Seven Men From Now (1956)

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Isn’t that one of the best titles ever?! Burt Kennedy’s first film script was intended for John Wayne – and his company made it – but he did The Searchers instead and it wound up being Randolph Scott’s story:  that of Ben Stride, a sheriff who blames himself for his wife’s death during a Wells Fargo robbery who sets out to avenge her death, tracking down each of the men responsible. He hitches a ride with a married couple whose wagon is stuck in the mud and becomes intrigued by the husband’s story (Greer, played by Walter Reed) while falling for the wife Annie (Gail Russell). They encounter Stride’s former nemesis Bill Masters (Lee Marvin) and his sidekick Clete (Don Barry) who decide to make off with the gold haul from the robbery when Stride has accomplished his mission. There is an encounter with hungry Indians, an ambush and an admission that the haul transported by Greer is the takings from the robbery. Shot in the beautiful landscape of Lone Pine, this is an elemental revenge western. Marvin is a choice, charismatic villain and the tragic Russell is wonderfully vulnerable as Scott’s romantic foil. Scott would perfect this laconic, grimly righteous hero who always finds himself in a shootout in an empty arena at the film’s conclusion. He insisted on Budd Boetticher as director and this became the template for a further six films they would do under Scott’s own production slate with producer Harry Joe Brown. For more on this film you can read my essay on Offscreen:  http://offscreen.com/view/final-showdown.

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Hell or High Water (2016)

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Call it white man’s intuition.  Taylor (Sicario) Sheridan writes a great screenplay so this was bound to be thrilling one way or another. Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) are brothers carrying out bank heists in west Texas to retrieve the family land, in foreclosure by the local bank two weeks after their Mom’s death. Tanner’s not long out of prison, Toby is divorced and wanting to do right by his sons:  he’s found oil on the property so he knows it’s crucial to get the ownership in order and there’s no way out now he’s lost his job and is behind in child support. Tanner carries out a third robbery after Toby is befriended by a waitress in a nearby diner and it’s the first bank to have CCTV that works. Texas Ranger Marcus (Jeff Bridges) who’s mere weeks from retirement gets the bit between his teeth and decides to take them down if he can figure out who they are by a simple method of deduction as the brothers rob the remaining banks in the chain – to repay the same bank  … Crafty, wise, mordantly funny and unbearably tense, this has two parallel male friendships – Marcus’s partner Indian-Mexican Alberto (Gil Birmingham) is the target of his ongoing race jokes –  winding around each other like DNA. This contemporary western has a great socio-political background (mass repossessions after the 2008 crash) and a wonderful setting:  look at those empty roads and desert and big skies. All four are convincing in their acutely interesting roles, everyone with something to lose and clearly defined by both action and dialogue. It reminds me of Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, another outing with Bridges but with him on the other side of the law four decades later. It asks questions about right and wrong and family and friendship and being a western it must have a logical conclusion – with a shootout. And then some. Brilliantly balanced storytelling that’s really well directed by David (Starred Up) Mackenzie, a Brit who clearly relished being let loose in all that big scenery.

The Shining (1980)

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In the bigger scheme of things I have no idea what this film is about and I don’t know anyone who does. It started as an adaptation of Stephen King’s horror novel but it evolved into something he disliked intensely.  It boasts a key performance in Jack Nicholson’s career – in which those eyebrows are utilised to express something truly demonic and he launched a million caricatures not least when he hymned Johnny Carson.  The bones of King’s novel are here – wannabe writer Jack Torrance decamps with wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and little son Danny (Danny Lloyd) to the Overlook Hotel in the Colorado mountains to act as caretaker in the off season, hoping to overcome writer’s block. His son has psychic premonitions, possessed by the building itself, which however do not manage to overwhelm him and he shares their secrets with chef Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) with whom he communicates telepathically. Then Jack senses the hotel’s secrets – it’s built on a Native American burial ground – and he starts to lose his mind as we begin to connect the dots with a party that took place in 1921 and a photograph …  What happens here is not as important as how it looks.  Stanley Kubrick and co-writer Diane Johnson remove all the tropes that characterise the haunted house novel and we are left with overlit flatness and unsaturated colours that repeat and repeat and create their own rhythm. There are images that sear themselves on your brain:  the elevator pouring blood into those endless corridors that get longer and longer as Danny cycles up and down the hotel;  the twin Grady girls; the bar that suddenly opens up;  the nubile young woman who turns into an old crone; Wendy finding out what Jack’s been typing for months and months on those sheaves of paper;  Danny’s voice, growling red rum, red rum;  and Jack hacking through the bathroom door with an ax as Wendy cowers; Jack killing Dick, whose return to the hotel is because he senses that Danny needs him; the maze filling with snow as Danny tries to escape his lunatic father. Kubrick’s authorial vision produces something very odd and compelling and against the notion of the traditional horror film, perhaps minus all those strange theories promulgated by the documentary Room 237 which has a major preoccupation with presumed spatial discrepancies in the building’s layout. This is notable for Garret Brown’s use of the Steadicam, another instance of Kubrick’s obsession with using all the then-new technology to create powerful visuals. This production may have arisen from the master’s deep need to make a commercial hit after the failure of the beautiful Barry Lyndon, but one thing’s for sure about this ghost story like no other – once seen, never forgotten. Here’s Johnny!

Many Rivers to Cross (1955)

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Not quite a feminist western, but, you know, getting close. Bushrod Gentry (Robert Taylor) is the happy fur trapping frontiersman (no laughs at the back) whose life is saved by Mary Stuart Cherne aka Steppin’ Woman (Eleanor Parker) and then she really sets her sights on this roving bachelor. She’s described to him by her Indian servant Sandak (Ralph Moody) as “runs fast, hacks good, shoots straight” and her family of wily brothers and father Cadmus (Victor McLaglen) send distinctly mixed messages when Mary lures Bushrod to The Big Cave where she gets him to kiss her and then declares they are as good as married. “Meeting you was like declaring war on France. Or some other big country,” sighs Bushrod. 1798 Kentucky is as amorous as it is humorous in this hugely enjoyable romp written by Harry Brown and Guy Trosper, adapted from a story in Argosy magazine by Steve Frazee. Parker has never been so warm on screen (in a role intended for Janet Leigh!) with Taylor an able match for her when it comes to fighting the Shawnees. Really good whipsmart fun including a superb scene involving spectacles!  Directed by Roy Rowland.

Shalako (1968)

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What a potentially terrific project this was: a British western, made in Spain, shot by Edward Dmytryk and pairing the sex symbols of the era, Sean Connery (in between Bonds) and Brigitte Bardot. An adaptation of a 1962 novel by Louis L’Amour (c’mon, how many books did this genius write?!) it’s the story of an aristocratic European hunting party in New Mexico, led on a safari through an Apache reservation by unscrupulous guide, Stephen Boyd. Countess Irina (Bardot) finds herself separated from her companions and kills an Apache, at which point she encounters Shalako (Connery) who comes to her rescue.The natives are restless and Shalako warns everyone to leave this land, which is subject to treaty. Their refusal prompts an attack after Shalako goes for help. Meanwhile Bardot is left behind with the party and is a crack shot, while a dumb American senator underplays the danger and Honor Blackman (who co-starred with Connery in Goldfinger) does the dirty on debt-ridden husband Jack Hawkins when the going gets tough. Dmytryk doesn’t seem entirely at home with the genre’s mechanics and some of the landscape is photographed lazily. When Bardot and Connery finally have their moment it doesn’t fizz as it should:  whether it’s down to the writing, the lack of chemistry, the staging, is open to debate. Shot in Almeria, this doesn’t have the cojones or the contours of the era’s spaghetti westerns, but it’s a watchable curiosity, not least for the sight of Eric Sykes as a resourceful British butler. Adapted by JJ Griffith and Hal Hopper.

Breakheart Pass (1975)

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You know what you’re getting with an Alistair MacLean adaptation: taut action, taciturn characters, a traitor close to home, a great payoff and a woman with a name something like ‘Mary’. Here she’s Marica and she’s played by Jill Ireland, as the daughter of the commander at Fort Humboldt, keen to be reunited with him and distressed to find out it’s at the centre of a diphtheria outbreak. She accompanies her fiance, Utah’s governor (Richard Crenna) on a train bringing medical supplies and relief troops as well as a marshal (Ben Johnson) who’s accompanied by his charge, killer outlaw, John Deakin (Charles Bronson). As the train chugs through the mountains and ravines people are knocked off one by one (literally, in some cases), the telegraph is cut off and we realise Deakin is in fact a federal agent who needs to stop a plot between criminal Levi Calhoun (Robert Tessier – scary!) and Indians led by Chief White Hand (Eddie Little Sky) to mine gold from their lands. The train is actually carrying a freight of guns and ammo and it’s down to Deakin and Army Major Claremont (Ed Lauter) to stop it as the Indians head ’em off at the Pass  … Lean, smart, filmmaking, effectively directed by Tom Gries from MacLean’s own screenplay, this is an ideal part for Bronson who of course was married to Ireland and they work well in their few scenes together. Kinda like Murder on the Occidental Express. Look quickly and you might spot Scott Newman, who made just one more film before his early death.

Billy Jack (1971)

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Some years ago Vanity Fair told me what I suspected for years:  my obsession with this film proved I am a film snob. What can I say? I saw it on TV when I was thirteen years old and it speaks to the thirteen year old in everyone about unfairness, killing animals, bigotry, viciousness in all its forms. In the days before you could find such things on the internet I discovered the soundtrack album on vinyl in a backstreet store on a trip to London. The hero is a half-Navajo former Green Beret back home after ‘Nam and invariably dragged into violence despite his wish to be a peace-loving law-abiding citizen who’s exploring his Native American heritage and practising hapkido. He comes to the rescue of kids at a freedom school run by Delores Taylor, who happens to be the wife of actor-writer-director-producer auteur, Tom Laughlin. This was absolutely mega on the drive-in circuit and slayed all comers upon re-release after AIP pulled out and Fox messed it up in theatrical and was the second of four movies about BJ. If you don’t love this movie you were never thirteen and you definitely never wore flowers in your long blonde hair. All you gotta do is relate. Peace and love, dudes. This is the source.

Apache (1954)

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Diversity is a troublesome moniker as yet – Robert Putnam concealed the results of his study for years for fear of alienating his leftist paymasters:  it doesn’t work, communities fail, charity nosedives and people don’t thrive. Effectively, we all do better amongst our own. (It’s not rocket science, bub.) In terms of how Indians were dealt with as a cinematic phenomenon it was tackled afresh and quite radically in a series of Fifties westerns – how to reconcile opposing cultures on the same piece of land. Geronimo surrenders and one of his braves Massai (blue-eyed Burt Lancaster) would prefer to be given an honourable death rather than carry on as a whupped Indian living between two distinctly different worlds.He goes on the run from a prison train with Nalinle (Jean Peters) and battles it out with his own as well as the Army. The original ending to the screenplay adapted by James R. Webb from Paul Wellman’s novel was too tough even under the direction of legendary Robert Aldrich – Massai is shot in the back by federal troops. So a more uplifting lie was created, what we call a Hollywood Ending. Sometimes the truth is just a plain picture. With a notable performance by John McIntire and an early appearance by Charles Bronson (Buchinsky), Lancaster produced with Harold Hecht. Not for the PC crowd.

Wolfen (1981)

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Summer’s lease really is up. Autumn is turning the leaves to red and gold and you know what? Halloween is right around the corner. Not that I need that as an excuse to watch horror movies but, you know, sometimes it helps. Particularly when it comes to the exchanging of souls, as Whitley Strieber described in his Seventies novel The Wolfen, adapted by director (former editor) Michael Wadleigh, Eric Roth and David Eyre. Albert Finney is the cop assigned to investigate deaths presumably caused by feral city animals. He and criminal psychologist Diane Venora (how wonderful is she?) find themselves amongst Native Americans who believe they have a special relationship with wolves and their leader Edward James Olmos warns them of a mythical creature and the havoc that will be wrought upon a city ripe for development … On the one hand this is a police procedural;  on the other it’s a mystical exploration of the clash of civilisation with the animal world. This mix caused immense confusion to the studio who treated it as exploitation: it’s anything but. With wonderful photography by Gerry Fisher and a resonant score by James Horner, it’s as if Peter Weir’s themes were transmitted to another continent and it’s just THIS short of being great. One of the best of the Eighties.

Claws (1977)

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You’re hanging around fighting with another bear when some a-hole hunters come along and spot their chance and shoot you and then THEY get upset after getting in your business.  So you just go after them best you can and hunt them right back … boy scouts, campers, rangers, whatever strays across your wooded path. Bears had a moment in the Seventies and this followed Grizzly (1976) and is of course named to cash in on a certain shark who was similarly bothered in his natural habitat. An ode to overpopulation by humans, guns and general silliness led by Jason Evers. I’m with the bears on this one. They rock!