Six degrees of Wild Bunch separation

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Tomorrow, TCM puts a spotlight on Warren Oates, and as tempted as I am to write about The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah, 1969) I see that fellow Morlock Greg Ferrara has covered that epic western in five different posts. So I’m taking a different tact and, instead, will take this opportunity to dust-off my copy of Alex Cox’s 10,000 Ways to Die: A Director’s Take on the Spaghetti Western. The idea here is to share with TCM readers excerpts from the six Spaghetti Westerns that Alex cross-referenced to The Wild Bunch. It’s also fitting to remind readers about Alex Cox in regards to westerns because, not only did he direct a few (ie: Straight to Hell and Walker), but he is about to launch a Kickstarter campaign for his next film: Tombstone Rashomon, which will present five radically different stories of the OK Corral Gunfight. [...MORE]

The Kitten & The Cowboy: When Ann-Margret Met The Duke

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THE TRAIN ROBBERS (1973) airs on TCM August 12 at 4PM EST/1PM PST

When I spotted Ann-Margret on the August cover of TCM’s Now Playing guide I jumped for joy and then I pulled out my treasured autographed copy of her 1994 autobiography, My Life, and did some rereading. I hadn’t looked at the book in years and thought it might inspire me to write something about the actress for the Movie Morlocks and sure enough, it did. What caught my eye was a photo of Ann-Margret with John Wayne (pictured above) accompanied by the line “Duke always had me laughing on the set of THE TRAIN ROBBERS. He was an extraordinary man.”

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THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE WEIRD
August 8, 2015
David Kalat
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The Good, the Bad, and the Weird

A couple of weeks ago I posted an article looking back at the 1980s apocalyptic-screwball singularity that was Miracle Mile. One of the comments posted to that thread exhorted TCM to stop showing imports—as non sequitur a remark as you could hope for. I wanted to respond with a list of the kinds of imported films I refuse to live without (Godzilla, Jackie Chan, Hammer Horror, Claude Chabrol, FW Murnau, Fritz Lang’s silent films, Ernst Lubitsch’s silent films, Alfred Hitchcock’s English films, Powell & Pressburger, J-Horror, Akira Kurosawa, Sergio Leone…) or to try to argue what Hollywood would have lost—or never had in the first place—without the influx of foreign-born talent and the need to compete against foreign-made films.

But then I decided it would be more fun to be obstinate. Why not single out an import that hasn’t had the time to become recognized as a classic, and will have few—if any—defenders? An import that has barely been released in the US at all, and which sets itself conspicuously to be compared to a beloved classic?

So, this week, Ji-woon Kim’s The Good, The Bad, The Weird.

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KEYWORDS: Kang-ho Song, The Good The Bad The Weird
COMMENTS: 6
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Ugly American: Run of the Arrow (1957)

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In the summer of 1956, Sam Fuller took a 50% stake in Globe Enterprises, an independent production company that would strike deals with RKO, Twentieth-Century Fox, and Columbia for financing and distribution. He received creative control over his projects, and though this setup only lasted through 1961, he made six strong films with Globe: Run of the Arrow, China Gate, Forty Guns, Verboten!, The Crimson Kimono, and Underworld U.S.A. His first Globe production, Run of the Arrow (’57), is now available on a long-overdue DVD from the Warner Archive, and reflects the unusual freedom Fuller secured himself in this period. It is a prickly, jumpy Western in which a post-Civil War Confederate loyalist named O’Meara (Rod Steiger) joins the Sioux in order to fight against the United States. It depicts America as a land of perpetual warfare, one in which race and cultural hatreds are reconfigured to justify the current battle, whether without or within. It is a film of jagged rhythms, its chase scenes broken into extreme long shots and close-ups, which are then followed by minutes-long takes of two-shot conversations. At no point does one feel settled or comfortable regarding a character’s motivations or their position in space, and that is how Fuller wanted it.

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Ozark Elegy: The Shepherd of the Hills (1941)

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After the success of Stagecoach (1939), John Wayne was in demand. While still under contract to poverty row Republic Studios, he was lent out to United Artists for The Long Voyage Home (1940), Universal for Seven Sinners (1940) and Paramount for The Shepherd of the Hills (1941). While still making interesting features for Republic, including Raoul Walsh’s Dark Command (1940), he was positioning himself as prestige-picture ready. Shepherd of the Hills was a prime property adapted from a million-selling novel, to be shot in Technicolor by director Henry Hathaway and DPs Charles Lang and W. Howard Greene. Hathaway was an advocate for location shooting, and had already filmed Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1936) in Technicolor at Big Bear Lake in California, where Shepherd would end up as well. The ongoing “Glorious Technicolor” series at the Museum of Modern Art is screening both Trail of the Lonesome Pine and The Shepherd of the Hills as part of its sixty feature extravaganza. Shepherd is a delicate, strange and mournful drama of the breakdown of an insular Ozark Mountain community, one trapped in a cycle of intergenerational violence. John Wayne stars alongside his childhood Western hero Harry Carey, and the film acts as a series of lessons from Carey to Wayne, on and off screen.

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May 9, 2015
David Kalat
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Downton Valley, or Ruggles Conquers the West

Ruggles of Red Gap is an odd duck. It is a crucial turning point into the formative genre of screwball comedy, but it isn’t easily recognizable as a romantic comedy nor is it especially female driven. It was Charles Laughton’s favorite screen role, but he’s not known for comedy, and his performance here consists substantially of standing still and trying to suppress an awkward smile. It’s a 1930s Hollywood comedy for the Downton Abbey set, whose most famous scene involves a British valet reciting the Gettysburg Address to a bar full of Wild West toughs.

In other words, it’s a movie that calls for some unpacking. So let’s get started!

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KEYWORDS: Charles Laughton, Leo McCarey, Ruggles of Red Gap, Screwball Comedy
COMMENTS: 4
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Uninvited Guest: Stranger at my Door (1956)

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“For me salvation is a clean pistol and a good horse.” – Clay Anderson (Skip Homeier) in Stranger at my Door

William Witney directed over ninety serials and feature films in his career, and he considered  Stranger at my Door (1956) to be his favorite. One of the great unsung action directors of the American cinema, Witney virtually invented the job of stunt choreographer. In the mid-1930s he was inspired by watching Busby Berkeley rehearse one high leg kick until “you could have shot a bullet down the line and not hit anyone.” From then on he worked out each shot of a fight sequence with his stuntmen, making sure each movement would match the next, creating an unbroken ribbon of action. He was able to hone his craft for decades at Republic Pictures, starting on adventure serials with friend and co-director John English (Daredevils of the Red Circle (1939) is the prime cut from this period), and transitioning to Roy Rogers Westerns after serving five years in a Marine Corps combat camera crew during WWII.

Stranger at my Door was a fifteen-day Western quickie produced at the end of his 20-year run at Republic, as the studio would cease active production in 1958. Made outside of the bankable series Witney usually worked in, it is a psychologically intense feature about preacher Hollis Jarret (MacDonald Carey), who believes he can save the soul of wanted bank robber Clay Anderson (Skip Homeier), putting his wife Peg (Patricia Medina) and son Dodie (Stephen Wootton) in mortal danger in the process. The self-sacrifice inherent in proper Christian practice is pushed to uncomfortable extremes as Hollis privileges Clay’s soul over the lives of his family. The fulcrum of the story is a terrifying sequence in which Rex the Wonder Horse goes feral, trying to stamp out the eyes of the preacher’s cute kid. Witney and horse trainer Glenn H. Randall Sr. worked with Rex every morning of that fifteen day shoot until they captured the authentic animal fury they were seeking. No director exhibited bodies in peril with more visceral impact than Witney, and Stranger at my Door pairs that talent with the finest script he was ever assigned (by Barry Shipman), which ponders what happens when a man of the cloth puts God before his family. Stranger at my Door comes out on DVD and Blu-ray next week from Olive Films, which will hopefully introduce Witney’s work to a wider audience.

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Rabbits_(Night_of_the_Lepus)
February 28, 2015
David Kalat
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Kill da wabbit

So—later this week, TCM will be running Night of the Lepus. It’s been on TCM before—but usually relegated to the late night TCM Underground slot. This Wednesday it’s on at 6pm Eastern where decent folk might stumble across it unawares. Which is awesome.

There are few films as mocked as Night of the Lepus. You only have to mention the premise (attack of the giant bunnies!) and the derision sets in on its own. It’s a wonder the whole genre of horror didn’t just curl up and die in embarrassment. Legions of film critics, genre fans, and innocent bystanders have set up their tents in the let’s-make-fun-of-the-dumb-bunnies camp—all sharing the assumption that the problem here was the choice of monster. How could killer rabbits ever be scary?

But if it is self-evidently obvious that rabbits can’t ever be a scary monster… then what would motivate a motion-picture institution run by responsible adults to invest in a thing like this? What were they thinking?

Come on—click the fold and find out. I know you want to. I promise the answer will surprise you.

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KEYWORDS: Night of the Lepus
COMMENTS: 20
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February 21, 2015
David Kalat
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Masters of Screwball 3: Sturges After Sturges (or, The Keystone Pipeline)

Here’s where we find ourselves–the proverbial wild west. A shapely blonde dancehall singer, clutching a smoking gun. She’s trembling with residual anger, surrounded by friends and allies who are aghast at her latest escapade. She’s just shot a judge, in the buttocks, for the second time in as many hours.

That’s what’s onscreen, in the opening salvo of Preston Sturges’ first Technicolor picture. To step out of the screen, though, we must acknowledge the disappointing truth. This was a disastrous flop for all concerned. Preston Sturges had just tossed 2 million of 20th Century Fox’s money into a hole. Betty Grable had just ruined her streak of profitable hits. Darryl F. Zanuck had just alienated one of Hollywood’s true geniuses. No one came out unscathed.

None of which is to imply that The Beautiful Blonde From Bashful Bend is a waste of your time. Far from it. In fact, set aside that even lesser Sturges is still imminently watchable fun, let’s approach this more coldly. Not as a movie to be enjoyed, but as an archeological artifact to help us better understand Sturges’ genius, and its limitations.

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KEYWORDS: Betty Grable, Preston Sturges, The Beautiful Blonde From Bashful Bend
COMMENTS: 4
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Cowgirl Diplomacy: Woman They Almost Lynched (1953)

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Woman They Almost Lynched  is a funhouse Western, exaggerating and undermining the genre’s familiar tropes. Its Civil War border town is named Border City, with the line between North and South cut down the middle of the town bar. Every male character is an outsized historical personage (Jesse James, Paul Quantrill and Cole Younger all make appearances), but the plot shunts them aside to focus on the women – who shoot straighter and punch stiffer than their male counterparts. Even the iron-fisted mayor is a woman.  The film inhabits its inverted world so convincingly that by the end it seems normal, almost sincere, and its broad, swaggering characters gain some measure of pathos. It is the only Hollywood film I can think of that builds a sympathetic portrait of a matriarchal society (at least until John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars). Only Allan Dwan could have made it. A prolific worker since the silent era, Dwan had fun where he could, and playfully subverted all manner of genres. He had already taken the Western down a peg in in his 1916 parody Manhattan Madness , made with Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. Woman They Almost Lynched further displays his natural inclination towards play, and it is now available on Blu-ray from Olive Films, so future generations can now puzzle over its beautiful excesses for decades to come.

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