that kind of conversation without recording it and personalizing it back home. Tarantino has given us an internal monologue and put it on paper and in the words of his carefully chosen cast.
I can’t yet compare Dogs with Eight as I have yet to see it so I will continue to explore what I learned from my recent sitting, from which I could only remember the torture scene which is hard to erase, be so graphic even when the camera pulls away you have a good idea what is going on. Of course that’s only one scene in the complex and bloody film which begins with an introduction that introduces a gang of men in a cafe just talking, not the traditional way to begin a film. As you go through the film we learn it’s not in chronological order, it’s all flashbacks and internal flashbacks which add depth to the film and the dialogue between these men.
Tarantino has used the classic device of the Maguffin to bluff the audience, it’s not about the robbery or the fact their is a mole in the group that we all begin to suspect early on, even with that faded memory in the back of my mind you continue to watch with fascination. These men are not who you want to meet on the street even in broad-day light. Yet they are depicted as just men who have chosen to take on a job that has ended badly. Two men already dead, including a small part for Mr Brown (Tarantino) and Mr. Blue (Edward Bunker) allowing the director to stay where he belongs, behind the camera orchestrating and feeding the dialogue. We never really know the names of the men beyond those of colour which allows the audience to have a more memorable experience, keeping the names so simple we can concentrate on the film, whilst not forgetting who they are.
If you look at the credits Harvey Keitel has a producers credit which also reflects in his massive part on-screen as Mr. White – Larry Dimmick which also adds more confidence to the film, knowing you have a familiar face to engage with instead of an unknown. Familiar to the genre of crime and gangster its not a stretch for him, yet different enough a character that you don’t forget him in a hurry. Having a cast of actors who are both known and unknown shows giving the film both credibility and weight even at less than 90 minutes.
For me it’s the non-linear structure of a film. When you turn on the TV and catch a film in the middle or at the end you have no real chance of understanding what the film is about. I know I’ve done that, wanting to know more see where these characters came from, the journey they have been on which lead them to the films resolution. Dogs of course asks you to watch from the beginning, but doesn’t necessarily begin there. Instead we’re introduced to men talking and arguing over whether to tip the waitress, it’s not what you’d expect to find yourself listening to. Before creating that iconic opening title sequence that tells us who these men are, not what they do but who they are alone.
We then jump forwards then backwards at times, as we learn about a diamond robbery but never see it carried out, left for our imagination to fill in. We learn that it didn’t go to plan, Mr Blonde (Michael Madsen) is very much a loose cannon that cannot be trusted, but he’s not the rat among them, that comes later on in this fragment and thoughtfully constructed film that if it’s not firing bullets it’s delivering snappy dialogue that. What grounds the film is those scenes in the warehouse where the robbery’s discussed in detail. You could have the whole film play out here with those other scenes just discussed. They act instead as cutaway’s and flashbacks that construct what has already happened.
It’s the power of memory and how flexible it is in a narrative form, testing how much an audience can-take. Of course now its a common part of some film, Tarantino still excels in this field. I wonder what I will find in The Hateful Eight which is for me a cross between Rio Bravo (1959) and Reservoir Dogs. I wonder if his next film will be another western or has he found his genre that he had been wanting to work in, causing a resurgence in which I am very grateful for however long it lasts. I come away from this film however with a deep appreciation for it, understanding its structure, the power of the suspense and it goes all over the place yet stays grounded somehow.