Tag Archives: Sergio Leone

The Pawnbroker (1964)

I read The Pawnbroker at the wrong time. Jewish American author Edward Lewis Wallant published the thin novel, his second after The Human Season, a year before his untimely death in 1962. I wouldn’t be hitting the scene for another few decades, and by the time I did The Pawnbroker existed only in relative obscurity. I read it in college, where I sort of zipped through the little volume in between zipping through others.

In doing so, I read Sol Nazerman’s tale largely as a tale of urban woe. Those of suburban woe — by Updike, Cheever, O’Hara, and  even a few guys who weren’t named John — were in great supply back then, from Rabbit, Run to Bullet Park to Appointment in Samarra. These books had protagonists that were either downright miserable or just miserable without knowing it, perhaps indifferent to the constant comings and goings or the constant stillness of life around them, and in that feeble criteria they were all grouped together. Bernard Malamud’s The Assistant, about a Jewish shopkeeper in postwar New York, seemed a worthy companion to The Pawnbroker  because the protagonists seemed so similar. Assistant‘s Morris worked out of Brooklyn while Sol Nazerman’s pawnshop was in Harlem, but both were simply exhausted by life.

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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)

The Dark Valley (2014)

Aside from the title, the majority of Andreas Prochaska’s The Dark Valley is refreshingly original in the way it tackles a familiar story. Perhaps Das finstere Tal, the Austrian title, makes more sense in native tongue and context – but if you don’t care to brush up on your Austrian beforehand The Dark Valley is still to be enjoyed. Prochaska’s resume shows he’s been fairly prolific over the past few years, but most of his projects are horror flicks or TV shows. The Dark Valley looks to be his most mature feature effort thus far.

Sam Riley stars as the lone drifter Greider, largely the strong and silent type, recently arrived at a remote snowbound village high in the Alps. The aforementioned “familiar story” is really just that: mysterious stranger arrives in otherwise comfortable close-knit town, people become uncomfortable; secrets exist for the townsfolk and for the drifter, said secrets are exposed; drifter and young woman flirt with obligatory fling; things seem okay for a while until suddenly, one day, shit hits the fan. These by-the-numbers plot points are most at home in a Western, which is a genre that The Dark Valley is now a part of in spite of the snowy mountain setting (though, agreed, not technically a Western in the American sense – so, an Eastern?), but that familiarity is never crippling. As much as The Dark Valley resembles Once Upon a Time in the West on paper, it’s a starkly different kind of movie.

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The Wild Bunch (1969)

Film violence is a strange beast that has evolved rapidly over the past half-century, stretching from a time when a drop of blood would cause an outcry to now, when characters hardly have enough time for dialogue between gunshots and explosions. The Wild Bunch, which turns 45 this year, still manages to hold a vastly important place along that timeline.

The violence at play here isn’t Tarantino gore or anything you’ll see in cinemas today, really. But in 1969 The Wild Bunch caused a big commotion with the unflinching depiction and sheer number of death-by-gunshots woven throughout the runtime. The opening and closing scenes approach a cacophony that becomes like a kind of polyrhythmic music that the cowboys seem to be dancing to, a thousand gunshots fired from a thousand different directions and no one quite sure who’s shooting whom even when the dust has settled.

William Holden’s Pike leads Ernest Borgnine’s Engstrom and the rest of the Bunch across the picaresque Mexican borderlands as they are pursued by bounty hunters employed by the railroad – if this sounds suspiciously similar to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (also 1969), it certainly is. Peckinpah and Co. rushed to get the film out ahead of Butch and Sundance, but while the plot points are undeniably similar the two films could not be more different. The Wild Bunch, aptly titled, is wilder, looser, grittier, and much more violent. Butch and Sundance shoot their fair share of people in order to survive; the Bunch do the same, but they revel in nearly every man killed.

And that’s another major difference in your typical “classic” Westerns of the period (those of Sergio Leone notwithstanding) and the brutal revisionist pieces that Peckinpah crafted: the Bunch, noble as Pike may seem at times and lovable as Engstrom may also seem, are without a doubt bad men. They steal, they corrupt, they kill, and they even take note of children watching as they continue in their vice. They are fighting for survival and we’re rooting for them – why the heck are we rooting for them? It’s interesting that screenwriter Walon Green is also credited years later on the brilliant Sorcerer, in which the “protagonists” are similarly despicable.

Each Peckinpah film seems to come complete with a Peckinpah anecdote detailing his often chaotic set conditions, and The Wild Bunch is no different. Peckinpah apparently wasn’t getting all he wanted out of a particular gunshot effect, so he snatched a live revolver and fired it without warning into a wall. He then took note of the shock on the faces of the crew around him, saying, “That’s the effect I want!”

But as had become apparent by the time Peckinpah made Major Dundee in 1965, the man knew how to direct a movie. Wild Bunch was notable for the realistic violence, but the cinematic techniques at play were also lauded as before their time. Several sequences of multi-camera, fast-cut action were unlike anything seen in a Western before, and the mix of regular- and slow-motion shots within a single thread were often flawlessly executed. The gunshots themselves, too, were designed to actually sound like the gun depicted on screen, rather than just a stock “gunfire” sound applied across the board to shotguns and revolvers alike. Attention to detail in this manner almost allows Peckinpah’s on-set behavior to be written off.

The Wild Bunch marked the arrival of a director who not only knew how to direct a movie but had a very particular kind of movie that he wanted to make. A Peckinpah film isn’t just a Western – it’s a Peckinpah Western. Studios didn’t always allow all elements of this singular vision to make the final cut, but Peckinpah was able to shine through the haze of Hollywood Executive Fog more so with The Wild Bunch than with any of his films to date.