Alvarez Kelly (1966)

Alvarez Kelly

I’m a reasonable man. If I weren’t I might go over to the other side. In 1864 Alvarez Kelly (William Holden) is a Mexican-Irish cattle rancher who is doing his best to stay out of the Civil War. He has no interest in which side may win or lose being more concerned about his own survival, and about making money, supplying cattle to the Union side via Major Tom Stedman (Patrick O’Neal). He soon finds himself in the middle of the conflict, however, when a confederate colonel Tom Rossiter (Richard Widmark) captures him and forces Kelly to help his soldiers steal a nearby herd of cattle, which they desperately need for food. Kelly is blackmailed into doing it by alluring and very well-named treacherous widow Charity Warwick (Victoria Shaw) but is really attracted to a madam in peril Liz Pickering (Janice Rule) whose escape he engineers. However on the trail of the rustlers is Stedman and it becomes a battle of wits as Kelly has to decide whose side he really does belong to God deliver me from dedicated men. A dynamic story that somehow doesn’t get justice which you can probably put down to the stylings of director Edward Dmytryk. The screenplay by Franklin Coen (with uncredited rewrites by Daniel Taradash and Elliott Arnold) certainly has all the elements required for a frequently comic western, albeit the humour is rooted in darkness and male sexuality. The casting is of course key:  Widmark is playing to his Tommy Udo reputation while you can see why Peckinpah wanted hyper-sexed renegade Holden in The Wild Bunch a few years later. The combination of fruity exchanges and violence creates a particularly potent admixture even if you would never credit Dmytryk with an ability to indulge humour. The scenes between Holden and Rule are especially pleasurable:  Pity is the real empty room I despise, she deadpans. They’re a sure thing. Until they’re not. The rivalry with Widmark is extremely well played, with an edge of nastiness that tips into threat and violence on many occasions. Save for a few obvious process shots it looks very well courtesy of Joseph MacDonald and gets rebalanced at the end with a tremendous pairing of stampede and shootout in a slick robbery that even impressed Lincoln. The virtuous Irish lord wasn’t able to stop his son from becoming a pirate

For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943)

For Whom the Bell Tolls

In our country, General, they say never blow a bridge until you come to it. During the Spanish Civil War, an American professor of Spanish and explosives expert, Robert Jordan (Gary Cooper) allied with the Republicans finds romance with freedom fighting peasant Maria (Ingrid Bergman) during a desperate mission to blow up a strategically important bridge in the mountains while the Axis powers attempt to establish a base in Europe … Each of us must do this thing alone. Bergman got another Oscar nomination for her performance and Cooper displays his stoic masculinity in Dudley Nichols’ romantic (and lengthy) adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s classic novel. The protean quality of both stars is much in evidence here – Bergman is luminous as the Loyalist and Cooper is a perfect hero, strong, reliable and deeply felt. I’ve always loved you but I never saw you before. They make an awesome couple.  They don’t shoot you for being a Republican in America. However the adaptation isn’t as focused on action as it ought to be, the dialogue is occasionally too on the nose (explaining that Germany and Italy are using Spain against Russia) and overall this is not especially well staged, confined as it is to studio settings (imagine if they’d done this somewhere as lush as Northern Spain). Katina Paxou got the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award and she’s tremendous as the tough plain-speaking older woman Pilar in this story of betrayals and compromise – and, inevitably, sacrifice. With Akim Tamiroff, Arturo de Cordova, Vladimir Sokoloff and Joseph Calleia in a characterful ensemble, this doesn’t lack for interesting exchanges or tension which escalates as the moment descends. The original running time was trimmed from 168 minutes to 130 and then restored to 165. It’s too long but as a relic of classic screen performances and despite the issues it’s still one of the better Hemingway adaptations and simply must be seen. Directed by Sam Wood. Each of us must do this thing alone

Little Women (2019)

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If the main character’s a girl she has to be married at the end. Or dead. In 1860s New England after the Civil War, Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) lives in New York and makes her living as a writer and teacher, sending money home, while her sister Amy (Florence Pugh) studies painting in Paris under the aegis of her wealthy Aunt March (Meryl Streep). Amy has a chance encounter with Theodore Laurence aka Laurie (Timothée Chalamet), a childhood crush from the upper class family next door who proposed to Jo but was ultimately rejected. Their oldest sibling, Meg (Emma Watson) is married to impoverished tutor John Brooke (James Norton) ,while shy sister Beth (Emma Scanlen) develops a devastating illness that brings the family back together under the leadership of their mother Marmee (Laura Dern) who is sad about her husband (Bob Odenkirk) being away in the War as a volunteer for the Union Army. As Jo recalls their experiences coming of age, she has to learn the hard way from a newspaper editor Mr Dashwood (Tracy Letts) and a fellow schoolteacher Professor Friedrich Bhaer (Louis Garrel) that her writing needs a lot of work if it’s to authentically represent her talentI will always be disappointed at being a girl. Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved American classic jumps around pivotal episodes and reorders them from present to past and back again, back and forth, to create a coherent, rising and falling set of emotions. Each sister has a distinct personality and aspirations;  each is valid, according to their wants and needs and desires; and each is bestowed a dignity. Ronan shines as Jo but all four are carefully delineated and Pugh as selfish Amy has the greatest emotional arc but she should sue the costumier for failing to tailor her clothes to her stocky figure. Watson isn’t quite right for Meg and her lack of technique is plain. Somehow though it’s always poor Beth who doesn’t get what she deserves:  charity does not begin at home in her case. Some things never change. Despite the liberties taken structurally the story feels rather padded and at 135 minutes it could do with at least 20 minutes being cut because the screenplay keeps retreading the same territory and spoonfeeds the audience in issues of equality and womanhood with whole dialogue exchanges that sound as though they’ve come from a contemporary novel. Even Marmee confesses to being angry all the time. The issue of copyright introduces an aspect of authorship in the last section which has a few different endings. Being a creative writer is one thing;  being an editor is quite different. Each serves a purpose and that is to serve the story well. A film that ultimately has as little faith in its audience as publisher Mr Dashwood has in his readership, this is undoubtedly of its time and it can stand the tinkering that has introduced Alcott’s own story into the mix with the ultimate fairytale ending for any writer – holding her first book in her hands.  Produced by Amy Pascal, who also worked on the 1994 version directed by Gillian Armstrong. Women, they have minds, and they have souls, as well as just hearts. And they’ve got ambition, and they’ve got talent, as well as just beauty. I’m so sick of people saying that love is just all a woman is fit for

 

 

Kansas Raiders (1950)

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He’s a real man is all I know. In Missouri after their parents are killed by Union soldiers, Jesse James (Audie Murphy) and his brother Frank (Richard Long) with the rest of their gang Cole Younger (James Best), James Younger (Dewey Martin) and Kit Dalton (Tony Curtis) ride into Kansas looking for William Clarke Quantrill (Brian Donlevy). Seeking revenge against the Union, Jesse wants to join Quantrill’s Raiders, who are plotting to claim Kansas for the Confederacy. The more time Jesse spends with Quantrill, however, the more he realises Quantrill isn’t a hero fighting for the South, but a murderous madman and the boys earn their stripes the hard way during a raid on Lawrence … In border country you’re either a Union man or a spy. Perhaps there’s a certain inevitability to America’s greatest WWII hero playing its greatest anti-hero but as well as being a Civil War story this is also a kind of rites of passage tale. The emphasis is on colourful fast-moving ride and revenge action and it’s hardly history even though it’s inspired by the Kansas-Missouri Border War:  the raid on Lawrence wasn’t so much a gun battle as a straight up massacre.  Donlevy is too old but is certainly vicious enough in his role as the notoriously maniacal Quantrill. However the sentiments are true and Audie’s neophyte acting fits the part neatly in his fifth film. This is all about youthfulness and finding your place in the world, albeit with a knife in one hand and a gun in the other. An early highlight is a ‘handkerchief fight’ between him and Quantrill’s third in command Tate (David Wolfe); and Marguerite Chapman has an apposite role as a woman in a man’s world. And as for Curtis’ accent! Written by Robert L. Richards and directed by Ray Enright in locations that do not suggest their setting. More recruits for the butcher brigade

Mysterious Island (1961)

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Why don’t we turn this island into a democracy and elect a leader? During the Civil War, a group of soldiers led by Captain Cyrus Harding (Michael Craig) escape a Confederate prison siege using an observation balloon, and due to a storm that lasts four days and pitches them off course, are forced to land on a strange island that is full of tropical jungles and volcanoes. They are confronted by giant mutated animals, find two Englishwomen, Lady Mary Fairchild (Joan Greenwood) and her niece Elena (Beth Rogan) washed up from a shipwreck, fight marauding pirates and are then confronted by the infamous Captain Nemo (Herbert Lom) whose submarine the Nautilus was feared lost off Mexico eight years previously. They need to escape and that volcano is rumbling but will Nemo assist them using his engineering genius? … We lived like primitive men using primitive implements. The followup to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea doesn’t start particularly promisingly – the escape from the Confederate prison isn’t very well handled by director Cy Endfield, not the first name you’d come up with for an effects-laden juvenile fantasy flick taken from Jules Verne’s two-part novel. However when the action kicks in on the island and the Ray Harryhausen effects interplay with the threat of a volcano about to blow and those sheer painted backdrops hint at disaster, well, it finally gets interesting. Everything is punctuated by regular run-ins with those giant creatures who are the result of Nemo’s horticultural physics experiments. The laughs come courtesy of war journo Gideon Spilitt (Gary Merrill) who has an ongoing run of food jokes: I wonder how long this will take to cook in a slow oven, he deadpans about the giant chicken they believe they’ve killed; turns out Nemo shot it. The cast is excellent although Craig doesn’t set the screen alight and it’s great to see Lom doing his Nemo:  he’s a misunderstood guy who just wants to stop the causes of war. Rogan and Michael Callan get to do a bit of romancing before being sealed into a giant honeycomb; while Percy Herbert and Dan Jackson bring up the rear. The whole shebang is carried by Bernard Herrmann’s sonorous score, booming from the screen as surely as those explosives. From a screenplay by Crane Wilbur, Daniel B. Ullman and John Prebble. Shot at Shepperton Studios and on location in Catalonia. A man could write an inspired novel in a place like this

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

Winchester (2018)

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Aka The 13th Hour. A house in permanent construction on the orders of a grieving woman. In 1906 the board of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company solicit the services of widowed and dissolute laudanum-addicted Dr Eric Price (Jason Clarke) to assess the mental health of Sarah Lockwood Winchester (Helen Mirren) heiress to the Winchester fortune.  She is in the middle of a neverending building project that stands seven stories tall and contains hundreds of rooms. To an outsider, it looks like a monstrous monument to her unravelling mind but for her it is an asylum for hundreds of vengeful ghosts – and the most terrifying among them have a score to settle with the Winchesters and her niece Marion’s (Sarah Snook) son Henry (Finn Scicluna-O’Prey) seems to be the vehicle for revenge… Instruments of death have a powerful connection with the afterlife. Tom Vaughan and directors the Spierig Brothers write a not very scary supernatural horror that excavates the legend of America’s most haunted house via the ghosts of the Civil War, killed by the rifle that won it for the Union. Clarke is more sympathetic than usual while the great Mirren in her widow’s weeds isn’t given much space in a narrative that has an interesting focus on what happens in life involving the afterlife and ghosts with PTSD but seems to lose the plot. It’s lavish but I wouldn’t call it home. Do you know who the most terrifying monster is? The one you invite in

Westbound (1959)

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Well, they tell me they got a good man runnin’ this place.  In 1864 former Union officer, John Hayes (Randolph Scott) manages the Overland stagecoach company which transports gold to the North from California. Clay Putnam (Andrew Duggan), a businessman who’s quit working for Overland and is secretly loyal to the South, is intent on robbing the coaches. Hoping to heist the treasure as a way to revive the Confederacy, Putnam also has a grudge against Hayes, since his wife, Norma (Virginia Mayo), was once involved with Hayes. It seems everyone in this small Colorado town is now out to help the South …  You walk out of this house and you go out the way you came in… with nothing but the clothes on your back! The sixth in the western partnership between Scott and producer/director Budd Boetticher this does not belong to the official Ranown cycle and is written by Bern Giler (as opposed to Burt Kennedy) from a story with Albert S. Le Vino. It’s not the typically taut film you’d expect from that team but it’s notable for the killing of a small child and two striking female performances by Mayo and Karen Steele (as Jeanie Miller). Scott is solid as ever. That’s a lot of woman!

Gone With the Wind (1939)

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What a woman.  The life of petulant southern belle Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh), from her idyllic youth on a sprawling plantation, through her survival through the tragic history of the South during the Civil War and Reconstruction, and her tangled love affairs with Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard) who marries his cousin Melanie (Olivia de Havilland); and roguish Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) who wants her for himself and makes money as a blockade runner while Ashley goes to warLand’s the only thing that matters, the only thing that lasts. The drama of David O.Selznick’s search for Scarlett is well known, so too the issues with the directors (George Cukor was replaced by Victor Fleming, who was replaced for a spell by Sam Wood) but it’s the antebellum grandeur and the personalities of this epic historical romance set against the Civil War that continue to enthrall.  The beauty of plantation life is contrasted with the vivid scenes of Atlanta in flames;  the picture perfect homes and life embroidering and dancing and romancing are juxtaposed with the screams of the dying soldiers. Scarlett’s deceitful delusions about Ashley are dissipated by the reality of his cowardice. And there are the unexpected mini-dramas too:  that Scarlett becomes a can-do woman and saves Tara as her family cry bullying; when Rhett drunkenly asserts his droit de seigneur over Scarlett, she wakes up the next day as pleased with herself as the cat that got the cream. This image still has the capacity to shock (if not entirely surprise). That the screenplay and the performances effortlessly manage the extremes of humanity is a tribute to the talent behind the scenes and in front of camera. Gable is magnificent, but so too is de Havilland as Melanie, the kindest woman ever, who has the breadth of compassion to handle everything put her way and unexpectedly expresses delight when Scarlett kills a Yankee soldier. However it is Leigh’s film:  she is simply perfect as the selfish coquette who becomes brave when everyone around her is falling to pieces and she lives a wholly ironic life as a result. They say great characters make great books and I read it when I was fourteen, a great age to appreciate the feeling that Margaret Mitchell gives to these fully developed people living through the worst of times and trying in their own particular way to survive it. Expertly adapted by Sidney Howard. Wonderful. Tomorrow is another day

Sweet Home Alabama (2002)

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In my entire life I have never met anyone so manipulative, so deceitful. And I’m in politics!  New York fashion designer and socialite Melanie Carmichael (Reese Witherspoon) suddenly finds herself engaged to the city’s most eligible bachelor Andrew Hennings(Patrick Dempsey) whose mother just happens to be Mayor (Candice Bergen). But Melanie’s past holds many secrets, including Jake Perry (Josh Lucas), the redneck husband she married in high school, who refuses to divorce her seven years after being sent the papers. Determined to end their relationship once and for all, Melanie sneaks back home to Alabama to confront him, only to discover that you can take the girl out of the South, but you can’t take the South out of the girl…. I don’t care if he’s a Yankee. At least he’s sober! Douglas J. Eboch’s story was developed as a screenplay by C. Jay Cox and it’s a tour de force for Witherspoon whose astonishing charm keeps this Southern-fried screwball show on the road as she gets to pick between two smouldering romantic interests:  her good ol’ boy sort-of ex who deep down is as polished as the sand struck by lightning that makes those glass sculptures of his;  and the smooth city charmer who really loves her despite his overbearing mom warning him off since she sees him as the next JFK. The story is nicely buoyed by turning Deep South tropes on their head and having a lot of fun with Civil War re-enactments – Fred Ward has a ball as Mel’s enthusiastic dad and it’s nice to see Mary Kay Place getting a turn as her mother who wants more for her than the life she had. At the heart of this story is a smalltown girl made good who once blew up the local bank and now struggles with her identity and this grounds the fairytale-fish out of water narrative as it comes back to haunt her in the most amusing way. Reverting to type never seemed so entertaining. You will certainly know the songs. Directed by Andy Tennant.  How many times does your only daughter get married? Other than before …