Happy Noir Year!: THE BIG COMBO (United Artists 1955)

(ATTENTION: There’s a surprise waiting for you at the end of this post, so read on…)

Joseph H. Lewis started his directing career with low-budget Westerns starring singing cowboy Bob Baker and East Side Kids programmers, and ended it back on the range doing epsiodes of THE RIFLEMAN, GUNSMOKE, and THE BIG VALLEY. In between, he created some of the finest films noir the genre has to offer: MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS , SO DARK THE NIGHT, THE UNDERCOVER MAN, and especially GUN CRAZY . His last big screen noir outing is the culmination of his work in the genre, 1955’s THE BIG COMBO.

The plot is fairly simple: Police Lt. Leonard Diamond is out to crack gangster Mr. Brown’s “combination”, which controls crime in the city. But Philip Yordan’s screenplay takes that plot and adds exciting twists and turns, indelible characters, and a level of violence audiences weren’t used to seeing at the local bijou. Lewis, aided and abetted by cinematographer John Alton , uses that script as a springboard for some darkly dazzling visuals; the opening scene alone, with a young girl being chased down a dark alley by two menacing thugs, finds Lewis and Alton showing off their talents. The film moves at lightning speed, a pedal-to-the-metal noir that doesn’t let up until the chilling conclusion inside an airplane hangar.

Cornel Wilde  is the obsessed police detective determined to put an end to Mr. Brown’s reign of terror. Wilde had started his own production company along with his wife Jean Wallace (who plays Brown’s moll Susan), and this was their first release. Wallace does fair work in the part, though her performance is eclipsed by the rest of the cast. THE BIG COMBO got them off to a slam-bang start, and their next production, STORM FEAR, found Wilde in the director’s chair for the first time, a seat he would take again for films like THE NAKED PREY, BEACH RED, and NO BLADE OF GRASS.

Mr. Brown wasn’t Richard Conte’s first gangster role, nor would it be his last, but it may very well be his best. Mr. Brown is a smug cocksure sadist, deriding Wilde’s Lt. Diamond every chance he gets (“Book me, small change”, he sneers, referencing the cop’s low-wage job), and his staccato line delivery aids the film’s breakneck pace. Brian Donlevy , no stranger to gangster parts himself, plays his second-in-command McClure, once a big shot, now reduced to flunky status. Donlevy was one of noir’s greatest character actors, and his McClure adds another fine portrait to his Rogue’s Gallery. Helen Walker , in her final screen role, plays the mysterious “Alicia”; to say more about the character would spoil the film, and I want you to see it for yourselves! Suffice it to say Miss Walker gives a bravura career finale.

Many modern critics see ‘gay subtext’ everywhere they look in older films; most of the time it’s something that’s not really there. But the characters of Brown’s hit men Fante and Mingo are without question “more than just friends” in this one. It isn’t anything overt, but Yordan’s script subtly suggests these two psychcopaths are homosexual lovers, and the performances of screen tough guys Lee Van Cleef (Fante) and Earl Holliman (Mingo) leave no doubt in my mind about their off-duty relationship. They don’t flaunt their sexual persuasion or camp it up, but watching their nuanced performances, you just know there’s something beneath the surface. Kudos to both actors for giving these stone-cold killers a deeper shading.

THE BIG COMBO is a gripping crime drama in every way, and a fitting end to Lewis’s film noir body of work. It’s dark, sordid, and unsavory, and must-see for fans of the genre. Those who’ve never had the opportunity to watch it are missing a real treat – and since it’s in public domain, I’ll give you that opportunity right now! Consider it my “Happy Noir Year” present to you and enjoy!:

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Weird Western Tale: Lee Van Cleef in SABATA (United Artists 1970)

Let’s face it, Lee Van Cleef was one cool hombre, and he’s at his coolest in SABATA, the first film of a trilogy written and directed by Gianfranco Parolini (aka Frank Kramer). The beady-eyed Van Cleef is obviously enjoying himself as Sabata, a trickster with a sinister chuckle and an array of tricked-out weapons who always manages to stay one step ahead of the bad guys.

The movie begins traditionally enough, as $100,000 in Army payroll is deposited for safe keeping in the town of Daughtrey’s bank. A daring robbery finds the guards murdered and the safe heisted. It’s all a plot by banker Ferguson, Judge O’Hara, and ex-Confederate Colonel Stengel to buy up land needed for the railroad to come through. What they didn’t count on is the presence of the mysterious Sabata, who stops the bandits with his extra-long range Winchester, carting their carcasses back to town with the safe intact.

Sabata discovers the trio behind the deed, and blackmails them to the tune of ten grand. When they make several attempts to kill him, his price keeps going up and up, finally reaching sixty thousand! Along the way, Sabata picks up some allies: the soused ex-soldier Corrincha, who’s deadly with a blade, and his acrobatic comrade, the silent Alley Cat. There’s also the strange Banjo, a man from Sabata’s past, who’s “just waiting” throughout most of the film, until he takes his crack at Sabata. There’s an explosive assault on Stengel’s compound and a final duel at sunrise between Sabata and Banjo that winds up in a twist (and twisted!) ending!

Van Cleef had revitalized his career in Italy by co-starring with Clint Eastwood in Sergio Leone’s FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE and THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY , then began starring in Spaghetti Westerns on his own. SABATA finds him tempering his tough guy image with a sense of humor – I’ve never seen Lee do so much smiling in a film without his usual hint of menace behind it! Van Cleef loved the part, and returned to it in the third and final sequel THE RETURN OF SABATA (though the second of the trilogy, ADIOS, SABATA , the charcter is played by Yul Brynner… while Lee was off playing Yul’s old role as Chris in THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN RIDE!).

William Berger as Banjo looks and dresses like a member of The Rolling Stones, circa 1970… in fact, the actor was once Keith Richards’ roommate! Berger was no stranger to Spaghetti Westerns (TODAY WE KILL… TOMORROW WE DIE!, IF YOU MEET SARTANA PRAY FOR YOUR DEATH, SARTANA IN THE VALLEY OF DEATH), and was featured in Mario Bava’s FIVE DOLLS FOR AN AUGUST MOON, Tonio Valerii’s MY DEAR KILLER, and seven films with director Jess Franco. Pedro Sanchez, Linda Veras, Franco Ressel, Nick Jordan and Robert Hundar will all be Familiar Faces to those familiar with Spaghetti Westerns and/or Italian giallo thrillers.

There’s more than enough action and violence in SABATA to keep Spaghetti buffs satisfied, with the added bonus of a humorous turn by Lee Van Cleef. Sure, it may be a little weird to watch ol’ Lee opening up and enjoying himself, but after (at the time) eighteen years in the business, even a tough guy like Van Cleef deserves a break!

 

 

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!

Best Served Cold: DEATH RIDES A HORSE (United Artists 1967; US release 1969)

During a torrential rainstorm on a dark, bone-chillingly cold  night, a band of men guarding a cache of gold are all murdered by a masked outlaw gang. The marauders then enter the home of the leader, a married man with a family. He is the first to die, and after his wife and young daughter are brutally raped, they too are killed. But the marauders haven’t seen the little boy hiding in the shadows, witnessing his family’s violent demise. The house is burned to the ground, but the boy lives, storing the memory of the men who destroyed his family, until fifteen years pass, and the boy has become a man with an unquenchable thirst for revenge…

This dark, disturbing scene sets the stage for DEATH RIDES A HORSE, a gem of a Spaghetti Western directed with style by Giulio Petroni, made in 1967 but not released stateside until 1969. The genre was in full bloom at the time, thanks to Sergio Leone’s “Man With No Name” Trilogy , and Italian Westerns were everywhere during the late 60’s/early 70’s. Petroni weaves a spellbinding tale of vengeance, and though not often included in discussions of Great Spaghetti Directors (limited mainly to The Three Sergios: Leone, Corbucci , and Sollima ), his DEATH RIDEA S HORSE left me yearning to watch his other four genre entries: TEPEPA, A SKY FULL OF STARS FOR A ROOF, NIGHT OF THE SERPENT, and LIFE IS TOUGH, EH’ PROVIDENCE?.

American actor John Philip Law , whose career was bigger in Europe than his native land, plays the grown-up Bill Mecieta, now eager to track down the murderous thugs who slaughtered his family. Law was never an actor of great range, but he did brooding well, and is more than acceptable in the part. But there’s another important character in this revenge story: the gunman Ryan, released after spending fifteen years in prison, and out to hunt down his old companeros who framed him for robbery.  He’s played by Lee Van Cleef, fresh off his appearances in Leone’s FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE and THE GOOD, THE BAD, & THE UGLY . Van Cleef, after years of struggle, was coming into his own after the success of the Leone films and Sollima’s THE BIG GUNDOWN . He would soon become one of the most iconic of Spaghetti Western stars, especially after the 1969 hit SABATA.

It becomes apparent that Bill and Ryan are after the same people, though for different reasons. Bill wants to form a partnership, but the older Ryan balks, telling the youngster there’s too much hate in him. The men play a cat-and-mouse game through most of the film, each fueled by his own desire to right the injustices done to them. We learn the former outlaws have now become prominent citizens in their respective towns, as when Ryan tracks Burt Cavanaugh (Anthony Dawson) to Holly Spring. Cavanaugh is the saloon and gambling czar there, and Ryan tries to shake him down for money. Ironically, Cavanaugh hires Bill to protect him from Ryan, but the older gunman’s much too cagey. Bill discovers Cavanaugh was once known as ‘Four Aces’ because of the tattoo on his chest… the same tattoo Bill saw during his family’s massacre! A violent gundown takes place in the saloon, with Bill victorious, and Ryan making the save.

The trail leads Ryan to Linden City, where banker Walcott (Luigi Pistilli) resides. Walcott is far more devious than Cavanaugh and traps Ryan, as his henchmen (led by Mario Brega) deliver a brutal beating, then Walcott robs his own bank, absconding with a million dollars and setting up Ryan as the fall guy. Ryan’s thrown in jail to wait for a date with the hangman, but Bill breaks him out, then leaves him behind to face the man who killed his mother in a Mexican cantina. He does the job, but is overtaken and tortured by Walcott and his crew, buried up to his neck in the blazing hot sun. Ryan arrives as the outlaws leave to search for him, freeing Bill and setting the stage for a climactic battle in a sandstorm, and a final confrontation as Bill realizes who Ryan truly is…

All this takes place under the keen eye of Petroni and DP Carlo Carlini, with the beautifully rugged Andalusia scenery perfectly framed. The shot composition and fluid camera movement are matched by a top-notch Ennio Morricone score, heavy on guitars, bass drum, and flute. It’s a masterful piece of work, with both Law and Van Cleef at their steely-eyed best. Like I said earlier, DEATH RIDES A HORSE left me craving more Giulio Petroni Westerns, and once you see this terrific film for yourselves, you’ll be reserving your seats on the Petroni train, too.

This post is part of The Great Western Blogathon hosted by Thoughts All Sorts. Saddle up and check out the other sagebrush entries by following this link: https://thoughtsallsorts.wordpress.com/

   

The Dollars Trilogy Pt 3: THE GOOD, THE BAD, & THE UGLY (United Artists 1966)

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THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY is the GONE WITH THE WIND of Spaghetti Westerns, Sergio Leone’s masterpiece, and definitely in my Top 5 Favorite Films. After turning the genre upside down with A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS and inside out with FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE, Leone’s final entry in his triptych of films starring Clint Eastwood as The Man With No Name is an ambitious epic about greed, revenge, and the futility of war, told with a warped sense of humor and plenty of action. Besides Eastwood and FEW DOLLARS co-star Lee Van Cleef, Eli Wallach joins the cast in a performance that should have won the Oscar.

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We’re first introduced to Angel Eyes (Van Cleef), who’s one mean mutha. Sent to find information on the location of stolen Confederate gold, he kills his informant, then kills the man who hired him, and begins his search for “Bill Carson”. Meanwhile, bounty hunter ‘Blondie’ (Eastwood) turns in the bandit Tuco (Wallach) for reward money. Tuco is wanted for a laundry list of nefarious deeds and sentenced to hang. But at the hanging, Blondie shoots the rope, freeing Tuco, and the two escape, forming an alliance to scam the law with their rope trick.

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Blondie gets sick of Tuco’s bitching and ends their partnership by abandoning him in the desert. Tuco survives, and reunites with his former gang members to kill Blondie. The pistoleros are no match for Blondie and all wind up dead, but Tuco sneaks in from behind. The bandit forces Blondie to wear a noose and stand on a chair, just when the Union Army decides to bomb the town, sending the rooming house crashing in a heap. Blondie escapes, but Tuco catches up with him and forces the bounty hunter to walk across the scorching desert without food or water as he sadistically lords over him.

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Just when Blondie’s about had it, a six-horse coach comes careening across the desert landscape. Curious Tuco stops the runaway horse and finds the coach full of dead Confederate soldiers. Not one to waste an opportunity, he lifts the corpses’ wallets and watches, only to discover one of them’s still alive. It’s “Bill Carson”, who tells Tuco the name of the cemetery where $200,000 in gold is buried. Tuco goes to get “Carson” some water, but when he returns the man is dead. However, Blondie has managed to crawl over, and now is the only person alive who knows the name of the grave where the gold is hidden.

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The two mortal enemies are now partners again. Donning the Confederate uniforms, they make their way to a mission run by Tuco’s brother, where Blondie can convalesce. The pair then hit the road, but are captured by Union forces and sent to a POW camp. Tuco has taken the identity of “Bill Carson”, which sparks the interest of the camp’s sergeant…. Angel Eyes!

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Eli Wallach totally steals the show as Tuco. A foul-mouthed, feral animal who’s not as dumb as he looks, Tuco is alternately funny and cruel, sly as a fox and twice as dangerous. Wallach has a field day in the role, and the character is more fully fleshed out than either Eastwood or Van Cleef’s archetypes. The scene where Tuco is bathing when a bounty hunter tries to take him by surprise, delivering the line “When you have to shoot, shoot- don’t talk!”, is a classic, as is the one with Tuco in the gun shop. Wallach wasn’t even nominated for the Supporting Actor Oscar (Walter Matthau won for THE FORTUNE COOKIE), but the film itself wasn’t released in the U.S. until 1967. That year George Kennedy won for COOL HAND LUKE, but Wallach should’ve been a shoe-in either year.

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There are so many big set-pieces in THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THEN UGLY, none more famous than the three-way showdown between Eastwood, Van Cleef, and Wallach. Leone’s wide-angle shots and deep close-ups are interspersed with a spinning camera effect, edited to perfection, all while Ennio Morricone’s music builds to a crescendo. Speaking of the maestro, this is my favorite of his scores, a musical masterpiece on its own that was turned into a hit record by Hugo Montenegro in 1968, reaching #2 on the Billboard charts:

And yes, I still have the 45 lying around somewhere in the basement!

Sergio Leone’s THE GOOD,THE BAD, AND THE UGLY never gets old. I watch it a least once a year, and always marvel at something I didn’t quite pick up on before. Even if you’re not a fan of Spaghetti Westerns, the film transcends the genre into cinematic art by one of the screen’s true masters. Now if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll go downstairs and look for that 45….

 

 

The Dollars Trilogy Pt 2: FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE (United Artists 1965)

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After the huge international success of his A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS , Sergio Leone was red hot. Another Spaghetti Western was hastily written by Leone and Luciano Vincenzoni (and an uncredited assist from Sergio Donati), but FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE is pure Leone, from the visual style to the bits of humor interspersed between the violence. Clint Eastwood returned as The Man With No Name, paired this time with veteran Western heavy Lee Van Cleef as the beady-eyed Colonel Mortimer.

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Eastwood’s character (briefly referred to as ‘Manco”) is a fast-drawing bounty hunter. He’s interested in the $10,000 reward for escaped killer/outlaw Indio. Mortimer is also interested in Indio, but has another motive: a young Indio raped his sister, resulting in her suicide during the act. The two meet up in El Paso, where Indio plans to rob the bank’s estimated one million dollars, kept in a secret cabinet. Manco and Mortimer engage in pissing contest in the street, shooting each other’s hats, but soon form an uneasy alliance to split the reward money. Manco infiltrates Indio’s gang, but the robbery is successful. Mortimer shows up as a safecracker willing to help for a price, followed by treachery at every turn until the final shootout between Mortimer and Indio, filmed as a warmup to the more heralded scene in THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY.

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Lee Van Cleef became a star at age 40 thanks to this film. The actor had struggled for years in Hollywood, playing Western henchmen (HIGH NOON, THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE), noir goons (KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL), even sci-fi villains (IT CONQUORED THE WORLD), but after an uncredited role in 1962’s all-star HOW THE WEST WAS WON, he was absent from the big screen until Leone came calling. From the opening panoramic shot of him nailing a rider with his rifle, Van Cleef’s persona as one scary dude not to be messed with was established. Suddenly, after all the struggles, he was a star, and made Spaghetti Westerns right until the craze died down in the 1970’s. Van Cleef continued to work steadily in films, from his role in John Carpenter’s ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK to costarring in the television ninja series THE MASTER, right up until his death in 1989.

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Gian Maria Volonte (Ramon Rojos in A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS) plays Indio as the meanest, craziest bandito the West has ever seen. This nut makes Liberty Valance look like a boy scout! He’s always smoking weed to obliterate the memory of what happened that night with Mortimer’s sister, and carries a chiming pocketwatch with her picture (Mortimer has one, too). Many of the cast of Leone’s previous film appear, as does another Familiar Face: German actor Klaus Kinski, making his Spaghetti debut as the hunchbacked outlaw Wild.

Lee Van Cleef (Col. Douglas Mortimer) is not interested in collecting the bounty on El Indio and his gang, motivated solely by retribution. Clint Eastwood (Manco) can collect the money.

Ennio Morricone’s music is back, a staple of these films. The hauntingly whistled theme, with it’s by now familiar whipcracks and wordless chorus, is a classic in its own right. The camerawork by Massimo Dallamano, a standout in FISTFUL, is excellent, guided by Leone’s painterly eye. FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE was another worldwide hit, but like it’s predecessor not released in the U.S. until 1967. Leone’s next film would be what I consider his greatest, the final chapter in the Dollars Triolgy, THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY.

(to be continued… )