Thursday, March 06, 2008

My Favorite Westerns

I was tempted into calling these last two entries, Diary of a Madman, parts 1-2, Due to the length. I wrote them to get some ideas out, but if someone is not in the mood for that then I bold faced all the westerns so one can skip to what he or she wants to read. I just did not want to make a list which leads to my next paragraph.

One thing I purposely avoid doing online is rating my favorite movies on a top 5, top 10, top 100 movies, etc. list. On the links I list on the right side of my blog there is usually many threads and messages dedicated to this sort of thing. One thing I have seen on IMDB is just about every variation of a “top something” list. I might take a cursory look at some messages, but those really do not tell me much. This is why I started with the last entry where I wanted to clarify what I mean by a “western” and some really broad criteria as to what I look for in judging my favorites.

Something I did not mention, but I think I should mention here is related to the storytelling. I good western does not take that long to tell the story. The reason for this goes back to the B-western era where the movie was only about an hour long. The movie was short enough to support the A-movie playing on the same night. Eventually, these B-movies evolved into co-features and, by the end of the evening, you would have seen about 3 hours of movies. Since westerns tend to be more visual than depend on the spoken word they do not really need hours to be told. In my view, a good western can be told in less than an 1 1/2 hours long. Any western that goes beyond this time length has to do more to justify its extended use of time. This goes contrary to a lot of recent western movies where over 2 1/2 hours are used to tell the story. There are some good reasons they do this, but I will not go into it here.

Relating to what I just mentioning, let me start this by mentioning one of the best western director/actor teams of all time. That would be director John Ford and actor John Wayne. These men made a lot of really good movies. You can not talk about westerns without these men. This may come as a shock to those who have read this blog in the past, but I am not most hardcore fan of those type of westerns. I have watched them in the past and on occasions will do so in the future. The problem is they tend to be a little too epic with storylines that I do not have interest in. The main story I find interesting, but then there is usually something I do not care about that takes up a lot of the movie. So, I would encourage people to watch the Ford/Wayne epic movies, but those are not my favorites. Watch Stagecoach, The Searchers, My Darling Clementine, and Fort Apache. Those tend to be the most talked about of the Ford/Wayne team. I can not honestly say I could watch these over and over again like I can some others, but they are some good ones. A lot of those have Monument Valley in them which is a very awesome scenery location.

On the other hand, let me give an epic movie that really is worth the extra time. That would be Red River directed by Howard Hawks with John Wayne. This is the best movie I can think of that illustrates the big cattle drive. I will mention a few others, but I think this is my favorite in this regard. Like a lot of old movies and westerns, sometimes the endings are weak to create a happy ending, or the old Hays Code would prevent the director from creating a downbeat satisfying ending. This is the case here, but this should not stop one from enjoying the whole movie.

Another one often listed is the movie Shane. This is a must see. Alan Ladd plays the iconic gunfighter versus the evil Jack Palance gunfighter. What I really like, and I think this is part of Alan Ladd’s acting, and probably his personality, is his slowness. This is a tradition in western movies that the gunfighter is really slow and does not speak much. Then at the very last second he has lightning fast reflexes when he pulls his gun out. Meanwhile, Jack Palance is considered by many to have the best western villain role with this movie. The thing that is interesting is, in some ways, the two gunfighters are very similar to each other. Van Heflin and Jean Arthur have good roles as the parents of the young boy, Joey. A lot of the movie is seen through the young boy’s eyes. The bonding Shane and Joey have is really “cute.” I think that is the best way to describe it since Joey, like most young boys and girls, has a very sincere way of dealing with Shane. The ending of this movie fits perfectly with this and may bring a tear or two to the eye. Finally, the Grand Tetons in Wyoming are a beauty to see.

High Noon with Gary Cooper is a classic. There are lots of stories out there about why this movie is left-wing politically; do a google search. From what I have been told this is the most requested movie of an President in office. I do not really look at this movie politically though, nor do I look at this movie as the realistic old west. I mentioned in my last entry why this would not bother me. Here is why it is great. If you have ever been in stressful situation where you think the world is not on your side then this is the movie for you. Guess what, you will have a clock in just about every scene letting you know that time is running down on our hero. The movie is almost in real time. You can check the clock and see what time it is. Can Will Kane convince others to help him against the villain who will reach his men in town at noon? One thing interesting about me liking this movie, is that there really is not scenery since it takes place all in town. What is cool though is the one chance you get at real scenery you do not really want to see it because it means the villain might arrive soon. The claustrophobia works really well here. The movie is not relaxed and filled with open scenery. This is an example of where scenery was not used and it works. The music helps create the tension, along with the Tex Ritter sung theme.

I wanted to get out some of the 5-6 classic western movies that I do not think one can skip. The movies listed above are the most common ones talked about being the “Greatest Westerns Ever.” Just writing about them makes me want to watch them again.

Another team of classic movies are the ones from director Anthony Mann and actor Jimmy Stewart. Winchester ’73, Bend of the River, The Far Country, The Man from Laramie, and The Naked Spur. Stewart has some nice emotional moments in these movies, “Oh, You Scum!” from The Man From Laramie. The Naked Spur might be the one I like the most, but I can not say for sure. The others lesser known Mann movies that are classics are The Man of the West with Gary Cooper. Originally, it was intended to be another Stewart movie. This will get a dvd release in May, 2008. Another being The Tin Star with Henry Fonda and Anthony Perkins. The Tin Star is a nice one with Fonda showing Perkins the ropes of being a lawman. I like the practical advice he gives.

Now, let me give my absolute favorite team, Director Budd Boetticher and actor Randolph Scott. Seven Men From Now, The Tall T, Ride Lonesome, Comanche Station, Decision at Sundown, and Buchanon Rides Alone. Anyone that has read my blog knows I have talked about the first four repeatedly. I know the exact locations for those movies almost inside and out, and if not, I can tell you the general area where they took place. They specifically filmed these movies with the scenery being an important part of the storyline. They would create new scenes just to film extra scenery. Someone online criticized Ride Lonesome as one of the worst westerns of the 50’s. Then he said, only the cinematography of the Eastern Sierra is the highlight. Imagine being in a court of law and a defense attorney says, “Apart from your eyewitnesses, the prosecution's case is very poor!” That is they way I felt when I read that review of the movie. The way I see it, the first five movies I mentioned are variations of the same story. The story is simple. Randolph Scott is dealing with the death of his wife. There is usually another woman he bonds with, but she is usually already married. Darn! The villains are charismatic themselves. Sometimes old friends of Scott’s. Boetticher’s strength is making the most out of simplicity. The movies are only about 80 minutes long. Burt Kennedy wrote and reused a lot of the dialogue in different ways, but it is not a real talky series. There are key conversations, but just enough to figure things out and keep the movie going. Unfortunately, only Seven Men From Now is officially released on dvd. The rest are seen on Encore Westerns and sometimes on TCM.

I wanted to say one more thing about the movie Decision at Sundown. This movie is looked at as one of the lesser efforts compared to the other movies. By itself, this maybe true. I see it as a High Noon turned upside down. It one looks at it from this perspective then they may appreciate it more.

Three other Alabama Hills movies I want to mention are The Violent Men, Rawhide (1951), and The Yellow Sky. I love those movies. Rawhide, with Jack Elam giving my favorite villain role in westerns, will get a dvd release in May. I have said some in the past and will do more in the future. I have tons of location stuff on those movies, but since I do a lot of that in other entries I will skip here.

Sam Peckinpah was a great film director that many know because of his ultra-violent movies like The Wild Bunch. My favorite is Ride the High Country. This was partially filmed in Mammoth for the nice scenery and the town was filmed at Bronson Canyon. It ended up being Randolph Scott's retirement movie. As far as I am concerned this was the last golden age western. A nice realistic western gunfight at the end, as well as, the final picture shot with the Joel McCrea with the mountain behind him makes me like this one right up there with the Boetticher movies. I can watch this one over and over. I like Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid a lot too.

Audie Murphy, our most decorated WW2 veteran, is one of my favorite western actors. He, like Randolph Scott, acts in pretty much a way you can expect in every movie. The advantage he had was that he actually had seen violence in the real world. The classic movie that is his best role is No Name on the Bullet. He walks into a town and everyone freaks out since no one knows who is going to kill. He did three in the Alabama Hills that I have mentioned before and intend to do more of in the future: Hell Bent For Leather, Showdown, and Posse From Hell.

Robert Mitchum is always cool to watch. The Man with the Gun will be coming out on dvd in May. Pursued is tad long, but good. Blood on the Moon is a favorite, but not on dvd. The above three are black and white noir westerns.

Speaking of noir westerns, The Gunfighter, with Gregory Peck, is a nice gloomy one about a gunfighter trying to settle down with his wife and son. It is getting a dvd release in May. In westerns there is that old gunfighter that tries to retire, but can not escape is past.

The Shootist, deals with the theme that I just mentioned. John Wayne plays an aging gunfighter who is dying of cancer. What really makes this movie is Wayne was going through the same problem with his real life problems with cancer. If I had to throw out every western John Wayne ever did, but could only keep one this would be it. With that said, True Grit, Rooster Cogburn, The Sons of Katie Elder, and Hondo are some others I come back to every few years.

The Ox-Bow Incident and Silver Lode are my anti-mob favorite movies. I am not a big fan of mob justice in the old west. This probably deserves another entry, but I am not a big fan of “let’s gang up on people,” or the idea that a fair fight is 10 on 1. These two movies show the problems of “mob justice.”

My two favorite Steve McQueen westerns are Nevada Smith and Tom Horn. Nevada Smith is a revenge story with many locations I have been to. Tom Horn is based on the end of the life of the hired gunman.

Vera Cruz with Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster as gunfighter mercenaries in Mexico is important viewing for people that like European Spaghetti Westerns. Made in 1954, it is the master plan for those movies.

The Professionals with Burt Lancaster, Lee Marvin, Robert Ryan, Jack Palance, and Claudia Cardinale is a good one with use of Death Valley and other desert areas.

3:10 to Yuma (1957) with Glenn Ford and Van Heflin is a classic. I talked about this movie a over a year ago on a message forum, and did not get much response because no one knew what I was talking about. I suspect now most know the recent movie was a remake. The opening song is good for that period of movie. The problem this movie and the remake had is trying to figure out how to end it. I can live with the original ending, but I do not know of a way to do it any better.

How the West Was Won is okay to watch. It combines three generations of stories with different directors into a huge epic story. I really like parts of it. Visually, part of the problem with it is the old dvd has a 3 frame view. One feels they are watching three parts of the same movie combined. There is supposed to be a new remastered version of this coming out this year correcting this problem. If someone fixes that then I eagerly await seeing the Indian raid in all its glory. One of these days I have to head back to Convict Lake to show where Jimmy Stewart met up with the Indians at the beginning. Wait, I thought Nevada Smith was there? They both were.

I like Henry Fonda in most westerns he has done. Warlock, with Richard Widmark and Anthony Quinn is a good psychological western. It is a bit long, but here is why I like it. It is a Wyatt Earp fictional film. Change the names around, but it is essentially the Wyatt Earp legend. Sometime soon I will talk about how I feel about the Wyatt Earp history legend. The relationship between Fonda and Quinn is seen by some as controversial. I really do not believe it is anymore than Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday’s friendship. There was a certain dependence on the each other to survive in the west.

I have said very little about European Spaghetti Westerns. I mentioned them in the last entry and regarding Vera Cruz. I am not the biggest fan of them compared to when I was younger. Of the 500 made, I only like, at the most, about 25-50 of them. I haven’t seen all of them, but from what I have read, talked to others about, and seen I would rather spend my time on other movies. A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Once Upon a Time in the West, and Duck, You Sucker! are good, but I have seen them so many times since I was kid I would rather spend my time on other movies. Sergio Corbucci would be the other director I like because he had some good scenery in his movies. The Great Silence is my favorite of his. It takes place all in the snow with a mute gunfighter who fights bounty hunters. The ending puts people off, but this is a western where everything is turned upside down. There are a few others, but I need more than violent action to sustain my interest.

This leads me to the 1970’s. I am going to put Will Penny in this category even though it was made in 1968. At this point, most American Westerns took the “realistic” turn. I am not the biggest fan of this time period. A lot of these westerns are meant to be dirty, depressing, and un-heroic. Will Penny is probably my favorite of these movies. The Culpepper Cattle Co., Bad Company, Mr. McCabe & Mrs. Miller, and Heaven’s Gate all have something worth seeing in them. Again, I refer you to my last entry on this. The recent The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is much like this. That actually had good use of cinematography, but did not feel like a western to me.

Jeremiah Johnson, with Robert Redford, is the best mountain man movie out there. I love this one since the first 20 minutes reminds me of some of the places I have hiked, but during the summer.

High Plain's Drifter is probably my favorite Clint Eastwood, apart from his Leone movies. It is as if High Noon went wrong. It is sort of like High Noon 2: The Nightmare. Filmed exclusively at Mono Lake I usually visit the old area, or drive by it once a summer.

Progressing a little further to 1988, the tv mini-series, Lonesome Dove, is much like the above showing the ugly conditions of the western era. It is good, kept my interest, but not something I want to watch too much of.

Up into this point, I have thrown out mentioning any b-westerns of the 1930-40’s. I’ll just say that Hopalong Cassidy movies are really good to watch along with the kids. Nice visuals with Hopalong Cassidy and his sidekicks helping western society. About half of the 66 movies were filmed at the Alabama Hills. Tim Holt was another cool b-movie western hero.

Finally, my favorite tv series is Richard Boone’s Have Gun, Will Travel. Richard Boone easily made one of the coolest roles in the history of television. A gunfighter who is well traveled and well read in the classics hires himself out to those who need him. Even though this show is over 50 years old now I am still amazed with the writing they did on this show. Some of those Gene Roddenberry (Star Trek creator) episodes continue to amaze me.

Writing long entries like this is rare thing for me. Somewhere down the line I need to do a few more of these on other topics. One on comedy westerns I skipped, any other westerns I have forgotten, and one on my martial arts movies interests. My next entry will be back to normal. In the meantime, get the netflix queue filled up, watch TCM, Encore Westerns, and FOX Movie Channel.