“Yellow Sky” (1948) starring Gregory Peck, Anne Baxter, & Richard Widmark

In 1867 in the West, a band of bank robbers flee from the U.S. Cavalry into the desert on horseback. These men are: James Dawson AKA Stretch (Gregory Peck- one of Hollywood’s top leading men), Dude (Richard Widmark- a film noir darling/respected character actor), Lengthy (John Russell- a tall/darkly handsome actor who later became a lead on TV), Bull Run (Robert Arthur), Half Pint (Harry Morgan- long before fame on M*A*S*H), and Walrus (Charles Kemper). Near death from lack of water, all (except Walrus), stumble into what appears to be a ghost town (Yellow Sky). However, they soon discover a prospector, Grandpa (James Burton), and his “tomboy” granddaughter, Constance Mae AKA Mike (Anne Baxter- already an Oscar winner for her supporting role in All About Eve). After Dude discovers that this old man has been mining gold, the gang plan to steal from his claim.

James (Stretch) Dawson: Quite a punch you got there, ma’am. Come in mighty handy when you get married.

I learned that Widmark acted in a few Westerns, thanks to another classic movie fan (via Twitter). Yellow Sky is categorized as a noir Western. The director’s name may be familiar; William Wellman directed the original version of A Star is Born (1937). The story was by W.R. Burnett (one of the most influential writers in film history); the screenplay was by Lamar Trotti. The music was composed by one of the best in the field, Alfred Newman; he created the 20th Century Fox logo theme (which is still used today). In 1940, Newman was nominated for 4 Oscars for 4 different films- wow!

Shakespeare’s The Tempest influenced the plot/characters; I learned this from the review that indie director John Sayles did. However, Wellman said in the book, The Men Who Made the Movies, that he had no idea of the connection. In the fight between Lengthy and Mike at the spring, Baxter’s stunt double- Martha Crawford- was used. Peck broke his ankle in 3 places after falling from his horse in one scene, so the man wrestling w/ Baxter in the hay was his stunt double, Jock Mahoney. Wellman noted that Baxter hated working w/ Peck, BUT never gave a reason why. Hmmm… I found this surprising, b/c I’ve never heard of Peck’s co-stars having serious issues w/ him!

I’m NOT yet V familar w/ the Western genre, though I mostly grew up in the desert (Tucson, AZ). This movie is visually stunning w/ stark black and white photography of the natural landscapes. The filmmakers received permission to shoot in Death Valley, which had the dangers of extreme heat, scorpions, and tarantulas- yikes! Peck and Widmark make believable frenemies; they’re NOT only opposites physically, BUT also have different personalities. Each of the 6 men has his own style of speech, unique costume, and scene in which to reveal his character. The romance develops over a few scenes, as Mike learns that Stretch is NOT a bad man (deep down). The last scene looks tacked on (by Hollywood studio execs), as Sayles commented. This movie was re-made in South Africa as The Jackals (1967) starring Vincent Price.

[1] Gregory Peck plays the leader Stretch, an actor normally associated with a straight-laced gait, here he is is weather worn and tired, his portrayal of Stretch as convincing as a role I have seen him tackle. Richard Widmark, in what I believe to be his first Western entry, is truly magnetic, a smirking, snarling Dude that you just know you couldn’t trust if your life depended on it. Anne Baxter plays the sole female character of the piece (Mike), and she is pivotal to the whole film’s strength, tough and full of spunk, her grasping of the situation in amongst these ragged men gives the piece it’s time bomb ethic, and boy does Baxter do well with it.

[2] Performances are superb from all concerned. Peck gives one of his usual stalwart portrayals. Richard Widmark, in his first western is superb as the slimy, crafty double crosser. Also excellent is John Russell as the womanizing gang member (“Now ma’am, you wouldn’t shoot a fine young handsome fella like me, would ye?”)

[3] The main thing you might not catch is that this is an adaptation of “The Tempest,” by Shakespeare. Here, the band of travelers crosses a metaphoric sea (the desert) and reaches a “New World” where they sort out what matters between them. The set was built (and deliberately destroyed) from an old silent film set that was left over.

William Wellman was one of those consistently excellent directors who never really made a bad film, but didn’t always make exceptional ones, and this one is right in his usual mix of strong visuals, tight editing, fairly simple dramatic plots, and a key actor or two to identify with.

-Excerpts from IMDb movies

“The Power of the Dog” (2021) starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, & Kodi Smit-McPhee

SPOILERS: Don’t read this post if you haven’t seen, or don’t want to know, details from the movie (now streaming on Netflix).

Peter: When my father passed, I wanted nothing more than my mother’s happiness. For what kind of man would I be if I did not help my mother? If I did not save her?

In 1925 in Montana, wealthy rancher, Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch), inspires fear and awe in those around him. His younger brother, George (Jesse Plemons), marries a hard-working widow- Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst)- who has a sensitive young adult son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Resenting the changes in his home, Phil acts cruel to both Rose and Peter (when he comes home from college in the Summer). Phil tells Rose he thinks she’s a gold-digger. He bullies Peter (effeminate and introverted), and the cowhands follow his lead. After some time, Phil takes Peter under his wing, showing him the ways of the ranch.

George (to Rose): I just want to say… how nice it is not to be alone.

Jane Campion won an original screenplay Oscar for The Piano (1993); she was only the second woman to receive a nomination as Best Director. I haven’t seen that film in many years, but I did like it. I had also previously watched In the Cut (2003) and blogged re: S1 of Campion’s TV show (Top of the Lake). The ranch house and cattle barn (aged to reflect the 1920s) were constructed on location. Filming began in January 2020; due to the COVID pandemic, it was halted until late June. Many critics have pointed out that this film is Campion’s 1st w/ a lead male character. The original book was written in 1967 by an American author (Thomas Savage) who was known for Westerns; he was a closeted gay man who married and had children.

Phil Burbank: Bronco Henry told me that a man was made by patience in the odds against him.

This is a departure for Cumberbatch; I thought he did quite well portraying a macho cowboy (who is hiding his true self). Though Plemons and Dunst are engaged and have two young sons, they have a awkward (yet promising) chemistry in their early scenes. George and Rose are two lonely people who just decided NOT to be alone anymore; I wanted to see more of them (esp. Rose after she becomes alcoholic). Smit-McPhee (an Aussie actor, 25 y.o.) is getting a LOT of notice; he could be nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. He has an other-worldly look and creates an unique character; he and Cumberbatch share a few tense scenes. I thought much more would happen between them (such as violence), BUT this film subverts expectations. What exactly happened btwn the younger Phil and his older/beloved mentor Bronco Henry? Phil idolizes Bronco Henry (20 yrs. after his death); he’s held up as the ideal cowboy/man.

As one critic said, the tone of this movie is like than in The Beguiled. The pacing is V slow, which many viewers (esp. on Twitter) joked about. The score for this film is rather unnerving; I thought it was overmuch in some scenes. Phil whistles a song which Rose can’t play well; she’d gotten a grand piano from George (who wants them to mix more w/ society). Phil then plays the same song on his banjo, taunting Rose further. Though some have called the ending “ambiguous,” I knew Peter weaponized the anthrax (which had infected the dead cow he found on the road), then planned the death of Phil. If you have some time and a LOT of patience, then check this film out.

[1] It’s a slow burn especially in the first half. While I find these characters compelling, I do wish to have more reasons for these characters. I need their history.

[2] Campion lets her camera linger on the outward expressions of inner struggle and the vast landscape, which promises to bury one’s secrets, but doesn’t.

[3] “The Power of the Dog” reinforces what I already knew – male macho posturing and bullying is usually a desperate attempt to disguise feelings of inadequacy and self doubt. Though set in 1923, the film is so clearly about now…

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

Proto-Feminist Western/Melodrama: “Johnny Guitar” (1954) starring Joan Crawford, Sterling Hayden, & Mercedes McCambridge

Sam: [to the two men in the kitchen] Never seen a woman who was more of a man. She thinks like one, acts like one, and sometimes makes me feel like I’m not.

Vienna (Joan Crawford- 50 y.o.) has spent nearly 5 years to built a saloon outside of Southwestern town. She hopes to build her own town once the railroad comes through, but most of the locals want her gone. When four men hold up a stagecoach and kill a man, the sheriff and community leaders, led by Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge- 38 y.o.) come to the saloon to grab four of Vienna’s friends, incl. their leader- Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady- just 30 y.o.) This was the time when when Ernest Borgnine (aged 37) was playing tough/villainous guys; he’s the hot-headed Bart Lonergan. Royal Dano is Corey, the ailing man true to the Dancin’ Kid, who will get a lot of empathy w/ his performance. Veteran character actor John Carradine (aged 48) plays the loyal caretaker of the saloon- Old Tom. Vienna stands strong against the posse of haters; she is aided by a newcomer- Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden- 38 y.o.)- who is NOT what he seems.

Vienna: Down there I sell whiskey and cards. All you can buy up these stairs is a bullet in the head. Now which do you want?

A proto-feminist hero is a female who usually fights against society’s expectations of her; this is a term from the 20th c. As some viewers have noted, Vienna stands for progress and new ideas; the wealthy ranchers- Emma and Mr. McIvers (Ward Bond)- are trying to stop that progress which threatens their way of life. While Vienna and her friends are dressed in bright colors (a rarity for Western movies), the posse is dressed in black. The posse is led by the (repressed/petite) Emma; her voice is full of with fire and brimstone. We learn that Johnny met Vienna when she was working in an Oklahoma City saloon years ago; also from other lines, there is no doubt to her being a former prostitute. Jealousy and rejection compel Emma to destroy both her rival Vienna and her unrequited love- the Dancin’ Kid. Hayden does a fine job here; he and and Crawford have good chemistry in their scenes together. Crawford seems to be in control at all times; she tells Johnny when to play and the Dancin’ Kid when to dance. Even when there is a noose around her neck, she stays strong and the men refuse to hang her (until Emma steps in). As one astute viewer commented: “Emma is also a woman in control, but of external forces; on the inside, emotions, fears, and frustrations dominate.”

Vienna: [to Johnny Guitar bitterly] A man can lie, steal… and even kill. But as long as he hangs on to his pride, he’s still a man. All a woman has to do is slip – once. And she’s a “tramp!” Must be a great comfort to you to be a man.

According to director Nicholas Ray, he began shooting the younger actress’ scenes in the early morning before Crawford got on set, as Crawford was very jealous of McCambridge. Ray was quite unhappy during the filming and later admitted: “Quite a few times, I would have to stop the car and vomit before I got to work in the morning.” Crawford, who had bought the rights to the novel and sold it Republic Pictures, initially wanted Claire Trevor or Barbara Stanwyck (her friend) to play Emma. The actresses fought both on and off camera; one night (in a drunken rage) Crawford threw the costumes worn by McCambridge along an Arizona highway! McCambridge (who also played a strong woman in Giant) later claimed that Crawford attempted to blacklist her. Hayden said: “There is not enough money in Hollywood to lure me into making another picture with Joan Crawford. And I like money.” Crawford referred to Hayden as “the biggest pill in Hollywood.” Francois Truffaut said it reminded him of The Beauty and the Beast w/ Hayden being the beauty- LOL! Check out this film if you want to see a unique Western and don’t mind a big dose of melodrama.

[1] …I think Nick Ray and Phil Yordan decided the story was so ridiculous that they would just concentrate on the emotional elements, also bringing out the pure fantasy (going behind the waterfall to find a hidden fortress, the heroine running from the fire in her white satin dress, etc.) that is the best element of all great film.

[2] Weird and hysterical Western with Freudian touches, dreamlike emotionalism and magnificent dialogue in which is blended domination, humiliation and a deadly confrontation- resulting to be a fascinating and melodramatic film.

Love and hate are woven into two protagonists, the fallen angel Joan Crawford and the spinster landowner Mercedes McCambridge; both of them share a mythical confrontation.

[3] The film starts as a western, but it simply doesn’t conform to that genre, instead it is a weirdly matriarchal piece where the traditional roles are almost roundly reversed and the whole film has an otherworldly feel to it. […] The western clichés become secondary to these relationships and the director seems to prefer these to any lynching or shoot out.

The full colour of the film gives it a gaudy, otherworldly appeal that is very enjoyable. Fires range in terrible, hellish reds, while shadows divide scenes of emotional complexity.

[4] A western without savages, cavalry, rodeos, and the usual John Ford stuff. A different western, ahead of its time, and very misunderstood by the public then, but, fortunately, reborn from the limbo and forgiveness, rediscovered by new generations, and still alive, fresh as in its first day, and always inmortal.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

“Yojimbo” directed by Akira Kurosawa (1961) & “A Fistful of Dollars” (1964) directed by Sergio Leone

Better if all these men were dead. Think about it! – Tagline for Yojimbo

In Yojimbo, Sanjuro (Toshiro Mifune) is a middle-aged traveling samurai (AKA ronin) who comes to a small town in 19th c. Japan. After learning from the old innkeeper that this town is divided between two rival gangsters, he plays one side off against the other. Then a younger man, Unosuke (Tatsuya Nakadai), the son of one of the gangsters, arrives in town w/ a gun. Insults fly, as do swords, and (selflessly) Sanjuro decides to help a kidnapped woman reunite w/ her husband and young son. Sanjuro survives a brutal beating and hides out in an abandoned temple. He returns to town after learning that the innkeeper has been beaten for helping him escape. In the “spaghetti Western” A Fistful of Dollars (AFoD), a drifter gunman w/ no name (AKA Joe) played by Clint Eastwood (in his first starring role at age 34) arrives in the Mexican village of San Miguel. He befriends the elderly owner of the local bar, Silvanito. Joe learns that the town is dominated by two gangster lords: John Baxter (Wolfgang Lukschy) and Ramón Rojo (Gian Maria Volontè). After Joe kills 4 men in Baxter’s gang, he’s offered a job by Ramón’s brother, Esteban Rojo (Sieghardt Rupp). Of course, Joe also decides to play both sides off each other.

This is the man with no name. Danger fits him like a glove. -Tag line for AFoD

Sergio Leone was inspired by Yojimbo (“bodyguard” in Japanese) to make his movie (which has a similar plot). Leone didn’t officially get permission for the remake, which was copyrighted Akira Kurosawa, so the Japanese director sued him and delayed the release of AFoD until 1967 (3 yrs). Leone had to pay Kurosawa a sum and 15% of the profits. Kurosawa was influenced by American Westerns, incl. High Noon (1952) and Shane (1953). He was also influenced by the film noir The Glass Key (1942). (I’ll have to check that out!) Kurosawa came up w/ the (darkly comic) idea of the dog carrying the human hand to show that Sanjuro was in a dangerous town. Kurosawa told Mifune that his character was like a wolf or a dog; he told Nakadai that his character was like a snake. Mifune came up with Sanjuro’s trademark shoulder twitch. Composer Masaru Sato was instructed by Kurosawa to write “whatever you like” as long as it wasn’t the usual period samurai film music. This film is part of the jidai-geki (“period drama”) genre which were usually set during the Edo Period. As for the violence (esp. sword fighting)- it’s done so fast!

I’ve never been to Italy. I’ve never been to Spain. I’ve never been to Germany. I’ve never been to any of the countries (co-producing) this film. The worst I can come out of this is a nice little trip. I’ll go over there and learn some stuff. I’ll see how other people make films in other countries. -Clint Eastwood, recalling his thinking after getting his role

In AFoD, we see Eastwood’s (now trademark) squint; it was caused by the combination of the sun and high-wattage arc lamps on set in Spain. The producers chose Spain- it was 25% cheaper than shooting in Italy. Eastwood (looking good) brought some pieces for his costume from home: black jeans, boots, hat, and cigars (though he was a non-smoker). At first, Eastwood had some major disagreements w/ Leone, particularly over the script. After convincing Leone to cut his dialogue to a minimum, the men began to collaborate better. Eastwood’s performance would later become a trademark of his Westerns and crime films. This was Leone’s first time working w/ composer Ennio Morricone; the (now iconic) music contributed much to its success. The theme song was originally composed by Morricone as a lullaby.

[after saving Marisol and her family and giving them money]

Marisol: Why do you do it for us?

Joe: Why? I knew someone like you once. There was no one to there to help. Now get moving.

Yojimbo is among the films in Roger Ebert’s list of The Great Movies. There are many creative creative shots, incl. one where Sanjuro is perched high above the two gangs as they (comically) threaten each other on the street below. Both Sanjuro and Joe (AKA The Man With No Name) are men of few words; however, some of the looks that Mifune makes are priceless (revealing this thoughts). The scene where Joe faces off with Ramón using the boiler plate as a bulletproof vest in AFoD is being watched by Biff in Back to the Future Part II (1989) and then re-created by Marty (Michael J. Fox) in its sequel Back to the Future Part III (1990). Marty dons an outfit similar to Eastwood’s and uses the name “Clint Eastwood”- LOL! In S2 E5 of HBO’s Westworld, you will also see influences from both of these films.

[1] The fact that this masterless samurai has deep compassion for strangers is different than most modern action movies alone. Toshiro Mifune is magical in the lead role. His presence is felt all throughout the film even when he isn’t on camera. All film buffs should watch this film, it is a perfect example of a director and actor with confidence in their craft.

[2] If I had to choose only one movie for film students to learn from, this would be it. Other films may be more profound, or their imagery more groundbreaking, but this one is so tightly constructed that nothing – not a frame, word, or gesture – is extraneous.

Kurosawa meticulously infuses every detail with meaning; there’s a purpose behind every shot, and aspiring directors should pay close attention (why is the camera slightly tilted? why are there concubines in the background?)

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews re: Yojimbo

[1] This is the beginning of the Man With No Name series. The visuals are beautiful, the character of the Man With No Name menacing and mysterious, the score is brilliant and the action is a blast. The one that launched a thousand copycat versions…

[2] see the nascent Leone visual style here, with the close-up style and contrast of close-ups and long shots appearing. This alone sets it apart from previous films, westerns and non-westerns alike, and still provides for great visual treats that one can appreciate today.

This films also marks the first brilliant score of Ennio Morricone. It is here that he introduced the lonely whistling, guitar music, chorus, and unusual combinations and styles that developed into the music that has become in the U.S. synonymous with westerns and duels in the same way that Leone’s visuals and themes have.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews re: AFoD

“Tombstone” (1993) starring Kurt Russell & Val Kilmer

Doc Holliday: Forgive me if I don’t shake hands. (Isn’t this relatable after quarantine life!? LOL!)

After success cleaning up Dodge City, Wyatt Earp (Kurt Russell) moves to Tombstone, AZ, looking to get rich. He meets his brothers Virgil (Sam Elliott) and Morgan (Bill Paxton), as well as his old friend Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer). A band of outlaws- The Cowboys- are causing problems in the area w/ random acts of violence. In time, The Cowboys (who wear red sashes on their waists) come into confrontation with Holliday and the Earps, leading to a shoot-out at the O.K. Corral. I had forgotten that there were two (legendary) actors here- Charlton Heston (the elderly rancher Henry Hooker) and Robert Mitchum (the narrator)- wow!

Morgan Earp: Look at all the stars. You look up and you think, “God made all this and He remembered to make a little speck like me.” It’s kind of flattering, really.

There are so many good actors in this movie (and I heard ALL the mustaches were real)- some famous and others more known for character roles. The villains are headed up by Curly Bill (Powers Boothe- who formed part of the ensemble in Deadwood), Johnny Ringo (Michael Biehn- went to the Univ. of Arizona for several yrs), Stephen Lang (Ike Clanton), and his lil bro Billy Clanton (Thomas Haden Church- who usually does comedy). Wyatt’s wife Mattie (Dana Wheeler Nicholson) has become addicted to laudanum. Virgil’s (much younger) wife Allie (Paula Malcolmson) is a Irish immigrant; this actress was also in Deadwood (her real accent is Irish). Morgan’s wife Louisa (Lisa Collins) was married to Billy Zane (who plays Mr. Fabian, the actor). Wyatt’s love interest is the independent-minded actress- Josephine Marcus (Dana Delany). The mayor of the town is Mr. Behan (Jon Tenney); this actor has appeared in many cop shows. A chubby Billy Bob Thornton plays a hot-headed (but also cowardly) gambler. 90210 fans will get a kick out of seeing Jason Priestly (a young deputy). Doc Holliday is joined by his lady friend/fellow gambler Kate (Joanna Pacula).

Wyatt Earp: [Vigil has agreed to become Tombstone’s town marshall, upsetting Wyatt] What in the hell are you doin’? I told you we weren’t gettin’ involved!

Virgil Earp: You got us involved when you brought us here.

Wyatt Earp: Now you hold on a minute, Virg!

Virgil Earp: Hold on nothin’! I walk around this town and look these people in the eyes. It’s just like someone’s slappin’ me in the face! These people are afraid to walk down the street, and I’m tryin’ to make money off that like some goddamn vulture! If we’re gonna have a future in this town, it’s gotta have some law and order!

Russell (who has worked in Hollywood since a young boy) said that after original director Kevin Jarre (also the screenwriter) was fired, he directed a majority of the movie. George P. Cosmatos (who was not very comfortable w/ the English language) oversaw the filming, though he has directing credit. The film was nearly cast with Richard Gere as Wyatt Earp and Willem Dafoe as Doc Holliday- LOL! All the actors do a fine job, though Kilmer probably has the best lines. Both Holliday and Ringo are educated men; they even argue in Latin.

Wyatt Earp [to Morgan]: In all that time workin’ those cow towns, I was only ever mixed up in one shootin’, just one! But a man lost his life and I took it! You don’t know how that feels, and believe me boy, you don’t ever want to know. Not ever!

As Wyatt explains to his younger (idealistic) brother Morgan, there is really nothing exciting about killing another person. Wyatt is reluctant to take on a lawman role again; his older brother Virgil is the one who changes his mind. Once his brothers are affected, Wyatt quickly springs into action! This is a fun, action-packed, yet also touching story about brotherly/familial love, friendship, romance, and justice. I esp. liked the various horse riding scenes, which go from playful/romantic to quite tense/dangerous.

[1] Throughout the entire film, his [Kilmer’s] acting and character embellishments are so nuanced and well done that by movies end, we feel his loss in a very personal way. Credit must also go out the the costumers and make-up artists for their contribution to the overall effect of his role. All the way through the film, he looks sickly, pale and world-weary. His mannerisms and intensity of gaze profoundly establish this character as a focal point in this production. …I consider this role as probably the very best for Val Kilmer. It required subtlety and careful restraint and made the viewer believe that we weren’t watching an actor merely regurgitating lines and hitting their foot-marks. I, for one, was entranced by the carefully studied body language and facial expressions…the sweaty desperation of a man who sensed his own mortality but strove to enact his own justice for justices sake. This was just very well done!

[2] …speaking as a woman, this is by no means just a guy’s flick. It’s been one of my favorite films since the day it came out. It’s got everything- drama, romance, action, and an honest to goodness story. There are even interesting themes, like the moral dilemma that Wyatt finds himself in– Is he compelled to help fight the Cowboys even though he’s “retired” and just wants to live out his life in peace? Is there a moral equivalence between killing for justice and killing for retribution? How far can a man go to sacrifice his own integrity and better judgment?

The love story simply served its purpose in helping viewers to better understand the character of Wyatt. Also the friendship between Wyatt and Doc was portrayed tenderly… And okay, as a woman, let me just say that there is no one sexier than Sam Elliot. Man alive, if there ever was a person born to portray a cowboy, that guy is IT. If you’ve never seen a Western, or are not a fan, try this movie. It will make a believer out of you.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews