A Tasty Spaghetti Ragu: A REASON TO LIVE, A REASON TO DIE (MGM 1974)

James Coburn, at the height of his career, moved from American movies to international productions with his trademark elegance and ease. He worked for the Maestro of Spaghetti Westerns Sergio Leone in 1972’s DUCK, YOU SUCKER , then appeared for Leone’s former Assistant Director Tonino Valerii in A REASON TO LIVE, A REASON TO DIE, a revenge tale disguised as a caper film that costars Telly Savalas and Spaghetti icon Bud Spencer. The version I viewed was the truncated American cut, missing about a half hour of footage and released stateside in 1974. If the complete version is as good as this one, I need to hunt it down and see it!

The Civil War-set drama finds Coburn as Col. Pembroke, recently escaped from a Confederate prison after surrendering Fort Holman without a fight to Rebel Major Ward (Savalas) and his forces. Fort Holman is a crucial piece of real estate to the Union Army, and Pembroke aims to redeem himself by taking it back, recruiting a scurvy bunch of reprobates about to be hung for their crimes – murderers, rapists, and horse thieves all. Pembroke and his Dirty Half-Dozen are initially at odds until he tells them the real reason they’re attacking the fort – a cache of hidden Confederate gold worth half a million dollars!

The first hour builds slowly, as the motley crew make their way to Fort Holman and Eli (Spencer) is sent in to infiltrate the fort and pave the way for Pembroke’s band of bandits. Then the action picks up considerably, as the attack turns into a bloody massacre and Pembroke’s true motive is revealed (and no, I’m not going to spoil it for you!). Valerii and his cinematographer Alejandro Ulloa capture the beautiful vistas of Spain’s Almeria desert (which Leone used extensively in his films), and Fort Holman itself was originally built for Burt Kennedy’s THE DESERTER. The terrific score is by… no, not Ennio Morricone, but Riz Ortolani, the Italian jazz composer who broke through in films with MONDO CANE (introducing the hit song “More”), and whose impressive resume includes scores for CASTLE OF BLOOD, ANZIO, THE MCKENZIE BREAK, THE VALACHI PAPERS, DON’T TORTURE A DUCKLING, and CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST.

Director Tonino Valerii (1934-2016)

Valerii had quite an interesting career, writing the screenplays for Italian horrors TERROR IN THE CRYPT (with Christopher Lee) and THE LONG HAIR OF DEATH (starring Barbara Steele) before assisting Leone on A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS and FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE . Making his debut in the director’s chair with 1966’s A TASTE FOR KILLING, he guided Lee Van Cleef and Guiliano Gemma in DAY OF ANGER, helmed the coming of age tale A GIRL CALLED JULES, the giallo MY DEAR KILLER, the poliziotesco GO GORILLA GO, and the Franco Nero action vehicle SAHARA CROSS. His most famous film is MY NAME IS NOBODY , starring Terence Hill and Henry Fonda, on which Leone himself allegedly directed a few scenes and contributed some second unit work.

Most Spaghetti Western aficionados sing the praises of NOBODY, while considering A REASON TO LIVE, A REASON TO DIE to be a second-tier entry in the genre. I’d disagree; I think it’s a very underrated and well put together film that’s definitely worth a look, even in the edited version. And if you happen to run across a complete, uncut version of the film… let me know!

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Lonesome Cowboy: Randolph Scott in RIDE LONESOME (Columbia 1959)

Randolph Scott and director Budd Boetticher  teamed again for RIDE LONESOME, their sixth of seven Westerns and fourth with writer Burt Kennedy. Scott’s a hard case bounty hunter bringing in a killer, joined in his trek by an old “acquaintance” with an agenda of his own. Everyone’s playing things close to the vest here, and the stark naked desert of Lone Pine’s Alabama Hills, with its vast emptiness, plays as big a part as the fine acting ensemble.

Ben Brigade (Scott) has captured the murderous Billy John and intends to bring him to justice in Santa Cruz. Coming to a waystation, he finds Sam Boone and his lanky young companion Whit, known outlaws who’ve heard the territorial governor is granting amnesty to whoever brings in Billy. Also at the station is Mrs. Crane, whose husband has been murdered by marauding Mescaleros. Sam’s interested in forming a partnership and taking Billy to the nearest town, but Brigade is determined to head to Santa Cruz “no matter what”, for reasons of his own. The five of them ride out, and get ambushed along the way by the Mescaleros. They manage to come out victorious, but more peril awaits, as Billy’s brother Frank and his crew are following their trail…

I won’t spoil the plot for those who haven’t seen this – and it’s must-see for Western buffs! Boetticher, a John Ford acolyte, frames his shots almost as well as The Master himself, and Lone Pine is his Monument Valley. Charles Lang’s camera captures the sense of isolation not only of the location, but of the players. The small cast all get to shine here, though most never went on to huge success in film. Pernell Roberts (Sam) became a star on television, first as eldest son Adam Cartwright in the first six seasons of BONANZA, then for seven years as TRAPPER JOHN, MD (1979-86). Karen Steele (Mrs. Crane) did four films for Boetticher (DECISION AT SUNDOWN, WESTBOUND, THE RISE AND FALL OF LEGS DIAMOND, this one), but did better as a guest performer on episodic TV. James Best (Billy) supported many a Western, but didn’t achieve real stardom until playing goofy Sheriff Roscoe P. Coltrane on THE DUKES OF HAZZARD (1979-85).

The two actors that did obtain screen superstardom have very small parts in RIDE LONESOME. James Coburn made his movie debut as Whit, and though he’s a minor character, there are signs he’s an actor with a future. Coburn would make another Western that year (FACE OF A FUGITIVE), then score big in THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN , go on to hits like THE GREAT ESCAPE and  OUR MAN FLINT, and eventually an Oscar for AFFLICTION. Lee Van Cleef (Frank) could be called “Lee Van Brief” for all the screen time he gets here. It wasn’t until he teamed with Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood in FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE that he became an overnight success after 13 years in films, and a Spaghetti Western icon in his own right.

RIDE LONESOME’s sparse cast and setting, along with Boetticher’s keen eye and the intense script by Kennedy, make this a most enjoyable Western, and  Randolph Scott’s portrayal of a man hell-bent on vengeance is the glue that holds it all together. Sometimes, smaller is better!

Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door: PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID (MGM 1973)

(PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID airs tonight at 11:45 EST on TCM. Do yourselves a favor… watch it!)

PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID was director Sam Peckinpah’s final Western, and as usual it’s about more than just the Old West. It’s about the new breed vs the old establishment, about the maverick auteur vs the old studio guard, and about his never-ending battle to make his films his way. The fact that there are six, count ’em, SIX different editors credited tells you what MGM honcho James Aubrey thought of that idea! They butchered over 20 minutes out of the movie, which then proceeded to tank at the box office. Fortunately for us, PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID has been restored to its full glory, and we can enjoy Peckinpah’s original artistic vision.

I’m not going to try to make excuses for Peckinpah; he was a legitimate pain in the ass, a chronic alcoholic and drug abuser with manic mood swings and a violent temper. A real reprobate. But damn, he made some of the best films of the 60’s and 70’s! His takes on the western and crime genres were ultra-violent lyrical tone poems, influencing an entire generation of filmmakers who tried to copy his style, but rarely succeeded. Take a look at virtually any action-packed movie made in the last fifty years, at directors from Scorsese to Tarantino, and you’ll see the Peckinpah influence. Sam Peckinpah may have been a pain in the ass, but the man was an artist of the first order.

PAT GARRETT & BILLY THE KID concerns the familiar tale of two old friends, one an outlaw, the other now a lawman, and their final confrontation. The two leads are veteran James Coburn as Garrett and relative newcomer Kris Kristofferson, better known at the time as a singer/songwriter. Garrett has been hired by the powers that be in Lincoln County, New Mexico to rid the territory of Billy and his gang. The pair had ridden together as outlaws, and been on opposite sides before (Billy: “Wasn’t long ago I was the law, riding with Chisum. Pat was an outlaw. The law’s a funny thing.”). Garrett doesn’t want to kill Billy, but knows in his heart that’s exactly what it’s going to take.

Cinematographer John Coquillon got his start working on AIP horrors (WITCHFINDER GENERAL, THE OBLONG BOX ), and was a favorite of Peckinpah. There are marvelous location shots of the rugged Durango, Mexico scenery, notably the reflective river. A standout comes when Billy kills his religious fanatic jailer (a scary R.G. Armstrong), and at Billy’s capture, his arms stretched out like Christ on the Cross when he gives up. Coquillon and Peckinpah worked together on the director’s seminal STRAW DOGS, and later on CROSS OF IRON and THE OSTERMAN WEEKEND. They make a great duo, each man enhancing the other’s artistic vision.

The plaintive score, as you may already know, is by Bob Dylan, who also has a role as Alias, an enigmatic figure to say the least (Pat: “Who are you?” Alias: “That is a good question”). Dylan may not be an Olivier or DeNiro, but he’s just right in this role, saving Billy by throwing his knife at just the right moment, being intimidated by Garrett, and pretty much just being Dylan. The hit song “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” is featured on the soundtrack, which was released as his 12th album, and I’m sure you Dylan fans already own it!

The movie is stocked with some of Hollywood’s best character actors, all of whom get their chance to shine. Slim Pickens and Katy Jurado play a pair of lawmen (lawpersons??) aiding Pat, and Pickens’ death scene is played out to the aforementioned Dylan hit. Jack Elam is Alamosa Bill, who tracks Billy down and dies in a gun duel. Good Lord, there’s Luke Askew, John Beck, Richard Bright, Matt Clark, Elisha Cook Jr , singer Rita Coolidge, Jack Dodson, Gene Evans , Emilio Fernandez, Paul Fix Richard Jaeckel , L.Q. Jones, Jason Robards Charlie Martin Smith , Harry Dean Stanton, Barry Sullivan , Dub Taylor, Chill Wills, a veritable Who’s Who of Hollywood Familiar Faces!

The final, fatal killing of Billy the Kid is haunting for both its beauty and its ugliness. That pretty much sums up the best of Sam Peckinpah’s work, the dichotomy of beauty and the grotesque, the proud and the profane, walking hand in hand through a random, chaotic world. PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID was Peckinpah’s final word on the Western genre, and I’m glad it’s been restored to its original form, so future generations can study the cinematic artwork of this difficult, self-destructive, brilliant genius.

It’s the original THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN- or is it? (United Artists 1960)

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There’s a large hue and cry about the upcoming remake of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (and remakes in general) among classic film fans. “How dare they”, it kind of goes, “Why, that’s blasphemy!”. The truth is, Hollywood’s been cannibalizing itself since almost the beginning, and remakes have long been a staple of filmmakers. THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN is a remake of Akira Kurasawa’s Japanese film SEVEN SAMAURI, moved to the American west by producer/director John Sturges . And while quite frankly most remakes can’t hold a candle to the originals, this 1960 action epic can stand on it’s own as one of the great Western adventures.

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Sturges assembled a macho cast to tell the tale of bandits terrorizing a small Mexican village, and the seven hired guns who take on the job of defending them. Top billed is Yul Brynner as Chris, the black clad gunslinger who puts together the crew. First among them is Steve McQueen   , star of TV’s WANTED: DEAD OR ALIVE and on the cusp of film stardom after appearing in 1959’s NEVER SO FEW. McQueen plays Tanner, honing his ultra-cool persona in this breakthrough role. He also gets the best lines, like “We deal in lead, friend”. Cool indeed!

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Charles Bronson had been around awhile before taking on the role of O’Reilly, and his scenes with the adoring Mexican children who idolize him are standouts. Bronson would do a bunch of these all-star actioners (THE GREAT ESCAPE, THE DIRTY DOZEN  ) before becoming a solo action icon in a series of 70’s films. Lanky young James Coburn was just beginning to get noticed in movie and TV appearances when he was cast as the knife-throwing Britt. Robert Vaughn   was another up-and-comer at the time, essaying the part of Lee, an outlaw who’s losing his nerve. (That would never happen to Napoleon Solo, his star-making role in TV’s THE MAN FROM UNCLE!) Brad Dexter was a veteran actor, usually cast as the heavy; he adds humor to the part of soldier of fortune Harry Luck.

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Horst Buchholz, “The German James Dean”, was already a star in Europe when he took the role of Chico, a cocksure young gun out to prove himself with these seasoned professionals. Buchholz was just beginning to branch into English-speaking productions, which later included Billy Wilder’s ONE TWO THREE and the excellent NINE HOURS TO RAMA. He probably would’ve been a bigger star if he hadn’t turned down the part of The Man With No Name in A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS. Clint Eastwood is forever grateful for that!

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These seven take on bandit chief Calvera, played to perfection by Eli Wallach, foreshadowing his Tuco in THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY. While the rest of the cast plays it low-key, Wallach’s over-the-top bad guy offers a nice contrast, dominating every scene he’s in. Veteran Vladimir Sokoloff as the village elder gives a solid performance. Familiar Faces include Whit Bissell, Val Avery, Bing Russell, Robert Wilke, Jim Davis, and Victor French in minor roles. Mexican actress Rosenda Monteros is also on hand as the love interest for Buchholz.

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William Roberts gets credit for the screenplay, but it’s a bit more complicated then that. Blacklisted writer Walter Bernstein did the original adaptation, which was rewritten by Walter Newman. Roberts made some changes while on location and asked for a co-credit, prompting Newman to ask for his name to be removed from the credits. I’m not sure just who wrote what, only that the screenplay works as one of the all-time action greats. Charles Lang’s majestic cinematography is a work of art in itself, as you’d expect from the man behind the camera on such classics as THE BIG HEAT  and SOME LIKE IT HOT. Speaking of works of art, Elmer Bernstein’s score is one of Hollywood’s best known and best-loved. That theme has been sampled in countless movies, TV shows, and recordings, enjoying a second life as the theme for countless TV commercials for Marlboro cigarettes in the 1960’s.

So the question is, will I go see the new version? Probably not. I’ve seen the trailers, and it looks okay. It might even be pretty cool. But it won’t be Steve McQueen/Charles Bronson/James Coburn cool. And there lies the rub as far as remakes of classic films goes. THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN is the perfect action flick in every respect, and it’s hard to top perfection. The 1960 movie does it by bringing Kurosawa’s samuari original to the Old West, adding a new spin to the story. But for the most part, remaking a classic (or even semi-classic) film seldom works. Now, if they had put the new Seven epic in outer space, we might be having a completely different conversation about this latest Hollywood remake!

*Author’s Note: TCM is showing this movie tonight (9/22/16) at 8:00PM EST. Watch and enjoy!

 

 

 

Good Day in Hell: DUCK, YOU SUCKER (United Artists 1972)

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Sergio Leone’s DUCK, YOU SUCKER is the director’s most overtly political film statement. Butchered and retitled A FISTFUL OF DYNAMITE by United Artists upon its American release, the film was restored to its full glory in 2007. The print I viewed is the full 157 minute version broadcast last summer on Encore Westerns, and the result is an epic tale of revolution, the futility of war, and class struggle starring two great actors, Rod Steiger and James Coburn. Filled with violence, humor, and Leone’s signature touches, DUCK, YOU SUCKER is second only to THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY on my personal list of Leone favorites.

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The film is essentially a buddy movie at heart. Juan Miranda (Steiger) is leader of a bandito family that robs from the rich and gives to the poor… namely themselves! They come across John H. Corbett (Coburn) riding on his motorcycle. John’s an ex-IRA man on the run (as we learn in flashbacks spread throughout the film). He’s also an expert with dynamite, and Juan has visions of joining forces with John to rob the Mesa Verde National Bank. But John has other ideas, planning on going to work for a German silver mine owner. Juan isn’t easily dissuaded, though. He tricks John into blowing up the German and his men, and now John, wanted for murder, reluctantly agrees to work with the bandit.

Or so Juan thought, as John ditches Juan and his crew with the help of a speeding train. Undaunted, Juan continues on to Mesa Verde, only to be met there by John, who’s now aligned with Mexican revolutionaries. The revolutionaries attack the soldiers while J&J put their bank heist into effect. But to Juan’s chagrin, the vaults aren’t filled with Mexican gold but political prisoners, and Juan becomes a reluctant hero of the revolution! The revolutionaries are chased by the soldiers, and retreat to caves while J&J hold off the soldiers with gatling guns and blow up a bridge. The two men head to the caves, only to find everyone has been slaughtered, including Juan’s children. Juan goes on a suicide mission and is captured. He’s facing a firing squad when John swoops in like an Avenging Angel to free his buddy.

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And we’re only about halfway through the film! I’ll won’t spoil the rest for those of you who haven’t seen DUCK, YOU SUCKER yet. I’ll just say there are many more twists and turns on the two men’s journey… you’ll have to watch for yourselves. Instead, I’ll tell you the film walks a tightrope between comedy and tragedy, and its success lies in Leone’s genius as director. Leone has created an unheralded masterpiece which is only now beginning to get it’s proper due thanks to its restoration and rediscovery.

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You tend to forget what a brilliant actor Rod Steiger was if you haven’t seen him for a while. There are echoes of Eli Wallach’s Tuco from THE GOOD THE BAD & THE UGLY in Steiger’s performance, as intended in the screenplay by Leone with Sergio Doanti and Luciano Vincenzoni. But make no mistake, Steiger puts his personal stamp on the role as the bandito more interested in gold than revolutions. James Coburn is his equal as the Irishman Corbett, a man grown weary of revolutions and killing for other people’s causes. Despite their cultural differences, Coburn and Steiger form a bond of friendship forged by mutual tragedies and their common distrust of the powers that be.

The cinematography by Guisseppe Ruzzolini is breathtaking, and the film is masterfully edited by Nino Baragli. No Leone film would be complete without Ennio Morricone, and he supplies his usual fine and unique score. The special effects are done by Antonio Margheriti, better known to film fans under the pseudonym Anthony Dawson, director of HORROR CASTLE, CASTLE OF BLOOD, THE LONG HAIR OF DEATH, WAR OF THE PLANETS, TAKE A HARD RIDE, CANNIBAL APOCALYPSE, and YOR, THE HUNTER FROM THE FUTURE.

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DUCK. YOU SUCKER was Leone’s last Western. His valedictory film, the gangster epic ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA, would be released in 1984. Leone died at age 60 in 1989, leaving an indelible mark on film in general, and the Western genre especially. Though he’s only credited directing seven features, among those seven are some of the best Westerns cinema has to offer. Find yourself a copy of the uncut, original DUCK, YOU SUCKER and prepare to be amazed at the artistry of Sergio Leone.

 

CLEANING OUT THE DVR Pt 3: Those Swingin’ Sixties!

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The 1960s were turbulent times, and nowhere was that more evident than in the decade’s pop culture. Hair was longer, skirts were shorter, music was louder, and The Silent Majority was pissed! Rock and roll, superspies, and sexual swingers ruled the screen. Here are five short looks at five films from The Swingin’ Sixties:

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VIVA LAS VEGAS! (MGM 1964; director George Sidney)

Elvis Presley and Ann-Margret sing and dance their way through this romp set in America’s gambling capital. Elvis is a race car driver, Ann’s an aspiring singer, and Cesare Danova plays Elvis’s rival on the race track and in Ann’s heart. Veteran musical director Sidney helps make this one of Presley’s better vehicles. Lightweight fluff for sure, but damn entertaining! Fun Fact: Danova was MGM’s first choice to play the title role in their 1959 epic BEN-HUR.

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WHAT’S NEW, PUSSYCAT? (United Artists 1965; director Clive Donner)

Peter Sellers is a lecherous German psychiatrist, Peter O’Toole a fashion magazine editor who’s irresistible to women, and Romy Schneider is the one girl O’Toole’s in love with in this zany sex farce written by Woody Allen. Woody also makes his screen debut as O’Toole’s pal who also loves Romy. Woody’s his usual neurotic self, and his screenplay skewers his usual targets (relationships, sexual mores, therapy). Still fresh and funny, with songs by Dionne Warwick, Manfred Mann, and that great Tom Jones title tune. Fun Fact: Watch for Richard Burton in a quick cameo at a strip club!

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MODESTY BLAISE (20th Century-Fox 1966; director Joseph Losey)

A colorful but minor spy spoof based on the British comic strip. Thief turned adventuress Modesty Blaise (Monica Vitti) and her partner Willie Garvin (Terence Stamp) are hired by the British Crown to stop a diamond heist by archvillain Gabriel (Dirk Bogarde). Rossella Falk and Clive Reville add to the fun as Gabriel’s criminal cohorts. Campy piece of pop art from overrated director Losey. Bogarde does make a marvelous bad guy, though. Fun Fact: One of only two English speaking films for Italian icon Vitti (the other being 1979’s AN ALMOST PERFECT AFFAIR)

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IN LIKE FLINT (20th Century-Fox 1967; director Gordon Douglas)

More spy camp with supercool James Coburn as superspy Derek Flint. This sequel to OUR MAN FLINT finds our hero battling an organization of females bent on world domination. Lee J. Cobb is back as Lloyd Kramden, head of intelligence agency ZOWIE (Zonal Organization for World Intelligence and Espionage), and a chance to see him in a comedic role…not to mention in drag! Full of gadgets, girls, and improbable situations, IN LIKE FLINT is okay, but not as good as its predecessor. Fun Fact: The late Yvonne (Batgirl) Craig has a small role as a Russian ballerina/spy.

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THE SWEET RIDE (20th Century-Fox 1968; director Harvey Hart)

THE SWEET RIDE tries to be too many things – a surf movie, a biker flick, a mystery, a love story, a comedy – and fails on all counts. I liked it when I first saw it years ago, but on rewatching, it just didn’t click with me. It does have some good points: Jacqueline Bisset’s hot, Bob Denver’s pretty cool, and psychedelic rockers Moby Grape make an appearance. But Tony Franciosa is just annoying in his role as an overaged tennis bum, and the rest of the cast is so-so, except for the great character actor Charles Dierkop as biker ‘Mr. Clean’. Fun Fact: Dierkop also played the Killer Santa in the exploitation classic SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT.

Now here’s a link to  the bombastic Tom Jones singing his hit, the theme from WHAT’S NEW PUSSYCAT?:

https://youtu.be/VBdSqk78nHw

More in the series:

  1. Cleaning Out The DVR Pt 1
  2. Cleaning Out The DVR Pt 2