Showing posts with label Classic Films. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Classic Films. Show all posts

Tuesday, June 06, 2023

Film Review -- Winchester '73 (1950): Anthony Mann and James Stewart's First Partnership is an Interesting Commentary on Morality


A Grittier James Stewart?

“Hell, I don’t think the leading newspaper reviewers even go to see most of the Westerns. They send their second string assistants. And their supposed to be very nasty and very funny in their reviews. Well it’s a shame, because it makes it a crime to like a Western.”
— John Ford, 1964

Winchester ‘73 (1950) marks the first of nine films that James Stewart would make with director Anthony Mann. Of these films, five were Westerns and critics often discuss how Mann’s Westerns featured grimmer and more morally ambiguous characters than the roles James “Jimmy” Stewart was known for playing. For many, it’s hard to imagine Mr. Smith, Elwood P. Dowd, Alfred Kralik, or George Bailey as a narrowly focused avatar of vengeance or even as an amoral bounty hunter.

It’s less hard to imagine for fans of the Thin Man films. In After the Thin Man (1936), Stewart was cast specifically to play off of audience’s expectations of him being a nice guy. Instead, he portrays one of the best villains of that series. Cynics like me who ironically present the hot take that Mr. Smith is actually the villain of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and who genuinely believes that George Bailey isn’t a nice person at all, have a much easier time accepting Stewart in more morally ambiguous roles. The fact is that as likable as Stewart is in all of his roles, he’s a skilled actor who has long brought moral complexity to his characters.

I don’t think it is that Stewart is playing these darker, almost noir roles in some cases, that is what makes the Mann-Stewart Westerns stand out. I think what modern critics and audiences are responding to is that Stewart is playing a morally ambiguous character, in a Western. Westerns aren’t supposed to be sophisticated narratives after all. In the minds of many critics, they were merely “horse operas” that were devoid of real depth.

In a March 1964 Cosmopolitan interview with Bill Libby, director John Ford responded to these kinds of criticisms. He said, “The people who coined the awful term ‘horse opera’ are snobs. The critics are snobs. Now, I’m not one who hates all critics. There are many good ones and I pay attention to them and I’ve even acted on some of their suggestions. But most criticism has been destructive, full of inaccuracies, and generalizations. Hell, I don’t think the leading newspaper reviewers even go to see most of the Westerns. They send their second string assistants. And their supposed to be very nasty and very funny in their reviews. Well it’s a shame, because it makes it a crime to like a Western. Sure, there have been bad and dishonest Westerns. But, there have been bad and dishonest romantic stories, too, and war stories, and people don’t attack all romantic movies or war movies because of these. Each picture should be judged on its own merit. In general, Westerns have maintained as high a level as that of any other theme.”

Fans and scholars of Western films know that there have been many fine entries in the genre that go well beyond the stereotype. John Ford’s archetype establishing film Stagecoach (1939) has a number of complex characters incorporated into a very simple narrative. But Stagecoach, like Destry Rides Again (1939), came toward the end of the first wave of Westerns. Stagecoach attempted to exemplify what was great about those old Westerns and it succeeded. Destry Rides Again attempted to parody those earlier films. It too succeeded. But like the best parodies, it also ended up becoming one of the best exemplars of the genre and this is is one reason it helped inspire Blazing Saddles (1974).

Just as Stagecoach and Destry Rides Again marked the zenith of a prior era of Western films, Anthony Mann’s Winchester ‘73 marks the transition from the white hat/black hat era of heroes and villains into one influenced by the noir films that began to dominate the box office in the 40s and 50s.

I say that Winchester ‘73 marks a transition from the classic Western to something new because it is a film that incorporates numerous tropes from the older Westerns and then uses the symbolism attached with those tropes as cues that something a little different is going on in this particular film.

The first, and probably most iconic of those tropes, is the way that Winchester ‘73 uses the white hat/black hat dynamic as a way of introducing its audience to its anti-hero. When Lin (James Stewart) and his companion High Spade (Millard Mitchell) walk into town asking if anyone has seen a man called Dutch Henry Brown, Lin is wearing a white hat. It’s a white hat that is stained with sweat giving it an overall gray appearance. This is a good man who has been pushed to the limit and that has led him onto his quest for revenge. High Spade, his sidekick, is wearing a black hat. So too are Dutch Henry Brown and Marshal Wyatt Earp.

Speaking of Wyatt Earp, Will Geer makes for one of the most unique versions of the character to hit the screen. Geer’s portrayal has an almost comedic quality to it and the Earp of Winchester ‘73 is not hero. He and his brother may be “the law” in Dodge, but they aren’t much of it and Earp seems more comfortable fraternizing with Dutch than he does with Lin. It’s a take on the character that is suggestive of the complexity of the real Wyatt Earp and that predicts more morally ambiguous portrayals of the character that will come later in Hour of the Gun (1967), Tombstone (1993), and Wyatt Earp (1994).

Winchester '73 (1950)

Earp is not a hero in any form in this film, a fact slightly surprising given that the film’s story credit is Stuart N. Lake and he was the major promoter of the Earp story. In Winchester ‘73, Earp is a catalyst of a sort, the shooting contest he runs is how Lin acquires the eponymous Winchester ‘73, but when that gun is stolen Earp plays no part in the attempts to regain the weapon or to uphold the laws that Dutch Henry Brown has broken. I won’t go into Dutch’s crimes here as those are a reveal worth discovering narratively. The film may be over 70 years old, but a review should be more than a synopsis.

While Dutch’s crimes are the inciting incident that lead Lin to Dodge City, it is Lin’s loss of the Winchester to Dutch that is the inciting for the audience. An incident that splits the narrative into two storylines that diverge and converge several times over the course of the film as the gun makes its way from one owner to another. This continual shifting of ownership of a perfect “1 of a 1,000” Winchester rifle allows the film to introduce an interesting array of characters, but it is the way it is done that is most facinating.

Because the Winchester moves from one owner to another, the film’s narrative flow feels less like a single story than it does a series of vignettes united by a single through arc. The through line is Lin’s quest for revenge as he pursues Dutch up and down the central United States, the foothills and plains that come prior to the Mountain West. This through line intersects with several vignettes where various characters encounter and acquire the Winchester rifle before it, like the One Ring finally finds its way into the hands of its true master.

Each of the vignettes of the film is a moral commentary on what it means to be a virtuous person in a lawless land. Who upholds the good when there is barely a society to enforce mores?

The first vignette is the gun shooting contest wherein the best shot in Dodge City will win the perfect rifle and the key focus for moral critique here are the Earps. Wyatt is morally suspect and Virgil is nigh incompetent. As Marshal of Dodge, one would expect Wyatt to enforce the law not just in Dodge, but in the surrounding area as well, but he has no real interest in that. He just wants to keep Dodge calm and he does that in a style that cozies up to the black hats. Once Lin is ambushed and the Dutch has stolen the gun, Lin’s pursuit becomes double pursuit. He wants both to get his revenge and to be made financially whole by the return of his weapon, but his driving focus is revenge. In Anthony Mann’s West, it is up to the individual to enforce the rules of justice (a trend that continues through all five Mann-Stewart Westerns).

Each of the vignettes that follow provide commentaries on the conflict between liberty and license, civilization and lawlessness. The first vignette focuses on avarice and gluttony and intoxication all of which lead to the loss of the weapon to a crooked gun trader. The second deals with economic exploitation and shows what happens when you don’t have law to defend contracts. You have bad faith actors like the gun trader who come to a bad end because the only guarantee of contracts being upheld in a lawless society is to kill those who violate them. This is followed by a really interesting analysis of marriage and family in the untamed West and Shelley Winters performance as a prospective frontier wife, and the cowardice and villainy of the man she had agreed to marry, could make up entire volumes.

Lin’s pursuit of Dutch leads him to come into contact with the aftermath of each of these small morality tales and he judges them as one would expect a moral man to do. He takes no joy in killing for necessity. He knows the costs of cowardice and advises forgiveness. But when his pursuit finally leads him to a place where he can have his revenge, when he re-encounters a Shelley Winters character who has succumbed to despair and is now accompanying a true villain, he is finally given the opportunity to release all of his rage. First he releases it on one of Dutch’s henchmen and finally gets to try and have revenge on Dutch himself, all while still trying to maintain a level of respect for civilization. He’s a white hat, to be sure, but he’s a white hat stained gray with the strain of moral conflict. Does he save someone or get revenge? Does he uphold the principles of law and order or does he focus on revenge?

Winchester '73 – Senses of Cinema

In Anthony Mann’s vision of the West, there is only one answer to that question. Revenge comes first, especially when it is vengeance guided in re-establishing moral order, only then will families be safe. Only then can civilization be built.

I highly recommend the film. It has some elements that date it, badly, but it is a morally complex Western with interesting characters. They aren’t quite as realistic as the characters in later Westerns will be, but this film marks a real transition from a more fairy tale Western to the more morally complex Westerns of Budd Boetticher (Seven Men from Now, Ride Lonesome), Sam Peckinpah (Ride the High Country, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid), and more recent directors.

Sunday, December 03, 2017

Christmas Movie Advent Calendar Day 3

On December 1st, I send out a tweet with the hashtag #ChristmasMarathonAdvent that recommended watching Christmas in Connecticut starring the ever wonderful Barbara Stanwyck. While I love watching Christmas movies the year round, and count down the days until Hallmark channel starts running their marathon, I realize that most people wait until the Christmas season to watch films. I also realized the #ChristmasMarathonAdvent wasn't the pithiest hashtag. So, I decided to transform daily tweets into daily blog posts people can use to create their own Christmas Movie Advent Calendar to count down the days to Christmas Eve.

The wonderful thing about Christmas films is that they run the genre gamut from children's fare to noir mysteries and from romantic comedies to action films. While there are some who might argue that films like The Last Boy Scout don't belong as "Christmas" films because of their violence and profanity, I don't take that position. The Last Boy Scout is a problematic film on many levels, including how it resolves the family conflict underpinning the narrative, but it is in the end a film about overcoming cynicism and embracing family. That's the requirement that I hold Christmas films to because Christmas in America is about spending time with family. Since I used The Last Boy Scout as an example of A Christmas film, it will not be included in the Christmas Marathon Advent Calendar as the days move forward, but other "controversial" films might. The list will be filled with films I enjoy. Films from a catalog from which I pull the films I watch every holiday season as my family and I have our own Christmas Season Movie Marathon.

Today marks the 3rd day of December and today's selection is one of my favorite Christmas movies, and one of my favorite John Wayne movies.

3 Godfathers

3 Godfathers is an interesting adaptation of the 3 Kings story. In this film, three ruthless bandits give up freedom in order to save the life of a new born child. The film has been remade a number of times, and parts of it don't age well, but the underlying message of love and selflessness is wonderful. 

The List So Far...

  1. Christmas in Connecticut (1945)
  2. Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
  3. 3 Godfathers (1949) 

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Jim Beaver (Supernatural) Discusses Buster Keaton's OUR HOSPITALITY

It's hard to describe in words the brilliance of the comedic stunt work of early Hollywood action-comedians like Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd.  Their willingness to risk life and limb to entertain audiences -- even with the safety procedures they did use -- is mind boggling. The best way to use words to describe their endeavors are usually names, names of artists who have attempted similarly insane comedic stunts. You can tell a modern audience that many of Jackie Chan's stunts were inspired by the work of Keaton, and that does a pretty effective job.  But for my generation, who encountered Jackie Chan as he entered the American Market with THE BIG BRAWL, a better comparison is Disney's character Goofy.  Many of the animated stunt comedy shorts that feature Goofy are based on the comedic endeavors of Keaton and Lloyd.

Think about that for a minute. Animation, with its infinite ability to show the unreal, was used to tell stories inspired by the real world stunt work of real world comedians.

Actor Jim Beaver has a column over at IndieWire entitled "Beaver's Lodge," and in his most recent (and second) installment he discusses Buster Keaton's film OUR HOSPITALITY.  Watch his discussion and tell me you don't want to watch this film.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Ron Howard's RUSH: Will It Be One of the Rare Breed?

For as popular as motorsport is domestically and internationally, one would expect there to be a long list of quality motion pictures depicting the excitement that brings fans to watch race after race. Sadly, this is not the case.  The vast majority of films about motorsport are poor at best, and sometimes downright awful. It seems that too often directors get caught up in trying to have exciting crashes and forget that the most important thing that a film can do is tell a compelling story.  The Sylvester Stallone vehicle DRIVEN is the perfect example of this flawed approach to the subject.  To much time and money was spent depicting cars launching from the race track in spectacular ways, and too little was spent on telling a plausible tale.

When I heard that Oscar Award winning director Ron Howard would be directing a film about Formula 1 entitled RUSH, I was filled with excitement and dread. Howard is a truly talented film maker who has directed films in many genre with a human touch. The interviews with Howard about the process hinted that he was taking his subject seriously, but in the back of my mind -- as an F1 fan -- there was the underlying fear that this would be yet another spectacle film and not one that focused on story.  F1 is filled with compelling stories, and I thought it would be a shame if a modern F1 film failed to capture some of the sport's magnificent history.

Then I saw the first trailer for RUSH...and all my fears melted away.

RUSH focuses on the 1976 rivalry between drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda.  Lauda had been World Champion in 1975, and would win the title two more times before his retirement, but 1976 was a year of struggle and a near fatal accident. Niki's story alone would make for a compelling film, but add to the seriousness of Lauda's season the playfulness of James Hunt and you have a combination of elements that could make for a wonderful film. Hunt's party boy attitude is legendary and when one of my favorite drivers -- Kimi Raikkonen -- wants to race incognito in non-F1 events he has been known to use James Hunt as his nom-d'fun.

You can see the real footage of Lauda's accident in this short piece:

And you can catch a glimpse of Hunt's wild personality here:

If you are wondering what racing films are worth watching, here is my list of 6 or so racing films that are worth your time (in no particular order).

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Tron as Advertised by Saul Bass

Readers of this blog know that I am pretty excited about the release of Tron: Legacy in 3-D this Christmas. I imagine it will be one of the first movies that my daughters and I watch together in the theater and sharing a small piece of my cherished childhood with my own children is something to which I am very much looking forward.

One of the things that I am interested in seeing is how modern visual techniques are going to transform the concepts that were presented in the original film. The original film was a visual tour de force. Its ability to translate computer concepts into beautiful visual metaphors was remarkable and the imagery in the film comparing the circuit like structure of the "internet" with the nighttime illuminated landscape of a modern city is one of my favorite transitions in all of film.

That said, after stumbling upon Hexagonall's Tron credits, and advertising, done in the style of Saul Bass, I have begun to wonder what a retro-remake of Tron done in the style of a Stanley Donen, Alfred Hitchcock, or John Frankenheimer would be like. Try and imagine the film that would follow these opening credits:

This is a movie that I'd like to see. In particular, I'd like to see how modern animators would face the challenge of doing a retro-remake that uses modern technology to achieve classic animation techniques. What animation style would be used to simulate the life within the computer? What would a retro-remake "innerverse" look like? What would the opening video game sequence look like? I don't know, but I would love to see it.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Cinerati Christmas Season Movie Marathon

It is no wonder that the commercial aspects of Christmas seem to come earlier every year. No sooner than one has celebrated Thanksgiving with loving family and friends, than one realizes how swiftly one has "gotten behind" in one's annual Christmas Season Movie Marathon. At least that's how things were in the Cinerati household. The other night, we had just finished watching the new Phineas and Ferb: Christmas Special -- which was surprisingly heartfelt -- when we realized that we were significantly behind in our Annual Christmas Season viewing regimen.


Every year, the Cinerati household views a minimum of one Christmas themed film or TV special during each day of December. We consider it our filmic advent calendar. We typically follow this up with a Christmas Season Movie Marathon where we try to increase our viewing level to 2 movies a day from the 18th through the 1st of January. This lets us watch more holiday fare, and lets us include things like the Rudolph New Years special without breaking from the rules of what constitutes a Christmas movie -- at least for those films or shows that take place after Christmas. Our definition of what constitutes a Christmas film is pretty broad, but that's what makes it such a fun tradition. Here is a partial list of the films and shows we typically select from:
  • Die Hard
  • Die Hard 2
  • The Last Boy Scout
  • The Thin Man
  • The Sound of Music
  • -- The one film that breaks our about or take place rule because the movie "feels" so Christmassy and Jody has many fond memories.
  • Lethal Weapon
  • Holiday Inn
  • White Christmas
  • Elf
  • Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer
  • 3 Godfathers
  • The Bishop's Wife
  • Scrooged
  • The Ref
  • The Nightmare Before Christmas
  • Miracle on 34th Street
  • It's a Wonderful Life
  • Holiday Affair
  • The Shop Around the Corner
  • In the Good Old Summertime
  • Dr. Seuss's How the Grinch Stole Christmas
  • Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone
  • -- Harry's Christmas present is important for the whole series and the opening song sounds über-Christmassy to us.
  • We're No Angels
  • Joyeux Noel
  • Gremlins
  • Love Actually
  • About a Boy
  • A Christmas Story
  • A Christmas Carol
  • Young Sherlock Holmes -- This movie includes Christmas, but it is also a "Victorian/Edwardian" film and any film that takes place in that era just feels Christmassy. I blame Dickens.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

TCM Celebrates Christmas, but Not on Christmas Day

Turner Classic Movies is arguably the best channel on television, especially if you are a classic film fan. Every Thursday, in the weeks leading up to Christmas Day, the channel will be highlighting some classic holiday movie fare. Many of the films are not as well known as they should be, and others are annual staples in the Lindke household.

Cinerati-friend J.C. Loophole of The Shelf blog has been kind enough to share these Thursday schedules with us, as well as some comments regarding the upcoming TCM film festival in Los Angeles in April 2010 which will be showing a restoration of Fritz Lang's METROPOLIS.

One interesting twist to the schedule is that TCM is airing a Sherlock Holmes Marathon on Christmas Day that they have called, punny enough, "Holmes for the Holidays." While it makes a certain amount of sense from a market standpoint, the new Guy Ritchie Holmes film is coming out on Christmas Day, it doesn't strike me as particularly "Christmassy." The only Holmes story that makes me feel remotely in he holiday spirit is the wonderful YOUNG SHERLOCK HOLMES directed by Barry Levinson and written by Chris Columbus. YOUNG SHERLOCK HOLMES is one of those Lindke household holiday staples. Columbus' own HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER'S STONE is also on that list of Lindke holiday must sees.

Let's have a look at what TCM is offering this holiday season.

Thursday, Dec. 3
  • 8 p.m. – A Christmas Carol (1938), starring Reginald Owen and Gene Lockhart.
  • 9:15 p.m. – Little Women (1949), starring June Allyson, Elizabeth Taylor, Janet Leigh and Margaret O’Brien.
  • 11:30 p.m. – Tenth Avenue Angel (1948), starring Margaret O’Brien and Angela Lansbury.
  • 1 a.m. – 3 Godfathers (1948), starring John Wayne, Pedro Armindáriz, Harry Carey Jr. and Ward Bond.
  • 3 a.m. – Hell’s Heroes (1930), starring Charles Bickford and Raymond Hatton.
  • 4:30 a.m. – Bush Christmas (1947), starring John Fernside and Chips Rafferty.

  • The John Ford/John Wayne version of 3 GODFATHERS is a masterful demonstration of how a genre film can use tropes from other narrative milieu to create a powerful film that is both touching and beautiful. Like many great films, this one is a remake of a story that had been filmed at least twice before. More recently, the story was adapted -- with significant changes -- into anime with TOKYO GODFATHERS. 3 GODFATHERS is one of Wayne's strongest performances, those performances that are so often overlooked when people want to scoff at Wayne's talent, and is the kind of Christmas film we need more of today.

    Thursday, Dec. 10
  • 8 p.m. – It Happened on 5th Avenue (1947), starring Don DeFore, Ann Harding and Gale Storm.
  • 10 p.m. – Fitzwilly (1967), starring Dick Van Dyke, Barbara Feldon and Edith Evans.
  • Midnight – Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938), starring Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland and Lewis Stone.
  • 2 a.m. – Susan Slept Here (1954), staring Dick Powell, Debbie Reynolds and Anne Francis.
  • 4 a.m. – Little Women (1933), starring Katharine Hepburn, Joan Bennett, Paul Lukas and Frances Dee.

  • Thursday, Dec. 17
  • 8 p.m. – Christmas in Connecticut (1945), starring Barbara Stanwyck, Dennis Morgan and Sydney Greenstreet.
  • 10 p.m. – Holiday Affair (1950), starring Robert Mitchum and Janet Leigh.
  • 11:30 p.m. – Never Say Goodbye (1946), starring Errol Flynn and Eleanor Parker.
  • 1:30 a.m. – Period of Adjustment (1962), starring Tony Franciosa, Jane Fonda and Jim Hutton.
  • 3:30 a.m. – Beyond Tomorrow (1940), starring Harry Carey, C. Aubrey Smith and Maria Ouspenskaya.

  • Thursday, Dec. 24 – Robert Osborne’s Christmas Picks
  • 8 p.m. – Remember the Night (1940), starring Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray.
  • 9:45 p.m. – Christmas in July (1940), starring Dick Powell and Ellen Drew.
  • 11 p.m. – Chicken Every Sunday (1948), starring Dan Dailey and Celeste Holme.
  • 1 a.m. – Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), starring Judy Garland, Margaret O’Brien, Lucille Bremer and Mary Astor.
  • 3 a.m. – In the Good Old Summertime (1949), starring Judy Garland and Van Johnson.
  • 5 a.m. – The Shop Around the Corner (1940), starring Margaret Sullavan, James Stewart and Frank Morgan.

  • As much as I enjoy Nora Ephron's YOU'VE GOT MAIL, most of its strongest moments are directly out of IN THE GOOD OLD SUMMERTIME and THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER. These are two of the best romantic comedies ever produced. While they are based on the same story, they are magical in their differences and each provides a different glimpse into what makes romance work. Critics often complain about how much of modern cinema is adaptation, as if this means some sort of dilution of creativity. IN THE GOOD OLD SUMMERTIME and THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER are perfect demonstrations of how adaptation can result from inspiration.

    Friday, Dec. 25 – Holmes for the Holidays
  • 8 p.m. – The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939), starring Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, Richard Greene and Wendy Barrie.
  • 9:30 p.m. – The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939), starring Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce and Ida Lupino.
  • 11 p.m. – The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970), starring Robert Stephens, Colin Blakely and Genevieve Page.
  • 1:15 a.m. – Sherlock Holmes’ Fatal Hour (1931), starring Arthur Wontner, Ian Fleming and Jane Welsh.
  • 2:30 a.m. – The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959), starring Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Andre Morell and Maria Landi.
  • 4 a.m. – A Study in Terror (1965), starring John Neville, Donald Houston, Georgia Brown and Anthony Quayle.
  • Tuesday, November 17, 2009

    Trailer for Clash of the Titans Remake Now Available

    After watching the trailer, I am struck by a couple of things. First, Liam Neeson's depiction of Zeus exudes far more power than the Olivier version. Second, though the film seems to lack any claymation (which would be a nice homage to Harryhausen), the film is definitely showing Harryhausen's influence on special effects. They kept the Medusa design and the giant scorpions look straight out of a Harryhausen film. Third, it looks awesome. Fourth, like the original it seems to have thrown a lot of Greek mythology out the window.

    Fifth, I cannot wait until March 26th.

    Friday, October 23, 2009

    Hulu Recommendation Friday: The Pit and the Pendulum (1961)

    This Sunday will mark the sixteenth anniversary of the death of a horror film legend. October 25th, 1993, Vincent Price left this mortal coil. The horror films that Vincent Price starred in were not the violent shockfests people so often imagine when they thing of the words "horror film." His films were not about gore, or quick cathartic release of tension, rather they were about fear. H.P. Lovecraft, a pioneer in American "Wierd Fiction", wrote in his essay Supernatural Horror in Literature :

    5-27-1911 to 10-25-1993

    The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is the fear of the unknown...their admitted truth must establish for all time the geniuneness and dignity of the wierdly horrible tale as a literary form. Against it are discharged all the shafts of a materialistic sophistication which clings to frequently felt emotions and external events, and of a naively insipid idealism which deprecates the aesthetic motive and calls for a didactic literature to "uplift" the reader toward a suitable degree of smirking with minds sensitive to hereditary impulse will always tremble at the thought of the hidden and fathomless worlds of strange life which may pulsate in the gulfs beyond the stars...

    This horror of the unknown is the kind of horror that permeated the films of Vincent Price. To be sure some like the Tingler had moments of visual shock, but most of the horror in Price's films was internal to the viewed characters. The audience felt the horror not as an immediate thing which passes when the musical sting chimes, but as a lingering afterthought which remained with the viewer long after the film had been viewed.

    An image from The Tingler more akin to modern horror.

    Vincent Price and Roger Corman's screen adaptations of Edgar Allen Poe tales are some of the best examples of this lingering kind of fear. With modern special effects making the imagery in The Pit and the Pendulum tame, possibly completely enervated of shock value, in comparison to the slaughter a Jason Voorhees is capable of committing. It is not the violence in Pit which horrifies, it is the thought of what man is capable of doing. This is the best kind of fear, the fear that reminds us as we look into the abyss that the abyss is looking back into us. True fear is horror at the possible meaninglessness of existence and the potential cruelty of man. How horrible is the realization in Fall of the House of Usher that Roderick Usher had accidently put his living sister prematurely into the tomb? The audience who watches this film can imagine both having to dig oneself free of an early grave and the terror of realization Roderick comes to when he realizes what he has done. There but for the grace of God go I.

    Edgar Allan Poe is the founding voice for a great deal of American literature, including the modern horror tale. There have been some more recent Poe translations than the Corman/Price collaborations, but none seem to capture the tone as well. Price is magnificent in roles where we get to watch an otherwise noble man descend into madness. The Corman/Price films also manage to capture hints of the "unreliable narrator" literary device that Poe was famous for using/inventing. The lens through which the audience views the scene isn't the unreliable narrator, but the characters themselves often conceal their real motivations from each other. Have fun this Halloween with horror whose legacy can be seen in the SAW series, and the first HOSTEL, though the Poe versions spend a little more time on psychology of terror and less on the visceral sensations.

    Friday, September 18, 2009

    Hulu Recommendation Friday: Angel and the Badman

    John Wayne didn't receive formal accolades for his acting ability until his 1970 performance as Marshall Reuben J. "Rooster" Cogburn. It is often argued that the reason the Oscar, and Golden Globe, was awarded is due to the fact that in playing "against type" John Wayne finally proved that he was a capable actor. Those who make this argument often point to the John Wayne film, The Shootist, as another example of how the "usually cardboard" Wayne was able to bring another powerful performance to screen.

    Those who believe that John Wayne only came into "deep" acting later in his career are wearing some fairly narrow blinders and have to ignore a long list of worthy performances.

    Wayne's performance in The Quiet Man is simultaneously vulnerable and powerful, passionate and reserved, melancholy and puckish. The film is a joy to watch for a wide variety of reason, but John Wayne's wonderful performance is one of those reasons.

    In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a movie where Wayne simultaneously plays the stereotype and breaks it wide open, Wayne's performance uses the audience's knowledge of his past films to good effect. Audiences were used to seeing the tough Wayne who met challenges head on, kills the bad guy, is fawned upon by the community, and who often ended up with the girl -- a perfect example of this character is Wayne's performance in Rio Bravo or Stagecoach. But Tom Donophon, Wayne's character in Valance, only accomplishes two of these line items. Donophon does that most remarkable of things. He gives credit, and all the rewards due to the individual to whom credit is given, to another man -- a man he believes to be better than himself. The film is a perfect argument against Machiavellian style politics, and a presentation of true heroic virtue. Donophon refuses to take any credit for a heroic deed, even though it means he must live without the woman he loves. He does this because the community needs him to do it. Wayne's performance is powerful in this film, and his heartbreak is palpable.

    There are several other examples in Wayne's career of great performances, The Searchers and Red River also immediately jump to mind, but one of those performances that is often overlooked is Angel and the Badman a film in which we see glimpses of the actor's potential to break free from the cardboard hero in a screenplay were the audience, like in the later Valance, can see that there is more to the Western than good guy kills bad guy.

    In Angel and the Badman, we see Wayne without the scaffolding of Howard Hawks or John Ford. This time, Wayne is directed by James Edward Grant who is better known for his screenplays than his directing, and who no one would argue was an auteur. The film is a vehicle for Wayne as "John Wayne," but it ends up being much more than that.

    The film's story is a simple one. Quirt Evans is a man of the West. He largely lives outside the law, taking what he wants, and living life to its hedonistic fullest. Quirt isn't a purely evil man, but he is an amoral one and his flexible morality has come into conflict with another outlaw named Laredo Stevens.

    So far, the names and character types are almost caricatures from a bad dime novel. Quirt? Laredo? These aren't names of characters one expects in a film of substance. That's typically true, but Grant -- who also wrote the screenplay -- is about to take our expectations of a cardboard tale and throw it for a loop.

    As might be expected, Quirt gets injured in a rundown with Laredo. Quirt's injuries are not small and he ends up demanding to be cared for by a family of Quakers named Worth. Penelope Worth (Gail Russell) -- again with those obvious names -- takes a high interest in Quirt and the two eventually develop an emotional attachment. In the end, Quirt must choose between love and violence, between living a moral life or defending those he has come to love by murdering the villain Laredo.

    This would all be typical stuff, and the audience can see which way the wind is taking Wayne by the color of his hat in a given scene as it alternates between black and white, except that Grant is making a more sophisticated argument than one might initially expect -- and Wayne is able to portray the moral complexity of the character required to advance that argument. Grant doesn't merely give us a tale where pacifism equals moral virtue and violent action equals moral vice. The film is as complex as High Noon in the way it balances legitimate authority and pacifism.

    The Worth family, while happy, is suffering due to their religious practices and it is only Quirt who can convince their neighbor to give them the water they need to thrive. It is the threat of implied violence that accompanies Quirt that initially changes the mind of their Scrooge like neighbor to share water with the Worth family. The neighbor shares because he is scared that Quirt will kill him if he doesn't comply. What makes the scene powerful is that Quirt went to the neighbor unarmed, and with good intentions, and that the bond of neighborly friendship is cemented by the kindness of the Worth family. There is another scene where the threat of Quirt using violence saves the lives of the family.

    Grant's argument in the film seems to be that violence, and the threat of violence, isn't in itself evil, but that the application of violence is only moral when done through proper authority. There are some great parallels between this film and the earlier mentioned High Noon, of particular interest is a comparison of the endings of the two films, and both films require subtle performances from underrated actors. Wayne's portrayal of Quirt begins as you might expect a Wayne performance to play out, but as it continues and Quirt transforms from Badman to Man it is Wayne's performance that makes it work. One can see glimpses of the performances Wayne would later bring to the screen, and one also gets to see how a writer can use the clichéd tropes of a genre and manipulate them into a more complex tale than one usually expects.

    Thursday, September 17, 2009

    "Classic Hollywood Versions" of Gen X Classic Films

    Stefan Blitz, of the excellent Forces of Geek blog, posted a couple of youtube videos yesterday. The videos were mash ups of classic Hollywood films cut into "fantasy" trailers for films like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Forrest Gump. In the fantasy versions, the starring role of Indiana Jones is played by Charlton Heston and Forrest Gump is portrayed by Jimmy Stewart. The concept alone is inspired, but what makes the clips work is Ivan Guerrero's dedication to detail. His use of scenes from Harvey and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington as key moments in the life of Forrest Gump is brilliant, particularly the scene from Harvey which captures the "feel" of Forrest Gump to a T.

    It doesn't matter if you are familiar with the works Ivan Guerrero uses in his Raiders clip, as he also tends to release a "clip by clip" comparison with notations describing the scene he selected, where it is from, and why. I don't know exactly were this falls within the copyright wars raging around the world now, but I will say this. This is exactly the kind of content that those who are reasonable on the copyleft are trying to protect. It also happens to be something that I think, especially with the "annotated" versions, could become a poster child for what could be considered fair use. At no time is Ivan trying to profit from, or dilute the value of, another IP, instead he is trying to share a love for Classic film and classic Gen-X films.

    Here is the Raiders of the Lost Ark trailer.

    Here's the Raider's trailer with annotations.