Ride the High Country (1962)

28 09 2008

Sam Peckinpah’s second film is rightfully considered a landmark in the western genre, but that doesn’t exactly make it the masterpiece that many hype it up to be. More than anything, it is just a simple, almost mindless joy to watch. It’s a harmless type of fun to see Randolph Scott in his very last performance as well as to see Warren Oates in one of his earliest. It’s nice to see the end of one generation of western aesthetics collide with a new generation. This is, after all, technically the last “classic western” and everything that has come after has been labeled  revisionist, or modern, or something to that effect.

My personal enjoyment of this film does come with some context. It helps a great deal to not only be familiar with the film’s cast, but to also be a big fan of it. I can definitely get behind any film that puts Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott together, let alone anything that features Warren Oates. Had these roles been filled by actors I had no interest in, the film itself will probably be fairly unremarkable. However, these people are in these roles and each and every one of them is a joy to watch. At first, it took awhile to get use to seeing Scott play a character that was so self-conscious of his age. In all of the Boetticher films I’ve seen with him, he seemed to hide that a great deal, appearing experienced, but not enough to be an old fogey. Here, though, he and McCrea are made out to be exactly that.

Eventually, though, it becomes quite easy to get use to as it turns out, Scott is essentially playing the exact same character he’s ever played except now he’s completely tired of his career. Seem familiar? Well, I suppose that definitely works in this film favor. There isn’t a particularly strong feeling that Scott himself is going to throw in the towel after this performance, but there are a few subtle hints that help give his character some complexity. Joel McCrea has a few similar moments, but the third “hero” (if you can call him that) seems to be put in simply to give a young guy for the oldies to shake their heads and roll their eyes at.

Other than that, though, Peckinpah is very much focused on pushing the plot forward. Thankfully, though, there are a few legitmately amazing moments. A good example would be pretty much every sequence with Warren Oates, but the wedding sequence seems to take the cake, at least in my opinion. It definitely has a great sense of kinetic energy that seems to welcome in the new generation of western filmmakers, while still paying its due to the originals. I suppose that’s what this is, overall. Peckinpah obviously wasn’t as concious of what a landmark his film would be when he made, but the viewer does, and personally, I think that helps the film’s case.

The Lost Patrol (1934)

28 09 2008

This is, at least to my knowledge, John Ford’s first full-fledged masterpiece. There are some charming touches in the earlier films of his that I’ve seen, but nothing as cohesively mindblowing as what is going on right here. It definitely helps a great deal that so many of my favorite Japanese directors seem to have been influenced a great deal by this. Of course, Ford’s influence on the Japanese is something worthy of a group of essays but it is still so fascinating (to me, at least) to see it unfold in the actual films. There’s so much to soak up here from the impressionistic photography (reminiscent of Murnau) to the straight-forward but extremely effective structure.

The film begins with the death of a commanding officer leading a British patrol unit through the Mesopotomian desert. Only he knew the way to the patrol’s destination, thus his death leaves the left of the unit lost. The group struggles to make it through the day, but they eventually stumble upon an oasis. Their joy is short-lived, however, as they find that desert’s dunes are covered with snipers in every possible direction. That doesn’t stop them from trying to escape from their oasis. Tensions come to the surface and soon, many of the survivors are driven to the brink of insanity, which leads to their demise.

I guess praising a film’s structure doesn’t make it out to be terribly exciting, but there’s definitely something special going on here. Personally, I’ve always felt a greater connection with the aesthetic and emotional parts of cinema, but there is something genuinely suspenseful about the apocalyptic nature of the narrative. Of course, Ford never imposes this idea on the audience, which only adds to how truly terrifying this film is. I suppose it kind of helps that Boris Karloff gets plenty of screentime, but again, this is a completely different type of horror. I still feel I’m short-selling the film a bit. One of Ford’s scariest touches comes in the sound design. The sound of the invisible snipers picking off the protagonist is so quick and quiet, but almost immediately alarming.

I say this a bit too often probably, but it really is the atmosphere that carries most of this film. The beautiful desert landscapes look unforgiving but beautiful and when it’s set up against the film’s aging stock, a whole new dimension of poetry is added. It’s not entirely unlike watching some of the archival footage in My Winnipeg for a whole feature length film. Sure, it might not be fair to give a film credit for something it has physically inherited over time, but it’s age seems to play such a crucial part in its tone. It probably helps that the cinematography here is just as lovely as in any of Ford’s more acclaimed efforts from the 1930s.

Yellow Sky (1949)

28 09 2008

No doubt about it – one of the best westerns ever and as a result, one of the best movies ever too. It really isolates everything that I love about the best works of Mann, Ford, and Boetticher, but also manages to eliminate all the minor problems I have with those films. Wellman’s The Ox-Bow Incident is just as strong, though that film itself becomes overshadowed by the story’s social conscious. Here, there is nothing remotely socially-driven, just a bare bones and beautifully photographed western. I’ve watched a lot of westerns lately, some good, others not so good, so it was smart on my part to see a film that reminded me why I fell in love with the genre in the first place.

If there is one small problem with this film, I’d say it is Gregory Peck as he is probably the only element that come close to being an exaggerated hero. No doubt, Henry Fonda would have been a better fit for such a role as his passiveness is much more realistic than Peck’s hamminess. Still, I wouldn’t go as far as to say that Peck’s performance is particularly bad. It’s just not one of the brighter parts of the picture. In his defense, his slightly theatrical performance may just be a decision made by my subconscious portrayal of Peck based on his other performances. Really, he’s just about as great as Randolph Scott in Comanche Station or Kirk Douglas in Along the Great Divide.

The real star here, outside of the landscapes and pitch-perfect atmosphere, is definitely Richard Widmark who seriously makes every remotely “evil” character he’s ever portrayed a lot more charming. It’s this odd but extremely intriguing dynamic: he’s a sleazeball, but almost in a classy way. Sure, he’s doing the same character here as the one in Pickup on South Street but he’s has that persona down perfectly. He is, in all honesty, probably more “dramatic” of an actor than Peck, but both have charming tendencies that aren’t describable. Needless to say, they work really well together, despite the fact that they don’t even share that many “one-on-one” scenes, which is another element that reflects just how “contemplative” the film’s tone is.

As I mentioned before, the most important aspect is the surroundings of these characters. It’s not simply beautiful landscapes. That’s something one can find in pretty much any western ever, but it is how Wellman composes his images with this perfect mood. A big contributor to this mood is the music, or lack thereof. One of the most immediate and striking aspects of the film is the absence of transition music. Rather than anticipating the mood of the next scene, Wellman seems to have his characters passively float from one sequence to another. I know I equate a lot of westerns to Antonioni-esque action films, but it definitely applies here. In fact, I’d say this is just as legitimately arty as L’Eclisse, which is a mighty big claim for an American studio film from 1949. It’s a film that is cold and bitter at the surface, not unlike its characters, but is a warm and expressive cinematic achievement underneath.