Fifteen years after the American transcontinental railway was completed, construction began on the Canadian Pacific Railway to connect British Columbia to Eastern Canada. For the purposes of the 1949 film Canadian Pacific, it’s simply a setting for a western in the mountains and forests of western Canada, where the challenge of finding a route through the Rocky Mountains is compounded by the opposition of local trappers and Indian tribes. It is, shall we say, a portrait that refuses to let history dictate the details of the story.
Randolph Scott stars as Tom Andrews, the buckskin-clad surveyor and “trouble boss,” a kind of foreman who has an instinct for spotting troublemakers and intervening in a very physical way before they have a chance to make any trouble. Scott plays Tom as a classic Scott cowboy: ramrod straight, with a big smile, quick fists, and fast draw. He instantly clashes with the railway’s new doctor, Edith Cabot (Jane Wyatt), a cultured pacifist who abhors violence, before returning to Cecille (Nancy Olson), the frontier girl he met in the local trapper settlements while searching for the pass. It’s a classic dichotomy: the man of the west torn between the wild frontier gal and the civilized society woman. In this pairing, trapper’s daughter Olson is the gentler, more romantic of the two, while Wyatt plays the doctor as a fiery, obstinate woman under the corset and severe speeches.
Needless to say, circumstances toss Tom together with Edith while Cecille’s people are whipped up into an anti-railway frenzy by the wonderfully-named villain Dirk Rourke (Victor Jory), a fur trader who fears his monopoly on the trading posts will be broken by the railway. Stir in stolen dynamite, Indian tribes on the warpath, and liquor-induced labor unrest, and you’ve got a war over the rails. Prolific character actor J. Carrol Naish, usually relegated to roles as villains or even Indians, provides color and comic relief as the sourdough Dynamite Dawson, an old coot with a bushy beard who drawls tall tales (“I once won the Kentucky Derby!”) as the railway munitions man and Tom’s most trusted ally.
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Plays on Saturday, May 11 on TCM
John Wayne was still paying his dues as a leading man when he made Tall in the Saddle (1944). 1939’s Stagecoach had made him a star after a decade of headlining B-westerns, but he was under contract to Republic, which was still a “poverty row” studio that made its money on B-movies. With a budding star in its stable, Republic cashed in by casting him in one western after another, with a smattering of action and war films tossed into the mix. Budgets increased and production values improved, but most were still being cranked out at a rapid rate. With few exceptions, his best films in the years following Stagecoach – The Long Voyage Home (1940) for John Ford, Reap the Wild Wind (1942) for Cecil B. DeMille, The Spoilers and Pittsburgh (both 1942) with Marlene Dietrich and Randolph Scott — were made for other studios.
Tall in the Saddle, Wayne’s second film in a six-picture deal with RKO, is a classic western tale of the stalwart hero who stands up against corruption and injustice, the old west version of a knight errant. It’s arguably his best western since Stagecoach and it even references that breakthrough as Wayne enters the film by hitching a ride at a stage stop. Five years later, Wayne is older and more confident and it shows in his portrayal of Rocklin, a decent, modest cowboy with a rustic but respectful manner, a respect for cussed old frontier survivors like stage driver Dave (George ‘Gabby’ Hayes), and the strength and spine to stand up to bullies without even pulling a gun. While he faces down the corrupt sheriff and his minions, he develops a crush on a society girl, Clara Cardell (Audrey Long), who arrives in the same stagecoach with her disapproving spinster guardian, and strikes romantic sparks in his clashes with the fierce, feisty cowgirl Arly (Ella Raines), the beautiful and dangerous daughter of another rancher. Ward Bond, Wayne’s close friend and drinking buddy, co-stars as the jovial but ethically questionable Judge Garvey.
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Plays on Turner Classics Movies on Wednesday, August 1
High Noon (Olive), one of the best loved westerns of all time, has been called an old-fashioned celebration of courage and responsibility in the face of impossible odds, an ironic dissection of the western myth, and a blast of moral outrage at the silence and passivity of American citizens. Howard Hawks claimed this film inspired him to make “Rio Bravo,” because he couldn’t fathom a sheriff who went around begging for help. There’s so much loaded weight attached to the film (from famously right-wing lead Gary Cooper to famously liberal screenwriter Carl Foreman, who was blacklisted by Hollywood) that it can overwhelm what is essentially a lean, dusty western classic set to the real time of a ticking clock, counting down the minutes until a gang of killers ride in looking for revenge on Sheriff Cooper.
Grace Kelly plays Cooper’s Quaker bride, anxious for him to set aside all thoughts of violence on this their wedding day, and Thomas Mitchell, Lloyd Bridges, Otto Kruger, Lon Chaney, Henry Morgan, Lee Van Cleef, and Katy Jurardo co-star. Fred Zinneman directs for producer Stanley Kramer, and Tex Ritter sings the legendary theme song: “Do not forsake me, oh my darling.”
It’s been on DVD before but has been remastered in HD for this edition from a finegrain 35mm print for a new DVD edition and its Blu-ray debut. Features the 23-minute documentary “The Making of High Noon,” a 1992 featurette narrated by Leonard Maltin, but not any of the other supplements from the previous DVD special edition.
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Django Kill (aka … If You Live, Shoot!) (Blue Underground) is one of the great spaghetti westerns, perhaps the best you’ve never heard of it. Directed by Guilio Questi and starring Tomas Milian as “The Stranger” (the “Django” title was added for American release), opens as a simple revenge film (simple at least simple by spaghetti western standards) but disposes of the revenge quickly and then sets the Stranger against the thoroughly mercenary schemers of a town even worse than the cutthroat gang. “The people of the Indian tribes call it The Unhappy Place,” we’re told, an understatement that is almost bitterly comic. This is a place where a wounded man is literally torn to pieces by the townsfolk when they discover the bullets in his wounds are made of gold!
Questi was a committed leftist and, while the film is apolitical as such, he lets this vision serve as his satire of capitalism at its most mercenary and vicious. Milian isn’t exactly the messiah, but he has his share of Christ-like trials as the townsfolk nearly tear one another apart looking for stolen gold, while another subplot twists “Jane Eyre” into gothic horror in the desert. There may not be a more cynical portrait of frontier greed and human corruption in the spaghetti genre, and that’s saying something.
The Blu-ray debut features both the uncut version of the film with both Italian and English language soundtracks (the English version momentarily slips into Italian for scenes that were cut for American release), both in mono, with English subtitles. Pick your preference, as both are sloppily post-synched and at times the Italian soundtrack is a more dramatic mismatch to the actors’ mouths than the English dub. Also features the 20-minute interview featurette “Django, Tell!” with director Giulio Questi and actors Tomas Milian and Ray Lovelock.
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Run For Cover (Olive), directed by Nicholas Ray, is a rare western starring James Cagney, an actor usually known for his street smarts and urban snap. Here he’s a drifter who is almost lynched in a case of mistaken identity and a trigger-happy coward of a sheriff. He’s tough as a coil of barbed wire, this guy, and he’s made sheriff by the townsfolk, not merely by way of apology but out of respect for his character and his cool under pressure. But against his story of a juvenile delinquent drama with John Derek as the angry young man on the frontier: an orphan crippled by the posse and bitter about the hand that life has dealt him. Curiously this came out the same year as Ray’s other story of misunderstood teens, Rebel Without a Cause, but John Derek has none of James Dean’s anxious energy or expressiveness and “Run For Cover” is an otherwise conventional western with some interesting edges. Watch for Ernest Borgnine in a small role. Blu-ray and DVD, no supplements.
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A Bullet For the General (Blue Underground) – The rich, brutal, cynical culture of Italian westerns (aka spaghetti westerns) is dominated by Sergio Leone’s great movies, but there is a whole legacy of cynical, hard-edged, and even politically daring Italian westerns of the sixties and seventies. A Bullet For the General (1966), set in the culture of mercenaries and bandits operating in the lucrative chaos of the Mexican revolution, is one of the best of these.
Gian Maria Volonté stars as a charismatic bandit leader who passes himself a revolutionary guerilla as he robs military transports and sells the arms to the revolution for hard cash. Klaus Kinski gets second billing as Volonté’s brother, a wild eyed warrior priest in bandoleros dedicated to the cause, while Lou Castel (who became a regular in Fassbinder’s movies) plays the American gangster who signs on with the crew as cover for his own mission, riding through the desert in a neatly-pressed three-piece suit even on the hottest days. Damiano Damiani directs it like a twenties gangster picture in the sun-baked desert and white-dust hills of the cutthroat west, where life is cheap, loyalty is rare, and rival gangs constantly battle for guns and contraband. But it is also a portrait of the evolution of a bandit from mercenary to revolutionary, a transformation that puts him at odds with his own gang and especially Castel, the devil on his shoulder and his strangely loyal comrade in crime. There is a sophisticated story of personal commitment and political awakening behind the brutality and cowardice and betrayals, and an unexpected twist on friendship and loyalty.
The Blu-ray debut features the International cut with both English and Italian soundtracks and the slightly shorter American cut (English only), plus a five-minute interview with director Damiano Damiani (he explains that his intention was to make a parody of a western, but it doesn’t come off that way) and a bonus disc with a feature-length Italian documentary on actor Gian Maria Volonté.
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Unforgiven: 20th Anniversary (Warner)
“I don’t deserve this, to die like this. I was building a house.”
“Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.”
Clint Eastwood’s 1992 western earned the director his first Oscars, for Best Picture and Best Director. In a way, it finally made official what critics and fans had slowly come to realize over the last decade (and at least since his 1988 “Bird”): Clint Eastwood—legendary as both the iconic western drifter with no name and Dirty Harry—was one of America’s best directors. He had directed 15 features before Unforgiven and has made as many again since, but “Unforgiven” is still the film that defines Eastwood the director for most audiences.
Aged and sunbaked into a leathery hardness, he plays a former gunfighter roused from his retirement (he’s a widower, single father, and floundering farmer) for one last bounty, and Morgan Freeman (in his first appearance in an Eastwood film) is his old friend and former partner invited along for a piece of the bounty. Eastwood also directed Gene Hackman to an Oscar as the seemingly affable sheriff, a pragmatist who measures justice in terms of expediency, and gave Richard Harris the equivalent of a spotlight solo in a small role as a flamboyant British gunslinger managing his own legend through pulp stories.
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Justified: The Complete Second Season (Sony) confirms the FX original series as one of the best shows on TV.
U.S. Marshall Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) is still stuck in the Kentucky county he fled years before, this season reconnecting with his ex-wife (Natalie Zea) as he gets pulled into a complicated stand-off involving a family syndicate running the dope trade, meth, moonshine and other interests in Kentucky coal country. Margo Martindale won a well-deserved Emmy Award as the wily matriarch of the backwoods mafia taking on a corporate mining concern while her less disciplined sons (notably Jeremy Davies as a schemer with a grudge against Raylon) stir up trouble around the fringes of the business. What’s a mother to do?
The series, adapted from an Elmore Leonard short story, is an exceedingly smart piece of pulp fiction with the rough edges of fascinating characters and storylines with dramatic blowback. Case in point: the journey of Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins), Raylon’s old friend turned criminal nemesis who begins the season trying to go straight with a job in the mines and finds himself drawn back to his strengths as the balance of power in the rural crime world shifts. Goggins’ measured performance and controlled intensity makes Crowder the most dangerous character in the series, and the conviction of his principles and loyalties makes him a marvelous complement to Raylon, whose own loyalties and ideas of justice continue to get him in trouble. Timothy Olyphant’s Raylon may be equal parts pulp cowboy and maverick TV cop, but he’s the real deal with lived in flaws that tell us as much about the past he’s trying to outrun as the man it turned him into.
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True Grit (Paramount) on DVD and Blu-ray Combo Pack (with DVD and Digital Copy)
The Coen Brothers insisted that their “True Grit” was not a remake of the 1969 film that earned John Wayne his Academy Award but a faithful adaptation of the Charles Portis novel. Whether or not it’s true that they had not seen the Henry Hathaway film since they were kids, it is interesting to see how close both hew to the story and the dialogue of the Portis novel, and how the difference in the details makes the Coens’ film uniquely their vision, and the most accessible and successful (financially speaking) film of their career.
Jeff Bridges practically croaks his lines as Rooster Cogburn, a veteran manhunter, unapologetic killer and well-practiced drunk, yet for all his leathery character and wry humor of his performance, newcomer Hailee Steinfeld holds her own as the driven young Mattie Ross, a slip of a girl who armors up in the clothes of her dead father and sets out for revenge against the man who murdered him. And next to the lush mountain landscapes and daylight beauty of Hathaway’s 1969 film, the Coens offer a tougher, more scraggly frontier, often shrouded in fog and darkness.
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How Joel McCrea civilized the west
The Stars in My Crown (Warner Archive)
Thanks to the MOD model of film releases, a lot of marvelous films heretofore unavailable on DVD, wonderful films without the recognition that translates into the kind of sales needed to sustain a full DVD release, are being made available to those dedicated cineastes and few but passionate fans. “The Stars in My Crown” (1950) is one of those films that lacks the hook that would entice the average classic movie fan to blindly give it a chance—a low-key frontier drama of community and conflict starring the sturdy but unexciting Joel McCrea, framed in nostalgia and overflowing with homespun values of 19th century Americana—but deserves the look for the power of its storytelling and the strength of its character. Especially McCrea as the unconventional deacon who strides into town and conducts his first service in the local bar, not quite holding the patrons at gunpoint but suggesting that it’s in their best interests nonetheless.
Director Jacques Tourneur is famous as a director of moody, evocative horror films of shadowy threats and psychological reverberations, classics such as the original “Cat People” and “I Walked With a Zombie” and “Curse of the Demon,” and for his film noir masterpiece “Out of the Past.” But his frontier dramas (westerns, yes, but really about communities built out of the wilderness) are equally powerful and “The Stars in My Crown” is one of his best and most moving films, a piece of ur-Americana and small-town values carved out of a culture of self-interest and violence. Tourneur reminds us that the country was constructed out of both sides of this equation.
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Once Upon a Time in the West (Paramount)
Remember that old term “horse opera,” used as a somewhat demeaning term for western movies? Leave it to an Italian to put genuine operatic dimension into the great American saga of western expansion.
Sergio Leone’s loving tribute to the myth of the American West leaves the cool, cruel mercenary world of the Clint Eastwood “Dollar” films for a glorious epic that transforms western tropes into horseback fairy tales in the wonderland of John Ford’s mythic landscape. Though most of the film was actually shot in Spain, the defining landscapes were shot on location in Monument Valley, including one stunning sequence that quotes Ford’s Stagecoach.
The first meeting of outlaws
Casting Charles Bronson as his slow-talking, harmonica playing hero, Henry Fonda as a steely, blue eyed killer, and Claudia Cardinale as the fallen woman who stakes out her claim for the American Dream after her new husband and his entire family have been massacred, Leone creates a horseback epic of bad guys with a heart of gold and an iron engine that reshapes the landscape as its tracks are laid through the wilderness. Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argento co-wrote the screenplay and Ennio Morricone’s operatic score (one of his greatest) so inspired Leone that he directed and edited to the rhythms of the music, which Morricone completed before the film was finished. It flopped in release but decades later it stands out as Leone’s masterpiece, a sun-baked blast of frontier opera. Jason Robards co-stars and Leone casts such icons as Woody Strode, Jack Elam, Keenan Wynn, and Lionel Stander in small but memorable roles.
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Sons of the Pioneers
“Pioneers of Television: Season 2” (PBS)
Three years after PBS’s original “Pioneers of Television” mini-series, the show is revived with four more chapters on some of the most resilient genres of the TV landscape of the fifties to the seventies. This time around, the spotlight hits the long-time staples “Westerns” (the dominant genre of the early decades of television) and “Crime Dramas” (which overtook westerns in the seventies), niche genre “Science Fiction” and the subterranean “Local Kids’ TV.”
The show still plays more like an introduction to the greats of the genre than an analysis of the genre or the TV culture of the era, but it does a good job of getting a lay of the TV landscape and quite rightly focuses on a few key shows from each genre. For “Science Fiction,” of course, that boils down to “Star Trek,” “The Twilight Zone” and the anti-science fiction goofiness of Irwin Allen’s “Lost in Space,” which is about all this episode covers. It works for its thesis (science fiction was a genre where both Rod Serling and Gene Roddenberry could create “modern morality plays” and offer social commentary under the guise of the fantastic) but completely ignores the early pulp efforts like “Rocky Jones” and the first major science fiction series, the live-TV anthology “Tales of Tomorrow.”
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