1973 was a hell of a year at the movies. Bruce Lee kicked ass in Enter the Dragon, Roger Moore debuted as Bond in Live and Let Die, and smalltown California got its romantic due in American Graffiti. There was Sydney Pollack‘s The Way We Were, Sam Peckinpah‘s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Robert Altman‘s The Long Goodbye. Martin Scorsese and Terrence Malick announced themselves as filmmakers to be reckoned with upon the respective releases of Mean Streets and Badlands, and Michael Crichton made cinematic history with technological advances in Westworld. Then there’s The Sting, which I’m always willing to defend in a battle to the death as Greatest Film Ever. But these are more than just great movies — these are unique and fresh-seeming efforts, influential to this day because they all pushed the envelope.
And though the horror genre received more than a few landmark films that year — The Exorcist, The Wicker Man, etc. — Nicholas Roeg’s grief-stricken terror Don’t Look Now might be the scariest. It’s certainly the most engrossing. Envelope-pushing apparently wouldn’t cut it for Roeg and Company, as the incredibly intense Venice-set thriller does more to explode the envelope into a zillion tiny bloodstained pieces. The story follows John and Laura Baxter (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie) in the months following the accidental drowning of their daughter Christine. Paralyzed by anguish, the couple retreat to Venice. Soon, they encounter a pair of women claiming to have a connection to the deceased Christine.
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Sam Peckinpah’s penultimate film is Convoy, a Kris Kristofferson vehicle (sorry) about a bunch of truck drivers and their epic run-in with a corrupt lawman. The characteristics it shares with the other films from the late career of Peckinpah are not, unfortunately, anything other than the over-budget, highly confrontational, highly chaotic occurrences typical of the productions of Cross of Iron and The Killer Elite. The one difference in that regard is that Convoy actually did well at the box office, riding on the popular wave of truckerdom started by Smokey and the Bandit the previous year. But the uniqueness of that success is eyebrow-raising, too, for besides a chaotic production Convoy shares very few traits with any other film from Peckinpah’s career.
Kris Kristofferson is the sinewy truck driver known by the CB handle “Rubber Duck”, and his route across Arizona hooks him up with two of his trucker friends and a femme fatale played by Ali MacGraw. Their conflict with Ernest Borgnine’s crooked cop “Dirty Lyle” provides the main clash of Convoy, and the film’s title refers to the miles-long line of trucks that eventually forms in Duck’s wake as he crosses the Southern U.S. The escalation of the convoy itself isn’t too convoluted, which is to say that the pacing of this first chunk of the film is even and sensible. Preexisting animosity between Duck and Lyle leads to a situation of entrapment and extortion, which leads to the trucker retaliation at a diner, which leads to Lyle involving more and more policemen, which leads to the truckers involving more and more drivers. Ali MacGraw is just along for the ride (sorry).
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If there’s one film in the late career of Sam Peckinpah that stands out among the rest, it’s Cross of Iron. By 1977, Peckinpah was still regarded relatively highly within the American film industry despite the fact that his last few films – Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, and The Killer Elite – performed atrociously at the box office. While most Peckinpah purists regard Alfredo Garcia as a violent and uncompromising classic, there’s little doubt that The Killer Elite is one of the weak points in the director’s career. Cross of Iron would be followed by Convoy and Peckinpah’s final film, The Osterman Weekend, but the former of the three is the only one that truly taps into the brutal verve that made the director so sought-after in the first place.
Interestingly – though perhaps not so surprisingly – Peckinpah supposedly turned down offers to direct the King Kong remake (with Jeff Bridges) and the first Superman film, opting for Cross of Iron instead. Hindsight is 20/20, sure, and odds are you’ve heard of King Kong and Superman while the “heroes” of Cross of Iron are difficult to name even after you’ve just watched the film – but one gets the sense that Peckinpah wouldn’t care about that, and would’ve picked Cross of Iron all over again if he were given the choice today. It was the quality of the story that mattered most to Peckinpah, and while King Kong and Superman endure to this day for a variety of reasons it can probably be argued that the strength of their scripts is pretty far down on that list.
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The first of our Director Series will focus on the films of American director Sam Peckinpah, largely known for his revisionist Westerns and his notorious depictions of violence in nearly all of his films. “Bloody Sam” achieved wider fame following 1969’s The Wild Bunch and retained a strong reputation with efforts like 1971’s Straw Dogs and 1973’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid – as with all of our Director Series, we’ll take a look at some of the lesser-known Peckinpah films as well.
And more for the sake of completion than anything else, we begin with Peckinpah’s directorial debut The Deadly Companions. Brian Keith stars as a cowboy known as Yellowleg who accidentally kills the young son of Maureen O’Hara’s cabaret dancer Kit Tildon. To make amends (or to clear his own conscience, or for some unexplained reason) Yellowleg escorts Kit through dangerous Apache territory to the place where she demands her son be buried. Local bandits and murderous Apaches haunt their journey, as does a growing intimacy between the two leads.
Sorely disjointed and nearly robotic with regards to some of the dialogue, it’s certainly not Peckinpah’s fault that Companions is quite stiff. Still, while the plot and setting and characters all seem like elements Peckinpah would be attracted to, the film is devoid of nearly any of the stylistic flourishes that would become his trademarks. The director was untried with the cinematic format at this point in time, though, so perhaps Companions shouldn’t really be held up against the “good” Peckinpah movies.
Why would Kit almost instantaneously fall in love with the man who killed her son? Put aside the fact that Yellowleg killed the boy, and he’s still not offering a heck of a lot in the Lover Department. This is one of the many uneasy contrivances that could be the fault of the script but are more likely due to studio interference during the editing process.
In fact, Peckinpah allegedly vowed never to direct a film again after Companions unless he had script and editing control. The final product of this film, one would assume based on such a claim, is probably a far cry from what Peckinpah envisioned when he agreed to the project. The resistance he met with during the shoot would also come to characterize some of his later productions, and that clash is just painfully evident in the flow and pacing of his debut feature. Again, The Deadly Companions has all of the pieces of a Peckinpah classic – they just happened to be cobbled together into something that’s a lot less satisfying.