Dead Man Walking: Clint Eastwood in HANG ‘EM HIGH (United Artists 1968)

Clint Eastwood  returned to America after his amazing success in Sergio Leone’s Man With No Name Trilogy as a star to be reckoned with, forming his own production company (Malpaso) and filming HANG ‘EM HIGH, a Spaghetti-flavored Western in theme and construction. Clint was taking no chances here, surrounding himself with an all-star cast of character actors and a director he trusted, and the result was box office gold, cementing his status as a top star.

Clint plays ex-lawman Jed Cooper, who we meet driving a herd of cattle he just purchased (reminding us of his days on TV’s RAWHIDE). A posse of nine men ride up on him and accuse him of rustling and murder, appointing themselves judge, jury, and executioner, and hang him. He’s left for dead, until Marshal Dave Bliss comes along and cuts him down, taking Jed prisoner and transporting him to nearby Ft. Grant. Evidence is brought before Judge Fenton, who  clears him and offers Jed a proposition – work for him as a U.S. Marshal in the vast, untamed Oklahoma Territory, and legally bring his attempted killers to justice while helping Fenton clean up the territory. Jed accepts, and our revenge tale begins in earnest…

This sets up a series of vignettes that try to capture that Spaghetti flavor. Director Ted Post, who guided Clint through 24 episodes of RAWHIDE, was a competent craftsman who unfortunately lacked the visual flair of a Leone or a Corbucci, though he does give it a game try. The closest he comes is the scene where Clint crosses the desert plain with would-be killer Bruce Dern  (at his crazy best). Some of the camera angles and close-ups remind one of Leone, but Post just wasn’t up to the task. He would direct Eastwood again in MAGNUM FORCE, and among his other features are BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES, the cult horror film THE BABY, and the Chuck Norris vehicle GOOD GUYS WEAR BLACK. Post’s episodic TV credits include GUNSMOKE, WAGON TRAIN, THE TWILIGHT ZONE, and 179 episodes of the prime-time soap PEYTON PLACE.

That all-star cast I mentioned is headed by Pat Hingle as Judge Fenton, the only law in lawless Oklahoma Territory, representing the establishment. Fenton is a politician through and through, and is constantly at odds with Jed, who’s not too happy about being a pawn to get his justice served. Ed Begley is Captain Wilson, upstanding citizen and leader of the lynch mob that tried to hang Jed. Western veteran Bob Steele plays one of the lynchers who turns himself in; his scene with Eastwood in prison is a symbolic passing of the cowboy torch. Other stars appear briefly: Bert Freed, Jonathan Goldsmith (the original “Dos Equis” guy!), Arlene Golonka , Roy Glenn, Alan Hale Jr. Dennis Hopper (as a madman called The Prophet), Ben Johnson (Marshal Bliss), Charles McGraw , Joseph Sirola, Russell Thorson, and Ruth White. A special shoutout goes to stage actor Michael O’Sullivan as the condemned alcoholic murderer Duffy.

Inger Stevens plays Rachel Warren, who is granted permission to observe all prisoners brought in to try to identify the men who raped her and killed her husband. Like Jed Cooper, Rachel is a damaged soul, and the two are destined to get together. Stevens, too, was a damaged soul; a Swedish immigrant whose mother abandoned the family, she ran away at age 16 and hooked up with the Midwest burlesque circuit. By 18, Inger was working as a chorus girl in New York, and began learning at the Actors’ Studio under Lee Strasberg. She gained notice in 1957’s MAN ON FIRE opposite Bing Crosby, and won a Golden Globe for her role in the TV sitcom version of THE FARMER’S DAUGHTER (1963-66), co-starring William Windom. Her other films include THE BUCCANEER, THE WORLD THE FLESH AND THE DEVIL, MADIGAN, and FIVE CARD STUD. Stevens was secretly married to black actor Ike Jones in 1961, a move that would’ve been career suicide in those pre-Civil Rights days. In 1970, she was found on the floor of her Hollywood home, overdosed on barbiturates. Inger Stevens was just 35 years old at the time of her death.

HANG ‘EM HIGH was just the beginning for Clint Eastwood. He has gone on to become one of our greatest filmmakers, a true renaissance man of movies: acting, directing, producing, even writing some of his own music scores. And the Spaghetti Western genre he helped usher in would make its mark on Hollywood Westerns for years to come.

 

Well-Structured Destruction: Clint Eastwood in THE GAUNTLET (Warner Brothers 1977)

(First off, feast your eyes on the incredibly cool Frank Frazetta poster! Then read on… )

Clint Eastwood’s  directorial credits include some impressive films: THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES, PALE RIDER, UNFORGIVEN, MYSTIC RIVER, MILLION DOLLAR BABY. While 1977’s THE GAUNTLET may not belong on that list, I feel it’s a very underrated movie deserving a second look. Clint and his lady love at the time Sondra Locke star in this character study of two damaged people disguised as an action comedy, essentially a chase film loaded with dark humor.

Clint plays Ben Shockley, an alcoholic Phoenix cop sent to Las Vegas to extradite Gus Mally, “a nothing witness in a nothing trial”. Gus turns out to be a woman, a hooker in fact, set to testify against a Phoenix mobster. Ben’s suspicions are roused when he learns Vegas oddsmakers are giving 50-1 they don’t make it to Phoenix alive, confirmed when the car they’re to drive to the airport is blown to smithereens! From there, it’s Ben and Gus trying to beat those odds as not only the mob but the cops are out to kill them – the corrupt Phoenix police commissioner is a perv who abused Gus, and pulls out all the stops to prevent her testimony.

When we first meet Ben, he’s looking pretty ragged. Drunk and disheveled, going nowhere on the job, and somewhat of a meathead, Ben’s the perfect patsy for Commissioner Blakelock’s fools errand. Face it, the guy’s expendable. But Ben has a reputation for getting the job done, and his dogged determination drives him to reach his goal. He may be in love with Jack Daniels, but when he learns he’s been set up by Blakelock, he draws on some inner strength to not only prove he’s still a competent cop, but to stick it to Blakelock.

Locke’s Gus Mally is a free-spirited, feminist hooker who may not have the proverbial heart of gold, but has a steely reserve of her own. She knows the fix is in, and is reluctant at first to return to Phoenix and certain death. Along the way, she lets down her hard-core veneer and begins to trust Ben, eventually falling in love with the big ape. She also gets the best lines, calling Ben at one point a “.45 caliber fruit”, and engaging in banter like this: Ben: “I just do what I’m told”  Gus: “Yeah, well so does an imbecile”.

The violence quotient in THE GAUNTLET is ratcheted up to 11. There’s a scene where the Vegas cops blast the fuck out of Gus’s home, turning it into a smoldering block of Swiss cheese. The duo hop a freight train and are attacked by bikers, with Gus almost getting raped before Ben’s act of self-sacrifice. There’s blazing machine guns and explosions a-plenty, and the final gauntlet run through Phoenix in an armored bus is a masterpiece of mass destruction. Yes, the ending is totally improbable, but it will definitely make you smile.

Clint and Sondra’s offscreen life was filled with controversy, but they made a dynamic duo onscreen. Locke and Eastwood costarred in the aforementioned JOSEY WALES, as well as EVERY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE, BRONCO BILLY, ANY WHICH WAY YOU CAN, and SUDDEN IMPACT. She was nominated for an Academy Award for her film debut THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER, and appeared in the horror flick WILLARD. Like THE GAUNTLET itself, Miss Locke is an underrated actress whose ‘palimony’ litigation against Eastwood after their break-up practically ruined her career (the more things change… ). She also directed the films RATBOY, IMPULSE, and DO ME A FAVOR, and is a breast cancer survivor.

Pat Hingle plays Ben’s former partner, now an administrator who discretely helps his friend from the inside. William Prince makes a slimy bad guy as Blakelock, and Clint’s old Universal Studios stablemate Mara Corday shows up early on as a prison matron. Bill McKinney , Roy Jenson, and Dan Vadis are Familiar 70’s Faces in the cast. Composer Jerry Fielding contributes a cool jazz score, featuring musician Art Pepper on sax. It aids tremendously in putting the picture over, as does Clint’s keen cinematic eye. THE GAUNTLET may not rank high in the Eastwood directorial canon, but it’s an exciting, explosive genre classic crackling with excitement that can be viewed as both an action thriller and character study, and is well worth another look.

 

Reinventing Dickens: CAROL FOR ANOTHER CHRISTMAS (Telsun Foundation 1964)

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You’d think with a cast featuring Sterling Hayden, Ben Gazzara, Peter Sellers, Eva Marie Saint, Robert Shaw, and other notables, a script by Rod Serling, score by Henry Mancini, and direction from Oscar winner Joseph L. Mankiewicz that CAROL FOR ANOTHER CHRISTMAS was a long-lost big screen spectacular, right? Wrong. It’s actually a made-for-TV movie produced by the Telsun Foundation, Telsun being Television Series for the United Nations. That’s right, the UN (funded in part by the Xerox Corporation) once produced a series of television specials with big name artists in an attempt to promote brotherhood and world peace (or to create a New World Order, depending on which way you lean in the political spectrum).

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The first entry was a take on Charles Dickens’ classic A CHRISTMAS CAROL. Sterling Hayden starred as Daniel Grudge, filling in for Scrooge. Grudge is a wealthy industrialist whose son was killed in World War II , and who is now a staunch isolationist that believes might makes right, namely by having a strong national defense. His nephew Fred (Ben Gazzara) is on the opposite side of the issue, believing that open communication and negotiations will be of greater benefit. They argue their views on Christmas Eve before Grudge throws Fred out, at which point the image of Grudge’s son Marley appears, along with the playing of The Andrews Sisters’ “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree”.

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It’s then that we hit the familiar Dickens territory with Grudge visited by the three ghosts. The Ghost of Christmas Past (singer Steve Lawrence in a solid dramatic turn) welcomes Grudge aboard a cargo ship filled with coffins of war dead from throughout the 20th Century. He escorts Grudge through a doorway back to Hiroshima, where then-Colonel Grudge and his assistant (Eva Marie Saint) tour the aftermath of nuclear destruction, visiting a Red Cross unit full of horribly burned children. This sequence is the film’s best, and could easily have fit as an episode of Serling’s brilliant THE TWILIGHT ZONE.

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Next up is the Ghost of Christmas Present (Pat Hingle), who sits before an overflowing banquet table while thousands of starving displaced persons watch from behind a barbed wire fence. Grudge is forced to see the “needy and oppressed” he derided so much up close and personal, knowing he’s done nothing to help alleviate their struggles while he lives a life of luxury.

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Finally the Ghost of Christmas Future (Robert Shaw) takes Grudge to a post-nuclear apocalypse world where everyone is out for themselves. Peter Sellers (Hayden’s costar in DR. STRANGELOVE) pops up as Imperial Me, leading a band of anarchic survivors, whipping them into a frenzy with his rhetoric about killing those who’re not part of their group and the power of the individual. Sellers is good as always, giving the demagog a lunatic quality we find in many of today’s more odious politicians. Calling Donald Trump!

Grudge finally wakes up on Christmas Day, and reconciles with nephew Fred. He’s a bit more willing to admit now that maybe this international cooperation thing isn’t so bad after all. The tightly wound Hayden is perfect for the role of uptight Mr. Grudge, and the rest of the cast do yeoman’s work in support. Percy Rodriguez, James Shigeta, and Britt Eklund also appear, with Rodriguez as Grudge’s butler a particular standout. Rod Serling’s script is clever though somewhat preachy in parts but hey, it’s Rod Serling. He’s always been a “message” writer, and the teleplay has that TWILIGHT ZONE-ish quality we all know and love. Mankiewicz , one of Hollywood’s best, could direct an elementary school Christmas pageant and make it interesting. He’s aided by some fine cinematography from Arthur J. Ornitz, who’s also responsible for lensing another Serling drama, 1962’s REQUIEM FOR A HEAVYWEIGHT.

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Telsun produced three more of these TV movies, WHO HAS SEEN THE WIND?, ONCE UPON A TRACTOR, and THE POPPY IS ALSO A FLOWER, before folding up shop. POPPY is the only one to receive a theatrical release, and the only one available on DVD, while the other two have faded into obscurity. Telsun was an interesting and well-meaning if unsuccessful experiment at promoting the UN agenda, and we’ll never see anything quite like it again. CAROL FOR ANOTHER CHRISTMAS has popped up on TCM during the holiday season, and though it’s message is somewhat didactic, it deserves to have a wider audience if only because of the people in front of and behind the cameras. Maybe some enterprising releasing company will pick it up someday. After all, look what Grindhouse Releasing has done for MASSACRE MAFIA STYLE. Are you listening, all you entrepreneurs out there?