Quentin Tarantino’s Swinging Sixties Marathon Roundup: Westerns

Here are two more selections from Tarantino’s movie marathon. He included them because they’re the kind of fare the lead character from his new film (Leonardo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton) might’ve appeared in. They’re both Westerns (obv.), and they’re on TV (in the UK) again as a double-bill later today.

In today’s roundup:

  • Arizona Raiders (1965)
  • Gunman’s Walk (1958)


    Arizona Raiders
    (1965)

    2019 #108
    William Witney | 93 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | USA / English | NR* / PG

    Arizona Raiders

    Arizona Raiders begins with a double prologue that fills us in on the history of Quantrell, a bloodthirsty commander for the losing side in the American Civil War, who now runs rampant with his gang of former soldiers. In what would be a kind of prologue if it wasn’t for the two other prologues, the good guys, led by Captain Andrew (Buster “Flash Gordon” Crabbe, who starred in an unrelated film with the same title three decades earlier), finally catch up with Quantrell’s gang, who scatter, though some are captured and some are killed — including Quantrell himself. All that time telling us his life story, and the guy’s barely in it…

    But that’s not the end for his gang, as an already mutinous lieutenant re-establishes it and begins rampaging again. A few years later, they’re terrorising Arizona, and Andrew is tapped to establish the Arizona Rangers — like the Texas Rangers, but in Arizona (clever, that) — and stop the gang. His bright idea is to break out two of the gang members he captured in the raid, Clint (Audie Murphy) and Willie (Ben Cooper), and send them undercover. The prison break works fine, but the guys aren’t convinced about whose side they should be on, even though Clint’s adoring younger brother is a fully signed-up Arizona Ranger and helping them on the mission.

    Really quite brutal in places. Mainly his face, it looks like.

    I guess this is the kind of programmer they used to make piles of back in the day — the sort of good old fashioned Western where outlaws who’ve been living rough for months wear neatly-pressed shirts and boast clean-shaven features. At least its morality is more complicated than the old “white hats good, black hats bad” style, with anti-hero(es) for the lead role(s) — Clint and Willie aren’t just former criminals, you’re not sure they won’t just go back to their old ways once they meet up with their former gang. It gets really quite brutal in places too, with more bloody violence than you might expect from a Hollywood feature of its time.

    Initially I thought this was only interesting for the context it provides to Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, especially during the unusual opening 20 minutes. But it steadily improves as it goes on, developing into a pretty entertaining adventure, which includes a tense shoot-out halfway through and some surprising developments in the second half. Plus, with the dubious morality of its heroes and some relatively graphic violence, it’s perhaps a surprising for a classic-era Hollywood Western, too.

    3 out of 5

    * This hasn’t been classified by the BBFC since its original release in 1965, when it was cut to just 89 minutes and given an A. You can rent it from Amazon (in HD too), where they say it’s rated 12. ^

    Gunman’s Walk
    (1958)

    2019 #109
    Phil Karlson | 90 mins | TV | 2.55:1 | USA / English

    Gunman's Walk

    I found that much of Quentin Tarantino’s Swinging Sixties Movie Marathon was, to be kind, a mixed bag. I’d never even heard of most of the movies (the two I had will be in the next roundup), and it seemed like that was for good reason: watching them was interesting in one way or another, but I didn’t always particularly enjoy them. Proof in point: in the six reviews I’ve posted so far, I’ve given four poor two-star ratings and two middling three-star ratings. Gunman’s Walk is a definite exception, however: I’d never heard of this one either, but it’s a great Western, easily my favourite film of the marathon (so far), and I feel like it generally deserves to be better remembered than it is (and better treated — for example, the only Blu-ray release is in Germany).

    At its most basic, it’s the story of a powerful rancher, Lee Hackett (Van Heflin), and his two grown sons, Ed (Tab Hunter) and Davy (James Darren), and the tribulations they face after Davy falls for a half-Sioux girl (Kathryn Grant) and Ed kills her brother, he says by accident, but witnesses say not. More than that, though, it touches on a handful of thematic points. It’s set at a time when the West was becoming less Wild: with towns and communities established, civilisation has truly arrived, and it risks leaving behind the frontiersmen who conquered the West — men like Lee Hackett. Tied to that is the way Lee has tried to raise his sons, in his own image, and almost more as underlings than children — he encourages them to call him “Lee”, for instance, and insists they obey rules like always wearing a gun.

    I won’t spoil the twists and turns of the plot, but it’s a great narrative, powered by some superb performances. Heflin gets the biggest arc, with a multi-faceted role that takes a confident, commanding man through his paces to expose who he really he is, and how he really feels about his affect on the world. There develops an inner conflict within Lee, and the story and Heflin’s performance navigate its expression in various ways, both positive and negative. It seems like he’s an upstanding father at first, but then we see how this upbringing has twisted one of his sons, and when confronted with problems we see the real man underneath — the man who thinks he’s above the law, and will do anything to get his own way. He likely doesn’t think of himself having such negative qualities, but they’re clearly part of his character, and his sons — one of them, at least — has picked up on that and adopted it more overtly. At the end, when Lee realises that he’s ultimately responsible for creating this monster (albeit unintentionally), he then seems to realise his own flaws too.

    Toxically masculine

    Hunter and Darren’s characters are a bit more straightforward — the good son and the bad son — but they embody those roles well, with Darren a likeable nice guy and Hunter a boo-able wayward son. That’s a bit of an unfair simplification, actually, both of the story and character arcs and of Hunter’s performance. At the start Ed is merely not a very nice chap, bullying and sullen, whereas over the course of the movie he develops into a cold-blooded murderer. At no point are we on his side, but his degeneration affects characters we do like.

    These days we’d say Gunman’s Walk is about toxic masculinity, in particular how it’s perpetuated, even if unintentionally. Lee has set very macho examples for his boys; although, while his ways are certainly becoming outdated, they’re not wholly dishonourable. Unfortunately, Ed has taken the wrong lessons from his father, and consequently developed values that are not only out of time but also twisted out of shape. He believes they’re How A Real Man Should Behave, even as we can clearly see how nasty they are. Davy stands in counterpoint: he was raised by the same father but has turned out alright, although that’s clearly by rejecting some of his father’s instructions. So both kids are formed in reaction to their father, for good or ill — literally for good and ill, respectively.

    Talking with Tarantino, Kim Morgan says the film is more progressive than you’d expect from a ‘50s Western, specifically with regards to how it presents quite an anti-violence stance. I think that’s a fair assessment, and the film seems ever so timely, over 60 years later, with talk of prohibiting the carrying of firearms in town, etc. Apparently this was a genuine social issue back in the late 19th century too, which really shows how slowly the USA changes its attitudes. But a similar point can be made about the film’s treatment of Native American characters. After that killing of the brother, its his two Native American friends who were the witnesses to Ed’s actions. They’re the ones telling the truth, and, in fairness, the judge weighs their evidence equally against Ed’s… although as there’s two of them and one of him, and he takes that as being unsolvable balanced, I guess maybe not wholly equal. (Then again, the two guys are friends, so of course they’d support each other’s accounts.) But as soon as another, white witness steps forward, well, that settles it. So even as they’re not specifically ill-treated, the system is still stacked against them. Elsewhere, characters use derogatory insults (“half breed”), but those issuing the insults are clearly pitched as bad guys, while Davy, the good son, wants to marry someone who places herself clearly on the Natives’ side. OK, so they’re still minor supporting characters, and the girl is half white and looks it (of course she does — it’s a ’50s Western, everyone’s white really), but, for the time it was made, it’s pretty advanced.

    For whatever reason, Gunman’s Walk has become rather lost to time. I think it really merits a rediscovery, though: so many of its themes are exceptionally timely right now; but even aside from that, it’s just a damn good tale.

    4 out of 5

    Arizona Raiders and Gunman’s Walk are both on Movies4Men today from 5:10pm.

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  • The Past Month on TV #45

    The past weekend may’ve been the hottest of the year so far (at least here in the UK), but you and I know the truth: winter is here. With any dreams of spring still a few weeks away, let’s revel in the final moments we’ll be spending with our favourite inhabitants of Westeros — the first two episodes certainly did.

    Also this month: Sky Atlantic’s Thrones companion shows, the third and final season of Deadwood, and more of the best of The Twilight Zone.

    Game of Thrones  Season 8 Episodes 1-2
    Game of Thrones season 8The final season of HBO’s fantasy epic began with its last two regular-length episodes (the remainder are each a feature-length 80 minutes, give or take), but they stand alongside the epics still to come as a kind of two-parter. Both episodes are set in the quiet before the storm(s) to come, with pieces being moved into place and everyone preparing themselves for what they assume is the endgame: a battle with the army of the dead. Of course, as outside observers we know the battle can’t be the end — there are whole characters and plot threads that will be left unresolved, whatever the outcome of the battle, and up to three (extra long) episodes to resolve them in. But such considerations are for future episodes; I mean, for one thing, next week’s big battle episode is likely to have a huge impact on who’s left standing, which will in itself indicate what ways forward remain possible.

    Anyway, back to the episodes we’ve already seen. The first, Winterfell, does the usual Game of Thrones season premiere thing of setting the scene: reminding us where everyone stands, and moving pieces into place ready for the season to come. But this is more than just a glorified “previously on”, with some important plot developments of its own, not to mention long-awaited reunions. In the former camp, the big’un is obviously Jon Snow finding out his true parentage. Well, to an extent: this isn’t news to the audience (even if you didn’t deduce it years ago, we were explicitly told about it last season… which aired, er, years ago), and while it clearly has an impact on Jon’s feelings about himself and his family, its effects on the plot won’t happen until more people hear about it.

    More exciting were the reunions. Jon and Arya may’ve been the objective headliner, but my personal favourite was Sansa and Tyrion. With everything else that’s gone down since, I’d practically forgotten that they were once married, but the facts of their relationship and what’s happened to them since, particularly Sansa, made for an electric scene. Indeed, Sansa interacting with anyone is pretty fantastic at this point. She was such a damp squib in early seasons, and, frankly, I wasn’t convinced by Sophie Turner’s acting chops back then either, but recently she’s become a decided force to be reckoned with. Her scenes facing down with Dany are a case in point, not least their heart-to-heart in episode two. Another reunion highlight was Arya and the Hound, another unlikely but memorable pairing who get the short but sweet scene they deserve. Arya reunited with Gendry too, of course, and in the second episode she really united with him. Well, I’ll leave the furore around that to Twitter (but if you want to know what I think, this thread is pretty on the money).

    A Knight of the Seven KingdomsI’ve already slipped into discussing A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms, perhaps supporting my point that this is a two-parter in separate episodes’ clothing. Here we get more reunions, rehashes, and revelations. I mean, sure, Jaime arrives in Winterfell at the end of the previous episode, but it’s here that the meaning of that really plays out, with his trial-like scene before people he has wronged — and one he saved — before his one-on-one with the boy he pushed out of a tower all those years ago. In fact, if there’s one thing that does keep these two episodes distinct, it’s how much the season premiere mirrors the series premiere (i.e. season one episode one, Winter is Coming) — check out the image in this tweet for some of them.

    What the second episode really represented was some kind of… not reward, exactly, but certainly benefit, or acknowledgement, for those who’ve become invested in these characters over the many years we’ve spent with them (or, if you’ve only caught up recently, many bingeing hours). It was a chance to just hang out with some favourites, and for some of them to achieve long-awaited dreams. Yes, obviously I’m talking about Jaime knighting Brienne. I guess if you’re not invested in these characters then some of these scenes feel like so much padding (“get on with the fighting!”), but for most fans this is a possibly final chance to revel in their favourites — after all, surely a significant number are for the chop when the fighting begins…

    Thronecast  Specials + Series 8 Episodes 1-2
    Gameshow of ThronesIf you live outside the UK or watch Thrones via, er, other means, I guess you won’t know this: it’s UK broadcaster Sky Atlantic’s Game of Thrones aftershow — you know, one of those things where people connected to the show and sundry minor celebrities sit on a sofa and chat about the episode we’ve just seen. I’ve never watched it before because I’m normally one of those people who watches Thrones via, er, other means, and it rarely crops up on those, but I’ve had access for the first couple of episodes and, well, so far I’m not impressed. In the first episode, host Sue Perkins gamely struggled with guests seemingly dead set on chatting about anything other than what her questions asked, while the second felt like she was trying to get blood from three particularly reticent stones. The format’s not really at fault, but the guest booker might be… The Twitter reaction to these episodes suggests the show used to be better, so maybe they’ll re-find their mojo for the coming four episodes.

    More successful by far were two Thronecast-related specials that aired before season eight began (and these you can track down via the aforementioned euphemistic “other means”, if you’re interested). The first, Gameshow of Thrones, saw Perkins quizzing two teams made up of former cast members and celebrity fans in a panel show format. If you’re in the middle of a Venn diagram that covers “fans of Game of Thrones” and “enjoys comedy panel shows”, it’s a convivial 90 minutes. The other, The Story So Far, managed to recap the essential points of the parent show’s first seven seasons in another 90 minutes, with a mix of clips, narration, and cast and fan interviews — all very useful when we’re heading into the concluding hours of the story, especially when it’s been a couple of years since it was last on. Certainly quicker than a 67-hour full re-watch, anyway.

    Deadwood  Season 3
    Deadwood season 3It’s quite a well-known piece of trivia that creator David Milch’s original pitch to HBO was for a series about two lawmen in the early days of Rome, thematically concerned with how we establish the rules and agreements of a society. With the series Rome already in development, HBO encouraged Milch to take the interesting theme but relocate it, and so he landed upon a frontier town in the old West butting up against the ever-widening reach of civilisation. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the show’s third season, with local elections looming and outside forces attempting to exert their influence over the town. The latter is represented by the arrival of mining magnate George Hearst (Gerald McRaney), who becomes a thorn in the side of both previously-dominant saloon owner-cum-gangster Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) and honourable but short-tempered sheriff Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant). Those two, once enemies, must join forces (along with most of the other regular characters) to attempt to counter Hearst’s moves. Where once Al could’ve just had the guy killed and fed to Wu’s pigs, his outside connections make that impossible — stakeholders would come looking, bringing even more attention and seeking justice. Civilisation, eh?

    In my review last month, I mentioned the season two storyline that saw Al taken out by illness, as a way to reduce his influence over the rest of the characters and events. Season three does something similar, but ‘depowers’ him in a more interesting way: against Hearst, Al is at a disadvantage, certainly in terms of brawn and, possibly, in terms of scheming brainpower too. The way one particular show of strength from the businessman emasculates Al leads to some great introspection, leading the barman to doubt himself and his skills, possibly for the first time ever, certainly that we’ve seen. It serves to further deepen and strengthen the quality of an already great character. At the start of season one he’s clearly a villain, but he quickly becomes more, so that by this point he’s really an anti-hero. That’s partly because he’s the lesser of two evils next to Hearst’s ruthlessness, but also because we’ve had time to get the true measure of his character — as much as he tries to hide it, Al has a bit of a heart, and he certainly operates according to codes of honour and loyalty. It might not always be the same as that of the rest of society, but it’s strongly held. He still does despicable stuff, but there are many shades of grey there; and while Al is the marquee example, you find those shades in all the other major characters too — it’s part of why every performance is so great, because this quality cast are given such excellent material to work with. When most of the characters who’ve been regulars since the start begin to come together in the face of the threat from Hearst, it’s immensely satisfying, even as the threat they face seems insurmountable. The final few episodes are exciting, powerful stuff.

    Unhappy happeningsNot that the third season passes without fault, mind. By the middle of the season, episodes were being written so on the fly that they could only use standing sets and regular locations, because there wasn’t enough lead time to build anything new or travel to other locations. Later, outdoor scenes had to be cut back, as a tightening budget left no room for all the extras and horses needed to convey the town’s bustling streets. While these production issues are mostly covered for well enough, some storylines are also affected. For example, Wyatt Earp and his brother arrive in town, apparently with some big secret scheme in the offing, but in the very next episode that’s completely forgotten as they’re hastily written back out. Plus, considering the already sizeable regular and recurring cast, it’s mad that Milch decided to (a) add even more characters, and (b) devote an unwarranted amount of time to meandering subplots starring minor characters. It doesn’t ruin the show, but it means some good actors and characters go to waste as we while away time on things no one would miss if they‘d been ditched. The worst offender for me is Steve the Drunk and the never-ending kerfuffle around the livery, which starts out as an adequate and pointed subplot but eventually just drags on and on. Someone in the writers’ room must’ve loved that character and his (increasingly tiresome) verbal diarrhoea.

    Similarly, many fans object to the acting troupe who turn up to establish a theatre in the town, their antics again seeming like an aside from the main thrust of the series. I have more sympathy for them, however. For starters, they’re led by the reliably excellent Brian Cox. His presence and interactions with the regulars is definitely worthwhile, especially in his position as an old friend of Swearengen’s, becoming a different kind of sounding board for Al, particularly valuable when he’s on the back foot for so much of the season. Secondly, I think it can be easy to forget that season three wasn’t meant to be the end — the theatre troupe may feel like time-wasters when we’ve got such limited time in this world, but the show was meant to carry on for several seasons after this, and their deeper merit was yet to come (plus there would’ve been plenty more time for everyone else, as well). Thirdly, Deadwood is the story of the titular town, and so the actors’ presence and effect on the town as a whole is the very point — Deadwood itself is the true main character, and its development is the primary “character arc” of the show.

    Guess which one's Milch and which one's HBO...Sadly, that arc was never completed. Milch knew the writing was on the wall before the season was completed, and there’s a very plausible theory that the second half of the season is actually an allegory for the conflict between Milch and the executives at HBO (you can read about that in W. Earl Brown’s comment on this article at Uproxx), and it seems he used the little notice he had to attempt some kind of conclusion. It’s an odd old ending, though. You can see Milch knew it was going to be a de facto finale — it kinda serves as such — but, at the same time, it’s clearly not the final end he would’ve had if he could’ve. According to Milch, the final line of dialogue (which also gives the episode its title) was aimed at the audience. “Wants me to tell him something pretty” — meaning: the show’s refusal to wrap things up in a bow was not a failure to conclude; rather, it’s not a neat and tidy resolution because Milch was not just “telling us something pretty”.

    The disappointment of the series being cut down before its time is compounded by the fact this early cancellation seems to have stalled the show’s reputation in the minds of some. As a commenter observed on Uproxx review’s of the finale, it’s like people go, “ah, Deadwood — shame it got cancelled after only three seasons”, and leave it at that, while shows that come to a ‘proper’ ending (like The Sopranos or The Wire or Breaking Bad or whatever) get all the focus. Maybe it’s something sharpened by the very act of ending: people sit up and notice The End of an acclaimed show, even those who’ve never even watched it, but when a show just peters off or fades away because it was cancelled prematurely, it doesn’t get that moment of focusing. Maybe Deadwood will finally earn that recognition next month, when HBO airs the long-anticipated follow-up movie. It’s a great series — imperfect, I’d argue, but at its best the equal of any other — and it’s not mentioned as often as it should be.

    The Twilight Zone  ‘Best Of’
    Time Enough at LastThe new Jordan Peele-hosted iteration of Twilight Zone still doesn’t have a UK broadcaster, so I’m continuing last month’s theme of cherrypicking the very best episodes from the original 1959-64 series.

    One observation I made last time was that the series seems to be a victim of its own success, in that its influence has been so widespread over the past six decades that the original episodes sometimes seem already familiar or simplistic. Season one’s Walking Distance is another where this rears its head, because it takes the lead character half the episode to begin to realise something that’s obvious to a modern viewer much sooner. It’s the unavoidable side effect of being more widely exposed to these kind of stories; of being a more experienced and savvy viewer than people would’ve had the chance to be in 1959. So, any merits have to be found beyond the basic concept and/or twist to make it worthwhile viewing today, and in this case it’s a simple but effective overall message: you can’t go home again, even though you’ll wish to, but that’s ok. It’s a theme I have great fondness for (it’s intensely melancholic, a feeling I always value), so the episode still has its rewards.

    Also from season one is Time Enough at Last, one of the series’ best-known episodes, but famous entirely for its ironic ending — something else that makes you worry it’ll be a pointless viewing exercise now, as you just wait for that final moment to come along. In fact, there’s slightly more to the episode than just a note of cosmic irony. And if you’re fortunate enough not to know the twist, even better — just watch it unencumbered and enjoy it all the more. One with a twist I didn’t know was season two’s Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up? It has a little bit of the paranoia of The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street, but plays more like a murder mystery, with a group of suspects gathered in a remote location. It doesn’t seem to quite know where to go with its own story after the setup, so kind of abandons it (the police just let everyone go!), but then it does have a couple of fun twists in the tail.

    Nightmare at 20,000 FeetFinally for now, two episodes that were remade in the 1983 film. Season three’s It’s a Good Life suggests that the worst monster imaginable is a six-year-old boy with unlimited power. Yeah, I buy that. This inspired my least-favourite segment of the film, but the original is so much better — more genuinely terrifying, whereas Joe Dante’s remake was just freakish and bizarre. Lastly, perhaps the series’ most famous episode of all (even though it didn’t come until the final season): Nightmare at 20,000 Feet. This is the one with William Shatner as a nervous airplane passenger who thinks he sees a gremlin on the wing. It’s written by Richard Matheson and directed by Richard Donner — you don’t get much higher calibre than that. It really is a perfect half-hour of TV, precisely paced and performed, keeping you riveted for every second, and unsure about whether Bob’s mind is fractured or the whole flight is in very real danger. The realisation of the gremlin is hokey, but other than that this is superb.

    To close, one general observation about all the episodes I’ve watched: Rod Serling is an absolutely fantastic host. When they’re on form (which they usually are), his opening and closing monologues are absolute magic. I don’t envy any other host the challenge of having to live up to him.

    Things to Catch Up On
    Line of Duty series 5This month, I have mostly been missing the new series of Line of Duty, BBC One’s ever-twisty police corruption drama. Given that it’s been trending on Twitter every week, it’s a wonder I’ve not had it spoiled… yet. It’s now two-thirds of the way through, so I’ll watch it intensively once it’s over. I’d promise a review next month, but last month I said that about Hanna and I’ve yet to make time for that. Maybe they’ll both be here next month. Also: Ghosts, the new comedy from the cast behind Horrible Histories and Yonderland, which looks promising but, again, is a couple of episodes in and I’ve yet to start.

    Next month… the Battle of Winterfell.

    The Past Month on TV #44

    Another later-than-usual TV review (originally these were meant to be on the third Thursday every month), which is simply because I didn’t have much to write about. Even still, it’s a less packed one that usual, with little more than a couple of seasons of Deadwood and a couple of episodes of The Twilight Zone to cover. Still, at least that’s some high-quality viewing.

    Deadwood  Seasons 1-2
    Deadwood season 2One of the early touchstones of the “peak TV” era we’re now right in the midst of, Deadwood is a kind of revisionist Western — revisionist in that it treats the West not as a time of myths and legends, as most movies still do, but as a real historical period like any other, populated by realistic people (more or less — I’ll come to that). The titular town began as a camp in Native American territory, established by gold prospectors. When they found success, more gold hunters followed, plus all the amenities they might require: supplies, tools, food, gambling, whores… Plus, the town was outside the jurisdiction of most law enforcement, thereby attracting a different class of person again. Naturally, illicit activity followed. At one point Deadwood averaged a murder a day — and those are just the ones that were recorded.

    It’s a rich place to set a drama, then, especially when you learn how quickly the place changed: although it started as just camp for prospectors, within only a couple of years it had telephones, before major cities like San Francisco, and was eventually consumed into the US proper. Creator David Milch had wanted to tell a story about how society establishes and organises itself set in ancient Rome, but HBO already had Rome in the works (set in an entirely different part of that empire’s history, but the general milieu was similar enough), so he had a rethink and Deadwood was born. It seems at least as fitting a place to present that theme.

    If that sounds like it’d be some heavy treatise, that’s certainly not how Deadwood plays out. It thrives on a human scale, with a large ensemble cast of characters to love and hate, sometimes within the same figure. Yet despite the sheer volume of people on screen, each one is well drawn, believable and relatable. It’s a fantastic feat of both writing and acting. There are standout performances, sure — Ian McShane as saloon owner and Machiavellian plotter Al Swearengen attracted the most attention at the time, and indeed if you had to pick just one he’s definitely the greatest character and performance here; but there are likely a dozen others who, in almost any other show, would overshadow the rest of the cast.

    Arguing and alcoholThey’re aided by the extraordinary storytelling. It’s often said to be Shakespearean, but that’s not an empty epithet. The dialogue may be littered with expletives (not as shocking today as it was back in 2004, but still not for the faint of heart) and tailored for the understanding of modern ears, but there are still speeches and exchanges that you could put anonymously alongside writings of the Bard and laypeople would struggle to identify which was which. It’s a structural thing, too — I mean, there are characters who deliver soliloquies! How often do you see genuine soliloquies outside of classical theatre? Plus there’s the way that, again, it’s using personal conflicts to touch on bigger themes and points about human nature and society.

    Although it’s based on a real time and place, Deadwood has a wavering attention to historical detail. Many of the characters are named after real people, both relatively unknown (Swearengen, Seth Bullock, Sol Star, E.B. Farnum) and famous from tales of the West (Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane), and sometimes it depicts genuine events from their lives, but only really when it suits the stories Milch wants to tell. Other characters are amalgamations of real-life individuals, or else are archetypes designed to show another facet of life. Alma Garrett, for example, a rich society woman who’s ended up in the camp due to her new husband’s whims, is used to portray the difficulties women faced in this era. But, again, the show does this by making her a believable character with her own storyline, not by contriving to give us a lecture.

    Of these initial two seasons, for my money the first is superior. It took me an episode or two to get back into the show’s unique rhythms (in particular, the way it’s shot looked suddenly very dated — a bit like how TV used to be done, a marked contrast to the cinematic visuals we’re used to today), but once the ball’s rolling it’s a thoroughly engrossing set of narratives. Indeed, it’s remarkable how much plot it packs into an episode, without ever feeling rushed or like it’s underserving characters. That’s another contrast to the way premium TV has gone since, where you have to watch a whole season to get a whole story.

    Sisters are doing it for themselves... with the help of menSeason two is a little more like the latter, and suffers for it. A major death about two-thirds of the way through comes to overshadow the rest of the season; while it doesn’t completely stall it, things begin to take longer to get anywhere. There’s also an early plot in season two designed to ‘depower’ Swearengen — he’d become such a dominating force in season one, Milch felt it necessary to take some of that away, if only for a while. A justifiable aim, but taking him out of play due to incapacity and recovery makes parts of the second season somewhat less fun. There’s a lot of entertainment value in Al’s scheming and swearing.

    The real problem with Deadwood, however, was that it was so short-lived. This is the kind of show that a network would never dream of cancelling today — artistically top-draw and critically acclaimed with it. I have no idea what viewing figures were like, but I remember it being well-discussed at the time, so I can’t imagine they were bad. But apparently there was some kind of dispute between the network and the production company about how much they’d pay for the show, and all that fell through after just three seasons. More on how the show does or doesn’t prematurely wrap-up next month, but it was definitely cancelled without notice, so I can’t imagine it’s too neat an ending. At least now we’re getting a sequel movie to put a proper capstone on it.

    The Twilight Zone  ‘Best Of’
    The Twilight ZoneUntil a couple of years ago, my experience of The Twilight Zone was limited to the Tower of Terror ride at various Disney theme parks (and recognising the theme that everyone knows, of course). Then in 2017 I watched the anthology film by Spielberg and co, which is good but still not the original. Well, with the new Jordan Peele-fronted revival on the way tomorrow (in the US, at least — no UK broadcaster or streamer has been announced still), Screen Crush ran an article ranking all 156 episodes of the original 1959-64 series. There are probably many such articles out there, but this is the one I saw, and, as I’ve long meant to watch some of the series, what better excuse to cherrypick the best-regarded episodes (cross-referenced with IMDb user ratings) and start there?

    Well, I thought I’d have more episodes to discuss here, but I’ve only made time for two so far: the one Screen Crush picked as #1, and the one IMDb users rank as #1. Funnily enough, after watching these episodes I saw this article, in which new series execs Peele and Simon Kinberg recommend their favourites from the original series, a list which is also topped by this pair, so I guess these really are considered the best of the best.

    First up, Screen Crush’s pick: season one’s The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street (ranked 5th on IMDb and cited by Kinberg), which presents a parable with a moral lesson about baseless paranoia that feels kinda obvious now. It may be that comes from endless imitation — the episode is 60 years old, after all. That said, it’s sadly a lesson plenty of people could still do with learning. So, the familiarity of the theme lets the episode down when viewed today, but it’s still a cleanly executed version of the story.

    Dopey aliensSecondly, IMDb user’s pick: season three’s To Serve Man (ranked 7th by Screen Crush and cited by Peele). This is, essentially, an entire half-hour story based around reaching a neat twist that’s staring you in the face the whole time, like a well-executed punchline on a dark joke. That’s the kind of thing The Twilight Zone is renowned for, so it feels very apposite as a “best ever episode”. That said, while the punchline attracts our focus, the story that gets us there does have some commentary about the nature of mankind. There’s no explanation for why the aliens spend most of the episode wearing such a dopey expression, though.

    Hopefully I’ll tick off some more best-of episodes of the original series next month, and maybe the much-anticipated new incarnation will make its way to UK screens too.

    Also watched…
  • Pointless The Good, the Bad and the Bloopers — How is this show ten years old? I don’t mean in terms of quality, but just time — how has it been a whole decade since it first aired? Where does time go?! (I wonder how many results there’d be if you searched this blog for that phrase…) I used to watch Pointless religiously, but then I decided there wasn’t enough time in my life to regularly watch a quiz show. I still think it’s a great format though, and this celebratory selection of outtakes from the last decade was surprisingly amusing.

    Things to Catch Up On
    HannaThis month, I have mostly been missing the back ends of the series I mentioned were starting last month, like Shetland and Baptiste. More recently, there’s Amazon’s TV remake of Hanna — I reviewed the first episode after its 24-hour preview last month, and the whole first season was just released on Friday. Expect a review next month, then.

    Next month… winter is here.

  • The Ragtag Review Roundup

    My review backlog has got a bit silly: there are currently 128 unposted reviews on it, dating back to stuff I watched in January 2018. I was hoping to really get stuck into that as 2019 began, but I’ve been busier than expected. Anyway, I’ll keep trying — and here’s a start, with a real mixed back of films that have basically nothing in common.

    In today’s roundup:

  • American Psycho (2000)
  • Logan Lucky (2017)
  • A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
  • The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)


    American Psycho
    (2000)

    2018 #66
    Mary Harron | 102 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & Canada / English | 18 / R

    American Psycho

    The film that made Christian Bale’s name sees him play Patrick Bateman, a high-flying New York banker with psychopathic tendencies — well, that just sounds like all those Wall Street types, right? Except hopefully they’re not actually engaging in literal killing sprees, unlike Bateman.

    While the murdering stuff may look like the draw, American Psycho is more interesting as an examination of the corporate mentality. It manages to be remarkably insightful, satirical, and terrifying all at once. Take the scene where they compare business cards, for instance: it’s ridiculous how much interest and importance these guys are placing in little cardboard rectangles with their name and number on, and yet you can believe such business-wankers would care about it. The anger Bateman feels when other people’s cards are considered classier than his is palpable.

    It’s a great performance by Bale across the board — so well judged, despite being barmy. It’s also interesting to observe the links between this and his version of Bruce Wayne, which is a wholly appropriately connection. I mean, who’s more of an American psycho than a guy who spends his days pretending to be a playboy businessman and his nights dressing up as a bat to beat up bad guys? I’m sure someone must’ve already developed a theory / amusing trailer mashup connecting the two films…

    The only thing that really let the film down for me was its final act. No detailed spoilers, but while I thought the rest of the film was engagingly made, the ultimate lack of resolution felt empty. To me, it seemed like it didn’t know how to end.

    4 out of 5

    Logan Lucky
    (2017)

    2018 #65
    Steven Soderbergh | 119 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    Logan Lucky

    Two brothers, whose family has a historical proclivity for bad luck, decide to rob one of the US’s largest sporting venues, the Charlotte Motor Speedway, during one of its quieter events. But when the situation changes, they end up having to pull the job off during the biggest race of the year.

    Director Steven Soderbergh’s return to the heist genre a decade after Ocean’s Thirteen is something to be noted; and while Logan Lucky is a very different kind of heist movie (there’s none of that trilogy’s Hollywood glamour to be found here), it’s a more successfully entertaining movie than either of the Ocean’s sequels.

    Like them, it’s not terribly serious, instead ticking along as generally quite good fun — though there’s a scene with Take Me Home, Country Roads that’s quite affecting. Between this and Kingsman 2, I’m left to wonder how that wound up becoming just about the most emotional song ever recorded…

    Anyway, the showpiece heist is clever, in its own way, and rolls around sooner than I expected — it’s funny to read some people criticise how long it takes to get to, because I assumed it would be Act Three. Instead, the film constructs a post-heist third act that was the only time it really got too slow for me, though it does eventually reveal a purpose that was kinda worth the wait. That said, the whole thing might benefit from being a little bit tighter and shorter — ten minutes trimmed across the pre- and post-heist acts might make it zing just that bit more.

    4 out of 5

    A Nightmare on Elm Street
    (1984)

    2018 #71
    Wes Craven | 87 mins | TV (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 18 / R

    A Nightmare on Elm Street

    It may be regarded as a horror classic, but I have to admit that I found A Nightmare on Elm Street to be a crushing disappointment. To me, it seemed to be a pretty poor movie (all weak: the acting, the dialogue, the music, the timescale events supposedly occur in) with some fantastic imagery. Director Wes Craven was a master, of course, and he manages to construct some truly great shots and moments amid a dirge of mediocrity. There’s a lot of nonsensical stuff too. I guess “dream logic” is meant to excuse it, but… eh.

    I do really like that poster, though.

    3 out of 5

    The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
    (1948)

    2018 #6
    John Huston | 121 mins | TV (HD) | 4:3 | USA / English | PG

    The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

    Set in the mid ’20s, two American drifters in Mexico (Humphrey Bogart and Tim Holt) team up with an old and experienced prospector (Walter Huston, director John Huston’s father) to hunt for gold in them thar hills. Along the way they have to contend with rival prospectors, violent bandits, and — most dangerous of all — their own suspicions and greed.

    The Treasure of the Sierra Madre blends genres like there’s no tomorrow: it’s been described as a plain drama, an adventure movie, a neo-western, it’s included on film noir lists… Of course, depending which angle you look at it, it’s all of the above. It’s both an exciting adventure movie and a character-centric exploration of the effects of greed. In depicting that, Bogart’s performance is excellent, though Huston Sr threatens to steal the show. Poor Tim Holt is overshadowed by them both, even though he gives a likeable turn.

    5 out of 5

  • Light the Fuse… Sartana is Coming (1970)

    aka Una nuvola di polvere… un grido di morte… arriva Sartana

    2018 #253
    Giuliano Carnimeo* | 100 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Italy & Spain / English | 15

    Light the Fuse… Sartana is Coming

    Unlike the Zatoichi films, where the English titles basically ignore the Japanese originals most of the time, the Sartana films come with English names that are pretty literal translations of the original Italian… except this one, whose original title translates as A Cloud of Dust… A Cry of Death… Sartana Arrives. Personally, I like that better — it’s more dramatic. Neither title particularly evokes the film itself, mind, which is notable as the final instalment in the official Sartana series.

    The film starts very well, with the opening 20 minutes devoted to an entertaining prison break situation: Sartana (the likably cocky Gianni Garko) gets himself thrown in jail on purpose, because another inmate has (somehow) called for his help. He’s been accused of murdering his business partner to pocket the loot from a deal-gone-sour, and now everyone wants to get their mitts on that money, including the corrupt sheriff that’s locked him up. So Sartana breaks him out, sends him into hiding, and sets about investigating what really went down.

    The plot seems relatively straightforward at first — it looks like it’ll be some kind of murder mystery, with Sartana cast as the detective. There are even multiple flashbacks to the night of the crime, with different accounts revealing different information for the detective to piece together — so far, so Agatha Christie. (Roberto Curti’s essay in the booklet accompanying Arrow’s Blu-ray release boldly compares it to Rashomon, but that’s a bit generous — the flashbacks don’t really offer conflicting versions of events, but piece together a timeline from characters having turned up at different times.)

    Sartana locked up

    A whodunit offers a nice, clear structure: you interrogate all the suspects, you work out who did it. Make the confrontations shootouts instead of verbal sparring and you’ve got a Sartana movie… right? Sadly, no — it’s not long before the story devolves into the series’ usual double-cross-athon runaround. The initial clarity gives way to another massively over-complicated and sometimes unfollowable plot involving a large cast of characters, all of whom turn out to be involved somehow and eventually wind up dead. It feels a bit rinse-and-repeat at this point.

    Fortunately, the devil’s in the details — not the details of the plot, which, as I said, are baffling, but in the film itself. There are some amusing moments, like the guy who keeps claiming he’s the best shot in the West before being shown up by someone else, or a novelty wind-up cigarette lighter than Sartana finds some clever uses for. Then, for the finale, Sartana whips out his massive organ in the middle of the street to show off its hidden talents. By which I mean a church organ which, by some clever manipulation of the keys, turns out to be full of deadly tricks. The series has always had a penchant for gadgets and impossible displays of skill, but this is certainly the most cartoonish.

    Greed

    Arrow’s blurb for Light the Fuse says it’s “equal parts playful, violent, inventive and entertaining.” I don’t disagree those parts are present and of equal size, but their size is relatively small. They claim it “brings the series to a fine conclusion”; that it “sees Sartana sign off on a high [in] one of the best entries in the series”. I’d almost go so far as to say the opposite — it was one of my least favourite. There’s fun along the way, to be sure, but the plot borders on the meaningless and therefore becomes a tad boring. It’s not a bad film, as this series goes, but it certainly feels like a generic one.

    3 out of 5

    * Credited as Anthony Ascott. ^

    Have a Good Funeral, My Friend… Sartana Will Pay (1970)

    aka Buon funerale amigos!… paga Sartana / “Have a nice funeral on me, Amigo” …Sartana

    2018 #229
    Giuliano Carnimeo* | 93 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Italy & Spain / English | 12

    Have a Good Funeral, My Friend… Sartana Will Pay

    Gianni Garko’s back in the saddle as the titular roguish hero for the fourth official Sartana movie, which is apparently regarded as the best one — that’s what the guys on Arrow’s commentary track say, anyway, and it’s borne out by viewer ratings on websites like IMDb. I can’t say I felt similarly, though after listening to that audio commentary, their enthusiasm and highlighting of the good stuff did help increase my enjoyment.

    The plot this time sees Sartana arrive at a remote shack just after its occupants have been massacred. Turns out one of the victims owned the land, previously thought to be worthless but now revealed to contain a gold mine, and everyone in the nearby town is eager to acquire it. As the deceased landowner’s daughter arrives to claim the property, Sartana sets about investigating who was really behind the slaughter, and possibly get involved in the land purchase himself.

    That’s more or less the basis of the story, anyway. The plot has a “made up as it goes along” feel — it’s basically an endless series of “twists” where every character is revealed to be involved somehow, one by one, and there’s always something happening. I mean, at one point a whole gang of outlaws turn up merely to instigate another shoot-out and extend the running time by about five minutes. If you were to stop and unpick the plot, there’s actually quite a neat twist at the end, but it’s easy to miss its significance when there are so many other double-crosses and reversals going on. On the audio commentary they argue that, although people accuse these films of being badly plotted, they actually fit together and abide by their own rules, they just don’t unfold in the way you might normally expect. That’s one way of looking at it, I guess.

    Sartana so cool

    The affair is at least enlivened by some inventive and fun moments, which do eventually begin to mount up in such a way that the film seems to improve as it goes on. Highlights include Sartana using playing cards as a weapon, and one of the villains having a trick gun so ingenious even Sartana pauses to admire it.

    Another member of the guest cast is a Chinese casino owner, played by Gordon Wang, who’s a bit of a “yellow peril” Orientalist cliché: a scheming gangster who always quotes Confucius and unleashes a barrage of kung fu at the end. Whether you find this offensive or let it slide (or even enjoy it) as being part of the era when the film was made is up to you. I think it could be worse: the guy isn’t a total villain, nor totally stupid (no more so than any of the white characters, certainly), and he does get some solid verbal sparring with Sartana (as well as the more literal sparring of the kung fu climax). At least he’s memorable.

    Also memorable is a great Morricone-esque score by Bruno Nicolai (a friend and long-time collaborator of Morricone’s, so that explains that). There’s decent direction from Giuliano Carnimeo, though it’s not as immediately striking as in his two previous Sartana films. There are still a few well put-together sequences, not least the pre-titles massacre. According to Garko (quoted in Arrow’s booklet), cinematographer Stelvio Massi “had a significant weight in the direction of the ensuing Sartana films. It can almost be said that those films were made by two directors, Carnimeo and Massi. Carnimeo had a great sense of humour […] But, as regards the technical part, the camera movements were conceived almost entirely by Stelvio Massi.” One particular example of Massi’s superb camerawork comes in a scene highlighted by the commentary: it’s just a simple three-way dialogue exchange, but Massi lenses it in a single take that uses zooms, pans, and reflections in a mirror to create different close-ups and two shots, all within one take.

    Sartana about to pay for more funerals

    Maybe Have a Good Funeral is an above-average Sartana film after all. Or maybe the whole series exists within quite a narrow quality range and so it’s swings and roundabouts which you say is better than the others. At least the film’s extravagant title has direct relevance for once: a running gag sees Sartana pay for lavish funerals for everyone he kills — and, naturally, he kills a lot of people. At the other end of the film, the print used for Arrow’s Blu-ray concludes with the word “fine” appearing on screen, which about sums it up.

    3 out of 5

    * Credited as Anthony Ascott. ^

    Sartana’s Here… Trade Your Pistol for a Coffin (1970)

    aka C’è Sartana… vendi la pistola e comprati la bara!

    2018 #188
    Giuliano Carnimeo* | 92 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Italy / English | 15

    Sartana's Here… Trade Your Pistol for a Coffin

    The third official Sartana movie is to this series what On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is to the Bond films: its one-shot leading man isn’t as good as the regular fella, but the film around him is a cut above.

    Sartana’s just settling down to a nice picnic when he witnesses the robbery of a wagon by, apparently, a gang of horse thieves. The wagon was transporting gold… except it wasn’t: the bags are filled with sand. It’s all part of a scheme by the local rep of the mining company to rip off the hardworking miners and keep their earnings for himself. Naturally, Sartana embroils himself in the plotting, which also features a local impoverished saloon owner and several other gunslingers with competing interests in the gold.

    The blurb for Arrow’s Blu-ray release states that Trade Your Pistol for a Coffin “finds the series taking a more tongue-in-cheek turn while retaining […] the usual blend of inventive gunplay, plot twists aplenty and a playful sense of humour.” It’s a pretty fair summation, to be brief: the film features quite a few fun bits of dialogue and a smattering of inventive shoot-outs. The plot isn’t bad either, at least for a while. The first half-hour or so sees Sartana follow things from one situation to the next, which keeps the story moving nicely and the narrative varied. After that, I’m not sure the villains’ plans all make 100% sense, and it only gets worse once the whole cast have been introduced and there are shifting alliances and double crosses galore. As it dove into the third act, I don’t know if I lost track of what the plan was meant to be or if the film just never explained it. That seems to be par for the course in these movies, though.

    Playing games

    New boy George Hilton is fine as Sartana, selling the character’s ingeniousness, and here gifted with a particularly nice line in magicking his trademark pistol up out of nowhere. Much like Lazenby in OHMSS, he lacks the cool iconicity of the guy who originated the role, but he makes a fair fist of it.

    More of a standout is Charles Southwood as Sabbath (aka Sabata, depending which language you’re watching in), a rival gunslinger who makes for a fun addition to the film. He doesn’t turn up until halfway through, but from then he steals the show. It starts with a great introduction: he rides into town in a crisp white suit, sporting a straw boater and a girly parasol, before kicking the arses of some tough guys in the saloon. And then, to cap it off, he shares some amusing banter with Sartana over the card table. As the film goes on, the English-accented gent trades bons mots, reads Shakespeare and Tennyson, and reveals himself to be as quick-witted and gadget-stacked as the title character. Naturally it can only end one way: a Sartana vs Sabbath shoot-out. Their duel, saved for the film’s climax, is absolutely fantastic, as they take playful potshots at each other’s clothing before the victor executes an all-timer final move.

    The film’s entertainment value is bolstered further by more good direction from Giuliano Carnimeo. There’s plenty of the usual Leone influence in shootouts and whatnot, but every once in a while there’s a delightful flourish — most memorably, the use of split-screen to show three adversaries dying together, and a split-focus shot that shows Sabbath watching as Sartana’s arrival is reflected in a teaspoon.

    This often happened to the other fella

    Trade Your Pistol for a Coffin isn’t the quintessential Sartana movie, owing to the absence of regular star Gianni Garko — Hilton’s a solid stand-in, but lacks the regular’s roguish charm. But the rest of the movie packs enough value that it’s my favourite in the series so far. Nonetheless, it’s still a bit too much of a B-movie to really transcend those roots; but, for the sake of differentiation from the other two if nothing else, I’m going to generously round my score up to a 4.

    4 out of 5

    * Credited as Anthony Ascott. ^

    I Am Sartana, Your Angel of Death (1969)

    aka Sono Sartana, il vostro becchino / Sartana the Gravedigger

    2018 #169
    Giuliano Carnimeo* | 103 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Italy / English | 15

    I Am Sartana, Your Angel of Death

    The second official movie to star Western antihero Sartana is, according to the blurb on Arrow’s Blu-ray release, “a more playful film than its predecessor, possessing an inventive visual style and developing its central character into a more creative and resourceful figure.” That’s bang on — and it’s a better film for it.

    It starts with a bang, too: a bank robbery that turns into an action-packed shoot-out. The leader of the gang is posing as Sartana, which puts a price on our hero’s head. He sets about trying to prove his innocence and get his revenge, while three fellow bounty hunters set about trying to kill him.

    Your Angel of Death is a lot slower paced than the non-stop action-fest of the first film, but that has its benefits: the plot is a lot clearer, and there’s more time invested in characters and non-violent set pieces (like Sartana’s card tricks), which I thought made for a more enjoyable watch overall. The storyline gives the film a “whodunnit” element, as the guy who framed Sartana is as much a mystery to us as it is to him. The film develops Sartana into a more interesting character, too, because his resourcefulness really comes out here. He doesn’t just shoot fast — he plans his strategy, uses objects as weapons in cunning ways, sometimes coming up with such things on the fly.

    Sartana takes aim

    Of the three men after Sartana, only the one played by Klaus Kinski gets any serious screen time. Kinski was a bankable actor in these kind of movies at the time, and so after his cameo-sized appearance in the first film he’s back here with a bigger role, as a somewhat camp bounty hunter. There’s a sort of running gag where he’s terrible at cards, and knows it, but can’t help playing anyway, which is quite fun. As for the other two hunters, one is used for a decent shootout-cum-chase sequence early on, but the third is introduced alongside the other two only to disappear entirely until the final duel, which makes the finale somewhat anticlimactic. One nice touch, though: Sartana clearly has a longstanding professional relationship with all three men — comrades in the bounty hunter game, or something like that — which adds an extra dimension to their encounters.

    The other standout in the supporting cast is Frank Wolff as Buddy Ben. Sartana initially thinks Ben might’ve set him up, but he was in prison at the time. From there he takes on the role of Sartana’s sidekick, kinda — we’re still not quite sure if he’s to be trusted, which is a nice dynamic.

    Barrel to barrel

    Giuliano Carnimeo’s direction is less remarkable than Gianfranco Parolini’s work on the first film… or so I’m told: every review seems to mention it, as does Arrow’s booklet. There are some nice flourishes, however, with the most obvious being that almost anytime someone is shot the camera dramatically tips over sideways, mimicking their death. Apparently the film’s more humorous and ironic tone is in keeping with Carnimeo’s style, in contrast to the more straightforward action of Parolini, and that’s a positive in my book.

    Your Angel of Death was a more enjoyable experience than the previous film, which was very welcome because (as I mentioned in my previous review) I’d been slightly concerned that taking a punt on this box set would turn out to be a mistake. (Well, there are still three more films to go, so we’ll see!) That said, although there’s a lot of inventiveness and fun, it’s to the film’s detriment that it often feels a little slow. My score errs on the harsh side, then, but to go the other way would be generous.

    3 out of 5

    * Credited as Anthony Ascott. ^

    If You Meet Sartana… Pray for Your Death (1968)

    aka Se incontri Sartana prega per la tua morte / Sartana

    2018 #143
    Gianfranco Parolini
    (as Frank Kramer) | 96 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | Italy, France & West Germany / English | 15

    If You Meet Sartana… Pray for Your Death

    Arrow Video have a way of tempting me to buy films I never knew I wanted, often because I’ve never even heard of them before Arrow’s release is announced. The latest such purchase is a box set of Spaghetti Westerns starring the character Sartana, which collects all five of the ‘official’ movies (as with other popular Spaghetti Western characters, like Django, many unofficial sequels were produced), all of which have amusingly verbose titles in the same vein as this one — which, I must confess, was half of what convinced me the aforementioned purchase was necessary. The other was how the eponymous hero is described in the set’s blurb:

    a mysterious figure, he has a spectral quality, aided by his Count Dracula-like cloak which also nods towards comic strip figure Mandrake the Magician, with whom he shares a penchant for card tricks. He takes pride in his appearance unlike Eastwood’s dusty wanderer or Nero’s mud-caked drifter. And there’s a dose of James Bond too in his fondness for gadgetry and the droll sense of humour.

    This first movie only hints at that persona, because it’s busy being occupied with two other things: delivering as much action as it possibly can (there are shoot-outs galore, leading to a phenomenal body count), and an overly complicated plot, both of which are rolled out at a breakneck pace. The story has something to do with an insurance scam by a provincial bank, which involves having their gold stolen by some Mexicans, then re-stolen by some bandits. Quite why it needed to be stolen twice I couldn’t figure out.

    “Give me your money!” “You're, er, already holding it...”

    The same goes for why everyone seems immensely concerned about where the original money is, rather than waiting for the insurance payout, which is surely the primary point of such a scam. Okay, you would need both sets of dough to turn a profit, but everyone just seems to want to make off with the original loot. Unless I misunderstood something, which I might have, because goodness knows what’s going on half the time — there’s plenty of to-ing and fro-ing of allegiances, which is equally as baffling. It gets particularly ludicrous in the final fifteen minutes, when everyone keeps double-crossing everyone else until only Sartana and one villain are left standing, ready for the final duel.

    Is the “story” just a big ol’ excuse for plenty of shoot-outs and horseback chases? Quite possibly. At least much of the action is rather good — well staged, with the occasional neat idea on display. The whole film looks pretty nice, too. The print used for the Blu-ray is a bit ropey, with some spots of very bad damage, but I presume it must’ve been the best available. Nonetheless, the film underneath those issues is quite well shot. There are splashes of humour (deliberate or otherwise, like the Mexican leader who insists on calling himself Excellentisimo Señor Jose Manuel Francisco Mendoza Montezuma de la Plata Perez Rodriguez, aka El Tampico), and some stylistic flourishes as well. Particular highlights including the use of a pocket-watch’s tune to scare one of the villains, and Sartana’s favoured gun, a little four-barrelled pistol that he seems to be able to draw as if by magic, which gets even cooler when it reveals a hidden trick at the climax.

    Sartana, the classy bandit

    Sartana himself delivers on the promise of the blurb: in contrast to the rough, dusty Spaghetti Western heroes we’re used to, he cuts quite the dash, smartly dressed in a black suit replete with red-lined cape. He may be an out-for-himself money-centric gunslinger just like the rest, but he’s also a cardsharp for variety, which is revealed in a fun sequence when he joins a poker game shortly after arriving in town. Him pulling a fast one on the other players leads to a stand-off and shoot-out, because what doesn’t in this movie?

    In his chatty audio commentary, fan and expert Mike Siegel acknowledges that the plot is incoherent and, for that reason, it’s not his favourite film of the series. I found that rather heartening to hear, because by the end of this first film I was beginning to wonder if I’d let myself in for a less-than-satisfactory time with this acquisition. Not that If You Meet Sartana is a bad movie, so long as you focus in the right places: the action is suitably exciting, even as its undermined by the frustrations of a confusing storyline.

    3 out of 5

    Yojimbo (1961)

    aka Yôjinbô

    2017 #126
    Akira Kurosawa | 111 mins | DVD | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese | PG

    Yojimbo

    Best known to many viewers as the film Sergio Leone ripped off to make A Fistful of Dollars, Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo is itself already a Western in all but setting: it stars Toshiro Mifune as Sanjuro, a ronin who wanders into a village where two gangs are at loggerheads, a conflict from which the regular folk cower in fear. Where Kurosawa deviates from the Western, at least as they had been made to that point, is that Sanjuro isn’t a clean-cut hero who’ll side with the good guys and get this mess sorted — he’s a mercenary, primarily out for his own interests; and besides, there are no good guys to join: both gangs are equally bad.

    In his essay that accompanies Criterion’s release of the film, Alexander Sesonske argues that Kurosawa is actually combining “two typically American genres”. So we have “a classic Western setting, with dust and leaves blowing across the wide, empty street that runs the length of a village, a lone stranger passes as frightened faces peer from behind shutters”, mixed with the morals (or lack thereof) of a gangster movie, with everyone a crook hoping to merely outgun the others. That all comes wrapped in the milieu of a samurai movie, meaning instead of pistol duels or scattershot machine-gun fire we get flashing blades. Indeed, Yojimbo was the first film to have a sound effect for a sword slashing human flesh — they had to experiment to get it right, because it had never been done. Considering the film also features severed limbs and squirting blood, the BBFC’s PG seems awfully lenient…

    Observing the conflict

    Given all that, it seems like this is an almost mercilessly nihilistic film. It’s set in a town that’s been fucked up by the never-ending gang warfare, and over the course of the story nearly everyone dies, many of them in brutally violent fashion. Even the hero seems remorseless, killing freely and plotting to get the two gangs to massacre each other because he sees a way to profit. Sesonske asserts that “Yojimbo lacks the intellectual challenge of Rashomon, the moral resonance of Ikiru, or the sweep and grandeur of Seven Samurai”, which may all be true to an extent, but we shouldn’t disregard what the film does offer: a bleak worldview that chimes with the careless brutality of the world as we know it.

    Even in such hopelessness there is beauty, and here, at least, that comes from Kazuo Miyagawa’s gorgeous black-and-white cinematography. With many incredibly blocked and framed shots, it’s no wonder Kurosawa has been so copied — his visuals are always amazing. His exacting desires may’ve created various production issues (the specially-built set, made with extreme period accuracy, was unprecedentedly expensive; to create the windswept effect they used all of the studio’s wind machines, which was so powerful actors couldn’t open their eyes and camera cranes couldn’t complete moves; and he used all of the studio’s big lights for night scenes, but the way they pulsated meant lens filters had to be used to compensate), but it doesn’t half look good in the end.

    5 out of 5

    Yojimbo was viewed as part of my Blindspot 2017 project, which you can read more about here.