The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Monday, March 30, 2009

Netflix review #12: Le Doulos

Have you ever watched a movie all the way through, it ends, and you're just confused? The questions run through your head. What happened? Who shot who? Is he alive? Was it good or bad? I'm all for ambigous endings that leaves the finale to the viewer to make up his/her mind about the movie they've just watched. I can put Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Doulos in that category.

The French master of the cool, suave gangster movie, Melville made a career out of movies about gangsters, hit men, thieves and elaborately planned heists. I haven't loved all of his movies I've seen, but each one had something worth recommending, Le Doulos included. Even not completely understanding what all the twists and turns in the movie were, I can appreciate the style, the cinematography and the two leads.

Fresh out of jail, a thief named Maurice (Serge Reggiani) is looking for revenge. He knocks off one man who's befriended him, supposedly to redeem himself for killing Maurice's girlfriend years before. Stashing a gun, hot jewelry and thousands of dollars in cash, Maurice plans a robbery that is supposed to go smoothly. Of course it doesn't, and Maurice's partner and a police lieutenant are killed in the ensuing shootout. What went wrong? Everything points to Maurice's friend, Silien (Jean Paul Belmondo), who has a reputation all around town as possibly being an informer for the police. Could he have turned in his friend? Maurice is convinced that's what happened and begins to plot more revenge.

There were a ton of twists and turns here with the big reveal coming late in the movie. Through the twists and turns, countless scenes go by but because we don't know what the character's motivation is, it's hard to comprehend what's actually going on. The reveal explains much of what we've seen, but by then I was so confused I felt like I needed to go back and watch the whole thing again.

And now to the positives. One scene in particular jumps out, an 8-minute interrogation scene with Belmondo's Sallien and a police chief. What sets it apart from any other similar scene? It's all done in one take as the camera follows the dialogue and movements of the two characters in a spacious police office. In a time when cuts in a movie aren't even perceptible to the human eye, it's nice to see a scene play out slowly and build up. The same can be said for the opening, one long tracking shot that goes on for almost 4 minutes. Le Doulos' opening made me think of a similar beginning to Melville's Army of Shadows seven years later.

By now, I've learned Melville is not content with a happy ending, and the one here really comes together in the closing minutes, lots of tension and nerves. Much of the tension is built around the relationship between Maurice and Silien, friends in the past but something doesn't feel right. Credit goes to Reggiani and Belmondo for keeping the viewer on edge. Like Maurice, we're not quite sure what's going on.
So overall, it's tough to rate this one. I enjoyed it, I think, but didn't love it. I'd probably have to go back and watch it again to see if it works thanks to the information delivered in the reveal of the actual police informer. Still, I think it's worth recommending, but know what you're getting yourself into. Like Melville's other movies, it is very stylized, very cool, but the plot is extremely difficult to follow. It's probably better to just sit back and try to enjoy the movie and don't overthink it.

Le Doulos (1962): ** 1/2 /****

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Coogan's Bluff

With work picking up some of late, I haven't been watching as many movies, but in my effort to see all of Clint Eastwood's movies I watched Coogan's Bluff today. For a very basic review, think of Dirty Harry in New York and you've got this movie. Don Siegel, the same director as 1971's Dirty Harry, directs here too so this is almost like a dry-run for the rogue cop movie that took the country by storm.
Piute county Deputy Sheriff Walt Coogan out of Arizona is good at what he does, but in doing his job he tends to piss people off, including the sheriff. So after one such incident, he's sent on a mission to New York City to extradite a prisoner. But arriving in NY, Coogan gets fed up with all the procedures and rules he'll have to follow to get custody of the prisoner, a hop-head named Jim Ringerman. Coogan bluffs his way into the hospital Ringerman is at after he took some LSD. But on the way to the airport, he escapes with some help from his girlfriend. Now Coogan's on his own in a city he can't stand, and nothing's going to stop him from bringing his man back.

Director Siegel had a specialty for tough, gritty movies where guys were guys and that's how it was. Coogan's Bluff definitely falls into that category. The movie has a rough feel to it and seems to have been shot on a lower budget. At times, it tries too hard including one long sequence at a rave. The scene almost calls out 'hey, look, this is how the late 60s were!' Toward the end of the movie, it's almost like Siegel and Co. realized they didn't know how to finish the movie and the story/plot becomes disjointed. A cool action sequence at the end makes up for it though.

Two action scenes stand out here, helped in great part by Eastwood doing many of his own stunts. One has Coogan taking on a group of six or seven thugs in a pool hall. It's a pretty vicious fight as pool cues and balls are flying, as are some of the thugs. The finale action is an exciting motorcycle chase near the Cloisters Museum in Manhattan, another case where you can clearly see Eastwood on the bike.

Joining the cast is Lee J. Cobb, a great character actor who made a career out of playing crotchety old guys who complain about everything. Cobb plays Lt. McElroy, the NY police officer who must work with Coogan even if he does disagree with his methods. Susan Clark plays Julie Roth, a probation officer who Coogan meets and takes a keen interest in in more ways than one. Don Stroud, who would play a rival of Eastwood's again in Joe Kidd, is good in a smaller part as Ringerman, the drug-addicted prisoner trying to avoid extradition back to Arizona where he committed an unidentified crime. Tisha Sterling has a memorable part as Linny Raven, Ringerman's girl who you're never quite sure what her motives are.

The DVD is a good deal but a bit of a disappointment. The widescreen presentation is there and looks good, but no special features at all. Still, it's worth it for the movie alone, even just to see a dry-run of Dirty Harry.

Coogan's Bluff (1968): ***/*****

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Netflix review #11: The Blue Max

While hundreds of movies have been made about WWII, the war preceeding has been covered very little by comparison. I just finished one WWI movie that I really wanted to like but never really got into it, 1966's The Blue Max starring George Peppard.

Looking for a safe spot in the middle of no-man's land, German infantryman Bruno Stachel dives into a muddy crater full of dead soldiers. High above in the skies, he sees two planes in a dogfight and smiles. Fast forward two years where Stachel has graduated from flight school and is arriving at his new squadron. Even new to the group, Stachel makes no excuses, he's there for one thing and one thing only; the Blue Max, a medal awarded to pilots with 20 kills. He doesn't care who else is killed around him, he will get the medal.

Obsessed with the pursuit, Stachel alienates the members of his squadron and its commander. On the other hand, the German Officer corps sees a hero in the making, a lower class pilot fearlessly flying against British fighters. That's not all the people who are impressed with Stachel as one German general's wife takes a keen interest in the young, cocky pilot.

By far the best thing about the movie was the aerial sequences of which there are many. No CGI here, all those planes and pilots are real. Even the scenes with the stars flying don't look too fake even if it's apparent that Peppard and Jeremy Kemp aren't actually flying. As well, these aren't modern day jet fighters or even the WWII fighters that at least looked somewhat sturdy. These planes were a little more than a decade removed from the Wright brothers taking flight at Kitty Hawk. It's too bad then that the rest of the movie drags. At 156 minutes, most scenes that don't involve the dogfights are pretty slow-moving.

One other flaw is in the characters. Peppard gives an excellent performance as Stachel, the arrogant, ruthless pilot, but he's extremely unlikable. I'm not saying all characters have to be saints, but it'd be nice to have one redeeming quality in a main character. I never was on his side and by the end hoped he would get his due. James Mason plays a German general loyal to the cause who sees a hero in the young pilot. Ursula Andress is good as Kaeti, Mason's wife who takes an interest in Stachel. Before nudity became common in movies in the 70s, Andress is always half-naked, covered up by a towel or a chair as she walks across a room. Jeremy Kemp and Karl Michael Vogerty play Willi Klugerman and Otto Heidemann, a rival pilot and the squadron commander who see Stachel as he really is.

The DVD offers the movie in a widescreen presentation that looks very clear compared to some of the scenes I've seen when the movie's aired on AMC. Special features are just a trailer, and then the same trailer in Spanish and Portuguese, along with five trailers for other Fox War classics. A movie I really wanted to like but never really got into it. Worth watching for the aerial dogfight sequences.

The Blue Max (1966): **/****

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Boondock Saints

Released completely under the radar in 1999, The Boondock Saints has gotten the last laugh in recent years. The low-budget movie has become a cult hit on DVD in the decade since with its blend of action and comedy and what has to be a record-setting use of the word 'f*ck' in a movie.

Connor (Sean Patrick Flanery) and Murphy (Norman Reedus) McManus are two Irish brothers living in Boston, making a living as meat packers and living in illegal loft housing. Here's their supremely cool intro. One night at the local bar, three Russian thugs come in saying the place must be closed down. Cue to the next morning when an FBI investigator, Paul Smecker (Willem Dafoe), arrives a crime scene where two of the thugs have been killed. So starts a movie that is a ton of fun to watch.

The two brothers become vigilantes, killing all of the evil in society. Their friend Rocco says it best, "We could kill everybody!" Rocco was a messenger boy for the local Italian mob family and joins the McManus brothers in their efforts as they wipe out all the scum in the city. The only problem? Their actions have drawn attention, and the mob turns to a hired killer the likes of which has never been seen, Il Duce. Here's my personal favorite, their first meeting.

Much of the movie makes fun of the action genre while having really cool gunbattles throughout. In one argument as Connor and Murphy stock up on firearms, Connor points out they need some rope because 'Charlie Bronson always had rope.' Murphy's response is perfect, 'This isn't a movie.' That sums up the whole tone of the movie in one exchange of dialogue. Director Troy Duffy makes a movie that's very aware of what it is doing. The action? Completely over the top. The dialogue? Cheesey and cliched at points, but it works just as the movie on a whole does.

As brothers Connor and Murphy, Flanery and Reedus hit all the right notes. The conversations between them feel like brothers, not just two actors thrown together and told to memorize their lines. But as good as the brothers are, this is Wilem Dafoe's movie. Dafoe plays Smecker, an FBI investigator who can figure out and read crime scenes when no one else can piece it together. Always know for his quirky roles, this might be the quirkiest with some nice touches added to his character. He's gay but calls other gay men 'f*gs' and fairies. Examining crime scenes, he listens to opera. Smecker is the most three-dimensional of the characters, a man torn between what his job requires him to do and what his head tells him to do. David Della Rocca plays Roc, the brothers' Italian friend. Rocca plays the character completely off the wall which wears thin at times, but it works because I found myself liking the character. Billy Connolly makes a brief but memorable appearance as hitman extraordinaire Il Duce.

The movie is a polarizing one for any number of reasons ranging from violence to language to the plotline of vigilante killers. I can understand why people dislike this movie or in some cases hate it, but I loved it. There's a style to it that many movies are missing, especially movies with budgets much larger than Duffy used here. Good news too, looks like a sequel is being released on DVD this year. The pessimist in me says a straight-to-DVD release = bad movie, but I'll take my chances.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Netflix review #10: The Culpepper Cattle Company

By the 1970s, the westerns, they were a' changing to quote Bob Dylan. Most directors weren't interested in showing how romantic and iconic the old west was. Movies tended to debunk the myths instead of glorifying them. The change had started in the 60s already with some American westerns but the switch really kicked in with the spaghetti westerns. One of the best American westerns to show how life really was is part of one of my favorite sub-genres, the cattle drive western. Dick Richards directs his first feature film, 1972's The Culpepper Cattle Co.

Fresh off the success of Summer of '42, Gary Grimes plays Ben Mockridge, a teenager who wants to be a cowboy more than anything else. He's in luck as a man named Frank Culpepper is starting a cattle drive north to Fort Lewis, Colorado with 2,000 head of cattle. Culpepper hires him as the cook's assistant where he's named Little Mary, well, just because that's what you call the assistant. Ben figures out right away that the life of a cowboy isn't an easy one. The hours are brutal, the food lousy, the conditions even worse, and there's a good chance you'll end up with a bullet in your gut.

On the trail from south Texas to Colorado, Culpepper's crew tangles with cattle rustlers, horse thieves, infighting amongst the cowboys, and a landowner who doesn't appreciate the herd traveling across his land. It's the quiet moments that work the best in this 1972 western, scenes of cowboys at a campfire talking about all the women they've met in countless towns. The plot sort of meanders along much like the cattle drive. The movie's content to just tell its story, and that's why it works.

Grimes as the lead is a good actor that seemed to fall off the Hollywood radar. He starred in a John Wayne western, Cahill: US Marshal, in 1973 and a sequel to '42 but never starred in any other movies. It's a shame because as the wide-eyed kid here he has a really strong part. Seeing the cowboy life isn't everything it's made out to be, the viewer is right there with Ben. Billy Green Bush is Culpepper, the trail boss who will get his herd to market no matter what it takes. Joining Culpepper's crew is Geoffrey Lewis, Bo Hopkins, Luke Askew, Wayne Sutherlin, Matt Clark, Hal Needham, Raymond Guth, and Walter Scott. Lewis and Hopkins give memorable turns as somewhat crazy cowboys, but it's Askew who leaves the best impression as a cowboy who looks out for young Ben. John McLiam is Thorton Pierce, the vengeful landowner who won't allow Culpepper's herd to cross his land.

Some of these westerns try too hard to be different, but this one finds that good middle ground. There aren't good guys vs. bad guys, just men trying to get by in tough times following the Civil War. One scene near the shootout finale really illustrates how ridiculous things can be in the west. Ben and a handful of the crew ride back to help a wagon train of Mormons, not because they agree with the squatters, but because they've been pushed too far. As Pierce's hands charge toward them, they share a bit of maniacal laughing right before the shooting starts. The scene's maybe 20 seconds long, but it's a good one and tells more about the men than a long scene of dialogue could have.

The DVD is a steal at under $10. The disc offers widescreen and fullscreen presentations, a trailer, two photo galleries, and three trailers for other Fox Flic westerns. It doesn't receive the recognition other westerns from the 1970s get, but it's one of the best westerns to come out of the decade.

The Culpepper Cattle Co. (1972): *** 1/2 /****

Johnny Guitar

Certain westerns try to switch things up when it comes to the old reliables of the genre. One of those is the male hero. Nicholas Ray's offbeat 1954 western Johnny Guitar turned that aspect of westerns away immediately with Joan Crawford as the lead and a woman as her main rival. A definite inspiration for Sergio Leone with Once Upon a Time in the West, the basic plot is similar, this was an interesting movie that certainly deserves its cult status.

A guitar-playing cowboy (it's not as bad as it sounds) rides into a lonely saloon one day looking for a job as a musician. His name: Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden in one of his better parts). He has a past with the saloon owner, Vienna (Joan Crawford), who is sitting on a fortune and everyone knows it. She owns much of the land where the railroad will have to drive through. When the rails reach her acreage, she'll be rich. But not so fast, Guitar finds out there's two factions in town, the ranchers and the outlaws.

Tough-talking Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge) and ranch owner John McIvers (Ward Bond) want Vienna out of the town so they can swoop in and grab her land and saloon. On Vienna's side is a gang led by an outlaw called the Dancin' Kid (Scott Brady). The Kid and his gang, Turkey Ralston (Ben Cooper), Bart Lonergan (Ernest Borgnine), and Corey (Royal Dano) are as equally hated as Vienna. Johnny Guitar rode into town thinking he had an easy job playing his guitar but finds out quickly nothing comes easy. Throw in John Carradine and Paul Fix as two of Vienna's employees and you've got quite a cast.

Lots going on here in this western. It's a talkative western with some gunplay sprinkled in but not too much. There's elements of other genres, straight romance stories, bits of film noir, and even a little McCarthy-ism just for good measure. And as mentioned, there's a lot of influence on later westerns, especially OUATITW. A posse all dressed in black hunts down the Kid and his gang look like something out of a spaghetti western like Django Kill! And where most westerns don't know what to do with female characters, this one puts them front and center. Both characters are interesting and developed with the fanatical rivalry kinda frightening.

The cast works well for the most part. Crawford doesn't look comfortable, but she gives a good performance. Always a little wooden in the acting department, Hayden pulls off the part of a guitar-playing cowboy with a past well. McCambridge is a good counter to Crawford as two women who hate each other and would love to see the other one dead. The finale, a shootout between the two, is the only woman vs. woman gunfight I can even think of in a western. About as different from the norm as you could get with a western, especially in the straight-laced 50s, Johnny Guitar should be a must-see for western fans!


So after watching four Roger Moore Bond movies, I’ve come to a conclusion. I’ve really come to like Moore as 007. He’s no Connery, but he brings a different edge to the character. My conclusion though is this; Moore is a good Bond, his movies aren’t. This comes after I finished watching Moonraker, identified as one of the worst in the series, so take whatever I write with a grain of salt.

Going into the Bond movie, you know what you’re getting. You’ll see lots of action, great one-liners, beautiful girls, crazy super villains, and beautiful locations. The series isn’t about taking on issues or solving the world’s problems. But even knowing that, Moonraker pushes the limits of credibility. The villain hopes to wipe out the world’s population and with a group of “perfect” candidates will repopulate the Earth. Where are these people waiting while the rest of the world is being slaughtered you might ask? In a space city in outer space that Earth’s radar can’t spot.

The plot builds to the showdown on this space city with astronauts shooting lasers at each other. It’s like the end of Thunderball with the underwater shootout with spear guns, except you know, not cool. Made in 1979, Moonraker was most likely trying to capitalize on the Star Wars craze, but it just doesn’t work. The special effects look cheesey no matter how you cut it.

As for the other problems, there are a few biggies with the casting. Bond villains are usually roles that actors have a lot of fun with, think of Telly Savalas, Robert Shaw, Christopher Lee among several others. But Michael Lonsdale as multibillionaire Drax is as bland as they come. The character has no personality as he speaks in monotone throughout. You never know his motivation, and he’s not that evil so you’re never that scared of him or what he’s capable of. The other problem is with the Bond girl. These roles are often just eye candy, but Lois Chiles as Holly Goodhead leaves very little of a memorable impression. I have a feeling they thought of the clever last name and stopped there when dealing with the character.

There’s always something to recommend with Bond movies so I can say Moore is solid here, throwing one-liners left and right while dispatching henchmen. Richard Kiel returns from The Spy Who Loved Me as Jaws, the gigantic killer who provides a worthy adversary for 007. Also, the action is good, including two boat chases, one in Venetian channels in Italy. These Moore Bond movies really seem to love a good boat chase. The other is an exciting fight on air-trams in Rio de Janiero, seen here.

Those minor positives aside, this one was bad almost from start to finish. By the last 45 minutes, I found myself fast-forwarding and even during the climactic action scenes. It wasn’t as bad as Die Another Day, but it was close. I definitely will be steering clear of this one in my future Bond viewings. I can always go play "Aztec" in N64's Goldeneye if I feel the need.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Netflix review #9: The Outlaw Josey Wales

It would have been hard for Clint Eastwood to improve on his directorial debut in the genre that made him a star, High Plains Drifter. Three years later, he made an even better western with The Outlaw Josey Wales, a Civil War western that was one of the best to come out of the 1970s and genre as a whole.

The Squinty One plays title character Josey Wales, a Missouri farmer looking for revenge after his family is brutally murdered by a gang of Kansas Redlegs, renegade Union troopers, and his farm burned down. He joins a guerilla outfit of Confederate raiders, spending the war wreaking havoc on Union forces. But it's late in the war, and Robert E. Lee has surrendered. Convinced by their commander, Fletcher (a great part for John Vernon) to surrender they turn themselves in only to be massacred. The one man who didn't go? Josey Wales of course.

Now with a bounty of $5,000 on his head, Wales heads west into the Indian Nations and Texas to escape, building a quirky, motley crew of a family along the way of other people in equally troubling situations. All the while, a group of Redlegs is on his trail, and making it worse, the bounty has brought anyone who can handle a gun out looking for some easy money.

Eastwood's previous American westerns are all good in one way or another, but other than HPD I don't really consider them classics. Working as director and star here, Eastwood really puts everything together. The story is good, dealing with a subject most westerns don't deal with. There are very few Civil War movies and fewer that talk about the border wars of Kansas and Missouri. The location filming is dead on, including Arizona, Utah and California, giving the feeling that these characters are actually traveling. Jerry Fielding's score earned him an Oscar nomination, and it's a good one, certain parts reminiscent of The Wild Bunch score.

Action-wise, Eastwood's Josey Wales is a killer who racks up quite a kill count but is humane at the same time. He looks out for those around him, even if he may pretend to be the tough guy. The director packs plenty of gunplay in as Wales deals with Redlegs, Comanches, bandits, bounty hunters, and a ruthless gang of Comancheros. The finale is the most memorable as Wales single-handedly faces at least 20 Redlegs, getting some help after the initial showdown. Another couple of great exchanges, Wales talking with Comanche chief Ten Bears, and one of the best dialogue exchanges to ever come out of a western, watch it here.

Talking about the cast, it's about as dead-on as a western could be. Eastwood's a given, he's always great. Chief Dan George is perfectly cast as Lone Watie, an old Cherokee man Josey meets on the trail. An unlikely friendship develops between two men who have more in common than you'd originally think. Sondra Locke plays Laura Lee, a young woman traveling west with her family who Josey rescues from Comancheros. John Vernon is the quasi-villain as Fletcher, a man who tried to help his troopers surrender to Union forces only to see them massacred. Fletcher is ordered to hunt his old partner and kill him, even as his gut tells him otherwise. Super 70s villain Bill McKinney is Terrill, leader of the Redlegs hunting Wales. Was there a better villain than McKinney in the 70s? I can't think of one.

It's not just the leads that are strong, the whole supporting cast stands out. Paula Trueman, Sam Bottoms, and Geraldine Kearns are three people who join the outlaw on the trail, Trueman is Grandma Sarah, Bottoms is Jamie, a wounded guerilla fighter, and Kearns is Moonlight, a Navajo woman. Just some of the other supporting roles include Woodrow Parfrey, Sheb Wooley, Joyce Jameson, Matt Clark, Charles Tyner, John Davis Chandler, Royal Dano, Will Sampson, John Quade, Richard Farnsworth, and John Russell. You couldn't ask for a better cast.

The DVD is a steal at under $10. Widescreen presentation looks great and special features include a 30-minute making of documentary, "Hell Hath No Fury," with some great cast and crew interviews including Eastwood, an 8-minute featurette made during filming, a trailer, and three or four interactive menus about the cast, crew, and movie background. A western that is good on many levels, definitely give this one a try.

The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976): ****/****

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Army of Shadows

Having seen three of French director's Jean-Pierre Melville's films in recent weeks, I wanted to check out the one that's often labeled his best, a WWII French resistance movie called Army of Shadows. This isn't your typical portrayal of French resistance fighters, no gorgeous women in black berets, tight, black sweaters and red lipstick, no macho killing machines with bandoleers across their chests. These were real people with fears and worries as they went about their jobs trying to do their best to slow down the German war effort.

The movie has very little action and in style terms is very similar to the other Melville films I saw. Dialogue seems to be used as a last resort with whole scenes with only a few words spoken, instead looks are exchanged and long tracking shots of characters moving keep the story going. One painfully tense scene involves two prisoners under guard speaking in French so the German won't understand them. Hearing them, we know their desperate plan to escape, but a camera pan around the little room while waiting for the move has the scene dripping with tension. Another scene in one long shot is the Germans entering Paris in 1940. It goes on for minutes as a column and band comes into frame far off in the distance and then approaches the camera. It's only as the lead soldier is about to step on the camera the shot freezes and the opening credits roll. The shot is so simple but it looks so cool. Melville is a master at turning the simple into the supremely cool. Here's the first ten minutes.

And that's what I liked about the movie, it doesn't go for the easy story with lots of ambushes and Frenchmen gunning down hundreds of Germans. Shadows is more about the behind-the-scenes, the everyday life of the men and women of the resistance. It's a long movie at 2 hours and 25 minutes, but it moves along quickly all the way until the final, somewhat surprising cut before the credits. I guess I should have figured by now, but Melville isn't one for neat, tidy endings.

Lino Ventura is the lead here as Phillippe Gerbier, a civil engineer who escapes from the Germans after a short stay in an internment camp, not quite a concentration camp but the same idea. It's not long before he's a key member of the resistance, leading his close-knit squad of fighters. Ventura's performance is an understated but memorable one, a man who wants to get the job done whatever it may be. Paul Meurisse co-stars as Luc Jardie, the chief, the head of the resistance, an intellectual now fighting with a "carful of killers" as Gerbier says.

The rest of the team includes Jean-Francois (Jean-Pierre Cassel), a young man looking for a way to get back at the Germans, Mathilde (Simone Signoret), the lone woman in the group who is as brave as any of the men she works with, quickly building respect/admiration, Le Masque (Claude Mann), a man who at first doesn't think he'd be able to do what is required of him but becomes as integral a part as anyone, Felix (Paul Crauchet), Gerbier's right hand man, and Le Bison (Christian Barbier), the scrounger and getaway driver. Knowing very little about these characters, I still found myself sympathizing with them, a testament to Melville's ability.

The Criterion Collection DVD, only saw Disc 1, has a menu that says Army of Shadows was not released in the U.S. until 2006. Don't miss out on your chance now to see this classic. Here's the American re-release trailer.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Netflix review #8: Chuka

Thanks to some sort of glitch with where the movies were being shipped from, I received movies on back-to-back days from Netflix last week. After Sorcerer, I got Chuka in the mail Friday. I went into the movie somewhat wary because Netflix's suggested rating that I would give it was fairly low. I guess by now they don't realize I really like westerns, and I love downer endings.

In one of a handful of westerns he starred in, Rod Taylor plays the lead, a gunslinger named Chuka, pronounced Chuck-A not Choo-ka like I thought. Riding across a desolate stretch of desert, Chuka stumbles across a broken-down stagecoach stranded with a wheel broken. Things get interesting when he discovers who's riding on the coach, a woman from his past who he almost married as a young man. Chuka agrees to help out the driver and shotgun rider help the coach and escort them to the nearest outpost, Fort Clendennon.

It's when they arrive at the fort the little group figure out how bad the situation is. An Arapaho chief, Hunu, is on the warpath leading a huge war party. His tribe needs food and ammunition and what's the most logical place to get it? Why the fort of course. Adding to their worries, the fort is garrisoned by the misfits of the cavalry, men sent to the post as a sort of punishment. The commander and the officers are much the same, the colonel an ex-British cavalry officer who longs for the days of old with his lancers in India. No one seems willing to do anything even as the Indians close in for what could be a bloody massacre.

The cavalry isn't the boys in blue that John Ford depicted in his cavalry trilogy. The action is good, especially a vicious fistfight between Chuka and Ernest Borgnine's Sgt. Otto Hahnsbach and the climactic attack on Ft. Clendennon, surprisingly graphic too. There are some flaws here mostly which you can chalk up to the budget. The fort seems to be garrisoned by about 20 troopers because of the lack of extras. And then most of the movie is filmed on an indoor set so you lose the scope of the desert. It's a cool little set, but way too small for the proceedings. The indoor set does add a claustrophobic feel to the siege, but overall there's a feeling of a TV western like The Rifleman.

Chuka overcomes those flaws because of the casting. Taylor is a believable gunslinger, a cold-blooded saddle bum who used to ride as a cowboy but now makes his living as a hired gun. Chuka also racks up an impressive kill count, even more impressive when you consider the movie's running time, only 104 minutes. Borgnine is great as always in a role he perfected over the years, the tough sergeant, the right hand man, a professional soldier loyal to the last breath. John Mills is the commander of the fort, Colonel Stuart Valois, a veteran cavalryman who resents his posting at the far-off fort. Italian beauty Luciana Paluzzi is the love interest, Veronica, a Mexican woman who owns a huge ranch south of the border where Chuka used to work. And looking like he's having a lot of fun, character actor James Whitmore plays Lou Trent, the grizzled old scout who sees what's coming but can do little to stop it.

The DVD only has the movie in widescreen presentation which feels wasted with the indoor set of the fort. Still, the print looks good so I can't complain too much. No trailers of any sort here, the disc is as bare-bones as they get. I'd recommend this more for hardcore western fans, but it's a good watch. It's dark, cynical and violent, and not your typical Hollywood western.

Chuka (1967): ***/****