Tag Archives: Clint Eastwood

Charley Varrick (1973)

This article first appeared as a part of the Brattle Film Notes commentary series, presented by the Brattle Theatre in Boston, MA, for a special screening of Charley Varrick. Slight edits have been made from the original posting.

Charley Varrick is one lucky guy. Odd, maybe, to associate “luck” with a man who botches a robbery and gets his wife killed, and odder still once he discovers that the money he does get away with belongs to the ruthless Mafia. Over the course of Charley Varrick poor Charley buries his wife, runs from the police, runs from the Mafia, loses his partner, loses his house, loses his plane, and spends a heck of a lot of time contending with the incompetence of others. Traditionally we call the person in this string of situations “unlucky.”

Maybe we’re looking for luck because Varrick has Walter Matthau as its hero instead of Clint Eastwood or Charles Bronson or Gene Hackman, actors who led the ‘70s crime flicks Dirty Harry, Death Wish, and The French Connection and to whose characters Charley himself owes a great deal. These are the typical hardnosed and steely-eyed actors we might expect in Charley’s pulpy shoes. But Matthau, roundnosed and puppydog-eyed, was at the time more known for comedies and collaborations with Jack Lemmon and Billy Wilder. Indeed Varrick marked a bit of a career detour for Matthau, who would continue to seek crime dramas like The Taking of Pelham One Two Three and the excellent Laughing Policeman throughout the mid-‘70s. In all of these gritty movies Matthau is lovable in spite of his occasional criminality, amusingly standoffish, honorable in an amongst-thieves sort of way.

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White God (2014)

One of the most egregious snubs in the history of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences concerns last year’s Best Actor trophy, and no, it has nothing to do with Leonardo DiCaprio. Eddie Redmayne walked away with the Oscar for his turn as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, and indeed his performance was groundbreaking and heartfelt. But it pales in comparison to the tour de force delivered by Body, the Hungarian star of Kornél Mundruczó’s White God, in his role as the tortured, tragic, life-loving, revenge-seeking, slobber-mouthed Hagen. Due respect to Redmayne, but Body’s performance is simply one of the most emotional and drool-covered performances in years.

As a young actor Body was met with obstacle after obstacle as he tried to make ends meet while pursuing his craft. He auditioned for some of the most iconic roles of our time and even received a callback for The Beast from The Sandlot, but the dude who played Mr. Mertle claimed Body was “impossible to work with” and cited the Hungarian-English language barrier as a primary qualm. He was an extra in Air Bud: Seventh Inning Fetch but soon disowned the film and distanced himself from the creative vision of the entire Air Bud series. Body struggled to be taken seriously as an actor, forced to take work in Iams commercials and as a busboy of sorts in the alley behind an L.A. hotspot.

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Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974)

Progress — that’s what Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is about. The buddy dramedy is about more than that, of course, from women-chasing to bank-robbing to cross-dressing. Five years after Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Clint Eastwood’s stoic Thunderbolt and Jeff Bridges’ anything-but-stoic Lightfoot came closer to capturing the same verve and tragedy of American rebelliousness than most films in the ensuing forty years. It’s part road flick, part heist flick, part character study. In the simplest sense Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is a drive-in movie, complete with laughs and adventure and car chases and a few explosions for good measure; in a more complex light Michael Cimino’s directorial debut yearns for the American Dream, for satisfaction greater than that offered by everyday life, for an accomplishment, for progress.

The comparison with George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy isn’t borne entirely of the fact that the protagonists are a pair of BFF criminals, and Lightfoot even takes direct issue with that label — “criminals” — before the final credits roll. Butch and Sundance are battling against the death of the West they love, the West in which they thrive. Bigger guns, bigger armies, bigger bank vaults — the world’s changing whether they like it or not. Still, it’s their own perception of the world that really matters, especially in Butch’s case. “I’ve got vision,” he tells the Kid, “and the rest of the world needs bifocals.”

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American Sniper (2014)

Around the 30-minute mark of American Sniper there’s something that’s not quite a montage, not quite a self-contained series of events, not quite comfortable in that first half-hour of the film. Sniper Chris Kyle spots an insurgent in his scope and he takes him out. A few more lone insurrectionaries crop up, and Kyle fires again. Again. Again. It sounds like a montage, but director Clint Eastwood doesn’t let it play out as such. And it’s fairly quick, cutting from one shot to the next inside the space of a minute and a half. Still, though, there’s something brutal and cold and darkly affecting about this life-of-Kyle in 90 seconds, something that almost singlehandedly elevates American Sniper to the level of a modern classic war film.

I assumed that Sniper would be a lot like The Hurt Locker, judging from the trailers and a few reviews and my admittedly vague knowledge of Chris Kyle’s story. Sniper is a lot like Hurt Locker, to be sure, but it’s not exactly in the way I expected. The similarities, really, are resigned mostly to the aesthetic — and visually, they’re so similar that you might expect Kyle to peek through his scope and spot Will James strutting down the sandy street in his EOD blast suit.

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The Quick and the Dead (1995)

A quick glance at Sam Raimi’s filmography shows a greater preoccupation with iconography than with originality. He’s retread the old “cabin in the woods” and “superhero origin” tropes three times over (four if you count Darkman), yet, Robert Frost be damned, it has made all the difference. Through Evil Dead and Spider-Man, Raimi has evaded the title of “hack” to become both an auteur and blockbuster filmmaker, which is no easy feat when you’ve made Spider-Man 3. He manages to inject adrenaline and humor into genres that would die of exhaustion under any other director’s hand. As for The Quick and the Dead, the Western genre has only benefited from the Raimi treatment.

The Quick and the Dead reminds us of familiar Western figures straight away: the blind shoeshine, the bumbling barkeep, the merciless sheriff, the one-eyed ex-convict, and a flamboyant assortment of gunslingers. Of course it wouldn’t be a Western without the nameless hero, and fortunately we have Sharon Stone to give us an emotional anchor as The Lady amid a grotesque cast of caricatures. She arrives in town to exact revenge on the sheriff for the murder of her father, but gets roped into a quick draw dueling competition before she can do the deed. Continue reading The Quick and the Dead (1995)

Jeremiah Johnson (1972)

Starring Robert Redford’s burly mane, Jeremiah Johnson is the story of an absolutely incredible beard and the mountain man who carries it around on his face. The beard just wants to live a quiet life, moving gently in the Rocky Mountain breeze and catching a few snowflakes, but other forces dwelling in the range cause trouble for the beard. As seasons pass in the valleys below, the beard wisens to the truths of the world and becomes a broader, more understanding beard.

Sydney Pollack directed five or six films – five including 1969’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, and six if you count 1968’s The Swimmer, which Pollack eventually took over without an actual directing credit – and plenty of TV before he got to Jeremiah Johnson in 1972. Not long before production began, it was Clint Eastwood in Johnson’s role and Sam Peckinpah set to direct him, but the pair clashed and Eastwood said “Dirty Harry sounds a lot less dangerous” (paraphrased) and Redford was cast in his place. Having worked together on This Property Is Condemned in 1966, it was Redford who secured Pollack as Peckinpah’s replacement. Contrary to what one may think when watching Redford ride around on horseback for two hours Jeremiah Johnson actually cost quite a bit of money, and it was money that the studio wasn’t prepared to give out after advancing Redford a hefty salary. Pollack mortgaged his house and financed parts of the film himself, all the while strictly adhering to the budgetary and time constraints the studio laid down.

In short, you wouldn’t blame Pollack for being a bit sour after such a stressful production. But the director cited it as a great trial-by-fire learning experience, essentially because the money he was risking was his own. It probably helped that Johnson did well and remains a bit of a mountain-man classic today.

The kernel of the film, at least for me, comes when Jeremiah sits by a freshly-killed dinner with his de facto family – a wife he was all but forced to marry and a son he was all but forced to adopt. First, the irony of a man sojourning to the Rockies to live a life of quiet solitude and ending up married with a kid is a rich one. As they sit around munching rabbit or whatever Jeremiah teaches his non-English speaking wife a new word: “Yes”. He then asks her some questions about himself, the last of which is “I am a fine figure of a man, yes?” Now, this lady has no idea what in the hell this guy is talking about. She’s goaded into answering all the same, showing off her new word “yes”. Jeremiah sits back satisfied.

A definition of manhood in any form, validity apparently notwithstanding, keeps cropping up in Jeremiah Johnson. He achieves legendary status among some of the puny town-dwellers, achieves something of a nemesis status among a tribe of Crow Indians, and achieves something that begins as pity but matures into respect with two like-minded mountain men. What of himself? Does “being a man” equal “living a full life”, or is there a gap there somewhere that leaves this manly man’s man ultimately unfulfilled?

Pollack and Redford manage to pull an extremely strong narrative out of what could easily have been a semblance of shots of Jeremiah riding a horse. The beard helps. Tragically, the beard’s career went sharply downhill following Jeremiah Johnson and was hardly ever seen in Hollywood again, sinking into a drunken oblivion and leading a shattered existence that would one day serve as the basis for Leaving Las Vegas.

Sid and Nancy (1986)

There’s a whole lot of Sid and Nancy that’s impossibly dark and depressing. The Sex Pistols bassist and his volatile girlfriend were not ones to live slow and boring, preferring hard drugs and long nights and loud music. The love was intense and it was brief, flaring exponentially like one of those dying superstars, forced to quit after burning too bright for too many hours. The end isn’t pretty, and it’s the only end that such a relationship could come to.

Alex Cox made Sid and Nancy almost immediately after his debut feature Repo Man, but there’s a clear jump in maturity from one film to the next. Sure, actors like Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb help; Webb is unfathomably childish, as the character should be, and Oldman is just amazing as the pencil-thin Sid Vicious. But Cox is the real star here, as he manages to make an extremely affecting portrait of two lovers out of the all-too-recent shards of their former lives.

The Sex Pistols disbanded after their US tour, leaving Sid and Nancy to fend for themselves and scrape by on Sid’s solo act. They are both extremely unhealthy, both in body and in mind, and the drugs they love begin to take hold of their affairs more and more. They stay in their room more and more, until the final scenes which are set entirely in the bedroom. Neither Sid nor Nancy seem able to leave that room, and it’s Nancy who never does. Her death – though surrounded by mystery in the actual news media – is an accident at the hands of strung-out Sid himself. Nancy’s life in the film up until this point is pathetic and difficult to watch, but her pitiful fate is quite nearly sickening.

Somehow, though, despite long stretches of despair and horrific moments like the death of Nancy, Sid and Nancy captures something else that the punk movement managed to as well. The Sex Pistols and their fans are hard-living, hard-drinking, leather-jacketed hoodlums who swear at their grandmothers and kick people in the face at their shows with boots on – but they have a good-natured humor about them at times, rolling around in the rain and parading down the street in their underwear. Alex Cox nails this humor, and amidst the deep dark of the majority of the film an important light peeks through again and again.

A smash cut of Sid walking into one pub and suddenly staggering out of another is a great example, as it gives a snapshot of his life in a half-second switch of the camera. Another sequence later shows Sid onstage singing to a crowd of well-dressed elderly white people who seem to love the metal-clad Sid Vicious – until he pulls out a pistol and murders everyone in the auditorium. Is this a dream? Is this some kind of vision Sid has of himself or of his place in society, a la Bronson or Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll? Whatever it is, it’s gleeful and jarring alongside the bedridden scenes that make up most of Sid and Nancy.

The best of these moments both come in New York City. The first is when Sid and Nancy happen across a kid being bullied and Sid tells the bullies off. “Who the hell do you think you are?” they sneer. “Sid Vicious,” Sid says, and the kids immediately scatter as if the name belonged to a Clint Eastwood drifter of the Old West. The second comes at the very end, when Sid walks past three kids dancing to hip hop. They tell him to dance with them, he says he ain’t gonna dance around with no kids – but he does. Nancy is passed but he hasn’t forgotten her, as if he ever could, and somehow all of this boils down to Sid Vicious dancing with a few kids in the middle of nowhere. This is the spirit that Cox injects into the bleakness of Sid and Nancy, and it’s what makes the film so effective in the end.