Showdown (1963)

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Aka The Iron Collar. Maybe together you might make one good man. Chris Foster (Audie Murphy) has to get $12,000  in stolen bonds from the ex-girlfriend Estelle (Kathleen Crowley) of his partner Bert Pickett (Charles Drake), or the gang holding him hostage led by wanted outlaw Lavalle (Harold Stone) will kill him. When Chris tracks Estelle down singing her last song in a saloon before catching the stage out of town it seems she has other plans for the money … Seems to me you’re more cat than kitten. An efficient tale dressed up with some unusual levels of violence and occasionally ripe dialogue – Stone gets to expound on his love of oysters which might put you in mind of a certain monologue authored by Gore Vidal in a rather different setting. Strother Martin has a good role as the town drunk while Crowley looks great and gives some odd line readings in a story that is piquant and threatening, with some nice black and white shooting done around Lone Pine, CA.  Written by Bronson Howitzer (aka TV western scribe Ric Hardman) and directed by R.G. Springsteen.  Most of his friends grow well in the dark

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

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

Toy Story 4 (2019)

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It’s time for the next kid. Nine years after Andy has left for college and he’s been separated from Bo Peep (Annie Potts), cowboy Woody (Tom Hanks) helps his new kid Bonnie (Madeline McGraw) when she gets upset at her first day of kindergarten where she makes her new toy Forky (Tony Hale) from a spork.  Forky believes he’s trash but Woody teaches him he’s Bonnie’s friend. When the family goes on an RV road trip and Forky jumps ship, Woody sets out to get him back and they fetch up in a secondhand shop where they get trapped by a doll called Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) who desperately wants a voicebox to nab a human friend and Woody has what she needs.  Her henchmen ventriloquist dolls The Dummies (Steve Purcell) help her. In their quest to reunite Bonnie with Forky, the gang assemble with Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) pressing his own buttons to access his inner voice and Woody is reunited with Bo who’s found a new existence living in the middle of a travelling carnival.  There’s a race against time to make sure Bonnie doesn’t take off before finding her new friend… I am not a toy, I was made for soups, salads, maybe chili, and then the trash. Freedom! We know over a quarter century pretty much everything that toys are thinking about and here the thread of the lost toy narrative continues with Bo having a life as an independent girl, Forky experiencing an existential crisis and Woody seeing that there can be a life beyond the needs of his human child owner. Perhaps the store where most of the action occurs is a limited palette in terms of narrative possibility but there are good in-jokes, real jeopardy, sorrow and lessons. The toys can be scared of other toys too – my goodness those dummies! Bolstered by another set of songs from Randy Newman, this is a bittersweet conclusion to one of cinema’s classic series, but here we have a child who has a stronger emotional bond with a utensil than with the toys purposed for human relationships and two and a half decades of our own responses. Maybe it’s Pixar’s way of saying to us all, Grow Up, as the gang is surplus to most requirements here and the narrative is not unified in the way one has come to expect. Ironically then, beware of leaving early – the credits are worth waiting for as we are deftly pushed away to lead our own off-screen lives. Directed by Josh Cooley from a screenplay by Andrew Stanton and Stephany Bolsom, based on a story by them and Rashida Jones, John Lasseter, Will MacCormack, Valerie LaPointe and Martin Hynes. He’s not lost. Not anymore. To infinity…

The Hired Hand (1971)

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You mean you ain’t gonna go to the coast? It’s the 1880s. After seven years wandering in the Southwest during which young travelling companion Griffen (Robert Pratt) is murdered for the hell of it in a small town run by corrupt sheriff McVey (Severn Darden), drifting cowboy Harry Collings (Peter Fonda) abandons his dream of going to California and seeing the Pacific and brings along his friend Arch Harris (Warren Oates) when he returns to his wife Hannah (Verna Bloom) and ranch … I wasn’t ready, that’s all. With its dreamy opening, unconventional mid-section and leisurely approach, debut director Peter Fonda was given free rein (following Easy Rider) with this Alan Sharp screenplay, Vilmos Zsigmond supplying beautifully naturalistic imagery edited into something of an occasionally hallucinatory montage by Frank Mazzola. The performances are a wonder. We are more accustomed to seeing Oates directed by Sam Peckinpah and here he is sympathetic and wise, a diametric opposite to the innocence embodied by the tragic Griffen. Then he unwittingly forms part of a new triangle with his friend’s wife. The marvellous Bloom meanwhile hints at a depth of narrative that doesn’t always reveal itself on the simple surface. She’s a frontier woman who didn’t replace a dog that’s run off – but she has herself had relations with other men during her husband’s walkabout, crudely describing the experiences as “like two dogs.” She’s one tough cookie and Bloom herself (Medium Cool, High Plains Drifter, National Lampoon’s Animal House, The Last Temptation of Christ) was a hell of an actress: she died in January of this year. The idea of a marriage being revisited is tested not just in the situation but in the visuals, as this younger husband has finally become the man his older wife needed, quietly reinventing their relationship. He’s what you went looking for. It’s not just about romance, it’s also about friendship and loyalty, travelling, hanging out, being – no doubt virtues of hippiedom mostly lost to us in the chatter of contemporary life, albeit this trip can be cut short by sudden violence, a constant trope in the most American of genres. The songs by Bruce Langhorne assist the mystical, even spiritual feel, enhanced by the cutting out of 20 minutes of more explanatory story, restored and then removed again for the 2001 re-release by its still centre, Fonda himself, who understands that the film operates like meditation.  But the beginning, and the conclusion, the alpha and the omega, as it were, are disturbing, the spectre of uneasy death all-pervasive. It’s been building up a long while

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

Navajo Joe (1966)

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Aka Un dollaro a testa. A man who knows what he wants is worth a lot. After carrying out a massacre on a peaceful Indian village, scalping the inhabitants for a dollar apiece, outlaw (and half-breed) Vee Duncan (Aldo Sambrell) finds his band of cutthroat brothers falling victim to a solitary rider, the warrior Navajo Joe (Burt Reynolds). Joe saves three prostitutes who have overheard Duncan plot with Lynne (Peter Cross aka Pierre Cressoy) the town doctor, to steal a Government train full of half a million dollars cash. Joe steals the train back from Duncan’s gang. He asks the townspeople of Esperanza to pay him to protect them from Duncan, making an offer: I want a dollar a head from every man in this town for every bandit I kill. The townspeople reject him, as they don’t make bargains with Indians. Lynne’s wife Hannah (Valeria Sabel) persuades them otherwise. Joe sets a trap for Duncan, but is caught and tortured; Lynne and Hannah are killed. Rescued by an old man from the saloon, Joe again steals the train and kills Duncan’s gang. There is then a showdown in an Indian cemetery, where Joe reclaims the pendant that Duncan stole from his wife when he murdered her. As Joe turns, Duncan shoots Joe with a hidden gun. Injured, Joe grabs a tomahawk and throws it, hitting Duncan square in the forehead. With Duncan dead, Joe sends his horse back to town, carrying the bank’s money… Burt Reynolds used to say that when Clint Eastwood came back from Europe on the heels of his Dollars trilogy with Sergio Leone, he too jumped at the opportunity of a good payday with a terrific director called Sergio when he came knocking. Then he arrived in Spain to find he was working with Sergio Corbucci! The wrong Sergio. And decked out in a wig that made him look like Natalie Wood he made a very violent film that netted him a cool $350,000:  not too dusty. He said of the experience, Of course when you play a half-breed you have to be stoic – and you can’t get funky – and you have to have a deep voice. Apparently there are no Indians with high voices. And you have to shave your arms all the time. It’s easy to get the left but just try and reach the right. In fact producer Dino DeLaurentiis had told Corbucci that Marlon Brando would be the lead – and cast Reynolds because he resembled him.  Brando couldn’t stand Reynolds – he had played a parody of him in a 1963 Twilight Zone episode (The Bard) and called him a narcissist!! This is in fact an iconic work with an extraordinary score by Ennio Morricone (credited as Leo Nichols):  its bones rattle throughout the culture and were hugely influential on one Quentin Tarantino (named of course for Quint Asper, Reynolds’ character on Gunsmoke) who would use some of the music in Kill Bill Vol 2. We are presented with a world of violence, cynicism and amorality with a deal of surrealism thrown in for good narrative measure and the action sequences are fantastically effective with the landscape being used superbly:  canyon, wilderness, cliff face, they are all part of the unfolding story. The Big Silence might be his masterpiece and Django (which he also made in 1966) his most renowned protagonist (and wasn’t he a gift that would go on giving and giving) but this is a loud war cry from the land of spaghetti. Reynolds is just dandy as the anti-heroic brave pushed to his limits (like Billy Jack?) in a film that was setting new sadistic boundaries for the genre:  the composition of the violent scenes manages to astonish. This sits right on the divide between art house and exploitation and the opening scene announces a text of brutality. It also has a sociopolitical basis with commentary about race that is rare in the genre – apparently it was DeLaurentiis’ idea to have an avenging Indian as protagonist. There is also care and attention to the women, which you don’t find in Leone’s work. For every sadist there must be a masochist and Joe really suffers here so you don’t wince at the prospect of violent revenge, you relish it.  Reynolds is brilliantly physical in a way that Eastwood never was – and as for Brando … His role may have filled him with regret but he’s a convincing man on a mission and there would be many imitators (pace Rambo) in the years to come. There’s a nice supporting performance by Nicoletta Machiavelli as Estella, Mrs Lynne’s half-Indian maid and Fernando Rey is typically good as the town’s priest, Reverend Rattigan but it’s Sambrell you’ll recall – and you’ll shudder at the memory of this horrific villain. Written by Piero Regnoli and Fernando di Leo from a story by Ugo Pirro.

 

 

 

Son of Belle Starr (1953)

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Do you know anyone who would trust the son of an outlaw?  Crooked Sheriff Hansen (Myron Healey) offers The Kid (Keith Larsen) – who’s wanted for a previous robbery – a one fifth split in a gold shipment theft. The Kid is infamous female bandit Belle Starr’s son but she and her Cherokee husband died violently and he’s been struggling to go straight and now he’s framed for something he didn’t do.  He doesn’t have too many friends in the town of Griswald but thinks he can trust his girlfriend Dolores (Dona Drake). After getting the gold he foils an attempt on his life, getting one of the other four robbers. Then he foils another murder attempt, getting one of the remaining three. Of the two remaining one is the Sheriff. The unknown other is the boss of the heist team and the man that framed him for the earlier robbery and he needs to expose him to prove his own innocence and bring the men to justice: is it the mine’s owner, George Clark (James Seay)? Or Bart Wren (Regis Toomey) who owns a piece of it? Time is running out and there’s a posse cornering him … Written by Jack DeWitt, D.D. Beauchamp and William Raynor this is pretty standard oater material except for its relationship with the Gene Tierney film Belle Starr that preceded it a dozen years earlier.  That was an A production with a screenplay by Lamar Trotti. This is cheap as chips, strictly B movie fodder, with an energetic cast doing their lively best amid shaky sets. There are nice supporting performances from band singer Drake as spicy and treacherous Dolores and Peggie Castle as the cool blonde daughter of the newspaper proprietor with Toomey as her brother. There’s a fabulously melodramatic score by Marlin Skiles. Directed by Frank McDonald, it’s pacy and colourful as you’d expect from a man who specialised in Bs and particularly westerns in the Fifties and he spent time shooting a slew of TV shows like The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickock, Annie Oakley, Buffalo Bill, Jr, Broken Arrow and The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, amongst others, before making Gunfight at Comanche Creek with Audie Murphy.

Casino Royale (1967)

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You are joke shop spies, gentlemen.  The original James Bond (David Niven) is the debonair spy, now retired and living a peaceful existence. He is reluctantly called back into duty when the mysterious organization SMERSH begins assassinating British secret agents (through the medium of sex) and he is impersonated by six impostors and his return to service includes taking on the villainous Le Chiffre (Orson Welles) and baccarat expert Evelyn Tremble (Peter Sellers) who is hired by Vesper Lynd (Ursula Andress, the greatest Bond girl of all!) to be yet another iteration of the great spy as she plays both ends against the middle.  Then there’s Bond’s bumbling nephew, Jimmy Bond (Woody Allen)… Producer Charles Feldman acquired the rights to Ian Fleming’s first Bond novel in 1960 but despite protracted negotiations with Eon could never agree terms so decided to send it up – everyone else was making Bond spoofs, so why shouldn’t he?  Wolf Mankowitz, John Law and Michael Sayers play fast and loose with the source and it’s directed variously by Ken Hughes, John Huston (who gets blown up early on in the film as M/McTarry), Joseph McGrath, Robert Parrish and an uncredited Richard Talmadge. Niven has fun in the film’s early sequence overlong though it is stretching credibility at its occasionally joyless spoofing. However there are compensations – Ursula and Peter’s sidelong romance;  motormouth comic Allen becoming silenced in the presence of his famous uncle;  Welles doing a magic trick. And what about Bond finding his illegitimate daughter Mata Bond (Joanna Pettet) by Mata Hari?! Meta is the word. And I love seeing Charles Boyer and George Raft (as himself!), Deborah Kerr sending up her Oirish accent from Black Narcissus playing the nun-wannabe widow of Huston, French spy spoofer Jean-Paul Belmondo, TV stars Ronnie Corbett and Derek Nimmo (and Catweazle plays Q!) with starlets Jacky (Jacqueline) Bisset and Alexandra Bastedo. Mad and quite bad it might be – there’s a flying saucer! And cowboys! – but heck it’s also a lot of fun, dated as it is. The cinematography by Jack Hildyard, Nicolas Roeg and John Wilcox is decadence itself. And then there’s the Burt Bacharach soundtrack and that song:  the desert island classic…

Monte Walsh (1970)

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I wish I knew something besides cowboyin’. It’s the end of the great wild west era and ageing cowboys Monte Walsh (Lee Marvin) and Chet Rollins (Jack Palance) arrive in the town of Harmony, where they reconnect with their old friend Shorty Austin (Mitch Ryan). The former wanderers do their best to settle down: Chet gets married and finds work, while Monte pursues saloon girl Martine (Jeanne Moreau) to a nearby township. But when the doldrums of sedentary life set in, they begin falling apart and find themselves embroiled in robbery, murder and vandalism and Monte’s failure to tame a bronco triggers a crisis… A beautiful directing debut for renowned cinematographer William A. Fraker. Its elegiac quality is underlined by the wonderfully empathetic score by John Barry, probably one of his most haunting themes. The romance between Marvin and Moreau is delightful while the shift in tone at the conclusion in this story of transition to modernity is captured sorrowfully by the photography of David M. Walsh. Adapted by Lukas Heller and David Zelag Goodman from Jack (Shane) Schaefer’s novel, this is western as metaphor. Quite marvellous.