Happy 89th Birthday Clint Eastwood 31st May 2019!

The guy in the lab. Rowdy Yates. The Man With No Name. Dirty Harry Callahan. Clyde’s friend. The musician, composer, actor, producer and director and Hollywood superstar Clint Eastwood turns 89 today. Entering his eighth decade in the industry where he paid his dues in uncredited roles in movies and bit parts before regular work on TV and the spaghetti genre made him a worldwide figure, this year’s The Mule (practically a musical!) proves he’s still got the chops and the pull to make box office gold with something to say about the way we live now. Widely recognised as an icon of American masculinity, he found his particular space with the assistance of Don Siegel but exploited his personal brand in cycles of police procedurals, comedic takes on folklore and the country and western sub-genre as well as tough westerns. Unforgiven marked his coming of age as a great director, an instant classic and a tour de force of filmmaking. While some might think he has feminist sympathies he has rarely risked acting opposite a true female acting equal – a quarter of a century separated him from Shirley MacLaine in Two Mules for Sister Sara and Meryl Streep in The Bridges of Madison County. It took another decade for him to make the stunningly emotive Million Dollar Baby with Hilary Swank, which marked a different kind of turning point:  he has transformed his cinematic affect from what David Thomson calls his brutalised loner to bruised neurotic nonagenarian in one of the most spectacular careers in cinema. Many happy returns, Clint!

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Pancho Villa (1972)

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He doesn’t need a doctor, he needs a change of underwear. Trigger-happy Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa (Telly Savalas) is on his way to his own execution when his men rescue him. He attempts to kill bitter nemesis General Goyo (Antonio Casas) and overthrow Mexico’s government. The violent endeavour brings Villa north to Columbus in New Mexico, where he battles a group of determined American soldiers led by the no-nonsense Colonel Wilcox (Chuck Connors), and endures unanticipated mishaps and bad fortune, including a double-cross by his friend and partner Scotty (Clint Walker) when they attempt retaliation in a raid… He’s got nerves of iron and rocks in his head. History through the lens of spaghetti! This comical approach to biography is an entertaining mix of action, violence, broad humour and not a little camp – that’s right because Savalas treats us to his rumbling vocal stylings on Don Black’s song in the closing credits. In between there are pitiful villagers, an episode about a fly in the army’s soup and a bit of impersonation, amid a soundtrack full of the bells and whistles of high comedy. Connors has a ball as the straight arrow colonel and Savalas just lets rip. You’ll crack up when the lizard pops out from his clothing after the doctor scratches his head wondering why Pancho’s got two heartbeats. Anne Francis has fun as the gutsy woman in his life. This is practically a mockumentary:  all history lessons should be this fast and funny, genocidal mania aside. Directed by Eugenio Martin from a screenplay by Julian Zimet. Every great man was once a bandit

 

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.

 

 

 

100 Rifles (1969)

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Every time four Mexicans get together one of them makes himself a General.  In 1912 Sonora Mexico, Arizona lawman Lyedecker (Jim Brown) chases Yaqui Joe (Burt Reynolds), a half-Yaqui, half-white bank robber who has stolen $6,000. Both men are captured by the Mexican general Verdugo (Fernando Lamas). Lyedecker learns that Joe used the loot to buy 100 rifles for the Yaqui people, who are being repressed by the government and he regards them as his people. Lyedecker is not interested in Joe’s motive, and intends to recover the money and apprehend Joe to further his career. The two men escape a Mexican firing squad and flee to the hills, where they are joined by the bandito’s sidekick Sarita (Raquel Welch) a beautiful Indian revolutionary. Sarita has a vendetta against the soldiers, who murdered her father. The fugitives become allies. Leading the Yaqui against Verdugo’s forces, they ambush and derail the General’s train and overcome his soldiers in an extended firefight… My daddy was a Yaqui Indian and my mamma was from Alabama. Adapted from Robert MacLeod’s 1966 novel The Californio first by Clair Huffaker and then by director Tom (Will Penny) Gries, this spaghetti western occasioned a great meeting of male and female puchritude recently recalled by Welch:  “The first time I laid eyes on him, he came strolling across the tarmac towards the plane and, well, he had a walk that was unlike anything I’d ever seen before. He was somewhere between a jock and a cowboy, which was just about perfect. I was thinking he’s just the hottest thing. And I haven’t even seen his face!” She was of course referring to Reynolds, who walks away with the picture, macho, moustachioed, sardonically amused when he isn’t fighting, he just oozes charisma and carries the acting and physical duties with ease. Half of it I spent on whisky and women, the other half I wasted! Welch wasn’t happy on set as Brown stated: “[Burt Reynolds] was usually a stabilising influence [between the stars]… He’s a heck of a cat. He had various talks with Raquel and tried to assure her that nothing was going on, that we weren’t trying to steal anything.” I admire a man who dies well  Reynolds himself wrote of the experience:  “I was playing Yaqui Joe, supposedly an Indian with a moustache. Raquel had a Spanish accent that sounded like a cross between Carmen Miranda and Zasu Pitts. Jimmy Brown was afraid of only two things in the entire world: one was heights, the other was horses. And he was on a horse fighting me on a cliff. It just didn’t work… I play a half breed but… I send it up, I make it seem like the other ‘half’ of the guy is from Alabama. I play it nasty, dirty, funky. I look like a Christmas tree — wrist bands, arm bands. At the beginning I even wore these funky spurs. But every time I walked I couldn’t hear dialogue.” He said of the problems with Welch and Brown:  “I spent the entire time refereeing fights between Jim Brown and Raquel Welch…  It started because they were kind of attracted to each other. After a while they both displayed a little temperament, but don’t forget we were out in the middle of the bloody desert with the temperature at 110. Of course, I don’t think they’ll ever work together again. The critics have really been knocking those two — murdering them — but as far as I know no one ever said they were Lunt and Fontanne. Jim is the most honest man I know… And Raquel — one of the gutsiest broads I know, physically. She did all her own stunts. There’s also a performance in there somewhere.”  He and Brown make a great, funny double act. Weirdly, they were born just 6 days apart and of course Brown had the football career Reynolds had dreamed of having. Welch said later: “Jim was very forceful and I am feisty. I was a little uncomfortable with too much male aggression. But — it turned out to be great exploitation for the film, now as you look back. It broke new ground.” She told Variety Reynolds was  “one of my favorites. Nobody did — or does — quite what Burt does. And he has a darker edge, which made the scenes sexy.” It’s beautifully shot by Cecilio Paniagua and Jerry Goldsmith’s score is rousing, compensating for some deficiencies in the action choreography. Lamas is fun as Verdugo and Dan O’Herlihy offers typically good support as villain Grimes with Hans Gudegast (aka Eric Braeden) as the German advisor to Verdugo. Some might see elements of The Wild Bunch and even Blazing Saddles;  one way or another it’s underrated. Cult value lies in the presence of Soledad Miranda as the prostitute with Joe in the opening scenes at the hotel. She is best known for her collaborations with Jess Franco, particularly Vampyros Lesbos. She died aged 27 a year after this was released. I think with a little bit of luck we might be able to get out of this

 

GoodFellas (1990)

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As far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster. Martin Scorsese’s astonishing portrait of Sicilian-Irish Henry Hill’s 25 year rise through the ranks of Italian-American hoodlums – and his eventual fall – is re-released this month and it still exerts a visceral thrill. Between Coppola and Scorsese we have a reference book on this topic and so many of the tropes and lingo of this subculture are common parlance thanks to them. Nicholas  Pileggi adapted his book Wiseguy (with Scorsese) and with an exegesis on true crime and punishment, violence,  family, honour and dishonour, cooking, drugs and horrible taste,  it has a panoramic sweep we pretty much take for granted. Not for nothing did some of the cast become mainstays of The Sopranos, which wouldn’t exist without this. However it is not the sociological examination we think it was:  it’s a film of no particular depth or self-knowledge, not if we’re depending on Henry’s voiceover. Instead it’s a stylish compendium of cinematic vocabulary, with flourishes influenced by everyone from Anger to Visconti, boasting a particularly nice tribute to The Great Train Robbery in the closing moments. And there are a lot of great, queasy moments here, with gore to spare:  Joe Pesci has the lion’s share as the psychopath Tommy DeVito; Paul Sorvino as the main guy, Paulie Cicero;  and Catherine Scorsese has some nice bits as Tommy’s mom, a keen amateur painter; De Niro is good as Jimmy Conway, the other Sicilian-Irish guy who can never be truly Mafia; Lorraine Bracco is superb as the whining Jewish wife who develops a taste for cocaine; and Ray Liotta could never be better than here, even if he’ll never be a made man. A funny and scarifying tour de force of surfaces, textures and moviemaking.

Django (1966)

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What an iconic piece of work by the Italian auteur Sergio Corbucci, this spawned loads of imitators (c30) but none holds a candle to this nor stars that most beauteous of men, Franco Nero, except a very late ‘sequel’ in 1987, made without Corbucci. Of course it was influenced by Leone’s work but gained a major following for its equally laconic leading man who fought for the Union but is now drifting, dragging a coffin, in the company of a half-caste whore Maria (Loredana Nusciak) and becoming involved in a dispute between Confederate racists and Mexican revolutionaries. What can be in that coffin? All is revealed in highly symbolic fashion, with fighting in the streets and the graveyards. Exceptionally violent. What a delight it was to see Nero pop up in Django Unchained, but… The original and the best.