Tag Archives: Sam Peckinpah

Don’t Look Now (1973)

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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The Quiller Memorandum (1966)

It’s been almost fifty years since The Quiller Memorandum, and spy movies have changed quite a bit in the ensuing half-century. It’s unfair to say they’re better or worse nowadays, especially considering the qualification of “spy movie” can mean anything from Skyfall to Syriana to Agent Cody Banks (though, if we’re talking about the latter, then yes: they’re worse). Even the superhero genre is dabbling in spy-ish flicks, with the espionage thriller Captain America: The Winter Soldier drawing favorable comparisons to Three Days of the Condor; Condor, of course, is a spy movie with a main character who is not in fact a spy, nor is he a suave step-ahead killer fighting for what’s right, nor does he even know what’s going on — this all by way of saying that a great “spy” movie doesn’t even need a spy.

But Peter Quiller is a spy, and a damn good one to boot. He’s good by today’s standards, he’s good by the standards of 1966, and he’s good by the standards of his fellow spies in Memorandum. The film opens with a stark, memorable sequence of a man plodding cautiously down a dark, quiet street. He looks around constantly, fearing that the hidden blade might finally come from the shadows. Cautious, quiet. He enters a phone booth and reaches for the receiver when bam! — he’s shot in the back. Dead.

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The Osterman Weekend (1983)

The problem isn’t that The Osterman Weekend is a bad movie. It certainly is, mind you, but that’s not the main problem. The books of Robert Ludlum are that strange breed of airport literature that often seems perfect for film adaptation but rarely manages to translate well, and by that criteria Osterman isn’t even that bad – this first adaptation was followed by the godawful Michael Caine-starrer  The Holcroft Covenant in 1985, an equally shitty made-for-TV version of The Apocalypse Watch in 1997, and then nothing until the Bourne movies finally showed up and allowed the Ludlum Estate to wipe its collective brow. The Ludlum Lens (heckuva title for his biography!) isn’t what we’ll be viewing this film through, but if it were this might actually turn out to be a favorable review.

Instead: The Peckinpah Perspective. The problem with The Osterman Weekend is that Sam Peckinpah directed it – the issue there being that the final film barely resembles what one would come to know as a Peckinpah film. At one point in time, that phrase was gold – it’s a Peckinpah film. It meant violence in a somewhat hyperbolic sense, but it also meant well-drawn characters with muddled motives, it meant ugly people doing ugly things under a microscopic lens. A Peckinpah film, at best, meant an insanely detailed story, and most importantly it meant a story unlike any you’ve seen before. There’s a reason people shake their heads and grind their teeth and comment cynically on message boards across the internet about how nothing in Hollywood is original anymore, about how Michael Bay makes the same movie over and over. It’s because they just watched a Peckinpah film, and because they’re hard up to think of any other film to compare it to.

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Convoy (1978)

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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Cross of Iron (1977)

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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Countdown (1968)

James Caan and Robert Duvall starred in quite a few films together in their early careers. In 1969 Francis Ford Coppola would cast them both in The Rain People, and the director would go on to give them each one of their finest roles as Sonny Corleone and Tom Hagen in The Godfather and The Godfather Part II. The pair would reunite in 1975 for Sam Peckinpah’s The Killer Elite, and the fact of that film failing shouldn’t be faulted to either actor. But their first collaboration was on one of the earliest feature films of the great Robert Altman: the man-on-the-moon drama Countdown.

Altman had years of television and film experience prior to Countdown. His first feature The Delinquents appeared in 1957, around the same time as his James Dean documentary The James Dean Story, both of which led to television gigs on the likes of Bonanza and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. It was Countdown, though, that seemed to herald Altman’s career as a film director – he would basically direct a film every single year for the next two decades, which is pretty unheard of in this day and age.

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The Killer Elite (1975)

It’s tough to find defenders of The Killer Elite. Watching the film without any knowledge of the chaotic production or of director Sam Peckinpah’s personal, financial and artistic woes at the time probably makes for a bland and unexciting viewing experience; sadly, a little background on Peckinpah effectively makes it even worse, as it’s hard to watch The Killer Elite without noticing that the gleefully indulgent heart characteristic of his best films seems to have vanished.

The set-up ain’t bad, although that hardly ever matters in the hands of a capable director. James Caan and Robert Duvall star as CIA-contracted assassins and friends who have worked together for years. Duvall’s George betrays Caan’s Mike, shooting him in the elbow and knee and leaving him badly crippled. The rest of the film follows Mike as he recuperates, retakes his post at the shady government operations agency, and ultimately seeks revenge on his old pal George.

There are plenty of rumors associated with The Killer Elite that may or may not be true. First is that Peckinpah took the project specifically as an attempt to recreate the financial success he had with the Steve McQueen-starrer The Getaway, which marked the last financially successful movie Peckinpah would direct. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia was both more in line with Peckinpah’s Western sensibilities and more of a box office flop, and so it is admittedly easy in that regard to draw parallels between The Getaway and The Killer Elite. The fact that the project may have been more associated with money than with any real passion pretty much sets the thing up for failure out of the gate.

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Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974)

Sam Peckinpah is nearly always divisive in his filmmaking, but perhaps never more so than with Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. Unlike The Wild Bunch or Straw DogsAlfredo Garcia (or BMTHOAG, as it may be lovingly referred to) isn’t necessarily controversial because of the level of violence. While other Peckinpah films seem set as classics even in spite of their explicit scenes of brutal violence, most people just can’t decide whether Alfredo Garcia is any good or not.

The set-up comes in the wake of the proclamation that serves as the film’s title. Alfredo Garcia has impregnated a young girl, and her powerful father offers a million dollars to the man who delivers him from the neck up. Warren Oates plays Bennie, a piano player in a rundown bar who eventually becomes tangled up in the hunt for Garcia at the prospect of a large payoff. His girlfriend, played by Isela Vega, comes along for the ride – and needless to say there are vicious consequences. Soon the head of Alfredo Garcia is in Bennie’s possession, but a darker drive swells up within him and his plans change.

Why would people dislike Alfredo Garcia? For starters, the set pieces from the first half of the movie leave a lot to be desired. In fact, there aren’t very many set pieces at all between the initial “Bring me the head!” scene and a mid-movie altercation with two biker thugs. This altercation serves a) to begin to show a few cracks in the otherwise happy-go-lucky demeanor of Bennie (as Warren Oates brilliantly snarls “you two guys are definitely on my shit list”) and b) to show the promiscuity of Bennie’s girlfriend. Both of these revelations are compounded and built upon in later scenes, but during the scene in question the sense of urgency and pacing of Garcia seems lost.

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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.

The Getaway (1972)

There is a scene in The Getaway where Steve McQueen’s Doc and Ali MacGraw’s Carol evade a roaming cop car by diving into a dumpster. The pair end up swimming in trash for a lot longer than they’d probably expected, but it’s the few shots leading up to this sequence that are the most interesting. As the cop car slowly turns the corner and begins the prowl down the thin alleyway, Doc moves furtively up to the corner and braces himself against the brick wall, gun drawn. This is Steve McQueen, major action star of the era, it’s Frank Bullitt and Thomas Crown and The Freakin’ Cincinnati Kid for chrissake – but when Doc sidles up to the corner of that alley, the guy playing him ceases to be so endearing as he usually is; those cops coming down the alley are about to die, and Doc’s going to kill them.

He actually doesn’t kill them, of course, and we’re treated to the dumpster sequence instead. Point is that Doc’s moral compass is way (way) off from the kinds of characters you usually see McQueen portraying, and the prospect of shooting cops dead is a decidedly likely prospect throughout the course of The Getaway. Sam Peckinpah plays with this beautifully, and it’s possible that his second collaboration with McQueen (following the much more lighthearted Junior Bonner) was designed specifically to explore the questionable morality of the central character. It’s also something that Peckinpah would continue to explore in his 1974 film Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia.

It’s more jarring here, through McQueen’s Doc. Freshly released from prison, Doc takes Carol along on a heist as the getaway driver. The heist goes bad and team member Rudy (played brilliantly by Al Lettieri) attempts to kill Doc and take the money for himself. A narrow escape only paves the way for a multifaceted chase, with Doc and Carol, Rudy, the police, and other forces vying for the stolen cash. All the motivation Doc has is to survive, to not go back to prison, and to keep the money for himself; the first two motivations are understandable, but it’s the third that receives most of the focus here. Doc really wants that money, and he’ll beat up and shoot people to make sure he gets it.

Rudy’s character, I think, effectively makes Doc’s character tolerable, meaning we’d be a hell of a lot less likely to root for Doc if we weren’t also rooting against Rudy. The two men being opposed from the very start is what provides us a clear good guy/bad guy pairing, or at least pushes that idea a little more into the light. One of the best Rudy scenes sees him riding in the back of a car driven by a man he has taken hostage. The man’s simpleton wife inexplicably sides with Rudy during this entire encounter, and as the trio barrel down the highway Rudy and his new girl munch happily on sticky ribs. A rib fight ensues, meaning Rudy and the girl gleefully whip ribs and fries at each other and at the despairing hostage. Barbecue sauce coats the inside of the car. Suddenly, Rudy shrieks “I don’t like this game no more!“, and the trio go immediately back to silence. There’s something weird and off-putting about this scene, very nearly bordering on disturbing, because Rudy’s mental state is shown to be completely unhinged by something as absurd as a rib fight.

That said, Doc isn’t a portrait of mental health either. His prison stint has had a clear effect on him, evident when he states it out loud – “It does something to you…It does something to you” – and again when he snaps at his own girl Carol. He strikes her for a simple misstep, and one could argue that his turnaround is as sudden and therefore even as repulsive as Rudy’s. But we’ve seen Doc in prison at the beginning of the film, we’ve seen the mindless way that days bleed into one another and time slips into nothing, we’ve seen years of days in a few short minutes. Rudy doesn’t have such a backstory, so his character traits are unexplainable, unreasonable, alien and terrifying. Doc may very well exhibit the same traits, but the reason we aren’t scared of him isn’t just because he’s the protagonist or just because he’s Steve McQueen. Doc’s pain is the cause of his ruthlessness, and in this way out of the entire Peckinpah oeuvre The Getaway is probably matched only by Straw Dogs in terms of depth of character.