Sunday, 19 May 2013
Red River, humorously referred to as a ‘cow opera’, remains a gripping Western, if not for anything else, for its breathtaking scope and audacity. Its themes of gargantuan human ambitions, male ego, masculinity and father-son duality, with Biblical overtones and veiled commentary on the stomping march of capitalism, were accentuated by an alternately classical and revisionist Western framework. It was also the first time that the two quintessential American icons, Howard Hawks and John Wayne, teamed up. The film begins with Tom Dunston (Wayne), a searing individualist, breaking out from his group to start his own cattle ranch. Many years later, with the economic slowdown brought on by the Civil War, he plans to take his herd of around 10,000 cattle nearly a thousand miles across the country, from Kansas to Texas, in the search for a better beef market. Joining him, among others, is Matthew Garth (Montgomery Clift), his surrogate son. With the cattle drive, at once the height of human ambition and the depth of human folly, began a jaw-dropping odyssey that was as much physical as it was psychological in the way it brought out the worst in Dunston and the best in Garth, and tested the limits of all. And when Garth eventually rebels against the increasingly draconian Dunston, after a spectacularly staged stampede, darker dimensions got added to the epic and tense narrative. The happy resolution of the conflict was perhaps the sole blemish of this masterpiece. Wayne’s powerful turn as the bitter, dictatorial and imposing anti-hero would rank as second only to his superlative performance in Ford’s The Searchers.
Director: Howard Hawks
Genre: Western/Revisionist Western/Psychological Drama/Epic
Thursday, 16 May 2013
César & Rosalie was Sautet’s charming, perceptive and serio-comic take on an unpredictable love triangle among the Parisian upper class, and in turn, a delectable and quietly affecting observation on the class itself. It also provided a fine introduction to his devastating follow-up film, viz. Vincent, Francois, Paul & the Others. It begins with the two titular characters, Cesar (Yves Montand), a wealthy and gregarious businessman, and Rosalie (Romy Schneider), an incredibly beautiful and soft-natured single mom, in a pleasant and stable relationship. In comes David (Sami Frey), a sedate and talented cartoonist with whom Rosalie had a tryst in the past, and the whole equation goes topsy-turvy. Cesar initially reacts to his arrival in the scene with grave suspicion and insecurity, and then with startling mood swings, which, in a way, compels Rosalie to switch boats. But, what really made this film so far removed from most love triangles was in its sly reversal of expectations – instead of this being just a tale of one-upmanship in terms of who wins the lady, it transitioned into how these two men, who began on the wrong foot with regards to one another, ironically end up becoming very good friends. The final scene where the two men, who are polar opposites yet now profoundly at ease with one another, sharing a light-hearted banter, with the amused Rosalie silently observing them from afar, followed by a freeze-frame, was a marvelous way to bring this engaging ménage à trois to a highly satisfying climax. All the three gave noteworthy performances, but Montand was particularly brilliant as the animated, pampered, cigar-smoking, card-loving and emotionally fragile alpha-male.
Director: Claude Sautet
Genre: Comedy Drama/Romantic Drama
Wednesday, 15 May 2013
Nicholas Rays’s famed Western Johnny Guitar was a strange film, particular given the wide range of themes and tones it tackled. It was a curious mix of political allegory, noirish sensibilities, revisionism, old-fashioned melodrama, romance, straight-up action, psychological thrills, Freudian allusions, and gender politics, among possibly others, but it was foremost a sharp jab at the McCarthy witch-hunts. The titular character (played with quiet verve by Sterling Hayden) is a smooth, guitar-strumming stranger who, with quite a swagger, walks into a hotel owned by Vienna (Joan Crawford), in a town that hates outsiders. As it turns out the town folks, led by the vindictive and acid-spewing Emma (Mercedes McCambridge), who harbours a personal grudge against the alpha-female Vienna, who’s always in masculine costumes, wants to drive her out. Also, as it turns out, Johnny is the former fiancé of Vienna and a legendary gunslinger who is trying to shed his former identity. When a group of four led by the Dancing Kid (Scott Brady), who are falsely under the suspicion of staging hold-ups, rob a bank, Emma shrewdly coaxes the compliant community to head straight for Vienna’s because of a host of complex psychological reasons. The elements of melodrama, loud dialogue spewing, love triangle, and hyper-stylization might dampen the muscular spirit of Westerns for some, the fact that so many things were at play here and the subversive subtexts, in themselves, made this a unique work in the genre worth pondering over. The haunting title song by Peggy Lee was another of its memorable facets.
Director: Nicholas Ray
Genre: Western/Revisionist Western/Romance
Tuesday, 14 May 2013
Claude Sautet, who is renowned for his layered portrayals of the Parisian bourgeoisie, earned his international breakthrough with his sophomore film, The Big Risk. A taut, incredibly fatalistic and deeply existentialistic neo-noir, it might seem distinctly atypical vis-à-vis his filmography in general, given that low-end gangsters formed his protagonists here; but, his touch was evident from how friendship, regrets and melancholia pervaded it. Abel Davos (Lino Ventura), a career criminal, loses everything he holds dear, viz. his wife, his best friend and the fleeting hope for a normal life, while on the lam from the police. Stranded with hardly any money, no shelter and two kids in Nice, his last chance for survival are his former gang members in Paris who owe him big time. However, as it turns out, Riton (Michel Ardan), who is now a restaurateur, and Fargier (Michèle Méritz), now a wealthy hotelier, are non-committal at best. He is instead helped, ironically, by a person he didn’t even know before. Eric Stark (Jean-Paul Belmondo), a loner and a small-time thug, doesn’t just take the arduous job of driving him back to the city, he also becomes his sole source of help, without ever wanting favours, till the day he meets his comeuppance, and this unlikely friendship between these two tragic outsiders made this all the more memorable. The excellent B/W photography and the subtly affecting score wonderfully complemented this tough yet touching film where everything from betrayal to revenge plays key roles. Ventura was superb as the implacable anti-hero at the end of his rope while Belmondo was charming as his affable accomplice; the supporting cast, too, did a very good job.
Director: Claude Sautet
Genre: Crime Thriller/Gangster Film/Buddy Film/Post-Noir
Monday, 13 May 2013
High Plains Drifter, Clint Eastwood’s second film as a director and first that of a Western, was a remarkably gripping, deeply disturbing and unabashedly violent film. He used the iconic ‘Man with No Name’ persona from Leone’s ‘Dollar Trilogy’ for his protagonist here, but added far darker and malevolent shades to it. It begins with a mysterious stranger (Eastwood) riding into a small and newly built town on horseback. He immediately draws attention of the town folk when he single-handedly shoots three outlaws who had been appointed to protect them. Taking the crack-shot as a force to reckon with, they request him to be their new protector as three dangerous criminals led by a vicious outlaw (Geoffrey Lewis), who had been responsible for the brutal murder of the previous Sheriff, are slated to be released in a few days; in return, he is given a carte blanche in terms of what he wants. However, unbeknownst to all, he has an ulterior motive in riding into this town and taking their offer, and in a cold, calculated and ruthless manner he goes about destroying everything that the town holds dear. Consequently, by the time he kills the gang members and rides into oblivion, he ends up doing as much damage as the three might have. His intent was never made clear, but allusions were provided that revenge for the slaying of the former Sheriff, which the residents had silently watched without extending their support, was possibly the agenda that was at work for him. Rarely have Westerns been made, even among the revisionist ones, which have comprised of as much carnage being perpetrated by the protagonist himself as this.
Director: Clint Eastwood
Genre: Western/Revisionist Western