Tag Archives: revisionist western

Unforgiven – Review

31 May

Clint Eastwood and the western genre pretty much go hand in hand. Eastwood practically built his career out of playing heroic gunslingers navigating through the violent old west. From his iconic performances in Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns like The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, to more traditional American westerns like Hang ‘Em High, Eastwood has really just become a staple of the genre. Wether it was intentional or not, he was also responsible for resuscitating this kind of film making with his 1992 revisionist western classic, Unforgiven, which has gone down in modern history as one of the best American films.

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After cutting a woman working in a brothel in the town of Big Whiskey, Sheriff Little Bill Dagget (Gene Hackman) runs two cowboys out of town, despite the other girls wanting to see them hanged for their crime. As a last resort, the women at the brothel pull their money and put a bounty on the cowboys’ head, which draws in a couple of bounty hunters like English Bob (Richard Harris). It also attracts the attention of a young gunslinger called the Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett) who hires the help of a retired outlaw known for his brutality, William Munny (Clint Eastwood). After a wave of reluctance passes, Munny realizes he needs the bounty money and brings along his old friend, Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman), to help him and the Schofield Kid kill the two criminals. What this gang of bounty hunters don’t know is that Little Bill Dagget runs Big Whiskey with an iron fist, and he’ll be damned if a bunch of no good gunslingers undermine his authority.

I’m not really a huge fan of classic westerns where the hero is a moral gunslinger who faces off against the clearly evil bad guys. It doesn’t seem like that’s really what the west should be portrayed as. Granted, there are some exceptions, but I like my westerns to be a bit more complicated than that. That’s why I love a good revisionist western like The Wild Bunch and Unforgiven. There really aren’t any clear good or bad guys in this movie, even though you’d want to think that Clint Eastwood is the obvious good guy. This just isn’t the case, because it’s made clear that William Munny was an awful guy in the past and you can still see some of that evil lurking beneath the surface. On the flip side, Little Bill Dagget makes some pretty brutal moves in this movie, but there’s still a human side to him that just wants to live a peaceful life. This is an intriguing western with complex characters.

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Another interesting thing about this movie is that it can be argued that Unforgiven is just as much about a lifestyle, set of beliefs, or state of mind as it is about the characters. There are a lot of characters in this movie that all get ample amounts of screen time, which makes it hard to really distinguish who the main protagonist is. This is a movie that does tell a story about a group of people who clash in a small western town, but it’s also a look at the violence and attitudes of people during the time period. Is it all accurate? I don’t know, but it is a good way of examining the tropes of a genre along with what is known about the time period. This is kind of a weird thing to figure out the first time you watch the movie, but after letting the structure sit with you for a while, it starts to really feel like Eastwood did something new with this movie and reinvigorated a genre and his faltering career.

Unforgiven is possibly the most beautifully shot western I’ve ever seen. A lot of this is due to Eastwood’s skill as a director, but credit also has to be given to cinematographer Jack N. Green. Green worked with Eastwood before Unforgiven and would work with him even more afterwards, but nothing in his career has really stood up to his work on this film. The silhouetted figures riding their horses in front of a setting sun has never looked as great as it does here. That along with the natural looking lighting in the various saloons and jailhouses makes this film feel as naturalistic as it does artistic.

Unforgiven is a modern day masterpiece that has gained the recognition and reputation that it deserves. It took home 3 Oscars, which were Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor for Gene Hackman, and Best Editing. There’s plenty to enjoy with this movie, but Unforgiven is more than just a western featuring the heroics of the good guys and the evil deeds of the bad guys. Instead, it explores a time period and the thin line between leading a good life and falling into unforgivable sin. This may well be Eastwood’s best movie and certainly has a place as one of the best westerns ever made.

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Sergio Leone’s “Dollars Trilogy” – Review

11 Nov

There are a lot of different way to make a western film. There’s the more traditional ways that are often equated with actors like John Wayne and there’s also more modern and/or revisionist westerns that have been made by film makers like Sam Peckinpah, Quentin Tarantino, and Clint Eastwood. My personal favorite kind of westerns, however, are the Italian made spaghetti westerns. I like to compare spaghetti westerns to comic books since they’re usually colorful (with setting and characters), over the top, and often violent. The most famous of these films arguably make up Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy, which are A Fistful of DollarsFor a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Not only did these films help launch the careers of Leone and Clint Eastwood to new heights, but also plenty of other reasons that make these films classics and worth a review.

Let’s start with A Fistful of Dollars from 1964.

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In this film we are introduced to the now iconic character, the Man With No Name (Clint Eastwood), a wandering gunslinger who happens upon a small Mexican border town called San Miguel. What the Man finds in this town is surprising. San Miguel is a town that is under the clutches of two rival gangs. One one side there’s the Rojo family, who deal in liquor, and on the other side is the Baxter family, who deal in weapons. The mysterious gunslinger realizes a way where he can make a profit from both sides by playing each family against each other. While this is a great source of income, the Man learns by the local innkeeper, Silvanito (José Calvo), of the great stress that the two warring families have put on the town and the lives that have been lost in the process. This turns the Man’s mission of profit into a mission of protection and vengeance for the townspeople.

If you’re thinking that the plot for this movie is almost the same exact plot for Akira Kurosawa’s 1961 samurai film Yojimbo, you wouldn’t be the only one. The fact that this film was an unofficial remake to Yojimbo, without giving credit to that film as inspiration stirred up some controversy when it was released. To be fair though, Yojimbo was pretty much lifted from Dashiell Hammet’s 1929 novel Red Harvest. While A Fistful of Dollars seems to be taken from a couple different sources, the film still stands as a film that helped redefine the western genre.

Clint Eastwood’s performance as the Man With No Name is one of the most iconic in film history. It’s been imitated and parodied, but never has it been equaled. Not only is the Man a real tough guy and quick to shoot, he also shows a lot of compassion and has a great sense of humor. It’s really everything you look for in an archetypal hero like this. Sergio Leone’s direction also elevates this movie above many others in the genre because of the abundance of style thrown into it. Not only does it have western tricks and motifs, but also implements Eastern styles of film making like using close ups and quick zooms. Finally, this movie really wouldn’t be complete without Ennio Morricone’s controlled and melodic score.

So, in conclusion, A Fistful of Dollars stands tall as a classic of the western genre, but this review doesn’t stop there. After being pressured by the studios, Leone would go on to make a sequel, For a Few Dollars More released in 1965 overseas and in 1967 in America. Not only is this a great sequel, it’s a huge improvement over the first film.

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The wild west was the land of bounty hunters, and the people that matched the hunters in dangers were only the people that were being hunted. Problems also tended to arise when two bounty hunters vied for the same target, which is the case of the $10,000 reward on El Indio’s (Gian Maria Volonté) head. On one side there’s Col. Douglas Mortimer (Lee Van Cleef), an ex-soldier who was labeled the “finest shot in the Carolinas.” On the other side is the Man With No Name, aka Monco, a wandering gunslinger who can draw faster than you can blink. When the two bounty hunters wind up in the same town, it becomes quite clear that they would be more effective if they teamed up to take down El Indio and collect the enormous bounty on him and his gang.

This is a movie to get really excited about because you have to think about how cool A Fistful of Dollars was and add a bigger story with more larger than life characters and then you finally get For a Few Dollars More. This film perfectly builds on my describing spaghetti westerns as the comic books of the western genre. Monco and Col. Mortimer feel like superheroes the way they can hit their targets from so far away. Even the way they dress is symbolic to their characters. El Indio on the other hand is a perfect super villain since he can shoot almost as well as the two heroes and has a gang of henchmen surrounding him. Not to mention his over the top personality. This film is just a super entertaining and well made movie.

Ennio Morricone returns as composer for the film and the music is also a huge step forward. One song in particular is written and performed like something you would hear in a music box. That kind of composition reminds me of Morricone’s work for The Untouchables. This film is also the point where Leone found out just how skilled he was as a film maker and also strengthened his stylistic choices. Leone is known for his sound and editing, and there are many scenes in For a Few Dollars More that feature no dialogue, but only some sound or quiet music. This trademark would be perfected in the opening scene of Once Upon a Time in the West.

While A Fistful of Dollars is arguably one of the best westerns ever made, it can be debated that For a Few Dollars More may be one of the best films ever made. Believe it or not, things only get better with the third film of the trilogy. This is of course the 1966 film The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, which has become one of the most iconic films in the history of cinema.

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As the American Civil War ravaged the entire country, there were many people who did anything they had to to survive. Tuco (Eli Wallach) is a bandit on the run from law enforcement and bounty hunters that seem to be coming from every direction. Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef) is a ruthless bounty hunter who will kill anyone of any age in order to complete his job and get paid. Finally, there’s the Man With No Name , aka Blondie, another bounty hunter, who along with his new partner Tuco, scam towns by collecting reward money and then escaping later on. As Tuco’s and Blondie’s partnership collapses, another monkey wrench is thrown into their lives: a rumor of hidden gold buried in cemetery. Blondie knows the grave and Tuco knows the cemetery, forcing them to once again work together. Unfortunately for both of them, the sadistic Angel Eyes also wants a piece of the gold and will stop at nothing to claim it all for himself.

While it can be argued that For a Few Dollars More is one of the greatest films ever made, I’m pretty sure that anyone who has scene The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly will agree that this is definitely one of the best movies ever made. Everything that I’ve said was great about the first two films are back for this one, but enhanced on such an epic scale. There are so many iconic moments that it’s hard to name them all. The destruction of a bridge strategically placed in the middle of a major Civil War conflict and the climactic Mexican showdown in the middle of the cemetery are just a few examples. The film’s themes are also as epic as the everything else you see. The catastrophic effects of war and how it shapes people trying to survive through it is a surprising theme for a movie like this, but there are scenes where it really can strike a nerve and get the emotions flowing.

When the film was first released in 1966, most critics gave it a lot of negative reviews because they were disgusted by how violent it was. Yeah, it’s violent, but like the other films in this trilogy it happens very fast and always has a reason. The only thing excessive about The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is the run time. Granted, I’ve only seen the extended version so I may be a little unfair. What isn’t unfair is my complaint that Angel Eyes doesn’t get NEARLY enough screen time. This film is also very episodic in nature, but watching the characters adapt to whatever strange scenario happens next actually builds up who they are more than you might expect. Finally, I can’t talk about this film without mentioning how Morricone created one of the most beloved film scores in the history of movies. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is a landmark of film making, and must be discussed whenever the topic of film history comes up. It truly is a masterpiece.

I could say so much more about the Dollars Trilogy and I might one day. For now, I just wanted to give an overview of it and try to explain why they are three of the most important films you may ever see. Leone completely deconstructed the western genre and turned it into something never seen before. If you haven’t had the pleasure of seeing these films yet, it must be done as soon as possible.

Once Upon a Time in the West – Review

22 Jan

I’m not a huge fan of the Western genre, especially American made westerns of the 1950s and the early 1960s. There are a few exceptions, like Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, and some modern films, but westerns in the 1950s and 1960s don’t really hold my attention. But let’s talk about Spaghetti Westerns, a sub-genre that can only be described as the graphic novel western. These are a different story altogether, and hold my attention way more than their American counterparts. When one thinks of this genre, the first name that should come to mind is Sergio Leone, and today I want to take a look at his hyper-stylized 1969 film, Once Upon a Time in the West.

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The story of this film follows different characters each with different goals which all intersect throughout the film. A man nicknamed Harmonica (Charles Bronson) arrives in the town of Flagstone looking for another man named Frank (Henry Fonda). Harmonica’s intentions are mysterious and his gunslinging is vicious. Jill (Claudia Cardinale) is a former prostitute from New Orleans who’s come to Flagstone to be with her husband, who she doesn’t know has just been murdered by Frank, along with the rest of his family. Cheyenne (Jason Robards) is a bandit who’s been framed for the murders of Jill’s husband and his family. He soon meets Jill and begins helping her, along with Harmonica, to save the land that is rightfully hers and get revenge on Frank and his employer.

I said earlier that Spaghetti Westerns are the graphic novel equivalents of the John Wayne/John Ford type of Western. Right from the get go, it’s clear that Once Upon a Time in the West is all about style, style, style. The beginning of this movie can objectively go down as one of the best beginnings in the history of film. The only soundtrack is the sounds of a train station as three hired guns wait for a train to arrive so they can finish off their target. How long does this last? A few minutes? No, it lasts about 15 minutes and not one of those minutes is boring. It’s an auditory sensation of hyper realism and gets you in the mood to go into this twisted old west. The cool doesn’t stop there, either.

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There’s a great story that Henry Fonda told about Sergio Leone that I just have to include in this review. Apparently, the main reason that Leone wanted Fonda to play the villain was because he was always casted as the good guy in movies, and Leone wanted people to lose it when Fonda’s character is first revealed murdering a family. Well that’s ridiculous, but it works great because Henry Fonda plays it cool and deadly as the hired gunman Frank. Still, the rest of the cast is awesome. Jason Robards has excellent chemistry with Italian actress, Claudia Cardinale who light up the screen whenever she’s onscreen. Also, Charles Bronson. Need I say more? Seeing Henry Fonda and Charles Bronson square up in duel is just fantastic.

I guess what I’m really trying to say about Once Upon a Time in the West is that it’s just so immersive. The colors that Leone uses combined with Ennio Morricone’s sweeping (as usual) score is just fantastic, and there were times where I really just wanted to listen to the music. The editing is also absolutely extraordinary. For example, there’s a great scene where Henry Fonda fires his gun, but the scene jump cuts to the underside of a train. It’s the kind of jarring juxtaposition that reminds me of the jump cut in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The music, the cinematography, and the editing are some of the finest examples of immersive film making which makes what I’m about to say hopefully seem justified.

I’ve heard it from professors, critics, and movie buffs alike so I’m going to add myself to the long list of people who have said this. Despite being super cool and highly stylistic, Once Upon a Time in the West is honestly, and almost objectively, one of the greatest films ever made. Like Peckinpah did with The Wild Bunch, Sergio Leone breathed some fresh air into a dying genre with this film. He made a name for himself with the Dollars Trilogy, and this film started a thematic trilogy all its own, but as a stand alone film, it succeeds as a revisionist western, an artistic achievement, and just a really cool movie.