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

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)

2012 #47
John Sturges | 78 mins | TV | 2.55:1 | USA / English | PG

Bad Day at Black RockBad Day at Black Rock comes with an air of the forgotten classic — or, at least, it did to me. I think that’s important to how I ultimately reacted to it. As is that wherever I first heard about it pitched it as a suspenseful mystery with a twist. I forget where that was now, but I remember consciously avoiding finding out the plot’s developments (more so than one naturally would anyway) before viewing.

The latter seems to pay off, at first. Spencer Tracy stars as Macreedy, who arrives in a tiny, remote town in the American West, shortly after the end of World War II. He’s there with an unrevealed purpose; the locals are, for some reason, immensely suspicious of him. Starting here, the story is built on slow suspense and mystery: who is Komoko? What happened to him? How does Macreedy know? And what does Macreedy want? Sturges happily lets this mull and build over the best part of an hour, before suddenly darting past the reveals as if they’re unimportant. I’m not saying they need to be sign-posted with dramatic camera angles, weighty overacting and thudding “dun-dun-DUN!” music, but they’re shoved in here as if they’re immaterial; a bit of bookkeeping before the all-action climax. Perhaps these reveals weren’t meant to be so vital to the story as I had been expecting, but it still undermined my expectation.

The film also raises issues that, in my opinion, it fails to adequately explore. Primarily, the American attitude to the Japanese in the wake of Pearl Harbor, and also notions of complicity and complacency in the face of crime. There’s room for these threads to be explored and commented on, to be better exploited than they are. I don’t think it’s an issue of subtly (that is to say, that they are present, but without a heavy hand), more that they’re only fleetingly touched upon. Perhaps that’s unfair — I’m entirely upon to the suggestion that I was so busy focusing on the mysteries, Chatting at Black RockI missed the commentary. Indeed, in his piece at Riding the High Country, Colin notes that the issue of American reaction to the Japanese “is very obviously presented”. (He also examines the film’s representation of a third area, that of Bad Day… as a modern Western and by extension a commentary on “the nature of the west itself”, which as ever I heartily recommend.)

I’ve read that Spencer Tracy was reluctant to star (presumably because of the arguably-anti-American stance of the film), but he nonetheless gives an engaging Oscar-nominated performance, perfectly embodying the character’s odd mix of qualities. He’s authoritative yet acquiescent, disruptive yet quiet, placid yet can hold his own in a fight… In a film otherwise marked by its consciously single-note townsfolk, he makes an intriguing creation.

The most underused character by far is the only woman, Liz, played by Anne Francis, who is vital to the climax but barely has any screen time before that to make us care. Most of the other cast are served at least one scene which is ‘theirs’, in which we get to learn about their archetypal character and their piece in the town’s make-up and secretive past, but third-billed Francis is robbed any of that. Considering the film barely runs 80 minutes as it is, I can’t help but feel there was room to dig into her character a considerable amount more.

Under-used AnneFor a film so based in mystery and which has what I’d call a methodical pace (despite its short running time), there are surprisingly good action sequences to look out for: a car chase/battle along a thin path, a one-handed punch-up in a bar, and a climactic shoot-out that’s at its most tense once all the bullets have been fired. It’s not an action movie by any means, but these cinematic sequences stand out nonetheless.

I imagine I’ve come across as harsh on Bad Day at Black Rock. As noted, I’m not sure where I specifically heard it recommended — several sources, more than likely — but wherever it was made it sound like an under-appreciated minor classic, with a mysterious setup that specifically appealed to me. So perhaps that’s why I’m disappointed the mystery element wasn’t as foregrounded, and why I’m niggling at the ways it could have explored its own content better. At the very least, it leaves topics of consideration open for the audience to debate amongst themselves, and that’s never a bad thing.

4 out of 5

Bad Day at Black Rock is on Film4 today at 5pm, and again on Thursday at 12:40pm.