Friday 27 August 2021

Great Scott!

Randolph trying to ignore the hot blonde next to him.
The Criterion Channel is currently showing the "Ranown" westerns, a linked group of six westerns starring Randolph Scott that take their name from the production company (owned by Scott and his producing partner) that made all but one of them. The six were directed by Budd Boetticher, four written by Burt Kennedy. I've watched them all, and they're an intriguing look back to when horse operas ruled the roost in theatres and on TV. They also contain a foreshadowing of the more savage, anti-heroic westerns that were coming down the road, especially the Leone westerns, which hit the screens only four years after the last Ranown film.

Scott's character in these films (bar one) is always, rigorously, the same: taciturn, stoic, rugged, single-minded, solitary. His dialogue is terse and flinty, so much so that in some films, notably Ride Lonesome, he almost becomes a secondary character. Scott was never much of an actor, and in his longish career he morphed from matinee idol in the '30s to sandblasted cowboy in the '50s. Watch his performances across these films and you realize you're watching the template for Clint Eastwood's acting in the Leone films. Eastwood was famous for cutting his own lines in these films so that when he spoke it mattered more, and that's exactly what scriptwriter Burt Kennedy did for Scott. The Man with No Name is essentially a more sociopathic version of Scott's cowboys and sheriffs. 

As if to compensate for Scott's stiffness, he's usually paired with characterful villains (as was Eastwood) played by, among others, Claude Akins, Henry Silva, Richard Boone, Lee Van Cleef, James Coburn, and Lee Marvin, all of whom get juicy dialogue and some interesting quirks; Boone's character in The Tall T is a match for Scott when it comes to being laconic, but whenever someone accidentally hurts themselves he dissolves into sadistic, giggling laughter. Claude Akins in Comanche Station always answers to his character's name with a cheery "Hello" no matter what the situation. It's little details like that help make these films come alive. The bad guys are often well and truly evil. Henry Silva's character is a serial killer in spurs who'd feel at home in far grittier films made in the '70s, and in most of the films the villains think nothing of killing people in cold blood. 

The gender politics (a term we greenhorn dudes from back East like to use) are...interesting. The male characters spend a lot of time talking about what they reckon a man ought or ought not to do. At many points they make decisions based on some unwritten code of behavior for cowboys, and several of the films feel like morality plays in which Scott's hyper-masculine, hermit-like rectitude is held out as the gold standard for maleness. His relationships with the female characters (usually rationed to one per film) are chaste and formal; they're always addressed as "ma'am," sexual tension is absent, and the women are there to be protected. What's striking about four of the titles (Seven Men from Now, The Tall T, Ride Lonesome, Comanche Station) is the threat of rape from the villain(s) that hangs in the air. In Comanche Station the story begins with Scott rescuing a woman who's been captured and raped by Comanches, and she's then the subject of leering comments from Claude Akins. When sex isn't on the menu, food quite literally is: the women are all asked at various points to do the cooking and then complimented on their ability with a skillet and coffee pot. It's a conservative, Eisenhower-era view of women as homemakers and passive sexual partners who have to be protected or taken. In only a couple of years this trope of chaste heroes paired with virtuous women would die a quick death thanks to Bond films and more forgiving censors.

Two things make these films (four of them, anyway) really watchable: the rich, Technicolor cinematography that captures the strange, forbidding beauty of the deserts of the Southwest, and the scripts, which are admirably tight and economical, resulting in running times well short of 90 minutes. In an age of bloated action films that brush up against 3 hours, that's a blessed relief. Two of the films, Decision at Sundown and Buchanan Rides Alone, don't stand up. The latter is a slow tale of revenge that was shot on cheap-looking studio backlot filled with third-string character actors, and the former has Scott playing a surprisingly affable character, but, like the other, it's undone by a weak supporting cast.

Sunday 15 August 2021

Film Review: Fat City (1972)

The poorest of the poor, the denizens of skid rows and flophouses, the frequenters of dive bars and bus station lunch counters, usually don't show up in films as anything but colourful background extras, briefly-glimpsed eccentrics/headcases, or as mildly threatening minor characters. Fat City directed by John Huston takes a non-judgemental, almost cinema verite look at three characters living in the ragged end of Stockton, California. 

Billy (Stacy Keach) is an ex-boxer who's down on his luck, which, for him, is probably a chronic condition. He lives in a one-room apartment and makes ends meet as a day labourer picking crops. He meets Ernie (Jeff Bridges) at the YMCA and convinces him to take up boxing under the tutelage of Ruben, a local boxing coach and promoter. Billy takes up with Oma, a local barfly who's unattached after her boyfriend is sent to jail for a few months. Oma is in love with sherry, and the sound of her own voice in an empty bar. Ernie loses his first two "pro" fights and marries his pregnant girlfriend. Billy tries to make a comeback, wins his fight against an ailing, veteran Mexican boxer, but then loses Oma to her newly-released boyfriend. Billy hits the bottle and the film ends with him bumping into Ernie. The two go have coffee and share a long, uncomfortable silence.

European filmmakers have a long tradition of viewing the downtrodden through a sympathetic or dispassionate lens, but in Hollywood they've most often been viewed as comical, pathetic, or dangerous; abject failures, above all else. Given America's binary moral view of capitalism (poor=bad, successful=good), this is hardly surprising. Fat City doesn't try to place its characters in a socio-political context, or explain why they've ended up on skid row. Neither does it demonize them or go for cheap laughs or maudlin sentiments. The tone is observational, and the cool, unobtrusive cinematography makes the viewer feel at home in the rooms, gyms and bars the characters float between. Essentially, Huston steps aside to let the Billy, Ernie and Oma tell their stories without any directorial signposting or underlining. The films wants us to watch these people and not judge them; just watch and listen and experience their fragmented, messy lives as they do.

Boxing provides a loose framework for the film, with a drunk, destitute Billy meeting Ernie at the end and telling him that he's thinking of getting back in shape for what is probably the umpteenth time. Ernie has found some success boxing, but their final, silent scene together is a foreshadowing that Billy's fate will also be shared by Ernie. Although this isn't really a boxing film a la Rocky, the sport has always been the grand metaphor for American life, with its idea that achievement comes through bold, violent, individual acts in which there are winner and losers, and nothing in-between. Fat City dispenses with this myth by showing that boxing is simply another stop on Billy's stumbling journey through life, not terribly different from his time spent in bars or picking onions for $20 a day. 

The performances are uniformly excellent, but the shining star of the cast is Susan Tyrrell as Oma. This is a role that could have led to severe scenery chewing, but Tyrrell keeps things very real. If you've spent any time in the kind of bars that have a coin-operated billiard table as their sole and only attraction, then you've probably seen, and certainly heard, an Oma. Tyrrell nails this character perfectly. Huston's direction is subtle but effective, and this could be considered a companion piece to Wise Blood (1979), a study of people on the edges in the Deep South. 

Thursday 12 August 2021

Book Review: Mandrake (1964) by Susan Cooper


So let's get the plot out of the way first: Professor Queston, an anthropologist, has spent years away from his native Britain studying stone age tribes in Brazil; in particular, a tribe that has a deep, inexplicable, and religious attachment to a series of caves in a mountainside. On one of his rare trips back to England, Queston finds that his native land is under the sway of Mandrake, a minister in the government in the newly-formed Ministry of Planning. Queston has a brief and unexpected meeting with Mandrake, who seems strangely interested in Queston's research in Brazil. Flash forward a few years and Queston returns to England to find that Mandrake is now the de facto ruler of Britain and has launched the country on a bizarre and quasi-fascist policy of forcing the population to relocate to the places in England where they were originally born. England has become an impoverished dystopia with most of the population walled up in major towns and cities. Queston, who is rootless, finds himself on the run and roaming the "deadlands," the areas outside the control of the Ministry of Planning. In addition, the country is being plagued by mysterious earthquakes and tsunamis. The purpose behind these policies and disasters is rather muddled, but it seems that the Earth, (it's postulated by Queston) is actually a sentient being, and is striking back at humans for using the atom bomb. Mandrake believes that if people move to where they have the greatest psychological attachment, a sense of home and belonging, the Earth will be appeased. I think.

The whys and wherefores of what's happening in this novel are its weakest element. The finale doesn't clear things up, and, if anything, it just muddies the water. Is the Earth the bad guy? Does Mandrake have some strange psychic hold over England? It's all a bit sketchy. In this regard, and in other respects, Mandrake feels very much like a Dr Who or Quatermass story, and certainly Queston's name is almost a joking amalgam of those two characters names. Queston even gets a companion, Beth, who also becomes his love interest. Queston actually does very little in the novel except witness events, but he's a stalwart and agreeable character.

What the novel lacks in coherence, it makes up for in atmosphere. Combining elements of 1984 and tropes from John Wyndham's SF novels, and with an added hint of folk horror, Cooper creates a dread-soaked and demented England that's been brainwashed and bullied into believing happiness only comes from insularity and xenophobia. Here's a minor character's view of the changes:

"I never voted for this government, I'll tell you that, but they've done well. Could have pranged everything, but they've given us peace and quiet. Keep ourselves to ourselves, that's all we've ever wanted. All that Common Market nonsense--England's an island, isn't it?"

A political leader persuades people to take a self-evidently disastrous course of action, like, say, Brexit? Pure science fiction. This was Cooper's first novel, and while its internal logic is flawed, the world-building and atmosphere are excellent. Not a must-read, but a fascinating and well-written curiosity. 

Tuesday 3 August 2021

Film Review: The 317th Platoon (1965)

Ever hear of Pierre Schoendoerrffer? Me neither. He was a French war correspondent and photographer who was present at the battle of Dien Bien Phu and spent four months in a Viet Minh POW camp. As the writer and director, he put all his experience of the war in French Indochina into The 317th Platoon, which, it turns out, is one of the very best war movies I've ever seen. I'd never heard of it, and I thought I was familiar with all of the classic war films. Presumably the fact that it's French and deals with a forgotten conflict has kept it in the shadows of film history. 

Like so many other war films it deals with a platoon struggling to survive against poor odds. This platoon is made up of ethnic Khmer and is led by four French officers. They are in retreat following the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu and have to travel through a hundred miles of jungle to reach safety. So far, so unexceptional. It sometimes seems more than half of all war films are about platoons battling adversity. The difference here is the almost total absence of sentimentality and the rigorous realism. When men die there is no weeping or reminiscing, just an order for a grave to be dug. The film also avoids big action set pieces. When there is shooting, it's usually seen taking place at a great distance, or the enemy is barely glimpsed, which is how most infantry battles are fought. The intimate shootouts in films like Saving Private Ryan are the exception, not the rule, in modern war. Half the platoon's battle is with exhaustion and the jungle. 

The two main characters are Lieutenant Torrens and his second-in-command, Adjutant Willsdorf. Torrens is young and barely experienced, but the film avoids the obvious trap of making him callow, hysterical, arrogant, or foolish, the usual way newbie officers are presented in war films. Torrens is competent, firmly in command, and usually listens to the advice of his adjutant. Willsdorf is the grizzled veteran of both the Second World War and the war in Indochina. When he disagrees with one of Torrens decisions he explains why, but then shrugs and carries on with his job. Neither of them indulge in histrionics. 

Like the majority of films about colonial wars, the story is told entirely from the point of view of the colonialists. It's depressing but typical that a Western filmmaker has little or no interest in what the war in Indochina meant and did to the people who lived there. Hollywood's Vietnam films had the same flaw, as do recent films about the war in Iraq. The platoon's Khmer foot soldiers are ciphers, although in one brief scene it's made clear that the hold the French officers have over their men is, if not slipping, then certainly being looked at critically. And the ending, which is brutally swift, leaves no doubt that France is doomed to lose all her colonial wars. 

Lastly, one of the most remarkable aspects of this film is that it was apparently filmed with a crew of six people. Six! There are Hollywood productions of the era that don't look half this good with a crew of hundreds. The black and white cinematography is excellent, as is the use of locations in Cambodia.