Saturday, February 18, 2017

Welcome to Hell: High Plains Drifter (1973)

directed by Clint Eastwood
written by Ernest Tidyman
“High Plains Drifter isn’t what the West was all about. That isn’t the American people who settled this country.” – John Wayne in a letter to Eastwood.
Years later, Eastwood said this: “It’s just an allegory…a speculation on what happens when they go ahead and kill the sheriff and somebody comes back and calls the town’s conscience to bear. There’s always retribution for your deeds.”

 In the first fifteen minutes of High Plains Drifter, Clint Eastwood's unnamed rides into the lakeshore town of Lago and kills a trio of gunmen then rapes a woman who insults and smacks him (Marianna Hill). Instead of trying to arrest Clint, the town's sheriff tries to hire him. Later, when the woman tries to shoot Clint, someone suggests she only did it because she was mad he because "he didn't go back for more." Clint's no sort of hero, making this, it would seem, the model of a Revisionist Western.

Clint Eastwood as the high plains drifter
If you read the explanation of Revisionist Western on Wikipedia, though, it's really all rather vague. It states that, starting after WWII, directors and writers started questioning "the ideals and style of the traditional Western."  Among the pictures it grants the distinction of belonging to the sub-genre are Ride the High Country (1962), The Wild Bunch (1969), and Little Big Man (1970).The only thing that ties them together is a marked degree of cynicism. In the first film, a fairly traditional one, it's moderate, while in the other two, to call it severe is inadequate. 

The Western has always lent itself to critiquing American assumptions, I think the only thing that really makes the films most commonly called revisionist "revisionist," is the presence of more blood and sex than in older films. The same thing that happened to the rest of filmmaking happened to Westerns: the boundaries around those two matters were pushed and expanded until they broke. 

Marianna Hill and Eastwood
Sometimes, as with Little Big Man, it was a good thing, others, like in A Man Called Horse (1970), a little less so. The point is, I don't think Revisionist Western really means anything. That said, High Plains Drifter is plenty bloody and violent, and has that rape.

Take out that rape, though, and HPD could probably have been made at any time in the history of Westerns. Shortly after Clint's nameless rider comes to town, we learn, as seen through a nightmare he has, that Lago's marshall was whipped to death in the middle of the street. The same men looking to hire Clint were there and didn't lift a finger or say a word to stop the murder. Clearly, the wanderer is linked to the killing.

The Whipping

The men Clint killed in the opening scene were hired by the town to stop a trio of men (played by Geoffrey Lewis, Dan Vadis, and Anthony James) from wreaking havoc on Lago. The way the sheriff explains it, the good people of Lago caught them stealing and got them sent off to jail. Now, their sentences are up and everyone expects them to come back looking to get even. The viewer knows it's not that simple: the men with the whips were the three prisoners. Later we learn, the murder was commissioned by the people of Lago to cover up another crime.

Vadis, Lewis, and James

Clint signs on, but only after extracting concessions from the townspeople. First, anything he asks for, from any merchant, any citizen, he gets free of charge. Second, all the men of the town must join a defense force and practice every day. The "good" people of Lago, readily, if very unhappily, agree to his demands and immediately start paying a steep price.

The gun dealer and the tailor learn quickly that this deal applies to them as well as everyone else. When the sheriff and mayor needle the saloonkeeper when he balks over eating the price for a round of drinks for the whole bar crowd, Clint strips them their offices, as their own contributions. Increasingly, the drifter's demands become stranger and stranger.

Mordecai (Billy Curtis) becomes Mayor and Sheriff

HPD practically revels in its darkness. Most of Lago's citizens are corrupt and hypocritical. When Clint tells the pastor to take in the folks put out when the hotel's blown up, he does, but for only for a price. The only good people (all two of them) are powerless. The villains might as well be twirling their mustaches they're so despicable. By the end, Clint doesn't make anyone confront their sins, but instead, suffer and burn for them. The survivors are shell-shocked and few.

Production-wise, Eastwood drew on his experiences with Sergio Leone. His character, dressed in wide-brimmed hat and cigar stuck to his lip only needs a poncho to double for any of his three Man With No Name appearances. His dry, laconic line delivery is exactly the same. Like the towns in Leone's Westerns, Lago exists in isolation from the rest of the world, on the desert-surrounded shore of a bleak looking lake (Mono Lake in California - a high salt, alkaline lake). It could easily be a setting for a post-apocalyptic movie as much as a Western (and really, how far apart are those two genres, really, you know, except for the V8 interceptors instead of horses?). 

A drifter arrives at Lago
So what to make of this movie? If you don't know how Eastwood described it, how do you approach High Plains Drifter? Well, as a story of vengeance. Everybody who participated in or abetted the murder of the marshall pays. Even the first rape, which quickly mutates into a disturbing "she really wants" scene, serves to set up Hill's character for a later scene where it's clear she's a purely mercenary opportunist. The implication with the rape being she senses Clint's the strong horse worth grabbing hold of.

As a revenge story, it's brutal and effective. It's not so much you root for Clint - he remains coldly unknowable - but against the townspeople. We see what they did and know why, and that they don't have a drop of remorse. We want to see some sort of justice meted out for the dead marshall, and Clint's clearly the tool that's been chosen for retribution.

The thing I haven't mentioned is that High Plains Drifter isn't just a story of vengeance, but of supernatural vengeance. Clint, though, is no avenging angel, but an ambassador from below. For its inhabitants' crimes, Lago is turned into an outpost of Hell. The movie doesn't have any ghostly apparitions or spectral coyotes howling in the sagebrush, but gradually, the mystery of Clint's presence in Lago is revealed to have unearthly underpinnings.

This movie doesn't succeed because of its characters' depth, but on its powerful images and the elemental nature of its story. The landscape is harsh and barren, much like the townspeople's souls. These are people sunk in corruption. They they used three evil men to kill in order to protect their secrets. Now they are hoping to use someone even meaner to try and avoid their justifed fate. Unknowingly, they welcome the hand of judgment into their homes. 

Justice demands to be served. Lago must be purged - and it is.with fire, bullets, and a whip. As the final part of the films begins, when every surface of Lago has been transformed, the viewer is left without a doubt to the depth of terror the town and its people are about to be subjected to. 

Rating  - A: From the first time I saw High Plains Drifter, probably when I was twelve or thirteen, I was struck by Eastwood's stark vision of justice for the dead and punishment of the wicked. Lago painted red will never leave my brain. This is filmmaking as primitive mythmaking, and as such it is unforgettable.

I'm starting to think I shouldn't bother with the ratings, as I won't be reviewing movies I don't like (so no Silverado or High Noon). I'll probably keep them though. I have a tradition of revisiting old favorites and finding them disappointing (I'm thinking of John Ford's Cavalry Trilogy). I'm also hoping to hit a few films I still haven't seen yet (One-Eyed Jacks springs to mind)

High Plains Drifter's historical location

Like so many Westerns, the film's exact location is never made clear. It was filmed largely around Mono Lake, just east of the Sierra Nevadas

Rating System
A: Ace - Brilliant or groundbreaking; one of the best that no fan should miss.
B: Bravo - Good stuff, but less than perfection
C: Cowpoke - Routine oater, filler
D: Dismal - Sloppy or junky, but either way not worth the runtime

Next time: Ride Lonesome (1959), one of the Bud Boetticher/Randolph Scott movies. It co-stars a young Pernell Roberts and, in one of his first films, James Coburn. Spaghetti Western icon, Lee van Cleef is also on hand.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Serious Weirdness in the Wild West: Johnny Guitar (1954)

directed by Nicholas Ray
script by Ben Maddow
from a book by Roy Chanslor
"Down there I sell whiskey and cards. All you can buy up these stairs is a bullet in the head."
After watching a stagecoach get robbed and a passenger murdered, a stranger rides up to a lonely saloon in the Arizona countryside. That could be the beginning of your standard Western. In the case of Johnny Guitar, starring Joan Crawford, Sterling Hayden, and Mercedes McCambridge there is nothing anywhere near close to standard.

Most of the time, seeing Sterling Hayden (in real life he had captained a schooner from Gloucester to Tahiti and served in the OSS and shuttled guns to Tito and parachuted into Croatia) in the credits implies he going will be the star of a movie, and his rumbling voice and smoldering masculinity will be at the heart of the picture. Hell, the movie's even named for his guitar toting character. Not here. 

Instead, it's around Joan Crawford's steely, dehumanized ex-saloon girl, Vienna, and Mercedes McCambridge's bug-eyed Emma Small around whom Johnny Guitar spins. It is a bonkers allegory of the McCarthy days and tale of sublimated lust. Crawford and McCambridge dominated the story and every scene they're in, relegating everything else to background noise. Sterling Hayden as Johnny Guitar and Scott Brady as outlaw, the Dancin' Kid, more often than not, merely kibitz from the sidelines and snap at each other as they compete for Vienna's icy affections.

Joan Crawford striding
I first heard about Johnny Guitar when I read that its basic plot was lifted by Sergio Leone for his epic Western-to-end-all-Westerns, Once Upon a Time in the West. In both cases, a character has gambled everything they have to build a town where the railroad is expected to come through in the near future. Other than that both are color-saturated phantasmagorical takes on the genre, the two films are as different as chalk and cheese.

Vienna's casino exists on the apparent edge of nowhere, someplace "outside of town." She and her staff pass each day spinning the roulette wheel because she likes "to hear it spinning," waiting for the railroad's arrival.

Into her customer-less establishment rides Johnny Guitar summoned by Vienna for purposes unknown.
Barkeep: What's your pleasure?
Johnny G.: Whiskey. Where's the boss?
Barkeep: Who's asking?
Johnny G.: Name is Johnny...Guitar.
Barkeep: So?
Johnny G.: I have an appointment with Vienna.
Barkeep: Vienna's busy. You'll have to wait.
Only a few minutes later a posse barges its way into the casino, carrying a body. At the center of the gang is a small, short-haired woman dressed in green. She's Emma Small, and the dead man is her brother. She claims he was murdered by the Dancin' Kid and Vienna's hiding him. The hatred between Emma and Vienna (mirrored in real life between the two actresses) comes across like beams of fire being shot out of their eyes. It becomes clear quickly, there's more going on than just a hunt for justice or revenge.

Watching the scene, it's clear Emma is nearly as fired up over Vienna as by the Dancin' Kid. Even if you take the exchange just at face value, every line is ramped up way past eleven. The look on Vienna's face as she stares down at her enemies looks more appropriate for a horror movie than a Western. 

Meanwhile, Johnny pauses eating from some delicate blue and white china, takes in the weirdness and, like the audience, ponders what the heck is really going on.

A few minutes later, the Dancin' Kid arrives. His three man gang is played by Ernest Borgnine (a year away from winning an Academy Award for Marty), the great character actor Royal Dano, and a youthful Ben Cooper. It seems inevitable bloody death is about to be unleashed, but it doesn't come.

At this stage in the story, the marshall still holds some power. When the witness admits he can't identify who held up the stage and killed Emma's brother and the Kid and his crew provide a reasonable alibi, the marshall's able to send the posse on its way. Before he leaves though, Mayor McIvers tells Vienna he's just outlawed drinking and gambling outside the town limits. She's got twenty-four hours to close up shop or else. The violence has only been postponed. It will be delivered.

Vienna and the Dancin' Kid vs. the Posse
Johnny Guitar looks like no other Western I can think of. It might be the most art-directed one ever. The interior of Vienna's casino is so fake looking it can't be unintentional. We never see anything of the town besides the front and inside of the bank. The showdown takes place around a solitary house on top of a hill. It looks more like a stage production than one that was actually filmed on location in Sedona, Arizona. 

While the men are dressed in standard Western gear, both women are costumed in over-the-top getups. They don't look like ordinary people, but unworldly creatures fighting it out among mere mortals. You will never forget Crawford's first appearance in brown slacks, black shirt, and teal tie. Later, her yellow shirt practically throbs on the screen. Most women in Westerns are either frontier wives or saloon hall slatterns. Just from the look of her, you know Vienna is neither of those and will kick your ass if you run afoul of her. 

Her eyebrows exaggerated, crimson lipstick, and dressed in severe, mannish slacks and shirts, Vienna seems almost without gender for much of the movie. She looks to have unsexed herself like Lady MacBeth in order to achieve her aims.

Lady in White
Late in the film, while waiting for the posse to take her, Vienna dresses in a giant white dress. At the same time, Emma goes into the final showdown in her mourning dress. Why settle for white and black hats when you can have a whole dress?

Lady in Black
Crawford's reputation as an actress has suffered since her death in 1977. Instead of one of the greatest leading women in Hollywood history, between the lamentable Mommie, Dearest and her penchant for harshly-applied makeup, she's been turned into some drag icon, and it's a shame. 

Her performance in Johnny Guitar is fantastic. Despite the arch, often campy dialogue, she's a utterly believable and captivating as a woman possessed of implacable willpower fighting for a dream. At the same time, she's in love and has to struggle against letting her feelings for Johnny swamp her plans. The other actors are all good, too, but none have the power of Crawford. 

McCambridge is all bristling, viciousness and rage. Though straight, she had a reputation for playing butch characters, having won an Academy Award for such a role in All the King's Men (1949). Here, she's pushed to her limits and to the limit of the stereotype of the hyper-butch woman. The men of the town cower before her, bending to nearly every one of her demands. She burst of searing, black flames, generating waves of hatred that prove irresistible to the men of the town driving them to do things it's clear they have no real heart for. 

Emma Small and her pack of capons
Hayden is the model of tough guy cool. He never shouts or yells, and never threatens, but you know what kind of guy he really is. In this scene, he walks between the Dancin' Kid and the posse and just sort shuts them both down without a drop of obvious menace or a bit of fear.

Among the minor players, Ernest Borgnine as the thuggish Bart Lonergan and Ben Cooper as the lovestruck kid, Turkey, are splendid. John Carradine is fine as the sweet-natured Old Tom, another man hopelessly caught up in Vienna's orbit by unrequited love.

Johnny Guitar is so far afield from the standard Western, so much stranger than even the weirdest Spaghetti Westerns, that it's almost possible to not classify it as a Western at all. That's one of the great things about Westerns, which I pointed out in my introductory essay: Westerns can be anything, even an insane story of powerful men, jealous gunslingers, and compliant mobs.

Rating - A: There's nothing else like this in the annals of Western filmmaking. For first time viewers, throw out any expectations, and just sit back and watch a masterpiece of lunacy that's equally serious and high camp.

Johnny Guitar's Historical Location

It's never really clear where the film's set, but it was filmed in Sedona, Arizona. Here's a great article from Sedona Monthly about filming the movie.

Rating System
A: Ace - Brilliant or groundbreaking; one of the best that no fan should miss.
B: Bravo - Good stuff, but less than perfection
C: Cowpoke - Routine oater, filler
D: Dismal - Sloppy or junky, but either way not worth the runtime

Next time: Enter Clint Eastwood in the self-directed apocalyptic revenge Western, High Plains Drifter (1973).