Tag Archives: Sam Peckinpah

Bend of the River (1952)

Jimmy Stewart was in a lot of Westerns. From Destry Rides Again (1939) all the way to The Shootist (1976), the actor’s continual returns to the frontier nearly end up signposting the decades-long rise and fall of the genre itself. In the early 1960s, just prior to the introduction of a violent revisionism courtesy of Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone, Stewart teamed with John Ford and turned out classics like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and How the West was Won. Prior to that, as the Western was enjoying its heyday in the 1950s, Stewart starred in the progressive-for-the-time Broken Arrow and in a string of Westerns from director Anthony Mann, including the eventual classic Winchester ’73. But the most underrated Stewart Western — and maybe one of the most underrated Westerns period — is another feature from Mann called Bend of the River.

It’s an unlikely candidate for that mantle, maybe, if only for the lack of stereotypical Western tropes. Stewart stars as Glyn McLyntock, a tough cowboy who puts himself at risk to ensure a delivery of supplies reaches a budding homestead in the Northwest Frontier. The route takes him by valley and mountainside, through Portland, and back and forth across the eponymous river, all the while accompanied by friend and foe of varying loyalties. This question of loyalty — who’s the real villain? —is very much at the heart of Bend, and the guessing game we play as viewer is a big part of what makes the film so great. (Also, it must be noted, “Glyn McLyntock” is an all-timer of a character name.)

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Seven Men from Now (1956)

The arrival of the Spaghetti Western in the mid-1960s might be credited as the major pivot point for the film Western on the whole, but a subtler shift began more than a decade earlier. American director Budd Boetticher was familiar with the genre in 1956, having helmed six or seven Westerns in the early ’50s, films starring the likes of Rock Hudson and Glenn Ford. By and large these fit the mold of what you’d expect from the era, right down to the leading man: young, chiseled cowboys with a strong moral compass and a way with horses. Typified by Hudson, Ford, Gary Cooper, Henry Fonda, Joel McCrea and especially John Wayne, the Western Heroes of the time are jokingly (or not?) said to have had only two emotions on display: “hat on” and “hat off.”

The Spaghetti Western, of course, bucked that cleancut protagonist so far off the horse that he never really saddled up again. Sergio Leone introduced heroes that were as dirty as the villains, both literally and figuratively, first embodied by a snarling Clint Eastwood in the Dollars Trilogy. Leone would later cast Henry Fonda — the blue-eyed all-American known for playing Honest Abe and the least-angry man in 12 Angry Men — as the ruthless villain in Once Upon a Time in the West, solidifying the death of the unambiguous good guy/bad guy depictions that had defined the genre to date.

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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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