The Good The Burt and the Gary

So, it was a Robert Aldrich double feature, in fact. I wanted to re-see VERA CRUZ, having always enjoyed it and having recently acquired a second-hand copy on DVD. Fiona’s not big on westerns, generally needs them to have a female element. This is disorienting to me since my mum loves westerns, so I grew up thinking, Yeah, westerns, women’s pictures, right. Not right, apparently!

My mum’s view of it does make sense. Westerns are full of things women often like to see. Scenery, animals, men, activity, travel, justice. By getting the female characters well out of the way on the sidelines, it makes it easier to ogle John Wayne or Richard Widmark (her favourite). But this logic doesn’t seem to hold up for a lot of female viewers.

So, the presence of Denise Darcel was my means of persuading Fiona to try this (plus, she was well up for an Aldrich double). Darcel (“Why was she always in westerns?” asked Fiona, thinking of WESTWARD THE WOMEN, which she loved) was a French actor burlesque dancer and starlet with a husky frame and stereotypically Gallic delivery. Here she plays a pure noir character, a scheming betrayer. She doesn’t win in the end, but she gets away with it.

Almost as gratifying from the female interest perspective was the presence of Sara Montiel, previously enjoyted in SERENADE. Mainly she brings astonishing beauty and glamour to a role that sees her doing a lot of double-crossing too, but on the side of good.

But of course the men do most of the hard riding. Great support work from Cesar Romero, George MacReady (the Emperor Maximilian!), early supporting villainy from Jack Elam, Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson (still going by Buchinsky at this point). Gary Cooper in the lead, hiring himself out to the wrong side, an early indication of the moral complexity/confusion engulfing the western hero, and Burt Lancaster turning a bad guy role into a star turn. You could imagine an earlier film where his grinning brute turns round and shows a heart of gold — he could do a Captain Renault. But not here. His heart is merely set on gold. This is a proto-Leone hero. When the villain is allowed to get more charismatic and interesting than the villain, a big reversal may be imminent.

Sergio Leone (no women’s director, he) would act as AD for Aldrich on SODOM AND GOMORRAH, and so he must have seen this. Besides, I think he saw every western there was to see. The quest for concealed gold, though far from unique to this film, seems to inform THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY. Burt starts to say “Why you dirty son of a b–” and is cut short by a blast of music (diegetic in this case), as Eli Wallach would be at the end of that film. The Mexican setting suggests DUCK, YOU SUCKER, as does the presence of a stiff-necked Prussian officer.

There’s also a “shoot when the music stops” scene directly informing the musical watch duels of FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE…

Best of all is the bit I remembered most clearly — Burt and Gary and Cesar and almost everyone else find themselves outgunned by juaristas, who have crept up silently in Red Indian manner and in vast numbers, surrounding them. As the camera circles Burt, we see them rising slowly from every rooftop, their appearance timed precisely to sync with the camera movement itself.

We get a good chunk of the shot at the start of the trailer.

Leone picks this shot up and carries it forward in time to ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, but here, as the camera orbits Frank Wolff, the movement reveals — nothing. Only the eerily silent prairie, a space from which enemies WILL come, but are as yet invisible. The shot has been transformed from a very flamboyant but typically American conception — a movement displaying the actions of characters — to a European (specifically Italian) one — exploring space, both geographical and psychological, motivated by something purely internal…

Shot starts at 5.39 in this clip.

16 Responses to “The Good The Burt and the Gary”

  1. Gary Hyland Says:

    Just recovered another Aldrich picture myself: The Flight of the Phoenix; in case you’re interested:

    I should dig-out Vera Cruz: sounds fun!

    Mister Gee

  2. L LOVE Flight of the Phoenix. I identify so closely with Hardy Kruger!

  3. Jonathan Says:

    Burt Lancaster’s teeth sure could act! I’ve always liked Vera Cruz, and have also thought of it as a precursor of the new wave of complicated Westerns which in 1954 was still largely on the horizon.

  4. Gary Hyland Says:

    Yeah, it’s a good-un. Nice to see Herr Kruger wearing something other than an SS uniform! He carries off a hand-towel head-dress with Ă©lan, I must say…

  5. There’s a great moment in Godard’s “A Woman is a Woman” where Belmondo enthuses about seeing “Vera Cruz” and does a perfect Burt Lancaster toothy smile — just like the one at the top of today’s entry.

  6. Leone borrowed a lot of motifs from ’50s Westerns. Like the famous “beeg-eyes” close-ups was invented by Samuel Fuller in 40 Guns. The notion of a villain being more charismatic than the hero is also there in Delmer Daves’ 3:10 to Yuma which is entirely about that. Aldrich is a film-maker I am perennially trying to get more into. I love Kiss Me Deadly and Autumn Leaves (one of the best Joan Crawford movies) but there’s a lot to look at. Vera Cruz feels like something I could get into, since I like Lancaster and I like Gary Cooper, and Aldrich, and Sarita Montiel (who was for a time Mrs. Anthony Mann).

    Leone also never really dealt with politics. I mean Good Bad and Ugly’s main idea is that both sides of the American Civil War are indistinguishable, and of course Lee Van Cleef “The Bad” is a commander of a Union camp torturing Tuco and it’s implied other confederates, when in fact that was something the Confederates did far more often (and in one camp called Andersonville of which Frankenheimer I believe made a film). Compare that to Run of the Arrow by Fuller which is very satirical and critical of Southern sore-loser mentality, unusually so for a film made then.

  7. Leone positions himself as being against politics (“Keep your head down”) and if you scratch that position you usually find a conservative.

    I guess he may have made the prison camp Union, in defiance of history, because he wanted that excellent gag where dusty Union officers are mistaken for Confederates in grey.

    But the sexual politics are always caveman-style, and anybody espousing a cause is either a sucker or a fraud…

    Aldrick is a good bit more interesting in terms of ideas, though not as supreme a stylist. I’d recommend Ulzana’s Raid, written by Scotsman Alan Sharp, definitely Flight of the Phoenix, and every time I catch a bit of The Dirty Dozen on TV, I think, This is jolly entertaining, I must sit down and watch it properly.

    Apart from the Godard/Belmondo tribute, Alex de la Iglesia has Javier Bardem sing th praises of Vera Cruz in Perdita Durango, celebrating Burt’s “grin, revealing FIVE HUNDRED TEETH.”

  8. Claudia Cardinale is way too good for her part in OUTIW but she is still the best female character in Leone’s films, and of course OUTIA for all its many virtues as a period reconstruction and production and in terms of its narrative frissons between multiple timelines, is…well I wouldn’t say neanderthal but a level below, Homo Erectus (pun intended), it’s a movie that normalises rape into romance, and as Glenn Kenny and Farran Smith-Nehme recently noted, the use of lush Morricone music before and after Noodles’ rape continues that normalisation.

    Even Peckinpah’s sexual politics isn’t as bad as Leone’s are and he’s also a director with a reputation for being a caveman. I would never call Bloody Sam a feminist but you know Straw Dogs is a far more honest and compelling treatment of sexual violence than Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (which came in the same year). Kubrick was an admirer of Leone’s, and he actually does share some of the same flaws, like there aren’t many prominent female characters in his films (with the exception of Lolita).

    Of course there’s the exception of Tarantino, who is an admirer and devotee of Leone, and for all his many flaws as a film-maker, both within his films and externally with regards to Weinstein and that Uma Thurman accident…his movies do have a lot of good roles for women, and there’s not a lot of sexualization, or for that matter sex. Reservoir Dogs is the most Leone-like of his films, it’s all guys and it’s all stares, whereas the films after that are more diffuse. Recently, Tarantino has admitted an affinity for Joseph L. Mankiewicz so that may be where he gets it.

  9. Tarantino was raised by women, but I’m not convinced he had girlfriends before Resevoir Dogs, after which he made up for lost time and suddenly his films are full of women. Violence almost totally replaces sex in his films, so they’re sexual in their violence…

    Peckinpah was probably much worse than Leone in his personal life (Leone was happily married with kids), but at least seems to be sort of working through his misogyny and paranoia in his work. It’s not generally cartoony, as Leone tends to be.

  10. chris schneider Says:

    I was always convinced that it was Bertolucci — him, and the lingering traces of JOHNNY GUITAR — that brought the female focus into ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST.

    I think there’s a quote, somewhere or other, where Abram Polanski describes Aldrich’s politics as leftist — yes, Stalin-ite.

    I always resented Westerns because they seemed to be what a young male like moi was sposed to like. Frankly, I felt more empathy for Godzilla.

  11. Bertolucci as a film-maker doesn’t quite give good roles to women either and his movies tend to focus a lot more on men. This is leaving aside Last Tango in Paris and that ridiculous stunt he pulled with Maria Schneider of course. Adriana Asti in Primo della Rivoluzione is quite good (she and Bertolucci were in a relationship at the time which might or might not explain this) as is Dominque Sanda in The Conformist. NOVECENTO is in terms of gender politics his most balanced work but even then the central relationship is between DeNiro and Depardieu. Stefania Sandrelli has a character entirely the reverse of her role in The Conformist. Sandrelli appeared in three of Bertolucci’s films but that regularity of collaboration didn’t lead to any central part for her. It’s weird that Rossellini, Visconti, Antonioni, and Fellini who were older than Bertolucci were more progressive on that front. It’s only later that Bertolucci became interested in female protagonists, like Sheltering Sky which has a great performance by Debra Winger regardless of its other flaws. And while that’s a good sign that he’s trying to change, I wonder if the flaws in those later works are because of his limitations in stepping out of that.

    As for Claudia Cardinale in OUTIW, she apparently didn’t like working with Leone much and apparently Leone hired her as a name actress for the film as a condition to make it. Leone didn’t really want to make that film, he wanted to do OUTIA but the producers insisted he make another spaghetti western.

  12. I was fairly indifferent to westerns as a kid. When two men got in a fistfight I immediately forgot which was which, and had to remind myself via their shirt colours/patterns.

    It was a season of spaghetti westerns that awoke me to the joys of the west, purely because those films were FUNNY. The Trinity films made me laugh as a kid, the Leone ones still do.

    Yeas, Bertolucci probably pushed the Cardinale character, imperfect as she is, with Argento and Leone on hand to screw things up further… She’s not really a great step forward. Maybe if the movie had had a couple more women… once you’ve got a madonna and a whore, you need to invent somebody more original to keep from repeating yourself.

    But then, in OUATIAmerica, things get ugly. Lots of whores, and one dream-girl who occasionally threatens to become dimensional but her inner life is way beyond the film’s conception.

  13. Cardinale is very nice about Leone in Alex Cox’s documentary. But she’s unevenly dubbed, poorly made-up and styled in that film, with those goddamn ringlets messing up the whole shape of her face.

  14. Lancaster’s face in the picture at the top looks almost identical to one of Leone’s spaghetti western rogues.

  15. Vera Cruz is a mightily enjoyable film, Romero’s performance and Ernest Laszlo’s cinematography being the highlights for me. I think I read somewhere that Lancaster later disparaged his own performance as too hammy next to the low-key Cooper, but I thought it was fine. Lancaster and his teeth are far hammier in Elmer Gantry, one of the worst Oscar-winning turns I’ve seen.

    Re. Leone’s politics, Duck, You Sucker!/A Fistful of Dynamite is very enthusiastic about revolution, with both James Coburn and Romolo Valli finding redemption in martyring themselves for the cause. But of course the Mexican revolution isn’t subjected to minute political analysis; it’s just the attitude of rebelliousness that counts. That film, entertaining as it is, is also distastefully bloodthirsty in massacring its enemy soldiers, and has a horrible scene in which Rod Steiger’s bandit rapes a well-dressed woman, an act legitimized as a form of class vengeance.

  16. Agree with all of that, except I’d argue that R Valli’s suicide is more about guilt (he has the opportunity to save himself and carry on the fight), as is Coburn’s, in a way. Neither death accomplishes anything.

    As a kid, I didn’t understand the rape scene, then I saw the uncut version, which is even horribler.

    The BBC’s trimmed version made a number of unfortunate cuts, including the Mao (mis)quote at the start, but the reduction of that nastiness was an improvement. It also ended with a line of VO from Steiger’s character, “What about me?” which I always liked.

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