Archive for The Good the Bad and the Ugly

The Good The Burt and the Gary

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 18, 2018 by dcairns

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.

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Dusters

Posted in FILM with tags , on January 8, 2016 by dcairns

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Having whimsically decided at the last moment to shoot my new film in Cinemascope ratio, I thought I’d improve my chances by looking at THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY of an evening. Well, I’m not sure I learned anything, I was too busy being amazed and entertained, but I did appreciate the fantastic Civil War gag of the soldiers in grey who turn out to be soldiers in blue who have gotten dusty from riding.

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But what amazed me anew as I had forgotten it was how the sound of the officer beating his sleeve to dispel the dust segues into the sound of feet marching on the spot in the following scene. Both sounds are absolutely central to the action they depict and both actions are interconnected by narrative imperatives. This is miraculous stuff. Anybody can dream up a sound match — earlier in the film, a slain man drops to the ground and as his knuckles hit the dust, we cut to a donkey-driven mill-wheel which makes a series of clunks picking up the same sound and turning it into a backbeat. It’s good, but it’s not tremendously clever. The sleeve/marching transition is tremendously tremendously clever, as not only do the shots make matching sounds (cf David Lean and his wineglass/streetcar bell transition in DOCTOR ZHIVAGO), but each of them delivers a closely linked story beat. (1) You have fallen into enemy hands and (2) thus you are our prisoners-of-war.

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Hats off to Maestro Leone!

Pull up a chair

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 21, 2011 by dcairns

The bit in HIGH NOON that always impresses me the most is outlaw Frank Miller’s empty chair.

Of course, the real-time approach to story is fascinating and very novel, and leads directly to the omnipresent clock shots, each more ominous than the last. Dimitri Tiomkin’s ballad started a (somewhat regrettable) trend, but still sounds fresh, with its unusual frog-burp rhythm. The cinematography, pasting bleached-out skies behind flat-lit action, influenced by Mathew Brady’s period photos, violated the traditional Hollywood aesthetic and opened up new possibilities. Cooper’s age works to the film’s advantage, Lon Chaney Jnr gets one of his rare decent roles, Grace Kelly is radiant in her second role (a disciple of Flaherty, Zinnemann realized he could use her inexperience to illuminate the character).

But I’m obsessed with that chair.

First time out, the chair is mentioned — “That’s the chair Frank Miller sat in when he was sentenced!” Second time, during the final ticking-clock montage which revisits every character we’ve met as they await the stroke of noon, Zinnemann tracks in on the empty chair. This isn’t exploring space, roving POV, following movement or storytelling, so it must be the fifth kind of camera movement motivation: psychological. This is where we track in on a character as they think deep thoughts or feel a surge of emotion, and the movement makes us sense the thought/emotion building within them. The difference here is, the man who sat in the chair and felt the emotion did it months before the movie began. He’s not there anymore. But, like the spectres in THE SHINING, he’s left a trace of himself, and that’s what Zinnemann is filming. He’s tracking backwards in time, like Ophuls or Tarkovsky or Sokhurov, the only difference being that the temporal movement doesn’t reveal itself visually, only by mental impression.

Zinnemann’s fellow Viennese, Von Sternberg, wrote of his desire to photograph an idea — Zinnemann, it seems to me, has done this. Although I think the shot was probably a huge influence on Spielberg, who likes tracking in on objects to imbue them with significance and make us consider their narrative import, I think F.Z.’s shot goes markedly deeper, creating a sense of brooding lust for vengeance out of nothing more than empty air and a piece of furniture designed to receive the buttocks.

I haven’t tried this myself, but I suspect that if you watch this scene wearing the polarising glasses used to make the phantoms visible in William Castle’s 13 GHOSTS, you would get surprising results.

Film criticism, which used to see Peckinpah and Leone as the Men who Killed the Western (with realism, parodic exaggeration, and the destruction of moral certainties), now seems to have turned the clock back to put the blame on HIGH NOON and the psychological western. Suddenly there was liberal angst in the West, neurosis and concern about whether people are truly good, and that is seen as the first nail in the coffin of a genre built on certain shared assumptions. Maybe that’s why Hawks reacted so badly — he sensed the writing was on the wall. In many ways, HIGH NOON does seem to prefigure the decline of the genre — we have Gary Cooper looking old, the small community is no longer a source of final virtue and courage, and something strange and disturbing has happened to the style…

Leone quoted shots from HIGH NOON throughout his career, as Sir Christopher Professor Frayling would tell you, as well as borrowing Lee Van Cleef, one of the villain’s henchmen (as Peckinpah borrowed Katy Jurado). The musical fob watch in FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE is just an excuse to re-stage the above musical build-up three times in one movie. And of course ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST opens with a ten-minute compression of Zinnemann’s whole show. If Leone had fulfilled his dream of casting Eastwood, Wallach and Van Cleef as the three killers waiting for the train, Van Cleef’s appearance would have been a double joke.

To Leone, HIGH NOON seems to have been just a good western to swipe from, like YELLOW SKY (watch the ending of that one and HIGH NOON with the opening of THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY!), not some departure from the norm. But Zinnemann is using the visual language of film noir — sweaty, intense close-ups, looming into a wide lens, porous, scowling, faces crowded together — in a western. If the climax of ACT OF VIOLENCE (face-off, with long walk, at a railway station) resembles a western duel in negative — which it does, because I just said so — then HIGH NOON is a film noir in negative, the sky a bleached-out Moby Dick white. And as we know from THE SHINING, some things are scarier in the bright light.

So what this ultimately means is that HIGH NOON is the source for a good 75% of Leone’s overall visual approach… so maybe Zinnemann DID kill the western, or at least supply the weapon that fired the shot.