"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Friday, May 25, 2018

China 9, Liberty 37 (AA, 1978)

Monte Hellman and Warren Oates bid adieu to the Western

I don’t like spaghetti westerns but I thought I’d better review this one because it does have some historical and other interest.

For one thing it was the last spaghetti filmed in Almeria. I’ve been there and a lot of the site is all broken down now, though some is doing its best to be a tourist attraction. In its heyday it hosted Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy among other movies.

The Andalusian Hollywood in its prime

For another, it was the last ever film released by Allied Artists. AA (formerly Monogram) filed for Chapter 11 in October of ’78 and its back catalog passed to Lorimar/Telepictures and thence to Warners.

Adieu, Allied

It was a Monte Hellman picture, his last Western – he is given as both as director and one of the producers, though Tony Brandt is also credited as director on some European prints. (Despite his American-sounding name, Mr. Brandt came from Lazio. I think he was second unit director.) Hellman, you may know, studied drama at Stanford and film at UCLA and hooked up with famous B-movie maestro Roger Corman in the late 50s. His oeuvre (posh word, oeuvre) has developed ‘cult’ status, or at least a rep for artiness. He worked a lot with Jack Nicholson and made those two moody Westerns in the mid-60s The Shooting and Ride In the Whirlwind, which we reviewed not that long ago. In 1971 he directed probably his best-known picture, Two-Lane Blacktop with Warren Oates. And he chose Oates again for the Italian-Spanish Western China 9, Liberty 37 in 1978.

Monte Hellman (born 1932)

Oates made more Westerns than he did any other genre, though mostly they were TV ones – that was a product of the age he worked in. He appeared in pretty well every Western TV show you care to name at one time or another. His first big-screen Western was a small part as a corporal in the 1959 Clint Walker picture Yellowstone Kelly and that seemed to be that but then he struck gold with Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country in 1962. Doubtless you remember him as one of the five murderous and repulsive white-trash Hammond brothers with a raven on his shoulder.

Warren in 1963

He stayed with Peckinpah for Major Dundee and of course would feature memorably in The Wild Bunch, and he was Alfredo Garcia, whose head was so sought after, in 1974. He was in The Shooting and also in Peter Fonda’s Western The Hired Hand. He was the crazy guy in Barquero in 1970 and in fact Hellman quotes Barquero when he has Oates’s character shoot into the water in China 9. It was a notable Western career in a time when the genre was in full decline. China 9 would be his last Western and he died in 1982 of a heart attack, aged only 53.

Oates in China 9

The other star is Fabio Testi. One good thing about this spaghetti is that the dialogue was not post-dubbed, though the sound effects were – stupidly loud clip-clops and so on. The downside of that is that Sig. Testi’s Italian accent when speaking English is so strong (and the sound so poor) that you occasionally need subtitles. Testi was famous for his part in Vittorio De Sica’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis in 1970. Before China 9 he had appeared in twelve spaghetti westerns, leading in five of them. Testi’s hat is a bit Buck Jones-ish.

Fabio Testi is renowned gunman Clayton Drumm

Talking about the sound, it is pretty awful on China 9. Italian film-makers tended to rely on post-dubbing (reputedly because Cinecittà lay under the flight-path of Fiumicino Airport) and when they recorded direct with boom mikes and so on (at least if this picture is anything to go by) they were hopeless at it. In addition, often the music drowns out the dialogue.

The music is lousy too, cheesy 70s pop ballads bellowed into the microphones and slushy ‘film music’ (more like elevator muzak) of the worst kind. And of course we have a ghastly wailing harmonica in the opening scenes as a hangman makes his way to China (population 132) pretending to play the harmonica, very unconvincingly. All this ‘music’ is ‘credited’ (debited, I’d say) to Pino Donaggio and John Rubinstein. Still, it’s not as bad as Morricone. The best musical part came when the actors have a rather inebriated sing-song at the dinner table outside the ratty ranch house. They weren’t very good singers but why should they be? And it gives the scene added charm.

As for the rest of the cast, we have Jenny Agutter as Oates’s wife, frightfully English but now and then trying out an ‘Irish’ accent (but failing to disguise her cut-glass vowels). She was decorative, in an era when such things were still permitted, and her nude scenes were quite daring for the 1970s. Her character does develop somewhat, as she stabs her husband in the back and leaves him for dead, runs off with glamor-boy Testi (several almost soft-porn love-scenes) but then at the end seems resigned to reconciling with hubby, who somehow survived and seems now curiously solicitous of her welfare. “I ain’t gonna hurt you. Not no more.” Actually, I think it’s quite a romantic film.

Agutter takes a bath

And we have Sam Peckinpah, as a dime novelist, giving the public “the lies we all need” and casually stealing a cigar from a blind man. He didn’t appear often as an actor but it had been known. He had been an uncredited bank teller in Wichita, an equally uncredited man in a bar in his Junior Bonner, and was briefly memorable as the undertaker in Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. There was quite a tradition of a dime novelist/observer appearing in Westerns – one thinks of Saul Rubinek’s WW Beauchamp in Unforgiven, Hurd Hatfield’s Moultrie in The Left-Handed Gun and of course Bob Dylan in Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. I liked Sam’s hat in China 9.

Sam is a dime novelist giving us the Western myth

I didn’t know the rest of the cast. Perhaps they are famous in Europe.

The title is an odd one. Perhaps its oddness was the only point. It is simply what is written on the signpost seen in the first frame which indicates that it is nine miles to China and thirty-seven to Liberty. The story is supposed to be set in south Texas. Liberty is in Missouri and China is in, well, China. But that’s spaghetti westerns for you. In Italy it was known as Amore, Piombo e Furore (Love, Lead and Fury). That was more spaghettiesque. That’s a good word, spaghettiesque.

There are some quotations from old Westerns, such as the scaffold, the condemned man spinning cards into a hat in the jail, the scene in the whorehouse, an evil railroad company hiring killers, a derringer in a boot. I enjoyed those bits.

There’s a dwarf and a circus. For some odd reason Italians couldn’t make a Western without acrobats.

A Sharps plays an important part and just occasionally, when wearing his blue shirt, Testi looks a bit like Tom Selleck when using it.

The movie is too long, though (even in the cut version, which is better – though some of the editing is clumsy) and too slow. But that’s Hellman. He didn’t go for shoot-‘em-up action, more for ‘atmosphere’, I’m afraid. Sigh.

On the set: Peckinpah, cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno, Leone, Hellman

To be fair to China 9, and I do try to be fair (not always succeeding), it is vastly better than the run of spaghetti westerns. Of course the brief heyday of that genre was the late 1960s, then they gave way to those early 70s slightly more mainstream Terence Hill-type junk (which were even worse in my opinion) before dying altogether. By 1978 the boom was long over, and in fact some reverse engineering had taken place whereby spaghetti-influenced American Westerns were being made – the aforementioned Barquero was an example. By the time of China 9 the spaghetti western had nothing more to say, and maybe (though this is stretching it and we don’t want to be pretentious, do we?) the fact that Tesi and Agutter walk away from the dime novelist and his myth-making suggests that the Western as myth was also gone. (It wasn’t, of course). China 9 has some decent acting and makes an attempt at mood and subtlety here and there. I still don’t think it’s a good film or anything like that but well, you know, we’ve definitely seen worse.


Wednesday, May 23, 2018

The Far Horizons (Paramount, 1955)

All a bit perfunctory

Some would say The Far Horizons is more of a historical drama than a Western and they’d probably be right but let’s give it the benefit of the doubt today and review it on this Western blog. After all, it is set in the nineteenth-century far West and does have attacks by Indians.

Paramount splurged a bit on this picture with big stars, VistaVision and Technicolor (though it was later re-released in black-and-white) and handsome Wyoming locations. That’s about where the spending stopped. Still, the movie did create a stir as a ‘big’ picture.

It is, as you are doubtless aware, the Lewis and Clark story – surprisingly perhaps the only big Lewis & Clark feature film to date. But it’s 1950s Hollywood, so don’t expect historical accuracy. Not at all. In fact it’s a lot of hooey, though factually an improvement on Charlton Heston’s take on the Pony Express of two years before, one of the most egregious travesties of historical truth ever committed to celluloid.

Lewis and Clark

Lewis and Clark Hollywood style

Heston, sour as ever, is William Clark. For such a macho gun-loving type I wonder that Heston didn’t do more Westerns, really. He appeared in ten, which was not a great number for the 50s and 60s he worked in. Many of them were poor or very poor (The Savage, Arrowhead, Pony Express). Major Dundee and The Big Country were potentially good but flawed films, and not helped by his performance in them. Far and away Heston’s best, in fact for me the only Western I think he was really good in, was Will Penny in 1967. He always came across as a bitter or downright unpleasant character, except for his Will Penny. Anyway, in The Far Horizons he is portrayed as the friend of Lewis who unwittingly steals away Lewis’s girl (Barbara Hale) and then falls out with Lewis, partly because of this, on the expedition.

Not the most cheerful or charming chap on screen. I am sure he was very nice really.

Fred MacMurray is the more optimistic and commanding Meriwether Lewis (it is said that he was third choice for the role after Gary Cooper and John Wayne, who both turned it down). Unlike Heston, Fred has a fan in me. I always thought he was good – I’d even say surprisingly good – in Westerns. He made, depending on your definition of a Western, about fourteen, from The Trail of the Lonesome Pine (more of an adventure/romance really) in 1936 to The Oregon Trail (his worst Western) in 1959. Fred was often excellent in the genre, though.

Fred being frightfully fair

Despite Fred's getting top billing and being in command of the Corps of Discovery Expedition, it’s really Heston who gets most screen time.

Rudolph Maté (left) directed. A cinematographer, he had been an uncredited cameraman on The Westerner in 1940, presumably learning from William Wyler, and had started directing Westerns in 1950 with Branded, an Alan Ladd picture for Paramount, following that with The Mississippi Gambler with Tyrone Power in 1953 and probably his best Western (though it’s only relative), The Violent Men with Glenn Ford, Edward G Robinson and Barbara Stanwyck the year after. The year before Far Horizons he had done the stodgy Siege at Red River with a miscast Van Johnson. It was not a very distinguished Western record. The following year Maté would work with Heston again on Three Violent People, also not very good. He only does a fair job on Far Horizons, trying to keep the pace going (not always succeeding) and endeavoring to make the hokum romance vaguely interesting (an effort destined to fail).

At least the Hans Salter score is occasionally vigorous and stirring. You sometimes think it’s only the music that is.

Maté used Daniel L Fapp (right) as cinematographer. Fapp spent most of his career at Paramount though would win an Oscar for best cinematography on United Artists’ West Side Story in 1961. He also did the visually superb stark black & white noir The Big Clock in 1948. He didn’t do many Westerns (though he was apparently one of the cameramen on the lost 1930 version of The Spoilers, the Gary Cooper one). He made the most of the Jackson Hole and Grand Teton locations on The Far Horizons, though of course a fair bit of the movie was shot on studio sound stages too.

The farrago (for it is a farrago, e-pards) was written by Winston Miller with Edmund North from the 1943 novel Sacajawea of the Shoshones by Della Gould. North is most famous for The Day the Earth Stood Still but did contribute to Westerns, some goodish ones: Destry, Cowboy, Only the Valiant and Colorado Territory for example. Miller, however, was a bigger figure in our noble genre: he had been a child actor in The Iron Horse, had penned B-oaters for the likes of Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, had written and/or produced some excellent little Westerns such as Station West and Fury at Furnace Creek but earned undying Western fame for his screenplay for John Ford’s My Darling Clementine in 1946. It was a great Western career.



Fred has to appear in his first scene in very silly silk britches, like grandma’s bloomers, but he soon gets over that. He is the secretary of President Jefferson (Herbert Heyes) at a posh party at the Hancocks and he wants to propose to Julia Hancock (Hale) but Lt. Bill Clark (Heston) arrives and beats him to it. Still, Fred is frightfully decent about it, the best man won and all that. Commissioned by the president to explore the new Louisiana Purchase (it’s 1803), Lewis asks for Clark to accompany him and requests equal rank and joint command of the expedition, I’m not quite sure why. A recipe for disaster, I’d say. But the prez agrees.

That's Sgt. Demarest in the middle, trying to keep the peace

They have Sergeant William Demarest for a bit of color and semi comic-relief. He is a relief too, now and then, for the principals are a bit on the earnest side. The expedition sets off up the Missouri on their riverboat and they all change into buckskins. It’s getting a bit more Western now. They come upon the village of the Minnetaree Indians whose chief is Ralph Moody.

Lewis gives the chief a medal as compensation for taking over all his lands

The chief is rather ambiguous about these American arrivals, fearing they are the precursors of many white-eye invaders to come (and he is not wrong). He listens to the counsel of evil, sweaty and unshaven French-Canadian Charbonneau (Alan Reed, no relation to Donna, described by one reviewer as “Fred Flintstone in buckskins”), who also fears Yankee traders and convinces the chief to attack the expedition. The chief contemptuously throws the medal Lewis had given him from the president in the dirt. He’d probably seen High Noon.

A splendid picture of the real Charbonneau

It’s at this village that they meet Sacajawea (as she is called here), blue-eyed Donna Reed in unconvincing heavy make-up, doing her Debra Paget act. She is a Shoshone, captured and working as a slave. She offers to guide the expedition as a way to get back to her people. She falls for Lt. Clark (he’s still a lieutenant, the War Department having lost his promotion) and Clark, despite the glam Julia back home who has accepted him, finds himself reciprocating. Such shocking miscegenation! Once he spots this, Lewis disapproves highly (but then he still holds a candle for the fair Julia). Of course Hollywood taboos on interracial romances doomed the love affair at the outset; we know it will not end well. And given that Maté and the producers (William H Pine and William C Thomas, who together produced 81 pictures for Paramount) decided to make this romance the very heart of the film, it rather doomed the movie too.

Reed a token Indian maid

Now all this is baloney. Sacajawea was not a guide; in reality she was little more than an interpreter and reassuring presence. And there is no evidence whatsoever that she had an affair with Clark. Later, the movie Lewis conveniently tears the relevant five pages out of his journal to keep the affair all decently under wraps, so that’s why there’s no record of it, you see. But Hollywood had to have a bit of romance, n’est-ce pas?

It's lerve

Toussaint Charbonneau was in fact a member of the expedition, not its enemy, and Sacajawea was his woman. Shortly after joining Lewis and Clark she gave birth to a baby, Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau. Clark referred to Charbonneau and Sacajawea in his journal dismissively as “Interpreter & Squar”. In the movie, after the expedition Sacajawea accompanies Clark to Washington DC (which she did not), is presented there to President Jefferson in what they call "the White House" (it wasn't known as that then) and it is the president who arranges her discreet departure back to her people, provoking much boo-hooing from (now) Capt. Clark. The future of sad Julia, disillusioned by her former beau, is not mentioned (in fact Clark married her and they had five children).

In 2011, Time Magazine rated The Far Horizons as one of the top ten most historically misleading films, and they had a point. Still, we don’t watch such movies for historical accuracy. You want history? Read a history book.

Believe it if you will

There’s some movie action, with various Indians attacking, a desperate fight in canoes, natural hazards, fever and so on. Various expedition members are killed (in fact only one died, and that from a ruptured appendix three months after the departure). Lewis is especially brave and resourceful. But there are definitely tedious bits. And some pretty clunky dialogue:
"Look at all the elk!"
"Sure are a lot of 'em!"
(Shot of about five distant elk).

There’s no sense of wonder or of the new. They just seem to take everything as normal. It is instead a perfunctory manifest destiny statement, with Lewis blandly assuming sovereignty for the United States of the whole continent. “This is a picture of my chief,” he says at one point to an Indian. “He’s your chief too, now.”

In no time they get to the Pacific. Peezy. Right, back to Washington, they seem to say, as if Maté can’t wait to return to drawing rooms and tailcoats. Lewis and Clark are back in DC in a trice, looking as if they have just been out for an afternoon stroll, with no signs of fatigue at all.

If you’re not too fussy you might enjoy it.

The New York Times was uncomplimentary: “A surprisingly dull account of the Lewis and Clark wilderness trek, Paramount's ‘The Far Horizons’ landed at the Criterion yesterday with a hollow thud.” French critic Erick Maurel said it was “un film non seulement paresseux et ennuyeux, platement filmé et mal rythmé, mais également plutôt réactionnaire (a film that is not only lazy and boring, flat in its filming and with bad rhythm, but also rather reactionary.”)

Given the astonishing achievement of the expedition one feels that a film of it ought to have been grandly epic. The Far Horizons is, however, all rather turgid.

All in all you might prefer Ken Burns's 1997 documentary Lewis & Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery. It’s actually more dramatic. Or, if you want something more Western, The Big Sky, which was (vaguely) inspired by the expedition, Elizabeth Threatt’s Teal Eye character being more than a little Sacajawea-ish.



Monday, May 21, 2018

The Hanged Man (ABC TV, 1974)

A pilot that didn't make it

In 1964 Don Siegel directed a listless and frankly dull (non-Western) picture said to be only the second ever TV movie, titled The Hanged Man. It was a remake of a 1947 Robert Montgomery noir Ride the Pink Horse, which was considerably better. In 1975 Colin Blakely starred in a British TV mini-series also named The Hanged Man about a businessman who decides to stay dead. In 2007 a video The Hanged Man told a tale of six social misfits who meet on-line, and agree to gather in an abandoned barn to commit group suicide. In 2008 there was yet another The Hanged Man, apparently “A story of a passionate sentimental initiation out of the ordinary; with a crime story and suspects, and two young characters.” So says IMDb. You see, it was a popular title.
The 1974 one

The curious thing about the 1974 The Hanged Man, though, is that while it has a different plot than the Siegel one, and is transposed from the world of corrupt labor union politics to 1878 New Mexico, so is a Western, the name of the hanged man in question is the same – Devlin. The ’74 one was a TV pilot made by Andrew J Fenady Productions and Bing Crosby Productions, starring Steve Forrest. It was not, however, taken up as a series and Forrest went on to do S.W.A.T. on ABC instead.

Not a good day

It opens with the hanging. Devlin’s defense attorney (Dean Jagger) thinks he was innocent but Devlin’s rep as a notorious gunfighter did for him with the jury, who sentenced him to death. The lawyer also represents a widow, Mrs. Gault (Sharon Acker) whose husband died in a mysterious accident at their mine. She expresses quite liberal anti-death penalty opinions, suggesting that there is some good in the worst of men and that dies with them on the scaffold. But the townsfolk - especially one gloating fat drunk - don’t agree and turn out in force to enjoy the public execution.

Lawyer Jagger consoles the widow

The condemned man receives a visit from his girlfriend Soledad (Barbara Luna) and a sympathetic young priest Fr. Alvaro (Rafael Campos) but neither consoles him much. He has no formal religious faith and indeed prefers cartomancy, explaining the tarot cards to the priest, including the card of Le Pendu, the Hanged Man.

Judge Ray Teal presides over the ceremony the following morning. It was his final performance (he died the following year) and it was entirely fitting that this great Western character actor should go out with an oater. It was the last of an astonishing 278 Western appearances of every kind, big-screen and small, starting with Zorro Rides Again in 1937. He looks just the same.

Farewell, Ray, and thanks

Well, Devlin’s hanged alright, and pronounced dead by the doc (Bill Bryant), a death certificate is written, and the corpse is laid out in a room where Soledad and Fr. Alvaro pray for the soul of the departed. A bit premature, that, though, because he lives! How did he survive? Was it a miracle, as the priest believes, or the devil’s work as Soledad inclines to think, or plain incompetence by the hangman (Bill Catching) – that’s what the judge reckons - or was the doc so drunk that he didn’t spot the fellow was still alive? It’s left open, with just the hint of the supernatural to tease us.

Well, the plot now morphs into the good old one about the ruthless rancher who wants the whole valley – or in this variant the ruthless smelter who wants all the mines. The widow and her young son arrive back at their mine to find it under attack by six gunmen who burn, loot and apparently abuse the old-time factotum (Will Geer, no less, then aged 73), though exactly how they abused him is (luckily) not stated, just darkly hinted at. Later the ruthless smelter turns up, all charming and solicitous of the widow’s welfare, and it is none other than our old pal Cameron Mitchell. So, Jagger, Teal, Geer, Mitchell – it’s a pretty good line up. You get the feeling that had the series seen the light of day, Western character actor guest stars would have proliferated.

Will Geer, born 1902 and still going strong (until 1978)

However, when Cameron turns up, gunman Devlin is there. He seems to have gone back to his old trade. He saves the young son from a rattler bite so the kid’s mom is on his side. She doesn’t know yet that this is a hanged man. Devlin wears one of Soledad’s scarves around his neck to hide the scar. But then he shows her the mark and declares that he is going after the ruthless smelter.

Said ruthless smelter has henchmen, obviously – they were de rigueur. One of them is known as Billy Irons (Brendon Boone) and he used to ride with King Fisher in Texas. He’s rather a dandy, all decked out in dude duds. He’s especially vicious. He will of course (no spoiler here) meet his doom from Devlin’s Colt come the showdown.

There’s a good bit where Devlin threatens Cameron while the latter is bathing (and smoking and drinking). Devlin scares the living daylights out of the thuggish businessman with his ice-cold skin and equally icy demeanor. Is he alive? Is he dead? Cameron shudders and calls off the attack he had ordered on the mine. But it’s too late! Billy Irons and the gunmen are already at it, and this time Will Geer is fatally hurt. Now Devlin will exact revenge…

The sinister hanged man threatens the ruthless businessman

The final shoot-out is rather spectacular actually, with Devlin driving a wagon like a tank, with wooden defenses in front, straw bales at the side and loads of dynamite within. Cameron comes to a sticky end, appropriately smelted.

His work done, Devlin rides off for a new adventure, setting up the series with a lawman following him, but the lawman need not have bothered for after the ABC screening of the pilot, the series was not to be.

Yes, it’s all pretty lightweight, I guess, but you know I found it rather enjoyable. And it’s worth a view for Jagger, Teal, Geer and (especially) Mitchell.