Jubal (1956)

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There’s no doubt about it. Jubal boasts absolutely gorgeous imagery and how can you miss with a backdrop as majestic as the Grand Tetons and Jackson Hole, Wyoming? Its looming grandeur is evident in just about every single exterior shot — a continuous hallmark of classical frontier visions.

This element alone will quickly cause many western aficionados to recall one of the finest in the genre, George Stevens’ Shane (1953), which was also shot in the same area and consequently, exhibits a broadly similar plotline. However, that can be attributed to the fact westerns often busy themselves with tales of lone drifters riding toward new destinations in an effort to escape some unnamed force in their past. Jubal (Glenn Ford) is molded out of the same archetype.

Except Jubal winds up at the cattle ranch of the welcoming Sherp Horgan (Ernest Borgnine), who finds the other man frostbitten and proceeds to give him shelter and a cup of coffee. That’s just Sherp’s way, even though he’s a fairly prosperous man with a pretty wife (Valerie French), he’s instantly likable and beloved by everyone, in spite of his good-natured prattling.

The figure instantly positioned as an antagonist is Pinky (Rod Steiger) who right off the bat accuses the other man of smelling of sheep. He holds sheepherders in disdain but soon feels like his position on the ranch is under threat. Because despite being a newcomer, Jubal instantly makes an impression as a reserved but nevertheless trustworthy and hardworking ranch hand.

He gains the favor of Sherp even as he’s bent on moving on. That’s his nature. Delmer Daves serves as both screenwriter and director, adapting a story bearing the strains of Shakespeare’s Othello but again, like comparison’s with Shane, it’s true most stories have narratives scouring similar cisterns for inspiration. What matters most is what they offer us that is unique.

Ultimately, Jubal does decide to stay on a spell and the consequences are not unfelt. He conceals a buried hurt that supplies our character conflict. In some regards, as best as I can describe it, he fits too neatly into a box as it all comes gushing out when talking with a pretty ingenue played by Felicia Farr. As he discloses his deep-seated hurt, Jube readily acknowledges he’s never shared this boyhood trauma with anyone else. There’s something about her genial innocence setting him instantly at ease.

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Her parents are part of an unnamed religious caravan searching for the Promised Land and Jubal is instrumental in allowing them to stay on the ranch, even as Pinky fights for them to move along. He’s continually looking to belittle and lessen Jubal in Horgan’s eyes by any means possible.

Meanwhile, the seductive onslaughts turned toward Jubal, coupled with slanderous verbal assaults from a jealous rival, look to take the man down one way or another. Yet he will do nothing to compromise himself. He stands firm with integrity but like Joseph with Potiphar’s wife, you know he will be blamed for something he had no hand in.

The whole film is really an exhibition in differing acting styles rubbing up against each other. Rod Steiger, of course, immersed himself in “The Method,” famously playing alongside Brando in On The Waterfront (1954). In Jubal, you can very easily see the early shades of Officer Gillespie, though Pinky is arguably worse as an animalistic brute with a bur in his backside.

You can also easily see how his animosity could have spilled over into everything and soured his working relationship with Ford and Borgnine, who maintain a more naturalistic even intuitive style. Regardless, each man feels well-suited to their respective parts.

The same can be said of John Dierkes as well and Noah Beery Jr., as genial as ever, playing on the fiddle as another ranch hand. Charles Bronson at first seems a curious even suspicious character although his purpose becomes evident as he becomes the go-between to vouch for others, knowing both the worlds of the religious pilgrims and the ranchers. Jack Elam is features though he doesn’t have much to do while Victoria French’s role relies heavily on her being a tantalizing seductress, constantly coaxing Jubal into some sort of romantic tryst.

The film is a testament to the intrigue found in continuous antipathy and an almost fatalistic sense of powerlessness in the face of inevitable doom. In other words, no matter how hard he tries, it seems like Jube will never be able to win.

My main qualm, however, is in the ending. I’m used to abrupt endings but the film seems to have delegated its time in the wrong ways. The beauty of the film thus far was its smoldering potential threat which led to some invariably dark turns. By the final juncture, we essentially know what will happen but we relish them coming to fruition in a cathartically cinematic fashion.

While Jubal gets the girl and clears his name, he only gets a very brief showdown with the continual thorn in his side, Pinky, before the doctor comes out of the shed to pronounce death with the other man being guilty of certain indiscretions.

So in very basic terms what could have been a more thrilling culmination is all but cut short. Vindication is made easy. Otherwise, the picture boils to the end thanks to the maddening rage of Steiger, which is capable of twisting every minor detail into more ammunition to try and sway the mob and bury another man in his premature grave.

The necessity is that Ford is and remains throughout the film a white knight, never has a lapse of character, and even goes after the good girl. It’s the circumstances that are constantly against him. It makes for a tumultuous and repeatedly helpless state of being for the entirety of the film. The blip before “The End” loses a bit of this tension but up to that point, Jubal makes good as a friction-filled western drama.

4/5 Stars

Hard Times (1975)

Hard_Times_(1975_movie_poster)It’s hardly Charles Dickens, but still, Hard Times is a real tooth and claw street brawler.  We have Charles Bronson as our token taciturn drifter, tough and down on his luck during the Depression. James Coburn is Speed, a fast-talking promoter looking for a quick buck. Walter Hill’s film may not be pretty to look at, but boy is it a lot of fun! Everyone’s favorite supporting scene stealer Strother Martin makes an appearance as a sometime doctor who dropped out of med school. These three men are at the center of an evolving partnership that comes into being on the streets of New Orleans, that hopping town of jazz, juke joints, and bare-knuckle boxing. The latter is the most important for the men aforementioned because, with Speed as his manager and Poe as his ringside doc, Chaney looks to rule the ocean front with his grit and tenacity.

Bars, wharfs, cages, doesn’t matter. If you want him to fight he will, and he’ll win. Quickly any derisive jeers or chants of “old man” go to the wayside as Chaney is quick to pummel and beat back any man who is sent his way. But fighting isn’t all that important to him, it’s just a way to make a living. In fact, that really reflects his entire outlook on life. He has a gal pal (Jill Ireland) who he drops in on from time to time, but it’s nothing too serious, not for him.

He joins forces with Speed only when he’s good and ready. He’s not one to take orders or to allow others to make decisions for him. But it’s in the film’s climactic moments where he is forced into something that he could care less about. Speed’s in trouble with some local mobsters leaning on him. His only outlet is one last fight where Chaney will face off with some new blood in town brought in by the local businessman Chick Gandil.

Chaney is forced to put up all the money he has just to save Speed’s neck and he does it. He finishes the work too, only to walk away from that town in preparation for the next stage of his life as a man who’s never tied down or kept in one place for too long. He boards the northbound train with Speed and Poe grinning from ear to ear because they have never seen anything like him and probably never will again.

The Bronson and Coburn reunion is hardly The Magnificent Seven or The Great Escape, but it’s a trifle full with enough action to make it relatively enjoyable. After all, it’s two of the great action stars of the 1960s back together again so it’s bound to be at least watchable. That it is, and it does have its share of tense moments.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: The Magnificent Seven (1960)

themagnif1“Nobody throws me my own guns and says ride on. Nobody” ~ James Coburn as Britt

People always resonate with stories of valor, honor, and bravery. It doesn’t matter if it’s a war film, a tale of samurai, or a western. Thus, Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai rather seamlessly became The Magnificent Seven, one of the most reputed westerns of the 1960s.

In theory & practice, it has everything you want in a western from a stellar cast to thrilling gunfights matched by one of the most epic soundtracks ever coming out of the annals of cinema.

But although it’s script is not exactly taut, you can hardly accuse The Magnificent Seven of being superficial. Its characters and its narrative are too satisfying for such a claim. After all, who wouldn’t want to see such a company as Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Horst Bucholtz, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Robert Vaughan, and Brad Dexter? You have “The King and I,” “The King of Cool,” and about every other figure you would want in a good shoot’em up. They were seven who fought like 700.

In not completely splitting with its samurai roots, this western deals in moral codes and issues of honor perhaps more closely than even many of the best known western. The main issue here is that this laconic and sleek gang is brought together to defend a small Mexican border town made up of farmers against a bandit and his band of marauders. What causes men such as these to take on such a dangerous and in many ways such a one-sided job? For some it’s money (because they have none), some want the excitement, and for others, it’s something different. But all that matters is they all go into this together – some of the deadliest guns prepared to duke it out.

themagnif3Into the valley road the seven rather like the light brigade, at first simply preparing to train up and prepare their little village of farmers to fight back against the brutal outlaw Calvera (Eli Wallach). But there’s something that happens over time. When you spend time in close proximity with people, eating their food and sharing their shelter, it’s hard not to build a bond — a connection that holds you there. At first, it seems of little consequence when the enemy gets beaten back, but everyone knows they will return with a vengeance.

Ultimately, the seven are betrayed and are given a clear choice. They can keep moving on or turn back the way they came. It’s just a small inconsequential town, but they cannot turn their back on it, even when they were betrayed. They grapple with what’s good, what’s right, and what’s rational, and then make their decision. It goes against all reason and yet into the valley road the seven together (eventually).

themagnif2And we get the final skirmish with guns blazing, bullets flying, and lives being put on the line. Here is a film where the final body count deeply matters. Not so much of the enemy, but of our heroes, because each one chisels out a little niche for themselves. Everyone has worth and importance even as they jockey for screen time and it pays off in the end. They fight with honor just as they die with honor. Perhaps it might seem futile, but not without significance. The little village is left in peace to live out their days in tranquility. Calvera’s final words echo in their ears: “You came back – for a place like this. Why? A man like you. Why?”

Elmer Bernstein’s score is masterclass. Majestic, grand, playfully prancing about, and at the same time eliciting a grin from any boy who has ever dreamed of the Wild West. Furthermore, there are so many characters to idolize, because this film made ensemble action films the style along with the likes of The Great Escape, The Professionals, and The Dirty Dozen to name a few. This has always been one of my father’s favorite film’s and I can completely understand why. It has gunfights, bad guys, and good guys, quips, and tricks. But at the most basic level, it’s a striking parable about moral codes, personal pride, and the sacrifice that goes along with such things.

4.5/5 Stars

Review: Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

Once_upon_a_Time_in_the_West 2I’m not well versed in Spaghetti Westerns, but I certainly do not need someone to tell me that Sergio Leone’s film is a sprawling epic. That’s an understatement if there ever was one. The cast, the score, the visuals. Everything about it fits together so marvelously. All the moving parts succeed in developing a majestic piece of cinema that really is awesome. I try not to use that word lightly.

Recently I saw Tarantino’s Django Unchained which of course pays homage to the Spaghetti Western, and it undoubtedly exhibits the Tarantino style. However, Leone’s film lingers as well, but with Once Upon a Time in the West, I didn’t mind. The film, after all, has a cold open that lasts 13 minutes and most of it is spent staring at Jack Elam and Woody Strode. Except the way Leone captures it all, I don’t really mind. In fact, I thoroughly enjoy it. Whereas Tarantino’s film felt like it was dawdling, Leone’s film didn’t seem to dawdle. It was just stylish in its makeup.  The pacing at times feels like a lazy Sunday afternoon underlined by dread for something to come. Then for a brief blip, the trouble comes violently and then just like that it’s gone. Everything’s back to the status quo except this structure makes every killing and gunfight seem all the more dynamic.

The main players are Claudia Cardinale, James Bronson, Jason Robards, and Henry Fonda. Cardinale, of course, is one of the icons of cinema, and here she feels like a wonderful embodiment of this woman who helps bring civility to this land. Whether it’s simply her immense beauty or some emotion behind her eyes, it’s hard not to watch her every movement. First, as she learns she is a widow, next when she is introduced to the other main players, and finally when she sees her dead’s husband’s dreams forming all around her.

James Bronson as the aloof, but deadly “Harmonica” has to be at his coolest. He hardly has to say anything because that ominous harmonica music is his calling card. Every time we hear it we know he’s around and also his eyes are so expressive. Sergio Leone is never squeamish about lingering on his star’s faces. In fact, that paired with landscapes is one of his signatures that helps define his iconic style. The contrasts stand out and the interludes often lacking dialogue somehow help make his characters even cooler. They take on an air of mystery and in the case of “Harmonica”, we only understand his vendetta near the very end. It all starts to make sense.

Robards is the outlaw Cheyenne, who is pinned with the murder of McBain’s wife and children. A posse is after him and his gang, but he was actually pinned for the rap. He is cast in the light of a scruffy anti-hero and Robards plays him rough around the edges, but most importantly with a heart. He’s one of the few characters who seems to get Jill. He knows enough that none of the men around her are worthy of her, because she is a special class of woman, in spite of what her past may say.

Perhaps the most striking of casting choices was Henry Fonda because by now he was well along in his career and most certainly best known for his plain-speaking heroes. That’s what makes Frank such a great character because dressed in all black and armed with a revolver, he guns someone down the first moment we see him. It’s a shock and it sets the tone for the rest of the film. He goes on to backstab his sickly employer and continues to put pressure on Mrs. McBain to give up her land. It goes so far as taking advantage of her at her home. He’s a monster, but the part is such the antithesis of the Henry Fonda we know, making it a pure stroke of genius.

At least for me, you soon forget about the dubbing of certain characters and just allow yourself to become fully engaged in the dynamic West as envisioned by Leone. After all, since there isn’t a whole lot a dialogue, in some scenes it loses its importance. It’s often about the desolately depicted visuals. The wry smile on a face. The buzz of a pestering fly or the squeaking of a windmill. That’s another thing. This film puts sound to use so wonderfully. Whether it’s the harmonica, Morricone’s engaging score, or diegetic sounds. In fact, the score evolves and reprises in concordance with the pacing of the film. It can be ominous. It can be playful. And sometimes it’s nonexistent.

When it all comes down to it, we get the final showdown between “Harmonica” and Frank, but the film is a lot larger than that. After all, we have been following multiple characters. Jill finally sees the world around here coming to life, and she has weathered the Wild West as an independent woman. As for Cheyenne, he ends as a tragic hero of sorts. There’s no question, Leone’s film, arguably his greatest alongside The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, helps define a version of the West, with iconic characterizations placed up against striking pictorials. It’s one of those film’s that despite the length, never feels like a labor. A smile is constantly forming on my face, to mirror the visage of James Bronson. I really wish I could play the harmonica now. It’s so ridiculously cool! That’s what I really took away from this film.

5/5 Stars

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

27ccb-once_upon_a_time_in_the_westStarring Charles Bronson, Henry Fonda, Claudia Cardinale, and Jason Robards with director Sergio Leone, this is another memorable Italian western. The film follows a recently widowed beauty (Cardinale), the villainous killer who is after her (Fonda), a anti-hero bandit (Robards), and of course the man with a harmonica who is looking for revenge (Bronson). The gunman Frank commits murders, turns on his employer the railroad tycoon, and forces the widow to auction off her land. However, “Harmonica” comes to her aid and then he is confronted by Frank several times since he wants to know the man’s purpose. After a flashback we know what “Harmonica” wants and another gunfight ensues. The ending is bittersweet but the town’s future looks bright thanks to the railroad and the radiant widow. The long opening sequence sets the tone nicely for this visually beautiful film. It moves at its own pace and it has a good score and great characters including an evil Henry Fonda!

5/5 Stars

The Great Escape (1963)

Based on true events, this film describes the heroic exploits of POWs in a German Stalag during World War II. With extreme heart and teamwork the men take upon the task of making a massive escape. Led by Richard Attenbourough, Steve McQueen, James Garner, and Charles Bronson to name a few, they begin their monumental task. Despite adversity, their plan slowly becomes reality and escape is imminent. When the time comes over 70 men get away in the night, escaping secretly across Germany. However, relief is quickly replaced by tragedy as many of the escapees are shot or captured. Through it all the Allies struggle courageously against the Nazis. By the end they may be a little battered but they certainly are not beaten. Besides a wonderful ensemble cast, this film has one of the most iconic themes and chase scenes of all time.

4.5/5 Stars

The Magnificent Seven (1960)

544c6-magnificent_originalIn honor of my Dad’s birthday I wanted to review his favorite movie of all time.

Adapted as a western from Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, Yul Brynner is a hired gun who agrees to take a job from Mexican farmers protecting their village from bandits. Gradually, he enlists the help of old friends and new acquaintances who are all handy with a gun. Working with the village men, they are able to deter the bandits. However, the threat of the marauders returning has the villagers scared so they turn against their hired guns. In a fit of bravery, Brynner returns with the others fighting desperately to liberate the village. They are ultimately victorious, but not without causalities with four of the men dying. These men were the seven who fought like 700 and they did something seemingly ludicrous because it was the courageous thing to do. This great cast includes Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Robert Vaughan, Horst Buckholz, Brad Dexter, and Eli Wallach. The score by Elmer Bernstein is one of the best. If you want to see a good western then look no further.

4.5/5 Stars