Category Archives: Western
Most of us know very little about the history of the American West. The realities of the westward expansion that started in the nineteenth century were overwhelmed by the fantasies from the very beginning. Looking to extend its reach across the continent, the US government encouraged settlers to make the trek with promises of fabulous wealth and unbounded freedom. Pulp novelists spun tall tales about heroic cowboys and bloodthirsty Indians. Later on movies took it even further by recreating these stories on a grand scale. Popular stars rode their horses across the screen, their epic battles for justice set against spectacular landscapes. The truth was overwhlemed by the myth.
Walter Hill’s Wild Bill is about the way myth and reality can become hopelessly tangled. Taking as his subject the soldier, sheriff, gambler, gunfighter James Butler Hickok, Hill shows us a man who can no longer separate himself from his legend. The film starts with Bill’s funeral, then takes us back to his arrival in the wild frontier town of Deadwood, and we follow him through his last few days on earth. Bill is a man adrift, passing the time by drinking and playing cards, haunted by his past, wondering where his life went wrong.
The film is a deliberate mix of fact and fiction. Hill based his script on Pete Dexter’s book Deadwood and Thomas Babe’s play Fathers and Sons. In recreating Bill’s past, the film relies on real accounts of the gunfighter’s life, showing us how he earned his reputation. But the story of the callow young man who haunts Bill’s final days is fiction. Jack McCall is an awkward, angry youth who announces to the world that he’s going to kill the famous gunfighter. No one takes him seriously. In spite of his bravado, it’s clear that he’s troubled and confused. Jack is angry not just because Bill seduced his mother, but also because he promised to be a father, and then abandoned both mother and son. The story has no basis in fact, but by framing it this way Hill takes us into the realm of primal poetry. The film becomes more than just a study of the distance between truth and fiction. It’s also about the distance between fathers and sons.
Bill’s whole life has been defined by violence. A soldier in the Civil War. A hunter fighting for his life on the plains. A lawman with a reputation as a crack shot. He’s survived in a violent world because he’s better at killing than his enemies. But after accidentally killing his own deputy in Abilene, he loses his sense of direction. He drifts from town to town, downing whisky and playing cards. Everywhere he goes, his reputation precedes him. He’s revered as a hero and reviled as a murderer. Bill goes on playing the part of the legendary gunslinger, but more and more he seems to be wondering why.
It’s hard to imagine anyone other than Jeff Bridges playing the role. Bridges has a presence that fills the screen, and he’s completely believable as a mythic figure, but he also has the skill to let us know what’s going on inside Bill’s head. He gives us a man who’s proud of his reputation and at the same time uncomfortable with it. A man who displays unflinching self-confidence and at the same time is filled with doubts. The cast in general is remarkable. John Hurt brings a world weary melancholy to the role of Charley Prince, Bill’s best friend. Ellen Barkin plays Calamity Jane with both toughness and tenderness. As Susannah Moore, the woman Bill loved and left behind, Diane Lane has a touching fragility. She knows he’s going to move on and tries to be strong, but inside she’s falling apart. As Jack, David Arquette is a tangle of conflicting emotions. It sometimes seems as though his repeated attempts to kill Bill are actually just his way of trying to get Bill’s attention. Even the small parts are well cast and well played. Karen Huie brings an interesting tension to her role as the proprietor of an opium den. Christina Applegate convincingly plays the hard as nails prostitute who finds herself drawn to the weak and indecisive Jack. And Pato Hoffman displays a fierce pride as the leader of a band of Cheyenne.
Visually the film is rich with shifting textures, moving seamlessly from past to present and back again. It’s easy to see why Hill has chosen to work with cinematographer Lloyd Aherne over and over again. Aherne seems less interested in capturing reality than in creating a visual landscape that grows out of the drama. The saloons are filled with rich, smoky color, Bill’s opium induced hallucinations are shot in stark black and white, and the frontier streets are often bleached into dusty sepia tones.
The score is by Van Dyke Parks, one of the great oddballs of American music. Parks has had a long, eccentric career, working with everyone from the Beach Boys to Grizzly Bear. Here he uses his considerable gifts as an arranger to weave together a tapestry of well worn traditionals, sometimes tapping into the raw vitality of the the Old West and at other times singing a lament for a time that may have only existed in our imagination. Paying close attention to mood and texture, Parks’ music complements the film’s shifting visual tone beautifully.
Wild Bill bombed at the box office and most critics wrote it off as a failure. This isn’t surprising. In fact, it’s happened over and over again to directors who stray from the standard formulas and try to do something unique. Since Wild Bill, Hill has continued to work, but he hasn’t attempted anything nearly as ambitious. Which is understandable. He put his heart and soul into this movie. Audiences and critics rejected it. Sometimes people ask why gifted filmmakers spend their time making routine thrillers. But what’s the point of knocking yourself out when you know you’ll probably get kicked in the teeth?
William Witney was a workhorse. The list of his credits includes over sixty movies, and dozens of TV shows. Witney used his considerable skill as a craftsman to jump from one genre to the other, starting with serials, moving into features with westerns, taking on crime films, JD flicks and even fantasy. While many of the films he directed are routine action movies, they’re generally made with a smooth professionalism that could transform paper thin scripts into solid entertainment. And when he got hold of a good script, he knew how to run with it.
Barry Shipman’s screenplay for Stranger at My Door may be the best material Witney ever got ahold of, and he shows how far he could go. On most of the projects he directed, Witney was a hired hand. But apparently he felt a special connection to westerns, and this connection is palpable in Stranger. One of the things that made the genre so appealing to audiences was a straightforward morality that boiled everything down to clear cut choices between right and wrong. You always knew who to root for. But the script for Stranger goes deeper than that. It shows how hard making that choice can be.
The movie kicks off with a bang, throwing us into the middle of a small town bank robbery and the ensuing gunfight. The outlaws ride their horses past the city limits, divvy up the loot and then scatter. But after the others ride off, the leader discovers his horse is lame. There’s no way he can make a speedy getaway.
He runs into a boy who helps him with his horse and invites him home, where the boy’s stepmother welcomes the stranger warmly. But when the father returns, he quickly realizes who their guest is, and this is where it gets interesting. The father is a preacher, and he lets the outlaw stay, promising not to reveal his identity. You see, the preacher is determined to save this man’s soul.
At this point you might be thinking that the film was going to be a moralistic drag, and you’d be so wrong. This is where Witney goes beyond craftsmanship into artistry. His approach is so straightforward, he stages each scene with such graceful simplicity, that the film never feels anything less than honest. Instead of trying to jack up the tension with histrionics, for the most part he keeps the actors under a tight rein. In a genre that was largely built on melodramatic cliches, these people seem real, their emotions ring true.
As the outlaw, Skip Homeier starts out a little shaky. But his performance comes together, and by the end he’s completely convincing. Macdonald Carey is excellent as the preacher who is determined to save this man’s soul, though he slowly comes to realizes how great the cost could be to himself and his loved ones. Child actors can sometimes be unbearably cute, but Stephen Wooton does a good job as the pastor’s young son. The standout performance, though, is Patricia Medina as the stepmother. As a woman in a western, she’s given a wider range of emotions than the men, who mostly play it close to the vest. When the situation starts spinning out of control, the stepmother is the only one who’s allowed to let herself go, to raise her voice and let the world know that she’s angry and afraid. Unlike many westerns, the script lets her express her emotions without becoming an irritating cliche. Medina plays it to the hilt without going over the top. She loves her husband, but she’s both bewildered and angered by his obsession with saving this outlaw’s soul. She can’t believe he’s willing to put his wife and child at risk to offer a thief a chance at redemption.
Cinematographer Bud Thackery’s low-key naturalism makes the settings seem as real as the performances. Witney tends to film the scenes in long shot, moving the camera in a fluid, unobtrusive way to follow the action or re-frame the composition. This movie is beautifully understated, never pushing the drama at us, instead allowing us to watch it unfold.
It will come as no surprise that the outlaw does find salvation at the end. And in the tradition of the best westerns, the movie shows it through action instead of explaining it in words. Fatally wounded, this man who fought all attempts to save his soul mounts his horse and rides to the church that the preacher has been building. Arriving at the site, he staggers inside and dies beneath the cross. Is it subtle? No. Is it powerful? Yes. Witney takes advantage of the genre’s chief virtue, which is that you can say things simply and directly, without having to apologize. When an artist creates a film this honest, this true, no apologies are necessary.
Usually the image I post for a film is a screen shot taken from a DVD. In this case, I watched the film on a VHS tape from Eddie Brandt’s in North Hollywood, so the image used here is one of the few stills available on the net. I didn’t think Stranger at My Door was on DVD, but I just found out you can get it from TCM. This is good news, because Witney’s work is little seen, and not always easy to obtain. He deserves to be better known.
A young man and a young woman are running through a deserted industrial area. The sky is a sheet of black, lit only by dim yellow orbs hanging overhead. The woman stops, and raises her hand.
‘Look. The night. It’s so bright it’ll blind you.’
The young man is Caleb, a cowboy who’s come into town looking for some fun. The young woman, Mae, is a pretty girl he flirts with on the street. Before he knows what’s happening, she has taken him through a door he never knew existed into a world he never imagined. A world where the night is so bright it’ll blind you. A whole new kind of experience.
Kathryn Bigelow’s early films are about people walking through that door. Near Dark, Blue Steel and Point Break all deal with characters who find themselves embracing an ecstatic experience of the world, a kind of experience that is equally exhilarating and terrifying. In Near Dark, Caleb’s world is turned inside out when Mae bites him on the neck. Without even understanding what’s happening, he’s soon travelling with a family of vampires who roam the American Southwest, hunting for prey.
Caleb tries to escape, but finds it isn’t easy to get away. He’s horrified by what he sees, but there’s a part of him that’s drawn to these people who “keep odd hours.” Even though they’re a hundred and eighty degrees from the family he lives with back on the farm, there are strong bonds that hold this clan together. Whether hunting, stealing or hiding, they work as a team, and when the chips are down they back each other up. Jesse and Diamondback are the imposing father and mother figures. Severen is the wild older “son” who enjoys toying with his prey. Mae is more passive, and seems troubled by the life she leads. Homer is the angry, lonely boy who has lived more than enough to become a man, but will always be trapped in the body of a child.
Bigelow and co-screenwriter Eric Red splice two genres together, creating a dark, dynamic fantasy landscape. The western is purely American, and speaks of a clear cut, black and white morality. The horror film hails from the dark corners of Northern Europe, and dares us to step into a terrifying, irrational world. The monsters may die in the final reel, but they live on in our imagination. The tension between these two genres comes across in images that resonate in powerful, inexplicable ways. The shootout at the outlaws’ hideaway becomes a startling, hallucinatory sequence where our hero braves the burning sunlight to stage a daring rescue, and saves his newfound “family”. A barroom confrontation becomes a bloody slaughter, while the jukebox reels out pop tunes in the background. Even a conventional love scene is twisted into something strange and unnerving. Not having tasted blood since his transformation, Caleb is weak and pale. Mae opens a vein in her wrist and offers it to him in order to bring him back to life. He drinks deeply, and feeling miraculously rejuvenated, he kisses her passionately, traces of blood still smeared across his lips.
All this probably sounds like a far cry from the classic westerns of John Ford, but actually Bigelow is a direct descendant of that American master. In fact, among living filmmakers, she is probably the one whose perspective is closest to Ford’s. They are both deeply, unapologetically American, while at the same time obsessively examining the violence and the arrogance that are inextricably woven into this country’s fabric. They’re both poets, relying on a sound, an image, a gesture to express themselves where others would speak to us in words. And they both deal with individuals who find themselves in conflict with their community. The comparison may be easier to see in films like K-19, The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, all of which deal with stubborn outsiders who collide with rigid institutions, but the similarities are very much there in Near Dark. It’s a story about a young man who has to choose between the seductive, dangerous outlaw “family” and returning to the safety and comfort of his own family.
In the end, it’s easy for Caleb to choose because his young sister, Sarah, is in danger. But it’s actually the vampires’ humanity that brings about her release and their own destruction. Mae wrests Sarah from the grasp of her younger “brother” Homer. At a crucial moment, Diamondback urges Caleb and Sarah to run. As the sun rises, Homer chases desperately after Sarah, not as a vampire chasing his prey, but as a child who is losing his only friend. He frantically calls her name as his body is engulfed in flames. Jesse and Diamondback clasp hands, knowing it’s all over, calmly accepting their fate.
Caleb frees Mae of her curse, and the two lovers are united. In Bigelow’s early films, her innocent heroes usually walk away a little wiser and not too much worse for wear. But in her later work she has focussed on characters who are more complex, and the moral issues aren’t so clear cut. From The Weight of Water on, Bigelow’s protagonists aren’t just struggling with their fate, they’re struggling with themselves. There are no more happy endings.