Probably the only comedy western which like many others first think of is Blazing Saddles (1974) which still holds up today – mostly. I decided to take the plunge into the sub-genre with another Burt Lancaster led film The Hallelujah Trail (1965) which I was for years avoided, comedy and Western can be really silly, becoming boring. Admittedly I laughed a few times here and there, but not enough to say this is a comedy that I’ll be returning to in a rush. I did however see it through and considered some of the themes that it raised, even comedy’s of varying quality can raise some issues to discuss.
The Trail is one of the few films to actually give decent screen time to the Temperance Movement – the Feminists of the 19th century, with a focus both moral decency and more rights for women. They have always received a raw deal in a male dominated genre. Maybe it’s in light of the #MeToo movement that I’m able to this coming through more. Previously the genre has seen them as basically party-poopers who want to stop the men having any fun. Twice in 1939 we see them trying to change their society in their small way. Trying to lecture Joe Clemens (Frank McHugh) in Dodge City, luring him away both alcohol and violence. Partly helping him stay out of trouble in Errol Flynn‘s absence. The intervention doesn’t hold for long, the lure of the violence next door becomes too much to handle. Also seen as a comment of gender, if a man can’t take part in a fight and hold his liquor, is he really a man. Whilst over in Stagecoach a prostitute Dallas (Claire Trevor) is driven out of town by the Law and Order League, which could be argued to be a good thing. A town with no prostitution is always better, however that label has only been inferred in various readings of the film. Once The Ringo Kid (John Wayne) enters, his advances to Dallas are first ignored, she knows she’s no good, tainted even, we never know the real reason, it’s all inferred by the audience who decide her past from the clever dialogue and acting. Whilst Sam Peckinpah uses the South Texas Temperance Union in The Wild Buch (1969) as merely something to be shot at. He hates them enough to see them killed in the street indiscriminately by Pike Bishop (William Holden) and his men. They are lost to the crowd that are caught up in the crossfire of the bank robbery that goes wrong.
So somewhere in the middle we have the young attractive women in Hallelujah Trail led by Cora Templeton Massingale (Lee Remick) who uses their sexual power to overcome the soldiers at the for they are staying at. A political rally that encourages the band to play along and even cannons to be fired. Enough to alarm Col. Thaddeus Gearhart (Burt Lancaster) returning from a mission, is alerted to the noises back at the fort, mistaking them for an Indian invasion. The film sets out to place the army – in turn the men on the back foot, they cannot have full control of the events in this film.
Here gender roles are flipped if only for comic effect in the year of 1867 when apparently the Indian wars are over, the Plains Indian’s have all be penned off to reservations, the problem has been solved in a mere two years since the end of the Civil War, a little too simplistic and incredible inaccurate. If anything the wars continued well into the 1870’s before the “Indian Problem” was finally and dramatically resolved at Wounded Knee in 1890 with a few arguments over treaties around that same period. The film wants to quickly brush the “Indian problem” under the carpet to allow the Sioux to break out in search of whiskey that’s been promised to the town of Denver.
At the centre of the film is a fight over who gets their hands on the said whiskey. The Temperance league wants all 20 wagons worth to be poured into the river. Whilst the men wanting it, just want to safely arrive to avoid the oncoming drought that’s heading their way. Whilst the U.S. Army just wants to ensure it’s safe passage, whilst also trying to keep the peace between these two sides. That’s before the added element of the Sioux wanted the gifts they’ve been promised on a yearly basis being delivered. A standard part of the original agreements, tonnes of money, food and gifts to pacify them in turn hoping to encourage them all to adopt a life of farming. In short a lot of people want that booze. Lastly we have the Irish who are transporting 10 of the wagons, who have labor grievances that they want to take up with the trail leader Frank Wallingham (Brian Keith) an upstanding tax paying citizen and Republican.
Everyone but the army are out for manipulating the situations to suit their own goals. Understandably water in the area is scarce and not always as clean to drink as alcohol. Whilst the women who have both their looks, age and gender on their side to try to manipulate the situation in an attempt to instill abstinence in the men across the country. Of course in a comedy that doesn’t always go according to plan. Massingale is not as clean and sober as she wants to appear to be. Whilst the Sioux are rightly out for what they’ve been promised. Sadly their on-screen depiction is far worse than usual. Not only are white actors playing the chiefs, whenever they speak the narrator translates over them, even any sign language is mocked by the narrator. They are again seen as 2 dimensional people. Their goal maybe more appreciated by the audience whilst still reducing them to children in the process. Following the smell of booze that for future generations can ruin a life on the reservation.
There are moments such as the gunfight in the sandstorm which after a few minutes becomes tiresome. Well staged and meaningful in wanting to get the laughs. We get that the confusion from sides stops anyone dying because they have no clear view of the perceived enemy. It pretty much sums up the film, no one wanted to really be there making it. Lancaster was contractually obliged to take part at a reduced salary, not getting on with Remick, the jokes rarely hit the marks. If anything it’s just become very dated to watch. There are moments that stand out but very few. It’s raised slightly by some of the cinematography that achieved some daring pans above the action as it passed under the camera. However it’s essentially a comedy dud. With sole exception to the Temperance movement that’s blurred with feminism if only briefly and back-tracked on at the close of the film. There’s a lot going on in a here and it’s far too long to really call a comedy. The main problem is that it needed another script draft before reaching the screen, leading it to be an overly ambitious film that could have been so much better.
I’ve been meaning to revisit Network (1976) partly because it celebrated its 40th anniversary last year, another being that it’s an important film that sometimes becomes overlooked with all the 24 hour sensational news we have today, I wanted to see how this prophesying film has come to reality. As I sat down to watch it I realised much I had forgotten on this dialogue heavy film. I had lost practically all of the first hour, waiting for the “Mad as Hell” speech, which I admittedly did again, but was taken aback by the other scenes and build up to what is ultimately a scene that changes the course of the film and the direction all of the characters are going on.
It’s a very human film, going back you could say to Citizen Kane (1941) the need to be loved, the need for attention is at the heart of the film. It’s not human love or attention that most people strive for here. To be embraced, understood, cared for, listened, ultimately to be wanted and loved by another in the world. This is the cut-throat world of ratings, point share and audience percentages. A very cold world where what your station transmits makes the difference of the image you project to the world. The content that for the fictional station of UBS is becoming too much when it comes to news anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch) who I forgot how incredible a performance he gives. Where he character begins and ends in the film which is central to the stations rise and fall. Beale is a dead man walking when the film begins, he’s just been fired by his old friend and boss Max Schumacher (William Holden), the two men drown their sorrows before he faces his final weeks at the station. Filling him with a sense of uneasy freedom that we all get when we know that what we do will have none or little consequence that a period in our lives is coming to an end. “I just don’t care, I’m going anyway”. First saying on air that he will commit suicide, a surefire boost to the ratings. That’s before the powers that be begin to pay attention. Sadly this comes after the events that are depicted in Christine (2016) of a TV reporter who actually committed suicide on the air. Dark subject matter that Sidney Lumet can’t help but use to satirize the TV news industry. Satire isn’t a word that really sits well with this film though, it’s too dark, shocking and I didn’t laugh once. Instead I was fascinated and drawn into the insidious world of the media. It’s a precursor to a future that has all but happened today.
When the outbursts start to attract attention, numbers start to go in the right direction which means that Beale stays, just for the sake of more promising ratings. Of course it makes sense to keep on the air what grabs an audience’s attention. However it’s the content of the outbursts which is really concerning. He knows there are troubles in the world. Network was made in an era when Watergate shook the country, and the Vietnam war coming to a bloody and very climatic withdrawal. The country is filled with suspicion and disillusionment, ripe for someone to vent on a platform that can reach a massive audience. The news is the perfect position for such an individual, who is fighting for their professional survival.
It’s at out the halfway mark that really marks a striking change in tone. “Mad as Hell” as I learned came more from an spiritual possession of Beale who is no longer himself, more a vessel to express the insecurities of a nation still coming to terms with the greatest country in the world being turned upside down at home and abroad. History is about to repeat itself in some form or another. Trumps Administration is cracking at the seams and the situation in North Korea could easily end very badly for the planet. Lets hope things don’t get that bad though. Back to the fictional 1976 we see behind the scenes at the offices of UBS in fighting for control of the news. An internal war for control both creatively and financially. Mainly between content director Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway), Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall) and News director Max Schumacher Beale becomes a pawn in a giant game from ratings, as UBS improves financially and in terms of its position – I still get confused with all the media talk. Maybe that’s the point. Its a different world where people don;t really matter, they are disposable if they are not in the best interest of the company.
UBS becomes a network for the lowest common denominator, airing content for shock value alone, which was years ahead of what we have now. Not as extreme but this is a filmic world where anything is possible. Making deals with political extremists for content that is brave and pushing the boundaries, but showing how far they will go, not caring how they influence society politically.
With the introduction of the board of directors and a foreign takeover bid – Arab money. Money that provides Beale with his best material or intervention, preaching to his audience to rally behind him and stop the takeover. Writing to the White House to stop the bid being approved. It’s a prime example of getting carried away with a good thing, it will always bit back. There’s a scene very late on when the chairmen of the board Arthur Jensen (Ned Beatty) explains how the world works. To him its not based on a community of countries that try to cooperate and live alongside each other. Which we know is a hard task at the best of times. I was first shown the scene outside of the film in a lecture, it didn’t really make sense outside the context of the film. 3rd time around I now understand the speech and it makes more sense, money is how the world functions, countries are just places to deposit it within.
Looking back I can see how much Network correctly predicted, the war of the ratings will never end, pandering to the lowest common denominator will not go away until tastes change. I see a man whose used for the sake of grabbing attention, By the end of the film, he’s no more than a disaster, toxic to them and had to literally be killed off. The scene where the murder is arranged is always shocking, cold and organised so that they all get away with it. The room is filled with people who are soulless, no life outside of the industry, I’m relieved that Schumacher was fired allowing these amoral characters to carry on. I didn’t forget the weird affair between Schumacher and Christensen which was built on drive and passion that turned into a one-sided empty relationship where nothing can survive. Taking the affair on it’s own it shows how two very different people working in the same world are so far apart. One driven by quality, heart and warmth, the other driven by stats, ratings and positions. A montage sums up how little passion there is between them. Network holds up pretty much if you ignore the political extremism, there will always be infighting, pandering to the masses not to the intelligent audience that is craving to learn, not just be herded. The power of media manipulation is rife, we have to choose carefully what is not “Fake News” today. Instead of quality news coverage which I think we’ll never really have from one source. The film has allowed for a whole sub-genre of New room drama’s which mock the media so successfully today.
There’s a reason why some actors/actresses decide to steer clear of living in Hollywood, it’s full of crazy people who have lost touch with reality. Out there to chase their dreams that may never happen. Taking a normal job, going to auditions, writing scripts, following any lead that could be their big break. It stinks of desperation and dreamers who have lost the plot, or are driven and won’t be pulled back into the world of the living, the sane with us who know to stay on the right side of the silver screen. Only the lucky few are picked, get the call and go over and make the big time. Then you have to apply the old saying “whatever goes up, must come down” tell that to Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) one of the victims of the introduction of sound. The screen didn’t get smaller, in fact its blown wide open by those early talkies as everyone began to rush to that “gimmick” with all they could, seeing actors old and new change in a matter of years. You can see the effect of progress crystallised in a few films, but none of created a victim of that progress as frightening as Billy Wilder in his chilling take on Hollywood with Sunset Boulevard (1950). Having been in tinsel town for almost 20 years he had he own fair share of stories to tell, but they would be true, and that would be unfair on those who have given him all he has made in this foreign country he calls home.
It’s been a few years since I first caught this striking film, a dark comment on an industry that Wilder was more than willing to use as material. My thoughts on the film have had time to mature and change over that time. I’ve taken in many, many more films, a small portion commenting on the industry that produces them. We’ve just seen a film briefly win Best Picture before being snapped away due to an admin error. Hollywood loves the praise itself, but sometimes the ego’s been stroked a little too often and a conscience for the better film to be honored props up, declare Moonlight (2016) the winner over La La Land (2016) which was a front-runner for what seems a year since it was first premiered.
However if we go back to 1950 it’s a very different time and the golden age is starting to crumble after the studio system was being broken down by both Washington and the stars who made the studios so powerful. The only real power was censorship, which was skirted by Wilder. American cinema was entering a new age of the psychological, the fear of the Soviets, the first decade of peace, after WWII was still uneasy with the war on communism being fought in Korea. With all this going on Hollywood is ripe for he picking.
If we go back to the dawn of sounds we see numerous careers being ended, the fear of rejection and uncertainty in an industry of replace and progression. Culminated here in Norma Desmond, one of the first film stars to be let go or forgotten, or as we learn simply too much to handle, one of the first diva’s. Of course the dark twist is that she’s played by Gloria Swanson one of those much forgotten once celebrated actors whose own fame had since faded. Was this a version of herself, a pastiche of the silent era stars, would the audience be able to tell the difference. A dastardly piece of casting, of course Swanson knew exactly what she was doing. A heightened version of what her generation could now be. The self-awareness she brought, the history which could still be hers if she hadn’t found another career, whilst also having a minor acting career was all but forgotten. The fact she carried on, shows how she adapted to the introduction of sound. Just where did she find the unhinged Desmond that is very much part of that desire to be famous, once the attention has gone, how does the individual adapt to life post-fame? Desmond is the ultimate forgotten star.
Add to that a version of Wilder and Charles Brackett who co wrote this film, their view of the system for an aspiring script-writer. Is Boulevard a culmination of their experiences, did the encounter a Greta Garbo or Mary Pickford who was lost in the transition now living in a delusion of grandeur in the Hollywood hills. The writer and the narrator here is Joe Gilles played by William Holden an actor of the new confident age of sound, two generations sharing the screen. Gilles the struggling writer is knee-deep in debt, he can’t get a script green-lit for the life of him, his cars threatened with repossession. When will he get a break? It’s only when he gets a flat during a car chase does he find a mansion that wouldn’t look out-of-place in Citizen Kane (1941). Shelter was the storm that is his collapsing world. On meeting Desmond a has-been, his life’s being turned on its head, both using each other to their own ends, nothing new there.
So who has the upper hand here? It starts out as Gilles who takes on Desmond overblown untamed screenplay meant for the silent screen rather than a contemporary audience, OK maybe the arty world might like it. A script that relied more on the eyes, the facial gestures rather than dialogue to progress the plot. Relying on titles of varying length instead. It’s Gilles’s task to adapt and tame this beast of a script, without upsetting the original writer’s ego. Of course this soon gets out of hand, the writer finds that he’s been moved in to the house now. His life is no longer his own, in a trap of gifts and love of an older woman who see’s him as her way back to the big or small screen – depend who perspective you look at it. He want to use her script for his next big film, can he make it work for both.
It’s a film ultimately of professional back stabbing, who can walkover who first and hardest and still prosper. We see from the beginning that it hadn’t worked out too well for someone who is hovering dead in the swimming pool. A classic trope of Film noir, start at the grizzly demise of someone and work backwards, just how did this guy end up in the pool, I don’t think he tripped? What we see in the course of the film is two figures hungry for fame eat away at each other. One with step in the door, whilst another is just a shadow. Littered with figures from a forgotten age of cinema, a nod to them and a reminder that they were still around, they just be playing cards had to carve out a life post fame.
Last it also works perfectly as a comment on an industry, Paramount Pictures included that released the film is ultimately a business that will pick up and drop the next big thing to make a few bucks. The kind of cynicism that Wilder is known for. It’s a method that still works to this day, one day your hot, then you make a flop and out you go NEXT!! That’s show-business for ya.
About a week ago I tried to watch a very early film with William Holden and Glenn Ford – Texas (1941) which I just could sit through, it hadn’t aged well at all. You could see in-experienced actors trying their best to work of each other. Just stumbling around, I left it alone after 10 minutes, yes I’m brutal (or unfair) with some films. However a film from the same period – Arizona (1940) with the same production values, caught my attention and very early on. Even with my suspicions of Jean Arthur in the lead role of a Western, a brave move indeed, which actually paid off. An actress who was actually no stranger to the genre, having previously played Calamity Jane in The Plainsman (1936) opposite Gary Cooper who were a great screen pairing. Not only that having a rare female lead role in a Western as early as 1940 is something I never thought would have happened. I am still learning about this genre, even a few years in my exploration. It wouldn’t really be until the 1950’s with Rancho Notorious and Johnny Guitar (1952 and 1954) and not forgetting the gigantic Forty Guns and The Furies (1957 and 1950) with Barbara Stanwyck. Was it too soon for a female lead to own a western for audience, having to wait another decade for the psychological side to come oozing out.
From the first time we see Phoebe Titus (Arthur) on-screen she is wearing the clothe’s of a man, she is not defined by her sex, instead defined by the surrounding she chooses to live in. Even though she was the only American woman in the town or even territory, probably to spice up the film and sexual tension that her position might create. She runs an open bakery but is not a push over, even to the self-proclaimed judge Judge Bogardus (Edgar Buchanan) who has to wait at least an hour for his pie. She fills some of the criteria for a frontiers woman, yet is able stand alongside the men in her character. To be honest she has to as the film progress.
Another surprise is that Arthur was around 40 when the film was released, which shows that her screen image was more powerful than her own age. Paired opposite Peter Muncie (Holden) 18 years her junior. You just can’t the difference in age if you judge her by this film and not her long career in film already. She leads the film, even as much as it’s a vehicle to push Holden, they are still holding back with him. When they share the screen age looses all meaning, both appearing to be in their 20’s. It’s the power of youth being portrayed on-screen.
Moving onto look at what the film is really about, which took sometime. history is very much being played fast and loose with here as a territory in 1860 that apparently aligns itself with the Confederate states of America, which made no sense as it’s on the other side of the country and it wasn’t really involved in the Civil War (at least on-screen). After doing a little research it was in fact a divided state that supplied troops to both sides. It did indeed request protection from confederate troops from Apache’s. More historical than I first thought, yet still not going in to detail, ultimately this is a film and not a documentary, fact is only used as a backdrop for the birth of the state and a romance to be place upon. Arizona is not really mentioned in the more classic films that depict the War, instead focusing on the really Southern states.
So onto the plot which took sometime over this lengthy film that looks really at self-preservation from the Apache’s. Wanting protection of the Union who they were yet to join. The army moves out leaving them vulnerable to attacks. Now this is 1940, another world war has just begun and America is in a state of isolation. Pearl harbor is over a year away too, so they are not exactly ready to take up arms. However Hollywood was making films subtly that talked about the War, where they should stand, away from their allies or alongside them. Now this is just a theory as the people of Arizona want protection from the other, who could be Nazi Germany who are only an ocean away.
There are always a few who take advantage of the situation when Titus and Solomon Warner (Paul Harvey) join up to form a wagon train that delivers goods comes under attack by Apache’s who are working with Jefferson Carteret (Warren William) and Lazarus Ward (Porter Hall) who want control over the market. Could these be seen as a metaphor for the unknown German enemy who is working to support the Nazi as American ships travel the Atlantic. Move that to the wagon train route on Arizona and you have a Western. Its pretty clever and very simple too. Allowing for the romance to playing on the back-burner for a while as Muncie joins up with the Union army (not sure when he does) coming back to marry Titus and live the American dream that they found is under threat by two men.
A pleasant surprise for a very much forgotten Western that for a while tries to do away with the woman playing the weaker role, being more dominant. She is still taken advantage of but not for long. Even wearing the odd dress, its however all on her terms which makes this all the more interesting. Maybe it took a maturer actress to take on the role that requires more confidence in not just her clothes but the performance that you really believe in. Here Holden is playing the lesser role which we rarely see in the genre, which makes for an oddity in a genre dominated by men.
If I’m completely honest I never thought I’d be talking about a disaster movie from the 1970s. I reviewed Towering Inferno (1974) a few years ago, rather poorly too if I must say so, not really understanding that all of those disaster films of the “silver age” of American film reflected the social conscience of a country that was being rocked by scandal in government, no politician could be trusted, reality of the American dream was beginning to show its ugly face and it wasn’t nice. Veterans from a controversial war were coming home and trying to make sense of what they had just experienced. Of course that’s the same for all conflicts but that conflict has its own sense place in time.
Of course the conscience of the country’s reflected in the creativity that’s produced, I could list all the great films of that era that began with the American New Wave movement in the late liberated 1960’s all the way up to Star Wars (1977) when it exploded on itself. The era of fear in America was over, time to lighten up again with the fun of a space epic. OK so where does Towering Inferno fit into all of that film history, made around the time of the Watergate scandal, an US president, the highest office in the land, the leader of the free-worlds found to be a crook who rigged an election, driven by power that would ultimately be his downfall. Take the basic events of that scandal and place them into a brand-spanking new building and we have the foundations (pardon the pun) of this film.
So whose Nixon then you ask, for me its the builder Jim Duncan (William Holden) who has constructed this feat that stand high above the rest of the city below, it’s an American achievement that must be celebrated. You could say its the White House of the city. He’s proud of it too, over 130 stories, around 80 for business, the rest residential. Yes I have good memory. However this feat came ultimately at a cost to himself and those who have to celebrate and live there. You have a self-contained country within one building, the economy that supports those who live below. Along with the utility room that keeps it all running. If we look into the infrastructure of the building we begin to find the cracks that we’re supposed to over look if we believe things are running smoothly enough.
So who’s the culprit who decided to take a few short-cuts, use lesser materials and cut corners, it was Duncan’s son-in-law Simmons (Richard Chamberlain) who at first shows no shame in his decisions. So men working in construction are being compared to politicians now, making sly deals and taking bribes for power and success. Nothing new there, but not so common in the building world…I hope. It’s not until the buildings architect Doug Roberts (Paul Newman) who sees through all the nonsense straight away, knowing what should have been done, but wasn’t. He is the extra layer, the guy who conceived the idea for this building, one of his babies that came into being stands among the other buildings in the city (or the world). Wanting it to last, he is the public who stood by and voted for the government, helped to shape what it is today.
Moving away from my analysis we have a classic disaster that bring what used to be restricted to the B-movies which reflected the fear of nuclear war and Communisim through giant bugs and monsters, the best animated by Ray Harryhausen and populated with actors you’ve never heard of and probably wont see in A-pictures. This cast is all A-lister who stars you have at least heard of, filling the screen, playing all walks of life, mostly from high-society or politicians, connected in someway to celebrate this new buildings being opened to the public. This was the first film I saw Fred Astair who was better at dancing than acting, not to say he was awful I still believed he was man shocked by the events that hes caught it. Playing a wannabe con-man who grows to learn what is really important in life.
I can’t talk about this film without mentioning the two male leads Newman and fire Chief O’Hallorhan (Steve McQueen) which show that no expense was spared on this film that is bleeding money and shows on-screen. It maybe 40 years old now, the special effects may start to show, however it still holds up, there was only a few scenes too, which explains why it one technical awards at the Oscars. Towering Inferno combines all the best of classic Hollywood, the drama, the star power along with a nice slice of subtext that can be lost today without another sitting of a film that at times feels too long. Maybe that can be forgiven though.
Yet another western I have been meaning to revisit to better understand. My first reading of the film was completely off, as I realised after listening to a lecture from Richard Slotkin, now I really do have a far better understanding of The Wild Bunch (1969) which does indeed overshadow the rest of Sam Peckinpah‘s work, when he has so much more to offer to cinema. Instead of going over the plot I want to more analyse the film interns of how I read it, looking at certain elements and quotes which really do stand out for me, which probably shows why it stands out more so than others. It’s not just the violence that he wanted to amplify to the audience, Peckinpah, hated violence (not that you’d know it from his films) almost glorifying it, yet this has a knock on effect as we see the action, the deaths, the falls shot in slow-motion, we’re forced to look at the image for longer, it’s a form of torture, you want violence, here it is, in all of its bloody form, you look on staring at this beautiful image not really comprehending that you are seeing someone die before your eyes. At full speed and on the streets we don’t have that luxury, our memory replays the moments of real violence in real-time, or sped up we have no time to really process what has happened until it’s over in a flash. Peckinpah stretches those moments to allow us to process, to understand and if we want…enjoy the brutality.
With the more obvious element that stays with you long after the credits have rolled I want to focus on the Wild Bunch themselves, who in history were really Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid and their gang. Taking the title and placing it on to an equally dangerous group of men, lead by Pike Bishop (William Holden) and his right hand man Dutch Engstrom (Ernest Borgnine), playing old men who lead a bunch of gunfighter’s who we meet in the close of their era and the death of the West. Their time is almost up and they know it. Hoping that they will be carrying out no more jobs after the bank-robbery, which leads me onto my first quote which struck me.
If they move, kill ’em! – Pike Bishop
To be honest Pike
delivers most of these lines, this one is led with such military precision, there is no thought for the casualties. Those held up in the bank are collateral damage they just don’t matter in the mission, get the money and go. It’s cold blooded. Yet we spend most of our time with these men, much like most westerns, focusing on the heroes, these are reversed, leading us to believe the heroes lead by Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan) who was once a member of this gang, given a chance to redeem himself. He is the anti-hero (of sorts) that are ordered to lead a gang of misfits, the scum of the earth in search of the wild bunch. Thornton has his own lines which such as
We’re after men. And I wish to God I was with them. – Thornton
There’s a yearning to even for him for the old days, for the male companionship he no longer has, surrounded by idiots who can’t even shoot the right men. Yet they are his only hope of ensuring his freedom which is in the hands of a railway man. He wants to feel alive, to be a man, to have some honour again.
I found that over the course of the film it wasn’t just a swan-song to the classics of the genre, such as John Ford’s, Hathaway’s, and Hawks etc that focus on the hero of the hour, there are no heroes here, their words and ideas are flawed, not those of men with honour that you would look up to. An argument between Pike and Dutch about a man’s words is a great example of this moral western that takes the violence by the throat and shakes it up.
What would you do in his place? He gave his word – Pike
He gave his word to a railroad. – Engstrom
It’s his word. – Pike
That ain’t what counts! It’s who you give it *to*! – Engstrong
The idea of a man’s word is a powerful masculine idea, a man’s word is worth more than a signature on a legal document to some people. It’s on the same level as the strength of a man’s hand-shake, a judgement I use myself, it’s a greeting with a stranger, or a positive start to an interview etc. A man’s word is a step further, a promise that binds two men together intrinsically. What’s being discussed here is who Thornton gives his word to, the enemy that is the railroad man (Harrigan) Albert Dekker who employs him, making him a traitor to Dutch who was like a brother to Thornton, this is a betrayal much like a partner having an affair and living with them. You could say; sleeping with the enemy. Where it becomes blurry is Pike arguing the point of the fact he still gave his word, it doesn’t matter who to, he;s accepted that he has changed sides and has to live with that, respecting him. Giving your word and keeping it shows the sign of a strong man.
Another quote to look at is
(talking about the railroad) There was a man named Harrigan. Used to have a way of doin’ things. I made him change his ways. A hell of a lot of people, Dutch, just can’t stand to be wrong. – Pike
Pride. – Dutch
And they can’t forget it… that pride… being wrong. Or learn by it – Pike
How ’bout us, Pike? You reckon we learned – vein’ wrong, today? – Dutch
I sure hope to God we did. – Pike
The glory days of their ability to strike fear into people, forcing them to change, to act fast. They are glorifying themselves as being almost gods, people to fear. Harrigan has become a man to fear as he has finally come after him, taking the law into his own hands, that at the start of the film caused countless innocent victims shot in cross-fire. Pike and Dutch are also reminiscing of better times, the height of the gunfighter that they were a part of it is no longer there. They encounter the latest vehicles that even outmoded the horse, a form of transport they have come to rely on and is synonymous with the western. Ironically used to kill Cable Hogue (Jason Robards) in The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970) the good old days are over.
I want to touch one other aspect that is the US Army that is never portrayed in a positive light throughout the film. Traditionally the cavalry are the trooping the colours, riding in, sounding their bugles before quelling and pacifying the enemy in no time. Peckinpah portrays them as incompetent, even the main men think little of them. This could easily reflect Peckinpah’s and many other liberal directors who wanted to hit out at the Vietnam War, a divisive war, reflected into the countries own domestic past we see a different army that is unable to get up and react to weapons being stolen from under their noses. An embarrassment for any army, filled with raw recruits unaware of what they have to do.
It may have took a few attempts to really understand The Wild Bunch for me is a morality western, a Neo-Western if you want to be picky as its questions the genre and the countries past, taking it and reforming it to be viewed by an audience who is drawn by violence and the legend that has blurred the countries past, the two myth and fact is intertwined, only those who study American history (before 1900) really know what happened. I am slowly seeing the connections and the differences between fact and film fiction. I can see why this film overshadows the rest, the characters are painted on a wider canvas, morality is blurred and the violence is heightened. It’s a sweeping western that doesn’t even show a Native American, replaced with the Mexican Army who are more intelligently depicted than before, they are not just drunk gringos who sleep out in the afternoon sun with a sombrero covering their faces. They are fully formed people, which is something we don’t get from the Natives. The main cast is filled with actors who have hugely played the good-guys in westerns, here playing cold killers who have their own moral code that if you think about it would frighten you. Should we really listen to what these cowboy role models oft he silver screen have told us?
- The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah, 1969) (forrestinfocus.wordpress.com)
- The Wild Bunch (1969) ** (1001moviesblog.blogspot.co.uk)
- The Wild Bunch (1969) A Film by Sam Peckinpah (arethehillsgoingtomarchoff.blogspot.co.uk)
- The Wild Bunch (1969) (buddiesinthesaddle.blogspot.co.uk)
- The Wild Bunch (1969) (dfordoom-movieramblings.blogspot.co.uk)
- The Wild Bunch (Warner Bros, 1969) (jeffarnoldblog.blogspot.co.uk)
- The Wild Bunch…Part 1 (myfavoritewesterns.com)
I knew Ace in the Hole (1951) wasn’t Billy Wilder’s finest film and for reasons I will go into as I discuss the film. Coming off the back of the very successful Sunset Boulevard (1950) which is considered a classic was a highly charged film-noir which really sizzled in the writing and acting. A satire of the Hollywood system how it creates stars, only to dump them when their popularity wanes. You can’t help but see Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) in her deluded state descended preparing for her close-up as her mental state peaks. Taking has-been screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) down with her in a honey trap that promised great things for him. Anyway enough about getting ready for close-up and more about getting back to New York for down and out writer Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) who won’t accept that he’s failed as a journalist, big ideas of big stories, made up to sell papers has again and again back-fired on him. None of the big papers want to know him. He tries his luck in a paper in Albuquerque, ran be an editor who wants to up-hold the truth, reporting the small stories in life. Gives this once big player a job after being promised great things. Surrounded by small town people who are happy with they’re lot.
On the face of it we have another Joe Gillis here in the world of journalism, wanting to make his way back up to the top. Even with Douglas in the role, giving one of his best performances as a man driven by desire to succeed, falls into a nasty trap of being too cynical for the audience to really swallow and enjoy. After spending a year at the paper he was expecting to be back on top. Not staring opposite a cross-stitch of “Tell the truth” a pillar of good respectable journalism, which drives him to distraction. His news is about sensation, increases circulation and the big scoops which make him successful.
When he’s sent out of a routine story which has become the norm for him. With an eager young colleague in tow they come across a petrol (gas) station where the owner has been trapped inside a n Native American cave, buried under the rubbles from rotten supports. This is too good to pass up, jumping on this now “human” story, making it his own, an exclusive scoop. When all those around him want to get him out fast. Even the poor guy Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict) wants to get out. Everyone outside is slowly wrapped around his finger as he orchestrates a media sensation, drawing thousands of people to this once quiet spot in New Mexico. The idea of getting him out quick is soon dashed with the sherif bribed with hopes of re-election in sight.
All this for one man to get back to the city, to deliver the stories he was meant to write. A man trapped by circumstance and his ego that leads to his destruction. A role made for Douglas who personally is a vain man who never really plays a good or a bad-guy, you never know what you’re getting when he’s on-screen. Which works here more than I have seen before. The subject matter so soon after Wilder’s earlier film of a writer not a winning formula every time, as he shows us the outsiders view of America. This is too much even today we have just had the Leveson enquiry wrap up this year in the UK that was in response to phone-hacking, journalists in the city never seem to learn. Any and all efforts go into getting a story.
Tatum is a personification of that need for a story that could have lasted a few days, stretched out into this circus he created. A modern day attraction for the average person to flock and stare at. It’s sickening today to have cars slowing down past car-accidents on the motorway for a picture or for a video. Our need to escape the everyday has not changed, it’s grown stronger for some to see what we have in the media. To see this first hand is too good to pass-up. If only this was made with more heart and humour, not the focusing solely on the writer. The Minosa family is in there somewhere but not delved into enough. There are also hints of being a western however slim they maybe too, with the New Mexico setting and the Native American imagery. There is a complete disregard for the sacredness of the land, treated as an attraction for tourists, a people now little more than a figment in the countries history. It’s not really touched on, yet you can see it in the imagery of the head-dresses worn by children, iconography that has become mass-produced souvenirs.
I’m glad to say that Wilder was back on form when it came around to the P.O.W. caper Stalag 17 (1953). Maybe the gap in production gave Wilder time to reflect and rediscover his strengths which kept him going through the decade. Ace in the Hole is by no means his worst film, I have yet to see that for myself. I won’t even guess which one that maybe, only after viewing it will I know. This was more a stumble from a great height to produce a poor copy of a better film. What makes it watchable is Douglas’s performance, one of sheer passion a man neither black or white and definitely a personification of the big city journalist.
- Ace in the Hole (1951) Billy Wilder (twentyfourframes.wordpress.com)
- Ace in the Hole (1951) (monsieurcocosse.blogspot.co.uk)
- 1,001 Films: “Ace in the Hole” (1951) (cinesthesiac.blogspot.co.uk)
- Quotes in Noir: Ace in the Hole (1951) (shadowsandsatin.wordpress.com)
- Journo Film: Ace in the Hole (1951) (nickjhp.wordpress.com)
- Ace in the Hole (1951) – A film by Billy Wilder (thewergst.wordpress.com)
- Ace in the Hole (1951) (corndogchats.blogspot.co.uk)
I always enjoy a 1950’s socially aware film, usually from the likes of Nicholas Ray, the high contrast colour schemes, the “shocking” behaviour of the characters who are breaking the mould of what society expects of them, being more relevant to then day.
Set just over a day in a rural Kansas town over Liberty Day we see a group of people from all different backgrounds celebrate the national holiday Picnic (1955) could just have been a drab film that sees the all American family have a good time, doesn’t make much for a film, you could just go to a park when the sun is out and see that happening. Instead an old college friend Hal Carter (William Holden) of resident in town, hoping to get a job and go up in the world. He encounters more than he hoped for. Meeting a girl who is in the prime of her life, being courted by the most eligible bachelor in town Alan Benson (Cliff Robertson) who he Carter went to college with. Always wooing her, there’s something between him and Marjorie ‘Madge’ Owens (Kim Novak) yet something is missing, that spark that makes things just happen between them.
A female dominated film, most of them living in a house with rooms to rent, becoming a home for “old maids” one of which is set in her ways but ready for a change if the right man comes along, which could be Howard Bevans (Arthur O’Connell) for school teacher Rosemary (Rosalind Russell). It’s an ensemble piece, even if Holden received top billing, he doesn’t hog the screen as others may have. Instead there is a chance for all to grow as people, understanding the path they must make in life over the space of a national holiday. Two men fighting over a woman who wants to be seen as more than just an object of desire. Her younger sister Millie Owens (Susan Strasberg) who is always competing with her, the pressure to be more feminine, as though her intelligence could hold her back.
It seems those who are in the grip of overwhelming change those on the sidelines see things different, such as the girls mother Flo Owens (Betty Field) who can only see her financial future, not her oldest future, the here and now, how she feels, not just what maybe best. Whilst older neighbour Helen Potts (Verna Felton) who was first to meet the handsome college graduate and stranger in town, sees a man who has lacked in her life, and can see the difference he makes the Madge’s life. It seems society is starting to loosen up to who parents approve of for the children to be with, that background and stability is not for everyone, that you shouldn’t “judge a book by its cover” and go more with gut feeling instead.
The colours are not cranked up, instead the telling of the plot over the course of the day is the radical film-making, that see all these people’s lives cross over a normal holiday, that is so engrained in the nation’s culture, that people can fall in love with others partners, that you can get drunk and say more than you mean. It happens so why not depict it.
- Movie Review: Picnic (1955) (prettycleverfilms.com)
- Auntie Mame (1958) (campycritic.com)
- Sultry Susan Strasberg (famousdames.wordpress.com)