(On DVD, October 2018) Is Once Upon a Time in the West the western to end all westerns? Probably not, but watching it after seeing Sergio Leone’s Eastwood-led man-with-no-name trilogy, I was struck at the sheer scope of his achievement here. Far from the low-budget heroics of A Fistful of Dollars, Leone goes for big-budget maximalism in showing how the railroad makes its way to an isolated western town, and the violence that ensues. It takes a while for everything to come into focus, but when it does we have a four-ring circus between a nameless protagonist (Charles Bronson’s “Harmonica,” and you know the tune he plays), a woman trying to transform herself in the West (Claudia Cardinale, captivating), an evil industrialist henchman (Henry Fonda, playing a villain!) and a bandit there to mess everything up (Jason Robart, not outclassed by anyone else). The four quadrants of the plot having been defined, the film then takes on its narrative speed—although at no fewer than 165 minutes and considering Leone’s typically contemplative style, there isn’t quite enough plot here to sustain the film’s duration. Still, it’s entertaining enough if you’re not in a hurry—This is clearly a film by someone who has seen a lot of westerns, and it regurgitates familiar elements in entertaining permutations. Plus there’s Leone’s visual style—the film’s best shot is a slow pullback from a man about to be hanged from an arch, with Monument Valley as a majestic backdrop. Not being much of a Western fanatic (although I appreciate it more and more as I see the best movies of the genre), I can say that there’s a limit to how much I can like Once Upon a Time in the West, but it was more entertaining than I expected, and almost as good as its lengthy running time would justify.
(In French, On Cable TV, April 2018) The mid-seventies really weren’t a cheerful time for popular entertainment in general, or New York City in particular—Hollywood was still churning out reactions to being unshackled from the Hays Code, whereas NYC was experiencing unprecedented levels of crime. People wanted quick and simple solutions, and so a vigilante character stepped in, incarnated by Charles Bronson. Death Wish itself has spawned so many imitators—the basic story is visceral and easy enough to do on a low budget—that it does feel dull by today’s standard: The story moves along at a plodding pace, and the film feels long even at 94 minutes. Bronson is too old (and far too menacing) to play the part, but who cares—it’s the idea that counts, or more specifically the fantasy of taking complete revenge upon irremediable criminals. It would be easy enough to regret the normalization of revenge fantasies in pop culture (so much so that the 2018 remake of Death Wish passed along almost unnoticed in theatres) but that’s shouting at a horse long after it has left the barn. What matters most is the film’s keystone place in the landscape of mid-seventies cinema, and how it acts as the apogee of a dark-gritty-violent trend that would create an appetite for escapist fare along the lines of Star Wars. In many ways, there’s no need to see the original Death Wish—it’s been redone so often since then that it’s almost superfluous.
(On Cable TV, March 2018) Frankly, I thought that I would have enjoyed The Dirty Dozen quite a bit more than I did. Part of it may have been shaped by modern expectations—in modern Hollywood, movies based on the premise of bringing together hardened criminals for a suicide mission are meticulously polished to ensure that the criminals aren’t too bad, or that they meet a morally suitable comeuppance. Our heroes have been unjustly convicted, or operate according to a sympathetic code of honour that may not meet official approval. Their adventures, first in training and then in combat, are calculated to meet focus group approval. But The Dirty Dozen, having been forged in the years following the breakdown of the chaste Hayes Code, is significantly rougher and grittier than the modern ideal. The dirty dozen members are in for reprehensible conduct, not pseudo-criminal malfeasance. The attitude of the film, as Hollywood was pushing the limits of what was acceptable in terms of violence, also permeates everything. While tame by contemporary standards of gore, The Dirty Dozen nonetheless feels … dirty. There are a lot of characters, and they’re often short-changed by the film’s juggling of roles. This being said, The Dirty Dozen is also a showcase of actors: In between Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson, John Cassavetes, George Kennedy and an impossibly young Donald Sutherland (among many others), there are a lot of familiar faces here, and that has its own appeal. If you can go along with the film’s disreputable atmosphere, it remains a competent war film … but it may be difficult to do so.