The Magnificent Seven (1960)

2016 #152
John Sturges | 123 mins | DVD | 2.35:1 | USA / English | PG

The Magnificent SevenDescribed in the booklet accompanying the Ultimate Edition DVD release as “the last great American western before Sergio Leone reinvented the genre,” The Magnificent Seven doesn’t feel as dated as that might make it sound. Famously, it’s a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai — a technique Leone would pilfer for his first Western, A Fistful of Dollars, which is a do-over of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. Leone did his without permission, resulting in a lawsuit that was settled out of court, whereas Magnificent Seven was a fully-licensed re-do. As you’d expect, it therefore sticks fairly closely to the events of Seven Samurai, albeit getting through them an hour-and-a-half quicker.

Of course, it’s relocated — not to America, but to Mexico, where a farming village is being terrorised by a gang led by Eli Wallach. A couple of villagers head to the border to buy some guns to defend themselves, but end up recruiting Yul Brynner to put together a band of gunslingers to help. With no significant pay on offer, his slim pickings are pre-fame turns from Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, and Robert Vaughn, plus Brad Dexter and Horst Buchholz.

Steve McQueen respondsWith even less screen time to go round than in Kurosawa’s original, the cast only get to provide thumbnail sketches of their characters. However, bearing that in mind, only Vaughn really feels shortchanged on time, while McQueen manages to steal every scene he’s in, even when he was supposed to just be in the background — much to Brynner’s annoyance. One reason this works is because the seven represent more or less the same things thematically, in some respects functioning as one hero character with seven parts. They are all unsettled drifters, good at killing but not at settling down; they have nothing to do but win and so be damned to go find another cause, or die trying. This is taken from Kurosawa’s film too, of course, but it fits just as well in its new setting, and the main scene where the seven discuss it is a definite highpoint of the movie.

Most of the action is saved for the big climax, a good old fashioned free-for-all that (like the rest) doesn’t quite have the epic scope of Kurosawa’s movie, nor the stylised discipline and suspense that would be Leone’s enduring contribution to the genre. I’ve yet to see this year’s remake, nor read too much about it, but I understand it’s changed the plot and characters a fair bit, and I imagine this is one area it’s really applied a new emphasis. Much has changed in what we expect from action movies, which is not to criticise the ’60s film, but more to observe that what once might’ve satiated an action fan’s thirst may no longer fit the bill.

Magnificent badassesThat’s not something that bothered me, but where I did find it suffering was in comparison to Kurosawa. While it has obviously been rejigged for its new setting, it’s not just borrowed the basic concept of seven violence-skilled loners defending a needy village, but rather retained all the bones of the samurai original. As with most remakes, it falters by not doing the same thing quite as well, for one reason or another. Still, if it is a faded copy then at least it’s of one of the greatest films ever made, which leaves it a mighty fine Western in its own right.

4 out of 5

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Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #67

There were three men in her life.
One to take her…
one to love her…
and one to kill her.

Original Title: C’era una volta il West

Country: Italy, USA, Spain & Mexico
Language: English and/or Italian
Runtime: 166 minutes (international) | 145 minutes (US theatrical) | 175 minutes (Italy)
BBFC: A (cut, 1969) | 15 (1989) | 12 (2011)
MPAA: PG (1969) | PG-13 (2003)

Original Release: 21st December 1968 (Italy)
UK Release: 14th August 1969
First Seen: DVD, c.2003

Stars
Claudia Cardinale (, Fitzcarraldo)
Henry Fonda (My Darling Clementine, 12 Angry Men)
Jason Robards (Hour of the Gun, Tora! Tora! Tora!)
Charles Bronson (The Magnificent Seven, Death Wish)

Director
Sergio Leone (A Fistful of Dollars, Once Upon a Time in America)

Screenwriters
Sergio Donati (Face to Face, A Fistful of Dynamite)
Sergio Leone (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, A Fistful of Dynamite)

Story by
Dario Argento (Deep Red, Suspiria)
Bernardo Bertolucci (The Conformist, The Last Emperor)
Sergio Leone (The Last Days of Pompeii, For a Few Dollars More)

The Story
The mysterious Harmonica arrives in the town of Flagstone, out for revenge against Frank. Frank, working for a railroad baron, is busy murdering Brett McBain for his land and blaming the crime on the bandit Cheyenne. Cheyenne teams up with Harmonica to help McBain’s newly-arrived widow, and therefore owner of his land, Jill. Jill finds herself caught in the crossfire between the three men pursuing their own interests…

Our Heroes
Jill McBain, a former prostitute who’s still subject to the will and whims of men. Harmonica, a formidable gunslinger known only by the instrument he plays. Even Cheyenne, a bandit leader, is a good buy when they’re all arranged against…

Our Villain
Frank, the meanest sonuvabitch in the West. What did he do to Harmonica in the past? What will he do to Jill to get his way? Nothing good…

Best Supporting Character
Crippled railroad tycoon Morton only wants to intimidate the McBains to relinquish their land, which I guess makes him a nice guy when compared to his murderous handyman, Frank, who he clearly can’t control.

Memorable Quote
Harmonica: “Did you bring a horse for me?”
Snaky: “Well, looks like we’re… looks like we’re shy one horse.”
Harmonica: “You brought two too many.”

Memorable Scene
In one of the most iconic opening sequences in cinema history, three gunmen arrive at a train station and… wait for a train. For ten minutes. Ten real-time minutes, accompanied only by sounds like a squeaky windmill, a dripping water tower, and distant bird cries. Then the train arrives… and then the train leaves… and then a harmonica plays. And the action… threatens to start. Ah, Leone.

Memorable Music
It’s a Sergio Leone film, of course there’s an Ennio Morricone score — and it’s one of his best. It was composed before shooting began so Leone could play it on set, so it fits like a glove. The best bits include the striking leitmotifs: a haunting one for Jill, with wordless vocals by Edda Dell’Orso, and a dramatic one for Harmonica, threatening guitar combined with a melody played on a… well, you know.

Technical Wizardry
The entire picture looks fantastic thanks to the work of cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli. It displays all the framing and composition Leone is famous for, but also evokes an oppressive hot, sweaty feeling, and the light and texture of the image have pure cinematic quality. They don’t make ’em like this anymore.

Letting the Side Down
Leone’s original plan was for the three gunmen in the opening scene to be cameos for the stars of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly — Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach — but Eastwood (who’d already turned down the role of Harmonica) was unavailable. Shame.

Next time…
Considered by some to be the first part of a thematic “Once Upon a Time” trilogy, which continues with A Fistful of Dynamite (released in some regions as Once Upon a Time… the Revolution) and Once Upon a Time in America.

What the Critics Said
“The world of a Leone Western is just as enchanted as it was in the films the director saw as a child, but the values have become confused. Heroes as well as villains are apt to be motivated by greed and revenge, and the environments in which they operate are desolate and godless, though very beautiful. The Leone Westerns are twice removed from reality, being based on myths that were originally conceived in Hollywood studios in the nineteen-thirties. […] Once Upon the Time in the West thus is a movie either for the undiscriminating patron or for the buff. If you fall somewhere in between those categories, you had better stay home” — Vincent Canby, The New York Times (Just so we’re clear, I think this is a terrible review.)

Score: 98%

What the Public Say
“The clue’s in the title: Once Upon a Time in the West is a fairy story, a mythologised version of the American West, peopled with immediately recognisable archetypes. It’s also a commentary on the Western genre itself, and a celebration in the form of a kind of “greatest hits”, full of references to other films and filmmakers: John Ford, George Stevens, Anthony Mann, Shane, The Searchers, High Noon, and so on. […] So the game isn’t originality, but Everything More Iconic Than Everyone Else. Westerns – even great Westerns – would follow, directed by the likes of Sam Peckinpah, Walter Hill, and Eastwood himself, but [this] still feels like the genre’s final word.” — Owen Williams

Verdict

America didn’t ‘get’ Once Upon a Time in the West when it first came out (hence the retrospectively laughable reviews, like the one above). The French did, though: it played for literally years in Paris cinemas, even inspiring fashion trends (the long duster coats). I confess, my initial reaction was a little more akin to the Americans’ — OUaTitW can be quite a slow film, and the plot is deceptively obscured until quite late on. But it certainly rewards repeat viewings, because it’s a film of rich content and, perhaps even more importantly, supreme style and technical achievement. The French were right (but don’t tell them that).

#68 will be… completed while you shop.

Death Wish (1974)

2010 #29
Michael Winner | 93 mins | TV | 18 / R

Apparently, the recent Michael Caine-starring Harry Brown is a Death Wish for modern times. I’ve not seen Harry Brown yet (Michael Caine killing chavs? Why haven’t I seen this yet), but — as you’ve probably guessed from which review you’re reading — I have seen its spiritual predecessor.

The Death Wish series, as it would later become, seems to be remembered with a certain degree of contempt these days (despite an expressed love for Death Wish 3 from Edgar Wright & co), and I suspect that may be due to the sequels. Not that this first film is a masterpiece or something, but it has plus points.

The characters are surprisingly believable for a start, with serious effort put into their motivation and progression. One expects a shallowness from the genre, plot and director — that the hero’s wife would be killed and daughter raped, and the next day he’s on the street killing scum, building to a climax where he finally gets the gang who committed the original crime — but it’s not so. Months pass before Charles Bronson’s unlucky architect, Paul, grabs his gun and hits the streets, and even then it’s not like he’s slaughtering foes left, right and centre every night.

Indeed, realism permeates: Paul’s encounters aren’t all easily won; he gets injured; his crimes create a media storm, on which public opinion is divided; he never conveniently come across the attackers of his wife and kids — after the crime, they’re never seen again; and so on. There are still unrealistic bits, certainly, but by employing enough believability and leaving aside certain rules of the revenge thriller — for one thing, he never actually gets revenge — Death Wish manages to rise a little above the “heroic vigilante” sub-genre.

The strongest element is probably Wendell Mayes’ script, because it constructs all this. Weakest is Michael Winner’s direction — some of it’s fine, the occasional shot even good, but largely it’s pedestrian and sometimes mediocre. That said, Winner has become such an unlikeable public figure that it’s somewhat difficult to gauge how much of this is bad direction and how much bias. Still, it’s not the kind of work to make one think, “he’s an idiot, but he knows how to do his job”.

As noted, I hear the sequels get increasingly ridiculous, which I can well believe: as a standalone film, Death Wish has strength in a certain degree of realism; imagining a franchise spun off from it, however, it’s easy to see how it would quickly become diluted and lose the power such veracity gives. One wonders, though, if a well-chosen director might produce an even better remake…

3 out of 5