A Movie A Day #244: Death of a Gunfighter (1969, directed by Allen Smithee)


At the turn of the 20th century, the mayor and the business community of Cottonwood Springs, Texas are determined to bring their small town into the modern era.  The Mayor (Larry Gates) has even purchased one of those newfangled automobiles that have been taking the country by storm.  However, the marshal of Cottonwood Spings, Frank Patch (Richard Widmark), is considered to be an embarrassing relic of the past.  Patch has served as marshal for 20 years but now, his old west style of justice is seen as being detrimental to the town’s development.  When Patch shoots a drunk in self-defense, the town leaders use it as an excuse to demand Patch’s resignation.  When Patch refuses to quit and points out that he knows all of the secrets of what everyone did before they became respectable, the business community responds by bringing in their own gunfighters to kill the old marshal.

Death of a Gunfighter is historically significant because it was the very first film to ever be credited to Allen Smithee.  The movie was actually started by TV director Robert Totten and, after Widmark demanded that Totten be fired, completed by the legendary Don Siegel.  Since Totten worked for 25 days on the film while Siegel was only on set for 9, Siegel refused to take credit for the film.  When Widmark protested against Totten receiving credit, the Director’s Guild of America compromised by allowing the film to be credited to the fictitious Allen Smithee.

In the years after the release of Death of a Gunfighter, the Allen (or, more often, Alan) Smithee name would be used for films on which the director felt that he had not been allowed to exercise creative control over the final product.  The Smithee credit became associated with bad films like The O.J. Simpson Story and Let’s Get Harry which makes it ironic that Death of a Gunfighter is not bad at all.  It’s an elegiac and intelligent film about the death of the old west and the coming of the modern era.  It also features not only one of Richard Widmark’s best performances but an interracial love story between the marshal and a brothel madame played by Lena Horne.  The supporting cast is full of familiar western actors, with Royal Dano, Harry Carey, Jr., Larry Gates, Dub Taylor, and Kent Smith all making an impression.  Even the great John Saxon has a small role.  Though it may be best known for its “director,” Death of a Gunfighter is a film that will be enjoyed by any good western fan.

A Movie A Day #175: Telefon (1977, directed by Don Siegel)


Across America, strange things are happening.  Seemingly ordinary, middle-aged citizens are, without explanation, attacking formerly top secret government facilities.  The attackers are from all different walks of life.  One was an auto mechanic.  Another was a priest.  There was even a housewife who, after blowing up a power station, committed suicide with a poison pill that the KGB stopped issuing a decade ago.  Before launching their attacks, each one of them received a phone call in which a Russian man recited a poem by Robert Frost.

The Americans may not understand what is happening but the Soviets do.  Immediately after the Cuban Missile Crisis, the KGB planted sleeper agents across the United States.  They hypnotized and brainwashed the agents so thoroughly that they no longer remember that they are agents.  The Frost poem was the trigger designed to activate the agents, all of whom were meant to attack what were then valuable parts of America’s infrastructure.  With the arrival of détente, the program was abandoned and the sleeper agents were simply left behind in the United States.  But now, a former hardliner (Donald Pleasence), is activating the agents one by one.  Because he has a photographic memory, KGB colonel Charles Bronson is sent to the United States to track down and kill Pleasence before the United States discovers the truth about what is happening.  Lee Remick, as an American KGB agent, is assigned to work with him but is also ordered to kill him once the assignment has been completed.

That Telfon is one of Charles Bronson’s better post-Death Wish films is largely due to the presence of Don Siegel in the director’s chair.  As a director who specialized in intelligent genre films and who helped to make Clint Eastwood one of the world’s biggest stars with Dirty Harry, Coogan’s Bluff, The Beguiled, and Escape from Alcatraz, Don Siegel was the ideal director to bring out the best in Bronson.  Like St. Ives, Telefon features Bronson in an uncharacteristically cerebral role.  For once, he spends more time analyzing clues than he does shooting people and Bronson is surprisingly credible as a man with a photographic memory.

As directed by Siegel, Telefon is almost a satire of the type of violent action films that Bronson usually made for directors like Michael Winner. In Telefon, both the bad guys and the good guys are equally clueless.  All of the KGB sleeper agents are dumpy and middle-aged and the film continually emphasizes that they’ve all been brainwashed to attack targets that are no longer strategically important.    Donald Pleasence, playing one of his raving villains, wears a blonde, Beatles-style wig for much of the film.

Though the ending is a let down, Telefon is still one of the best of Bronson’s late 70s films.

A Movie A Day #126: Baby Face Nelson (1957, directed by Don Siegel)


The place is Chicago.  The time is the era of Prohibition.  The head of the Chicago Outfit, Rocca (Ted de Corsia), has arranged for a career criminal named Lester Gillis (Mickey Rooney) to be released from prison.  A crack shot and all-around tough customer, Gillis has only two insecurities: his diminutive height and his youthful appearance.  Rocca wants to use Gillis as a hit man but Gillis prefers to rob banks.  When Rocca attempts to frame Gillis for a murder, Gillis first guns down his former benefactor and then goes on the run with his girlfriend, Sue Nelson (Carolyn Jones).  Because they are both patients of the same underworld doctor (played by Sir Cedric Hardwicke), Gillis eventually meets public enemy number one, John Dillinger (Leo Gordon).  Joining Dillinger’s gang, Gillis becomes a famous bank robber and is saddled with a nickname that he hates: Baby Face Nelson.

While it is true that Lester “Baby Face Nelson” Gillis was an associate of John Dillinger’s and supposedly hated his nickname, the rest of this biopic is highly fictionalized.  The real Baby Face Nelson was a family man who, when he went on the run, took his wife and two children with him.  While he did get his start running with a Chicago street gang, there is also no evidence that Nelson was ever affiliated with the Chicago Outfit.  (The film’s Rocca is an obvious stand-in for Al Capone.)  In real life, it was Dillinger, having just recently escaped from jail, who hooked up with Nelson’s gang.  The film Nelson is jealous of Dillinger and wants to take over the gang but, in reality, the gang had no leader.  Because Nelson killed three FBI agents (more than any other criminal), he has developed a reputation for being one of the most dangerous of the Depression-era outlaws but, actually, he was no more violent than the typical 1930s bank robber.  Among the era’s outlaws, Dillinger was more unique for only having committed one murder over the course of his career.  In this film (and practically every other film that has featured Baby Face Nelson as a character), Nelson is a full on psychopath, one who even aims his gun at children.

Baby Face Nelson may be terrible history but it is still an excellent B-movie.  Don Siegel directs in his usual no-nonsense style and Mickey Rooney does a great job, playing Baby Face Nelson as a ruthless but insecure criminal with a perpetual chip on his shoulder.  As his fictional girlfriend, Carolyn Jones is both tough and sexy, a moll that any gangster would be lucky to have waiting for him back at the safe house.  B-movie veterans like Thayer David, Jack Elam, Elisha Cook Jr., and John Hoyt all have colorful supporting roles but the most unexpected name in the cast is that of Cedric Hardwicke, playing an alcoholic surgeon with broken down dignity.

Don’t watch Baby Face Nelson for a history lesson.  Watch it for an entertaining B-masterpiece.

 

Diamond in the Rough: RIOT IN CELL BLOCK 11 (Allied Artists 1954)


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Back in 1951, movie producer Walter Wanger (rhymes with danger) discovered his wife, actress Joan Bennett , was having an affair with her agent, Jennings Lang. The enraged husband tracked them to a parking lot, where Wanger shot Lang in the groin. That’ll teach him! Wanger was subsequently arrested, and sentenced to serve a four-month bid in a Los Angeles county farm. His stint in stir, though brief, affected him profoundly, and he wanted to make a film about prison conditions. The result was RIOT IN CELL BLOCK 11, a ripped-from-the-headlines prison noir that’s tougher than a two-dollar steak.

Wanger hired Don Siegel to direct the film. Siegel was gaining a reputation as a director of muscular, low-budget features, and RIOT IN CELL BLOCK 11 is a great early example of his harsh, brutal style. The movie’s sparse, shadowy setting was filmed on location at California’s infamous Folsom Prison thanks to…

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Victim of Love: Clint Eastwood in THE BEGUILED (Universal 1971)


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THE BEGUILED was the third of five collaborations between star Clint Eastwood and director Don Siegel. It’s definitely the most offbeat, a Gothic Western set during the Civil War. Clint plays John McBurney, a wounded, half-dead Yankee found in the woods by one of the girls from Miss Martha’s Seminary for Young Ladies. What unfolds from there is unlike anything the duo ever did before or after, a tale of sexual desire and vengeance that’s one of the most unusual entries in the Western canon.

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Clint Eastwood has one of his most unsympathetic roles as McBurney. Although we feel bad about the condition he’s in, we soon realize what an amoral, manipulative scoundrel he is. Flashbacks reveal his lies about his role in the Union Army. Even as he suffers some major “misery” (hint, hint) at the hands of Miss Martha, Clint’s McBurney isn’t a likeable figure. This offbeat casting probably contributed to the…

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A Dying Man, Scared of the Dark: John Wayne in THE SHOOTIST (Paramount 1976)


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THE SHOOTIST is John Wayne’s valedictory statement, a final love letter to his many fans. The Duke was now 69 years old and not in the best of health. He’d had a cancerous lung removed back in 1964, and though the cancer was in remission, Wayne must’ve knew his days were numbered when he made this film. Three years later, he died from cancer of the stomach, intestines, and spine. There were worries about his ability to make this movie, but Wayne loved the script and was determined to do it. The result is an elegy to not only the aging actor, but to the Western genre as a whole.

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The movie begins with footage of older Wayne westerns (EL DORADO, HONDO, RED RIVER, RIO BRAVO) narrated by Ron Howard (Gillom). “His name was J.B. Books…he wasn’t an outlaw. Fact is, for a while he was a lawman…He had a credo that…

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Film Review: Dirty Harry (dir. by Don Siegel)


Dirty Harry is obviously just a genre film but this action genre has always had fascist potential and it has finally surfaced…Dirty Harry is a deeply immoral movie.” — Pauline Kael

“It’s not about a man who stands for violence.  It’s about a man who can’t understand society tolerating violence.” — Clint Eastwood

I decided that I wanted to review the Dirty Harry film franchise about two seconds after Clint Eastwood finished giving his speech at the Republican National Convention last month. 

It had nothing to do with the politics of Eastwood’s speech because, quite frankly, I think a good film is a work of art and art is always more important than politics.  Instead, as I watched Eastwood give his speech, I was reminded that Clint Eastwood is about as close to a living icon as we have in America.  There aren’t many actors who could get away with giving a speech to an empty chair and, despite the predictable outraged tweets from Roger Ebert, Eastwood is one of them.  And, if Eastwood is an icon, Harry Callahan is perhaps the most iconic role of his career.

Now, I have to admit that, as I started this project, I knew more about Harry Callahan as a character than I did about the films he had actually appeared in.  I had seen both Dirty Harry and The Dead Pool because, for whatever reason, they both seem to turn up on AMC every other week.  I knew that Harry Callahan was a police inspector who was based in San Francisco.  I knew that he was willing to go to extremes when it came to fighting criminals.  I knew that, in his first film appearance, Harry had a really impressive head of hair that had pretty much vanished by the time that he reached his final appearance in The Dead Pool.  And, finally, I knew that, at some point in the film series, Harry growled the line, “Go ahead, make my day.”

So, for me, reviewing every film in the Dirty Harry franchise gave me a chance to discover why Harry has become such an iconic character and why people still ask Eastwood to repeat that “make my day” line.  When I started watching the films, Jeff warned me that the Dirty Harry films got worse as you went along and I discovered that, in many ways, he was right.  But I still enjoyed the experience and I hope that you enjoy reading my reviews over the next few days.

But, first things first.  Let’s take a look at the film that started the entire series, 1971’s Dirty Harry.

I have to admit that it’s a bit intimidating to try to review Dirty Harry because, quite frankly, what’s left to be said about this film?  It’s one of the most influential movies of all time. Any time you see a cop in a TV show or a movie getting yelled at by his superiors for not going “by the book,” it means that you’re watching a movie or an episode that is directly descended from Dirty Harry.  And yet, despite all the imitations, it’s a movie that remains as exciting and visceral today as when it was first released. 

Dirty Harry tells the story of two outsiders, two men who seem to exist solely to reveal the dark impulses of conventional society.  Both of these men are killers and both of these men are motivated by a rage against what they perceive society as being. 

One of these men calls himself Scorpio.  As played by Andy Robinson (who gives one of the definitive cinematic psycho performances here), Scorpio is a jittery mass of nerves, an unkempt man who wears a peace sign as a belt buckle but who also writes letters to the Mayor of San Francisco (played by John Vernon) in which he threatens to kill one innocent person a day unless he’s paid off.  When he first appears, he’s on a rooftop, aiming a rifle at an unaware woman in a swimming pool. At one point, the phallic barrel of rifle seems to be pointed directly at the camera (and by extension, at us in the audience).  When he fires the rifle, we see the mortally wounded woman silently sink under the water.  It’s a scene that still disturbs me every time I see it, one that establishes early on that we’re all potentially vulnerable to the Scorpios of the world.

In the next scene, we see San Francisco Police Inspector Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood, of course) investigating the crime scene.  The difference between Harry and Scorpio is striking.  Whereas Scorpio is only calm while killing, Callahan inspects the crime scene (and goes through almost the entire film) without showing a hint of emotion.  While Scorpio looks like a madman, Callahan looks like a professional.  And yet, when Callahan foils a bank robbery (and delivers his famous “Do you feel lucky?” monologue to wounded bank robber played by Albert Popwell), it becomes obvious that he does have something in common with Scorpio.  They’re both willing to shoot to kill.  The only difference is that, as a police officer, Callahan is ostracized for his willingness to kill while Scorpio, as an American citizen, is protected by the U.S. Constitution.

It would be foolish to pretend that Dirty Harry isn’t a political film.  One need only watch the scene where a law professor explains to Harry why his pursuit and arrest of Scorpio violated Scorpio’s constitutional rights.  (The way that Eastwood snarls during this scene is priceless.)  As one can tell from the quote from Pauline Kael at the beginning of this review, Dirty Harry was a film that upset a lot of liberals when it was first released (much as Clint Eastwood’s empty chair speech managed to upset Roger Ebert).  However, as the years have passed, Dirty Harry has come to be acknowledged as a classic by critics on both sides of the political divide.

The success of Dirty Harry goes beyond politics.  I think any film students who aspires to direct an action film should be required to watch Dirty Harry a few dozen times before he graduates.  What makes the film work is not just what director Don Siegel does but what he doesn’t do.  As opposed to some of the later films in the franchise, Dirty Harry is a fast-paced film that tells its story with a minimum amount of padding.  It’s hard to think of a single scene that isn’t necessary to tell the story that the film wants to tell.  Even the oft-criticized scene where Harry, on a stake out, spies on some naked lesbians, works as a parallel to Scorpio’s own voyeurism at the start of the film.

Much as in a classic western, Harry and Scorpio are presented as two sides of the same coin.  Both of them are outsiders who refuse to follow the rules of society and the film’s violent and mournful climax is powerful precisely because, by this point, the audience understands that the Scorpios of the world can not exist without the Harrys and vice versa.

Along with generated a lot of controversy, Dirty Harry was a huge box office success.  Not surprisingly, a sequel would follow.

We’ll look at Magnum Force tomorrow.