As a precursor to our film project, 12 Western Feature-Length Films in 12 Months, which Running Wild Films and 5J Media will start producing in 2016, director Travis Mills shares his thoughts on films from the genre as he studies Westerns in preparation for our own.
This series of short blogs is titled “Western Impressions”.
I had only seen the new one. I suspected something better but I did not suspect a masterpiece. Glenn Ford is such a charmingly bad son of a bitch in this. I feel for him when he’s with the woman, I hate him when he’s trying to talk Heflin down, and I love him when he makes the decision at the end. Heflin is the heart of the picture, he’s the foundation. Even if Delmer Daves never made another Western, he would be one of the great Western masters just for this film alone.
Lasting impression: When the woman tells Glenn Ford, “Funny, some men you see every day for ten years and you never notice; some men you see once and they’re with you for the rest of your life.”
Robert Totten (1937-1995)
Bob Totten is someone I wished I had gotten to know better than I did. We met in 1994 under somewhat curious circumstances that went something like this…I was teaching film studies here in Arizona at ASU (Arizona State University) when I got involved with a couple of guys who were trying to get a low budget movie project off the ground. This was a film entitled Cry Vengeance based on a screenplay that I had written which was in turn based on an idea by one of the producers. The idea was to make this a local production with that same producer playing the lead and utilizing all local talent behind and in front the camera. After the script was written the two producers became extremely enthused about its possibility and put all their energies into seeing it come to fruition. Somewhere in the course of a lot of conversation the question as to who would direct this epic came up. It was suggested that I should consider it. I was at least qualified as some of the other names mentioned. I had been to film school and had directed several shorts. So I told them I would think about it and after about a week I said yes. The reason for my reluctance is that I was teaching and would have to miss a semester in preparation for something that might never actually get off the ground. But I took the chance and said yes. After all it was my screenplay so why shouldn’t I direct?
After that decision was made the producers started to move forward aggressively with their preproduction activities. Meetings were held, conference calls were made and all kinds of production initiatives were being implemented. But I noticed that with each plateau they arrived at the budget for this mini budgeted film increased to the point where in a year and a half it accelerated to more than ten times the original figures. When this happened suddenly it was no longer a “local production” anymore. Now the guys were making trips to LA and talking to industry figures. Through some connection they had now they were talking to the execs of some big studio about financing our film, which was now budgeted at seven million dollars. That is small by Hollywood standards but enormous in terms of where we began.
The first thing they were told was that they had to get some name actors attached. This meant that the producer couldn’t play the lead as planned. He said fine. He was more interested in producing anyway. So they contacted some TV level names that said they would commit as soon as the financing was in place. The next thing was the director. If the suits were going to take this project seriously it had to have a director with some established credentials. The guys sheepishly came and told me about it and I agreed right away. I knew it was coming so I wasn’t surprised. In fact I was even grateful because the scale of the production had outgrown anything I thought I could handle so I was more than happy to pass the burden on to someone else. Of course I didn’t say anything about that. I just said I understood and left it at that. The next couple of days they spoke to a few guys and then in came Bob Totten. I had never heard of him but when he started listing some of the things he had done I became very interested. Especially when he mentioned that he had been the first director on a film that ultimately became Death of a Gunfighter (1969). That’s when I jumped up and said: “Oh my God, you’re the original Alan Smithee.” He looked at me and said: “Oh so you know that story, huh?” … “Some of it.” Then I pushed him to tell me more. When the interview was over I invited him for a drink and started asking him all kinds of questions about directing and working with Glenn Ford, Ben Johnson, LQ Jones, Jack Elam, Mercedes McCambridge and Ruth Roman and all the others who were in the cast of The Sacketts (1979). Those were legendary actors to me and I wanted to hear all about them. I remember him looking at me at one point and saying: “You were the one scheduled to direct this film weren’t you?” I told him yes. “So I’m effectively taking away your job.” …I told him I didn’t care. He laughed and said: “There I was thinking that I would have to be dealing with a potential enemy. But you are in fact a fan, aren’t you”…”Yes!” I told him with the joyous glee of a teenager. We sat there for maybe two hours more drinking and talking. Actually him talking and me listening. He was a wonderful raconteur and I heard all the stories about the various actors, their quirks, their idiosyncrasies and their special gifts that made them so effective on screen. Right then and there I decided that I wanted to write a book about him. But I didn’t want to propose the idea at the time. After all I had only just gotten to know the man. What I would do is befriend him and after we had gotten to know each other better then I would broach the subject. By this time the producers had decided that this was the man for the job and I had lobbied for the job as his assistant. So we would have a lot of time to get to know each other on the shoot. Well, to cut to the chase, the film never got made. The funding never came through and the project was abandoned. But I kept in touch with Bob. We talked on the phone and he was always pleased to hear from me. I told him about the book that I wanted to do and he was flattered. I said that I would visit with him in Sherman Oaks where he lived when the school semester ended . We would talk, I would take notes and start the process from there. He mentioned that he had been ill. But he was full of plans for a TV project he wanted to write, produce and direct. It was a remake of the John Ford film 3 Godfathers (1948)…The last conversation we had was one morning when he called and told me that he was getting a western heritage award at a conference of some kind and invited me to attend. I looked at my schedule and realized I couldn’t make it because of my school obligations. About a month later I read that he had died of a heart attack.
I was sorry about this not just because of the book project. I had looked forward to spending all kinds of time listening to the interesting and amusing stories he had to tell. Bob was an interesting man but a fun guy too. I’m sure he is missed by those he was close to. But I miss him as well.
Desert Island Movie #9: Carlos Saura’s Carmen
I go to Spain for my next Desert Island movie. The director is the man who has for many years been called “The most Spanish of Spanish directors.”And its central motif is Flamenco one of the classic dances of Spain forged out the music and movement of the Spanish Gypsies.
Now although the film is called Carlos Saura’s Carmen(1983) it probably should’ve been called Carlos Suara and Antonio Gades’ Carmen because the film so fully reflects both men’s contribution to the finished product. The directorial conception was by Carlos Saura, both men wrote the screenplay while Antonio Gades both choreographed the dances and played the lead.
The film was based on the famous novella written in 1846 by Prosper Merimee a Frenchman living in Spain. The story was adapted into an even more famous opera in 1875 by another Frenchman, Georges Bizet. Besides the opera there are stage adaptations, sometimes with music and other times without, in virtually every major language in the world. Starting in 1907 right up to 2011 the story of Carmen and Don Jose’ has been adapted for the screen more than 40 times. The best known versions are; Carmen (1915) Directed by Raoul Walsh starring Theda Bara, The Loves of Carmen (1948) starring Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford, Carmen Jones (1954), an all black version adapted by Oscar Hammerstein the 3rd, starring Harry Belafonte and Dorothy Dandridge, First name: Carmen by Jean Luc Godard, Bizet’s Carmen (1984) and Carmen: A hip opera (2001) Starring Beyonce’.
Carlos Saura’s version is not the opera. The story this time is set in contemporary Spain (circa 1983) and in the environment of a Flamenco Dance company. Still it utilizes Bizet’s classic score throughout. We sometimes hear a recording of the opera but most of the music is adapted by Paco de Lucia who appears as himself in the film. As mentioned before Saura and Gades collaborated on all aspects of the film. This was their second time working together. And later they collaborated on another film creating Saura’s much celebrated Flamenco Trilogy; Blood Wedding (1981), Carmen (1983) and El Amor Brujo
(Love the Magician- 1986). Carmen is the most popular of the three. It is also my favorite of all the adaptations I’ve seen.
Before going on I want to say a word about Antonio Gades (1936-2004). He was Spain’s premiere Flamenco dancer and choreographer for most of his career. His company toured the world and received many international accolades for the excellence of their work. Weeks before his death of cancer he was awarded Cuba’s highest honor and is buried there as per his request. I had the occasion to see his company perform twice and was astonished by its excellence both times. This film preserves so much of that in the timeless way that only celluloid can. From my perspective this is the best dance centered movie I seen thus far because it doesn’t photograph the dances on a stage as many film adaptations of celebrated ballets have done but keeps it in the informal atmosphere of the rehearsal studio. And among the many things that makes this film a singular movie viewing experience for me are; the fluid camera work in a mostly confined space, the use of color to suggest the emotions being dramatized, the symbolic use of mirrors indicating the dual aspect of blending the traditional version of the story with the new. But what keeps me truly riveted to the screen is first the dancing. The strength and precision it requires, the kinetic energy it sparks, the non-verbal suggestions it evokes and its erotic allure. All of this fueled by one of the world’s great musical compositions. Laura Del Sol who plays Carmen is an actress/dancer whose dual abilities and beauty matched up so well with Antonio Gades’ that it gives the film a sexual force that is not present in any of the other adaptation, including the soft porn Carmen, Baby (1967) made by Radley Metzger.
This is a film I view often because it stimulates me in so many ways. It stimulates my emotions, excites my aesthetic sensibilities and from time to time sends me back to reading the novella just for the sheer pleasure of it. I l quite like the other two films of the trilogy but I absolutely love Carmen. And if you can’t have the one you love on your desert island, what’s the point of being there?
The Glenn Ford Suit
In the late 1940s and early 50s Glenn Ford was an actor who gave my friends and me a lot of thrills at the movies. Now I know that the 1950s is a long time gone but from the vantage point of age and memory (mine) it seems like only a few weeks ago when my friends and I would go to The Center Theater to watch one of his films and talk about it all week after school. For one thing, in those days he rarely played the good guy. He was always the character on the edge so that you never knew until close to the end which way he would go. He was always ambiguous which was nice because his characters always kept us guessing, always kept us in suspense.
In the plots of many of the films he was always in some intriguing place like South America, Central America or the Caribbean (Gilda-1946, Affair in Trinidad-1952, Plunder of the Sun-1953, Appointment in Honduras-1953). At the time such locales were somewhat exotic. But the truth is that they were all shot on a sound stage at Columbia Pictures Studios. But on screen they told us it was South America or wherever so we believed them. Plus there were always a few mustachioed guys speaking with accents and several dark haired women with flashing eyes and nicely rolling hips to convince us even more. Ford always played an American expatriate down on his luck. Sometimes he was a gambler or a guy on the run from the Mob or a disgraced detective or cop. Once in a while he might be a CIA agent just posing as a wastrel. But we didn’t find that out until the end.
Early in the picture he would wander into some nightclub looking disheveled and unshaven. He rarely shaved in those movies. He always looked handsomely dirty and roughed up. Not so much that he looked derelict. Just enough to look reckless and sexy. He would enter the club in the middle of a song being sung by a sultry singer who would of course be played by Rita Hayworth looking for all the world like mortal sin personified. Their eyes would meet and you knew right then and there that trouble was in the air. Man/woman trouble? To quote Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men (1992) “Is there any other kind?” Glenn would ask for the boss and the barman would point him to the back. He would go but not before making some smart remark to Ms. Hayworth who was at the bar calling for a drink. When he made the remark some underling would tell him confidentially; “Watch your step. That one belongs to the boss.” The boss was usually played by George Macready a quite good character actor who spoke with what sounds like a British accent although he was born in Providence, Rhode Island. The trick with the accent is that it made him sound both cultured and corrupt and maybe even decadent. Macready was older and had a long squirrelly face with a scar so you knew right away he was a bad guy. He would look at the disheveled looking Ford and tell him; “I need a man like you.” And hire him on the spot to do some menial job around the club. But that was a cover for what he would really be doing. Often smuggling diamonds, running guns or selling US secrets to some foreign government.
On the personal front Ford would find out that Rita not only belonged to the boss but that she was in fact his wife. So messing around with her was definitely out of the question given the morality of the times. Still we could sense that they had eyes for each other so it was only a matter of time when all their suppressed emotions would erupt in a frenzy of passionate kisses and florid background music. This is when Rita would say; “I can’t stand him touching me. I can’t even stand him looking at me.” Of course the question then becomes, if she feels that way why did she marry the man? “He was a friend of my father and after Dad died he brought me up. So I felt that I owed him something.” Or; “He took me out of the gutter and made me respectable and not looked down upon or spit on.” And indeed the marriage did seem to be a curious one. Rita and Macready never kissed on the lips, only on her cheek. And this was as it should be. They were visually incompatible. He was old and corrupt, she was young and sensuous. The idea of such a marriage was an aberration and we in the audience knew it. She was meant for Glenn and somewhere in the middle of the film it’s going to hit her like a ton of bricks. In the meanwhile Macready keeps her on a very short leash. Outside of letting her sing in his nightclub he kept her a virtual prisoner in the house. The only other thing she seems able to do is sunbathe in the back garden or by the pool looking fetching in some brief outfit. And Macready always had some underling spying on her every move and reporting it back to him.
“We’ve got to get you out of here.” Glenn would tell her between kisses. “We’ll go tonight.”
But of course Macready knows of their plans because of his underling’s report. “How dare she do this to me after all I’ve done for her?” He would mutter to himself. “She’ll pay for this. And he’s going to pay too.” That’s when we knew the double cross was in. In today’s movies people don’t double cross each other anymore. They lie, they betray, they cheat each other but they don’t call it “double cross”. I liked it when they did. There was something more underhanded and evil about the act.
Macready would try his double cross and it would backfire on him. Ford or someone else would kill him in a fight and Rita, a free woman now, would run into his arms. And it was precisely at this moment that we would find out that Ford wasn’t the unkempt piece of gutter scum everyone thought him to be. In fact he was quite the opposite. He was a Treasury agent sent by the government on a special assignment to break this Nazi ring that was smuggling counterfeit dollars into the US.
Ford was an okay actor in these films. Later on he became a very good actor. But in those early days he was competent and not too much more. But the thing that thrilled us about him was the way he dressed. It seemed that he wore the same suit from movie to movie. So much so that we called it “The Glenn Ford Suit”. And since the films were in black and white we had to guess at its color. No problem there. We figured it to be dark brown or rust with blue lines about an eighth of an inch all through the fabric. In real life they were hideous looking but on Glenn Ford they looked great. So great that we all wanted Glenn Ford suits. There was an Arabic man named Ahmed who had a men’s store on Main Street. So we went to him and showed him a photo of the suit from some fan magazine then told him we each wanted one just like that. “I can order them for you.” He said. “But it will cost twenty five dollars each.” Twenty five dollars for a suit! Even to look like Glenn Ford that was pricy for our teenage pocketbooks because none of us had any money except what we earned from some part time jobs we had. But when he said we could pay it off on installments a deal was struck. We got our suits and all was right with the world.
When we put them on the suit fit us like a second skin. That Saturday we wore them to the movies and everyone thought we looked cool. Particularly the girls. You could see their eyes just sparkle when they looked at us. And whenever they were close they were always reaching out and touching not us but the suit.
Another thing about the Glenn Ford suits is they didn’t just look good on you. They had a way of making you stand with your legs apart and your eyes squinting. If you smoked you blew smoke out in a kind of stylish way that made the smoke curl in interesting patterns before evaporating. It also made you listen with a kind of smirk on your face that said you were ready to punch the talker if he said something you didn’t like. And if you were talking to a woman you knew how to look in her eyes and burn her down with your crinkly smile. And if you didn’t like what she was saying you blew smoke in her face. None of us really smoked. I still don’t. But in my Glenn Ford suit I smoked. It was a prop that went with the suit.
You also knew how to talk when you wore that suit. For example if you walked into a club and asked “Who owns this joint?” and the bartender asks; “What’s this all about?” You would look over the place, take a draw from your cigarette, blow out the smoke and say; “I don’t talk to men who wear aprons. Let me see the boss.” And if he hesitated you would pull him across the bar, slap him a few times and he would run to do your bidding damn quick. It never ever came to that but we were always ready.
Friends said we looked great in our Glenn Ford suits but our mothers said we looked like idiots. “Those suits and your skin are exactly the same color. From a distance with those stripes you look like lizards.”
They didn’t see anything resembling Glenn Ford about us. But we weren’t surprised. Mothers never knew anything about what was cool and what wasn’t. Because if they did they would recognize they were the parents of the coolest guys in town. Or in the world for that matter. All thanks to one thing; Our Glenn Ford Suits.