(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.
(On Cable TV, July 2018) Some movies struggle with the burden of their reputations, but 12 Angry Men ably supports its considerable acclaim. The concept is terrific (twelve men in a sequestered jury decide whether to condemn a young man to death) and the execution does justice to the premise. While clearly a film from the fifties (all-male, all-white cast), it still crackles with dramatic energy and great performances. The way the audience is gradually made aware of the case though conversations and questions is intriguing, and the way no less than twelve characters are sketched in less than 100 minutes is also impressive. Henry Fonda is the star of the film as the lone holdout juror who eventually gets everyone to change their minds, but each actor gets a piece of drama to distinguish themselves. It’s interesting how 12 Angry Men, from a judicial perspective, is both inspiring and horrifying—while the film has a strong message to send about the civil importance of jury duty, it also depends on the jury acting in terrible ways—investigating the case themselves, then building presumption upon presumption. Still, we’re here for the drama more than the lecture, and there is a lot to like in the individual scenes that mark the turning point for each character—particularly satisfying is the sequence in which jurors tell another incredibly racist one to shut up now that he’s had his say. 12 Angry Man is tightly wound-up, with every facet of its background (most notably the weather, and the fan starting to work once the jury shifts) integrated in the plot. It’s quite a movie, and it’s still well worth watching sixty years later.
(On Cable TV, May 2018) For a genre as critically dismissed as the Western, there are a great number of them that questioned the clichés of westerns … and those tend to have endured far more than the basic westerns. The Ox-Bow Incident is one of those, a western that squarely took aim at the crude justice that other westerns seem too quick to condone. Things are set in motion when a rancher disappears while strangers are seen around. Soon enough, a posse is formed to catch those strangers and enact justice. Despite doubts from various characters, the strangers are found and … but that would be spoiling the film. Suffice to say that The Ox-Bow Incident is meant to leave viewers unsettled and more thankful than ever for due process. Visually, the film isn’t special: it’s in your usual early-forties black-and-white, not particularly distinguished. Harry Morgan and Henry Fonda both star, but the real strength of the film is in its daring screenplay. Adapted from a novel, the film was a box-office failure and a modest critical success (it was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar) but it has endured and is still, today, regularly played on cable TV. It certainly belongs alongside films such as The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Searchers, The Shootist, Unforgiven and other westerns that weren’t satisfied with the simplistic cowboys-and-Indian stories that westerns often showcased.
(On TV, March 2018) Do American movies ever get as angry as does The Grapes of Wrath? Squarely taking on injustice in Dustbowl-Depression era, the film follows a family forced away from their Oklahoma fame and led to seek work in California fields. It really doesn’t go well for most of the movie, as the “Okies” family encounters death and capitalist exploitation at every turn, only reaching satisfaction of sorts in the hands of a decent government program. While definitely softened from the original Steinbeck novel (including reordering episodes around to provide a good ending), The Grapes of Wrath is still a scathing denunciation of the free market in a time of need. It’s almost continuously infuriating as the protagonist family gets knocked down again—fortunately, the stirring ending manages to make things a bit better, delivering a memorable speech about the resiliency of the people (and the importance of being there to right wrongs) as an epilogue. Visually, the black-and-white quality of the film’s images reinforces the poverty of their surroundings, washing out any colour in a muddle of despair. Still, director John Ford knew what he was doing, and the film is still powerful even today. Consider that The Grapes of Wrath was a major production by a big studio … why is it that movies never get as angry as this one, even at a time when social disparities are ripe for criticism?