If You Want Blood: The Deep Cuts of AC/DC

As an eight-year-old I swapped a handful of pocket money for Highway to Hell on cassette at a now defunct department store, FitzGerald’s, on Hobart’s eastern shore. If I’d even heard of AC/DC at the time it was only in passing. They weren’t on my mind when I walked in there. I have censorship to thank.

My neighbour’s older brother had several Guns ‘N’ Roses releases on CD. Among us kids, CDs were a sort of deluxe rarity. No one I knew’s parents had a CD player in their car. My parents had a CD player newly installed in their bedroom around this time, and that’s where the thing stayed. I didn’t have any CDs anyway and my parents had only one or two themselves. Cassettes were what we trafficked in—sometimes copies of copies. I had taped copies of several GNR albums and I was trying to buy one of my own. Accompanied by mum, I’d pointed over the counter to the G N’ R Lies cassette. The attendant obliged but, as was also her obligation, politely directed my mother’s attention to the sticker on the case. Mum wasn’t having it: “No, sorry,” she told me, “You can’t get that one.” The attendant sympathetically gestured to copies of Highway to Hell on the counter to her left, with its now discontinued Australian-release cover: the lads looming and leering out the inferno as a guitar fretboard-turned-highway vanishes into the flames: “You might like this one?” she suggested.  I took it, and from then on, with AC/DC, it was no stop signs, speed limits…

Highway to Hell, 1989 cassette re-release, Albert Productions. Originally released in 1979. Scan by Discogs.com

In fact, years later I bought Lies: hardly terrible but obviously at the inferior end of the GNR catalogue. Lady steered me right. Whoever she was—I remember a polite twenty-something, maybe even a teenager, just doing her job—she set me on a musical highway I’d still be cruising thirty-odd years later.

Having heard little of AC/DC on the radio at that age, and never watching music videos, I was left to explore the band alone. At the time I couldn’t have told you which songs from Highway to Hell were the singles. I gradually expanded my collection of tapes at a rate pocket- or birthday-money would permit. That wasn’t fast, so each album got played through over and over, really devoured and digested. This is still how I prefer to listen to the band today: album by album. Some may like Spotify to curate a dessert of hits but I still prefer the full-course meal.

And so I present, all of it according to me, the deep album cuts of AC/DC. The band might be a rock and roll phenomenon, but the fellas still have a horde of tearing tracks that are routinely ignored, underplayed or even unknown to the casual fan. What is a “deep cut” anyway? For my purposes it’ll mean a track from one of the studio albums that wasn’t released as a single. Additionally, it can’t have been part of the band’s live set for any real length of time. It also can’t be the title track: thumpers like “Fly on the Wall” or “Ballbreaker” might be underplayed, but they can’t count as deep album cuts. As we go I’ll highlight my favourites, then isolate only one “top pick”. Okay, enough Beating Around the Bush.

T.N.T. (1975, Australia only) and High Voltage (1976):

Singles: “Love Song” / “Baby, Please Don’t Go”, “High Voltage”, “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll)”, “T.N.T.”

Deep cut cache: “Little Lover”, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Singer”

Top pick: “Rock ‘n’ Roll Singer”

Comment: “Live Wire”, “Rocker” and “The Jack” are disqualified for getting a good run live. After “It’s a Long Way…” opens T.N.T. and the international edition of High Voltage, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Singer” maintains the momentum, with Bon barking a more anarchic account of yearning for the showbiz life. Rock and roll, stripped down and sweaty.

Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap (1976)

Singles: “Jailbreak”, “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap”

Deep cut cache: “Ride On”, “Squealer”

Top pick: “Squealer”

Comment: “Rocker”, one of the album’s best, is disqualified for its live showings, most notably on the If You Want Blood live album. The melancholic cruiser “Ride On” has developed a reputation among fans but the amusingly tasteless “Squealer” takes number one spot for me for its classic AC/DC grunt and gutter-humour.

Let There Be Rock (1977)

Singles: “Dog Eat Dog”, “Let There Be Rock”, “Problem Child”, “Whole Lotta Rosie”

Deep cut cache: “Overdose”

Top pick: “Overdose”

Comment: “Bad Boy Boogie”, far and away my favourite of the album, is disqualified again for live popularity, as is “Hell Ain’t A Bad Place to Be”. That doesn’t leave a lot on this famously raw and raucous album. Nevertheless, the headbanging ode to obsession, “Overdose”, is just the right prescription.

Powerage (1978)

Singles: “Rock ‘n’ Roll Damnation”

Deep cut cache: “Down Payment Blues”, “Gimme a Bullet”, “What’s Next to the Moon”, “Gone Shootin'”, “Up to My Neck in You”, “Kicked in the Teeth”

Top pick: “Gone Shootin'”

Comment: “Riff Raff” and “Sin City” disallowed for live popularity. Despite that there’s still plenty to pick from on the oft-overlooked Powerage (maybe it was that dreadful album cover?). For me it’s the easy-does-it, cruising momentum of “Gone Shootin'” that best hits the spot.

Highway to Hell (1979)

Singles: “Highway to Hell”, “Girls Got Rhythm”, “Touch Too Much”, “Beating Around the Bush”

Deep cut cache: “Walk All Over You”, “If You Want Blood (You’ve Got It)”, “Night Prowler”

Top pick: “Night Prowler”

Comment: Is there even a bad song on “Highway to Hell”? The pinnacle of the Bon Scott years seems to hit us at every turn with tracks filled with grunt, groove, humour and menace. And much of the menace comes from the closer, “Night Prowler”, an atmospheric and sinister sonic horror tale.

Back in Black (1980)

Singles: “You Shook Me All Night Long”, “Hells Bells”, “Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution”, “Back in Black”

Deep cut cache: “Have a Drink on Me”, “Shake a Leg”

Top pick: “Have a Drink on Me”

Comment: Can anything on Back in Black, the second highest-selling album in music history, really be termed a “deep cut”? Well, I gave it a shot anyway. Their mischievious star Bon Scott having tragically burned out, AC/DC were reasonably expected to fade away. Instead, they released perhaps their most celebrated album, featuring the upbeat radio favourite “You Shook Me All Night Long”, the punch-crunch riffing of “Back in Black”, and the swaying menace of “Hells Bells”. It also contained some of the band’s most sexist songs: what was previously schoolboy (often self-effacing) humour attained a nastier tone in “Givin’ the Dog a Bone” and “What You Do for Money Honey” (also among the album’s weaker tracks). They’d get this horny-humor balance better into the future. Meanwhile, back on the deep cut question: it’s hardly unheard of, but “Have a Drink on Me” slams as good as the singles.

For Those About to Rock (1981)

Singles: “For Those About to Rock (We Salute You)”, “Let’s Get It Up”

Deep cut cache: “Inject the Venom”, “Breaking the Rules”, “Spellbound”

Top pick: “Spellbound”

Comment: Opening with its epic, window-rattling title track, For Those About To Rock seems more than a match for its celebrated predecessor. Alas, the momentum slackens as we settle into a good if not outstanding album. I’m a big fan of “Inject the Venom”, a lumbering yet brutishly catchy tune about, apparently, administering lethal injections. However, for my number one pick it’s hard to overlook the album’s closer, “Spellbound”, a rough-edged and melancholic gem as entrancing as its title. Not too many AC/DC tracks like this one.

Flick of the Switch (1983)

Singles: “Flick of the Switch”, “Guns for Hire”, “Nervous Shakedown”

Deep cut cache: “Rising Power”, “This House is on Fire”,”Bedlam in Belgium”

Top pick: “This House is on Fire”

Comment: With the band on a downward slide commercially, the slapdash cover for Flick of the Switch probably didn’t help move any more units. Nevertheless, a raw and bruising album full of no-frills foot-stompers, including “This House is On Fire.”

Fly on the Wall (1985)

Singles: “Danger”, “Sink the Pink”, “Shake Your Foundations”

Deep cut cache: “Stand Up”, “Playing with Girls”, “Back in Business”

Top pick: “Stand Up”

Comment: With its rough-as-guts production, Fly on the Wall is often pegged as the band’s worst album. It isn’t. However, a medley of quirky videos that distracted and detracted from the Youngs’ crashing riffage did it no real favours. “Danger,” one of the album’s weaker tracks and an unfortunate choice for the first single, is cluttered by a weirdly shrill and ear-splitting solo from Angus and went over like a fart in church with the live crowd.

Here’s my two cents: don’t let Fly on the Wall‘s reputation deter you. Play it loud. Embrace the noise. It’s true that on a couple of tracks Brian sounds like he’s wailing from the bottom of a well somewhere in his native Durham. But the whole thing is characterised by a whiplashing, raucous charm. In songs such as “Sink the Pink” and “Shake Your Foundations” the lead guitar launches out in firey flourishes, supercharging an album already full of pounding, anthemic choruses. Fly on the Wall is a low-key favourite of mine, with several hidden gems, including the snarling gangster boast “Back in Business”; however, it’s “Stand Up” that sticks out most.

Blow Up Your Video (1988)

Singles: “Heatseeker”, “That’s the Way I Wanna Rock and Roll”

Deep cut cache: “Meanstreak”, “Go Zone”, “Sum Sin For Nuthin'”, “Ruff Stuff”, “Nick of Time”

Top pick: “Go Zone”

Comment: Look, I know a lot of people aren’t really fans of Blow Up Your Video, although I’m never really sure why that is. The production is a little staid, but I wouldn’t skip a single song on it. The singles are high-energy, but the album as a whole has a mix of moods and tempos, from the cocky strut of “Meanstreak” to the gloomier “Two’s Up”. I’ve selected “Go Zone” for top pick, but this is an album (ignored as it often is) that feels like it’s almost totally made up of decent deep cuts.

The Razors Edge (1990)

Singles: “Thunderstruck”, “Moneytalks”, “Are You Ready”, “Rock Your Heart Out” (Australia only)

Deep cut cache: “Mistress for Christmas”, “Shot of Love”, “Goodbye & Good Riddance to Bad Luck”

Top pick: “Mistress for Christmas”

Comment: The Razors Edge came out around the time I was getting into AC/DC, and what a time to get into them: the release of a blockbuster album that spawned their biggest hit in the States. I remember the thrill and fascination of seeing the music video for “Thunderstruck” come on TV—of seeing a band I’d heard plenty but never before seen. Razors‘ sound is polished yet powerful, and it’s another album with a range of hard rock moods, from the surging and high-spirited Moneytalks to the fearsome title track. I’ve picked “Mistress for Christmas”: it’s nothing but fun, but with a tremendous build-up and blistering lead work from Angus. Deck the halls, baby.

Ballbreaker (1995)

Singles: “Hard as a Rock”, “Cover You in Oil”, “Hail Caesar”

Deep cut cache: “The Furor”, “Burnin’ Alive”, “Whiskey on the Rocks”

Top pick: “The Furor”

One of the band’s most underrated albums, Ballbreaker features numerous songs that have that lean, crunchy and sinister sound that would all but disappear from the next album. Mysteriously cold-shouldered by critics, it nevetheless remains one of my favourites since its release. I’m really hard-pressed to pick a favourite deep cut here. But, balls in a vise, I’m going with “The Furor”.

Stiff Upper Lip (2001)

Singles: “Stuff Upper Lip”, “Safe in New York City”, “Satellite Blues”,

Deep cut cache: “Hold Me Back”, “Can’t Stand Still”, “Damned”

Top pick: “Damned”

Comment: Stiff Upper Lip really roars the engine with that title track—instant classic—but then largely settles down into a cruisier rhythm. With its steady-rolling bluesy swagger, this album has really grown on me over the years. Nevertheless, I’ll pick perhaps the slowest and heaviest song on there, “Damned”, as my choicest deep cut. Bon appetit.

Black Ice (2009)

Singles: “Rock ‘n’ Roll Train”, “Big Jack”, “Anything Goes”

Deep cut cache: “Wheels”, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Dream”

Top pick: “Wheels”

Comment: I’ll confess it here: I’ve tried hard to like Black Ice, but I found it largely disappointing then and find it disappointing today. “Rock ‘n’ Roll Train” is enjoyable enough if a little too procedural, even calming, for the first single to a long-awaited album. “Big Jack” has some legs under it, but I don’t find it a standout. And if “Rock ‘n’ Roll Train” seems a little calming, “Anything Goes” is virtually cutesy: probably my least favourite single the band have released. “Rock ‘n’ Roll Dream”, with the band again in a mellow mood, is nevertheless a nicely dreamy distraction. But thank goodness for the nasty, muscular swing of that title track, right at the end of the album, Ballbreaker-style. Fantastic. Generally, though, on Black Ice there are too many songs and too few of them stand out. One that does, though, is “Wheels”: plenty of momentum on this polished, upbeat and unpretentious rocker.

Rock or Bust (2014)

Singles: “Rock or Bust”, “Play Ball”, “Rock the Blues Away”

Deep cut cache: “Miss Adventure”, Baptism by Fire”, “Rock the House”, “Sweet Candy”

Top pick: “Baptism by Fire”

Comment: Fifteen years after Black Ice, the band was back with Rock or Bust, although sadly with Malcolm’s health preventing his playing on either the album or the subsequent tour. A much shorter release than Black Ice, Rock or Bust (despite its generic title) features songs with more overall stand-out value than its predecessor. The gorgeously snappy guitar sound brings out the groove throughout on an album that, if not a classic, still holds its own in the band’s catalogue. For your deep immersion, I suggest “Baptism by Fire”. I know they gave this one a run on the album tour but it’s not (yet?) a setlist staple.

Power Up (2020)

Singles: “Realize”, “Shot in the Dark”, “Through the Mists of Time”, “Witch’s Spell”

Deep cut cache: “Kick You When You’re Down”, “Demon Fire”, “Money Shot,” “Systems Down”

Top pick: “Money Shot”

Comment: Along with Blue Öyster Cult, AC/DC came to the rescue during the pandemic’s lockdown era by releasing new material right when it was most needed. The latter gave us Power Up (styled as PWR/UP), charged and glowing in tribute to the departed Malcolm. In case you thought they’d lost their ribald sense of humour, though, we have here not only the cheeky single “Shot in the Dark” but also the dirty grandpa devilry of “Money Shot.” “Demon Fire” is a headlong scorcher, but having its own official video raised its profile enough. “Money Shot” can take the prize.

And that’s that. Did I miss any of your favourites? If so, I’d love to hear about them. Share your thoughts below.

Review: Hang ‘Em High (1968)

HANG ’EM HIGH (1968)
Dir. Ted Post


Imagine if one of the hard-done-by herdsmen of The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) survived the miscarriage of justice that left him twitching at the end of a rope, add a dash of Spaghetti sauce, and you have some idea of the premise of Ted Post’s 1968 dark justice-drama Hang ’Em High.

Clint Eastwood is Jeb Cooper, the nice-guy cowhand falsely accused of rustling and murder. His vigilante capturers string him up as hastily as it can be managed but ride off prematurely, leaving Jeb to be rescued by a passing marshal and ushered back to town for a fair trial. Cleared of all charges but offered only a pittance for his trouble, he accepts a job as a lawman himself and sets his mind to bringing his attackers to justice the legal way—that is, if he can help himself.

Eastwood’s silent-but-violent characterization of Cooper clearly bears the influence of Hang ’Em High’s Spaghetti Western predecessors, although Post’s film conspicuously eschews the free-wheeling vengeance of European contemporaries like Death Rides a Horse (1967) to attempt a more intriguing and problematic portrait of violence and justice in the Old West.


The problem with this is that Eastwood’s minimalist characterization doesn’t provide the emotional cues required by a story with as many latent moral questions as this. The film isn’t the violent Spaghetti Western imitation we might expect; similarly, Hang ’Em High has action enough, but it isn’t an action film. In lieu of this, we need more than a Dollars impression from Eastwood: a performance that better carries the mood of the narrative and allows more insight into his behavior. This situation, that creates “drama” with too little human at its center, is not helped by the forced atmospheres of Dominic Frontiere’s score: all thunder and doom in the film’s early scenes—tolling bells and ominous military snares that contrast starkly with the bright, romantic landscapes on display.

Fortunately, Hang ’Em High has a great many redeeming features, all of which present themselves in the film’s latter half. A surprisingly sensitive depiction of the villains is the first indication of the film’s interest in exploring the harshness of penalties meted out for criminality, and the manner in which violent “justice” inspires equally violent means of evasion.


The most compelling aspects of Post’s film are those which implicitly question the foundational role of violence in U.S. history. It exhibits a clear concern with the connection between bloodshed and community “togetherness”—here expressed through the desire for statehood—and with the role of punitive state violence as a kind of morbid entertainment.

Hang ’Em High is not without flaws that prevent it being as affecting as it might be (the romantic subplot feels especially half-hearted). However, these flaws are ultimately outweighed by the intriguing and original presentation of still-relevant issues relating to vengeance, and the irony of using violence to maintain an image of civility. 3.5 / 5

Nobody calls him chicken: The Four Feathers (review)

the four feathers_

THE FOUR FEATHERS (Silent, 1929)
Dirs. Merian C. Cooper, Lothar Mendes, and Ernest B. Schoedsack

Those familiar with The Most Dangerous Game (1932) and King Kong (1933) know producer-directors Merian C. Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack’s swashbuckling sensibilities, and in this silent, pre-Kong collaboration between the two (with Lothar Mendes) we get a pulpy yarn of wartime rescue, heroism and redemption. When British military gent Lt. Harry Faversham (Richard Arlen) evades his duty in favor of marrying his childhood sweetheart (Fay Wray) immediately, he drags himself and his family into disgrace. The film’s title derives from four feathers he receives from those once close to him (including a very unimpressed fiancée who’s now embarrassed to be betrothed to such a wimp), the items offered as symbols of his cowardice. However, when his cohorts are captured in Africa he concocts a plan to infiltrate the enemy stronghold and ferry them to safety, thereby restoring his honor.

The Four Feathers

The codes of heroism and masculinity on display here are of course remarkably dated by now; however, even by 1929, in the aftermath of the Great War, the chivalry of soldiering was under considerable scrutiny. Nevertheless, the film’s angst-ridden premise sets up some fine action as the Brits battle their captors, and a particularly momentous chase sequence (albeit with some discomforting animal involvement). The Four Feathers hardly stands alongside Schoedsack and Cooper’s more famous efforts, but it’s an enjoyable excursion before bigger things to come. 3 / 5

Complete film (public domain): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JxcFtG-Oc-M&w=420&h=315

Drag you Down Under: Dark Age (review)

DARK AGE (1987)
Dir. Arch Nicholson

Darkage1987poster.jpgCrocodilian chaos in Australia’s Northern Territory: When one particularly big brute starts snacking on humans, it’s up to wildlife ranger and conservationist Steve Harris (John Jarratt) to bring it to heel. With a sensible respect for the local wildlife, Steve wants to stop the killer croc while preventing a crew of mad hunters (eager for an excuse to indulge their bloodlust) from hitting the creeks for a pump-action killathon.

Aboriginal elders warn Steve that this ain’t no ordinary crocodile: In addition to its size, this creature is “proper old” and “wise,” they say.  He’s also a figure in their Dreaming and they refuse to participate in killing him. The initial attack is provoked by the incursions of racist poachers, and Dark Age carries a strong anti-colonial subtext, evoking a land stolen and its ecology ignored and degraded.

The largest reptile on earth, and with the gnarled look of a nasty dinosaur, the saltwater croc’s menace is wonderfully evoked with reference to its prehistoric origins (hence the film’s title), as well as its role in a timeless Aboriginal spirituality. In a nod to Jaws, the local bigwig (played by Home and Away veteran Ray Meagher) is concerned about tourism: Japanese investors set to build the town up mustn’t be scared off. 508Ultimately, Dark Age depicts an outback culture whose powerful players are in hot pursuit of modernization and money, trying to leave behind an indigenous historyand presentto which the creature is connected. The subtext comes on a little strong at one or two points, but amid numerous less imaginative Jaws-imitators it’s refreshing to see a film so brimming with ideas.

darkage_5609604f06a83The film’s score, heavy on the synth drums, is at times distractingly dated, and can’t always summon the intensity required (especially during a Jaws-like pursuit of the predator). The crocodile effects are also limited and sometimes log-like: one shot of the croc on the water’s surface seems to terminate because the model is slowly drifting off to the left. Shots of the brute in motion could have been livened up with some strategically edited and inserted stock footage. That aside, the film invests properly in its human drama, and tensions within the town (and culture more broadly) are played out through strong performances. As implied above, though, the film is perhaps most effective in its evocation of Australia as a kind of haunted land: a place with an ancient identity of which its white inhabitants are ignorant, but which nevertheless bursts violently forth from the past—and bites.  3.5 / 5

Full Boar: Razorback (review)

Razorback-2RAZORBACK (1984)
Dir. Russell Mulcahy

From deep within an Australian Outback as grotesquely gothic as any Tim Burton landscape comes Razorback, feral boar titan, to freight-train through your living room and steal your baby. Yes, your baby. I don’t know what it does with the baby. Presumably it eats him. The film doesn’t get a whole lot more sensible than that, but for those with a taste for horror with an absurdist touch: pig out.

To the land of the weird ventures American journalist and animal-lover Beth Winters (Judy Morris), intent on reporting the country’s heartless massacre of marsupial ‘pests’. Yet with Hogzilla on the prowl the story is bigger than she realizes. Not only is the wildlife more than she bargained for, but so too are the locals, the worst of whom—a couple of yawping, greasy, black-tooth hunters—intrude with a villainy of their own.

Razorback.gifMeanwhile, grizzled pig-shooter Jake (Bill Kerr), grandfather of the stolen baby, begins a Quint-like quest against the beast. Regrettably, Jake is but a shadow of his animal-horror influences, and the film suffers here from its indecisive tone: it’s hard to develop a scarred and serious character in a circus like this. Leaving that aside, Razorback is stylish and garishly striking—fairly well-financed but shot with an irresistible exploitation verve. The final showdown with the big boy (with much organ-pounding over the soundtrack) is sort of scarier than the rest of it, but foremost a silly delight. 3.5 / 5

The Maddest of the Mad: Possession (review)

Dir. Andrzej Żuławski

667.jpgAn intense and aggressive domestic drama descends into experimental horror in Żuławski’s cult classic Possession. Steered visually by the restless cinematography of Bruno Nuytten the film constructs a world pervaded by uncertainty, discomfort, and a sense of worse to come. The initial horror is of an everyday nature: Mark (Sam Neill) arrives home to Berlin to discover his wife Anna (Isabelle Adjani) has been having an affair and is not the least bit sorry about it either. He turns on the insecure male hysterics and quickly drives her to a similar pitch—then beyond. However, in an apartment downtown Anna has been keeping (and gradually growing) a more monstrous secret, and as her behavior becomes more and more unhinged the film explodes into a warped and chaotic exploration of loathing, desire, and frustration.

As the above perhaps suggests, Żuławski’s film focuses at least partially on ‘possession’ in terms of sexual behavior: Sam Neill feels his cheating wife has acted like one ‘possessed,’ although in doing so highlights his own desire for ‘possession’ (of her). Character interactions are histrionic from the outset but often powerfully so—commanding our stunned attention with so much emotional mess. Beyond sexual ‘possession,’ the film is famous for its scenes of female madness, which are indeed remarkable and transfixing. Yet one scene in particular (you will pick it) is so explosive it seems to repel any Possession-8276_4.jpgpossible identification or sympathy, risking a kind of objectifying ‘insanity porn’—a display foremost for our shock and amazement. Or perhaps in its transgressive and apocalyptic intensity (far beyond narrative or meaning) the moment achieves a kind of liberatory chaos?  I expect opinions vary.

The mysterious Thing kept by Anna in her grubby parody of the domestic environment is darkly fascinating, yet the film seems occasionally to lose interest in it, so the device isn’t quite explored to its full visual or metaphoric potential. Ultimately the themes of partner-perfection and obedience are provocative and troubling, and the film’s emotional collisions both traumatic and captivating. But in addition to Anna’s startling hysterics, a very kooky paramour, the monster and a doppelganger there’s also talk of souls and death and God—and really there’s just a bit too much thrown in for us to get an intellectual or emotional feel for its implications. Disorienting sometimes to its detriment, Possession is nevertheless a work of wild and commendable audacity.  3.5 / 5

Review: Death Rides a Horse (1967)

Dir. Giulio Petroni

death_rides_a_horse.jpgGood old-fashioned revenge doesn’t get much better than this down and dirty lead crusade from Giulio Petroni. On the kind of sodden night from which nothing good can come a gang of hoods storm the home of the young Bill Meceita, murdering both his parents. 15 years later, all grown up and more than handy with a gun, Bill (John Phillip Law) sets out for revenge. Meanwhile, Ryan (Lee Van Cleef), an outlaw as weathered as the rocks he splits during his term of hard labor, is finally granted release and begins his pursuit of the crooks who double-crossed him into the slammer in the first place. You guessed it: they’re the same low-lives.

The storyline of Death Rides a Horse packs a crude punch, but the ominous atmosphere is what really sucks one into this graceful and aggressive film. The rumbling strains of Morricone’s score effortlessly summon dread or exhilaration as required, and the opening attack scene is a horrid thrill-piece of trepidation—moody enough to be captivating and tumultuous enough to be genuinely threatening. The cinematography here arrests us at every turn: shots of the cutthroat legion moving over the hill toward the farm in the blinding rain, of water cascading off low hat brims, of hooves stepping with dire purpose through the mud.

DeathRides.jpgAlthough the film’s main interest is action—the simple pleasure of watching a couple of tough hombres take care of business—Petroni’s stylistic flair lends a symbolism of its own to these proceedings. The treachery and isolation of the Western landscape, the inexorability of fate, and the development of a surrogate father/son relationship between Ryan and Bill are all evoked.

The minimalist characterization and straight-up firepower of Death Rides a Horse won’t appeal to all viewers, but for those keen on a tightly plotted thriller content to let the lead do the talking, the film is a treat.  4 / 5

Download film (public domain)


Eyes of the Hunter: Wolfen (review)

Wolfen_1981.jpgWOLFEN (1981)
Dir. Michael Wadleigh

1981 was the year of the wolf, unleashing on cinemas both An American Werewolf in London and The Howling as well as Michael Wadleigh’s captivating Wolfen, the director’s first and final non-documentary feature. Albert Finney plays troubled NYC detective Dewey Wilson investigating a series of gory kills, beginning with the mutilation-murder of a real-estate tycoon and his wife. Big Money of course has plenty of enemies, and possibly connected is a militant Native American activist, Eddie Holt (Edward James Olmos). But this crime-scene suggests some hairier happening.

Eschewing the sexual subtexts of its contemporaries, Wolfen instead gestures to an ancient and unknowable animal world never quite vanquished. Like much animal horror, Wolfen imagines the creature’s point of view as it stalks its human prey; yet these shots are used so extensively that the technique threatens to destabilize familiar human points of view associated with the order and normality Wilson seeks to restore. The resulting impression is that this threat is not merely some aberration of civilized life to be corrected by good policing, but a rival reality—ever-present and always waiting for the inevitable demise of western “progress.”

wolfen2.jpgThis theme is hauntingly imbued in images of industrial and residential dilapidation—urban rubble through which the wolves stalk their prey. As Wilson tracks his targets, a tingling, stealthy score by James Horner accents (and never smothers) the film’s shivery atmosphere. A film as dark, graceful and bewitching as its elusive antagonists.  5 / 5

Review: Garden of Evil (1954)

Dir. Henry Hathaway

Garden_of_Evil.jpgThere are many noteworthy aspects of Henry Hathaway’s Garden of Evil, although perhaps the most striking is the sight of Gary Cooper (otherwise doing his wearily gallant thing as usual) suddenly punching co-star Susan Hayward square in the face. Phrased as one of those well-meaning “for your own good”-type maneuvers, the act is nevertheless so alarming that it threatens to overwhelm our focus on the story itself.

Otherwise, for all its simplicity it is an engaging and thoughtful story. After being stranded somewhere in Mexico, three dubious fortune-hunters (Widmark, Mitchell and Cooper) accept the offer of local woman Leah (Hayward) to recover her husband (Marlowe) from a mine for a fee of two thousand dollars each. In order to earn their keep the men venture deep into Apache territory, proceeding to a place called the “Garden of Evil” —allegedly the province of malign spirits—all the while bickering and questioning both their own intentions and those of their female guide.

garden_of_evil02.jpgFilmed in lavish Cinemascope, a widescreen format intended to yank viewers from their TV sets by giving them the full measure of cinematic spectacle, Garden of Evil looks glorious. Additionally, Bernard Hermann’s score masterfully runs the gamut from brooding to dreamily elegiac, lifting the film’s themes of suspicion and sin out of the rich visual canvas. The story itself seems to lose some of its momentum in a few places, but the eye-popping visuals and momentous score easily rescue it from stagnation.

garden_of_evil01.jpgThe characterization is intriguing and misanthropic, and an atmosphere of tension is established between the three wanderers from the outset. Cooper’s performance feels off-kilter though, and a number of lines are delivered as if he were engaged in a different conversation from that of his interlocutor(s). This may be a deliberate strategy to build up an atmosphere of impenetrability or miscommunication around his enigmatic character. The effect, however, is ultimately awkward—almost as if he were somehow digitally inserted from another picture.

The Indians here are the faceless screechers from any number of Westerns; however, the film does ruminate on the ethics of the occupation and exploitation of their land. The sinister nature of fortune-seeking more generally is also scrutinized, and the travelers are haunted by a sense of their own moral inadequacy. The development of these themes, and particularly their stylish evocation through setting and score, make Garden of Evil suspenseful and rewarding viewing.  3.5 / 5

Review: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

Dir. George Roy Hill

BCandTSKUpon returning to their hideaway to plan a robbery, famed outlaws Butch Cassidy (Newman) and the Sundance Kid (Redford) are challenged for the leadership of their gang by an ambitious oaf, whom they slyly outmaneuver before admitting his plans for the group were pretty worthwhile after all. And pretty worthwhile stealing for themselves. They will rob the Union Pacific Flyer, not once but twice: hitting the train once would be audacious, but twice would be downright unexpected and, thus, probably more profitable.

The heist is a success, but when railroad director E. H. Harriman organizes the toughest posse that ever rode to track down the bandits, the two are forced to abscond to Bolivia, where further “nice” bad-guy shenanigans and fish-out-of-water fumbling awaits. One scene sees Sundance wax vehement on the cosmopolitan inadequacies of the locale; in another, the two use language crib notes to perform an amusingly amateur stick-up.

Harriman’s hired guns, however, led by mercenary ex-lawman Joe Lefors, aren’t much bothered by jurisdictional complications. This is a manhunt, but there will be no arrest: putting Butch and Sundance in the ground is what counts and the country is immaterial.

BC&TSK is essentially a kind of three-way romance between Butch, Sundance, and the audience—whom the film clearly anticipates is enamored of the actors who play them. Sure, Katherine Ross puts in an appearance as Etta Place (Sundance’s main squeeze), but in a cheeky celebration of male camaraderie like this one her character is as extraneous as it is uninteresting, and she serves mainly as a proxy for the fraternal fling between Butch and Sundance.

And now I’m afraid I have to get a lot less cutesy than George Roy Hill’s buffed-up buddy flick: what we have here is an almost quaintly undaring picture motored along by the cheery bankability of stars, jokes, and glamorous production. We never forget that BC&TSK is foremost an investment, and it comes off as a particularly bloated and populist one when posed against the challenging, Vietnam-influenced viciousness of contemporary The Wild Bunch (1969). The audience is longlined with dazzling visuals, showy score and a wagonload of wisecracks. And then there’s the iconic leading men. Newman is a first rate actor, but his performance (and seemingly permanent tickled-baby grin) is at times tiresomely smug, and the chummy routine he and Redford have going doesn’t really show off the acting skills of either.

Butch3.jpgBC&TSK’s most irksome offense is not its free-wheeling lack of imagination or expensive blandness, but the portentous tone it eventually takes on. The elegiac finale that sees Butch and Sundance go down is greatly misjudged, clashing with the general mood of affable anachronism that is, really, the film’s bread and butter. Having dialogue that’s all hammy jokes and merry sarcasm is all well and good, but one can’t expect to trade it in for moodiness when the film is almost over and instantly have achieved something.

In this sense, BC&TSK hijacks the worked-for sentiments of earlier Westerns like its heroes do trains. The “inevitable end of the outlaw life” theme is hastily rolled out: a few perfunctory lines about how it’s “comin’ to an end” and that’s that—a lazy attempt at poignancy waylaid by smug charm and glossy production. Which brings us to “Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head,” written for the film by Burt Bacharach and Hal David: catchy song, charming, great—not here. Its use is the epitome of camp tedium, dashing any chance the film has of achieving the bleaker tone it eventually desires.

Butch2.jpgWhat we’re left with is a Western too afraid of getting its hands dirty to really explore the themes it feels entitled to rudely grope at in its final scene. The film’s serious side is almost entirely compromised by its specious appeal to generational “hipness” and Western cliché. Various homages to other pictures—Jules and Jim (1962), Bonnie and Clyde (1967)—also seem indicative of its lack of real interest in putting its nose to the grindstone and forging something worthwhile on the subject at hand.

After all this, I will hardly sound convincing when I say that I don’t think BC&TSK is a bad movie. Even with Newman’s smarmy delivery, there are a number of genuinely funny lines. Maybe it’s showy, maybe not—but either way the cinematography is mesmerizingly top notch, in measures both playful and painstakingly. The heroes’ relationship to their inexorable but almost unseen pursuers is one the story’s more thoughtful aspects; the posse come to serve as a metaphor for the forces of time and civilization that Butch and Sundance continue to test. The night-time chase sequences are hauntingly shot, and tension is effectively developed through our boys’ refusal to admit what is increasingly clear: their days are numbered.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is a fabulous looking picture; and it’s a funny picture—thoroughly attuned to the cocky snap of sarcasm and one-liners—but this cavalcade of cool barely disguises the weaknesses that make it an ultimately unfulfilling picture. Butch might be the one with the plans, but William Goldman’s script doesn’t have too many new ideas; Sundance might be fast on the draw, but BC&TSK is a little wide of the mark.  3 / 5