Category: Reviews

black-lagoon-gif-200.gifCREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954)

Rarely does a horror film improve much after flubbing its initial scares. The titular Creature initially gropes with fishy fingers from the water a couple of times, but fails to evoke any real alarm. Having him wetly trudge along a boat’s deck in full sunlight is not an effective use of frog-face either. Yet, later, long sequences of the monster stalking his human prey through the weedy depths are urgent, entrancing and masterfully orchestrated.

The tale of the long-lost mutant is foregrounded by evolutionary hypothesizing, and the journey down the Amazon in quest of a mythic specimen is also a journey back in time: the film’s adventurers seek a prehistoric place where all manner of freaks may yet thrive. For all his gillsCreature_from_the_Black_Lagoon_poster and fins, the monster is also conspicuously anthropomorphic, and the suggestion of our continuity with so strange a cousin provokes unease through a blurring of the human-animal binary.

The Creature’s crafty abduction of a human bride, Kay (Julie Adams), is of course iconic.  Since the strapping lover of this damsel (Richard Carlson) refuses to commit to her outright, Gill-man’s predilection for female company hints at an exploded patriarchal fear that she is not sexually “secured”—indeed, she is also desired by a rival explorer (Whit Bissell) during the journey. Later, however, the subtext shifts and the menacing Creature seems to reflect Kay’s fear of angering her lover, since she fancies his rival right back. As these thematic adjustments suggest, the film hits a sweet-spot of anxiety and ambiguity, charging us for confrontations in which humans thrash in life-or-death struggles against the amphibious terror, as well as propelling us toward the tragic finale.  4 / 5

12970972_10154257545264728_4008495880967706715_o.jpgPHASE IV (1974)

2001: A Space Odyssey
meets Them!, Saul Bass’s Phase IV sees the humble ant granted cryptic intelligence through a vague series of cosmological adjustments. From the beginning of the film, extreme close-up sequences depicting ant activity impose upon us a world to which we ordinarily have only the most limited awareness and access, both physically and visually. Yet here our knowledge of this unique perspective, so removed from our own, intensifies the conflict between us and “them” as the ultra-organized ants range themselves against other earthly inhabitants, especially humans. The strange events begin in the US desert, and a duo of scientists, entrenched in a high-tech base of their own design, begin various experiments to solve the riddle of this mysterious ant-agonism (sorry). Ostensibly a thriller, but with little to pound the pulse, Phase IV’s virtue is rather its engrossingly moody visual mode and the creeping sense of the uncanny to which it gives rise. 4 / 5

Thank you to the wonderful Dave from Critical Dave for this review of my book, Bad Seeds and Holy Terrors. Dave is one of my favorite online critics, an insightful, erudite and no-bullshit writer, and a great guy too, so I’m thrilled by and grateful for his comments.

Critical Dave


I opened my review of The Bad Seedwith the following words: “So if further evidence was needed that all children everywhere are evil, enter Rhoda Penmark and The Bad Seed”. I’d intended the quip as a pithy little one, relying more on my curmudgeonly ways than any reflection of actual children, but it was still an easy one to make – do we in fact find children a bit creepy and evil?

It’s a subject that’s considered, addressed, refuted, supported, reinterpreted and discussed all throughout Dominic Lennard’s Bad Seeds and Holy Terrors: The Child Villains of Horror Film. Charting the depictions of delinquent all the way through to monstrous children in film from (roughly) the post-war era to the modern day, Lennard’s work doesn’t so much say “yes” or “no” to the question, but considers all ways of considering it.

He puts forward multiple readings and…

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Review: Shane (1953)

shane_mainAs young Joey Starrett (Brandon DeWilde) plays around the front of his isolated valley home, stalking a deer with an unloaded rifle, a buckskin-clad stranger (Alan Ladd) rides in from the distance and crosses on to his family’s land. The boy is captivated by the man, who reveals his name—Shane—and little else. His father, Joe (Van Heflin), on the other hand, eyes the wayfaring gunfighter with the caution of one who works to build up his dreams in a world adept at kicking them over. It is at this point, however, that the real bad guy appears—riding right over Joe’s crops rather than around them like the courteous (if mysterious) Shane. Cattle baron Rufus Riker (Emile Meyer) needs all this land for free-grazing, and is bent on banishing hardworking homesteaders like the Starrett family by any means available.

ladd_shane1After Joe proudly bucks Riker’s threats, the latter hires notorious gunfighter Jack Wilson (Jack Palance) to wage a campaign of intimidation and violence on the occupants of the range. The answer to Riker’s hired gun is of course Shane, the enigmatic wanderer with a gift for gunplay so ingrained that he draws his pistol at the first sign of trouble as involuntarily as drawing a breath.

More than this, though: it is through the figure of Shane, and Joey’s admiration of him, that Stevens’s film establishes conflict between the workaday pride of family life on the frontier, and a solitary life of adventure. The stranger and Joey’s father represent competing instincts. The subtle attraction between Shane and Joe’s wife, Marian (Jean Arthur), evokes the security and companionship of an existence he can never have. Nevertheless, the buckskinned glamor of gunfighting and lone riding is difficult to resist. Shane’s departure at the conclusion of the film, as Joey famously calls after him, represents the idea that the boy must accept his father’s values over the romance of the gunfighter (a romance signified by his desire to show Shane his rifle in the opening scene).

palance_shane1Despite his relatively short screen-time, Palance’s Wilson is one of the more memorable villains in the genre’s history. He is sadism and violence in every gesture: a skull-faced, black-clad serpent of a man, taunting his adversaries with the acid-sizzle whisper of someone who enjoys killing for cash. A gunfighter of this variety is like the terrible negative-image of the idealistic and courageous homesteaders. Whereas they humbly strive to make the most of themselves and provide for their families, he asserts his gunfighting skill with loathsome arrogance and may move from job to job without responsibility, using his independence to ruin the dreams of others.

shane_familyStory-wise, Shane retreads what is, by 1953, already a distinctly familiar scenario. Additionally, Stevens does have a habit of too deliberately infusing scenes with idealism, lacquering them over with momentous dialogue and vaulting score. However, strong performances and thoughtful character-relations lift the film beyond mere melodrama. Shane is not content with spellbinding viewers with grandiose visual and musical cues, providing an intriguing portrayal of the subtler conflicts inherent in the romance of the frontier. 4 / 5

Note: First-time viewers are advised that the following makes details of the film’s plot explicit.

Much reviled by John Wayne, who felt its focus on a man’s abandonment by the community around him was a metaphor for McCarthyism, Fred Zinnemann’s otherwise celebrated film High Noon sees Marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper) hanging up his guns as a lawman and leaving town with his new bride, Amy (Grace Kelly), to open a store. As the deal is sealed, however, he hears word that scum-of-the-earth criminal Frank Miller, a man who has sworn vengeance against him, has been pardoned and is due to arrive on the noon train. Once reunited with his gang of three cutthroats at the station, Miller intends to ride into town and gun Kane down.

Retired, and intending to leave anyway, Kane rides out with his wife, only to turn back, at Kane’s insistence, so that he can face his aggressors. Abandoned by his impudent deputy, Harvey (Lloyd Bridges), however, and unable to deputize the cowardly townsfolk, it looks as if he must face the Millers alone. As if this wasn’t trouble enough, Kane’s decision to stand his ground drives a wedge between him and his Quaker wife. Not wanting to wait an hour to find out whether she’ll be a widow, pacifist Amy threatens to leave Kane if he faces the bandits.

Despite his 1952 best actor win, Cooper’s characterization of Will Kane is beaten out in broad strokes. A few serious lines are either paced too bluntly, or delivered with melodramatic breaks in eye-contact and side-to-side glances. This is not all Cooper’s doing though; the actor’s relationship to the camera, generally, does not seem to have been adequately worked out, and the occasional close-up unduly exaggerates his gestures. His character’s initial introduction, prior to news of the Miller gang’s impending arrival, also seems misjudged. Confronted with the same blinky, moist-eyed act he perpetuates throughout the film, we are unsure as to why Kane should seem so visibly discomforted at this point in the story (particularly as he marries a Grace Kelly less than half his age).

High Noon’s narrative unfolds in almost real-time as the fatal hour creeps closer, and the now-iconic shots of the clock seem to expand each moment, investing it with urgency. The film’s editing is for the most part carefully handled and highly effective: a wonderful pulse-thudding montage startles us with the dread of the situation when the hour is finally struck. The opening scenes make good use of energetic and creative cinematography to perpetually reinsert the viewer into the thrust of the narrative. The film is, however, somewhat let down by the intrusive repetition of its theme-tune, which undermines the subtleties of particular scenes by explicitly cataloging basic events in the plot.

The effective use of cross-cutting easily sustains High Noon’s real-time trajectory and helps make us feel this town is a real location with a temporal life of its own. It is at the level of attributing real character to its townsfolk, however, that the film falters and allows us to question its thematic agenda.

The townspeople’s attitudes toward Miller’s gang are so inconsistent it seems implausible that they should, ultimately, behave so uniformly. These people are purposely intended to make life difficult for our hero, rather than acting of their own accord in such a way that would allow this situation to arise naturally. As the gang rides into town, people scurry in fear; one woman sanctifies the space through which they pass with a sign of the cross. Clearly these men are devils incarnate. Later, however, a hotelier admits a fondness for the Millers, whose presence made his business more profitable. The same goes for the bartender, whose patrons also liked having the Millers around, so much so that, prior to Frank Miller’s arrival, his brother rides in to town for a drink with his old friends. Despite this, when Kane attempts to raise a posse in the same bar the reason for the men’s reluctance is inexplicably given as their fear of being outnumbered, rather than that they are unwilling. In this way, the film seems to adjust the characterization of the Millers and the townsfolk’s attitude to them to suit its moral and emotional purpose, ensuring the villains are greatly feared while having everyone still effectively end up on their side. This episode makes the townspeople’s collective failure to act seem unnaturally unanimous—a device for increasing Cooper’s isolation, inflating his bravery and sustaining this trial of his manhood.

The problem with this is that while High Noon surely purports to demonstrate how a group of people can be murderous through their very passivity, it never convincing portrays group psychology at all. The scenario it presents is a priori contrived to morally endorse a masculine ideal of independence and bravery. At the same time, one suspects the film uses Cooper’s visible moments of self-doubt to assure the viewer that because this isn’t a pretty situation what they are cheering for cannot be mere egotism and pride.

And if it isn’t egotism, it is something odorously close to it. As he famously attempts to raise a posse in the church, Kane is advised to leave town because it is his presence alone that ensures trouble. Anyway, the church-goers argue, when the new Marshal arrives, he will have the community’s full support should trouble eventuate. The film, of course, intends for us to frown on this position, and uses it to reinforce Kane’s pitiful isolation (and thus our sympathy for and identification with him). However, because the story consistently declines to clarify whether leaving would not indeed cancel the threat of violence to Amy and himself (a subject of dispute from early in the film), we cannot see that his insistence on staying is more than a matter of pride. The film’s music also seems to emphasize foremost damage to one’s own ego and reputation, with its fear that the protagonist will “lie a coward, a craven coward—lie a co-ward in [his] grave.” Despite what Kane might do, then, High Noon is insistent that some problems must be solved through violent force and, without due explanation, that this is one of them.

The construction of the bad guys is just as targeted toward testing Kane’s manhood: hardly real characters, they ride into the town as if possessed, accompanied by ominous musical themes to assure us of their inexorable badness. The problem they pose seems speculative—a worst-case scenario—rather than realistic, because the challenge to Cooper’s masculinity they bring about is what the film really wishes to focus on. An interesting variation in their appearance concerns Ben Miller (Sheb Wooley), who observes Amy from a distance as she visits the train station with an approving “Hey, that wasn’t here five years ago.” The handsome Ben shows none of the roiling antagonism and scrunched features of his fellow gang-members, and the pleasure he takes in seeing Amy seems to threaten Kane with cuckoldry more than violence: there is more to this conflict than the basic narrative admits.

High Noon’s problematic politics are most immediately enacted through the relationship between Kane and Amy, and one of the film’s more dissatisfying moves is the arrogant dismissal of the latter’s position on the conflict in which she and her husband are embroiled (that they should leave town as originally planned and avoid the confrontation). At one point in the film, Amy gets it into her head that Kane refuses to leave because of some lingering devotion to his past love, Helen (Katy Jurado). She visits the older woman, requesting she allow her husband to go. This otherwise unnecessary plot point allows the film to use Helen to morally silence Amy with the reason her husband must stay (because he is a man who stands up for himself), enforcing the film’s dominant politics of masculinity from an apparently objective point of view.

The specific language Helen uses to do this is even more interesting. To Amy’s question of why her husband won’t leave, Helen responds: “If you don’t know, I can’t explain it to you.” This is a direct echo of Kane’s response to Harvey’s question about why he cannot be made Sheriff on a whim. In this way, Amy (the “child bride”) is associated with the explicitly childish Harvey, and her pacifism denounced as a product of her immaturity rather than treated as a legitimate philosophical viewpoint.

To be fair, the film does allow us a degree of moral ambiguity when Amy responds to Helen by recalling the death of her family through gun-violence, giving us a real sense of the trauma it may inflict. However, this ambiguity serves as a kind of rhetorical holding-bay. The film temporarily abstains from clearing up our moral ambivalence until it can do so with the kind of dramatic absolutism afforded by its finale, in which Amy rejects her pacifism by killing one of her husband’s attackers.

Prior to the climax of this ideologically questionable character-arc, Amy urgently proceeds to the scene of the showdown where she encounters the dead body of one of her husband’s assailants. This spectacle, given to us from her perspective, viscerally recalls the horror of violence she experienced as a child and led her to pacifism. Now that she has decided to do the “right thing” and stick by her husband, the corpse occurs as a faintly sadistic test of her courage. However, in a move that is surely intended to disappoint or frustrate the viewer, she fails this test: traumatized, she locks herself in the Marshal’s office alone. The viewer counts her out; in fact, her turn-around here might even render her more treacherous than before—for she decided to help her husband only to wimp out once our expectations were up. Through this, the character is maneuvered to such a point that only a violent act can redeem her in the viewer’s eyes. Not only must her pacifist ideology be abandoned, but she must bring herself to commit real violence in order to legitimize her devotion to her husband.

In one scene of Zinnemann’s film, Harvey overhears the bartender admit that, while he doesn’t like Kane, the man has guts. Turning to Harvey, he claims that his own decision to abandon Kane showed brains. Harvey, of course, tired of being considered but a boy, doesn’t want brains. In the world of High Noon, guts and brains are oppositional: guts are what really make the man, and the specific logic of Kane’s predicament is secondary.

This focus on the ethos of masculinity is High Noon’s real interest, and the dilemma at the narrative’s center is geared to provide a morally approved pretext for its demonstration. When questioned as to why he will not allow himself to run, Kane responds: “I don’t know.” His need to stay is something ideologically ingrained and normalized rather than ethically argued-for or justified.

Whatever High Noon’s politics, the film is more than a straightforward male fantasy; it takes us on a fascinating emotional and intellectual journey, lingering at a number of psychic places that we would probably prefer not to visit. If we are to share in Kane’s triumph, the film still asks we share in his doubt and, at times, piercing vulnerability. The narrative manages the passing of diegetic time and its significance masterfully, and there isn’t a moment that it fails to engage the viewer. Combined with this stylistic energy, High Noon’s controversial politics and its enduring cultural impact make it essential and discussion-provoking viewing.

Maverick, inspired by the comic-Western TV series of the same name, opens with eponymous gambler and smart-mouth extraordinaire Bret Maverick (Mel Gibson) reddening at the wrong end of a rope, only the horse on which he is precariously balanced keeping him from the longest drop of them all. A bunch of belligerent hombres, framed in Leone-esque close-up, squint at their victim a few times through the desert heat before riding away—leaving our hero in a situation as sticky as his bulging forehead.

This surly Spaghetti Western tribute, with its terse dialogue and sweaty close-ups, is amusingly disrupted as Maverick’s lackadaisical voiceover kicks in: “It’d just been a shitty week for me from the beginning…” Unfortunately this irreverent introduction is the apex of Maverick’s wit, and what follows is an almost interminable stream of lowball, throwaway gags and scenarios that fail to distract one from the film’s underlying banality.

Naturally, at this point Bret Maverick begins explaining how this less than ideal week began. We see him riding into the town of Crystal River (on a donkey, no less) to collect $3,000 owed to him so he can pay the entrance fee of an upcoming poker tournament. Before long, he crosses paths with a sassy swindler calling herself Annabelle (Jodie Foster) and swanky Annabelle-admiring drip James Garner, both of whom join him in a series of generally forgettable hijinks it would take more time than the task is worth to describe—as well as divesting them of what paltry humor they possess.

In essence, though, Maverick’s plot doesn’t so much unfold as regurgitate. The film is indulgent, overstuffed, and critically overlong. You’ll probably be left wondering how what initially appears a light, fun-loving venture went on to produce such a wearying circus of a movie, possessed of neither narrative nor comedic thrust. This situation is significantly worsened by the story’s final twists (although “seizures” is probably more accurate, given both their frequency and lack of restraint), which are arbitrary to the point of indifference in addition to dragging the film out at least twenty minutes longer than tolerable.

To his credit, Gibson’s natural charm sustains Maverick’s momentum as long as possible, as he hams it up with a delightful mixture of giddiness and guile. Unfortunately, the film’s numerous secondary character-interactions are awkward and disengaging. Characters speak merely because the actors who portray them have a line to deliver—or because they’re cuing Maverick to respond with a better one—and despite expensive sets and plentiful extras we never once believe in the existence of a living, breathing world outside the moment-to-moment shenanigans of our hero.

Maverick is also chockful of cameos, such is the script’s compulsion to help itself to everything within reach, however ineffective. In the midst of a heist scene, Danny Glover exchanges bemused glances with Gibson. And, just in case you didn’t get this egotistical reference to Lethal Weapon (also directed by Richard Donner) the first time, Sergeant Murtaugh is sure to mention that he’s “too old for this shit” a minute or so later. James Coburn makes a more sustained appearance toward the conclusion, although even his formidable screen-presence fails to adequately resuscitate a narrative that is, by this point, clearly dead on arrival.

Screenwriter William Goldman already had the financially overwrought though highly successful Western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) under his many-notched belt prior to penning Maverick. Maverick is certainly a worse film than BC&TSK—lacking that picture’s remarkable visual flair and narrative directness. Nevertheless, there are similarities in the flaws of both productions: an overestimation of audience goodwill, and an over-reliance on swashbuckling star power and big-budget pizazz. Maverick’s particular failings are underscored by its incompetent management of the comic pace established by its witty opening scene, and the presumption that tired “jackass”/donkey puns or gunslinging clichés will revive its flagging plot at every turn.

The thing is, the pulpy caricatures and one-dimensional plotting of Maverick would be perfectly enjoyable if only the film was as funny as it seems convinced that it is (Maverick is so convinced of its humor that, at a soporific 127 minutes, it can hardly even bring itself to end). Somewhere here a deal has gone frustratingly awry: the merry antics of Donner’s film promise foremost to entertain, to charm us—sweep us off our feet. Although, by the halfway point one feels as if they are doing everyone in this overpopulated production a favor by sitting through it.  2.5 / 5

Bend of the River (1952)

Action by the wagonload in this masterful piece of high adventure from Anthony Mann. James Stewart plays Glyn McLyntock, an ex-outlaw scouting for a caravan of settlers on their way to Oregon. When the supplies required to hold the settlers over during the winter don’t arrive from Portland, McLyntock drops by to discover the townsfolk rolling like pigs in the newfound wealth of a gold rush. The value of his already paid for stores has skyrocketed, muscling him out of market.

Dodging extortion in a head-over-heels dockside shootout, McLyntock and his friend Emerson Cole (Arthur Kennedy) escape upriver with the goods in a steamboat to continue to their work of seeing the settlers to safety. Treachery, however, is never far away, as the lure of profiteering proves too much for several of McLyntock’s company.

Bend of the River’s journey narrative gives Mann the chance to display his talent for intensely visual storytelling: he makes breathtaking use of the cinematic canvas, focusing on the landscape in order to guide attention back to the human struggles that undermine the lofty dreams it inspires. The film develops several classic Western themes, such as the tension between the pride of building townships and apprehension at what they might become, and the fear of being overrun by the ruthlessness of urbanization even as you succeed in fighting it off in the form of hired goons. Man-with-a-past McLyntock represents the tenuous but irresistible hope that the blank slate of the frontier will allow its inhabitants to change their past. Bend of the River’s landscape is a quasi-spiritual place that can remake a person in their own idealized self-image. Greed and betrayal can make it here too, however, and we are constantly reminded that some leopards have no intention of changing their spots.

The film’s representation of the settler dream is dominated by the poetics of complicity with nature rather than conquest of it, and the grace of the steamboat that carries McLyntock and co. contrasts mournfully with the squalid image of “civilization” presented by early Portland. The increasing ubiquity of gold, however—as a natural product itself—is linked with urban inflation and corruption. The film uses this subtly forged connection to question the ideal of a simple, frontier life, and to hint at the Western dream’s inevitable decline.

Bend of the River’s drawbacks are minimal and their mention also risks their unfair exaggeration. Nevertheless, score and image are occasionally mismatched, particularly during the confrontation with the natives. And although this scene showcases some of the film’s more intrepid camerawork, the role of the natives is questionably limited to frightening and chameleonic reminders of the “wildness” of the natural environment.

What is ultimately so engaging about Mann’s film is its combination of subtle, personal and communal crises and joyously hell-or-high-water narrative pacing. Bend of the River is no high-flown think-piece: it’s a down home adventure with bucking horses, roaring rifles and a blockbuster final act that swashbuckles with the best of them. 5 / 5

No gaudy lasso shenanigans or puffed-up pistoleers in this unique and moody picture from 1943. Henry Fonda plays everyday cowpoke Gil Carter who, along with friend Art Croft (Harry Morgan) rides into Bridger’s Wells in the hope of finding the sweetheart who seems to have made a few more promises than she can keep.

The girl isn’t there, but the two manage to get caught up in the hunt for the murderers of a local Irishman in this gripping tale of (among other things) how small-town affection for locals can have a dark—not to say farcical—side, and how bumpkin boredom might lend itself to bloodlust.

The murder of the Irishman, reportedly in some kind of cattle-heist gone wrong, sparks a frenzy among the locals and, with the sheriff out of town, they ride out almost immediately to find and punish those responsible. Among the most eager of the lynchers is the quasi-regal Major Tetley (Frank Conroy), a confederate who saw little real action in the war and occupies himself by bullying his son (William Eythe) for the “feminine” weakness he sees in the boy. This strained relationship sets up the film’s interest in a kind of masculine posturing that obscures profound insecurity. And it veritably supercharges the confrontation created when a group of self-declared innocent campers are apprehended and standing up for real justice is labeled cowardice.

Few films achieve this combination of atmosphere and momentum. The Ox-Bow Incident is shot with the darkest of beauty as the posse’s night time journey into the woodland of Ox-Bow, where the hapless campers await, visually illustrates their moral transition. The wild landscape becomes a metaphor for the uncharted regions of their own aggression and insecurity, while the arrival of daylight is speculated to bring the arrival of the sheriff—that is, the force of rationality. A scene in which Tetley hassles one of the accused as campfire flames flicker and a vigilante townsman swings the hanging rope like a pendulum in the background is one of many examples of the film making full yet subtle use of the mise-en-scène to build tension.

The Ox-Bow Incident is scarcely less than a perfect picture. The speeches in the early part of the film may come across as slightly stagey and deliberative, but generally the film’s dialogue is both taut and evocative, and convincing performances from all involved ensure it largely transcends the self-righteous proselytizing of many modern justice-themed dramas. The thing is: the audience is sure all along that the accused men will turn out to be innocent, but this is hardly the point as the film shines a harsh light on mob-mentality, manhood, father-son antagonism, and the role of deeply personal fears in the enforcement of ‘objective’ authority. And, even though the innocent/guilty question is superficially predictable, the dénouement still surprises with its deft combination of resolution and horror.

The Ox-Bow Incident was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry in 1998; it remains a true milestone of the Western’s first half-century, and one of Henry Fonda’s finest films.  5 / 5

The writer must admit a sentimental bias: Tombstone was one of those films we kept around the house growing up, a VHS copy recorded off the television perhaps a year after its release. It was probably first watched by me and, later, my younger brother, as it seemed subject to some loophole or blindspot in my parents’ otherwise stringent regulation of violent viewing. We kept watching it, however, in the years to come and when no holes were barred, because it’s a terrific actioner: stylish, momentous, and filled with highly economical yet effective (and often memorable) performances. Love of the genre appeared out of the mist somewhere around here.

Whereas Lawrence Kasdan’s Wyatt Earp (1994), released around the same time, tells loosely the same story with a sublime moodiness and angst, George P. Cosmatos’s Tombstone rides off with pulpy vigor. Wyatt Earp meets up with brothers Virgil (Sam Elliott) and Morgan (Bill Paxton) in ‘boomtown’ Tombstone, intent on putting his lawman days behind him and going into business. Try as he might to ignore it, however, Tombstone strikes Wyatt as a kind of ruined paradise, gradually throttled by the Cowboys, a gang headed by the villainous Curly Bill Brocius (Powers Boothe) and Johnny Ringo (Michael Biehn). Unable to bring himself to exploit the town’s misfortune, the reluctant Wyatt is dragged back into law enforcement at the crabby behest of his brothers. Establishing new laws, they charge themselves with reining in the cowboys and making Tombstone livable for ordinary folk. “Justice,” as the tagline advises, “is coming.”

As Earp, Kurt Russell is stone-faced and eagle-eyed in the best kind of way, a storehouse of guilt and ambivalence. However, the film spends considerably more time introducing Doc Holiday, his tubercular buddy, played by Val Kilmer in an inspired performance. Rake-thin and chalk-pale, Kilmer’s Holiday sways around the movie with a effete charisma, firing wise-cracks as efficiently as he does his pistols.

Not everything in Tombstone works. Although my patience for all that lovey stuff may have advanced since I was ten, I can understand why I routinely fast-forwarded the romantic excursion of Wyatt and paramour Josephine. Wyatt’s martial woes aren’t disinteresting, exactly, but too far removed from the focus of the greater narrative. They also threaten to overload Wyatt’s character. His guilt over his past actions as a lawman is crucial to the plot, and clearly signaled; anxieties of a rather different variety threatened to push this into the background. Josephine herself is of little interest—a too-consciously ‘scandalous’ free-spirit, sassy to the point of tedium. Additionally, Jason Priestley, the cultured cowboy-associate, becomes enamored with a travelling theatre performer (Billy Zane) in queer subplot that would be fascinating were it not underdeveloped and, again, only loosely connected with the main drama.

Ultimately, however, Tombstone is a pretty easy film to like. It also looks splendid: the sight of Holiday, Wyatt, and bros strolling four-abreast toward the O. K. Corral, black-clad and meaning business was some costume designer’s proud moment. Cinematographically, the film borrows with skillful restraint from Leone and Peckinpah in the framing of its gunfights. Moreover, Bruce Broughton provides the film with one of the most underrated Western scores, which plays a crucial role in catching the viewer up into its thrilling gallop. Justice is coming, indeed.

4 / 5

“The Revolution,” according to a curiously candid white-on-black insert, “is not a social dinner, it is not a literary event, a drawing or an embroidery…” Chairman Mao’s quote is punctuated by A Fistful of Dynamite’s unglamorous first images: a close-up of tree trunk ant-traffic being overwhelmed by a powerstream of piss. It is an ironically bodily metaphor to kick off a big-hearted picture. Make no mistake: Fistful is an oaf, parading its hangdog humor with black-toothed grin. But how remarkable it then seems when this grotty lout, to the serenading strains of Morricone’s score, actually dazzles you with its elegance, pirouettes before your very eyes, sidles right up to you and—lo and behold—you swoon.

But before that… As they tumble to the ground the poor critters are hosed again for good measure. We see a pair of dirtied, bare feet nonchalantly shaken free of any unexpected blowback. The stocky, bearded fellow on the (relatively) dry end of the piss offensive is also our hero, or one of them at least—and one as reluctant as he is unlikely.

The year is 1913, and in the midst of the Mexican revolution pistol dynamo and salt-of-the-earth grub Juan (Rod Steiger) is quite content keeping his hands clean—metaphorically, that is. And of matters political, that is—preferring to occupy himself robbing the baleful Mexican upperclass as they’re stagecoached from the troubled region with the most intolerable pomp.

Enter Sean Mallory (James Coburn), an IRA dynamiter on the run from the British authorities. The two form an unlikely alliance when Juan, in an amusingly crackpot epiphany, envisions using Sean’s expertise to blast his way in to Mesa Verde Bank. Little does Juan know that Sean has promised his services to the Mexican revolutionaries, and hitting the bank is actually a move far more “political” than the crass campesino realizes.

One of Fistful’s most endearing charms is the sheer ingenuousness of its shifts from the absurd to the heartfelt. With a childlike lack of coercion the viewer is led to take very seriously what is, ostensibly, a very cheeky film. For one thing, the line between homage and parody was never so ambiguous as it is in Fistful. The Western genre’s Americanism is a subject of both adoration and triumphant irreverence: “You’ll pay for this, you bastard,” cries one of Juan’s victims, having been relieved of his clothes as well as his possessions, “I’m a citizen of the United Stated of America!” The bandit’s father wheezes indifferently: “To me you are just a naked son of a bitch.” The opening scene is surely a comical reference to the ant-torture that opens Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969), and Steiger’s portrayal of the loudmouth Juan puts one in mind of Tuco (Eli Wallach) from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)—a deadly goof who, if he doesn’t quite have a heart of gold, at least has the stuff on the brain. Moreover, the oddball temperament of Morricone’s score ensures the viewer’s eyebrow is at least as frequently cocked as firebrand Juan’s pistols.

But it is with this mongrel makeup that Leone’s film gives the mind an insistent prod and the heartstrings quite the heave-ho. The flashback sequences, long-time favorite of the Spaghetti Western dons (and gorgeously complemented here by a Once Upon a Time in the West-style musical theme), attribute a cryptic backstory to the character of Sean. He is the man without a past familiar from any number of Westerns, certainly, although Leone is able to skilfully suggest obscure personal trauma without ever compromising the chummy accessibility necessary to sustain the character’s central position in a colorful adventure like this one.

It’s not all good-time quirkiness and candor, however. Ungainly charm aside, Fistful’s pacing goes belly-up several times, a problem possibly attributable to its playful brand of characterization—one that doesn’t lend itself particularly well to deficits in action or prolonged, single character scenes. Either way, the film feels at least a little disjointed and overdrawn. Nevertheless, one of Fistful’s grandest coups is the number of times Morricone’s score, like a character in itself, is able to shoulder the narrative momentum and push the film to its emotional peaks.

The most arresting of these relate to what is perhaps the film’s primary theme: betrayal. It seems modes of insecticide aren’t the only thing Leone picked up from Peckinpah: forms of betrayal (personal, political) are as central to A Fistful of Dynamite as they are to that director’s oeuvre. Finally, it is the compelling and nuanced exploration of this subject that makes Leone’s final Western, if not a better one than its much lauded predecessors, quite a different one—and certainly one worth watching.  3.5 / 5