Elliot Silverstein's delightfully silly western parody also has the distinction of being a classic western in its own right. There's Cat Ballou (Jane Fonda), a timid schoolteacher-turned-outlaw who hires a legendary gunslinger (Lee Marvin, in an Oscar-winning performance) to help her avenge her dead father. The gunslinger, naturally, turns out to be a tired old drunk, but that doesn't stop them from forming a crack shot gang that goes head to head with a corrupt local government.
Narrated in song by Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye as a couple of troubadours, Cat Ballou is one of those films that can't help but leave a smile on your face. Fonda adds weight while Marvin is a terrific, cast-against-type comic foil (not to mention is hilariously menacing role as the film's noseless antagonist). It manages to work as both a comedy, a musical, and a rip-roaring action adventure, which is no small feat. It's a lovably scruffy western send-up with a heart as big as the desert and an infectious sense of whimsy. (★★★½)
Billed as a "real western," Delmer Daves' Cowboy set out to paint a true picture of the American west. You'll find no gunslingers or saloon brawls here - Daves' film is a examination of the cowboy mythos that upends Western genre stereotypes and instead finds its drama through trials and tribulations of a group of cattle drivers. Glenn Ford is a hardened cattleman, Jack Lemmon is a city boy who longs for the romance of the cowboy life, only to discover that it is nothing like he imagined. What ensues is a battle of wills between two men who begin as adversaries but end as friends, finding common ground in their unique visions of leadership and masculinity.
It's reminiscent in many ways of Howard Hawks' Red River; and while Cowboy isn't quite on that level, its certainly a strong upending of typical genre techniques. Daves brings a kind of gritty realism and strong sense of framing, using the terrific performances of Ford and Lemmon to explore masculine rivalries and western mythos. At only an hour and a half, it feels strangely brief and comes to a somewhat abrupt conclusion, but Cowboy is about the evolution of a man more than the western backdrop it employs. There's an unmistakable earthiness to Daves' works that sets it apart from the likes of Hawks and Ford. Daves eschewed the romanticism of the West, represented here by the wide-eyed Lemmon, and instead gives us a hard dose of reality, represented by the grizzled Ford, who has no time for such lofty ideas. He has a job to do, and no time for city-slickers looking to play cowboy. It's a simple yet powerful theme, one that allows Daves to get right to the heart of the film's title, one that may seem presumptuously general (a western called Cowboy?), but actually gets right to the essence of an American myth. (★★★½)
When a heavenly clerical error results in boxer Joe Pendleton being taken from Earth prematurely, he is returned to life in the form of a corrupt millionaire, and given the chance to redeem the crooked sinner and find true love in the form of his old nemesis. A hugely influential Hollywood comedy (it went on to inspire such films as Heaven Can Wait and Down to Earth), Alexander Hall's Here Comes Mr. Jordan is as delightful and effervescent as they come.
Effortlessly charming (thanks in part to the peerless Claude Raines) and endlessly imitated, Here Comes Mr. Jordan is a fantasy comedy with a surprisingly complex take on the afterlife and the nature of fate. There's just enough black comedy here to keep it spicy, but the ultimate message is one of optimism and hope. There's a real sense of romantic longing here, of a man in love with a woman but unable to tell her, that strikes a chord, giving the film a kind of missed connection resonance that still rings true today. The new Blu-Ray edition by the Criterion Collection cleans it up beautifully - the glistening black & white is flawless. (★★★½)
Hammer Horror turned its attention from classic movie monsters to the world's greatest detective in 1959's The Hound of the Baskervilles, which reunited the legendary Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee as Sherlock Holmes and Henry Baskerville, respectively. Hammer was perhaps the perfect studio to capture the gothic nature of what is arguably Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's most famous Holmes mystery.
Director Terence Fisher captures the mist-shrouded eeriness of the English moors, adding a tinge of horror to the proceedings that, true to the novel, turn out to be grounded in reality. Cushing is a stellar Holmes, nailing his balance between arrogance and charm, and adding just enough menace to give the proceedings that certain sense of horror. It drags a bit in the middle, especially during the long stretches in which Cushing isn't present. Still, its terrific use of Technicolor (that blood!) and its strong performances make this Hound of the Baskervilles on of the most indelible incarnations of Doyle's immortal detective. (★★★)
Robert Altman takes on the Hollywood establishment in this merciless satire about a studio exec who becomes embroiled in a scandal after he murders a jilted writer who was threatening him.
Altman structures the The Player like a film noir, but one that feels like a tune on a piano being played slightly off-key. This is a fantasy world crafted by people who are completely out of touch with reality, and it is as if the film we are watching is a potboiler cooked up in the board room of the very characters we are watching. It's a sly and biting satire of Hollywood's shallowness and artistic (not to mention moral) bankruptcy. Featuring a veritable who's who of early 90s star cameos, The Player is the darkest and most ruthless Hollywood satire since Sunset Boulevard. It also looks especially great on Blu-Ray, the folks at Criterion working their magic to take this film out of the early 90's and making it feel startlingly contemporary. This is one film that hasn't lost its bite. (★★★½)
James Garner is a smooth talking, quick witted gunslinger who arrives in a lawless town just in time for a gold rush, signs up to be sheriff, and sets about cleaning up the streets in this nimble western send-up. The plot of Support Your Local Sheriff is a mirror of High Noon, as Garner arrests a member of a local family, who decide to rustle up a posse to ride into town to rescue him. But instead of a meditation on masculinity, we get a a laid back, lackadaisical comedy imbued with an effortless charm by Garner, and director Burt Kennedy's sharp sense of comedic timing.
Kennedy was well versed in the western genre, having directed John Wayne in The War Wagon (and several years later in The Train Robbers), and Henry Fonda in Welcome to Hard Times, so Support Your Local Sheriff doesn't feel like a western send-up, it feels like a real western. That's part of what makes its easy-going humor so effective, it fits so naturally into the world around it. Its comedy arises from the characters rather than through slap-stick or high concept pratfalls. Kennedy deftly uses character interplay and Garner's no-nonsense sass to bring natural comedy from a familiar western plotline, so the result is less parodic and more authentic. That's why the film works so well, it's a loving tribute to the genre rather than a satire, lovingly poking fun at genre stereotypes while existing squarely in the world it so effortlessly lampoons. (★★★½)
Michael Cimino made his directorial debut under the watchful eye of Clint Eastwood in 1974's Thunderbolt & Lightfoot, a combination road movie/heist caper about a grizzled criminal on the run (played with steely resolve by Eastwood) and a young upstart drifter (an Oscar nominated Jeff Bridges). With two jilted former partners hot on their tail, the two set out to find an old stash old gold hidden in the desert, setting them off on a journey that will bond the two men in ways they never expected.
With famously economical star and producer Eastwood holding Cimino back from the excesses for which he later became known, Thunderbolt & Lightfoot is surprisingly economical and straightforward, lacking the indulgence that sometimes plagued the director, but maintaining his sharp focus on masculine friendships. There is a distinct homoerotic undercurrent here between Eastwood's Thunderbolt and Bridges' Lightfoot. But even if you ignore that subtext (and it's pretty hard to ignore), Cimino still keeps the action focused inward, developing the relationship between the two men with great care. Thunderbolt & Lightfoot is an action film, but it's one where explosions, car chases, and violence seem almost beside the point. This is a tale of friendship, a character drama masquerading as a heist movie, that features some of the most subtle performing Eastwood has ever done. For those who missed the now out of print Blu-ray from Twilight Time, this reissue will be welcome news. (★★★)
After a man witnesses a mob hit, he goes on the run to save his own life, and is pursued by police in hopes of using him as a witness. Unable to track him down, the police turn to his estranged wife (Ann Sheridan), who wants nothing to do with him. She is eventually convinced by a reporter to help track the man down. Followed by both the police and the mob, both searching for her husband, she soon finds herself in an underworld of lies and murder that threatens not only her husband's life, but her's as well.
A wonderfully engaging film noir, long thought lost after the only surviving American print was burned in a fire in 2008. It has now been resurrected by the Film Noir Foundation and released on Blu-Ray for the first time by Flicker Alley. The roller coaster finale (a favorite climactic location for noir films of the period - see also 1953's Man in the Dark 3D) is especially thrilling, releasing 70 minutes worth of tension that makes for a tightly crafted joyride of a film. (★★★)
ZELIG (Twilight Time)
Woody Allen faithfully recreated newsreel style documentaries in this faux-examination of a man named Leonard Zelig, a human chameleon who was so eager to please that he literally became like whoever he is around. If he's around a black man, he turns black. If he's around a fat man, he turns fat. If he's around a doctor, suddenly he's a doctor, too. Of course, these changes don't always work out for him, and an intrepid doctor sets out to cure him at all costs.
Zelig is almost pure Allen id, an exploration of his own eagerness to be liked. What makes the film so special, however, is its painstaking recreations of old newsreel footage. With the help of cinematographer, Gordon Willis (who received an Oscar nomination for his work), Allen nails the style and tone of self important biographical documentaries (often interviewing real intellectuals like Susan Sontag). It's all so perfectly executed that it never feels as if we're not watching a real documentary, and Willis captures some evocative images that feel as if they were pulled right from the mists of time. It's a fascinating experiment, filled with Allen's trademark visual wit and intellectual predilections. It is perhaps Allen's most stylistically daring films, and unlike Shadows and Fog, it doesn't get so caught up in its own style that it ignores its own story. While the documentary style doesn't necessarily lend itself to emotional connection, here, Allen probes the depths of human desire for love and acceptance, and the results are often stunning. (★★★½)