Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door: PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID (MGM 1973)


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(PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID airs tonight at 11:45 EST on TCM. Do yourselves a favor… watch it!)

PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID was director Sam Peckinpah’s final Western, and as usual it’s about more than just the Old West. It’s about the new breed vs the old establishment, about the maverick auteur vs the old studio guard, and about his never-ending battle to make his films his way. The fact that there are six, count ’em, SIX different editors credited tells you what MGM honcho James Aubrey thought of that idea! They butchered over 20 minutes out of the movie, which then proceeded to tank at the box office. Fortunately for us, PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID has been restored to its full glory, and we can enjoy Peckinpah’s original artistic vision.

I’m not going to try to make excuses for Peckinpah; he was a legitimate pain in the ass, a…

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Lisa Cleans Out Her DVR: High Noon (dir by Fred Zinnemann)


(I am currently in the process of cleaning out my DVR!  I recorded the 1952 best picture nominee, High Noon, off of Retroplex on January 28th.  This review is scheduled to posted at 12 noon, central time.  Clever, no?)

High Noon is a testament to the power of simplicity.

It’s a famous film, one that continues to be influential and which is still studied today.  It’s known for being one of the greatest westerns ever made but it’s also a powerful political allegory.  Even people who haven’t seen the film know that High Noon is the moment of the day when someone shows their true character.  Just as everyone knows the plot of Star Wars, regardless of whether they’ve actually watched the film, everyone knows that High Noon is about a town marshal who, after the entire town deserts him, is forced to face down a gang of gunmen on his own.

And yet, it really is a surprisingly simple movie.  It’s the quintessential western, filmed in black-and-white and taking place in the type of frontier town that you would expect to find hiding on the back lot of an old movie studio.  Though wonderfully brought to life by a talented cast, the majority of the characters are familiar western archetypes.

There’s the aging town marshal, a simple man of integrity.  Gary Cooper won an Oscar for playing the role of Will Kane.  When we first see Will, he’s getting married in a frontier courtroom.  All of the town leaders have come to his wedding and all of them wish him luck in the future.  Will is retiring and everyone agrees that the town would never have survived and prospered if not for Will Kane.  After all, Will is the one who captured the notorious outlaw, Frank Miller.  When the news comes that Miller has been pardoned and will be arriving back in town on the noon train, everyone tells Will that he should just leave town and go on his honeymoon.  However, the new marshal will not be arriving for another day and Will is not willing to abandon the town.  However, the town is more than willing to abandon him.

Will’s new wife is Amy Fowler (Grace Kelly).  Amy is a Quaker and a pacifist.  Amy begs Kane to leave town but Kane says that he’s never run from a fight.  Amy tells him that she’ll be leaving on that noon train, with or without him.  Helen Ramirez (Katy Jurado) is the former girlfriend of both Kane and Miller.  She is one of the few people in town to call out everyone else’s cowardice but she is still planning to leave before Miller arrives.  As she explains it to Amy, she would never abandon Kane if he were her man but he’s not her man anymore.

The townspeople, who first appear to be so friendly and honest, soon prove themselves to be cowards.  None of them are willing to stand behind Will.  The Mayor (Thomas Mitchell) publicly castigates Will for staying in town and putting everyone else in danger.  Deputy Harvey Pell (Lloyd Bridges) says that he’ll only help Will if Will recommends him as his replacement.  The town minister (Morgan Farley) is more concerned with why Will was married by the justice of the peace, instead of in the church.  The town judge (Otto Kruger) leaves early, saying he can be a judge in some other town.  One of the few people to show Will any sympathy is the former marshal (Lon Chaney, Jr.) but, unfortunately, he is too old and crippled by arthritis to provide any help.

Though it all, Frank’s gang sits at the train station and waits for Frank to arrive.  One gang member is played be Lee Van Cleef.  He looks really mean!

With a brisk running time of 84 minutes, High Noon unfolds in real time.  Throughout the film, as Kane grows increasingly desperate in his attempt to find anyone brave enough to stand with him, we see clocks in the background of nearly every scene.  We hear the ticking.  We know that both noon and Frank Miller are getting closer and closer.  We know that, soon, Will will have no other option but to stand on the street by himself and defend a town that doesn’t deserve him.

It’s simple but it’s undeniably powerful.

It’s been said that High Noon was meant to be a metaphor for the blacklist.  Frank Miller and his gang were the fascists that, having been defeated in World War II, were now coming back to power.  Will Kane was a stand-in for all the men and women of integrity who found themselves blacklisted.  The townspeople represented the studio execs who refused to challenge the blacklist.  That’s the theory and it’s probably true.  But, honestly, the political metaphor of High Noon works because it can be applied to any situation.  Will Kane is anyone who has ever had to face down the forces of totalitarianism.  He is anyone who has ever had the courage to take a lonely stand while everyone else cowered in the corner.

It’s a powerful metaphor and it’s also a genuinely entertaining movie.  The gunfight is thrilling.  The romance between Will and Amy feels real.  Even the town feels like an actual place, one that has its own history and culture.  It’s a simple film but it’s a great film.

Like a lot of great films, High Noon was nominated for best picture.  And, like a lot of great films, it lost.  In High Noon‘s case, it lost to a film that is almost its exact opposite, The Greatest Show on Earth.  However, Gary Cooper did win an Oscar for his unforgettable performance as Will Kane.

I think we tend to take classic films for granted.  Don’t do that with High Noon.  See it the next chance you get.

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.

 

The Perfect Crime Film: KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL (United Artists 1952)


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My friend Rob suggested I review KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL awhile back, and I’m sorry I waited so long. This is a film noir lover’s delight, packed with tension, violence, double-crosses, and a head-turning performance by John Payne in the lead. Made on an economical budget like the same year’s THE NARROW MARGIN , director Phil Karlson and George Diskant create a shadowy, claustrophobic atmosphere brimming with danger at every turn.

I knew Payne mainly from his 40’s musicals and his idealistic lawyer opposite Maureen O’Hara in MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET, but he’s a revelation here as Joe Rolfe, a florist truck driver who’s set up as a patsy by a gang of armored car robbers. He can dish out (and take) beatings with the best them, and delivers the tough-talking dialog with aplomb. KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL helped Payne shed his lightweight image, and he went on to do other dark crime films and rugged…

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A Movie A Day #6: The Cannonball Run (1981, directed by Hal Needham)


cannonball_runA legendary Hollywood stuntman, Hal Needham moved into directing in the 1970s and proved that all he required to make a successful film were willing stuntmen, fast cars, Coors beer, and Burt Reynolds.  Following that logic, The Cannonball Run may very well be the ultimate Hal Needham movie.

The Cannonball Run follows several teams of racers as they compete to see who can be the first to reach California from Connecticut.  Trying to stop them is Arthur J.  Foyt (George Furth), who represents the Safety Enforcement Unit and who believes that cars are a menace.  However, Foyt is no match for these racers, who include:

  • J.J. (Burt Reynolds), who is racing in memory of his father, and his mechanic Victor (Dom DeLuise), who turns into Captain Choas whenever he is feeling threatened.  J.J. and Victor are driving an ambulance and are accompanied by crazy Dr. Van Helsing (Jack Elam) and a fake “patient” (Farrah Fawcett),
  • Bradford Compton (Bert Convy) who is riding a motorcycle and who, because of the weight of his mechanic, has to pop a wheelie for the entire race,
  • An Arab oil sheik (Jamie Farr) who is racing for “the glory of Islam” and who would probably not be in the movie if it were made today,
  • Sidney Goldfarb (Roger Moore), the heir to a mattress fortune who has had extensive plastic surgery to make himself look like Roger Moore,
  • Jackie Chan and Michael Hui, called “The Japanese team” even though they both speak Cantonese throughout the entire movie,
  • Terry Bradsahw and Mel Tillis because why the Hell not?,
  • Marcie (Adrienne Barbeau) and Jill (Tara Buckman), using their cleavage to get out of speeding tickets, or at least they do until they’re pulled over by Valerie Perrine,
  • And Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Jr., pretending to be priests and apparently drunk throughout filming.

Based on a real life (and very illegal) cross-country race that was held four times in the 1970s, The Cannonball Run is profoundly stupid movie that, if you’re in the right mood for it, is also profoundly fun.  It’s a movie that really has no plot but it does have a lot of cars, a lot of stunts, a lot of cleavage, and a lot of politically incorrect humor, some of which has not aged well.  Despite being hated by the critics, The Cannonball Run was a huge box office hit and it still remains a nostalgic guilty pleasure for a lot of people, myself included.  One person who did not like The Cannonball Run was Burt Reynolds who, in an interview with the New York Times, once said, “”I did that film for all the wrong reasons.  I never liked it. I did it to help out a friend of mine, Hal Needham. And I also felt it was immoral to turn down that kind of money. I suppose I sold out so I couldn’t really object to what people wrote about me.”

Burt has a point but, in defense of The Cannonball Run, what other movie actually features Jackie Chan beating up Peter Fonda?

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Or Roger Moore playing someone who thinks that he’s Roger Moore?

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Or Jack Elam playing a mad scientist?

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Or Sammy and Dino, phoning it in one last time?

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Or Captain Chaos?

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Like most of Hal Needham’s films, The Cannonball Run ends with outtakes of Burt Reynolds blowing his lines and hitting people.

Tomorrow’s movie a day will be a film that Burt Reynolds is presumably much more proud of, Sharky’s Machine.

Hammer Time!: KISS ME DEADLY (United Artists 1955)


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Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer novels have long been one of my favorite Guilty Pleasures. Spillane’s books were the literary equivalent of knocking back shots of Jack Daniels with no chaser. The misanthropic Mike Hammer’s Sex & Violence filled adventures are rapid paced, testosterone fueled trips through a definitely un-PC world where men are men, women are sex objects, and blood and bullets flow freely through a dark, corrupt post-war world.  Spillane turned the conventional detective yarn on its ear and, though critics hated his simplistic writing, the public ate up his books by the millions.

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The film version of Spillane’s KISS ME DEADLY turns film noir on its ear from its opening shot of Christine Bailey (a young Cloris Leachman) running down a lonely highway, almost getting run over by Mike Hammer. The PI picks her up and the opening credits roll backwards to the strains of Nat King Cole crooning “Rather Have The Blues”. This beginning set-up lets…

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“It’s A Shame To Get It Shot Full Of Holes.” Hannie Caulder (1971, directed by Burt Kennedy)


hannie-posterA century before Beatrix Kiddo killed Bill and The Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, there was Hannie Caulder.

Hannie Caulder (played by Raquel Welch) lives at a horse station on the Texas/Mexico border.  When the outlaw Clemmons brothers — Emmett (Ernest Borgnine), Frank (Jack Elam), and Rufus (Strother Martin) — arrive at the station following a disastrous bank robbery, they brutally murder her husband and take turns raping her.  After setting the station on fire, the Clemmons Brothers leave Hannie for dead.

What they do not realize is that Hannie has managed to crawl out of the burning building.  The next day, when a bounty hunter named Thomas Luther Price (Robert Culp) approached the burned out remains of the station, Hannie begs him to teach her how to shoot a gun.

“If I taught you the gun,” Tom says, “you’d go out and get your ass shot off!”

“It’s my ass!” Hannie replies.

“It’s a shame to get it shot full of holes,” Tom says, “It’s as pretty a one as I’ve ever seen.”

Tom refuses to teacher her how to handle a gun but he does allow her to ride with him.  Before she mounts Tom’s second horse, Hannie sees that there is a body lying across the saddle.  “I hope you don’t mind riding with a dead man,” Tom says.

After Tom realizes that she was raped, he agrees to her how to shoot.  But first, he takes her into Mexico to meet a former Confederate gunsmith named Bailey so that Bailey can make her a gun.  Bailey is played by Christopher Lee.  In a career that spanned 70 years, Hannie Caulder was the only Western that Christopher Lee ever appeared in.  At first, it’s strange to see Christopher Lee in a Western, using his Winchester rifle to gun down a group of bandits who threaten his family.  But Lee is a natural and eventually, you stop seeing him as Dracula in a western and you just see him as Bailey.

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As Bailey and Tom watch Hannie practice her shooting, Bailey says, “Fine-looking woman.”

“She wants to be a man,” Tom responds.

Bailey nods.  “She’ll never make it.”

As an actress, Raquel Welch was often miscast in roles that were only meant to highlight her looks.  She was always at her best when she played tough characters who were not afraid to fight and Hannie is one of her toughest.  While the film certainly takes advantage of her appearance (she spends a good deal of it wearing nothing but a poncho), Welch also gives one of her best performances.  Even with Culp, Borgnine, Elam, and Martin acting up a storm, she more than holds her own.  She not only looks good with a gun but she knows how to use it too.

Though the film was obviously influenced by the violent Spaghetti westerns that were coming out of Italy at the time, Hannie Caulder was directed by Hollywood veteran Burt Kennedy.  Kennedy was best known for comedic westerns like Support Your Local Sheriff  and Hannie Caulder awkwardly mixes drama with comedy.  Scenes of the Clemmons Brothers bickering and grizzled old west types doing a double take whenever Hannie walks by are mixed with Peckinpah-style violence and flashbacks of Hannie being raped.  If the film had a director more suited to the material, it could have been a classic but under Kennedy’s direction, the end result is uneven but always watchable.

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