Cinema Station

Western Impressions: Ulzana’s Raid (1972)

January 8, 2015
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As a precursor to our film project, 12 Western Feature-Length Films in 12 Months, produced by our company Running Wild Films and 5J Media which will begin production in 2016, I have decided to share my thoughts on films from the genre as I study Westerns in preparation to make our own.

This series of short blogs is titled “Western Impressions”.

Ulzana’s Raid (1972)

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It wasn’t what I expected. Sharp’s writing is there but overshadowed by a sentimental and overabundant need to question the “Apache’s” intention. Aldrich’s tough cinema isn’t quite as tough as I always hoped it would be. The best part was the end, Lancaster under a wagon, getting shot and shooting Apaches and wanting to just die out in the desert.

Lasting impression: The final shot of Lancaster licking the cigarette paper.

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A Triptych: 3 Interesting Films

October 10, 2011
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A Triptych – 3 Interesting Films

 

 

Summer of ’42 – (1971)

Often it is with great trepidation that I approach the business of looking at a film I remember fondly but haven’t seen in a long time. Because more often than not when I look at it again I am disappointed by what I had thought to be so wonderful and fine. Then I ‘m embarrassed about being such a fool for liking it in the first place. Of course I always blame it on my being young and naïve but the disappointment always saddens me a bit.

 

Anyway that was how I approached looking at Summer of ’42 which was being shown on one of the cable channels. I wanted to see it but I didn’t want to see it. The film had been released in 1971 and I remember going to The Sutton Theatre in New York City with a friend and coming out afterward completely enchanted by what I had seen. And I wasn’t the only one. The entire audience was. So much so that the film was one of the hits of the year and nominated for several Academy Awards. The theme composed by Michael Legrand was also one of the hits of the season and remained high on the Billboard Chart for many weeks. All those memories sent up red flags because I’ve found that films which were extremely popular in their time date badly and wind up just looking creaky and sentimental in the worst sense of the word. Still I couldn’t resist looking at Summer of ’42. But I watched it with the idea that the minute it began to turn mawkish or stupid I would turn it off. Well, I’m happy to say that the film took me in and enchanted me once again just the way it had all those years ago.

 

For anyone who hasn’t seen it the Summer of ’42 is a sexual coming-of-age story involving three teenage boys during the season and year of the title. But mostly it is the story of one boy Hermie, and his private rite of passage…An adult narrator sets it up at the beginning so right away we know that we’re looking at a time gone by and a remembrance of something past being seen through the romantic prism of a young man’s memory. And then through the magic of delicate and understated direction (Robert Mulligan), an insightful screenplay (Herman Raucher), poetic, evocative cinematography by Robert Surtees and a haunting score by Mr. Legrand we relive that summer with them and it becomes part of our nostalgia as well as theirs.

 

The young men were played by Jerry Hauser, Oliver Conant and Gary Grimes in the principal role of Hermie. All were excellent but Grimes stands out because he has the biggest role. Jennifer O’Neill, a model turned actress plays Dorothy the unaware object of their summer desires. Ms. O’Neill was 25 when she made the film and in the full blush of her young womanhood. . Everything about her as photographed by Surtees suggests innocence, romance and sexual allure but in the most idealized and chaste way imaginable. And her performance is so straight forward and without calculation that she thoroughly enchants the viewer as well as the young men in the film. It was a breakout role for her and made Ms. O’Neill a star not only in the US but in Europe as well.

 

This is not a very dramatic film thank God. It has its moments of seriousness but none of it is strained or pushed. Things just sort of occur in a slow episodic fashion and culminate with a quietly emotional wallop. But I think that the best thing about the film for me is the easy and relaxed feeling the film induces while it is being viewed and experienced. Sort of spending a pleasant summer on an island, in this case Nantucket Island, a long time ago. Give it a try see if you don’t agree with me.

-GE. 

 

 

 

Ulzana’s Raid – (1972)

 

Actor Burt Lancaster once said that in the movie business after you make your first million there’s nothing to go after except quality.  And he always did especially in the latter part of his career when he was older and totally in command of not only his craft but his mind and body as well. And he gave performances that were masterpieces of minimalist perfection. See films like Go Tell the Spartans (1978), Valdez is Coming (1971), Lawman (1971) and Atlantic City (1980) for which he was highly praised and nominated for the Academy Award. There is another that should be added to that list and it is Robert Aldrich’s neglected near masterpiece Ulzana’s Raid (1972). A western about a group of Calvary soldiers going after a murderous Indian and his band. At the time of the film’s release there were some discussions about the way the Native Americans were being portrayed but upon close inspection one can see that Alan Sharp’s insightful script is not about stereotyping but providing rounded portraits of all the characters. And aided by Aldrich’s uncompromising direction, he is successful with the characters on both sides. The young inexperienced Lt. DeBuin (Bruce Davison)who is trying to understand what all the cruelty and barbarity is about and McIntosh, the scout played to quiet perfection by Lancaster. The American Indian characters who straddle their own narrow path on the event are played by Joaquin Martinez as the renegade Ulzana and Jorge Luke as McIntosh’s aide Ke Ni Tay. Both roles are steeped in mystery and deeply hidden concerns that transcend easy articulation and so they are wisely left unsaid. And both actors using body language and spare movement convey everything we need to know about who these individuals are.

 

The film presents the story of a chase just as Peckinpah’s Major Dundee (1965) did. And the plots are almost identical. The soldiers are after a tough, renegade Indian who is smart as well as ruthless. But the focus is different in both. In Peckinpah’s film the focus is on the men and their relationship with each other. In Aldrich’s it’s really about the land as well as the men. And what the terrain does to them. Several lines of dialogue attest to that.

 

 Lancaster’s McIntosh says:

 “Remember the rules Lieutenant. The first one to make a mistake gets to burying some people.”…And when asked by the young Lieutenant if he hates the Apache McIntosh responds: “It would be like hating the desert because there ain’t no water in it.”

The film is full of wonderful dialogue that goes by unnoticed because it comes so naturally to the characters. McIntosh at one point says:

“Lieutenant, a horse will run so far so fast, for so long and then it will lie down on you. When a horse lies down on an Apache he puts fire under his belly and gets him back on his feet. When the horse dies he gets off, eats a bit of it and steals another. Ain’t no way you can better that.”

 

 Ke-Ni-Tay explaining Ulzana says:

 “Each man that die, the man who kill him take his power…Ulzana is long time in the agency. His power thin. Smell in his nose is old smell of the agency. Old smell. Smell of women, smell of dog, smell of children. Ulzana come loose for new smell. Pony running, the smell of burning, the smell of bullet- for power.”

 

Major Cartwright says:

“What we have to determine Mr. McIntosh is how many of them there are and whether they are hostile.

To which McIntosh replies:

Well the first is open to question; the second you can bet money on.

 

And probably the most telling line is when McIntosh says to the young man;

“What bothers you lieutenant, is you don’t like to think of white men behaving like Indians. It kind of confuses the issue, don’t it?”

 

Aldrich was known as a man’s man type of director due to films like The Dirty Dozen (1967), Flight of the Phoenix (1965), and Vera Cruz (1955). But with this one he went past the surfaces and produced a film that is quietly poetic because of its resignation to the fact that it’s nature and the land that shapes men’s characters. And in the end there’s nothing we can do but accept that fact whether we like it or not. This is a genuinely thought provoking film that also maintains the surface excitement of its genre.

For me it’s a beautiful little gem that’s worth viewing and then viewing again.

-GE. 

Paris, Texas – (1984)

This film was a collaboration of three very original but eccentric talents. Wim Wenders, the German director of such films as Wings of Desire (1987), An American Friend (1977) and the terrific documentary The Buena Vista Social Club (1999), L.M. Kit Carson an actor and writer whose erratic career includes things like David Holzman’s Diary -actor (1967) and as a writer; Breathless (1983) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2(1986) and Sam Shepard the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright (Buried Child) who is also a well known actor in such movies as Black Hawk Down (2001), The Right Stuff (1982) and Days of Heaven (1978).

 The screenplay by Carson is sort of adapted from a Shepard’s collection of essays, prose poems, and reminisces entitled Motel Chronicles.  It is about a man’s search for a woman that he walked out on and the love that he squandered and would like to regain. It is also about fathers and sons and the tenuous connection that can develop between them. Much of what takes place in this film takes place between the lines into the deep recesses of the psyche. So there are many passages when the characters just stand there looking off into space and saying nothing. Especially the leading character Travis Henderson played to quiet perfection by character actor Harry Dean Stanton. One of the few genuine leads he’s ever had in a movie. Usually he’s there as stalwart support in films like Wild at Heart (1990), The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), The Missouri Breaks (1976) and Straight Time (1978). Here he is a man who walked out on his family for mysterious reasons and then turns up again just as mysteriously. This time he is found by his brother Walt (Dean Stockwell) who with his wife is bringing up Travis’s son Hunter played by Hunter Carson,( son of the screenwriter) who has been left behind by his mother Jane played by Natassia Kinski. It takes a while for us the audience to sort out what’s going on because like Walt we’re completely baffled by Travis’s odd behavior. But then when things start to slowly settle down we begin to get some insight into who Travis is and what it is that’s bothering him. Nothing is explicitly stated because as I said before it is all between the lines. And the directorial pacing of the film is slow to the point of maddening for those expecting their movies to move at a considerably faster pace. But if you have the patience for this sort of movie making you will be rewarded by a movie that is sad, melancholy and painful because life can at times be painful. Especially when we have to face certain truths about ourselves and our demons.

 

One of the things that give this film its elegiac quality is the settings and locations Wenders chose. Much of t is in the southwestern part of the US, mostly California and Texas. But he shows us nothing that we’re familiar with. What we get are the back roads, the strip joints, the empty parking lots and the endless roadways that lead from one place to another. And in a lot of ways it’s all pretty much the same. In other words this is the no-man’s land aspect of America. And for anyone who’s read any of his work, this is prime Sam Shepard territory. He’s used and alluded to it in many of his plays as to being the terrain that his characters came from and are shaped by.  The nationality of the film is listed as being West German, French, UK and USA because that’s where the money to produce it and many of the talents came from. But beneath that what we have here is a truly American film about people who have been marginalized and forgotten. The unsophisticated he’s and she’s that we pass by everyday but never notice. The lost and the disenfranchised that don’t belong to any minority group. They’re out there just floating free on their own until someone like Shepard along with Carson, Wenders and their talented cast of actors come along to give them some identity, give them some dimension, give their lives some poetry.

 

The film clocks in at 147 minutes running time. So if you don’t have that kind of time to sit and watch people tentatively reach out to touch and more often than not miss each other then this film isn’t for you. It’s an art film without calling attention to itself as such. Because like its characters it’s plain, unpretentious and ultimately inexplicable. Because that’s the way life is sometimes. Inexplicable.

-GE.

 


The Big Knife – or: Hollywood on Hollywood

October 5, 2010
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The Big Knife – or: Hollywood on Hollywood

Over the years and decades of its existence Hollywood has made any number of films attempting in one way or another to dramatize itself, its industry, its lifestyles along with stories of those who seek the spotlight of the motion picture camera as a way of making them successful and famous or simply justifying their existence on earth. All of these films have been flawed one way or another. So much so that it was touted as conventional wisdom that “Hollywood was capable of examining just about anything but itself”. The search for “The great Hollywood movie” appears to be as elusive as “The great American novel” that was talked about so often years ago. Some writers even claimed that they had scaled that particular Everest. But today that ambition has pretty much been forgotten. That seems to be the fate of “The great Hollywood movie” as well.  At least two novels challenged for the title of “great Hollywood novel”. They are What Makes Sammy Run? (1941) and The Disenchanted (1950). Both were written by Bud Schulberg (1914-2009) who was the son ofB.P. Schulberg the head of Paramount Pictures.  Both books were best sellers but thus far neither has ever been adapted for the big screen. On stage and on TV yes, but not on the big screen.

In considering the films about itself that Hollywood has produced the two that stand head and shoulders above the rest (at least in my mind) are: Sunset Boulevard (1950) and Singing in the Rain (1953). Both are considered masterpieces of their particular genre. Somewhat below there are: The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) and A Star is Born (1954). Then on a third tier are a group of films that don’t quite deliver all the goods but are interesting nevertheless. In chronological order they are: What Price Hollywood (1932), A Star is Born (1937), The Star (1950), Man of a Thousand Faces (1957), The Goddess (1959) Inside Daisy Clover (1965), Day of the Locust (1975), The Last Tycoon (1976), Barton Fink (1991), The Player (1992), and Ed Wood (1992). A couple of wild card titles would include In a Lonely Place (1952) and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969). But to me those films belong in a category by themselves. Wonderfully so.

 

The film under consideration now is The Big Knife (1955) directed by Robert (The Dirty Dozen) Aldrich and adapted by James Poe from a play by Clifford Odets. The story concerns the fate of Charlie Castle (Jack Palance), a man of humble beginnings who has become a top Hollywood box office star, and who apparently has succumbed to all the material trappings of his profession; the big house with servants, adoring fans and the availability of any number of women at the snap of a finger. Charlie is married to and is still in love with Marion (Ida Lupino), a serious and intelligent woman who is fed up with their life in tinsel town and would rather end their marriage than endure another year of it. Complicating matters is the fact that the dictatorial studio head Stanley Hoff (Rod Steiger) is insisting that he sign a lucrative 7 year contract with his studio. And if Charlie refuses the studio will release information that they covered up about a DUI incident involving Charlie where a child was killed.

 

The play by Odets, who spent much of his career in Hollywood working mostly as a screenwriter and an occasional director, appears to be trying to make a large statement about movie stardom and Hollywood success, how it saps the creative spirit and through its false values destroys the very souls of its inhabitants. The dramatic event revolves around watching Charlie struggling to save his own. And all the usual suspects show up….The predatory gossip columnist (Ilka Chase) a combination Louella Parsons, Shelia Graham, Hedda Hopper and others. Sample dialogue; (To Charlie) “Some of you seem to forget this town has to keep its skirts clean…A scandal is not forgotten if I choose to revive it.” (To a studio underling) “Shut up. I want my news from the horse’s mouth, not its tail!”

The long suffering agent ;( Everett Sloane) “No matter how you slice it up there’s never enough time in Hollywood.”…The adulterous wife of a publicist, Connie Bliss (Jean Hagen). “I like snug, draped bedrooms with locked doors so I can be my naked self, as you desire me….You’re hurting me love. But I’m a bad girl, I wish I could say I didn’t like it”…The cynical studio factotum Smiley Coy (Wendell Corey); “Ideals, kid? Nowadays? A lost crusade.”  And in response to the question: What do you think about women? He says; “There’s no satisfying them. Like kids, they’re not of our world. I like them for the tricks they can do Their so-called specialties.”…. The abused starlet Dixie Evans (Shelley Winters). “If I take one more drink I’ll see a snake. …Although I’d rather see a snake than a Hollywood producer…They hire girls like me to entertain the visiting sales force.”…The tyrannical studio head; “Who are you? Petty aristocracy because the female admissions want to sleep with you? I’ll break you like I broke Wally Cole. He was a bigger star. You have pissed away a kingdom today.”

 

One could quote dialogue from the film all day, the good and sometimes terrific, the bad and the clumsy simply to illustrate the literary ambition behind The Big Knife in its effort to tell the definitive Hollywood story. What the film does achieve to a great extent is reflecting the love/hate relationship Odets had with the place. And as a result the whole thing comes up like a poison pen letter to Hollywood and the industry. Charlie Castle at one point observes; “California, think of it. The place where an honest apple tree won’t grow.”

The acting throughout is big and vivid in the 1950s method and semi-method style. And everyone in the cast is up to the task. The directorial concept appears to favor retaining the concentration of the plays one set location (The Castle home) abetted by a few exteriors (The swimming pool, a studio sound stage, a brief glimpse of a party next door and a shot of Marion at the beach). But the play wasn’t “opened up” much. The camera doesn’t even travel upstairs of the Castle home where the most dramatic event of the story takes place. We’re just told about it. There are big confrontation scenes that just explode with fury. And a few quiet ones that make you wish they were better or more lovingly staged. The worst thing about The Big Knife is its heavy handed need to indict Hollywood and all it represents. Odets play and the screenplay practically scream it at you. And the result is it denies the film any moderation and nuance. The whole thing often comes up like a rant. It also has some of the most pretentious sounding dialogue heard anywhere. Most of it spoken by Hank Teagle (Wesley Addy) , a melancholy novelist who’s leaving Hollywood to write a novel about; “How a man can become a popular movie star without reflecting the average (man) in one way or another.”… Someplace else he says; “Half idealism is the peritonitis of the soul. America is full of it.” The character comes up like the author’s stand-in mouth piece and Charlie Castle’s conscience. In another exchange he says to Charlie “If you wrestle (with your integrity) you might win a blessing.” To which Charlie says; “I’ll miss you Hank. Write your book and make it scandalous. Wire me for money anytime you need it. Someone has to complete the work he was born to do.”

The best thing about the film is the passion its makers (Writers, actors, director and producer etc.) invest in their endeavor. It charges the screen with several bursts of energy that is quite bracing.  Many of its scenes feel like they’re about to break out of their cinematic confines at any minute. And that is something to be treasured. I can’t say that it’s a good film or a bad one. That has to do with your mood, your tolerance for the kind of high flown dialogue Odets likes to throw around and your appetite for stories that have to do with the pitfalls of success. The Big Knife is a film I go back to from time to time. Sometimes it annoys me, other times I’m amused by it while at other times I become engaged with some of the questions the screenplay is wrestling with. This is a film I always wish was better but for what it is I still like it, faults and all.

-GE


De Toth and Aldrich try to tackle the “Men on a Mission” genre: one fails, the other succeeds

June 1, 2010
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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.

-TM