Archive for Howard Hawks

Cox’s Orange Pippins: The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name, Except with Bullets

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 17, 2022 by dcairns

I knew I’d be looking at a tortilla western or Zapata western in this series — maybe more than one. The Italians visited the Mexican Revolution a fair bit, either because their Spanish locations and swarthy extras made it a natural fit, or because, unlike Hollywood filmmakers, many of the writers and directors could get behind a leftwing revolution con mucho gusto.

Having enjoyed some Damiano Damiani in the past — THE WITCH/LA STREGA IN AMORE (1966) is fascinating, GIROLOMANI, IL MONSTRO DI ROMA (1971) is fascinating but maybe doesn’t quite come off, I was excited to see what he could do with the genre. Spaghetti westerns are frequently unbeautiful, even the best ones frequently partaking of that orange pancake makeup approach that gives this series its title; but the Damiani movies I’ve seen are lustrous.

A BULLET FOR THE GENERAL aka QUIEN SABE? hits the ground running — Lou Castel as the smart, dangerous Americano is cool and ambiguous. We meet him buying a train ticket. “Do you like Mexico?” asks a cute little boy. “No,” he smirks, “Not very much.” With his long, angular head, like a child’s coffin, he’s a unique presence.

The train is soon held up by bandit-revolutionaries — the line here is less blurred than eradicated. They are led by Gian Maria Volonte, backed up by Klaus Kinski as his half-brother (?), a fanatical, grenade-throwing priest, and pistol-packin’ Martine Beswick. The latter two sporting faces you don’t expect to find under a sombrero. Alex Cox, an enthusiast for the genre, does bemoan the fact that there’s only one instance on record of a Mexican being cast as a Mexican (Gilbert Roland — and with him you get a less stereotypical performance, I bet).

Written by Franco Solinas and Salvatore Laurani, the film rapidly arrives at a compelling situation: the train, carrying troops and weapons, is stopped by an officer tied to the tracks. Anyone who gets out of the train to rescue him is picked off by snipers on the hills bordering the track. The soldiers in the train are picked off too. The alternative is to advance and run over the officer, something the officer in charge of the train isn’t willing to do.

During all this, Volonte’s excitable, childish Anthony Quinn act is really hateful. His boyish enthusiasm is meant to be likeable, possibly. Yet we’re involved in the soldiers’ horrible dilemma, so this jovial madman, who sees it all as a big joke, is unbearable. But it’s something the movie overcomes. By pairing him with Castel’s cool dude, who dresses like an American gangster, we get something theoretically comparable to Eastwood and Wallach in THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY. What transforms it is politics — Volonte is at least somewhat motivated by sincere revolutionary fervour, while Castel has an entirely hidden agenda of his own — and sex. This becomes uncomfortably obvious to both men when Volonte’s El Chuncho kills a friend who has attacked Castel’s Bill “El Nino” Tate. He can’t explain why he’s done it. He’s not very bright or very articulate. But he seems to sense it. And so does Tate.

Fortunately, there are lots of violent missions to carry out — both their overt ones, and Tate’s private one, which brings things to a head. It’s all really interesting. Cox identifies it as the first western with a gay subtext that’s inescapable. I think RED RIVER might beat it out there, but the Volonte-Castel love story is more central here. (The Monty Clift-John Ireland love story might have been more prominent in RED RIVER if Howard Hawks, who was responsible for it, hadn’t drastically cut down Ireland’s role, peeved that Ireland had taken up with a female co-star he’d had his eye on).

Music is by Luis Bacalov, a good choice if you can’t get Morricone or Ortolani. Alex Cox is particularly keen on the film’s art direction — I think you never really believe an Italian western is happening where it says it is — even the undeniable presence of Monument Valley in ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST feels like a trick — which it kind of is, since we’re in Spain the rest of the time — but this is a pretty convincing Mexican revolution.

Cox gets very irate about the opening VO, which didn’t bother me at all. Unnecessary, perhaps, but these things can have an atmospheric value, giving a spurious documentary sheen to fictionalized settings and action.

The film’s two titles are both good — A BULLET FOR THE GENERAL is quite literally what Castel is carrying. It’s a golden bullet, as in DJANGO KILL. A favoured image (see also RINGO AND HIS GOLDEN PISTOL) which literally combines the two obsessions of the genre, money and violence. Alex Cox has pointed out that the spaghetti western hero from Leone on is not too interested in sex or love or justice, and money is secondary, but killing is ALL-IMPORTANT. QUIEN SABE? (WHO KNOWS?) is a key line of dialogue that really resonates in the film, and seems to stand in for everything poor dumb El Chuncho can’t verbalize.

Volonte’s appearance in the film made this one of the few Klaus Kinski pictures where Kinski wasn’t the director’s biggest problem (Kinski was TWICE in movies where people plotted to assassinate him, he was such a pain). Volonte, objecting to his costume, showed up on set naked. Damiani got angry with him and shoved him off his horse. I’m not sure if this was all the same incident or two different occasions.

But Volonte is really good, and Castel, more subdued, is a great acting partner for him. The movie has some of the best acting I’ve seen in a spaghetti. (The leads in the Leone films are always iconic, and James Coburn reacting to the firing squad in the rain at night in the uneven DUCK YOU SUCKER gives the greatest reaction shots of his career.)

Kinski is very fine also, though with him it can feel as much a triumph of physiognomy as acting. But at a certain point, the two are inseparable. Beswick has less to do, and her best scene is hampered by her worst facial expressions, but it IS an interesting scene. Some of the bandits want to rape a rich woman they’ve captured. Beswick’s “Adelita” is all for this. She was raped at 15, so why should this woman be spared. It’s a depressing but believable sentiment. Compare it to DUCK, YOU SUCKER! where Leone seems to consider rape as an amusing form of class revenge. Here, the unacceptable views are at least coming from a character, not (seemingly) from the filmmaker.

Big spoilers now — Volonte’s El Chuncho has a serious case of star worship about his General. Ushered into the man’s presence, he is promptly sentenced to death for abandoning a village he’d earlier liberated. Heartbreaking interrogation where Chuncho, an honest man, is talked into proposing his own execution. Here, Volonte starts to be absolutely incredible. Your heart breaks for the murderous bastard.

Kinski volunteers for the job of his brother’s executioner (he would), but is killed by Tate/Castel, who is fulfilling his true mission, to get close to the General and assassinate him.

El Chuncho now follows Tate back to his spymasters, planning to murder him, but then learns that he’s rich — Tate has set aside half his huge fee for him. He takes the bandit to get a makeover and to get laid. El Chuncho goes along like a man in a dream. He had intended to avenge the general, but suddenly he has everything he could ever want, including Tate’s friendship.

It flashed on me suddenly what this reminded me of: the section in Tess of the D’Urbervilles where she becomes the lover of her rapist, because she can’t process what he did to her. Volonte plays everything with exactly the right sense of concussed daze. In his new city clothes, he’s like a strange shaggy child.

And then he wakes up. Tate can’t understand why El Chuncho suddenly wants to kill him. Neither can El Chuncho. Who knows? But, the deed done, El Chuncho recovers his revolutionary fervour, so it’s a happy ending. But you have questions, which is good.

A proper movie! It transcends its genre while still providing the pleasures associated with its genre. And while DD’s closeups don’t have the iconic/comicbook impact of Leone’s and his epic sweep isn’t as epic or sweeping, his less explosive style allows for more depth.

A BULLET FOR THE GENERAL stars Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano; Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald; Sister Hyde; Cesare Borgia; Man Friday; and Dr. Choma Kruvajan.

The Sunday Intertitle: The Idiot Stick

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on March 27, 2022 by dcairns

Afternoon, everybody.

Before Charlie meets the blind flower girl in CITY LIGHTS he was at one point going to spend five solid minutes struggling with a stick stuck in a grating outside a department store.

An entire sequence without a single intertitle, pure pantomime, and with no discernible connection otherwise to the film’s plot. Since the statue unveiling sequence is also non-plot-related, this would, I think, have delayed the start of the film’s real story by a dangerous amount, so cutting it was the right decision.

Still, I think it’s a great sequence — depending on the company you watch it with, it’s either progressively more hilarious or more frustrating. If you’re into it, the frustration is part of the hilarity.

Great supporting performances. I remember being astonished at who was playing the idiot messenger boy, then forgetting, then finding out again and being astonished all over again. It’s Charles Lederer, future screenwriter for Howard Hawks among others — he was Marion Davies’ favourite nephew, and Chaplin may have met him at San Simeon, where he was a regular guest, or through Marion, with whom he seems to have been intimate, or maybe through socialite-AD Harry Crocker.

Crocker himself plays the window dresser who gets so infuriated with Charlie, and he’s excellent. Though short, and ultimately deleted, it’s a much more challenging role than Rex, the King of the Air in THE CIRCUS. Long takes, lots of business and expressive pantomime. The actors have to sustain it and communicate it without the aid of title cards or cutaways.

The scene depends for its effect on a hierarchy of stupidity. The mouth-breathing Lederer, barely conscious or alive, is at the lowest end of the idiot spectrum, regarded with horror by Charlie. In an earlier film, at Keystone or Essanay, Charlie might have bullied the dolt, but here the only cruelty is in the simple observation. It’s still a bit cruel. We can call him an idiot, maybe, because he’s just a comic type, not a specific syndrome, though David Robinson goes further and calls him “a haunting figure whose malevolent, wooden-faced idiocy gives him the look of a distant and mentally-retarded cousin of Buster Keaton,” a beautiful turn of phrase except for the slur (if you look up the origins of the phrase “mental retardation” you discover it’s actually racist).

Charlie himself is in the middle phase of the idiot scale — his obsession with pushing the stick through the grating, even though he’s just passing the time, is one symptom, his inability to understand that pushing one side or the other results in an identical effect, and only pushing the centre can be expected to work, is the other plank upon which his dumbness rests.

But Crocker’s shop man is the third kind of idiot. Like Oliver Hardy, he’s just intelligent enough to think he’s smart, but not smart enough to realise he’s an idiot. He gets obsessed with Charlie’s stick problem, and excited and infuriated about it. Charlie at least is smart enough to know it doesn’t matter one way or another. He’s never agitated about his dumb stick. Although he does get possessive of it when the message boy shows an interest.

Charlie’s incomprehension of Crocker is a subtle joke in its own right: the gag being that Charlie is completely unable to understand a clear and explicit pantomime.

The fourth form of idiocy, I guess, is that of the street gawkers who stop to watch Charlie. They don’t even have any ideas to suggest. Their passivity may tell us something about Chaplin’s attitude to his audience, or that may be a reach. But once again, as in THE CIRCUS, Charlie finds himself an unintentional entertainer.

Chaplin was very pleased with this sequence — “a whole story in itself” — but it had to go, precisely BECAUSE it was so self-contained, so it was left to Kevin Brownlow to issue it as part of Unknown Chaplin, thirty years after it was shot, by which time Chaplin, Lederer, Crocker and probably everyone else in the crowd and behind the camera, were gone.

Forget it, Jack, it’s Chinatown

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 10, 2021 by dcairns

Kurt Russell IS Jack Burton AS John Wayne in BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA. Long before Johnny Depp hit on the idea if being a leading man character actor and incorporating elements of impersonation — Roddy McDowall & Angela Lansbury for SLEEPY HOLLOW, Mick & Keith & Bowie for PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN — Kurt Russell, having played Elvis for John Carpenter, decided to do Clint in ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK and the Duke in BIG TROUBLE.

Unpopular opinion: this is one of those odd films you’re grateful for the existence of, without it being terribly great. I think THE ADVENTURES OF BUCKAROO BANZAI, directed by W.D. Richter who is one of the writers on BTILC here, is a better film. They both have a quality which seems ill-judged and out of control, but arguably isn’t — a breakneck forward thrust with snatches of incoherent exposition hurled out in all directions along the way and far too many factions attacking from a similar plenitude of directions. Arguably BTILC has a better gimmick in a hero who hasn’t a clue what’s going on, so gets to act as audience surrogate and ask useful questions. Whereas Peter Weller’s Buckaroo is too far ahead of us to be really relatable, so that cowboy brain surgeon New Jersey (Jeff Goldblum) almost takes over.

There are three credited writers, two on screenplay and Richter, oddly, as “adaptation” — what, one wonders, was the screenplay adapted INTO? Surely if it’s another screenplay, the word would be “rewrite”. One of the original writers, Gary Goldman, co-wrote TOTAL RECALL, which has VERY complicated script credits, and the other, David Z. Weinstein, has no other script credits, though his industry involvement in other roles, AD and script editor, suggests he’s probably written a ton of unmade scripts. And the whole thing feels a bit like too many cooks — too many monsters, too many henchmen, too many tongs, too many green-eyed girls, too many chums — an attempt to graft a Hawksian hang-out movie, probably Carpenter’s notion, onto a martial arts mystical action comedy.

Nobody seems able to do what Hawks did, which looked effortless when it worked, and aimless when it didn’t. Romero’s LAND OF THE DEAD occasionally gets close but has to depend on outright plagiarism from the script of TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT. But this one has charm, aided by the right actors — Dennis Dun is delightful, Kim Cattrall’s Nancy Drew routine is cute, Victor Wong lovely as always and James Hong a terrific baddie — a charm Carpenter hasn’t often infused his work with, though sometimes it looks as if he intended to.