“Do ya feel lucky, Pilgrim?” What Dirty Harry Could Have Been

Paul Newman as San Francisco Police Detective Harry “Dirty Harry” Callahan?

Today, it sounds unthinkable that the outspokenly liberal Newman could ever have been a contender for the role of Harry Callahan, a police detective who is quick with a quip but even quicker on the trigger.  As everyone knows, Clint Eastwood played Harry and, as a result, he finally became as big of a star in the United States as he already was in Europe.  Today, it’s impossible to imagine anyone other than Clint Eastwood torturing the Scorpio Killer for information and then announcing himself to be “all torn up about his rights.”  Just try to imagine Paul Newman snarling as reflexively as Clint Eastwood did upon hearing that the whiny guy in the liberal office taught constitutional law at Berkeley.  Try to imagine Paul Newman calling someone “a punk” or bragging about the power of his gun.  It can’t be done.

And yet, as hard as it is to believe, Clint Eastwood was not the first choice for Harry Callahan.  In fact, Eastwood apparently wasn’t even on Warner Bros.’s list of contenders when they initially bought the rights for the script that would eventually become Dirty Harry.

Written by Harry Julian Fink and Rita M. Fink, that script was originally called Dead Right and it took place in New York.  In the original script, Harry Callahan was world-weary, veteran New York cop, in his 50s and just a few months away from retirement.  In the original script, Harry pursued a serial killer named Travis.  When Warner Bros. bought the script in 1969, they viewed it as being a potential vehicle for Frank Sinatra with Irvin Kershner directing.  (Kershner is probably best remembered for later directing The Empire Strikes Back.)  As was his habit, Sinatra immediately demanded rewriters.  John Milius wrote three drafts, each one expanding on the idea of Callahan as a rebel against the system.  Terrence Malick (yes, that Terrence Malick) was also brought it and came up with a storyline in which the serial killer would specifically be targeting mobsters and other people who had escaped justice.  Somewhere, amongst all the rewrites, the action moved from New York to Seattle.

After all that effort, why didn’t Frank Sinatra play Harry Callahan?  Reportedly, he broke his hand and, as a result, he was told that he wouldn’t be able to hold a microphone or a gun or anything else while it was healing.  Since you really can’t have Harry Callahan without a gun, Sinatra left the project and Irvin Kershner went with him.

While trying (unsuccessfully) to recruit Sidney Pollack as their new director, Warner Bros. searched for a new leading man.  Reportedly, the script ended up on John Wayne’s desk.  Wayne later said that he turned down the role because he felt the violence was gratuitous.  Other sources indicate that John Wayne actually was interested in the role but that the studio didn’t consider him to be contemporary enough.  (After the success of Dirty Harry, Wayne would play a similar cop character in McQ and would provide a hint of what Dirty Harry starring John Wayne would have been like.)  Burt Lancaster turned down the role because he didn’t like the script’s politics.  Lee Marvin and Robert Mitchum both turned down the role because they refused to play cops.  George C. Scott reportedly refused the role because of the violence.  Marlon Brando was considered but, probably wisely, was never approached.

Having been turned down by all of the older tough guys, Warner Bros. went with the younger tough guys.  Steve McQueen turned down the role because he had already played a cop in Bullitt and he felt the critics would accuse him of repeating himself.  (He was probably right.)  Paul Newman refused the role on political grounds but, as he often tended to do whenever he turned down a role, he also recommended another actor for the part.  That actor was Clint Eastwood who was an old friend of Newman’s and who, obviously, had no problems with the film’s politics.

(Let’s take a moment to give some respect to Paul Newman, who was reportedly one of the nicest guys in Hollywood.)

Once Eastwood was on board, his requested that his friend and frequent collaborator, director Don Siegel, be hired to direct the film.  The script was again rewritten, moving the action to San Francisco and making Harry into a far less talkative character.  The serial killer known as Travis became the serial killer known as Scorpio.  The idea of the killer targeting criminals was abandoned at Siegel’s insistence, though Eastwood liked the idea enough to use it for Dirty Harry’s first sequel, Magnum Force.

Audie Murphy

Originally, James Caan was approached for the role of Scorpio but Caan turned it down (which, of course, left him free to play Sonny in The Godfather).  Perhaps most intriguingly, Audie Murphy was offered the role.  Murphy was one of the most decorated combat soldiers of World War II.  He had gone from the Army to appearing in movies.  By the time Dirty Harry went into production, Murphy was largely appearing in B-westerns and was as known for his temper as his films.  (He was acquitted of attempted murder shortly before filming began on Dirty Harry.  Murphy said that his anger issues were largely due to the trauma of World War II and he was one of the first prominent people to openly speak about what has since become known as PTSD.)  Murphy undoubtedly would have been an intimidating Scorpio but he died in a plane crash before he could accept or refuse the role.

Instead, the role went to Andrew Robinson, who an unknown at the time.  He was also, in real life, a pacifist who had difficulty not flinching whenever he had to fire a rifle in the film.  That said, Robinson gave a brilliantly unhinged performance as Scorpio and reportedly had to get an unlisted telephone number because of all the angry and threatening phone calls that he received after the movie was released.

Now, I have to admit that I personally find the idea of Frank Sinatra/James Caan or, for that matter, a John Wayne/Audie Murphy police procedural to be kind of intriguing.  And goodness know, I would certainly like a chance to see Marlon Brando doing the “do you feel lucky, punk?” speech.  In the end, though, I think things turned out for the best.

A Blast From The Past: John Wayne For The American Cancer Society

Screen icon John Wayne was born 115 years ago, on this date, in Winterest, Iowa.  

Best-known for his appearances in western films, Wayne spent the last decade of his life battling cancer and serving as a spokesman for The American Cancer Society.  He made his final film appearance in 1976, starring in The Shootist as a veteran gunslinger who was, just like Wayne, facing his own mortality.  The film not only provided a capstone to Wayne’s film career but the footage of Jimmy Stewart (as a doctor) informing Wayne that he didn’t have long to live was used in one of the commercials that Wayne did for The American Cancer Society.

Of course, in the commercial, the footage was followed by Wayne encouraging viewers to get tested and also threatening to “take you apart” if they didn’t.  Three years after the release of The Shootist and this commercial, Wayne would succumb to cancer but his efforts would lead to more people getting tested and more cancers being detected early.

Here, from 1976….

The Man From Utah (1934, directed by Robert N. Bradbury)

John Wayne is John Weston, the man from Utah.  He’s a singing  cowboy, the type who rides from town to town and sings to his horse while they’re crossing the range.  John Wayne started his career in singing cowboy movies and he often complained that he wasn’t allowed to actually sing.  Instead, his singing voice was always dubbed and it rarely matched his speaking voice.  Audiences in 1934 may not have noticed but, for audiences today, there’s no way to hear John Weston sing and think, “That’s John Wayne.”

John Weston rides into town and guns down three bank robbers.  The Marshal (George “Gabby” Hayes) is so impressed that he hires Weston and then sends him undercover into the local rodeo.  The Marshal thinks the rodeo is corrupt because any rodeo rider who comes close to winning the prize money mysteriously dies of snakebite.  That does seem suspicious.  Weston discovers that Spike Barton (Edward Peil, Sr.) is murdering the riders and is planning on stealing the prize money for himself.  Can the Man from Utah stop him without getting snakebit?

The Man From Utah features John Wayne in an early starring role, playing the type of character that he would later become famous for, the no-nonsense westerner who will do whatever he has to do to make sure justice is served.  Though it would be another five years before Stagecoach made him a certifiable movie star, Wayne is already a confident hero in The Man From Utah.  He only seems uncertain when he has to pretend to sing and it’s a good thing that John Ford helped him to leave the singing cowboy genre behind.  If Wayne had entered Stagecoach singing a song to his horse, it would have been a much different movie.

The Man From Utah is also full of actual rodeo stock footage, most of which is exciting if you’re into that type of thing.  The only problem is that most of the people at the rodeo are wearing modern clothing, making them seem out-of-place in a movie about the old west!  Overall, though, The Man From Utah is a good and simple Western programmer and will be appreciated by fans of the genre.

The Range Feud (1931, directed by D. Ross Lederman)

In a frontier town, two ranching families are at war.  The Turners claim that the Waltons have been stealing and reselling their cattle.  Even an attempt to hold a peace meeting at the local church just leads to more fighting.  Complicating things is that young Clint Turner (John Wayne) is in love with Judy Walton (Susan Fleming).  When someone shoots John Walton (Edward LeSaint) through the window of his office, Clint is the number one suspect.  Not helping is that Clint had an empty round in his gun.  Clint says that he fired at a coyote but he missed.  Everyone else in town says that its time to hang Clint without a trial.

Only Sheriff Buck Gordon (Buck Jones) stands between the mob and Clint.  Buck was raised by the Turner family and considers Clint to be his brother.  However, Buck still knows that Clint might be guilty but there’s no way that Buck is going to allow mob justice to rule his town!

The Range Feud was one of the many B-programmers that were released in the 30s.  Running less than 60 minutes, it is a briskly paced western that features a theme that was present in many westerns, the battle between mob justice and the law.  The townspeople who are eager to hang Clint without a trial represent the old ways of doing things while Buck represents the new way, in which everyone is innocent until proven guilty and entitled to a fair trial.

Buck Jones was one of the best of the early western heroes.  He played tough-but-fair men who could definitely handle themselves in a fight but who preferred to try to reason their way out of conflict.  Buck Jones served in a Calvary unit, worked as a cowboy, and started in the film business as a stunt man.  He had an authenticity that set him apart from others who merely pretended to be cowboys.  That authenticity serves him well in The Range Feud.  He may feel bad about having to arrest his stepbrother but any character played by Buck Jones can be guaranteed to follow the law.  In real life, Buck Jones died a hero.  In 1942, Buck Jones was at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub in Boston when a fire broke out.  Though Jones initially was able to get out of the nightclub, he subsequently reentered to help other people get out.  Severely burned, he died of his injuries two days later.

Of course, the main reason that people will track down this film is for a chance to see the young John Wayne playing a key  supporting role as Clint Turner.  It’s always a little bit strange to see Wayne playing a young man.  He’s one of those actors who you always assume was always in his 40s.  Wayne is likable as the free-spirited Clint, though it is again strange to see Wayne playing someone other than an authority figure.  For once, it’s Wayne who ends up in jail and who is dependent on someone else to save him.

The Range Feud is an entertaining and fast-moving western.  Fans of the genre and of Buck Jones and John Wayne will appreciate it.

The Big Stampede (1932, directed by Tenny Wright)

On the New Mexico frontier, war is breaking out behind rancher Sam Chew (Noah Beery) and rustler Sonora Joe (Luis Alberni).  Both want to control the land and the cattle that graze upon it and innocent settlers are getting trapped in the middle!  The governor decides to send a young sheriff named John Steele to maintain order.  No sooner has Steele arrived then he meets a young woman (Mae Madison) and her father, who have both been attacked by and had their cattle stolen by Sam Chew.  After Sonora Joe and his gang save his life from Sam’s men, Steele realizes that Sam is more malicious and dangerous than Sonora Joe so he decides that the best way to handle the situation is to deputize Joe and team up with him to stop Sam and his men.  It’s a tall order but John Steele is just the man to handle it because John Steele is John Wayne!

This was one of the many B-westerns that the former Marion Morrison made in the decade before John Ford made him a star by casting him in Stagecoach.  Wayne was always a good hero, even in a 54-minute programmer like this one.  Though there is, as the title promises, an impressive stampede, Wayne is the main attraction here, with Noah Beery serving as a good heavy as always.  Perhaps the most interesting thing about this movie, if you’re a western or a John Wayne fan, is that Wayne’s horse is named Duke.  This was one of six films that Wayne made with Duke. Back in the 30s, the horses were often as a big a star as the men who rode them and, from the posters I’ve seen, it does appear that The Big Stampede was advertised as starring, “John Wayne and DUKE!”  At least Wayne was still able to get top billing.

The Big Stampede had previously been made as a silent film and the remake reuses a lot of old footage from the original.  John Wayne, needless to say, did not star in the original film, though he did wear the same costume that Ken Maynard wore in an attempt to keep people from noticing that the footage didn’t always match.  It’s not a totally successful ploy, though undemanding audiences in 1932 probably accepted it.  The Big Stampede would be remade one more time, in 1936, with Dick Foran taking the starring role.

The New Frontier (1935, directed by Carl Pierson)

In 1889, wagon master Milt Dawson (Sam Flint) rides into a western town. He is planning on meeting his son John, who is also a wagon master. However, when a friend of Milt’s is killed by gambler Ace Holmes (Warner Richardson), Milt announces that he’s going to clean up the town and Ace is the first piece of trash that Milt is going to toss out. Ace responds by having his henchmen shoot Milt in the back.

After Milt’s death, his son finally arrives in town and you know that Ace is going to be in trouble because John Dawson is played by John Wayne! Seeking to avenge his father’s death, John teams up with an outlaw named Kit (Al Bridge) and declares war on Ace and his gang.

This is a typical western programmer, one that would probably be forgotten if not for the presence of John Wayne in an early starring role. This was before Stagecoach so the budget is low and the plot is simple. Even in his early 20s, John Wayne has the natural authority that would later make him a star but it’s still strange for me to see him in any film where he’s playing a young man who still has parents. There are some actors who you can’t picture as ever having been anything less than middle-aged and John Wayne is one of them. While most of the other actors are stiff and awkward, Wayne seems right at home in the dusty streets of The New Frontier. Interestingly, given Wayne’s identification with law-and-order, he plays a character here who has no problem working with outlaws and who understands that sometimes, the law can be unfair.  Ace is the most powerful man in town and John has no choice but team up with those on the outs of what was then considered to be respectability.  Another memorable scene juxtaposes a gun battle with the town’s citizens praying in church, a reminder that innocent people were often caught in the middle of the old west’s grudge matches.  These are interesting themes, though they’re not very deeply explored.  

Though the gunfights are nicely choreographed and shot, the chance to see a pre-stardom John Wayne clean up the old west is the main reason to watch The New Frontier.

Riders of Destiny (1933, directed by Robert N. Bradbury)

John Wayne sings!

Well, not really.  Wayne does play a cowboy named Singin’ Sandy Saunders in this early, pre-code Western but his voice was dubbed by someone who didn’t sound anything like Wayne.  Wayne was only 25 when he starred in Riders of Destiny and this was six years before Stagecoach made him a star but he already had his famous way of speaking.

Riders of Destiny starts off with Singin’ Sandy riding through the west.  When he comes across a wounded sheriff and then witnesses a stagecoach being robbed by Ms. Fay Denton (Cecilia Parker), he knows that he’s reached the town of Destiny.  The town is under the control of a land developer named Kincaid (Forrest Taylor).  Kincaid and his henchmen have been extorting the local citizens and stealing money from Fay and her father (George “Gabby” Hayes).  After Singin’ Sandy reveals his skills with a gun, Kincaid offers him a position in his gang and if Sandy accepts, Kincaid will be unstoppable.  Before Sandy’s mysterious appearance, the townspeople wrote to Washington to help and Washington has agreed to send down one of their best agents.  Could that agent be traveling in disguise as a singing cowboy?

It’s always difficult for me to take a Singing Cowboy film seriously.  (That’s especially true after watching Tim Blake Nelson in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.)  John Wayne is not an actor who was ever meant to be seen playing a guitar and singing a song, even if his voice was dubbed.  But Riders of Destiny is not that bad of a programmer.  If you can overlook the singing, the story is surprisingly mature and violent and Forrest Taylor is a good villain as the oily Kincaid.  (With Kincaid demanding protection money and gunning down anyone who refuses to play it, he has more in common with the type of gangsters who were appearing in Warner Bros. crime films than with the typical western bad guy.)  Cecilia Parker, who would eventually be best known for appearing in the wholesome Andy Hardy films, is sexy as Fay and, because this is a pre-code film, she gets away with robbing a stagecoach.  With a running time of barely an hour, the action has to move quickly and there’s no need for any padding.  Finally, even this early in his career, John Wayne was a perfect western hero, whether he was on his horse chasing the bad guys or walking down a dusty street, singing a song about how the “streets will run with blood” before drawing his guns.

Wayne would go on to play one more Singing Cowboy, in 1935’s The Lawless Range.  Again, his voice was dubbed.  He later said that he abandoned the Singing Cowboy genre because the children who saw the films would often approach him and ask him to sing one of the songs and they were always disappointed to learn that he couldn’t actually a sing a note.  Of course, in 1939, John Ford would select Wayne to play The Ringo Kid in Stagecoach and Wayne would never have to sing again.

Scenes That I Love: The Steak Scene From The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

Since today is the 113th anniversary of the birth of John Wayne, I decided to watch the 1962 classic, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance!  And then I decided to share a scene that I love from the film.

The famous steak scene features three of the greatest screen icons of Hollywood’s golden age: James Stewart, John Wayne, and Lee Marvin.  Lee Marvin is the bully who is terrorizing the entire town.  James Stewart is the idealist who thinks that the law, and not violence, is the answer.  And John Wayne is …. well, he’s John Wayne.  He’s the only man in town who can stand up to Lee Marvin but, at the same time, he’s also aware that his time is coming to a close.  In the scene below, all three of the characters display their different approaches to life and a disagreement with steak nearly leads to violence.

This scene — and really, the entire film — features these three actors at their best.  John Wayne is an actor who is often described as having “just played himself” but that’s really not quite fair.  While Wayne’s outsized persona definitely does influence how the audience reacts to any character that he plays, he was a better actor than he’s often given credit for being.  That’s especially evident in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, in which Wayne plays a confident man’s man who knows that fate is closing in on him.  The coming of civilization (represented by James Stewart) will be great for the town of Shinbone but it will also leave men like Wayne’s Ton Doniphon with nowhere to go.  The coming of civilization means that the heroes of the past are destined to become obsolete.

Enjoy this scene from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance:

Film Review: The Greatest Story Ever Told (dir by George Stevens)

The 1965 biblical epic, The Greatest Story Ever Told, tells the story of the life of Jesus, from the Nativity to the Ascension.  It’s probably the most complete telling of the story that you’ll ever find.  It’s hard to think of a single details that’s left out and, as a result, the film has a four hour running time.  Whether you’re a believer or not, that’s a really long time to watch a reverent film that doesn’t even feature the campy excesses of something like The Ten Commandments.

(There’s actually several different version of The Greatest Story Ever Told floating around.  There’s a version that’s a little over two hours.  There’s a version that’s close to four hours.  Reportedly, the uncut version of the film ran for four hour and 20 minutes.)

Max von Sydow plays Jesus.  On the one hand, that seems like that should work because Max von Sydow was a great actor who gave off an otherworldly air.  On the other hand, it totally doesn’t work because von Sydow gives an oddly detached performance.  The Greatest Story Ever Told was von Sydow’s first American film and, at no point, does he seem particularly happy about being involved with it.  von Sydow is a very cerebral and rather reserved Jesus, one who makes his points without a hint of passion or charisma.  When he’s being friendly, he offers up a half-smile.  When he has to rebuke his disciples for their doubt, he sounds more annoyed than anything else.  He’s Jesus if Jesus was a community college philosophy professor.

The rest of the huge cast is populated with familiar faces.  The Greatest Story Ever Told takes the all-star approach to heart and, as a result, even the minor roles are played by actors who will be familiar to anyone who has spent more than a few hours watching TCM.  Many of them are on screen for only a few seconds, which makes their presence all the more distracting.  Sidney Poitier shows up as Simon of Cyrene.  Pat Boone is an angel.  Roddy McDowall is Matthew and Sal Mineo is Uriah and John Wayne shows up as a centurion and delivers his one line in his trademark drawl.

A few of the actors do manage to stand out and make a good impression.  Telly Savalas is a credible Pilate, playing him as being neither smug nor overly sympathetic but instead as a bureaucrat who can’t understand why he’s being forced to deal with all of this.  Charlton Heston has just the right intensity for the role of John the Baptist while Jose Ferrer is properly sleazy as Herod.  In the role Judas, David McCallum looks at the world through suspicious eyes and does little to disguise his irritation with the rest of the world.  The Greatest Story Ever Told does not sentimentalize Judas or his role in Jesus’s arrest.  For the most part, he’s just a jerk.  Finally, it’s not exactly surprising when Donald Pleasence shows up as Satan but Pleasence still gives a properly evil performance, giving all of his lines a mocking and often sarcastic bite.

The Greatest Story Ever Told was directed by George Stevens, a legitimately great director who struggles to maintain any sort of narrative momentum in this film.  Watching The Greatest Story Ever Told, it occurred to me that the best biblical films are the ones like Ben-Hur and The Robe, which both largely keep Jesus off-screen and instead focus on how his life and teachings and the reports of his resurrection effected other people.  Stevens approaches the film’s subject with such reverence that the film becomes boring and that’s something that should never happen when you’re making a film set in Judea during the Roman era.

I do have to admit that, despite all of my criticism of the film, I do actually kind of like The Greatest Story Ever Told.  It’s just such a big production that it’s hard not to be a little awed by it all.  That huge cast may be distracting but it’s still a little bit fun to sit there and go, “There’s Shelley Winters!  There’s John Wayne!  There’s Robert Blake and Martin Landau!”  That said, as far as biblical films are concerned, you’re still better off sticking with Jesus Christ Superstar.