The Gauntlet (1977)

The Gauntlet

On a scale of one to ten, I’d have to give her a two, and that’s because I haven’t seen a one before. Hard-living ageing cop Ben Shockley (Clint Eastwood) is recruited to escort Augustina ‘Gus’ Mally (Sondra Locke), a key witness in a Mob trial, from Las Vegas to Phoenix. But far from being a nothing witness in a nothing trial as Commissioner Blakelock (William Prince) insists, Gus is a lovely, well-educated if coarse call girl who claims to have explosive information on a significant figure that makes the two highly expendable targets. Ben starts to believe her story after numerous attempts are made to kill them and they have to travel across the unforgiving desert without official protection, pursued by angry bikers and corrupt police officers and he contacts his direct boss Josephson (Pat Hingle) to try to rearrange the outcome  ... Now, the next turkey who tries that, I’m gonna shoot him, stuff him, and stick an apple in his ass. Chris Petit remarks elsewhere that this in its own way is as significant to the Eastwood screen persona as Annie Hall is to Woody Allen’s – and that’s true, insofar as it examines masculinity (and it’s shown up in elemental form), quasi-feminist principles and gut-busting hardcore action and thrills based on the first formal rule of movie making – people chasing people. Written by Michael Butler and David Shryack, they were working on a screenplay originally intended for Brando and Streisand (can you imagine?) and Brando withdrew in favour of Steve McQueen and Streisand then walked – leading to Eastwood coming on board to direct and star so the self-deprecating humour took on a new edge as he challenges institutional corruption and general stupidity (mostly his own) once again. Locke is great as the prostitute with a planet-sized brain, a heart of gold and a mine of information and she’s every bit as resourceful as you’d expect when the two hit the road running. Fast, funny and occasionally quite furious, this is a key film in both of the stars’ careers. Shryack would go on to write Pale Rider (1985) for Eastwood and it was that decade’s biggest grossing western. There are some marvellous jazz solos from Art Pepper and Jon Faddis. Smart, rip roaring fun, a pursuit western in all but name. I can go anywhere I please if I have reasonable suspicion. Now if I have suspicion a felony’s been committed, I can just walk right in here anytime I feel like it, ’cause I got this badge, I got this gun, and I got the love of Jesus right here in my pretty green eyes

Little Fauss and Big Halsy (1970)

Little Fauss and Big Halsy

I was going faster than I ever went in my whole life, then I fell off. Pro motorcycle racer Halsy Knox (Robert Redford) runs into amateur Little Fauss (Michael J. Pollard) after a race held near Phoenix, Arizona. They strike up a friendship as Fauss is attracted to Halsy’s carefree lifestyle. But Fauss’s father Seally (Noah Beery Jr.) regards Halsy as a bad influence and refuses to help Halsy when his truck breaks down. Halsy tricks the admiring Fauss into repairing his motorcycle for free at the shop where he works. When Fauss breaks his leg, Halsy, who has been barred from racing for drinking on the track, proposes that they form a partnership in which Halsy would race under Fauss’s name with Fauss serving as the mechanic. Fauss joins Halsy on the motorcycle racing circuit despite his parents’ disapproval. Fauss is constantly confronted with his inferiority to Halsy, both on and off the racetrack. Their partnership is finally broken when wealthy drop-out Rita Nebraska (Lauren Hutton) arrives at the racetrack and immediately attaches herself to Halsy, despite Fauss’ keen attention. Fauss returns home to find his  beloved father has died.  Halsy later visits him and attempts to ditch Rita, who is now heavily pregnant. Fauss refuses to let Halsy pawn her off on him and informs him that he plans to reenter the racing circuit. They race against each other at the Sears Point International Raceway. Halsy’s motorcycle breaks down. As he watches from the side of the track, he hears the announcement that Fauss has taken the lead… Well if that’s friendship, I’m aghast. Screenwriter Charles Eastman is now probably better known for his sister Carole aka Adrien (Five Easy Pieces) Joyce, than anything he himself wrote, including this, one of the more obsure biker flicks despite its big-name star. And yet Redford could say of it, That was the best screenplay of any film I’ve ever done, in my opinion. It was without a doubt the most interesting, the funniest, the saddest, the most real and original. He seems born to play the shirtless, feckless, ruthless handsome womaniser leaving a trail of destruction in his wake who only loses his shit-eating grin when things don’t go his way. I make it a rule to never make promises. Beery and Lucille Benson as Pollard’s parents are like a new generation’s Min and Bill. They’re so good they deserve a whole story of their own. Charles and Carole were Hollywood kids, if hardly upper echelon – their father worked as a grip at Warners while their mother was Bing Crosby’s secretary. Eastman was actually one of Hollywood’s most reliable script doctors through the Sixties, helping out on productions as diverse as Bunny Lake is Missing and The Planet of the Apes. He was something of an eccentric in that brotherhood of writers who wanted to be directors, inspiring people like Robert Towne with one of his unfilmed works which circulated in the Fifties, Honeybear, I Think I Love You. Towne remarked, For me, it was quite a revelation because it was the first contemporary screenplay I had read that just opened up the possibilities of everything that you could put into a screenplay in terms of language and the observations of contemporary life. It was a stunning piece of work, and I think it influenced a lot of us, even though it wasn’t made. Everybody tried to get it made, but Charlie was very particular about how it was going to be made, and in some ways I think he kept it from being made. Charlie was an original, that’s all. He used language in a way that I hadn’t seen used before. Towne speculated that his sister’s acclaimed screenplay for Five Easy Pieces was actually about Charles. Charlie was just one of those shadowy figures that I think cast a longer shadow over most of us than was generally recognised. Eastman would finally make his one and only foray into directing three years after this production with The All-American Boy, a boxing film starring Jon Voight. This is distinguished not just by the performances of opposites (a sexy opportunistic louse taking advantage of an ordinary decent rube) but by the evocative feelings it inspires – you get a real sense of character, predicament and place, indicating what Towne might have seen in Eastman’s writing – a kind of poetry, perhaps. That’s great screenwriting. It ain’t how you do, it’s where you’ve been. It feels as though it’s minting new archetypes it’s so fresh, vivid and affecting. It hits home even further in the special soundtrack of songs performed by Johnny Cash and written by him, Carl Perkins and Bob Dylan – arguably their on-the-nose content is the only thing that dates this, if at all. An unsung Seventies film and Pollard is just fabulous as Little. Sumptuously shot in Panavision by Ralph Woolsey on location in Antelope Valley, Sonoma County and Sears Point Raceway in San Francisco. Produced by Al Ruddy, Gray Frederickson (they would make The Godfather in a couple of years) and actor Brad Dexter – it was one of four films he produced. Wonderfully directed by Sidney J. Furie. What else is there to do?

The Magnificent Seven Ride! (1972)

The Magnificent Seven Ride

Aka The Magnificent Seven 4Seven’s always been my lucky number. Former gunslinger Chris Adams (Lee Van Cleef) has put his rowdy days behind him, settling down with new wife Arrilla (Mariette Hartley) and serving as the sheriff of his town in the Arizona territory. When his old pal Jim Mackay (Ralph Waite) asks for help defending the border town of Magdalena, Mexico, from a marauding bandit named Juan De Toro (Ron Stein) and his 50-strong band of outlaws, Chris refuses. Arrilla persuades him to reluctantly release teenage bankrobber Shelly Donovan (Darrell Larson) but Donovan and his gang kidnap and hang her after they rob another bank and wound Chris in the getaway. He then enlists a cutthroat gang of prisoners led by Mark Skinner (Luke Askew) to help him get revenge, pursuing De Toro into Mexican territory and helping a town of women who’ve been raped by the marauding men, including widowed mother Laurie Gunn (Stefanie Powers), while newspaper reporter Noah Forbes (Michael Callan) accompanies him to document the latest events in his storied career out West as he kidnaps De Toro’s woman (Rita Rogers) setting up a shootout to even the score … There sure has been a lot of killing since I met you. With Lee Van Cleef in the saddle as the redoubtable Chris, you know you’re in good hands. If it never feels exciting, exactly, there’s a decent plot by Arthur Crowe that turns the screws more than once, it has pretty good roles for two of my favourite actresses and it’s all set up well visually by director George McCowan and cinematographer Fred Koenekamp. And there’s still the variation on that legendary score by Elmer Bernstein anchoring the action which is pretty much nonstop. Don’t die just ridin’, that’d be a real anti-climax

Used Cars (1980)

Used Cars

Fifty bucks never killed anybody! Rudy Russo (Kurt Russell) is an unscrupulous car salesman who aspires to become a State Senator for Arizona. In the meantime he works for the nice but ineffective old dealer Luke Fuchs (Jack Warden) with a dodgy ticker selling bangers that die once they leave the lot. When Luke dies in mysterious circumstances, Rudy takes over the business, but he faces stiff competition from his rival across the street, the scheming Roy L. Fuchs – pronounced ‘fewks’ – (also Warden) who wants his brother’s business for himself because he’s paying off the Mayor to put the interstate freeway through the property. Rudy needs to get hold of $10,000 to launch his political campaign. In order to get more customers, Rudy and Roy each devise ever more ridiculous promotions to gain the upper hand. Now it’s every salesman for himself! Then Luke’s estranged daughter Barbara Jane (Deborah Harmon) shows up just when there’s a televised Presidential address to disrupt They are the lowest form of scum on the face of this earth and I urge you to stay away from them! John Milius gave the idea for the script to Robert Zemeckis & Bob Gale and lo! comedy gold was born in this outrageous tale of oneupmanship, rivalry and sheer chutzpah, a parody of hucksters and a satire about the USA at the tail end of the 70s. Russell and Warden are fantastic. This country’s going to the dogs. Used to be, when you bought a politician the son of a bitch stayed bought! Gerrit Graham, David L. Lander, Frank McRae and Michael McKean are among the brilliant cast where everyone has an angle, even Toby the dog. Screamingly funny, this is one of the best bad taste comedies ever made and simply hurtles to its riotous conclusion taking absolutely everybody prisoner on its mercilessly outrageous joyride. Executive produced by Milius and Steven Spielberg. Nothing sells a car better than a car itself. Now remember this, you have to get their confidence, get their friendship, get their trust. Then get their money

Down Three Dark Streets (1954)

Down Three Dark Streets

I kept asking myself, all night long, who would want to such a thing? FBI agent John Ripley (Broderick Crawford) inherits three cases his murdered partner Zack Stewart (Kenneth Tobey) has been investigating, hoping one of them will turn up his killer. Glamourpuss Connie Anderson (Martha Hyer) can be connected to gas station killer Joe Walpo (Joe Bassett). Fashion buyer Kate Martell (Ruth Roman) is getting phonecalls extorting insurance money that she received following her husband’s death and her young daughter is being threatened.When boxer Matty Pavelich (Claude Akins) beats up blind Julie Angelino (Marisa Pavan) her husband Vince (Gene Reynolds) agrees to testify, so another case is tied up … I don’t like men staring at me before lunch. Adapted by The Gordons (Mildred and Gordon) from their novel Case File FBI, this serves as something of a Valentine to that agency although J. Edgar Hoover reputedly objected to the early draft scripts. It’s enlivened by the shift between documentary-style realism, great location shooting and a conventional thriller mode boasting some terrific female performances, particularly Hyer (once touted as the new Grace Kelly) giving it the full Marilyn Monroe as the sexpot link to a mysterious criminal. Roman is her customarily intense self with a problematic household, an aggressive romantic interest (Max Showalter) and a job as a fashion buyer to contend with; while Crawford’s gruff persona suits the no-nonsense lead role. There is some especially piquant dialogue and a gloriously funny moment when an inventor tries to sell him on a Geiger counter for spies (it has a light that comes on when a taxman is in the vicinity). The stories are well put together and it ends (happily, for the viewer at least) at the Hollywood sign in a Los Angeles that is still notably rural, with the freeway almost empty of the traffic to come. Directed by Arnold Laven. Sometimes you meet some nice people in this business

Gunsmoke (1953)

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Aka Roughshod. I’ve seen a man take two drinks of that stuff and go out and hunt bear with a willow switch.Wandering hired gun Reb Kittridge (Audie Murphy) is hired to get the deed of the last remaining ranch not owned by local boss Matt Telford (Donald Randolph) that is owned by former outlaw Dan Saxon (Paul Kelly). Though Reb has not yet accepted the job he is ambushed by Saxon’s ranch foreman Curly Mather (Jack Kelly) and challenged to a gun fight by Saxon, both attempts to kill him being unsuccessful. Saxon senses Reb has good in him and when he hears Reb’s goal in life is to own his own ranch he loses the deed of the ranch to Reb in a card draw. Reb takes over the ranch and moving its cattle herd to a railhead for sale to the workers. Telford hires Reb’s fellow gunslinger Johnny Lake to stop the herd and Reb. Reb has also fallen in love with the rancher’s daughter (Susan Cabot) who currently is in love with Mather … You had twelve reasons… each one of ’em had a gun in his hand. I understand you got run out of Wyoming, too. With Cora Dufrayne (Mary Castle) pulling a Marlene and singing The Boys in the Back Room with a troupe of showgirls in the saloon; and cult fave Cabot as the other woman, this has a lot going on besides the quickfire banter and genre action antics. It has no connection with the legendary TV show of the same name but it does have Audie, and that’s a lot.  Fun and fast-moving. I never did like to shoot my friends

Ulzana’s Raid (1972)

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It’s how they are. They have always been like this. When word arrives that Apache warrior Ulzana (Joaquin Martinez) has assembled a war party and left the San Carlos Indian Reservation, the United States Army assigns veteran tracker John McIntosh (Burt Lancaster) and Apache scout Ke-Ni-Tay (Jorge Luke) to lead a young, prejudiced lieutenant Garnett DeBuin (Bruce Davison) and his troops from Fort Lowell to find Ulzana. Outmanoeuvered and unfamiliar with the terrain, the cavalry struggles to stop the long-mistreated and raging Apaches from destroying everything in their path in what initially seem like senseless acts of violence upon homesteads and families … The only thing that won’t slow them down is how much killing they do. Alan Sharp’s screenplay is about a devastating period in American history, that quarter of the nineteenth century when a brutal ethnic cleansing was carried out in the name of white conquest;  equally, it is about the astonishing violence of the Native Americans and this is a film that always has an eye on the war in Vietnam:  draw your own conclusions.  This narrative is hewed from a real attack in Arizona in 1885. Davison is good as the naïf who gains an education in the harshest possible conditions, Lancaster is superb as the ageing man who mentors him in the ways of the west. Between them is the compromised Ke-Ni-Tay who has insider information on Ulzana because their wives are sisters. Never an easy watch, despite the ostensibly beautiful camera setups, it’s one of the key westerns of its era and is an underrated work from director Robert Aldrich. Man give up his power when he die

Arizona (1940)

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Did you ever see a man’s stomach tore open by a shotgun? Phoebe Titus (Jean Arthur) is the only woman in 1861 Tucson, Arizona and after falling for Peter Muncie (William Holden) who’s passing through, offers him a job in the freight company she’s just set up with Solomon Warner (Paul Harvey) the local storekeeper but he wants to see California and promises to return. Then charming southern dandy Jefferson Carteret (Warren William) shows up as the Civil War breaks out and coerces Phoebe’s main competitor Lazarus Ward (Porter Hall) into joining in with undermining her business while pretending to be her friend. He bribes local Indians to attack her wagon supply and meantime the Confederate troops secure local allegiance but are called away and Tucson is in trouble when Peter shows up with Union soldiers …  Gets on my dander how a doggone war interferes with the plans of people who want to mind their own business. Adapted by Claude Binyon (better known for romcoms and musicals) from the 1939 Clarence Budington Kelland novel, this was shot around the Sonoran Desert and takes a male genre and turns it into a battle of the sexes story with a distinct feminist twist. That makes sense when you have Arthur as the protagonist – with that can-do attitude and the gurgle of a voice, she’s perfectly cast and knew the territory after playing Calamity Jane in DeMille’s The Plainsman. Plus Binyon and director Wesley Ruggles had previously collaborated on a number of films presenting women in a great light, including the great screwball comedy True Confession (starring Carole Lombard) as well as the previous year’s collaboration with Arthur, Too Many Husbands, a version of the Enoch Arden story (by Somerset Maugham) trumped by My Favorite Wife at the box office. The personal touch abounds in this epic, the central asymmetrical romance with Holden (years younger than Arthur, who never looked her real age) matched by the villainy of William.  While we bide our time waiting for the sublime twist ending, played beautifully by Arthur, there’s lots of shoot ’em ups, murders, wartime action and a fantastically shot cattle rush. The film was made in blistering heat which added horribly to the discomfort and budget. Nonetheless it’s a great showcase for Arthur who revels in the situation and the witty lines gifted this pioneering frontier woman. She’s one tough cookie! The music by Victor Young is a series of  inventive orchestrations of and variations on Stephen Foster’s Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair.  If this is what it’s like to be in love I’m glad I’m only going to love once

Junior Bonner (1972)

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Rodeo time, I gotta get it on down the road/What road? I mean, I’m workin’ on my first million, and you’re still workin’ on eight seconds. Middle-aged rodeo rider Junior Bonner (Steve McQueen) returns to his Arizona hometown where he reunites with his family, which includes his charming, troublemaker of a father, Ace (Robert Preston), and his ambitious real estate-developer brother Curly (Joe Don Baker). Mom Elvira (Ida Lupino) is estranged from her husband. So while Ace dreams of finding his fortune in Australia, Junior is determined to conquer a tough bull named Sunshine by riding it for eight seconds. Can Junior claim victory over Sunshine and stay in the rodeo business?… Junior, you’re my brother, and I guess I love you. Well, we’re family. I don’t care what you do. You can sell one lot or a hundred lots. I’m just tryin’ to keep us together. Directed by Sam Peckinpah from a script by Jeb Rosebrook, this is a wonderful, warm, sympathetic portrait of a man having issues with ageing, returning home to a scrappy if welcoming family in a changing West and finally figuring out who he is. This is another Peckinpah film about the coming of modernity to the frontier and when we see The Wild Bunch embroidered on a suited-and-booted rider’s saddle blanket it’s just one thread of symbolic commentary in the bountiful narrative. There’s a great use of split-screen for the Prescott rodeo and the performances are memorable in an affecting, compelling film, probably Peckinpah’s most gentle outing with an undertow of violence beneath the gentility and quest for honour. McQueen is brilliant as the cowboy staking his claim. There’s one of him, and one of me

A Star is Born (2018)

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Music is essentially 12 notes between any octave – 12 notes and the octave repeat. It’s the same story told over and over, forever. All any artist can offer this world is how they see those 12 notes. That’s it. Seasoned musician country rocker Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) discovers and falls in love with struggling singer/songwriter Ally (Lady Gaga) when she performs in a drag bar. She has just about given up on her dream to make it big as a singer until Jackson coaxes her into the spotlight, bringing her on stage at one of his gigs to perform a song she’s written and he has arranged. He feels sorry for her when she tells him she is constantly told, You sound great, but you don’t look so great. Jackson is playing better than ever despite his crippling tinnitus which means his ears buzz every time he’s onstage and his hearing is diminishing, while Ally shines in the light of his stardom. As Ally’s career takes off when she’s taken under his wing and then makes a deal with the help of her nasty manager Rez (Rafi Gavron) the personal side of their relationship is breaking down. The self-sabotaging Jackson fights an ongoing battle with his own internal demons, drinking, drugging, fighting with his older brother and caretaker Bobby (Sam Elliott) who taught him everything he knew while Ally performs to adoring fans and he struggles with his hearing problem … Look, talent comes everywhere, but having something to say and a way to say it so that people listen to it, that’s a whole other bag. And unless you get out and you try to do it, you’ll never know. That’s just the truth. The fourth incarnation of this story under this title and a remake of the 1976 pop star version, this is an adaptation of a story that first came to the screen under the title What Price Hollywood? a cautionary tale about movie stardom. Electrifying and enervating by turns, I changed my mind about this film probably three times while viewing it. It hits all the screenwriting marks – one hour into running time, things begin to change and at minute sixty-five Ally is taking over and the last hour is rife with issues. A lot of the problems are summed up by the term naturalistic – something that could be described as a substitute for acting technique by one half of the duo at the story’s centre:  scenes are too long and you long for some reaction shots. Jackson’s earthiness is juxtaposed with the savvy pop Ally manufactures at her manager’s behest.  These people are performing for very different audiences but the film is truly at its height when they are duetting despite their contrasting aesthetics. The last seventy-five minutes drag rather repetitively with the suicide scene and its inevitability triggered by Jack’s admission to the psychiatrist that he first attempted it aged 13 which just indicates what we already know. The Saturday Night Live performance scene is poorly judged. The downward spiral needed one more story beat – to show that Jackson had some will to live:  the appeal of this Evergreen story lies in the will to power transformation of the ugly duckling into the swan while her progenitor dies to make way for her celebrity. It seems too easy for one talent to surrender to another. It gains traction however from the powerful songs which were largely co-written by the stars (with other writers including Lukas Nelson, Willie’s son) and their performance in live settings as they tell the story of the relationship and the diverging destinations of the protagonists. It’s all about her really – as we see from the clever titles in blood red echoing Garland and the final shot, a massive close up on Ally’s jolie laide face. It’s more than forty years since the last incarnation which means we missed the Nineties version and one of the issues here which is lightly touched upon is how the nature of celebrity has altered through social media and paparazzi in an entirely new century – it’s handled just enough to remain cinematic without horrible phone screens and irritating typage appearing (thank you to the debutant director for this mercy). Their differing styles are heightened as he looks from his old school perspective at the dancers Rez has deployed to give Ally mass marketability onstage:  it’s not just popularity she wants, it’s world pop domination. What we know about the woman for whom the story now exists is inscribed in the screenplay: Lady Gaga’s own physical attributes – the nose job was covered, oh, a decade ago?! in her real life and it of course alludes to Streisand in the same role; while she (sort of) protests about photos that don’t even look like me and we have seen for ourselves Gaga’s gradually altering appearance offscreen, meat dresses notwithstanding; and her appeal to Little Monsters is managed through her association with drag queens and her makeover with icky red hair (she objects to the suggestion that she turn blonde – why?) and the content of her lyrics; while her voracious desire for multi-platform fame is given a cover by bringing on a vicious British manager to be the bad guy. The central mismatched lovers find their balance in their family issues – with Andrew Dice Clay coming off like a nice version of Amy Winehouse’s dad complete with his delusions of Sinatra-style infamy. Cooper’s problematically deep speaking voice for the role is actually addressed in the script when he tells big brother Sam Elliott I stole your voice which is both an in-joke and a nod to the audience’s familiarity with the western star’s growl;  Cooper’s self-effacing performance – which of course makes Gaga’s star shine brighter – makes this hard to endure since his alcoholic demise is hard-wired into our cultural DNA and sometimes it’s quite impossible to understand what he’s trying to say – ironically, since, his message here is, you need to make your voice heard. It’s well played because the pair are playing off each other’s inspiring talent albeit the vampirism quickly feels one-sided.  Still, it’s quite a double act, no matter how you feel about them. An imperfect but striking piece of work. Written by Eric Roth and Bradley Cooper & Will Fetters (who says he was inspired by what happened to Kurt Cobain), adapted from Moss Hart’s 1954 screenplay which was an inspiration for the 1976 screenplay by John Gregory Dunne & Joan Didion and Frank Pierson.  The 1937 screenplay was by William Wellman and Robert Carson while the original screenplay about star-crossed lovers colliding, What Price Hollywood?, was written by Adela Rogers St Johns and Louis Stevens. Directed by Bradley Cooper.  Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die