The Magnificent Seven (1960)

The Magnificent Seven

You must fight. Fight! A poor Mexican village is regularly raid by a gang of bandits led by Calvera (Eli Wallach). When Calvera kills a villager, the leaders decide they have had enough and one of the elders (Vladimir Sokoloff) advises them to fight back. Taking their few objects of value, three of them ride to a town just inside the US hoping to barter for weapons. Instead they they are impressed by Cajun gunslighter Chris Adams (Yul Brynner) who suggests they instead hiregunfighters to defend the village, and he eventually decides to lead the group. Despite the meager pay offered, he finds five willing gunmen:  gunfighter Vin Tanner (Steve McQueen) broke after a round from gambling;  Harry Luck (Brad Dexter) who thinks his old friend Chris is hiding a much bigger reward for the work; half Irish, half Mexican Bernardo O’Reilly (Charles Bronson) who has fallen on hard times; knife and gun expert Britt (James Coburn) who relishes the challenge; and Lee (Robert Vaughn) the well-attired gunman on the run who is burdened by nightmares about the men he has killed. On their way to the village they are followed by aspiring gunfighter, hotheaded Chico (Horst Buchholz) whose previous attempts to join the group were spurned by Chris but he impresses the villagers with his passion and Chris asks him to be part of what is now a group of seven.  Chico then encounters Petra (Rosenda Materos) and the men realise the farmers had hidden their women to protect them from being raped by the bandits. Three of Calvera’s men are dispatched to recce the village; the seven kill all three. Calvera and his bandits arrive in force and another eight of them are killed. The villagers celebrate, thinking Calvera won’t return and ask the men to leave. But Chico infiltrates Calvera’s camp and learns that Calvera must return, as his men are short of food and the seven have to prepare for a final encounter … I’ve been offered a lot of money – but never everything. A film so perfectly archetypal it feels like it’s been inscribed in our collective consciousness since the dawn of time. Screenwriter Walter Newman said that the success of a film always commences with the premise and everyone concerned knew they had a good one because Akira Kurosawa had already made it in Japan. Newman and the blacklisted Walter Bernstein did an uncredited rewrite of the screenplay The Seven Samurai which had been adapted by William Roberts from the work by Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni. Each character has his own arc, with his flaws, luck and skills underwriting his destiny. The story of the youngster Chico earning his stripes and finding love with Petra (Rosenda Monteros) gives the story a bedrock as a rites of passage experience but it’s the camaraderie, solidarity and the good intentions that make this a human interest story – the willingness to fight for a cause, putting the good of the group over selfish needs. The cast? How can you even begin to describe the charisma pouring off the screen? Inimitable. The set pieces by director John Sturges are matched by the more intimate episodes and the dialogue is never less than whip smart. Elmer Bernstein’s score is another essential part of the film’s rich mythology – an unforgettable, urgent, rousing call to action that heralds bravery, sacrifice and tragedy. Simply great. I have never had this kind of courage

The Magnificent Seven Ride! (1972)

The Magnificent Seven Ride

Aka The Magnificent Seven 4Seven’s always been my lucky number. Former gunslinger Chris Adams (Lee Van Cleef) has put his rowdy days behind him, settling down with new wife Arrilla (Mariette Hartley) and serving as the sheriff of his town in the Arizona territory. When his old pal Jim Mackay (Ralph Waite) asks for help defending the border town of Magdalena, Mexico, from a marauding bandit named Juan De Toro (Ron Stein) and his 50-strong band of outlaws, Chris refuses. Arrilla persuades him to reluctantly release teenage bankrobber Shelly Donovan (Darrell Larson) but Donovan and his gang kidnap and hang her after they rob another bank and wound Chris in the getaway. He then enlists a cutthroat gang of prisoners led by Mark Skinner (Luke Askew) to help him get revenge, pursuing De Toro into Mexican territory and helping a town of women who’ve been raped by the marauding men, including widowed mother Laurie Gunn (Stefanie Powers), while newspaper reporter Noah Forbes (Michael Callan) accompanies him to document the latest events in his storied career out West as he kidnaps De Toro’s woman (Rita Rogers) setting up a shootout to even the score … There sure has been a lot of killing since I met you. With Lee Van Cleef in the saddle as the redoubtable Chris, you know you’re in good hands. If it never feels exciting, exactly, there’s a decent plot by Arthur Crowe that turns the screws more than once, it has pretty good roles for two of my favourite actresses and it’s all set up well visually by director George McCowan and cinematographer Fred Koenekamp. And there’s still the variation on that legendary score by Elmer Bernstein anchoring the action which is pretty much nonstop. Don’t die just ridin’, that’d be a real anti-climax

Return of the Seven (1966)

Return of the Seven

Aka Return of the Magnificent SevenWe got to stand along side of ’em so that someday they can stand alone. Fifty gunmen force all the men in a small Mexican village to ride off with them into the desert. Among the captured farmers is love-smitten Chico (Julián Mateos), who three years before was one of seven hired gunslingers responsible for ridding the village of the tyrannical bandit, Calvera. Chico’s wife, Petra (Elisa Montés), looks for the only other members of the band to survive: Chris (Yul Brynner) and Vin (Robert Fuller). She begs them to save the village once again. To replace the deceased members of the group, Chris buys the release of a brooding gunman Frank (Claude Akins) and famous bandit Luis (Virgilio Teixeira), held in the local jail, and recruits two more: sharpshooting ladies’ man Colbee (Warren Oates) and young cockfighter Manuel (Jordan Christopher). The men discover that the missing villagers are being used as slave labor to rebuild a desert village and church as a memorial to the dead sons of wealthy and psychotic rancher Francisco Lorca (Emilio Fernándes). In a surprise attack, the six gunmen force Lorca’s men to leave and prepare for a counterattack with Chico. The cowed farmers offer no help but the seven defenders successfully repel Lorca’s initial attack. Lorca then gathers all the men on his land to rout the seven men. The situation seems bleak until Manuel discovers a supply of dynamite which the seven use in a counteroffensive… Sure Chico is a friend of mine. But, hell, I don’t even know his last name. The first sequel to The Magnificent Seven is written by one (future) auteur, Larry Cohen and directed by another, Burt Kennedy, who already had form with a series of superb screenplays starting the previous decade.  This is his fourth film as director and unfortunately he does not marshal the drama in the exciting way you’d hope. Part of the miracle of the legendary first film was the spot-on casting but only Brynner makes the cut here, and despite more or less the same premise and setting, with location shooting in Spain, Fernando Rey as the priest, and a rousing score – a re-recorded version of the original from Elmer Bernstein – this never hits the same notes of of empathy or sheer bravado even with a wealth of decent banter and action. The avengers may have reassembled, but Fuller is no Steve McQueen and Mateos is no substitute for Horst Buchholz.  What they really need is Eli Wallach to return as the consummate bad guy. In all the years I made my way with a gun, I never once shot a man just to see him fall

The Vikings (1958)

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What would be the worst thing for a Viking? Viking Prince Einar (Kirk Douglas) doesn’t know it but his worst enemy, the slave Erik (Tony Curtis), is actually his half brother and their father King Ragnar’s (Ernest Borgnine) legitimate heir. Their feud only intensifies when Einar kidnaps Princess Morgana (Janet Leigh), on her way to be the intended bride of the brutal Northumbrian King Aella (Frank Thring). Einar intends to make her his own. However Morgana has eyes only for Erik – leading to the capture of  Ragnar and a terrible final attempt to win her heart ...  Let’s not question flesh for wanting to remain flesh. Good looking, well put together and great fun, and that’s just the cast, in this spectacular historical epic, an action adventure produced by Kirk Douglas that capitalises on his muscular masculinity opposite husband and wife team Curtis and Leigh who get to seriously smoulder for the cameras in their love scenes:  it was the third of their onscreen pairings. With some very fruity language, mistaken identity, axe-throwing, pillaging, actual bodice-ripping, walking the plank for fun, unconscious sibling rivalry, brawny sailors, death by wolf pit, romance and swashbuckling, this has everything going for it except horned helmets. It might well be about eighth or ninth century Viking lord Ragnar Lodbrok and the probably-real Northumbrian king Aella (who died 867) but it’s really about Kirk and Tony and Janet. Jack Cardiff shoots the expansive Technicolor images, and director Richard Fleischer lets every character have their moment in this fast-paced entertainment. The beautiful tapestry-style animated titles are voiced by Orson Welles and the incredible score is by (paradoxically unsung) soundtrack hero Mario Naschimbene who brings both vigour and mystery to this good-humoured story of war and violence: you will believe that those voices in the sky are coming from the heavens. Adapted by Dale Wasserman from the 1951 novel The Viking by Edison Marshall, with a screenplay by Calder Willingham, this is one of the very best action-adventure films of all time with some great editing by Elmo Williams who also helmed the second unit and made the TV series inspired by it, Tales of the Vikings, also produced by Douglas’  Bryna Productions. Within a few short years Douglas would cement his legend as a Hollywood liberal with the cry, I am Spartacus! but for now it’s Odin!

King Kong (1933)

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Every legend has the basis of truth. Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) needs to finish his movie and has the perfect location – faraway Skull Island. But he still needs to find a leading lady. This is Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) who’s done a little extra work but has never played a large role. She has a romance aboard Captain Englehorn’s (Frank Reicher) ship the Venture with John Driscoll (Bruce Cabot). No one knows what they will encounter on this island but once they reach it they find terrified natives seemingly worshipping a giant and the beast now has Ann in his sights and she is quickly kidnapped. Carl and John have to make their way through the jungle looking for Kong and Ann, whilst avoiding all sorts of prehistoric creatures and once successful they determine to transport Beast back to New York City to publicise their new movie … Women don’t mean to be a bother. Gorgeous, eerie and inventive, with a fairytale theme that resonates through the ages, this is a classic of Pre-Code Hollywood and is so clever in its structure:  before she ever encounters Beast, Ann is filmed rehearsing her potential reaction to a monster, so we are always present in the moviemaking process and the notion of predatory males hangs over the story like a fug. A warning about civilisation, greed and Hollywood itself, this is one of the most brilliant, beautiful and tender films ever made. Directed by Merian C. Cooper (the miniatures) and Ernest B. Schoedsack (the dialogue scenes) although neither is credited; with magical stop-motion effects by Willis O’Brien and an original story by Cooper and Edgar Wallace, with uncredited rewrites by James Ashmore Creelman who was working on The Most Dangerous Game (also starring Wray) at the time; with a final rewrite by Ruth Rose, who was Schoedsack’s wife.This is notable for the first proper original Hollywood movie score, composed by Max Steiner.  It was beauty killed the beast

Spirits of the Dead (1968)

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Aka Tre passi nel delirio/Histoires extraordinaires. Three stories of hauntings adapted from Edgar Allan Poe. Part 1:“Metzengerstein” directed by Roger Vadim. Are you sure it was a dream? Sometimes you need me to tell you what you did was realAt 22, Countess Frederique (Jane Fonda) inherits the Metzengerstein estate and lives a life of promiscuity and debauchery. While in the forest, her leg is caught in a trap and she is freed by her cousin and neighbor Baron Wilhelm (Peter Fonda), whom she has never met because of a long-standing family feud. She becomes enamored with Wilhelm, but he rejects her for her wicked ways. His rejection infuriates Frederique and she sets his stables on fire. Wilhelm is killed attempting to save his prized horses. One black horse somehow escapes and makes its way to the Metzengerstein castle. The horse is very wild and Frederique takes it upon herself to tame it. She notices at one point that a damaged tapestry depicts a horse eerily similar to the one that she has just taken in. Becoming obsessed with it, she orders its repair. During a thunderstorm Frederique is carried off by the spooked horse into a fire caused by lightning that has struck.  Written by Vadim and Pascale Cousin and shot in Roscoff. Part II:  “William Wilson” directed by Louis Malle. It is said, gentlemen, that the heart is the seat of the emotions, the passions. Indeed. But experience shows that it is the seat of our cares.  In the early 19th century when Northern Italy is under Austrian rule, an army officer named William Wilson (Alain Delon) rushes to confess to a priest (in a church of the “Città alta” of Bergamo that he has committed murder. Wilson then relates the story of his cruel ways throughout his life. After playing cards all night against the courtesan Giuseppina (Brigitte Bardot), his double, also named William Wilson, convinces people that Wilson has cheated. In a rage, the protagonist Wilson stabs the other to death with a dagger. After making his confession, Wilson commits suicide by jumping from the tower of “Palazzo della Ragione”, but when seen his corpse is transfixed by the same dagger. Written by Malle, Clement Biddle Wood and Daniel Boulanger. Part III: Toby Dammit” directed by Federico Fellini.  This film will be in color. Harsh colors, rough costumes to reconcile the holy landscape with the prairie. Sort of Piero della Francesca and Fred Zinneman. An interesting formula. You’ll adapt to it very well. Just let your heart speak. The modern day. Former Shakespearean actor Toby Dammit (Terence Stamp) is losing his acting career to alcoholism. He agrees to work on a film, to be shot in Rome, for which he will be given a brand new Ferrari as a bonus incentive. Dammit begins to have unexpected visions of macabre girl with a white ball. While at a film award ceremony, he gets drunk and appears to be slowly losing his mind. A stunning woman (Antonia Pietrosi) comforts him, saying she will always be at his side if he chooses. Dammit is forced to make a speech, then leaves and takes delivery of his promised Ferrari. He races around the city, where he sees what appear to be fake people in the streets. Lost outside of Rome, Dammit eventually crashes into a work zone and comes to a stop before the site of a collapsed bridge. Across the ravine, he sees a vision of the little girl with a ball (whom he has earlier identified, in a TV interview, as his idea of the Devil). He gets into his car and speeds toward the void.The Ferrari disappears, and we then see a view of roadway with a thick wire across it, dripping with blood, suggesting Dammit has been decapitated. The girl from his vision picks up his severed head and the sun rises. Written by Fellini and Bernardino Zapponi and adapted from ‘Never Bet the Devil Your Head’… Who but Vadim could cast Jane Fonda’s own brother as her object of desire? And she’s terrific as the jaded sexpot. Delon is marvellous as Poe’s ego and id, haunting himself; with Bardot turning up as a peculiarly familiar iteration of what we know and love. And then there’s the wonderful Terence Stamp as Toby, the scurrilous speed freak. This portmanteau of European auteurs having a go at Poe is the dog’s. Watch it over and over again to pick up on all the connections and beauty within. Uneven, fiendishly sexy, ravishingly brutal, moralistic and really rather fabulous. Makes you wish it was fifty years ago all over again. Oh, no. I’m English, not Catholic. For me the devil is friendly and joyful. He’s a little girl.

Kelly’s Heroes (1970)

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Nobody’s asking you to be a hero. In the middle of World War II, an array of American soldiers gets inside information from a drunk German colonel about 16 million dollars worth of gold hidden on enemy soil in occupied France. Kelly (Clint Eastwood), a private with the platoon, devises a plan to sneak past the German officers to steal the loot for his crew. They recruit more men and set their plan into action. Despite several casualties, the men are determined to press forward, even if it means striking a deal with the opposing army… Crazy… I mean like, so many positive waves… maybe we can’t lose, you’re on! With Donald Sutherland as a hippie-inspired Oddball, this owes more to contemporary values than WW2 tropes but that just makes it more of a blast. Its cinematic DNA with its group of misfits and nuts is clearly derived from The Dirty Dozen as it also boasts Telly Savalas from that lineup but it lacks that film’s nihilistic streak and has more of the formal properties of a Bilko workout. Written by the estimable Troy (The Italian Job) Kennedy Martin and directed by Brian G. Hutton, who previously guided the very chilled Eastwood through WW2 shenanigans in Where Eagles Dare, the Lalo Schifrin score (with many spaghetti western nods including jangling spurs) and the Mike Curb theme makes it even more of a bangin’ experience. Good silly fun. Basically, I like any film where they blow the bloody doors off.  Stop calling me Barbara!

 

The Tin Drum (1979)

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There once was a drummer. His name was Oskar. He lost his poor mama, who had eat to much fish. There was once a credulous people… who believed in Santa Claus. But Santa Claus was really… the gas man! There was once a toy merchant. His name was Sigismund Markus… and he sold tin drums lacquered red and white. There was once a drummer. His name was Oskar. There was once a toy merchant… whose name was Markus… and he took all the toys in the world away with him. Oskar Matzerath (David Bennent) is a very unusual boy born in Danzig in 1924, after the city has been separated from Germany following WW1. Refusing to leave the womb until promised a tin drum by his mother, Agnes (Angela Winkler), Oskar is reluctant to enter a world he sees as filled with hypocrisy and injustice, and vows on his third birthday to never grow up as he watches his mother take her cousin Jan for a lover and she becomes pregnant – but by who? Miraculously Oskar gets his wish when he throws himself down a staircase.  His talent for breaking glass when he screams garners him attention. As the Nazis rise to power in Danzig, Oskar wills himself to remain a child, beating his tin drum incessantly and screaming in protest at the chaos surrounding him as his mother dies, his father takes a new wife who has a baby Oskar is convinced he has fathered and Hitler takes over while Oskar decides to join a travelling circus and entertain the Nazi troops in Paris … Günter Grass’ stunning 1959 novel was adapted by Volker Schlöndorff (and Jean-Claude Carriére and Frank Seitz Jr.) and he became the first German director to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes with this transgressive, arresting and surreal impression of Nazism and the breakup of Europe. It’s mesmerising, brilliantly conceived and performed – Bennent is one of a kind – and once seen can never be forgotten. It is the blackest of comedies about the darkness in Germany and the way in which Polish people handled the transition to Nazism. The coda in real life – that Grass was found to have been in the Waffen-SS as a teenager after a lifetime of denial –  somehow just gives this greater heft. Amazing.

The Dark Tower (2017)

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Darkness is your weapon, guns are mine.  Roland Deschain (Idris Elba), the last Gunslinger, is locked in an eternal battle with evil sorcerer Walter Padick (Matthew McConaughey), aka the Man in Black. The Gunslinger must prevent the Man in Black from toppling the Dark Tower, the key that holds the universe together. With the fate of worlds at stake, two men collide in the ultimate battle between good and evil. with the Man in Black using the powers of clairvoyant children to target the Tower with their minds. This takes place in Mid-World, a parallel universe to present day New York where teenaged Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) is being sent to therapists because of his inability to deal with his father’s death, his new stepfather and these mythical characters from his dreams that he draws … I’m not invested in the later works of Stephen King the way I am in the classic era of his 70s and 80s output so the poor reception for this adaptation of his bestselling saga didn’t bother me. As a viewer, no matter the origins, it does bother me however. A mythical exercise, it boasts King’s usually passionate and symbolic argument this time set in a wasteland but the short running time (91 minutes) gives you a clue that they knew this was a dog with whole sub-plots reduced to shards of suggestion. Reducing an eight-volume 3,000 word story of graphic violence nodding to Tolkien, the Arthur legends and spaghetti westerns to this length for a young audience may be one explanation. Apparently Akiva Goldsman took the central section as the principal material but that doesn’t excuse the shonky CGI and silly fights.  Elba does his serious spittle-enhanced enunciating act waving guns around while McConaughey skirts the edges of camp as the evil sorcerer/disco dancer whose very words can cause instant death. An oddity that had real promise but if you ever saw The Neverending Story you’ll have seen this, pretty much and if you recall The Shining you’ll know that calling Jake’s talent The Shine really reminds us of something far better in the meta-universe.  Directed by Nikolaj Arcel with a screenplay by him, Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinker and Anders Thomas Jensen.

Mermaids (1990)

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Weird things happen. It’s 1963. Fifteen-year-old Charlotte Flax (Winona Ryder) is tired of her wacky mom (Cher) moving their family any time she feels it is necessary. When they move to a small Massachusetts town Mrs. Flax begins dating kindly shopkeeper Lou (Bob Hoskins) whose wife has run away. Charlotte and her 9-year-old swimming enthusiast sister, Kate (Christina Ricci), hope that they can finally settle down. But when Charlotte’s attraction to an older man Joe (Michael Schoeffling) the convent’s caretaker gets in the way, the family must learn to accept each other for who they truly are just as the President is assassinated and the nation mourns…  June Roberts’ adaptation of Patty Dann’s book is adept and appropriate, giving Winona Ryder one of her best roles and she plays it beautifully. Funny, warm and engaging, this works on so many levels but it doesn’t dodge the effect of maternal neglect – which is also a case of overpowering personality:  Charlotte’s fantasy fugue to New Haven is a sharp reminder that mother-daughter relationships are a minefield and when the daughter starts imitating the mother’s promiscuous behaviour (in between attempts to live like a Catholic saint) Mom doesn’t like it and there’s collateral damage. The girls are not products of marriages – just a teen romance and a one-night stand with an Olympic athlete (maybe) and when things get tough, Mom always gets going.  It’s Charlotte who wants to settle down. There’s a wonderful running joke about Mom’s inability to prepare any food other than hors d’oeuvres or sandwiches served with star-shaped cookie cutters. With great dialogue, lovely scene-setting and on the button performances (Cher giving one of her best), there’s nothing in this well-judged comedy drama you can’t like even though it unexpectedly swerves directions, more than once.  The characters are still sympathetic despite being curiously narcissistic:  that’s good writing. Cher tops it off with The Shoop Shoop Song! Directed by Richard Benjamin.