Along with Noir and the Musical, the Western is a genre of the past. There have been entries in the last forty years on television and the cinema that serve the Western well, notably Appaloosa, Open Range, Lonesome Dove and some of the films of Clint Eastwood. For the most part it is an unused side of cinema, regrettably so, a distinct American creation that dominated the first half of 20th century moviemaking and still holds a gallery of some of the greatest films ever made.
Near the end of the sixties, directors were still playing with the genre. Playing is the operative word. What many of these late Westerns achieved was a purposeful rejection or reaction to the values and ideas that make up the Western. Robert Altman turned it into a dark landscape full of Leonard Cohen folk songs in his great McCabe and Mrs. Miller. Sydney Pollack experimented in the mountain-man sub-genre with his Jeremiah Johnson. Peter Fonda made his Hired Hand and Michael Cimino tried for epic size glory with Heaven’s Gate. These films contain shoot-outs, men in hats, and horses; still they are not quite Western.
Again, whether on purpose or by accident, they ignore or refute the principles of the Western. Though there were endless variations of this genre before it faded, certain qualities exist throughout. The idea of code, in the law and against it, is consistent in the work of John Ford, Howard Hawks, Budd Boetticher and others. There is a lack of code or a corruption of code in the late sixties experiments. And in the Spaghetti Westerns that followed (and have grown more popular amongst current audiences than the films that spawned them), code is practically abandoned and replaced with a focus on style and sensationalism. Though the Westerns of old had style too, and never ignored the visual, most of them were focused on something else: the characters and what they held true and how that affected their conflicts with others. In that light, it seems that Spaghetti Westerns are hardly Westerns at all, but skeletons wearing the clothes and the hats, holding guns.
Of these “Not Quite Westerns”, there are some magnificent films. As mentioned before, McCabe and Mrs. Miller is haunting and beautiful. Heaven’s Gate possesses some extraordinary moments in its four hours. And of all the Sergio Leone movies, his Duck You Sucker is his best and his closest to being authentic.
Bad Company (1972)
I recently watched my favorite of these films: Bad Company, directed by Robert Benton in 1972, starring Jeff Bridges and Barry Brown. Brown plays a young man dodging the Civil War draft. He goes West and soon stumbles into a gang of young ruffians, led by Jeff Bridges. Together they go through a series of trials and misadventures.
On the surface, the movie sounds like a light, Western adventure. But this is no ordinary West. There are no beautiful landscapes. The background is drab, a dreary mid-west setting of dead grass and naked trees. The colors are dark grays and pale yellows. There are startling moments of violence. Take for instance a scene where the youngest of the group, just a kid, tries to steal a pie from a window. Someone shoots him in the head with a rifle.
At one point, the young men buy quick rounds of sex with another traveler’s wife. There’s something pitiful about the scene. They betray and lie to each other constantly. Everyone in the picture is starving, and the phrase “Who told me to go West?” is repeated often. Even the villain, a fast-slinging gunfighter played by David Huddleston is the opposite of the traditional Western bad guy: he’s obese, he acknowledges that he’s the leader of a band of idiots, and even his most impressive “gun trick” is not impressive at all. Near the end of the picture, he calls himself “the oldest whore on the block.”
The final shootout is at once thrilling and violent and completely absurd. The piano score spins a Marx Brothers feel while the characters awkwardly kill each other. It’s an odd moment, but in its own not-quite-Western way it works really well.
The best part of the picture is Jeff Bridges and Barry Brown. Their struggle for friendship is an interesting reverse of the usual Western companionships (John Wayne and Dean Martin in Rio Bravo, or Henry Fonda and Victor Mature in My Darling Clementine). Bridges was and is a great presence on screen. He is unpredictable, yet he avoids any sign that he is acting. Barry Brown, an actor I wasn’t familiar with until this picture, carries the whole thing. He is as authentic and natural as Bridges and together they make a great pair.
I was sad to read that Barry Brown committed suicide in 1978, not ten years after he made this film. He had a short career but however short, something of him is left in this great movie, not really a Western, but still great nonetheless.
Jeff Bridges and Barry Brown, not long after the Bad Company shoot.
It’s more of a question: Is Noir dead? And the answer that keeps pestering my optimism is a reluctant and bitter yes.
The Noir I mention is pure unadulterated Noir. I could provide a list of qualifications (as Gus did in a previous entry on genre) but to mention a few movie titles might do better. Detour directed by Edgar G. Ulmer is Noir. Double Indemnity directed by Billy Wilder from a screenplay by Raymond Chandler is Noir. Night and the City directed by Jules Dassin is Noir. A combination of sex, deception, jazz, double-cross, murder, desperation, money, and a moody atmosphere… Noir.
It thrived in the 40’s and 50’s along with the Pulp literature from which it came. In the passing decades it has ruptured into so many sub-genres that the meaning of Noir is corrupt. For instance, we have “Country-Noir” with this year’s back-woods crime story Winter’s Bone. The Nicolas Cage-starring Red Rock West is sort of “Western Noir”. Films like No Country for Old Men pass as Noir, and I ask why. Is any movie that includes crime and dark shadows Noir? Even Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential, as good as it is, isn’t Noir. It’s more police procedural than anything. And these corruptions apply to the classics of Hollywood as well. For instance, some might call Sunset Boulevard a Film Noir, but for what reasons? Because it has dark Black & White photography and demented, fated characters? Any genre might possess those elements.
As Gus once told me, the crime genre (in writing and movies) is a house with many rooms. The gangster story, the Cozy, the court-room drama, the who-dunit, the caper and others.
Imagine if someone were to call Agatha Christie’s work Pulp in the same vain as Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Cornell Woolrich. Such a suggestion would be laughable but that’s the same mistake that has been made concerning Noir.
Of course, there have been examples of pure Noir, at least by my standards, since the 50’s. The Arthur Penn-directed Night Moves with Gene Hackman fits the bill. So does Chinatown. Body Heat though disgustingly imitative of Double Indemnity makes most, if not all, the right moves. The Hot Spot, directed by Dennis Hopper, is maybe the best of its era. Even a movie like Phoenix (a forgotten crime gem with Ray Liotta) comes close but misses the genre.
And to be fair, there is nothing wrong with the creation of the above-mentioned sub-genres; in fact, the evolution of genre is necessary for a living cinema. Still, it’s important to remember where these terms came from, what they once stood for and possibly still can.
Is pure Noir possible in current cinema? In a world where jazz isn’t as popular, where the detective is more an icon of the past than a hero of the present… What would pure Noir look like in a modern setting?
Would it have pornstars instead of lounge singers? And Meth dealers instead of thieves? It might resemble something like Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant; the German director’s depraved-cop yarn, full of drugs and Iguanas, is the closest I’ve seen anyone come to the genre in recent years. Herzog seems to think that New Orleans (a place torn-up by crime and natural disaster) is the perfect location for a resurgence of Noir.
Maybe he’s right. Perhaps the genre has just been asleep for too long.
All kinds of films played in our small neighborhood movie theatre. So, according to your taste you went to see one kind or another. For example, my mother liked musicals, so she went to see every musical that played there. On the other hand, she didn’t like mysteries so she generally avoided them. In those days the kind of films most people in the place where I grew up liked were westerns, especially the grade B and C kind. Hollywood had its class A pictures, grade B, grade C and even grade Z. This mostly had to do with the amount of money spent on the film (its budget) and the caliber of stars in the principal roles. We knew nothing about that and didn’t care. A movie was a movie was a movie so far as we were concerned. If the plot held our attention and there were lots of action scenes, that’s all we wanted to know. And we could even distinguish the difference just based on the coming attractions. For example there was a cowboy star named Bill Elliot. He made both kinds of westerns. If the trailers were in color and the voice over announcement said;”Starring William Elliot” we knew that the film would be dull, full of talk with very little violent action. In films like that he would be wearing a suit mostly and doing a lot of sitting in saloons smiling with women. Those were his class A pictures.
Now if the preview was in black and white and the announcer called him; “Wild Bill Elliot” we knew that was a film we wanted to see. In those films he almost never smiled. He would sneer at the bad guys or anyone else who crossed him then punch them in the face. He would also stop runaway stagecoaches by jumping between the two lead horses and pulling on the reins then go to see if the woman in the coach who got knocked unconscious during the frenzy was alright. In those movies he always wore two guns (even when he slept) and told the other characters that he felt naked without them
A frequent Bill Elliot role was Red Ryder and he had as his second or sidekick an Indian (Native American) boy called Little Beaver. This role was played by Robert Blake who grew up to act in such films as In Cold Blood (1967) and Tell Them Willie Boy is Here (1969) as well as the TV series Baretta. He starred in a rather well covered real life murder trial as well, but all that was to come later. At the time that I’m talking about (the 1950s) he was Little Beaver to not one but two actors playing Red Ryder; Bill Elliot and Alan “Rocky” Lane. Lane was alright but Bill Elliot was our favorite. Still we went to see them both because of Little Beaver. He was absolutely our favorite character in those movies. On screen he did what we dreamed of doing. He would beat up adults all the time and we would jump out of our seats with joy yelling “Yeah!”
In those films there was always a situation where Red Ryder would be fighting five or six guys at the same time. Seeing this Little Beaver would rush in to help. Now you have to realize that he was only about ten so one of the bad guys would grab him by the back of his neck and throw him into a haystack. Little Beaver would get up mad, shake himself off and go back after the guy.. He would kick his shin and when the guy reached down to get him Little Beaver would run between his legs, grab his foot and trip him. The guy would hit his head on the floor and get knocked unconscious. Then he would go after another guy. This guy (a real meanie) would punch at Little Beaver with all his might. Beaver would easily avoid it and the punch would smash into a post or wall. The guy would cry out in pain. While he was doing that Beaver would pick up an ax handle that was close by and hit him over the head with it “Bong!”. The villain would stagger comically for a moment before hitting the deck. Red Ryder by this time was polishing off the four remaining guys. After he did he would turn and say; “Thanks Little Beaver. “And we would cheer because we knew that without Little Beaver he couldn’t have done it and he did too.
We also knew that in a similar situation we could do the same thing. Our problem was that in our little part of the world there weren’t any cowboys, especially the villainous kind, so we really couldn’t show what we could do. And that was frustrating. But Little Beaver did it for us and you could only find him in grade C films.
Now our favorite western hero wasn’t Randolph Scott, Gary Cooper or John Wayne. Those guys were okay but the man we all looked up to was Audie Murphy, the kid from Texas. He had been a war hero. America’s greatest war hero. Reportedly he killed 240 Germans. He had won more medals for heroism in World War Two than any other American soldier in history. And they told you so in the coming attractions of every film he made. “Starring America’s greatest and most beloved war hero Audie Murphy”.
He wasn’t much of an actor but he wasn’t awful either. He could deliver a line of dialogue convincingly enough and the emotional demands of the scripts were never out of his range. On screen he projected a kind of humility that spoke volumes when contrasted with his real life background. But the thing that made him such a favorite in our eyes is the fact that in real life he had actually killed people. The others were actors just playing at that stuff but Murphy had really done it. So when he shot a bad guy in his movies it was always more convincing to us because we knew that he knew how. The man was a killer. We had all seen the movie of his war exploits (To Hell and Back – 1955) with him in the lead showing us how he did it.
Murphy had a baby face which was deceptive, of course. He didn’t look tough and the bad guys were always underestimating him or his abilities. He also had a disarming grin which told them that he was a pushover. Added to which he seemed to have a face that villains always wanted to slap. Of course when they tried it would turn out to be the mistake of their lives. I remember in one film some town bully said to him;”Why don’t you take that gun off your side.” To which Murphy replied; “Why don’t you take them off for me.” Of course the guy tried and it was “Bye-bye” Mr. Bully.
I really don’t know how many westerns he made but it seems like a lot. He played both Billy the Kid and Jesse James. And when he did we found out that they weren’t the thieves and killers that history and legend makes them out to be. They were just misunderstood kids who were either framed or manipulated into doing what they did by unscrupulous people in search of gold or political power. Other times he played fast guns, determined sheriffs, Indian scouts, Government agents, Bounty hunters or humble farmers. All were men of quiet dignity and unblinking courage who could fight with their fists as much as they could draw and shoot.
We would sometimes sit around for hours talking and trying to analyze what made Audie Murphy so good and why we loved him so. Some said it was because he was tough, others said that it was because he came from Texas and was a real cowboy. But the real reason that captivated us and made us so devoted to him was told to us by an adult. He was a cab driver that was a huge Audie Murphy fan like we were. “You see” he told us one day, “the difference between Audie Murphy and the other cowboy actors in the movies is that Audie Murphy does kill them people we see him shoot.”
We didn’t believe it and told him so.
“I’m serious” he said by way of explanation. “You see what they do in Hollywood when they making his movies is they get all these men from jail who is supposed to die in the electric chair from committing murder and all kinds of things. They put them in cowboy clothes and give them guns. Only their guns ain’t got real bullets in them, they got blanks. Now Audie Murphy guns have the real thing, so when they shoot at him he can’t get hurt, but when he shoot back; “Bam! Bam!” they dead.
“Wow!” We looked at each other and were really convinced. We were really impressed as well. After that we looked at every Audie Murphy film with awe because he was not only taming the west he was clearing out America’s death row prisons as well.
Some months after I asked my father about this. He frowned and asked: “ Where did you hear that nonsense?” I told him my source. “That man is an idiot and a jackass, don’t ever listen to anything he tells you. In fact don’t even speak to him. For one thing he’s too old for you, for another, you’re more intelligent than he is.”
After that Audie Murphy stopped being a special favorite. I mean we still liked him and all but when we found out that he wasn’t really killing people on screen there was nothing to distinguish him from the other cowboy stars. We couldn’t understand the point of being a genuine war hero if you had to fake it in movies just like everybody else.
Audie Murphy died in a plane crash in 1971 but his movies live on. Sometimes late at night I see one of his films and I’m filled with some of the same excitement I had when I first saw him. I think it’s because somewhere in the corner of my mind I still believe that he’s really shooting all those bad guys. And at those times no one can tell me different. Sorry Dad.
The “Men on a Mission” genre
Before there was Tarantino’s Basterds, we had a long history of “Men on a Mission” movies, enough probably to call it a genre. The most famous are The Dirty Dozen and The Guns Of Navarone. One of the best is Where Eagles Dare. Some of the more obscure like the Rod Taylor-acted Dark Of The Sun inspired Tarantino’s own entry. The genre has continued through every decade with the same rag-tag crews going on a task usually considered a “suicide mission”.
Near the end of their careers, American Primitives, Andre De Toth and Robert Aldrich, tried the genre in two little-talked about films: Play Dirty and Too Late The Hero.
Odd enough, both films star Michael Caine. In Play Dirty, he’s an expert in oil, a soldier who didn’t plan on firing a single shot and somehow gets roped into a scheme to join a group of true outcasts, gathered from all over, to blow up a Nazi oil reserve.
This is a cynical picture and that attitude doesn’t take long to kick in. From the beginning, we learn that our crew is just a decoy, a bunch of expendables meant only to be butchered as a group of “real” soldiers follows their trail to do the job right. The best scene comes when our outcasts watch as the “real” soldiers are ambushed by Nazis and massacred. Caine’s character tries to warn them but Nigel Hawthorne’s hard-as-nails Leech stops him. He doesn’t mind watching his own allies murdered as long as it doesn’t affect him.
Andre De Toth, who we wrote about earlier with his great crime picture Crime Wave, keeps up this hopeless tone till the very end. It sets in to the point that we laugh when the next bad thing happens and the film turns the “Mission” genre on its head. The mission doesn’t matter at all this time.
In Too Late the Hero, Cliff Roberston plays the reluctant soldier: an American who speaks Japanese and hides out from his commander (Henry Fonda) until he’s tracked down and brought in. A few days before his leave, he’s assigned to a group of British soldiers on another suicide mission: this time to destroy Japanese communications and send a false transmission to fool them. As usual, the soldiers have been collected from the bottom of the barrel. Michael Caine is among them, as the always-skeptical medic. Also in the ranks is the incompetent team leader played by Denholm Elliott and the crazy Irishman played by Ian Bannen.
Somehow with the same modus operandi as De Toth, Aldrich (director of greats like Kiss Me Deadly and the classic Mission movie The Dirty Dozen) misses the right tone for this picture. All the elements are present but the feel isn’t and the movie plays out as one jungle attack after another. Whereas De Toth’s cynicism refreshed the genre, Aldrich’s seems tired and uninspired.
Still, it’s curious to see these two directors try. We will write more, much more, about Robert Aldrich in later entries.
We plan a detailed entry about the Western. Until then, here we have a subject, a legend that has sparked so many renditions it stands at its own sub-genre within the Western: the Wyatt Earp picture.
A character from the early days of cinema to the present, this lawman has been interpreted by the likes of Randolph Scott, Henry Fonda, Burt Lancaster, James Garner, Kurt Russell and Kevin Costner. John Ford told his story, so did other American Primitives like Allan Dwan and the one we highlight today: Jacques Tourneur with the film he directed, Wichita.
This time around, Joel McCrea, one of the great unsung heroes of motion pictures (he worked with everyone from Hawks to Sturges to Hitchcock and settled down his career as a permanent cowboy), plays Wyatt as the reluctant citizen who just wants to start some business, make romances and advances on Vera Miles, and stay out of trouble. As the townsfolk of the budding Wichita notice, trouble finds him anyway. He simply cannot stand by when there is no law and order.
This is a quiet picture. Tourneur does nothing out of the ordinary. He lets the story play out the way it usually does, highs and lows, action accompanies danger, heroism confronts injustice. McCrea too does nothing unusual. By all that I mean that this is a good picture, a solid one, a movie that doesn’t try to remind us how great it is, it just tells us a simple story and lets us go.
Genres: a French word meaning category or type is our key to the kind of film that gives us the greatest pleasures. From time to time, we will be itemizing some of these films and their genres just for the fun of it.
Among our favorites is the one referred to as Film Noir. Unfortunately, this term has become so corrupted that it is presently used to describe virtually any film that has some element of crime in its plot, but here is its classic definition.
Film Noir. Literally it means black film, a generic term for a type of film set in a sordid urban atmosphere that deals with dark passions and violent crime. Many American thrillers of the 1940’s and 50’s were of this genre.
General ingredients common to Film Noir:
-A moody atmosphere
-Characters whose basic natures are deceptive, cunning, dishonest, and downright criminal.
-Sex or sexual passion, mostly of an illicit nature
-Individuals who are murderously desperate about some aspect of their lives
-Violence and cold-blooded cruelty are very much part of the atmosphere.
-Music, especially the blues and jazz, influence who the characters are, where they live, and how they behave.
-Reversals and unexpected twists in the story and the events are common place.
-Aspirations for a big payoff (in money from insurance, robbery, murder, etc.) fuels the ruthlessness of the characters’ behavior. -New and sudden alliances as well as betrayals, lies, and reversals in loyalty occur with dizzying swiftness among the characters of Film Noir.
Roger Ebert probably put it best when he said, The difference between “a crime film” and a “noir film” is that the bad guys in a crime film know they are bad and want to be, while the noir hero thinks he’s a good guy who has been ambushed by life.
-From Roger Ebert’s book The Great Movies, under his appreciation of Edgar Ulmer’s Detour (1945)
We concur that Detour is probably the greatest noir film made, more about this later.