The Sons of Katie Elder

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

Friday, April 30, 2010

Devil's Doorway

Starting in 1950 with Winchester '73, director Anthony Mann made five movies with star Jimmy Stewart, all of them westerns, and all of them different from the typical shoot 'em up.  These weren't just good guys and bad guys shooting it out, these were adult westerns where characters lived in all sorts of gray moral ground.  It was a sign of what was to come in the westerns with a more cynical look at how our country expanded into the west through the 19th century.  The Mann/Stewart westerns are classics, but Mann showed a knack for tough, hard-edged movies throughout his career that didn't shy away from showing a real, authentic wild west.

Take 1950's Devil's Doorway which tackles one of the biggest wild west issues that is so often brushed under the rug.  Say it however you want it, but the extermination of the American Indian as Americans flooded across the country with the idea of Manifest Destiny.  It's a topic that has produced movies with the premise of "white man's guilt," making the Indians look like noble warriors and Americans as drooling, savage murderers.  Devil's Doorway is somewhere in between, a Shoshone tribe who have taken parts of the white culture into their own are forced to defend their land while ranchers, sheepherders and homesteaders prepare for a fight for this prime cut of land.

It's several years since the end of the Civil War and hero and Congressional Medal of Honor winner Lance Poole (Robert Taylor) returns home to the town he grew up in in Wyoming. Lance made it through the war unscathed and has hopes of building up his family's land into something great.  The only problem; Lance is a Shoshone Indian, and homesteaders have moved into the area and are looking for grazing land.  As an Indian, Poole isn't granted the right to own land so the 50,000 acres his family and tribe have owned for years is now up for grabs.  One sheepherder (Marshall Thompson) tries to make a deal that would benefit both, but a corrupt, Indian hating lawyer (Louis Calhern) leads the opposition.  Lance has been backed into a corner and knows he'll have to defend his land.

In 1950, I'd say a majority of westerns still portrayed Indians as murdering savages so it is refreshing to see an Indian as a major character and a sympathetic one at that.  Taylor is an odd choice for an Indian with his transformation consisting of skin darkener and some grown out, slicked back hair.  Thankfully, he doesn't attempt any stunted English.  Everyone in town knows Lance and respects him, even more so now because he's returned as a war hero.  But because he's an Indian -- and for that reason alone -- he is looked down upon.  All he wants is to defend his family's land without interference, but no one's going to let him do just that.

This is an honest look at the expansion of the west and Devil's Doorway is way ahead of the genre in that sense.  The west was not an easy place to live with people looking to advance themselves with little regard for those who got in their way.  Mann takes that style on with his no-frills, often surprisingly brutal story.  He films in black and white with Colorado proving the locations -- beautiful ones at that -- that adds even more to the authentic feel of the story.  Mann is on point here with no unnecessary detours or subplots.  A female lawyer (Paula Raymond) fights for Lance's cause, but there's no overly sentimental love story that develops.  It's pretty typical of a Mann western, don't waste time getting to where you want to go.

Watching as many westerns as I have -- especially pre-1960 or so -- I feel like I've been trained to expect a happy ending no matter how ridiculous it is in terms of the story and character arcs.  That was my concern here because there is NO WAY this story ends pleasantly, but Mann sticks to his guns.  The last 30 minutes goes down as one of the best, realistic endings to a western I've seen, especially the last 2 shots which are heartbreaking and emotional in a way that completely caught me off guard.  Add that emotion to the exciting action on-screen, and you've got a real winner here.  Anthony Mann and Robert Taylor at the top of their game.

Devil's Doorway <----trailer (1950): *** 1/2 /****

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Mother, Jugs and Speed

Pick a profession, any profession at all, and I'd bet you can find some sort of humor in it.  Typically, the darker profession the funnier.  Take 1976's Mother, Jugs and Speed which is about a privately owned ambulance company competing with another ambulance company for a contract with the city.  People driving around saving patients who are in pain doesn't seem like an ideal setting for a comedy, but this one works somehow.

It is typical of many 70s comedies because it has a strong ensemble cast, some really quirky humor -- really quirky -- and a few attempts at some fairly raunchy jokes, most of which that don't work.  The movie's first 30 minutes are the best and the funniest with the story getting weirder and weirder (not necessarily for the better) with each passing minute as so many elements are thrown together.  What does work about the second half of the movie is more of a focus on three key characters, Mother, Jugs and Speed.

A cop on suspension (Harvey Keitel) -- he's under investigation for selling drugs -- takes a job with F & B Ambulances, a privately owned company in Los Angeles.  Dubbed 'Speed' by his new co-workers, he finds quite a business going on.  The owner, Harry Fishbine (Allen Garfield), tells Speed a city council meeting is coming up in a week where the company's fate will be decided and for him to not do anything stupid.  He's teamed with Mother (Bill Cosby) in an ambulance and off they go. Speed finds quite the eccentric group of individuals at F&B including Jugs (Raquel Welch), the secretary, and Murdoch (Larry Hagman), a would-be ladies' man, among many others.  Can this crew of weirdos keep it together long enough to keep the company going?

There isn't a plot here as much as a series of vignettes showing the craziness and quirkiness of the job of the ambulance drivers.  The first 20-25 minutes is just gag after gag as Mother and Co. go through a typical night of doing their job.  Because they're privately owned, the drivers have to ask for payment on pickup -- $42.50 and 50 cents a mile -- which does provide some funny moments.  Their rival, United Ambulance, is always competing with them for patients, and neither company is beneath pulling off some shenanigans.  A local police officer (L.Q. Jones) is always willing to help them out as long as his palm is greased.  It probably would have been difficult to maintain that tone throughout the movie when Captain Buzzkill arrives.

It's after that first 30 minutes that the story takes an odd turn.  The script has a lot of different elements, some of which seem incredibly out of place, almost like director Peter Yates couldn't decide which direction to take his movie in. It's slapstick comedy, then dark comedy, then romance, some perverted actions for good measure, and a shootout at the end.  Hagman's Murdoch tries to rape a knocked out patient but still has a job.  Mother beats the crap out of him but for something completely different.  Murdoch disappears and reappears when his craziness is needed for the finale.

Even with all the ridiculousness going on, the cast has a way of righting the ship.  Cosby is great as Mother, the sarcastic driver who always helps run the place and is protective of the company and his co-workers, even if he never shows it to their faces.  A lot of his laughs sound like he improvised them, but the serious side of the character is dead-on, especially one monologue late about the pressures and demands of the job.  He also has one of the weirdest scenes ever in a "massage parlor" where he gets to do some Cosby-isms.  Welch must have groaned when she saw her character's name, but she's good as Jennifer ("Jugs"), the secretary trying to make it as an EMT.  Keitel is good as always -- when wasn't he good? -- as the straight man to all the craziness.  Along with Hagman, some of the other drivers include Bruce Davison as pot-smoking Leroy, NFL legend Dick Butkus as Rodeo, and Allan Warnick as Bliss, the highly intelligent and highly gay driver.

A weird, off the wall 70s comedy if there ever was one.  I wish the story could have been streamlined some more with a decision to go one way or another, but this is still an enjoyable movie.  It's got some good laughs -- one bit early with a runaway gurney is priceless -- but the main reason to see this is the cast, especially the leads.  Cosby, Welch, and Keitel have a great chemistry together and through all the craziness, that's what is worth watching.

Mother, Jugs and Speed <----trailer (1976): ***/****

Wednesday, April 28, 2010


The Cold War was admittedly a scary time for the U.S. with an almost constant threat of nuclear destruction and Communist takeover.  For almost 50 years, that threat was always looming, and movies, books, and TV shows reveled in it with a litany of classic Cold War thrillers.  One that wasn't so good?  1949's Conspirator which has the most naive, often inept Russian spy working undercover.  The worst part?  It's a romance.

In past reviews, I've made no bones about my blah reaction to Robert Taylor as an actor.   He was in his fair share of classics with many of the roles he played right in his wheelhouse, steely-eyed tough guys who got the girl in the end.  But as is the case here with Conspirator -- and a few other roles, keep your eyes out for another similar review -- Taylor took some challenging roles.  He was a bankable star who was able to pull in male and female audiences, but here, just four years since the end of WWII, Taylor plays a Commie spy who's deep undercover in the British army.  Kudos to him for having the guts to play that type of role.

However, that's where the positives end with his character.  For a guy who is a Russian agent he sure makes some mind-blowingly stupid decisions.  This is a guy who's life depends on being sneaky and deceptive while also being able to blend in living among a whole country of his enemies, but the idiotic decisions continue to mount.  There's outbursts left and right, especially at his wife, that call undue attention to his situation.  But it's not like the wife is doing anything wrong, Taylor leaves things out and then snaps.  The tension should be there in this situation, but the decisions are laughable, and it's hard to root for the secret agent who can't get anything done.

Going to school in England, 18-year old Melinda Greyton (Elizabeth Taylor) attends a dance with a friend and is bored out of her mind until a young officer, Major Michael Curragh (Taylor), walks in.  The young couple falls madly in love right away and are married soon after.  But Melinda starts to notice a list of weird happenings popping up; postcards with no names, night duties that pop up out of nowhere, outbursts completely out of the blue.  And as all these events mount up, Melinda begins to wonder if something else is going on.  Could Michael be hiding something?

Of course if you've read the first three paragraphs, you know that, yes, Michael is hiding something.  It seems like a wasted opportunity to not keep some mystery alive as to whether Michael is a Russian spy.  Within the first 20 minutes, we seem him meet his handlers so any of that mystery is gone.  1941's Suspicion played this angle up concerning Cary Grant's character, keeping the viewer guessing as to whether Grant is a murderer.  If Conspirator followed suit, it certainly couldn't have hurt the movie overall.  Instead, we get a movie where it's only a matter of time before Taylor's Melinda discovers the truth. 

Even when the big reveal could have been played up, instead we get a so obvious, hit you over the head reveal.  All the evidence mounts up -- Taylor "accidentally" wings his wife during a duck hunt -- but it's only when Melinda reads a note saying explicitly what's going on that she pieces it all together.  Even then, she believes their love is so strong that Michael is telling the truth that he's trying to resign.  Naive and in love is one thing, but just plain dumb is insulting enough as we watch this go on.

As the leads, the two Taylors are decent enough although it's hard to see why she falls for him so quickly.  It feels creepy saying this, but a 17-year old Elizabeth Taylor is certainly the looker, but this is not her strongest performance.  She does have the naivety of a 17-year old, but it's frustrating to watch just the same.  Honor Blackman and Robert Flemyng co-star as friends of Michael and Melinda, Blackman looking like she's about 15 years old.  The movie is a stinker and doesn't have much going for it.  Only die-hard fans of the two Taylors should probably seek this one out.

Conspirator (1949): */****

Monday, April 26, 2010

Blood Diamond

Out of conflict comes the good and the bad.  There are those who try and do something with the idea of accomplishing something good, and then there are others who try to profit from the suffering all around them.  Then somewhere in between are the unwilling and unlucky caught in the middle just fighting to survive.  Based in Sierra Leone in 1999, 2006's Blood Diamond has a character pertaining to each description.

This is an action movie with a message -- an undervalued and under appreciated sub genre in action movies.  Basing a story in war torn Sierra Leone is not the basis for a feel-good, up story, and director Edward Zwick tries to show his story without any unnecessary upbeat feelings.  A repeated line is 'TIA...this is Africa.'  Here's the situation, deal with it.  As government troops battle rebel forces, both sides seek to control the diamond fields where prisoners search for blood diamonds that will be used to fund the fight by buying arms and ammunitions.  Amidst the chaos is the story of three people, a man looking for riches, another searching for his family, and a journalist trying to do something right.

With previous movies like Glory, The Last Samurai, and Defiance, Zwick has proven adept at handling big, sweeping pictures.  Add Blood Diamond to the list because this is a big movie, especially in terms of scale.  The movie was shot in Africa -- benefiting greatly from it -- and gives you a real sense of what surviving amidst a civil war must have been like.  It is a chaotic trip through war-ravaged Sierra Leone with death around every corner.  But for all the brutality and violence, there is a beauty to the movie as Archer and Vandy trek across the expanses of the countryside with the beauty of the nature shining through.  Credit there goes to cinematographer Eduardo Serra and composer James Newton Howard for blending the visual and audio so seamlessly.

It's late in the Sierra Leone Civil War in 1999 and poor fisherman and father Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou) has been torn away from his family by rebel forces and forced to work in the diamond mines.  Vandy finds an enormous diamond which he manages to hide as government troops overwhelm the mine, but he's thrown in jail.  There a Rhodesian smuggler and arms dealer, Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio), hears of his find and arranges Vandy's release. Danny himself was thrown into jail for smuggling diamonds and now owes his boss (Arnold Vosloo) a hefty sum.  Vandy suspiciously agrees to lead Archer to the diamond if he will help him find his family.  With help from a do-good journalist (Jennifer Connelly), Archer agrees and they set off into the chaotic, brutal countryside, the smuggler dreaming of the riches that await him, the fisherman yearning to see his family again.

Since his star-making part in Titanic, DiCaprio has shown an ability to take on some pretty meaty roles and not just playing the romantic lead.  He was nominated for best lead actor here and it's a nomination he really deserved.  His Archer is a bit of a wild card in that it is almost impossible to read him.  Sure, he says he's trying to help Solomon, but he has also shown that he looks out for himself and his own well-being above all else.  This is a 3-D, flesh and blood character that DiCaprio brings to life.  He is a deeply flawed individual with a past that still haunts him.  And on a much lighter note, he gets to do another interesting accent, pulling off a South African accent nicely.  This isn't an easy character to read or root for, but Danny Archer is certainly interesting to watch.

Like DiCaprio, Hounsou was also nominated -- for best supporting actor -- for his part as Solomon Vandy.  I was first introduced to Hounsou with his supporting part in Gladiator and have liked him ever since.  He is able to combine a quiet dignity with emotions that might explode at any minute.  This man is going to do anything he can to ensure the safety of his family.  The scene where he discovers his son has been taken by rebel forces is difficult to watch because we're seeing a man come apart at the seams as the anger and pure hatred coarse through his veins.  It is a great performance and one that matches DiCaprio's powerhouse role.  Connelly's character is nothing new -- a journalist exhausted at the ways of the world who gets a sick thrill from what she's doing -- but she pulls it off well.  Her Maddy could have felt like an add-on to the story, but she ends up playing an important role in the cross country trek.

Like any movie, certain scenes stick with you longer than others.  Looking to examples like Glory (the assault on Fort Wagner) and Last Samurai (the final battle), it's a safe statement to say that Zwick puts together epic action scenes as well as any director around.  They're interesting to watch, but they also resonate emotionally because there's an attachment to the characters and their situation.  Two sequences come to mind here.  One, Archer and Solomon race through city streets as rebel forces invade, and two, an air strike is called in on a rebel camp as Archer and Solomon look for his son and the blood diamond.  Both action set pieces have an enormous scale that is a pleasure to watch, all building to a final chase as they head for an airfield and a plane that will take them to safety.

My complaint here is that Blood Diamond is a long movie at 143 minutes.  It's never dull, and looking back I can't think of scenes I would cut to shorten it.  But it feels really long, like I was watching for much longer than 2.5 hours.  It's hard to put a figure on it because the pacing is all right, and the characters certainly take you for a ride.  Maybe it's just that the story takes a long time to get where it wants to be.  None of this is enough to deter me from recommending it, but it is something that bothered me just the same.  A very good movie all around with great performances and a sweeping story.

Blood Diamond <----trailer (2006): ***/****

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Ship of Fools

In 1933, the Nazi Party took over in Germany, a power that would run through the end of WWII in 1945.  At the time, no one really could known what was coming with Adolf Hitler and the Nazis in charge of Germany, but it was a turning point in history for how it changed the world and the millions of lives it impacted.  Even at first, did the German people know what they were voting for when the Nazi Party took office?  We'll never know, but 1965's Ship of Fools explores the idea of what is to come.

Director Stanley Kramer made a name for himself with movies just like this, big pictures with big casts and some big ideas.  'Fools' has the feel of a 1970s disaster movie except without the disaster.  Throw a group of people into a confined setting and let the fireworks begin.  Here though, there's no fireworks.  It is a movie that at 149-minutes is one of the most dialogue-heavy movies I've ever seen, some good and some bad.  With a huge cast, lots of tumultuous relationships, and some bigger takes on love, prejudice, and common decency, 'Fools' has a lot going on, too much if you ask me.  A streamlined version couldn't have hurt.

In 1933 in the port of Vera Cruz, Mexico, a German cruise ship leaves port bound for a quick stop in Cuba and then on home to mother Germany.  On board is a good sample section of Germans, Jews, Austrians, a few Americans from a variety of backgrounds, and over 500 field workers being sent back to Cuba because the work has dried up.  The Nazi Party has taken power in Germany, and the election is still at the forefront of discussion.  The trip to Germany is expected to take almost a month, and on this trip, nothing is going to go smoothly.

Don't take any of that to mean this is an action movie, far from it.  Here is just some of the characters involved.  The ship's doctor (Oskar Werner) is coming off heart troubles and is generally depressed at the plight of the world, but he bonds with an upper-class woman (Simone Signoret) who helped arm a workers rebellion.  A boorish German Austrian (Jose Ferrer) spouts the power of the Nazis and their plans to build a super race. A young American couple (George Segal and Elizabeth Ashley) try to figure out if they're meant to be together.  A hard-edged, washed up American baseball player (Lee Marvin) tries to figure out what to do with his life, all the while talking often with a recent divorcee (Vivien Leigh).  A German Jew salesman (Heinz Ruhmann) tries to shrug of the increasingly anti-Semitic feelings on board. The problem isn't with the strength of the casting -- all those mentioned turn in fine performances -- but with the fact that all those mentioned are about half of the storylines.

There is many more storylines with many more characters as Kramer attempts to show a wide variety of people, families, and individuals on board this second rate ship.  It's just too much as the camera bounces from story to story -- some much better than others -- instead of focusing on the key, interesting ones.  There's an odd inclusion of a Spanish flamenco group who are really nothing more than a pimp who sells his dancers and also feature two satanic little kids who at one point throw a dog overboard.  Many of these characters could have been more interesting with some more development, but it felt like Kramer was more interested in quantity over quality, and he throws a lot at the viewer before quickly moving on to another subplot.

'Fools' is based off a novel, but to me it had the distinct feel of a stage play with almost nothing to distract from the always ongoing dialogue.  Besides a tangent here and there, the 149-minutes is almost all dialogue, sometimes between two people and others among a group.  With all these presentations of what love is and its power/effect, the story does tread that line between intellectual and pretentious, usually ending up on the right side.  Michael Dunn (Dr. Loveless in Wild, Wild West) plays Glocken, the character who opens and closes the movie by addressing the viewer, telling us what we are to see and then summing it up.  It was a performance that earned him an Oscar nomination, and for good reason.  Dunn was a dwarf, and in any other movie he may have seemed out of place, but here he's probably the most normal of them all.

With such a dialogue-heavy movie, it's the actors/actresses who shine.  Leigh in her last-ever movie is remarkable in a very strong performance.  Werner isn't easy to like because he seems so down on himself and the world, but the character comes around in the end -- which is a downer.  Signoret and Werner have a chemistry together that is unlike a typical budding movie romance.  Ruhmann and Dunn have a similar chemistry -- hold the romance -- as two Jews forced to eat separately from the rest of the German passengers, both men able to laugh off the prejudice.  A scene late in the movie as they discuss this growing prejudice is eerie because as viewers we of course know what is to come during the Holocaust.

If this was from any other director, the rating might have gone up, but Kramer has Mad, Mad World and Nuremberg to his name among others, and 'Fools' just doesn't live up to those expectations.  It could have though, and that's what is disappointing.  The potential is there for a great movie.  Cut about 30 minutes and some of those extra, wasted characters, and you've got a gem of a movie.  Still, it's not a bad movie, just one with some fairly major flaws.  Check it out for the depth of a great cast and a window into 1933 and what was coming down the road. Don't be thrown off by the DVD either, this is not some light-hearted romance.

Ship of Fools <----trailer (1965): ** 1/2 /****

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Executive Action

Conspiracies theories are everywhere from something as minor as sports and rivalries to stupid like Bigfoot, Area 51, and the Loch Ness monster.  But the conspiracy to top them all is the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas November 22, 1963.  Lee Harvey Oswald is known as the shooter, but for years conspiracy theorists have wondered what actually happened that November day.  Were there other shooters, was Oswald even involved or just a dupe?  

What has driven these theories all these years is that there are too many holes in the explanation provided by the lone shooter theory.  Everything doesn't add up, leading to speculation that it was all an immense conspiracy that killed JFK.  Who was part of it?  Who knows, but answers range from government to big business to right wing to extremists and some who insist Oswald was the lone shooter.  We'll almost certainly never know who killed Kennedy and how it was accomplished, but we can always wonder and theorize what actually happened.  With that idea is 1973's Executive Action.

This is a movie that doesn't wonder if there was a conspiracy to kill Kennedy, it's the conspiracy that does kill Kennedy.  A title card explains the background and says 'This is what could have happened.'  In that sense, it's extremely startling.  In the same way United 93 and World Trade Center were uncomfortable to watch because they were made so close to 9/11, Executive Action is difficult to watch because of its subject matter.  We know in the end Kennedy will be shot driving in his motorcade, but that doesn't take away from the surprise of it all.  The assassination planners are talking about killing the president of the United States in an honest, forthright manner.

It's summer 1963 and a group of powerful right-wing activists (including Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan and Will Geer) meet together at a luxurious mansion.  Their analysts have predicted a future that has a Kennedy (John, Bobby and Ted) in the White House with other Kennedys holding key positions in the Cabinet.  None of these powerful men like the direction the country is taking with JFK in its most powerful position and have begun to put a complicated plot to kill the President.  Two teams go about preparing for the hit (led by Ed Lauter and William Watson) with black ops operatives.  While the plot is formed, the higher-ups begin to set up a plan that will paint Lee Harvey Oswald as the assassin.  Everything comes together, and then the date comes along.  November 22, 1963 will be the day.

The special features offer interviews that explain everyone involved in the movie was warned that their careers were probably over if they made the movie.  It's presented as a documentary as if this is how it happened, not just an interpretation of what might have happened.  It is a quick-moving story that never lingers long on one part of the story.  The longest segment is of course the actual assassination as three gunmen set up to shoot JFK, one in the Book Depository, one on the grassy knoll, and a third on a nearby hotel roof.  It's an eerie, spooky scene that is filmed like a scene out of any political thriller, not one where the President is shot.  Like the rest of the movie, it is unsettling to say the least.

Seeing a story like this which deals with such a controversial 'what if?' in history, I was more than a little surprised to see big names like Lancaster and Ryan involved.  The focus is clearly on the assassination conspiracy with characters being completely secondary.  Ryan is the right wing leader of the group, and Lancaster is the mysterious orchestrator of the plan with years of black ops experience working for him.  These are brilliant minds who believe the choice they've made will benefit the United States for years to come.  We're not talking a month or two down the road, but in terms of world affairs, especially U.S. involvement in Vietnam. 

Like any movie based on a conspiracy or a controversial topic, it's up to the viewer to decide how much they'll believe, or maybe more importantly, how much they'll allow themselves to believe.  Could this have happened as the movie presents it?  Sure.  No matter what you believe though, it's hard not to admit that as presented here, the conspiracy theorists have lots of ammunition to use to prove that it wasn't a lone gunman that killed Kennedy.  Believe it or not (I tend to lean toward the conspiracy side), Executive Action is a fascinating 'what if?'  We'll never know what happened but it is always interesting to wonder what did happen.

Executive Action <----trailer (1973): ***/****

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Jack Sparrow's long-lost relatives

In 2003, Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow helped revitalize the pirate movie with the hugely popular and trilogy spawning Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl.  Basically, he made pirates cool again mostly because Depp is one of the coolest actors around.  For years though, the pirate movie had been a thing of the past -- other than the box-office bomb Cutthroat Island -- after being extremely popular in the Hollywood studio era.  The star most often associated with these swashbuckling roles was Errol Flynn, but many actors took to the high seas as a pirate.

Where Flynn was an ideal choice to play a pirate -- roguish but not a killer, smooth but particularly vicious at times -- those other actors had their work cut out for them...usually because they were compared to Flynn.  Some were better than others, but I watched two recently that certainly qualify in the odd casting department, Paul Henreid in 1945's The Spanish Main and Sterling Hayden in 1952's The Golden Hawk.  I typically think of Henreid as a second banana, and I questioned whether Hayden has the on-screen presence to overact as pirates normally do in any number of extravagant ways.  Safe to say, neither is Johnny Depp, but here goes.

Given away as a bride to the viceroy of Cartagena, Spanish contessa Francesca (Maureen O'Hara) is en route when her ship is attacked by the Barracuda, an infamous pirate ship in the Caribbean captained by Laurent Van Horn (Henreid).  She is taken prisoner, and Van Horn demands that she marry him.  Bargaining to save the life of the crew, Francesca agrees.  But the viceroy (Walter Slezak) hears of this and is none too pleased because he's long hunted Van Horn.  The pirate thinks he is in the free and clear with his new wife, but his crew and the pirate code say he has broken their rules.  Nothing comes easy as a pirate.

First off, the casting.  Henreid is not the right choice to play a swashbuckling pirate.  He's too much of a dandy and to say the least, is not intimidating.  He does little of his own stunts with an obvious double stepping in for him.  You want to root for him as he takes on the evil viceroy, but it's hard to get behind him.  O'Hara is quite the looker here with her strikingly red hair, but she's an Irish actress playing a Spanish contessa.  Something doesn't add up, especially when she tries a Spanish accent.  Slezak isn't much of a bad guy either as the somewhat vicious but mostly stupid viceroy.  It's all wrapped up nicely with a bow in the end.

Read any of my previous reviews of a Sterling Hayden movie, and you'll get the same idea with each one.  He's at his best when he's playing the steely-eyed hero.  Ask him to show too much emotion or fire, and it gets awkward real quick.  Transferring that thought, a pirate might not be the ideal choice for a part.  Honestly, Hayden is the least of the problems in The Golden Hawk.  It's a B-movie and not a good one.  The script is awful having characters who hate each other fall madly in love with each other because the story requires it and little else.  'Hawk' has a cheap look to it, lots of studio work, and miniatures serving for any shots of cities or ships sailing the ocean blue.

If you're looking for a plot description, read the one from 'Spanish Main' but replace the actors names.  Hayden is a French (really? French? That's a good one) pirate looking to avenge his mother's death years before.  Hayden's Kit 'the Hawk' Gerardo sails the seas taking down any ship he can.  On board one of theses ships he captures a beautiful woman (Rhonda Fleming) who ends up being a rival pirate.  Throw in a kidnapped Spanish wife who's married to the evil captain, and you've got this stinker.  Look for Michael Ansara in a good supporting part as Bernardo, one of Kit's men.  Other than that, pass on this one in a big way.

The moral of the story after seeing these two pirate movies is this; stick with Errol Flynn and his swashbuckling pirate movies where money was spent on casting, costuming and getting a decent story to work with.  Henreid and Hayden just aren't cut out for parts as pirates, but it's not like the rest of these movies helps out.  O'Hara and Fleming both look great and its refreshing to see some take no crap badass chicks in older movies, but they're lost in a sea of bad movie.

The Spanish Main <---trailer (1945): **/****  
The Golden Hawk (1952): */****

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Blood on the Moon

In a biography I read and reviewed last spring about Robert Mitchum, the Hollywood star and one of the first bad-boy movie stars said he never really thought he was much of an actor.  He said it came easy to him, and typically, he never watched his movies once he was done making them.  Maybe it was easy for him, but there is a constant through almost all of Mitchum's movies.  He is smooth on-screen like few others, and as the title of the biography said 'Baby, I don't care.'  If you didn't like him or his movies, Mitchum just didn't care.

Early in his career, Mitchum was signed with RKO Studios and was usually stuck making low-budget westerns and film noirs that over 60 years later have generally withstood the test of time.  1948's Blood on the Moon is typical of the movies he made during his RKO days, but it has a trump card on most of those other movies.  The cast here is ridiculously good starting with Mitchum in the lead and trickling down through all the supporting parts.  It is a late 40s western that blends the western and film noir genres, falling somewhere in between.  Different for sure, and worth a watch.

Drifter Jim Garry (Mitchum) rides into a peaceful-looking valley and quickly finds out everything is not so peaceful as it appears.  There are two factions in the valley, both fighting for control of the land.  On one side is John Lufton (Tom Tully), a rancher trying to sell his cattle to the nearest Indian reservation.  On the opposition is a group of small homesteaders led by a gunfighter, Tate Riding (Robert Preston), and an old, wily homesteader, Kris Barden (Walter Brennan), who is just looking out for the land he's lived on for years.  Throwing a wrench into the situation is Lufton's daugther (Phyllis Thaxter) who has fallen in love with Riding.  Lufton's other daughter, Amy (Barbara Del Geddes) isn't quite sure what to make of Garry who himself doesn't know exactly what's he gotten himself into.

Blood on the Moon is based on a novel by western author Luke Short who over a 30-year span wrote more than 50 western novels.  It does use some well worn western cliches, but it's handled so smoothly it's not even worth complaining about.  The mysterious drifter is as old as westerns themselves, and the ranchers vs. the homesteaders is certainly nothing new in terms of storytelling.  But thanks to his strong cast and some great camera work in black and white, director Robert Wise turns in a solid effort all around.

As the mysterious drifter who only one person really knows, Mitchum does what he does best; the strong, silent type ready with a crack when needed or an equally effective and well-placed punch.  Opposed to a lot of stars in westerns, Mitchum looks comfortable in the saddle, and more than that he looks the part of a cowboy who's spent too long on the trail.  His Garry is a decent enough fellow looking to make some cash, but even he has his limits as to what he'll do to get it.  The subplot with Bel Geddes isn't that great mostly because the two don't have a ton of chemistry together.  Well, maybe they do, but it's hard to see after his pairings with Jane Greer and Jane Russell.

What works so well for the supporting cast is that for much of the movie there isn't good and bad, just varying shades of gray.  Everyone has their reasons, their motives, and even Preston -- who does end up being the villain -- isn't just a cold-blooded killer.  He's a poor homesteader turned gunfighter trying to carve a life out for himself and fiance.  Preston's Riling is that character though you know isn't quite right because it's Preston playing him, and he made a career out of parts like this.  Brennan is solid as a homesteader wavering on what's right and wrong.  Then, also look out for gravelly-voiced Charles McGraw as a hired gun and Frank Faylen as an Indian agent looking to make a buck, both good supporting parts.

While the story does use some wild west cliches -- they are tried and true for a reason -- Wise's movie sets itself apart from the rest because of its one.  Gunfighters, hired killers are looked upon as a scourge of society so Mitchum's Garry isn't exactly well liked upon his arrival.  Westerns often dealt with this issue, but in 1948, this dark tone is more than a little surprising.  The same goes for the violence which isn't graphic but is always realistic, especially a knock-down, drag 'em out saloon brawl between Mitchum and Preston.  With some great shadowy outdoor filming in California and Arizona, this 1948 western has all the elements.

Blood on the Moon <---trailer (1948): ***/****

Monday, April 19, 2010


After years of chain smoking, John Wayne underwent surgery to remove his cancerous left lung in 1964.  A huge star since he burst onto the scene in the 1930s, the Duke came back with a vengeance and over the next 15 years made 20 movies.  With an exception here and there, these movies were typically family affairs for Wayne.  He worked with directors, crews, and actors that were familiar with him.  And in this period more than any other, John Wayne didn't even have to act because most of the time he was playing himself. 

Going through such a drastic procedure clearly didn't slow him down, but it certainly made the star appreciate what he had.  Why mess with productions that would only threaten his health again?  Instead, he stuck with what he knew.  And of those 20 movies, I can name several which are in my top 10 Duke movies.  One that isn't?  That's easy, 1968's Hellfighters.  I don't remember how old I was when I saw my first John Wayne movie, but I know I was young, and in the years since, I've seen just about every single one.  Hellfighters was one of the few I hadn't, and to be honest, I don't know why.  I never intentionally avoided it, but I never sought it out either.  I'm glad I saw it to check it off the list, but it's not one of Wayne's better efforts.

John Wayne plays Chance Buckman, the owner of a company that puts out oil well fires.  Buckman's exploits are based loosely on real life firefighter Red Adair, but reading up about Adair, it looks like the only thing the movie and his life have in common is that they were both actually oil well firefighters.  It's about there the similarities diverge in a big way.  In terms of pure visual entertainment and spectacle, I'm hard-pressed to think of too many things more exciting to watch than an epic, blazing oil well fire.  These scenes are the high points of the movie.  But somehow and for some reason, the story is dumbed down and filtered to the point where it could be any dangerous profession.  So instead of 2 hours of fighting oil well fires, we get unnecessary family drama.

Chance Buckman (Wayne) loves what he does and he's damn good at it.  With his company based out of Houston, Buckman travels the world with his team putting out, extinguishing and saving oil wells that burst into flames during drilling.  It's incredibly dangerous work, but with years of practice and know-how, Chance has got it down to an art.  But after one accident that hospitalizes him, his estranged daughter, Tish (Katharine Ross), comes to see him and ends up marrying Chance's right-hand man, Greg Parker (Jim Hutton). As if his job wasn't worrisome enough, Chance is now worrying about his daughter and son-in-law, not to mention his divorced wife, Madelyn (Vera Miles), who returns after years away. 

It almost pains me to right that specific of a plot description for a movie about oil well firefighters.  And that's the unfortunate part.  With a profession like this, you would think it nearly impossible to make a dull movie about it, but director Andrew V. McLaglen succeeds in a big way.  The minute the story heads away from the fire scenes, Hellfighters is downright dull.  I'll admit some of the family background is needed to show the effects the job has on the firefighter and their families, but a little goes a long way here.  Ross especially seems to get a kick out of showing up at these dangerous sites, seemingly oblivious to that danger.  Wayne and Hutton spend much of the movie yelling at her to get down or get back.  Her character is annoying and not in a cutesy way.

These romantic scenes are at times painful to watch.  Wayne worked with Vera Miles in several pictures, but never with a romantic dynamic between them.  As divorcees, they have little chemistry together, and it seems an odd choice to make 60-year old Wayne a heartthrob with this part.  As annoying as the Hutton/Ross love plotline can be, at least it's somewhat believable.  Not so with an older Wayne and a 39-year old Miles.  Still, Wayne is the Duke, and he does make the most of his part, instilling some humor and 'Never say die!' spirit into it.  Hutton is wasted as Chance's right hand man which is disappointing because as was the case with The Green Berets, he's got good chemistry with Wayne.

I'm not able to find clips available of the oil well scenes, but they're a sight to behold with a feeling of 'I know I shouldn't look, but I must!' throughout.  Now whether McLaglen filmed actual oil well fires or created his own for the sake of the movie, I don't know, but these are some remarkable sequences.  Making them that much cooler, Wayne and Hutton look to do at least some of their own stunts nearby the flaming wells.  Wayne's team includes Bruce Cabot and Edward Faulkner as on-site help, with old friend and partner Jay C. Flippen left behind back at the office.  It's too bad more couldn't have been done with the team because I found them much more interesting.  Two solid hours of fighting oil fires probably isn't feasible, but cut the movie by 30 minutes, and maybe we're onto something.

All I can say is I wish this was a better movie.  There's only so many John Wayne movies out there so when I see one that doesn't live up to its potential, I feel like I'm missing out.  Hellfighters has a lot of potential but never lives up to it.  Lots of great sequences are there with a solid cast, but it never clicks together.  The story drifts along filling in the blanks between fires before the necessary, not at all surprising ending.  Worthwhile for the oil well fire sequences, but other than that, steer clear.

Hellfighters <----fan-made trailer (1968): **/****

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Thieves Like Us

It's hard almost 80 years later to look back on the Great Depression and know what it was really like.  You can read all you want, watch any number of documentaries, but even that can keep you at a distance.  One thing to come out of the 1930s -- and even in the 1920s thanks to prohibition -- was the gangsters, bank robbers and killers that in tough times turned to a life of crime.  In many cases, these men and women have been glamorized to the point of hero worship (count me among the guilty).  In reality, they were often killers and low-lives.  Somewhere in between is 1974's Thieves Like Us.

Directed by the master of the period drama, Robert Altman, 'Thieves' is an incredibly realistic, very truthful retelling of the 1930s and the life of crime that was often a direct result of the tough times.  From the clothes to the sets to the almost-constant radio programming in the background, this movie feels like the 1930s.  That decade had a certain look that translates well to movies.  And instead of focusing on John Dillinger or some of the other high-profile crooks of the era, Altman focuses on three low-level bank robbers making their way across the south with eyes on acquiring as much money as possible.

Escaping from a prison work farm in the deep south, Bowie (Keith Carradine) and Chicamaw (John Schuck) team up with a third escaped convict, T-Dub (Bert Remsen), and hit the road.  Bowie's two new partners both have some experience as bank robbers so the trio decides to hit a couple banks to help them live a better life.  And at first, things go smoothly, but soon enough, their names and pictures are plastered across several states with a reward posted for information on them.  In between jobs, the trio splits up with Bowie moving in with a girl in Mississippi, Keechie (Shelley Duvall), who wants him to leave his gang.  But Bowie feels pulled both ways because he loves Keechie, but Chicamaw and T-Dub are his only friends in the world. With the noose tightening around their necks, the young, naive criminal is forced to make a decision.

In 1974, Carradine was one of many rising stars in the movies, but he never became a huge mega-star.  Maybe it was for the best, he was always so strong in smaller movies like this one that were focused on story and character above all else.  His Bowie is the main character in 'Thieves' and a likable one at that.  He gets involved with two veteran crooks, and it's usually those two where the violence comes from.  Bowie sticks with them because it's all he knows.  Most of the time, he serves as the getaway driver.  The other plotline is the relationship that develops between him and Keechie which is surprisingly sweet and effective.  They're both naive to just about everything, and end up being a perfect match together.

It's a good thing that Carradine and Duvall are likable because with a gangster story, it's not always easy to get behind the main characters.  Don't expect a whole lot of action here, instead it is more of a budding love story with a few bank robberies thrown into the mix.  As for Bowie's partners, the two performances are equally strong if not equally likable.  Schuck's Chicamaw is a drunk and an angry one at that, while Remsen's T-Dub provides some funny moments with his boasting of all the robberies he's lead, but he ends up coming off as a horny old guy.  Other worthwhile supporting parts include Louise Fletcher as Mattie, T-Dub's sister-in-law, and Ann Latham as Lula, T-Dub's main squeeze who I think is also a relative. Tom Skerritt is wasted as Dee Mobley, Keechie's uncle who helps Bowie and Co. following their robberies.

All the positives aside, I had some issues with the movie.  Altman is in no rush to move his story along with a leisurely 123-minute run time.  That's all right with many stories because the end result is always in site down the road somewhere.  SPOILERS  Stories with 30s crooks typically don't end well for the crooks because eventually the cops/FBI/authorities close in and finish the job.  By the end, T-Dub and Bowie are dead with Chicamaw's fate left undecided.  We don't see any of this though.  T-Dub is killed off-screen, and we hear about it via a radio report, and Bowie is ambushed in a small cabin, but we only see the shooting from the outside.  I'm not calling for a gory, viciously bloody ending, but by this point, I've come to like the characters flaws and all.  Just hearing about their deaths or knowing what's happening isn't enough.  And in a way, I feel cheated.  END OF SPOILERS

Good and bad, I did like this movie, but I didn't love it.  Watching a story about 1930s era gangsters, it's hard not to compare Thieves Like Us to movies like Bonnie and Clyde, Dillinger, and even more recently with Public Enemies.  It's an enjoyable enough movie, but it's not on the level of those three movies.  A sometimes too leisurely pacing does slow the movie down too much, and some creative choices Altman made ended up bugging me a lot in terms of character.  I wanted to like it more, but it is a quality movie and quite a window into the 1930s.

Thieves Like Us <----trailer (1974): ** 1/2 /****   

Friday, April 16, 2010

A Town Called Hell

When watching a spaghetti western, there's a certain amount of weirdness to be expected.  After all, these were typically European directors/producers/screenwriters interpreting the American west so weirdness just comes with the territory.  But beyond anti-heroes and crazy villains, the spaghettis were often heavy on graphic violence, religious imagery and symbolism, and no penchant for having to have a happy ending.  Basically, everything I like in a western.

For years, the craziest spaghetti I saw was 1967's Django Kill! which features some truly disgusting violence, a gang of gay cowboys, and...wait, that's enough, violence and gay cowboys is a good explanation.  Last night on Netflix Instant viewing, I checked out 1971's A Town Called Hell for a couple reasons, I've never been able to actually track a copy down, and two, the cast looks ridiculously good.  It's not a straight Italian spaghetti western with British and Spanish backing, but it's got all the right elements.  If anything, it's got too many elements.  This one is all over the place and ranks right up there with Django Kill! for new weirdest spaghetti.

It's 1905 in Mexico (right in the middle of the Mexican revolution for you history buffs).  A widower, Alvira (Stella Stevens) rides into the dusty, rundown town of Bastardo -- not 'Hell' as the title implies.  She is offering $20,000 for the man who murdered her husband, but she doesn't know who he is, only that he's in the town.  Alvira's only clue is a name...'Aguila.'  But other than that, she's got nothing to go on.  Three key people in Bastardo seem to have information.  There's the Priest (Robert Shaw), the Colonel (Martin Landau) with his army detachment, and Don Carlos (Telly Savalas), the town's corrupt mayor/bandit. But nothing comes easy, and the betrayals start flying and the bodies start to add up.

Where to start?  Spaghetti westerns generally had an extremely dark tone full of cynicism and violence, lots of anti-establishment feelings.  'Hell' certainly qualifies because no character is safe.  The violence isn't graphic but it is brutal in its honesty.  There are hangings, stabbings, shootings, and so much more.  The setting for this is a really desert town that has fortress walls on all sides, and even though the movie was made/filmed in Spain, it looks like Mexico in all its dusty, dirty glory.  I'm positive I'm reading too much into this, but the town could be some sort of purgatory, some bizarre version of hell.  Or it could just be a whacked out western, you make the decision. 

The story itself is too interesting with director Robert Parrish mixing and matching left and right.  An IMDB user stated there's at least 15 plots, they just last 2 or 3 minutes before moving on, and really, that's a pretty accurate description of this gothic, dark western.  Stevens sleeps in a coffin at night and has a pale deaf-mute protector, Spectre (Dudley Sutton), with her at all times.  Savalas is a violent dictator with an iron fist on this town...until he doesn't anymore when his men turn on him, crucifying him.  Shaw has a vivid dream where Stevens' Alvira kills him in his sleep.  Landau as a Mexican officer?  That does seem pretty logical.  A flashback with a sped-up version of the Battle of New Orleans and a bizarre, confusing backstory just caps it all off.  That's the movie in a nutshell, always moving and never slowing up enough to know how ridiculous it all sounds.

Through all of the craziness, there's a really cool if sometimes odd cast.  Robert Shaw is one of my favorite actors, and he's the star here.  Simply named 'the Priest,' he has a past that still gnaws at him, and he seems to be the only person who knows who 'Aguila' is.  On a non-consequential level, Shaw is also sporting a badass handlebar mustache and mutton chop-like sideburns.  Savalas is the shirtless bandit mayor (honestly, in his 30 minutes he never has a shirt on) who gets to ham it up.  His departure about 30 minutes does come as a surprise, mostly because we never see how he gets whacked.  Landau is the only one who doesn't work because well, he's not Mexican.  He's loud and obnoxious but still isn't a good villain.  Stevens is wasted -- but looks good doing it -- and appears like she wandered into the set and just started reciting lines.

There's also supporting parts for Fernando Rey as an old blind man who may hold the key to Aguila's identity, spaghetti western regular Aldo Sambrell as Calebra, one of Don Carlos' thugs, TV star Michael Craig in flashback as Paco, one of the Priest's partners, and Al Lettieri as La Bomba, Carlos' not so smart treacherous right hand man.  What I liked about this western -- and I did like it -- was the general weirdness of it all.  There's this great cast and no story (not a coherent one at least), but all the little things add up.  Recommending this almost in spite of itself.

A Town Called Hell <----trailer (1971): ** 1/2 /****

Thursday, April 15, 2010


The 1970s produced all sorts of controversies, some that ended up positively, others not so much, but one of the biggest was President Richard Nixon and the Watergate scandal.  In a decade when the American people were already skeptical of the government, this scandal involving a government cover-up was just one of many straws that helped break the camel's back.  Nixon's actions infuriated thousands and more likely millions, but because Gerald Ford pardoned him for all his actions he was let off the hook.

Last year, director Ron Howard's Frost/Nixon detailed the story and background of an interview that took place in 1977 between Nixon and British talk show host David Frost with one character's motivation being giving Nixon the trial he never received.  Howard is no stranger to working with true stories -- Apollo 13, Cinderella Man, A Beautiful Mind -- and he is an ideal choice to direct this movie.  Working with a pseudo-documentary style, Howard one-ups himself by having his actors provide voiceovers and even on-screen interviews as the real-life people they're playing, all of it adding to the documentary-like feel to the movie.

Interestingly enough, the movie is based off a play which is based off a series of interviews between Nixon and Frost.  An ongoing interview that took place over 12 sittings might not seem like a well-suited idea for a feature length movie, but as interviews on the DVD discuss, watching these interviews develop is like watching a prize fight.  The description is surprisingly dead-on, and these scenes of long stretches of dialogue have energy and tension to burn -- and that's knowing how they'll end.

It's 1977 and British talk show host David Frost (Michael Sheen) has been chosen to interview former President Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) in Nixon's first sit-down session since he resigned following the Watergate scandal.  No one thinks much of Frost or his ability to put Nixon on the spot, but with a team of researchers working with him, the English host lays out a plan of attack for how to question the former president.  But as excitement builds and the interview draws closer (12 sittings totaling 30 hours covering 4 key topics), Frost and his team can't prepare for the wickely intelligent mind that is Richard Nixon.  And with the whole world watching, there's no room for error.

Dealing with a story that is one of the most well-known news stories ever, Howard has his work cut out for him.  The same goes for the actors who are playing real-life people, many of them still alive.  For his performance of Nixon, Langella earned an Oscar nomination, and it's easy to see why.  Nixon was a deeply flawed individual, and the only U.S. president to resign from office so Langella doesn't whitewash any of his background (I don't think Howard would have allowed it).  Langella shows the man for what he was, good and bad.  He was a brilliant mind and intelligent speaker always looking to hold an advantage over those around him.  His Nixon is a master manipulator and isn't beneath pulling some below the belt trickery.

It would be tough to match Langella because his part is so good, but Sheen is a worthy competitor.  His Frost is an interesting character who risks everything to get these interviews on the air.  He has difficulty though because as a TV host, he lacks the credibility of a journalist.  Think of it this way; Jay Leno sits down for a 1-on-1 sit down with President Clinton about his extramarital affairs.  That's basically what this story is although Frost is a pretty smart guy himself.  Sheen's Frost isn't an easy character to get behind -- he's cocky, brash, arrogant -- but maybe more importantly he's an interesting character.  The scenes between him and Langella are at the heart of the movie and move along at a brisk pace.  In the hands of lesser talents, these interview scenes could have dragged on endlessly.

The supporting cast is nothing to shake your head at either.  Rounding out Frost's support team is Oliver Platt as Bob Zelnick, a Washington correspondent for National Public Radio, Sam Rockwell as James Reston, an author who'd like nothing more than to take down Nixon, and Matthew Macfayden as John Birt, Frost's friend and producer.  None of the three are huge parts, but the trio makes the most of it.  Platt and Rockwell have some great chemistry in their short scenes together, and Macfayden works well with Sheen.  In Nixon's corner is Kevin Bacon as Jack Brennan, a former marine and current chief of staff for the former president.  It's another smallish part, but a worthwhile one.  And being a Ron Howard movie, there's lots of recognizable faces, including little brother, Clint.  Also keep an eye out for basically everyone from the NASA war-room in Apollo 13.

Once all the background is laid out over the first 45 minutes, most of the rest of the movie is the interviews between Nixon and Frost with a few quick sidetrips here and there.  If these scenes didn't work, the whole movie would sink right with them.  I've never seen the actual Frost/Nixon interviews, but we get bits and pieces here and there of the first few segments.  The kicker is of course, the finale when Frost gets Nixon all wrapped up and basically traps him into admitting what he did was illegal/wrong.  That final Watergate interview is about 20 minutes long and is the best and strongest part of the movie. 

Howard might not be the flashiest director around -- that sounds a lot more negative than I intended it -- but this quasi-documentary movie has style to spare.  From the clothes to the hair to the sets, it feels very 70s.  The choice to interview his cast as the people they play, years after the interviews looking back on what they accomplished, is an interesting choice that ends up panning out for Howard.  His directing style overall is easygoing here, letting his actors show off and allowing the true story to develop at its own speed.  A movie that's well worth a watch.

Frost/Nixon <----trailer (2008): ***/****

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Mail Order Bride

Buddy Ebsen had his fair share of success on television, starring in two huge hits -- The Beverly Hillbillies and Barnaby Jones -- and playing a key role in the mega-successful Davy Crockett episodes on Disneyland, but lost in the shuffle are some interesting movies.  Like his George Russel character in the Crockett episodes, Ebsen often played the sidekick, the right hand man to the gent in charge, and he was great at it.  In 1964's Mail Order Bride, the longtime TV star gets a crack at a leading role and succeeds in a big way.

In this semi-comic, semi-serious western, Ebsen plays a cowboy who drifts along the trail minding his own business.  It's the type of character you wouldn't be surprised to see John Wayne or Robert Mitchum play as they did in any number of westerns.  But why this part fits so well within the movie is because it isn't Wayne or Mitchum.  Huge stars like that would have overshadowed the story and the rest of the characters.  With Ebsen though, he does what he does in a solid leading role but knows when to step back and let the supporting players take center stage.

A young hell-raiser named Lee Clark (Keir Dullea) rides home one day to find an older cowboy by the name of Will Lane (Ebsen) working around the ranch, shoeing horses, fixing fences.  Lee isn't much for work and would rather be drinking, gambling or visiting the girls in the backroom of the saloon.  Lane though has a document from Lee's dead father giving him ownership of the ranch until Lee is old enough to handle the place himself.  Nothing seems to calm Clark so Lane thinks of a way to tame him, get a mail order bride who will help him grow up.  He finds Annie Boley (Lois Nettleton), a young widower, who with her son moves onto Lee's spread.  Young Lee has a plan to push Lane out the door, but a friend of his, another drifting cowboy (Warren Oates) has other plans. 

Director Burt Kennedy turns in one of his better efforts here in this light-hearted and good-natured western that for the most part hits all the right notes.  Almost exclusively a director of westerns, Kennedy had a knack for these smaller stories and goes against the grain with almost no gunplay whatsoever here.  The story is as straightforward as a story can get, and the ending is easily predicted about 30 seconds into the movie.  Okay, maybe a little longer than that.  For the filming locations, California stands in for Montana and looks beautiful.  Clark's little spread is picture perfect, set up in a little mountain valley with plenty of water and trees all around.

As drifter Will Lane, Ebsen has a peaceful way about him that makes the character easily likable from the start.  He's been a cowboy all his life, but we never do find out much about him.  The task in front of him is not an easy one, but Lane wants to keep his word to his old partner no matter how difficult his job may be.  And for once, it's nice to see Ebsen get a starring role instead of being pushed back with the rest of the supporting characters.  His Lane does disappear some in the second half, but the story turns its attention more to Dullea's Lee and Nettleton's Annie.  Ebsen is adept as action or comedy, especially the scene where he's looking for the prospective brides that include an older woman, a prude, and a dance hall girl.  His face sells the comedy nicely.

My only other experience with Dullea is in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but this is clearly a strong part for him.  Lee is far from likable and through 40 minutes or so I found myself wishing Ebsen would just pop him one in the face and ride out.  But Dullea brings the character around as he starts to grow up and realize there is more to life than drinking and gambling.  Working with Nettleton's Annie, the duo has some strong chemistry together as they try to figure the other one out.  Still early in his career in movies and playing bit parts on TV, Oates gets to play the friend turned bad guy who looks out for No. 1 above all else.  The confrontation between him and Dullea at the end is a little disappointing but works in terms of storytelling.

This is a Burt Kennedy western, and he rounds out the cast with several recognizable and always reliable western character actors, including Paul Fix as Sheriff Jess Linley, the beautiful Barbara Luna as Marietta, one of the backroom girls who has a history with Lee, Denver Pyle in a funny scene as the angry preacher marrying Lee and Annie, and William Smith as one of Oates' gunhands.  Nothing really sets this western apart from the pack, but I enjoyed it.  Good-natured story with good characters, just don't expect much in the way of action.

Mail Order Bride (1964): ***/****

Monday, April 12, 2010

Patriot Games

At the time, I'm sure it sounded like a good Alec Baldwin at least.  After starring as Tom Clancy hero Jack Ryan in The Hunt for Red October, Baldwin was all ready to come back for a second go-around in 1992's Patriot Games.  For whatever reason, Baldwin decided to do the play he'd signed up for, and the role went to Han Solo/Indiana Jones himself, Harrison Ford.  Looking back 18 years later, it seems like an easy decision to pick which actor made the right choice.  Ford went on to star in Clear and Present Danger and is still a huge star while Baldwin has really only recently recovered with a bit of a rebirth thanks to 30 Rock and a list of supporting performances in quality movies.

As for Ford in Patriot Games, he's the one that has become synonymous with the part of Jack Ryan.  Yes, I'm remembering Ben Affleck took over the part in Sum of All Fears.  Where Ryan was a key character in 'Red October,' he wasn't the most important part, but with Patriot Games we get more of a look at the character as opposed to the action.  The making of special feature has interviews with several members of the movie, all who bristle to one extent or another when asked if 'PG' is an action movie.   It does have its fair share of action, but a character study with some action thrown in is more applicable.  I love Red October and Present Danger is a near-classic so Patriot Games had its work cut out and lived up to the expectations.

While vacationing in London, former CIA analyst Jack Ryan (Ford) stumbles into an assassination attempt on a member of the Royal family.  In the blink of an eye, he reacts, killing two assassins and capturing a third, Sean Miller (Sean Bean).  The royal family is saved, and Ryan even testifies in court about the attempt and his involvement in stopping the murder.  Ryan and his wife Cathy (Anne Archer) and daughter Sally (Thora Birch) return home thinking everything is behind them. Not so fast, because Miller escapes during transit and rejoins the fanatical members of this IRA splinter group.  Headed by Kevin O'Connell (Patrick Bergin), the group still has their sites set on the Royal family, and for Miller especially, he wants revenge on Ryan because one of the men he killed was Sean's younger brother.  But after an attempt is made on his family's lives, Ryan goes on the offensive.

With two of the most successful franchises under his belt -- Star Wars and Indiana Jones -- Ford was about as bankable a star as existed in 1992.  Sometimes I think he's judged more as a star than an actor, but the man can act plain and simple.  Playing a character like Jack Ryan, he gets a chance to show off those chops in a story that doesn't rely on fantasy settings and 1930s-esque cliffhangers.  Ford's Ryan is a family man always looking out for his wife and daugther who teaches classes at the Naval Academy in Annapolis who's left his CIA past (as a desk jockey) behind him.  His confrontation with IRA rep Richard Harris is so sublimely perfect (watch it HERE) in showing though that he is not a man to be trifled with.  Ford handles the action nicely -- doing most of his own stunts -- but balances it out with some very emotional scenes with his family.  Archer and Birch round out the family, and the trio have a definite chemistry together that would continue into Clear and Present Danger.

British actor Sean Bean is at his best when he's playing a villain, and this is him at his absolute best.  He's beyond creepy in his devotion to the cause and seeking revenge for his brother's death (which he had a hand in causing but blames others, go figure).  His Miller drifts in and out of the story, and whether intentional or not, it works well because he's a presence lurking and waiting to attack.  Bergin and Polly Walker are the more even-keeled but still deadly members of the splinter group.  The rest of the cast isn't given a ton to do, but the names alone make this appealing.   Harris makes the most of a small part as does Samuel L. Jackson, James Earl Jones, and  James Fox. Would it have been nice to see more of these great actors?  Sure, but the focus of the story is Ryan vs. Miller and other backstories would have been unnecessary in this really tight, wel-told story.

Patriot Games does have some great action, including a tension-filled chase through Annapolis and on a nearby freeway, that is highlighted by the end as the IRA splinter group descends on a darkened Ryan household after the power's been pulled.  This isn't enough though with the action really ramping up after they leave the house.  Great ending with a fitting end for several characters.  The coolest part though puts a new spin on the action scene.  Ryan and some fellow CIA associates watch an SAS attack on a terrorist camp in North Africa via satellite imagery.  So instead of hearing the gunshots and seeing explosions, we see these eerie colors and shapes being thrown around, one analyst matter of factly stating 'That's a kill.'  It's an incredible sequence and surprisingly moving as Ryan sees the affect his investigation has had.  He was always looking to protect his family, but seeing it via satellite thousands of miles away, it's a haunting experience.

Coming from a Tom Clancy novel, you know you're getting a high quality, very professional movie.  Director Phillip Noyce films on location in London with some dreary looking English locations adding some mood, and then films in Annapolis itself which always translates well to the screen.  It's a beautiful campus, and it would be hard to mess up those locations.  Composer James Horner's score is not his strongest, but the soundtrack is at its best in its Irish themes.  I didn't love the movie, but I did really enjoy it.  Not quite as good as Red October but right on par with Clear and Present Danger, and that's not a bad thing.

Patriot Games <----trailer (1992): ***/****

Sunday, April 11, 2010


Buying DVDs, I usually have a limit I'll spend on a movie.  Those $40 8-disc special editions with 139 hours of special features seems pointless unless I really love the movie.  The same goes for cheaper movies.  Sure, it costs $7.99, but do I really like the movie enough to want to buy it?  Typically, that's a no.  On the other hand, what if it was so super-cheap that I didn't care if I would love or hate the movie?  That was the case with 1968's Commandos which I purchased for the low sum of 50 cents with about 10 more added for tax.

It was lying there in a bargain bin and even knowing that the condition of the movie would probably be horrible, I bought it.  Being a Lee Van Cleef fan, I've been aware of the movie for years, but it was never on TV, and I could never find a decent DVD copy.  For the low price of 50 cents though, I'll put up with the low quality.  And don't be confused, it's that cheap for a reason.  It's one of many public domain movies, meaning anyone and everyone can sell it.  The problem is that these versions are usually edited/cropped/pan-n-scan versions and overall, just pretty crappy.  I rolled the dice here, and though the quality was well below average, I still enjoyed the movie.

It's late in 1942, and Sgt. Sullivan (Van Cleef) is training a group of Italian-American soldiers as commandos for behind-the-lines type missions.  After a month-plus of training though, a new commander, Captain Valli (Jack Kelly), arrives with orders for a dangerous mission behind the lines in North Africa. Valli has put together every aspect of a mission where Sullivan's commandos will parachute into the desert, hike several miles, and take over an oasis guarded by German forces until Allied forces can reach the all-important wells.  The plan seems well thought out, but Sullivan buckles at the thought of being commanded by a desk jockey with no combat experience like Valli.  The mission is dangerous enough, but can the two men work together well enough to get it done?

Compared to some of the cheapie DVDs I've bought, this one wasn't that bad.  I could hear just about everything, and the colors were only slightly washed out.  There did seem to be some odd cuts in the middle of a scene, but the runtime -- 97 minutes -- came in longer than the one posted at the IMDB.  As with any widescreen movie, something is obviously lost in the transfer from widescreen to fullscreen.  I found a clip at Youtube with the widescreen presentation, and the difference is light years away.  I liked the movie in its crappy form so seeing it as it was originally intended sounds like a no-brainer to me.

While spaghetti westerns were more well known in the late 1960s and early 1970s, 'spaghetti' war movies had quite a run too.  They had similar styles and tones of spaghetti westerns, and other than the WWII setting, they're basically the same.  Great anti-heroes, supremely evil villains, and lots and lots of action.  Certain portions drag in the middle, but two well-put together action scenes bookend the movie.  The first takes place at night as the commandos take over the oasis, and the second is the finale as a German panzer unit tries to retake the wells.  For a low-budget film, no costs were spared in the action sequences.  It's a chaotic, bloody, and surprising ending that works surprisingly well to point out the lunacy of war.  It could have been sappy or overdone but ends up working pretty well.  Of course, it's not exactly a real happy conclusion, but what war movie has an uplifting ending?

Starring at the height of his popularity in Europe, Van Cleef is not at his strongest here, resorting too much to either yelling like a nut or freaking out like a nut.  His Sullivan is a combat veteran trying to put some demons behind him -- and failing across the board -- but instead of getting to know the character, he just snaps and screams at different people.  Still, it's Lee Van Cleef, and he's a there, I don't need another reason to recommend the movie.  Kelly's Valli could have been the more likable of the two, but he keeps you at arm's length.  What drives him, or is it just an intense desire to prove he can handle combat?  Other solid supporting parts include Joachim Fuchsberger as a German officer who was a professor back home, Marino Mase as Lt. Tommasini, an Italian officer looking out for his men, and Romano Puppo as Dino, a close friend of Sullivan's who survived Bataan with the sergeant.

There have been worse and there have been better, but for the price I paid, I felt like I got a square deal.  Of course, .50 DVDs probably aren't a safe bet most of the time, and the more I think about it, the luckier I was.  There's just enough here to recommend if you can find a cheapie DVD.  For me, I liked it enough to look for a better copy in the future.  There isn't much available online, but I did find an Italian trailer.  I couldn't understand it, but it will give you a good idea of video-quality.

Commandos <---trailer (1968): ** 1/2 /****

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Tension at Table Rock

In a career that spanned over 30 years, Richard Egan was in over 60 movies and made guest appearances on several TV shows.  But like so many Hollywood actors/actresses from the time, he's been mostly forgotten in the years since his death in 1987.  Some of it surely has to do with his films -- not one is a true classic -- but that doesn't mean he was in good movies.  Where some stars reach the heights of the profession, Egan became more known for his work in B-movies.  I'll never consider him a great actor, but even in his lesser roles, he had presence to spare.

A good example of his abilities is on display in the 1956 western Tension at Table Rock.  Egan plays the main character -- a gunfighter running from his past -- in a story that uses just about every western cliche available and still manages to be halfway decent.  Egan has one emotion in this movie, if you can call it an emotion, and it's monotone.  His voice never goes up or down whether he's angry, wooing a lady, or just having a conversation.  His face seems to be stuck in the one position for the whole 93 minutes, and through it all still makes it an interesting character.

Wes Tancred (Egan) is dealing with his name becoming legendary -- and not in a good way -- after he shot his best friend and partner, a fellow gunslinger, who was turning on him.  The legend builds that Wes gunned him down in the back, and soon enough, a ballad pops up describing the killing.  Wes is pardoned by the governor and moves further west under a new name. He takes a job at a stagecoach station but is forced to move on after a robbery with the loner survivor of the attempt, young Jody (Billy Chapin) in tow.  Jody has an uncle living in the nearby town of Table Rock who happens to be the sheriff, Fred Miller (Cameron Mitchell).  Some well-hidden sparks start to fly between Wes (alias 'Bailey') and Miller's wife Lorna (Dorothy Malone), but that's the least of the problems.  Fred is still recovering from a brutal attack and with a cattle drive coming his way, he will have to stick up for the town against the rowdy cowboys, with or without Wes's help.

The story does take its time setting everything up, and it's over 45 minutes in before the cattle drive and its boss (John Dehner) is even introduced.  The different storylines bounce every which way with just about every possibility imaginable taken into account in one way or another.  'Table Rock' borrows liberally from other 1950s westerns but still manages to put its own spin on things.  All the important elements of a good western are there; honesty, loyalty, doing what's right no matter the cost, and being true to yourself.  Still, it's hard not to shake the idea that the plot was never really settled on.  Everything wraps up nicely though in the end with the heroic Egan moving on to another town rather than cause a disruption where he is.

The western drifter/gunfighter has been done to death although on a positive note this was well before Sergio Leone got his hand on the genre and infused a bit of cynicism into the western.  Egan's Wes is a flawed man who's made out to be something he's not.  Sure, he's good with a gun, but he's not a cold-blooded killer.  1950s westerns love flawed characters like these because they're not bad guys, but they're not white hatted good guys either.  These sort of anti-heroes usually end up making some sort of personal sacrifice -- not usually involving their own death, it is the 1950s -- so that a family or a town can move on from their pasts.

Joining Egan is a strong supporting cast, especially Mitchell as Sheriff Fred Miller.  He's still recovering from a horrific beating that almost killed him and is thrown right into the fire to protect his town from the incoming rowdy cowpokes.  Mitchell makes Miller a character who wavers over what to do but ends up figuring out what's right and what's wrong, consequences be damned.  Malone is good as Miller's wife Lorna who can't help but be attracted to the steely-eyed, mysterious gunfighter.  Dehner is wasted as a quasi-villain with Royal Dano having some fun with his part as the crotchety old newspaper man.  Only in one scene, DeForest Kelly (pre Star Trek) makes a strong impression as Jim Breck, a hired gun with a unique mission.

Nothing really remarkable about this B-western, but as several IMDB reviewers point out, doing a well-worn formula picture well has to count for something.  At Youtube, several clips have been posted focusing on child star Billy Chapin's performance for those curious and looking for more about the movie.  Also look for a young Angie Dickinson in a small part, playing against the image she would become known for when she became a star.  Innocent enough western that is a pleasant enough way to spend 90 minutes.

Tension at Table Rock <----trailer (1956): ** 1/2 /****