Eastwood report: Two Mules For Sister Sara

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Whenever I watch an Elvis movie I wonder for a moment why the Elvis experiment has not been repeated. A series of movies, built around a pop-culture personality, where the performer is more or less playing the same character over and over again regardless of the situation (or even the period) and gets into wacky adventures. And the viewers’ enjoyment of the movies is based in part on their familiarity with the series, like on television, where we delight in watching Homer Simpson enter into a situation because we’ve seen him react so hilariously in similar situations. We laugh before he even acts.

Watching Two Mules For Sister Sara, it occurred to me that Clint Eastwood, a contemporary of Presley, not only took the "Elvis Movie" concept to heart but applied to it an intelligence and sensitivity that has created a corpus pretty much unparalleled in American cinema (except maybe for Chaplin, and Eastwood’s East-Coast nemesis Woody Allen) — for 45 years now, Eastwood has revisited this "Clint Eastwood" character he created, put him into this or that situation (revolutionary-era Mexico, post-Civil-War Montana, modern-day Detroit) and let the plot do its job, confident that the audience will want to check in with "Clint Eastwood" and see how he’s feeling these days. The difference between Elvis and Eastwood is that Elvis was a hapless pawn in the grip of cynical chicanery, and Eastwood is a born cinematic artist, which means that the "Elvis" character never developed, but Eastwood’s has: he’s grown, and grown older, he’s embraced and resisted change, he’s matured and mellowed, he’s become haunted and regretful. One can watch Eastwood from A Fistful of Dollars to Gran Torino and come away with a kind of cinematic biography of a character.

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Movie Night with Urbaniak: She Wore a Yellow Ribbon

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So urbaniak and I have been watching some of the classic John Ford-John Wayne movies. We started with The Searchers, because everyone does, and then moved to The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, then Fort Apache. The result: Urbaniak feels that this Wayne guy could really be going places. "He’s my new favorite actor," quoth the thespian, who apparently had never really sat down and watched a John Wayne movie before. Not even True Grit.

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Movie Night with Urbaniak: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

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urbaniak and I are in the middle of a little John Ford – John Wayne retrospective. Last Thursday we watched The Searchers (because it’s out now on a spectacular blu-ray transfer) and tonight it was The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. (We’ve just finished a little "30s Gangster Movie" retrospective, having watched Scarface, The Roaring Twenties and Little Caesar all in a row, with The Public Enemy still waiting in its shrinkwrap.)

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Movie Night With Urbaniak: Heaven’s Gate (part 2)

“So. Now I can say I’ve seen Heaven’s Gate,” quoth

  as the credits roll.

Which is about all there is to say. I have no profound insights to add to viewing the second half of Michael Cimino’s legendary disaster. (You may read my comments on Part I here.)

The second half moves a good deal more quickly than the first, largely because its narrative is substantially more compressed, but it is no more dramatically coherent. There’s very little sense of “this happened, then this happened, and because of that, this happened” — it’s more like a series of discrete events presented in pageant form with very little to connect them dramatically. Some of the staging of these events is thoughtful and impressive, and some is not. But more importantly, not enough of it has any dramatic weight.

Example: a group of immigrants gather at the skating rink to discuss the invasion of their county by an army of hired assassins. They argue, in different languages, for a long time. Motions are presented and heatedly debated. Oratorical heroes are made and prominent citizens are shouted down. What are they saying? We don’t know — there are no subtitles. But more problematically, we’ve never met any of these people before and have no particular emotional attachment to them. It wouldn’t matter if we could understand what they are shouting if we had any idea what any of them stood for. It’s like we just walked into the middle of the movie, even though we’ve been watching closely from the beginning. There is a good deal of shouting and pushing and kissing and hugging and beating of breasts, then they all get on their horses and ride somewhere. Where are they going? We don’t know. Oh, it turns out they’re riding to where the assassins are camped out. Okay. And there’s a massive shootout. Some assassins are killed, others are not. Some immigrants are killed, others are not. None of it means anything because we don’t know who any of these people are. There doesn’t seem to be any dramatic thrust to any of the choices the director has made — the story doesn’t go anywhere.

Kris Kristofferson is the sheriff (or not — it’s unclear). He’s in love with a prostitute, who’s in love with an assassin, whose job it is to kill her. Good setup. A little melodramatic, but eminently workable. What happens in this fraught tangle of misspent love? Well, the prostitute gets raped by some cattlemen, which makes the assassin switch sides, which makes the cattlemen put their invasion on hold to go after the renegade assassin. That’s right, three hours into the movie, the cattlemen put their invasion on hold to go after a renegade assassin. The leader of the cattlemen has set the narrative into motion by forming this army of gunmen, and now, three hours later, now that the time has come for him to put his army of gunmen into action, he says “Well, wait a minute, hold your horses, what about that renegade assassin?

Has the assassin vowed to lead the immigrants in an armed resistance? No. Has he personally sworn to kill the leader of the cattlemen? No. With history and three hours of squandered narrative bearing down on him, the leader of the cattlemen decides to take a little detour on his way to destiny. The assassin and some other guys who happen to be in the cabin at the time are killed by the cattlemen. So, faced with an interesting dramatic problem regarding an unsolvable lover’s knot, the writer/director chooses to ignore his romantic plot altogether and have the characters go do something else. (For the record, the prostitute says good-bye to the sheriff and rides to be with the assassin, happens upon the shooting, barely escapes with her life, then races to town with the news of the imminent invasion — oh wait, no, that’s not what happens, no, she races to town and finds that the town already knows about the imminent invasion. Which means she didn’t have to race to town after all, because the shouting immigrants already have a plan. Let’s face it, three and a half hours into the movie, the main characters all kind of kick back and relax while a bunch of people we’ve never met before get on with blowing the shit out of each other.

Kristofferson is given the classic Western moment of the gunman who, brokenhearted, turns his back on the problem at hand and fixes to light out for the territories. Except he doesn’t. He says he’s fixin’ to, but instead he hangs around town. Then, later, unannounced and without preamble, he wanders back into the narrative and is suddenly seen acting as the leader of the immigrant forces, giving them ace military tips that, er, that get lots of immigrants massacred (okay, maybe those tips weren’t so ace after all). As I say, each of these events is presented as an individual event seemingly unconnected to anything that has happened before or since.

John Hurt, bless his heart, fares worst. He doesn’t even seem to know what he’s doing there. He drinks, he looks guilty, he barks out this or that exhortation, then dies unceremoniously in a shootout. He dominated the first 23 minutes of the movie (the scenes at Harvard) and he’s supposed to be the protagonist’s best friend, but his character and death are rendered meaningless.

As with the first half, much of the photography is stunningly beautiful, or would be if the transfer were any good, which it is, alas, not.

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Movie Night With Urbaniak: Heaven’s Gate (part 1)


  is an actor of delicate constitution who requires his beauty sleep, we were unable to watch all 219 minutes of Michael Cimino’s legendary cinematic disaster in one go — we left off at the intermission and will pick it up again soon (the promise of a DVD screener of There Will Be Blood is the carrot, watching Heaven’s Gate is the stick in this relationship).

I rushed right out to see Heaven’s Gate when it opened in 1980 in a shortened version. I had seen The Deer Hunter several times in the theater and enjoyed it quite a bit and I was anxious to see what Cimino would do with a western. I had heard all the stories about his extravagant profligacy on the set (the budget was, reportedly, over $40 million) and, being who I was, I was pulling for the director. I had heard about the disastrous screening of the long version, I had read all the terrible, terrible reviews, I knew no one was going to go see this movie, yet I was there, first screening, opening day, hoping against hope that, somehow, everyone was wrong and some kind of unique, misunderstood masterpiece awaited me.

Well, that didn’t happen, but I still couldn’t quite bring myself to hate the movie. Being a mere wisp of a 19-year-old, I did not possess the relative understanding of story structure I do now, so I couldn’t quite put my finger on why the movie didn’t work. But I could not deny that much of it was beautifully rendered, and there was something weird and mysterious about its insistence on having nothing happen for long, long stretches of movie. And that was the short version.

Now that I’m a big-deal Hollywood hotshot, it’s easy to identify the movie’s problems, although it might not have seemed that way in 1979. Basically, there is a HUGE amount of atmosphere and very little plot.

At the two-hour mark, I found I could count the total number of plot-points covered on the fingers of one hand. This is, alas, not an exaggeration.

PLOT POINT 1: Kris Kristofferson graduates from Harvard in 1870. The statement of this fact takes up an astounding 23 minutes of screen time.

PLOT POINT 2: Twenty years later, Kris is a sheriff (I think — it’s unclear and the sound mix on the DVD is perhaps the worst I’ve ever heard — ambient background thunders in the speakers while actors in the foreground murmur beyond audibility) in Wyoming, where Big Doings are going down: corporate ranchers are preparing to go to war with poor immigrant farmers. The establishment of this plot point takes us another twenty minutes.

PLOT POINT 3: Kris is in love with a French prostitute. Getting this idea across takes, I’m not kidding, 30 minutes of screen time.

PLOT POINT 4: The poor immigrants may be poor, but they sure know how to have fun. This accounts for another 30 minutes, as we watch cheerful immigrants pose for pictures, juggle, roller skate, dance, have sex, play music, sing, stage cockfights, fight and swear and grin. As Urbaniak noted, it’s like the party scene in steerage in Titanic, but expanded a half-hour.

PLOT POINT 5: Chris Walken, a hatchet-man for the corporate ranchers, is also in love with the French prostitute, and intends to sue for her hand. This accounts for the final 20 minutes of screen time before intermission.

And that’s it. Honestly.

Now compare this to, say, the plot of Raising Arizona: The protagonist robs convenience stores, goes to prison at least three times, meets and falls in love with the police officer in charge of booking him, rehabilitates himself, asks her to marry him, moves in with her, settles down, tries and fails to start a family all before the title sequence begins. If Michael Cimino had directed Raising Arizona he would have spent a half hour just examining the daily activities of the convenience-store clerk.

It’s hard to watch this movie and not feel for the studio executives in 1980 — faced with this extraordinarily slow, almost-plotless story, it’s impossible not to think “well, they could easily trim this down and have a taut little western.” And yet, if you cut out all the impressive atmosphere (and a good deal of the atmosphere is truly impressive) you would not have a “taut little western,” you would have a slack, underplotted little western. Now, there was, once upon a time, room for movies that place atmosphere over plot, but not to the ridiculous extremes taken by Heaven’s Gate. I mean, Jean-Luc Godard is Steven Spielberg compared to Michael Cimino in this regard.

And yet, for some strange reason, the movie is not “boring,” exactly. It sustains interest, partly through its dense atmosphere, partly through its peculiarity — it’s novel, and even pleasurable in a certain way, to see a big-budget movie utterly unconcerned with forward momentum. Urbaniak says that it’s interesting without being dramatic, a sentiment I echo, and add only that the scenario is dramatic it’s just very poorly structured dramatically. You’ve got a bunch of evil ranchers who are hiring an army of gunmen to wipe out a community of immigrants, that’s an excellent start for a drama. But that plot point is not announced until minute 43, and nothing is done about that struggle for another hour of screen time. Kris Kristofferson hears about the rancher’s nefarious plan and heads off to the immigrant community to, um, to do, um, well, we don’t know what exactly he plans to do, but we know he doesn’t like the ranchers so we assume he is on the side of the immigrants. So he goes pouncing off to the immigrant community and immediately spends thirty minutes horsing around with his girlfriend.

The cast is large and capable and includes many actors who went on to become big stars, so that’s always fun. Most of the acting is decent enough (there is one scene where Kris Kristofferson and John Hurt square off in a billiard room, having a “barely audible growl-off”)
and some is quite excellent. Urbaniak adores Chris Walken in this movie, an appreciation I can’t quite share — his presence seems too modern, too off-center and not of-the-time. But I bow to his superior judgment in this regard. Sam Waterston, on the other hand, is just dreadful as the main Evil Ranch Guy. He struts, preens, glares and flares his nostrils as his forces gather around him, all to remind us that this guy is Evil. It seems to me that once the screenplay identifies you as the Evil Guy, the best thing you can do is As Little As Possible.

The sound mix is, as I’ve noted, abysmal, and the transfer is substandard — probably because they had to cram a four-hour movie onto a single DVD. The production design is sumptuous and absurdly detailed, without ever clearly showing where the $40 million went. The score is an embarrassment, it sounds exactly like the first idea pitched at the initial post-production meeting.

Oh, and the haircuts — why can’t they ever get the haircuts right? All the supporting players look appropriately 19th century, but every time a lead actor strolls on, it’s 1979 again.

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Ride With the Devil

Forget everything you think you know about Men With Beards. James

  is entrancing in his riveting portrayal of a Man With a Beard in this Civil War drama of honor, sex and violent retribution. The action centers around a poker game where Urbaniak plays against Some Other Men With Beards. Urbaniak, with great nuance, depth, and attention to detail, recites his two lines of dialogue (one expository, one a blazing shocker with the impact of a punch to the gut) with the kind of brilliance that would have made David Garrick weep hot tears of envy. Less is more, less is more.

I interviewed Mr. Urbaniak about his pivotal role in this feature and was shocked to learn that, when he shot it he did not actually have a beard, which makes his performance all the more revolutionary.

Alas, it is all over too soon, and the bulk of the movie is taken up with a subplot about a Missouri farmboy who learns that love makes you happy, hate limits your spiritual growth, babies are good, an economy based on slavery may not be worth fighting for, and Negroes are people too.

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The Proposition

A gang of outlaws is trapped by the authorities and overwhelmed in a tin shack somewhere in the Australian outback in (I’m guessing) the late 1800s. The gang of outlaws is led by the trim, scruffy Guy Pearce. The sheriff is the not-trim-but-almost-as-scruffy Ray Winstone. Both actors draw vivid, exciting portraits of their characters, men on opposite sides of the law in a savage land suffering the birth-pangs of civilization.

The sheriff gives the outlaw the proposition of the title: I will let you go if you will hunt down your brother and kill him before Christmas. This brother is, apparently, living out in the wasteland, some kind of psychopathic monster, feared by whites and aborigines alike. The sheriff takes the outlaw’s mentally-retarded little brother custody as surety.

This is a terrific setup for a western, with two wonderful actors given parts to sink their considerable teeth into. We can’t wait to see the fireworks between these two characters, the outlaw with a conscience and the sheriff who will commit savage acts in order to civilize a wilderness.

So it’s a little strange when, ten minutes into the movie, the narrative sends the outlaw off in one direction and the sheriff off in another, and doesn’t bring them back together until the very end. What follows is two parallel narrative tracks, with neither track carrying much burden in terms of plot.

The outlaw wanders in the desert, meets a drunken racist and is attacked by aborigines. The sheriff goes home, hangs out with his wife, deals with his subordinates, supervises the simple brother, suffers attacks from his superior, and begins to regret his decision to let the outlaw go. The outlaw meets up with his brother, thinks about killing him, then doesn’t, then decides they should all go get the simple brother out of prison.

The movie is never boring. The scenes are staged with great skill, ingenuity and attention to detail. The photography, acting and production design are skillful and evocative of a blunt, brutal time (the flies covering everything are a particularly vivid detail), but I can’t help think there was a narrative opportunity passed up somewhere. The sheriff’s proposition makes no sense — let a notorious outlaw go to go fetch his more notorious brother, and we’ll keep your simple brother as collateral? That’s his plan? He has been looking for this outlaw gang for a long time and has spent considerable resources on their capture, and the first thing he does is let the leader go? What makes him think he’ll return?

(He says that the outlaw would do anything to save his little brother, but it’s weak — we have only the sheriff’s word on the filial affection, and what, indeed would stop him from coming back with a plan to bust the brother out of prison and kill everybody, which is, indeed, what ends up happening?)

For a while it seems that the outlaw’s journey through the wasteland is going to be an odyssey through the layers of civilization, or perhaps an interior journey into madness and betrayal, but it seems to take no time for the outlaw to meet up with his brother, and even then he gets let off the narrative hook by a spear through the chest, a smashing image that turns the character into a passive protagonist for an entire act.

Why separate the protagonist and antagonist for the entire movie? Where are the stakes? The simple brother is bedeviled in the prison, but the outlaw doesn’t know that, and the “bad brother” doesn’t know anything about the simple brother’s predicament until the end of the second act. There is much brutality and ugliness on display in this angry indictment of nation-building, but little in the way of suspense or narrative drive.

Imagine if in Jaws, the sheriff caught the shark, then let it go, then told everyone that he’d caught it, and then we cut back and forth from the shark swimming around to the sheriff gradually coming to accept that he’d better go kill that shark after all and you have a sense of the powerful, yet curiously static, effect of The Proposition.

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3:10 to Yuma v The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

I liked both of these movies immensely and recommend each highly. They are both exceedingly well-acted, well-shot, well-directed and well-written. But it’s a bad idea to go into one expecting the other. 3:10 to Yuma is a serious, thoughtful, intricately structured, multi-layered yarn of the Olde West, very conscious of its burden of resurrecting an outmoded genre, full of gorgeous landscapes, men on horses, sunlight on hat-brims, railroads under construction, ranchers being forced off their lands, stagecoach robberies, Pinkertons, encroaching civilization, outlaw gangs, cattle drives, a boy who goes on a journey and learns to be a man, Chinese coolies, black hats and white hats and deep thoughts about the delicate razor’s edge the law must walk in a lawless land. It’s not just a classic Western, it attempts to be all classic Westerns, with a dozen different plot turns, smashing character work from all the principles, every scene packed with terrific production design, period detail and realistic lighting. It’s an exciting drama, a rousing Wild West thriller and a well-written character study.

The Assassination of Jesse James is a whole different ball of wax. It has a few gorgeous landscapes, and it does have men on horses, but there is very little sunlight on hat-brims. The railroads are already built, no ranchers are being forced off their lands, there is not a single stagecoach robbery (although there is a wonderful train robbery) or Pinkerton in evidence. A boy does go on a journey and learns to be a man, but in this case the boy is Robert Ford and manhood turns out to be not all it’s cracked up to be. There is, of necessity, an outlaw gang, but the gang is examined so closely, in such minute, well-chosen detail that it never seems like a recapitulation of cliche. In fact, if there is a cliche contained within the execution of The Assassination of Jesse James I am hard-pressed to remember it. Let’s face it, it’s barely even a Western at all, more like a character study, a psychological portrait, a close reading of the last days of an American legend. “Elegaic” and “lyrical” don’t really cover the unsettling beauty and spectral weirdness of this deeply original movie.

If you go to see The Assassination of Jesse James expecting it to be like 3:10 to Yuma, it will probably seem sluggish, tedious and pretentious in comparison. If, however, you go to see 3:10 to Yuma expecting it to be like The Assassination of Jesse James, Yuma will seem shallow, busy and over-plotted in comparison.

THE SCRIPTS: Honestly, these are probably two of the best scripts I’ve seen shot this year. 3:10 has a terrific plot, full of suspense, intrigue and (my favorite) plenty of questions to ask about Good and Evil. The bad guy is one of the best bad-guys I’ve seen in a movie in a long time, kind of a Hannibal Lecter of the Old West, a man dangerous not so much because of his actions but because of the thoughts in his head, his ability to turn people against each other and to get under the skin of the nicest, most honest people. He inspires hate, fear and admiration in equal measure and all of the scenes between him and the rancher whose duty it becomes to escort him to the titular train are rich, deep and evocative. Assassination, on the other hand, has very little “plot” to speak of and an ending announced in the title. Plus a running time 45 minutes longer than Yuma. And yet, with a gun to my head (something that happens a lot in both movies) I would have to give Assassination the edge on script, because it’s trying something much more daring, original and difficult. It’s a biographical drama that does not stoop to the audience’s expectations of biography. It does not bend the story of a man’s life to “make a better movie,” rather it simply shows “what happened,” and there happens to be a camera there at the time. This is a difficult trick to pull off, to write a story about a famous historical figure and not have it turn into an episode of Behind the Music, and I have not seen it done well since Mike Leigh’s brilliant Topsy-Turvy. The problem with the approach is that it often seems like the movie has no plot, and so it takes a while for the filmmaker’s narrative strategies to reveal themselves. It doesn’t offer easy answers or tidy resolutions.

THE DIRECTION: I’ve enjoyed most of the James Mangold movies I’ve seen, but the direction in Yuma far surpasses what I’ve seen so far in his work. The shootouts and confrontations are exciting and suspenseful, the actors are all well-directed, the narrative never feels forced or cliched (in spite of containing every Western cliche in the book). I’ve never seen Andrew Dominik’s other movie, Chopper, but the direction of Assassination, as I say, is one of the most original things I’ve seen in movies recently. There wasn’t a single moment where I thought “Ah, and this is the scene where _____ happens.”  In spite of the fact that I know the story of Jesse James and have seen it told on screen at least a half-dozen times, I never had the slightest clue what was going to happen next, except that, eventually, Jesse would have to get shot in the back by Robert Ford while adjusting a picture in his house. Big scenes and little scenes are given equal weight, narrative strands come together in beautiful, unexpected ways, surreal beauty haunts the slightest of inserts.

THE ACTING: Wonderful throughout, but again I’m giving the edge to Assassination, partly because, goddamn it, why are two parts as good as the leads in Yuma being played by an Englishman and an Australian?  (UPDATE: a Welshman and a Kiwi.  I stand corrected.  Damn furners.)  The leads in Assassination are played by two nice American boys, Brad Pitt is even from the same state as the character he portrays. Pitt’s finely detailed, intelligent, multi-layered portrait of James didn’t surprise me, he’s been blowing me away on a regular basis since Fight Club, but Casey Affleck as Robert Ford is truly astonishing. Russell Crowe and Christian Bale in Yuma are playing “characters,” iconicfigures playing out a grand drama in the West of our consciences, but Pitt and Affleck actually bring Real People to life and add something new and interesting to our understanding of figures who have been examined many times in the past.

THE MUSIC: I was a little disappointed by the score of Yuma — like a lot about the movie, it seemed like an expert recapitulation of classic themes instead of an invention. Whereas the score of Assassination seems both more “authentic” to the time period and more original in its conceit.

Finally, I have to say that the sound design on Assassination is superb, and warrants seeing it in a theater for that reason alone. It’s a very quiet movie about a time before cars, stereos and air conditioners. Far-off laughter, girls singing two houses over, horses hooves in mud, gunshots echoing in a snowy landscape and trains in the misty night are all given detailed, loving attention and go a long way to bringing a lost time to life.

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Movie Night With Urbaniak: One-Eyed Jacks

WHITE HAT: “Kid” Rio is a bank robber in Mexico. He steals gold, shoots people and is a pathological liar.

BLACK HAT: Dad Longworth is Rio’s ex-partner. He left Rio to rot in a Mexico prison when a robbery job went south. He took the loot, headed north, bought himself a wife, a daughter, a job (as sheriff, no less) and some respectability.

THE ETERNAL STRUGGLE: “Kid” is abandoned by “Dad.” Kid seeks revenge. The “lawless” savage is pitted against the “civilized” man-of-respect. The law is a disguise worn by smarter criminals, used as a cudgel against those who aren’t bright enough, or unprincipled enough, to take the money and run.

Kid’s revenge: to rob the bank in the city where Dad’s sheriff and murder Dad for leaving him.

On the way to his revenge, Rio decides to deflower Dad’s adopted daughter Louisa. In the course of the deflowering, Rio is suddenly turned from Max-Cady-like revenge machine to sincere, sensitive soul. Rio lies to get a leg over with Louisa, but by morning he’s confessed all his lies, and by the end of the movie he’s decided against revenge altogether. Such is the power of a young woman’s, um, heart.

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION: Rare for a western, the city in question is Monterey, California. I don’t know why a western on the beach seems unusual, but it does.

WOMEN? There are two major women in One-Eyed Jacks. One is Dad’s Mexican wife (the Madonna), the other is his step-daughter (the virgin). There are also assorted garden-variety barmaids, prostitutes, senoritas and a contessa. Well, the movie is called One-Eyed Jacks, after all (apparently Penises was considered too on-the-nose). Oh, and the Mona Lisa is seen hanging over a bar.

THE STATE OF CIVILIZATION: No doubt about it, Rio escapes from prison to find that civilization is rotten to the core. Thieves put on stars and become law enforcers, hire buck-toothed yahoos for muscle, and use their position to protect themselves from their own guilty past. Rio (spoiler alert) is put through the ringer by this system, but finally figures out a way to escape. Trouble is, he must leave his love, and unborn child, behind, with only the promise to return. Which, given Rio’s luck through most of the movie, doesn’t look too likely. So it seems that civilization is so rotten that living in it is impossible, change only makes things worse. One can only flee. A very Brando attitude.

WESTERN CLICHE ALERT: Outlaws on the run through a desert, chased by a posse. Shootout on a high desert plain. Prison escapees chained at the ankles. Bank job goes south, leading to wasted lives.  Protagonist and antagonist switching sides of the law, the criminal becoming moral and the respectable man turning hypocrite.  Protagonist and antagonist break bread at the family table, and saying grace before dinner is used as a yardstick of measuring good, and hypocrisy. Protagonist tied to a hitching post and whipped in town square by antagonist.  Protagonist is the strong, silent, sly type, until he falls in love, then he becomes earnest, confused and talky, jabbering on and on about his childhood, his lack of direction, his treatment at the hands of the Mexican justice system.

NOTES:I was quite excited to sit down to watch a western directed by Marlon Brando, and was surprised to see that he didn’t seem to have any particular point of view on the material. The direction seems rather anonymous, workmanlike even, and occasionally there are even rookie technical blunders. There are few Brando-ish idiosyncrasies (although the movie opens with Brando sitting on a counter during a bank robbery, tossing banana peels onto a scales, which strikes me as a very Brando-esque way of introducing a theme), the acting is solid but unremarkable by his standards (although Slim Pickens shines as a thoroughly unpleasant sleazeball deputy), there are no daring stylistic moves. There is occasional wit in the screenplay (Dad: “How you doing, kid?” Rio: “Oh, I’m sneakin’ by.”)   The sets and lighting look standard-issue, and one prison set looks utterly fake even on the disastrous transfer currently available (see below).

Stanley Kubrick was the original director on the project and it’s hard for me to see what would have attracted him to the material — the story is told in a resolutely un-Kubrickian fashion (which may explain why he ultimately left).

In the course of the narrative, Karl Malden grows a moustache and suddenly looks like Mike Ditka.

The story is told in four acts: Act I, Rio and Dad rob a bank, get chased, Rio is abandoned and taken capture. Act II, Rio vows revenge on Dad and sets about it, planning a bank robbery and deflowering Dad’s step-daughter. Dad gets wind of all this, beats Rio mercilessly and drives him out of town. Act III, Rio licks his wounds and ponders what to do with the rest of his life. Act IV, Rio’s gang goes rogue on him, robs the bank, blows the job, Rio is arrested, escapes from jail, has a shootout with Dad, flees the country.

This structure makes the movie seem quite long. Generally, the action in a motion picture speeds up at the beginning of Act III as the characters’ motivations come into sharp relief and agendas clash, but here the action slows down to a crawl and the protagonist’s goals become fuzzy and confused.

I am told that Brando’s original cut of the movie ran over five hours and was greatly concerned with the shades of gray in all the characters’ lives. Touches of that ambiguity still remain, but as it is, One-Eyed Jacks seems very much like a typical early-60s studio product. The score, too, seems rote and uninspired. The movie was, apparently, a hit, but Brando disowned it and never directed again.

I’d like to note that the DVD Urbaniak and I watched, issued by an outfit calling themselves “St. Clair Vision,” is, by a long stretch, the crappiest DVD transfer I’ve ever encountered. I once wrote that the DVD transfer of Spielberg’s 1941 looked like it had been made by pointing a video camera at a TV playing an old VHS copy of the movie. Well, One-Eyed Jacks looks like it was made by pointing a video camera at a TV playing a VHS copy of the movie, through an aquarium smeared with petroleum jelly. The movie, which has apparently fallen out of copyright for some reason, can be watched in its entirety here, in quality no worse than what we’ve just watched.

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Let’s say I’m thinking of writing a western.  In actual fact, I am thinking of writing a western, an idea I’ve had for a long time now, a western based on a classic work of literature.  To say more would be to give it away.

If it is not too much trouble, I would greatly appreciate hearing your favorites, and why they are your favorites.  Why do they work, why are they better than others, what do they all have in common (besides taking place in the Old West), where do they diverge, and why.

I thank you in advance for your cooperation.

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