Monday, July 24, 2017

Cattle Annie & Little Britches

Cattle Annie and Little Britches (1981)

A little western, loosely based on the real-life adventures of two girls - AnnieMcDoulet and Jennie Stevens - who traveled West to learn more about outlaw life. They had read Ned Buntline's dime novels about frontier brigandage and desired to meet their idols in the flesh. The film is set in the late 19th Century, in a West that is no longer as Wild as it used to be, and when the girls finally meet the infamous Doolin-Dalton gang, they're confronted with a demoralized bunch of has-beens ... a wild bunch grown tired ... Their leader, Bill Doolin, feels inspired by the presence of the young girls, but his efforts to live up to their expectations put himself and his gang in danger of being dismantled by their arch enemy, the patient but determined sheriff Tighman ...

If you think - like Sergio Leone did - that women basically hold-up the action of a western movie, this is not a movie for you. It's a western and there's some western action, but it's secondary to the fortunes (and misfortunes) of the two girls played by Amanda Plummer and Diane Lane. The film is a bit similar to Fred Schepisi's Barbarosa, released around the same time. Both movies are light-hearted at the surface, but tragic at the core, painting an unromantic image of the West. Both movies are also coming-of-age tales set against the background of outlaw life: in Barbarosa a young man eventually adopts the identity of his mentor, a man who told him everything about the art of survival while being on the run; in Cattle Annie and Little Britches the overzealous girls learn from the worn-out but world-wise outlaws that it's a good thing to be brave, but a bad thing to be reckless.

Until recently it was rather difficult to find a decent copy of this largely forgotten movie, but I finally got hold of widescreen copy that does proud to Larry Pizer's breathtaking cinematography. Burt Lancaster (67 when the film was made) is too old for the part of Bill Doolin (who was shot at the age of 38), but he seems perfectly in touch with the dry humor of the script. There's also some fine acting by Rod Steiger and John Savage (as Bittercreek Newcomb, the good-looking gang member Annie plans her 'first time' with), but the movie definitely belongs to the girls. Amanda Plummer (Christopher Plummer's daughter) makes a sublime screen debut as the loud, foul-mouthed but nevertheless vulnerable Annie; 16-year old Diane Lane has a more laid-back acting style but she's the prettier of the two girls and has a couple of endearing scenes with Lancaster. 

This is a nice little movie, not a classic, but worthy of reappraisal. 

Director: Lamont Johnson - Cast: Amanda Plummer (Annie), Diane Lane (Little Britches) Burt Lancaster (Bill Doolin), Scott Glenn (Bill Dalton), John Savage (Bittercreek Newcomb), Rod Steiger (Bill Tilghman), Buck Taylor, Redmond Gleeson, William Russ, John Quade 

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Showdown (1963)

Showdown (1963)
Aka: The Iron Collar

The  border town of Adone is one of a kind: it has no jail, therefore perpetrators are chained to a post in the middle of the town street. This is what happens to two friends, Chris (Audie Murphy) and Bert (Charles Drake), after spending a night in town. Chris was already a bit skeptic about their visit, because his friend has a habit of drinking and making trouble at the card table. Of course his worries come true: a drunken Chris provokes a brawl in the saloon and the two end up in the middle of the street, with an iron collar around their necks.

It's an unpleasant situation, but under normal circumstances they will be released the next day, so Chris tries to get some sleep while Bert is sobering up. Unfortunately, they're not alone: also tied to the pole, is a dangerous outlaw called Lavalle, who forces the others to dig out the pole.  After a brief shootout, the 'prisoners' manage to escape and fly into the hills. Chris and Bert decide to go their own way, but they're caught by Lavalle and his men. In town Bert has stolen a few bonds belonging to an old  flame, and now Lavalle wants him to go back to convert them into cash. Bert travels to town, but comes back empty handed, infuriating the maniacal criminal ...

Showdown is a stark, grim movie, with a short running time (under 80 minutes), made on a tight budget. The outdoor scenes were shot around Lone Pine, but to save money, the movie was shot in black-and-white, a decision that made Murphy furious. Lone Pine was also a favorite shooting location of Bud Boetticher and there's no doubt that the famous Scott-Boetticher westerns from the Ranown Cycle were a major source of inspiration. There a hostage situation, a strong-willed yet vulnerable lady, and an undaunted hero, who refuses to give an inch. Murphy's Chris is a man who acts on instinct rather than reason: he risks his own neck when trying to save his friend's life, even though Bert has told him he wouldn't ever do the same thing for him ...

The film was almost completely overlooked and panned by those who had noticed it, but recent comments have been more positive. Some have criticized the script (by Ric Hartman, working under the pseudonymous Bronson Howitzer) for being contrived and over-elaborate, and yes it's a bit mechanical, and not all twists and turns are believable, but basically this is a B-movie and scripts for these movies were never meant to be scrutinized methodically. Audie Murphy is his usual steadfast self and there are nice cameos by Strother Martin (as the town drunk) and L.Q. Jones (as a silent member of the gang), six years before they became a notorious couple of scavengers in Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch. The one thing that doesn't work, is Kathleen Crowley's part of the saloon girl who once was Bert's sweetheart but is now developing feelings for Chris. Crowley isn't bad - or ugly for that matter - but watching her, it's hard not to think of Sergio Leone's statement that women basically slow a western down. 

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Cahill U.S. Marshal

CAHILL: U.S. MARSHALL (1973, Andrew V. McLaglen)

An odd western with Duke as an aging Marshal whose sons go astray because daddy isn't home enough. They absolutely want his attention and therefore make some 'bad friends' and get involved in a bank robbery. As you might have expected, things go terribly wrong: nobody was supposed to get hurt, but one of daddy's friends even gets killed, and instead of bad friends, the bank robbers turn out to be real mean bastards. 

It has been suggested that Cahill, U.S. Marshal was intended as a movie about a cop and a widower, more busy with his job than with his two growing up kids (*1). Cop thrillers were in the air - thanks to Clint Eastwood's portrayal of Dirty Harry - but apparently it was decided in the last minute to put Big John back in the saddle, where he belonged. Cahill is definitely a 'post-True Grit' movie: like the more successful Big Jake (1971), it plays with the new persona Wayne had adopted in his Oscar winning role: a living anachronism, a man who had outlived his time, but had not yet lost his touch. But, like John Wills has stated in his study, in True Grit and Big Jake Wayne's persona was presented as a remnant of some older order, brought back for a limited mission in 'modern times' (*2): the sly fox was asked to do some dirty work younger generations were unable to handle. The role fitted the aging Duke like a glove.

In Cahill things are a little different. Wayne plays an aging widower who has two young boys back home but prefers to spend his days out there, tracking down bad guys. The subject must have been very dear to his heart: like J.D. Cahill, the actor John Wayne had often been an absent father to his children, always moving on to the next movie. His autobiographers Randy Roberts and J.S. Olsen go as far as to describe the movie 'close to biographical'. This might also have been the reason why John Wayne wasn't happy with the finished movie: in an interview he declared that the movie had "a good theme" but "wasn't a well-done picture, because it needed better writing and a little more care in the making." (*3) Cahill U.S. Marshal is not a bad film, it's rather slow-moving and the action scenes are sparse, but they're well-crafted and the finale - daddy saving his kids by blowing the baddies to hell - is surprisingly violent. Cahill is entertaining enough; the problem is that there seems to be a better movie lurking underneath.

John Wayne was sixty-five when Cahill, U.S. Marshal was filmed and had already a cancerous lung removed. He was suffering from shortness of breath and had difficulty mounting his horse. Filming must have been quite an ordeal but he saves himself with his usually bravura and looks remarkably comfortable in the role of the sly fox. George Kennedy (as the leader of the boys' 'bad friends') and Neville Brand (as a half-breed tracker who assists Cahill on his quest), are also quite good, but this 'good theme' of the unsound family relations is treated too superficially. 

Dir: Andrew V. McLaglen - Cast: John Wayne, Neville Brand, George Kennedy, Gary Grimes, Clay O'Brien, Dan Vadis, Denver Pyle, Jackie Coogan, Harry Carey Jr. Walter Barnes, Marie Windsor, Morgan Paull - Music: Elmer Bernstein


* (1) Ivan Scheldeman, De Films van John Wayne, Antwerp 1979, p. 33
* (2) Gary Wills, John Wayne's America, p. 289
* (3) See:

Monday, April 17, 2017

The Guns of Fort Petticoat

The Guns of Fort Petticoat (1957)

The first movie production by Murphy-Brown Pictures, a partnership Audie Murphy had formed with Harry Joe Brown. It remained their only movie because of personal differences between the two partners. The Guns of Fort Petticoat was panned by contemporary critics who thought this outlandish story about a petticoat army fighting off an Indian attack didn't combine well with the historic background of the plight of the red man, but the movie seems to have withstood the test of time pretty well and today many think it's one of Murphy's more enjoyable efforts

The story is set in full Civil War time. Audie Murphy is Lt. Frank Hewitt, a guy from Dixie in Yankee service. When some Cheyenne braves leave their territory, Hewitt's commander, the racist Colonel John Chivington decides to punish them by attacking their virtually unprotected village. The result is an infamy known to history as the Sand Creek Massacre. Hewitt knows the Indians will seek revenge by attacking innocent homesteaders and with most men departed to fight in the Civil War, only women and children are left to defend the homesteads. He deserts to warn the women but is first treated by them as a 'blue belly traitor'. Things change when he shows them the dead body of a woman tortured and murdered by marauding Indians. Hewitt and the women entrench themselves in an abandoned mission post to fight of the imminent Indian attack ...

AudieMurphy was not a great dramatic actor, but his real-life experiences (he was one of the most decorated combat soldiers of WWII) seemed to lend credibility to his screen persona. He is quite convincing as the experienced soldier training the women in combat techniques, slowly turning the colorful troupe into an efficient fighting unit, the Guns of Fort Petticoat. Some clichés are tackled (several women and one child are killed during the attack), others remain intact; there's room for romance and comedy and yes, some of the comedy feels a little out of place, notably a scene of Murphy spanking the hot-headed Kathryn Grant. But let's not forget that many contemporary westerns (including those by the likes of Ford or Hawks) offered vaudeville-like interruptions of a serious narrative.

Director Marshall was no Ford or Hawks but he had a long career in both the western and comedy genre and overall the serio-comic mix works quite well. Only the coda, in which a court-martialed Hewitt is discharged thanks to the intervention of the women (and his commanding officer is charged instead), rings untrue. There's nothing wrong with using historic events as a background of a fictional story, but John Chivington was forced to resign after a thorough investigation by the Congress, and to suggest that his fate was sealed during an improvised military court by a group of women who stood up for the man who had taught them how to fight, is sheer nonsense. 

Director: George Marshall - Cast: Audie Murphy (Lt. Frank Hewitt), Kathryn Grant (Anne Martin), Hope Emerson (Hannah Lacey), Jeanette Nolan (Cora Melavan), Sean McClory (Emmett Kettle), Ainslie Pryor (Col. Chivington), Patricia Livingston (Stella Leatham) 

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Jane Got a Gun

Jane Got A Gun 

Ever since I saw her in Luc Besson’s Leon: The professional (1994) I have a soft spot for Natalie Portman. In 1994 she was thirteen, but looking like a child, today she’s 35, but still looking ever so young. Her juvenile features inevitably turn her movies into something of a guilty pleasure. In Jane got a Gun she is a young woman who has lost her innocence, but not her vulnerability. She’s the mother of a six or seven year old girl and the wife of a man with a questionable reputation, Bill Hammond (played by Noah Emmerich).

One day Bill comes home with eight bullets in his back. The men who shot him, the Bishop brothers, are on their way to the farm and their arrival will mean even more trouble. The only one who can help Jane and her wounded husband, is their neighbor Dan Evans (Joel Edgerton), but he is not only their neighbor, but also Jane's former fiancé, the man she left to become Mrs. Hammond. At first Dan isn’t willing to help her defend her farm, but he still has feelings for her and changes his mind when he's told that Bill Hammond is possibly dying ...

Jane Got a Gun was a troubled production. At some point, the names of Michael Fassbender, Sam Worthington, Bradley Cooper and Jude Law were all mentioned in relation to the production. The original director, Lynne Ramsey, left a few days into shooting and Edgerton was first cast as the villain but then filled the vacated role of the hero after Worthington had left the production. We can of course speculate about what might have been if this director or that actor, etcetera, but for a movie with this history, Jane got a Gun isn’t bad.
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The film has an interesting setting - the days immediately before and after the Civil War. It also has interesting characters: the three leads, Jane, Bill and Dan, all have their shady sides, and none of them is 'innocent': It soon transpires that Jane did not leave Dan but that, quite on the contrary, he left her, to fight in a war he believed in. Jane then headed West, in search of a new life, joining a wagon train led by two brothers, John and Vic Bishop, and realized far too late that the brothers had special plans with her. She only accepted to become the wife of a man with a questionable reputation because he was the only one who cared when she was in a humiliating, dishonoring situation.

Portman and Edgerton turn in good performances, but the other actors fare less well: McGregor is underused (he's also virtually unrecognizable due to a false moustache and a lot of make-up) and Emmerich is confined to his bed most of the time, not a comfortable position to make an impression as an actor. The film was criticized for its complex, flashback-driven narrative and I do agree that this back-and-forth, back-and-forth structure occasionally works a little confusing, but the twists, turns and revelations will surely hold your attention (and the final twist, concerning a second daughter, is particularly surprising). The action moments are often unexpected (and very brutal), but the movie seems to lack a real western ending: the attack on the farm is set at night and if it brings a Peckinpah movie to mind, it's not one of his westerns, but his siege drama Straw Dogs.

Dir: Gavin O'Connor - Cast: Natalie Portman (Jane), Joel Edgerton (Dan), Noah Emmerich (Bill), Ewan McGregor (John Bishop), Boyd Holbrook (Vic Bishop), Rodrigo Santoro (Fitchum)