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

Crazy Heart (2009)

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You woke me up. Former country-music legend 57-year old Otis ‘Bad’ Blake (Jeff Bridges) is so broke he’s reduced to playing dives and bowling alleys in various desert venues in the Southwest. He’s always retching from a combination of long-term heavy drinking, cancer and emphysema. In town for his latest gig, Blake meets Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a sympathetic reporter and the niece of a talented pianist whom he’s hired as part of his pick-up band, who has come to do a story on him. He unexpectedly warms to her and a romance begins, with Bad taking to her four-year old son Buddy and regaining a kind of balance that even the need to support and write songs for his protegé Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell) can’t undo.  Then he finds himself at a crossroads that may threaten his last shot at happiness when he opts to have a drink one day when he’s looking after Buddy I’ve been drunk most of my life. I missed a hell of a lot. Adapted from Thomas Cobb’s eponymous book by writer, producer and director Scott Cooper, this is a tale of a mellow fellow on the outs. Played beautifully by Bridges, he’s the kinda guy that probably inspired Bradley Cooper to top himself in the latest iteration of A Star is Born:  oozing talent but permanently dying for want of a drink, ageing without mercy.  He’s got an opportunity to contact the son he hasn’t seen in 24 years and he blows it horribly. It’s a compelling portrait and Bridges is matched by not only Gyllenhaal who has some moving scenes with him, but such a ridiculous cast of co-stars – Robert Duvall (who also produces) hires him to play at his bar while the great Tom Bowers is the proprietor of a liquor store. A warm drama about a likable if flawed protagonist who’s got one last shot – and a whole lot more lined up in the bar. Bridges is an avatar for real-life country hero Merle Haggard and with original songs written by T. Bone Burnett this is a treat for music fans. That’s the way it is with good ones, you’re sure you’ve heard them before

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974)

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I could lay under you, eat fried chicken and do a crossword puzzle at the same time; that’s how much you bother me. When her abusive husband dies, single mom Alice (Ellen Burstyn) and her wiseass 12-year old son, Tommy (Alfred Lutter) leave their small New Mexico town of Socorro for California, where Alice hopes to make it as a singer despite not being particularly good.  She dreams of returning to Monterey where she grew up. Money problems force them to settle in Tucson, Arizona instead, where Alice takes a job as waitress in a small diner owned by Mel (Vic Tayback). She intends to stay there long enough to make the money needed to head back out on the road, but her plans change when she begins to fall for David, a rancher (Kris Kristofferson). Tommy befriends Audrey (Jodie Foster), a slightly older girl who encourages bad behaviour and whose own mother is a prostitute.  When David quarrels with Tommy, Alice leaves him until they come crawling back to one another …  Martin Scorsese (handpicked by Burstyn) entered mainstream Hollywood with this genre piece, a woman’s picture written by Robert Getchell (who died 2017) that announces itself with a parodic rose-tinted dream sequence and titles on crushed satin, 1930s-style. But it’s a woman’s picture with an underlying and sometimes overt threat of violence, despite its sunsplashed settings. So we travel with Alice as she makes her way through life as an adult who has it tough but still dreams of being what she wanted as a small child, reality notwithstanding, lurching from one bad relationship to another in the American Southwest. As this 35-year old woman’s life is unpicked, sometimes with humour and sometimes with pain, the crushing of her ambitions is hard to watch even as she maintains a certain optimism necessary just to make it through her day.  Making the decision to settle for less is something she works on every day. Burstyn’s performance is nuanced and moving, but she is matched by Lutter as her bratty son (who seems more like an argumentative friend) and Foster as his troublesome friend, and particularly by Ladd as Flo the fellow waitress with whom Alice shares home truths. Burstyn won the Academy Award, Ladd was nominated, and Getchell lost out in the Best Screenplay category to Robert Towne for Chinatown. Scorsese was nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes. That’s how good a year this was for movies.

Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)

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Color me gone! A mechanic (Dennis Wilson) and a driver (James Taylor) live only to race and maintain their grey 1955 Chevy. Heading east from California with no particular agenda, they give a girl (Laurie Bird) a ride, and en route she incites jealousy between the men by sleeping with them both. Meanwhile, the trio encounters an overbearing 1970 Pontiac GTO driver (Warren Oates) who makes up stories about his life and agrees to race them to New York, each side putting at stake their most prized possession: their car… Stunningly shot (by Gregory Sandor though credited to union member Jack Deerson), almost dialogue-free, this seminal road movie (when that term really meant something) is a showcase of cinematic poetry in motion exhibiting the performing talents of two of the most important music stars of the era. Taciturnity is their mojo as they engage in this eastern, a reversal of the traditional drift of men across the continent, living in the moment.  Oates is remarkable as the man living his own personal fantasy. It helps if you’re a car freak but it’s not necessary. This is a study of a society without a point. Turn on. Tune in. Drop out. Directed by Monte Hellman from a screenplay by Rudy Wurlitzer (who plays a hot rod driver), Will Corry and uncredited contributions from Floyd Mutrux. Absolutely iconic.

Convoy (1978)

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Boy, these lonely long highways sure grind the souls of us cowboys. Trucker Martin ‘Rubber Duck’ Penwald (Kris Kristofferson) and his buddies Pig Pen (Burt Young), Widow Woman (Madge Sinclair) and Spider Mike (Franklin Ajaye) use their CB radios to warn one another of the presence of cops. But conniving Arizona Sheriff Lyle ‘Cottonmouth’ Wallace (Ernest Borgnine) is hip to the truckers’ tactics, and begins tracking them via CB because of a longstanding issue with Rubber Duck. Facing constant harassment, Rubber Duck and his pals use their radios to coordinate a vast convoy and rule the road. En route Rubber Duck teams up with a photographer Melissa (Ali MacGraw) driving to a job in her Jaguar XKE and she winds up hitching a ride ostensibly to the airport after a brouhaha in a diner which sees Wallace chained to a stool where Duck’s girlfriend Violet (Cassie Yates) sets him free after the truckers have left. The trucks set off to the state line heading into New Mexico but Wallace has an idea to use their one black driver as bait and more and more drivers join the convoy … Writer Bill (B.W.L.) Norton took his lead from the lyrics of the (literally) radio-friendly novelty country-pop song by C.W. McCall and Chip Davis to write this, which starred his Cisco Pike protagonist Kristofferson, with Sam Peckinpah (who had variously directed Kristofferson, MacGraw and Borgnine) drafted in to helm. It seems an unlikely setup for Peckinpah but when you understand its anti-authoritarian drive, the idea that these guys are like modern cowboys pitted against the vile sheriff antagonist, and pair that with the director’s customary robust style (tongue firmly planted slo-mo in cheek) then this isn’t just another one of those late Seventies comic road movies like Smokey and the Bandit and Every Which Way But Loose which I’ve always thought it must have been – it has a strangely operatic confidence and cadence embodied in Kristofferson’s fiercely independent trucker. That’s perhaps another way of saying you shouldn’t look at this too seriously for deep character or narrative sense but it has fantastically sensuous pleasures to enjoy – especially if you’re a fan of Mack Trucks and getting one over on The Man. Thing is, Peckinpah brought in his friend James Coburn (Pat Garrett to Kristofferson’s Billy the Kid) to take care of the second unit and due to Peckinpah’s various addictions Coburn wound up doing much of the movie. The director’s cut was four hours long and the studio took it away from him and put in a bunch of new music.  I have vague memories of this being trailed (inappropriately) before a Disney movie when I was knee high to a proverbial grasshopper and it’s quite bizarre to have finally seen it tonight, with MacGraw’s horribly unflattering perm and unsuitable travel clothes ‘n’ all. The landscape of the American Southwest is stunningly captured by Harry Stradling Jr. and there’s a handful of country and western classics on the soundtrack. It’s populist politics put together by a rebel heart with an explosive conclusion and a happily twisted ending. Yee haw!