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In a Small World (2012)
The different tastes of Thailand
Three men on a trip to Pattaya, Thailand. One, a hard working Indian software engineer, has no wish to go; he's quite content staying at home with his wife and Hindu religious obligations. But his boss thinks he is in need of some recreation, so off he goes. Another, a Japanese journalist, is also sent there by his boss to, it would appear, write about Thai cuisine. However the boss has an ulterior motive, to separate the man from his daughter and if possible break up the relationship. The third, an older man, goes on his own will. He is fed up with both his wife and his life in Graz, Austria so he leaves them behind to seek a new life in Thailand.
At the center of this is Jade, young Thai prostitute who must support herself, her daughter and the girl's father, who has no job or ambition. With the help of her friend, she makes contact with several foreign men who visit the country. Thus she meets the three men. However her relationship with each of them is different. In the meantime, she looks for the one man who can support her and take her out of this kind of life.
The film highlights how differently people deal with being in another culture. One can't understand why things are so different and constantly looks for that which is familiar. Another takes delight in the new tastes and pleasures to be found. Another has little interest in his surroundings; his only goal is to find a woman to satisfy his desires.
The film is also a visual delight, at one point shifting from one country to another, showing the building style, daily life and cultural activities of each. Well worth watching.
The Sacketts (1979)
Standard Western fare
This is pretty much standard Western fare with a cattle drive, gold prospecting, town taming and gun play. Sam Elliot, Tom Selleck and Jeff Osterhage play the three Sackett brothers. The oldest one, Tell (Elliot) is the one looking for gold. In the meantime, the other two leave their home in Tennessee and head west, hooking up with a cattle drive. When the cattle are delivered, they head to racially divided Santa Fe to help a beautiful Mexican senorita whose family is threatened by a dishonest businessman.
Much of the strength of this story lies in the supporting cast, including Western veterans Glenn Ford, Ben Johnson, Jack Elam, Slim Pickens and Gene Evans. Ford is Tom Sunday, ramrod of the cattle drive. He and the two younger Sacketts go into business together rounding up stray cattle before taking them to Santa Fe. Then Sunday's relationship with the Sackett boys begins to spiral downward, and when Orrin (Selleck) gets the sheriff job Sunday has his heart set on, a grudge develops that will not abate. Ben Johnson is a hoot as Cap Roundtree. He was going to join in the stray cattle venture, but when he meets up with Tell, his eyes light up with gold fever and off they go to the mountains. Elam, Pickens and Evans are the Bigelows. They aim to get revenge against Tell for the slaying of their brother and this leads to the final confrontation. Elam, with his long handlebar mustache and black garb, including gloves, looks especially menacing.
The Sacketts is not the best Western to come along, but it is always a pleasure to watch those guys who appeared in so many of the bygone classics and have since passed on.
A lesser entry in the Universal Holmes series, but fun all the same
This Holmes' film and the story it is supposedly based on, "The Adventure of the Dancing Men", bear little resemblance to one another. The latter takes place in Victorian England. A country squire calls upon Holmes because some hieroglyphics in the form of little dancing men has his wife terribly upset. When Holmes deciphers the code he realizes the squire and his wife are in terrible danger and rushes to warn them only to find he has arrived too late. It is among the most imaginative and entertaining of all of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's short stories about the famous detective.
In the film version we are transported about fifty years into the future with World War II still in progress. A Swiss scientist has invented a bomb-sight which would spell disaster for the allies should it fall into enemy hands. Sherlock Holmes is called in to help get the scientist and his invention out of Switzerland and into Britain where it is hoped this important weapon will be handed over to British authorities. Instead, the scientist has other plans and divides his bomb-sight into four parts and gives one each to four people he has chosen. However, he takes the trouble to write down a message of little dancing men with instructions that it be given to Holmes should he turn up missing. When that becomes the case, Holmes finds himself face to face with his greatest adversary, Professor Moriarty, who has turned against king and country for the ample reward he will gain for delivery of the bomb-sight.
There are a number of plot holes, one of them being the speed at which Holmes is able to decipher the message of the dancing men without the aid of a key. In the original story it takes hours of study for him to do so. Here he does it instantaneously just glancing at the text, a virtual impossibility. However, this occurs to keep up the pace of the film, which never lags. All the Sherlock Holmes Universal pictures are great fun, even the lesser entries such as this one. We see Holmes in disguise no less than three times, the most interesting one being the course brutal seaman designed for the purpose of being taken to the crime boss, who, as played by Lionel Atwill, always seems to be a step or two behind the resourceful detective. Holmes, however, must rely on the aid of his faithful associate, Watson, and Inspector Lestrade to get him out of some tight spots. This is one time neither of them is shown bungling things up as they actually handle matters quite well. Watch for Moriarty's "the needle to the end" comment, an obvious reference to Holmes' cocaine usage. Though "Secret Weapon" doesn't measure up to the short story the credits say it is based on, it has merits of its own. Rathbone and Bruce never fail to deliver.
The Culpepper Cattle Co. (1972)
Authentic looking but violent
"The Culpepper Cattle Company" really looks and feels authentic, as if you are actually witnessing a cattle drive in the year 1866 being led by trail boss and cattle owner Frank Culpepper (Billy Green Bush). That's because, for one thing, a lot of dust gets kicked up and nobody is clean. And the cowboys talk as though they are real cowboys. They complain about the dust, and the food, and the work, and the low wages, and just about everything else. At night, they tell tall stories around the campfire, mostly about the women they've been with. Pete (Matt Clark), the best storyteller, spins a yarn about all the naked Parisian women you could see on the second floor through the glass ceiling. Hilarious.
Two other interesting characters in the drive include the trigger-happy, touchy Russ (Geoffrey Lewis) and Dixie Brick (Bo Hopkins), who gets his kicks from seeing guys get shot. Those two engage in this crazy hysterical laugh before the final shootout.
All of this is seen through the eyes of young Ben (Gary Grimes) who hires on as a little Mary (cook's helper). He wants nothing more than to be a cowboy but soon finds out things are not quite as he imagined. When he tells the cook how much he wants to be a cowboy, he gets told that cowboying is something you do when you can't do anything else. After he asks Luke (Luke Askew) what his horse's name is, he gets told that you don't have to name something you might have to eat.
Expect a lot of violence. This was made in 1972, a couple of years after "The Wild Bunch" had set the standard for the wholesale slaughter of men.
Rio Grande (1950)
Part of Ford's idealized west
Here are seven things to enjoy about this movie.
1. John Ford's romanticized version of army life out on the frontier. In reality, a soldier's life out west was anything but easy with high rates of desertion and suicide. Ford does not show us that but rather camaraderie and adventure.
2.. The Duke and Maureen O'Hara. These two have good chemistry together in their love/hate relationship, blown apart by war and devotion to duty. They also differ on what should become of their son.
3. Ben Johnson's horsemanship. That guy sure could ride a horse. Here he rides down an Apache, yelling, "Look out, Injun!"
4. Strong supporting player roles. Ben Johnson's Tyree is on the run from the law, Claude Jarman Jr's trooper Yorke, Wayne and O'Hara's son, is now an enlisted man having failed mathematics at West Point and Victor McLaglen's oafish Sergeant Quincannon suffers from past sins committed during the Civil War. Harry Carey, Jr., Chill Wills and J. Carrol Naish round out a terrific supporting cast.
5. The women at Fort Starke. We can see the emotion on their faces as they check to see if their men have made it back safely from patrol. No dialog is needed.
6. Songs by Sons of the Pioneers. They sing several as the regimental musicians, led by Ken Curtis.
7. On-location photography in Utah. No, that's not Monument Valley, but another area of bluffs and buttes located near Moab. And that's the Colorado River substituting for the Rio Grande. Unfortunately, Ford chose not to film in color.
Less respected than the other two films of the so called cavalry "trilogy", Rio Grande stands on its own merit as part of Ford's idealized West. The story of life in the U.S. cavalry and war with the Apache is a good one, but it takes a backseat to the relationships of the players who tell the story, with Wayne and O'Hara leading the way.
Rebel in Town (1956)
Not the stuff of usual westerns
In postwar Civil War, a father and his four sons, all former Rebel soldiers, eke out a living robbing, always on the run. When three of the brothers ride into town to get water, tragedy occurs when one of them guns down a young boy who has fired at them with his cap pistol. Most of the focus is on five main characters: Bedloe Mason, his sons Gray and Wesley, John Willoughby and his wife, Nora.
Bedloe, the patriarch of the Mason clan, and his four sons were forced to leave their burned out home in Alabama after the Civil War. Bedloe's main concern is to keep his family together, so whenever the family faces trouble, they vote on what they should do. After the boy is killed, the vote is to keep on the run, leaving the trouble behind them.
Gray, the youngest Mason son, is uncomfortable with the idea of running away. After long introspection, he decides the only honorable thing to do is to return to the town, regardless of consequences. Gray's decision disturbs Wesley, the unrepentant killer who is afraid this will result in him being implicated.
After the killing, John Willoughby, father of the unfortunate youngster, loses grip with reality as he wrestles with grief and desire for revenge at any cost. Recognizing this and not wanting any further bloodshed, Nora struggles to keep her man rational and sane. For that reason she refuses to identify a wounded man John brings home as one of the Rebels she saw in town on that fateful day.
Though a "B" western, "Rebel in Town" benefits from good acting, competent direction and an intelligent, well-written script with lots of things for us to think about. Bedloe, a religious man, tries to comfort his troubled son with the thought that sometimes there is no answer so it is better just to let things be, further suggesting that since we are all the children of God, He is responsible for what we do, whether good or bad. Gray counters that he cannot consider his brother an agent for God. Such kind of writing is hardly the stuff of usual westerns.
Fort Bowie (1958)
A "B" western featuring Ben Johnson and beautiful Jana Davi
When a ruthless and bloodthirsty major slaughters a band of Apaches who have come with a white flag looking to surrender, the U.S. army finds itself in an all out war with Apaches under Victorio, who has left the reservation. The commander of Fort Bowie, Col. Garrett, finds his job to contain the hostiles complicated after his wife, unhappy in her situation, makes false allegations of improper advances against Captain Thompson. The colonel then decides to send the captain on a suicide mission, to find and order Victorio back to the reservation.
Very much a "B" western, with script and acting to match, it features the always entertaining Ben Johnson in a rare leading role. His horsemanship is very much on display, at one point jumping his horse over the walls of Fort Bowie to get at the Apaches, who have overrun the fort. Beautiful Jana Davi also graces the screen as the half Mexican, half Apache Chanzana, one of Victorio's former wives. She has her heart set on landing Captain Thompson, but he is distracted by Alison Garrett, thinking her an ideal army wife.
Though "Fort Bowie" will never be mistaken for one of John Ford's western classics, there is plenty of action to satisfy most fans of the genre.
A serviceable western but not all that memorable
In the 1950s, James Stewart made some near classic westerns with director Anthony Mann. In the 60s, he continued to make them, first with the great John Ford, in the twilight of his career, and later with a less talented protégé of Ford, Andrew V. McLaglen, who directed this one.
The story starts out interestingly enough. Mace Bishop (Stewart) overhears a hangman boasting he is on his way to a Texas town to hang brother Dee Bishop (Dean Martin) and his gang, captured during a botched bank hold up. Mace then shows up in the guise of said hangman (a hilarious turn by Stewart) and pretty soon the Bishop gang is on the loose and headed for Mexico. On the way, they kidnap the beautiful widow of a man killed in their hold up attempt. In all the confusion during the escape, Mace finds the bank completely unguarded. Though he has never held up a bank before, Mace just follows his natural urges .
After that the story line bogs down as the Bishop gang rides into Mexico, trailed by single minded sheriff July Johnson (George Kennedy) and his posse. Both groups find themselves under attack by Mexican bandits. Before this all reaches its inevitable and predictable conclusion, the brothers banter back and forth as to whom their parents would be more disappointed in, Mace engages in a futile dream of Dee's reformation and a new start in Montana, and the beautiful widow (Welsh) falls in love (your guess as to whom the lucky guy might be).
Stewart at this point was winding down, plagued by hearing problems and trouble remembering his lines. His performances would never again display completely the raw edge of his earlier self, brought out so well by such directors as Frank Capra, Alfred Hitchcock and Mann. Martin essentially plays Dino, charming but with limited dramatic range. Raquel Welsh is just along for the ride, a treat to the eye but never really allowed to show true passion. More honest and perhaps more interesting performances are those by Kennedy, the love smitten sheriff determined to preserve his ladylove's honor, Andrew Prine as the faithful deputy who would have it be said of himself he followed July Johnson all over Mexico, and Will Geer, a vile unpleasant old man with the ability to distinguish between bad manners, picking one's nose, and occupation, bank robbing.
"Bandolero" is a serviceable western with some interesting elements, but it's not really all that memorable. For something better, take in any of Mann's westerns from the 50s or the masterful "Shenandoah", by far the best thing Stewart and McLaglen would ever do together.
The Mountain Road (1960)
A not so poignant anti-war film
Major Baldwin (Stewart) has his first command in East China when he is put in charge of a demolition squad with orders to evacuate once a base has been destroyed to prevent its capture by the advancing Japanese. Along the way he discovers the power associated with command and the abuse temptation offers along with such power. He also encounters some unexpected romance when the widow of a Chinese general in need of evacuation joins his squad.
Unfortunately, as the group never comes into contact with the Japanese and is never in serious danger, we don't feel a lot of tension. Whatever threat there is comes from the Chinese themselves, from mobs of starving peasants to bands of wayward deserting marauders.
The most interesting feature of the film deals with the difference of customs. The pomp and ceremony important to Chinese is alien to the Americans just wanting to get down to the business at hand. Looking from different points of view, each side views the other as somewhat barbarous and inhumane and as a result never quite reach the level of friendship each would have.
Although Jerome Morass provides a spirited music score, it doesn't quite fit in with the action, or rather the lack of it. With an exception or two, the events on the screen just never generate much pathos, resulting in a not so poignant anti-war film.
Stewart, as always, is worth watching, Lisa Lu has charm, and Harry Morgan gives a preview of what would become his Colonel Potter M*A*S*H* character.
The Naked Spur (1953)
Choosin' a way to live
"The Naked Spur" is an unusual Western, there being only five characters in the whole movie if you discount a brief appearance of a band of Indians. Thus we are able to see each character in detail and what motivates him or her. There are no heroes and the inner desire of each is laid bare, whether it is lust for gold, money, a home, escape, or just a back rub. Surprisingly, passion for sex is not on display here, even though we find a lovely young woman alone among four less than honorable men. One is a rancher turned bounty hunter seeking to claim the hefty reward for an escaped killer, on the run along with his girl. The hunter is forced to take on two questionable companions as unwanted partners in his quest, one seeking a grubstake for gold prospecting and the other recently dishonorably discharged from military service.
Director Anthony Mann makes good use of the on site location in Colorado. Characters find the environment a challenge as they face rock slides, treacherous mountain trails and a raging river to be crossed. In almost every scene, we are treated to breathtaking shots of the snow-capped Rocky Mountains looming over the valley.
Robert Ryan is in his element as the enigmatic killer Ben Vandergroat as he tries to stir up distrust and discord among his captors while searching for a way of escape. He has the pivotal line of dialog, "Choosin' a way to die? What's the difference? Choosin' a way to live that's the hard part." That is precisely what those left standing at film's end must decide. James Stewart plays an atypical role of a not so likable man driven by inner demons after the woman he loved betrayed him, cheated him out of his ranch and ran off with another man. His single minded desire is to get that ranch back at almost any cost. Janet Leigh, Ralph Meeker and Millard Mitchell provide solid support.
Of all the Westerns James Stewart and Anthony Mann made together, this one probably holds together best. We can feel the tension throughout, from the opening shot of a rider's spur to its unorthodox use near the end.
Bushi no ichibun (2006)
Better not to know?
Do we need to know everything? Would our lives be better if there were certain things we didn't know? These are matters addressed in this story of a samurai family and life in feudal Japan. It was the duty of certain lower level samurai to taste the food before serving it to the lord of the clan in case it might be poisoned. When Shinnojo Mimura, one of the food tasters, eats some tainted sashimi of an off-season shellfish, he falls ill. After a period of unconsciousness, he awakes to find that he is unable to see. At first, he tries to hide the fact from his deeply loyal wife, Kayo, for fear of worrying her. When she understands that, she protests that she is his wife and it is her duty to worry for her husband. However, when she learns from the doctor, who has withheld the truth from his patient, that this blindness is permanent, she also avoids telling her husband, in order to spare his feelings. There are certain truths that are better for us not to confront. Gossip, however, is another matter. When Mimura's busybody aunt comes with news that Kayo has been seen in the company of another man, he throws the aunt out of the house, but he is left with doubts. Is such a thing true about his loving wife? Mimura decides it is something he must know, regardless of consequences, so he sends his servant to follow her and report back to him. The rest of the film deals with what must be done in order to restore honor. It is a fascinating look at life, duty and honor during the samurai era and well worth watching. Takuya Kimura (Mimura), Rei Dan (Kayo) and Takashi Sasano, the loyal but sometimes confounded servant, all give memorable performances.
The Red Pony (1949)
Worth watching for Mitchum and Calhern performances
"The Red Pony" tells the story of a ranching family living near Salinas, California and the obsessive love of a boy for his pony. Within that story, certain dramas are being played out; a man unsure of himself and his ability, feeling a stranger in the place he lives, even within his own family; his wife, struggling to keep the family homestead going, unsure of her man's determination and grit; an old man whose time has passed him by, struggling to cope in a world he no longer fully comprehends; a boy coming of age, having to deal with nature's cruel injustice as well as the knowledge that adults are not infallible but also make mistakes.
Robert Mitchum is outstanding in the role of the ranch hand, Billy Buck, who seems to know everything there is to know about horses, thus earning the adoration of Tom, the ranch owner's son. Equally impressive is grandfather Louis Calhern, a former wagon train boss no longer needed for such kind of work. He is reduced to recycling stories that no one wishes to hear any longer. Myrna Loy, on the other hand, seems a bit too casual and matter of fact to be the challenged wife of an unsteady partner in the ranching business. She is much better suited to romantic comedy, playing such roles as Nora, the madcap wife in "The Thin Man" series. Peter Miles, who plays Tom, is satisfactory, but not as charismatic as some other child actors of the period.
The gifted American composer, Aaron Copland, does the music score, teaming successfully with the great American story teller, John Steinbeck, who wrote the screenplay based on his novel. "The Red Pony" may not be the best adaptation of Steinbeck to appear on the silver screen, on the order of "The Grapes of Wrath" or "East of Eden", but it is certainly worth watching, especially for the performances of Mitchum and Calhern, as well as for the music of Copland.
The Cheyenne Social Club (1970)
Stewart and Fonda are good, but...
Is "The Cheyenne Social Club" a comedy or action Western? Director Gene Kelly tries to combine the two with very uneven results. Cowboy James Stewart receives a letter telling him that he has inherited property from his late brother so he starts out for Cheyenne along with his buddy, Henry Fonda. It is only after he arrives that Stewart finds out the Cheyenne Social Club is not a boarding house or saloon as he supposed, but, well, something else. Director Kelly plays up the discomfort Stewart feels being the not so proud owner and his futile efforts to close the place down, but most of the jokes in that vein fall flat. That is not to say we can't find humor as, for example, Stewart changing his politics when he fancies himself as a businessman, or Fonda cracking nuts at inopportune moments. Fonda's speeches as the credits are rolling are hilarious. Stewart listens politely until he can't take any more and finally has to tell Fonda to shut up. The movie is at its best when these two old pros are interacting with one another.
The Last Samurai (2003)
Japanese spirit will never die
Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise) is a soldier who has seen too much death and the uglier side of life, having fought in the Civil War and against the Indians out west. Thus when he is told to go to Japan to train soldiers there in the art of modern weaponry and warfare, he doesn't have much expectation that life will bring him anything new or worthwhile. Japan, under the leadership of the Emperor Meiji, is modernizing. However, a small group of samurai warriors cling to their old values and resist this change. These samurai, led by Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe), must be dealt with harshly and swiftly. Thus, Algren and his imperial troops are sent into action before they are properly trained. In the ensuing battle, the troops are routed and Algren is captured. Taken to a remote samurai village, Algren learns a new way of life he never before imagined.
My favorite scene in the movie comes at this point. Taka, Katsumoto's sister and widow of a man killed by Algren, is given the task of taking care of the strange foreigner who has come into their midst. While they are eating together, Taka comments on how Algren "smells like a pig." She never stops smiling while saying this and Alrgren has no idea of what has been said. Oh, so true.
For anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of Japanese history, the ending, which I will not reveal, is ludicrous. Japanese have a unique view of themselves, even though Japan borrows a lot from other languages and societies. When challenged on this, they will say in defense, "Japanese spirit will never die." Though what Japanese spirit really is had to be pointed out to the emperor in this movie, it doesn't seem to bother modern Japanese audiences. Instead they focus on the character of Katsumoto, proud that one of their own could more than hold his own in a mainstream Hollywood production.
Discounting the unbelievable finish, I would rate "The Last Samurai" as satisfactory. There are a lot of exciting action scenes, especially the ninja attack at night. However, I would much prefer watching an old Kurosawa samurai flick.
Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
Full of typical Hitchcock irony
"Shadow of a Doubt" is full of the kind of irony that Hitckcock liked to inject into his films. We see what appears to be a normal family living in small town America, but everything is far from normal. The young daughter laments the monotony and trite of her every day life. She has no idea that things can get worse and that is exactly what is going to happen. Then there is the psychotic one in the family who in one moment is sweeping one of the widows in town off her feet, and in another, wringing and twisting his newspaper is if he were strangling someone. Best of all is the father and his friend debating about the best way to commit murder and get away with it. Little do they suspect the real murderer in their midst. They never do find out. It is a secret that only one in the family comes to know, the same one who at the beginning wanted a more meaningful existence. Great stuff and one of Hitchcock's best.
Bend of the River (1952)
A cut above usual Western fare
The story revolves around a group of pioneers traveling the Oregon Trail on their way to start new lives in the Oregon territory. After purchasing supplies in Portland and a promise to have them delivered before winter, they begin building their settlements in the valley they have chosen. In the meantime, gold is discovered in the territory and a dispute arises as to who will get those precious wagon loads of supplies.
There is much to enjoy. The cinematography, filmed in the Columbia River Gorge and around Mt. Hood in Oregon, is wonderful. We also get a glimpse of Celilo Falls, once a sacred fishing site for native Americans in the area but now buried beneath the waters backed up behind the Dalles Dam. The music score blends in nicely with the action and there is plenty of that. Of the actors, Rock Hudson seems out of place, but James Stewart more than makes up for it with his frenzied performance. He is electric when, left behind on the mountain side, he tells his adversary, "You'll be seeing me!"
However, this film is not without its faults. Quite a lot of blood is shed trying to get those wagons delivered but it doesn't seem to be much cause for concern or regret, as if life out on the frontier didn't hold much value. Characters are introduced one moment to be summarily disposed of the next. Trail boss Stewart, a former border raider during the Civil War looking to change his life, still uses violence on behalf of the settlers, who seem to enjoy moral superiority over the miners.
Thus, I don't consider "Bend of the River" among the best of several director Mann/actor Stewart collaborations of the 1950's. Even so, it is a cut above usual Western fare. The scenery, music and steel-eyed Stewart are all magnificent.
Night Passage (1957)
As good as a Mann directed Western?
This is the Western that director Anthony Mann backed away from, claiming that the script was too weak. Was he justified in doing so? How does "Night Passage" measure up when compared with the Mann Westerns? Is it as good?
Let's look at the positives first. The scenery, filmed in the Colorado Rockies, is magnificent, on a par with the best of Mann's Westerns. As for action, there is plenty of it, climaxed with a great shootout. The cast is experienced, many of them veterans from previous Mann efforts. No big difference here.
Audie Murphy stands tall as the Utica Kid. He is introduced to the screen dramatically, framed against the sky dressed all in black as he pulls up his horse to look down upon the train that will soon be relieved of its precious cargo. Back at the outlaw hideaway, he sits back in quiet amusement as he goads mercurial boss Whitey Harbin (Dan Duryea), knowing how far he can push and when to back away. Definitely the most interesting character.
However, "Night Passage" falls down in two very important areas, the treatment of the leading man and the strength of the overall script.
Mann's heroes are emotionally scarred, bordering on hysteria and total breakdown before finally getting the upper hand. James Stewart's Grant McLaine never comes close to reaching that point, even though he has plenty of things to fret about; his brother is an outlaw, he lost his job with the railroad after helping his brother escape and he can't find another job. He contents himself playing the accordion and singing for small change and we can never really get the feel of his deep resentment.
Mann's Westerns are lean and taut, with no superfluous dialog and no wasted scenes. Director James Nielson, on the other hand, gets sidetracked, allowing himself to engage in the kind of tomfoolery that director John Ford was sometimes wont to do. At the railroad camp, workers, who we never see working, dance to McLaine's accordion playing until that degrades into a wild free-for-all. Ford could pull off this kind of thing; Nielson is less successful.
To sum up and answer the question, this Western doesn't quite measure up to those of Mann's, but it's not bad either. It can be enjoyed as entertainment as long as one doesn't look for great character depth. Whether Anthony Mann could have made it something more will forever be a matter of conjecture.
The Man from Laramie (1955)
A special Mann/Stewart Western
In this part of New Mexico territory, Alec Waggoman (Donald Crisp) is the big landowner and cattleman, having struggled with Apaches and driven out intruders. Now, getting old and going blind, he looks to pass off responsibility to his son Dave (Alex Nicol). Sadistic Dave, not understanding the changing nature of the West, thinks the only way to win his father's approval is by being as cold and brutal as he saw his father while growing up. Vic Hansboro (Arthur Kennedy), Alec's foreman and adopted son, is charged with the responsibility of taking care of Dave, but he has his own plans; he intends to claim a share in the ranch whether Alec approves of him or not. Kate Canady (Aline MacMahon) is the Waggomans' major competitor who refuses to give up or be driven out. She is Alec's former lover and she still holds the torch for him. Into all of this rides the man from Laramie, Will Lockhart (James Stewart). To all appearances, he is there to deliver some wagons of supplies, but he has a hidden agenda. His young brother was part of a cavalry patrol that was wiped out by Apaches with repeating rifles. When he finds the man responsible for selling them to the Indians, he intends to extract his revenge. Barbara Waggoman (Cathy O'Donnell) is the pretty shopkeeper who invites Lockhart to stay for tea, a rare thing for man who spends most of his time out on the trail; it looks as if romance looms on the horizon.
Well, that is the mix. How it all plays out is for you to see and enjoy.
Considered brutal when it appeared in the 1950's, "The Man from Laramie" is quite tame by today's standards. It seems that audiences then were unaccustomed to seeing such things as a man being dragged through fire or being shot at point blank range through the hand. The latter is never actually shown on screen and it is a testament to Stewart's skill as an actor that he could convey it all through the look on his face and the agony in his voice.
This was the final collaboration between the director Anthony Mann and his main leading man. Though perhaps not the best of the bunch ("The Naked Spur" and "Winchester '73" are both superior in my opinion), it is good enough. Stewart himself claimed it as his personal favorite of all his Westerns. (I have a letter from his secretary telling me so.) It also has special significance for me, as it was the first time, at a young age, to meet up with the man who played the man from Laramie. From then on I never missed anything in which he appeared at our local theater.
Rio Bravo (1959)
What am I missing?
Despite its classic status, this is not one of my favorite Westerns. I have my reasons. First of all, it's not really a Western. It can be and has been transposed to just about any era, anywhere in the world. Next, the story is absurdly simple. You have a small group standing off a much larger group trying to get their comrade out of captivity. That's about it. There isn't a whole lot more. Finally, the actors camp it up something terrible. Now I don't hold with those who say John Wayne couldn't act. If you watch "Red River", "The Searchers", "The Quiet Man", "True Grit", "Hondo", and a number of others, you'll find an impressive body of work by a dedicated professional. Here, however, Wayne plays Wayne and nobody else. The same is true of just about everyone else in the cast with the exception of the great Walter Brennan, who brings dignity to his role.
I am aware that many people really love this movie. I am aware that "Rio Bravo" is included in some critics' top ten lists of the best Westerns ever made. I have watched it over and over again to find out what I'm missing, what I can't see. I just can't get it. There is just too little plot and too much ham for my taste.
The Big Country (1958)
Big country, people and emotions
"Big" describes not only the country, but also the people in it and their emotions, which are often expressed nonverbally. We see love, understanding, excitement, fear, rage, jealousy, shame, disapproval and more through facial expression. One of the highlights is the look two major characters exchange showing the love each has for the other, never before expressed. Neither of them speaks a word, but they understand clearly enough.
I won't get into a detailed summary of the plot as that can be found elsewhere. Instead I would like to focus on a few of the lesser scenes, non-essential but adding to the overall flavor as, for example, the cowboy rousted out of his sleep and being so disoriented that he nearly climbs on his horse backwards. Or the cowboy who puts on a display of terrific horsemanship trailing behind his horse at full gallop holding on only by the tail. Or the father encouraging his son's romantic aspirations with the words, "Treat her right. Take a bath sometimes." One of the major criticisms is that the movie is too long, but it is difficult for me to find even a line that could be cut without losing something.
As for the characters, Gregory Peck's sea captain Jim McKay is my second favorite of his roles, behind only Atticus Finch of "To Kill a Mockingbird". He is a man of great inner peace and strength, uncaring about what others think of him. He desires peace, but he will not back down from a fight if no other choice is left to him. Equally impressive is Jean Simmons as schoolteacher Julie Maragon. Also peace loving, she refuses to sell her land, which contains the only water for miles around, to either one of two feuding families who would cut water off from the other should they get their hands on that land.
Other major characters include ranch owner Major Terrell (Charles Bickford), bent on the destruction of his rival Rufus Hannassey, his daughter Pat (Carroll Baker), engaged to McKay but in reality in love with her father, and foreman Steve Leech (Charlton Heston), fiercely loyal to his boss, in love with his daughter and intensely jealous of her fancy fiancé from back east. Alfonso Bedoya, in his final role, stands out, as does Chuck Conners as Rufus' cowardly son, Buck. However, it is Burl Ives as the blunt, coarse, but principled head of the Hannassey clan who towers over everyone else. He got the Academy Award and deservedly so.
One final note: the music score by Jerome Moross is nothing short of magnificent.
The movie critics got it all wrong on this one. It is neither too long in running time nor too short on action. It is as it should be, an American epic.
Beneath the 12-Mile Reef (1953)
No masterpiece but entertaining
There are some films that can't be labeled as classics, but they have a good story and are generally entertaining. I would say this one falls into that category. Don't look for great acting. If you can imagine Robert Wagner as an ebullient young Greek, then you'll know what I mean. The story centers on some fishing families in coastal Florida and competition to get a good harvest of sponges. Most areas have been over-harvested and to get a good haul, father and son Mike and Tony Petrakis (Roland and Wagner) are forced to go to the 12-mile reef, a dangerous place where divers might slip off the reef and get the bends when they come back up. In the meantime, Tony falls for the non-Greek daughter (Moore) of a rival fishing family who stole their sponges from them. The cinematography, in Cinemascope, is attractive as is the music score, a treat for both eyes and ears. When the divers are in the water, composer Bernard Herrmann really whips it up, with harps and everything. While no masterpiece, "Reef" is, for me, satisfying.
The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)
An American classic
It is amazing that this story ever got made at all, as it is rather grim and there is no hero. The nominal hero, Henry Fonda, is reduced throughout to the role of bystander until the last scenes. The story is basic. Two cowboys, Carter and Croft (Fonda and Morgan), come to town after a long winter out on the range. They are quickly caught up in events when a rider arrives with news that a local rancher has been murdered and his cattle rustled. A vigilante posse quickly forms and they start out after the culprits, a young man whose first thoughts are of his family (Andrews), a doddering old man (Ford) and a mysterious Mexican with a shady past (Quinn). The posse is led by Major Tetley, a Civil War veteran ready to impose what he considers justice, Jennie Grier, a woman with more grit than most men, and Mapes, the deputy sheriff who exceeds his authority by deputizing everyone. Other members of the party include the hotheaded Farley, a pal of the murdered man, Smith, the town drunk who revels being in the spotlight with his macabre sense of humor, Major Tetley's son Gerald, only there because he lacks the courage to oppose his father, and Sparks, a black preacher offering continuous prayer to the condemned men. Leading the opposition is the storekeeper Davies, but his pleas to bring the men back for a proper trial go largely ignored. Though their time on the screen is relatively short, we get a clear picture of all these characters and others besides, such as the wise bartender Canby, Carter's old girlfriend Rose and her pompous new husband, and the judge, who never forgets to stomp politics in any situation. Each cast member seems so perfect it is hard to imagine anyone else in the role. Taken mostly from the superb book by Walter Van Tilburg Clark, the dialog is taut and thought provoking, making "The Ox-Bow Incident" an American classic.
The Hanging Tree (1959)
A Western gem
Little known, this Western gem has not attracted the attention or appreciation it deserves. Gary Cooper's Doc Frail is to me the most interesting of his Western heroes, much more complex than the Will Kane of "High Noon." He is a man of sharp contrast, kind but domineering, compassionate but unyielding, a healer but a killer, strong but at the same time frail. He draws people towards him, only to keep them at a distance when they get too close because of a tragic incident in his past, one he can neither forget nor allow to ever happen again. He is a vagabond, moving from gold camp to gold camp to set up his services as a doctor, without hope of ever settling down. Into his life come two key figures bound to change it. One is Rune, a young thief whom he rescues from the hanging tree, and they are bonded together. The other is Elizabeth, a young woman from Switzerland who has come with her father to find a new life in the gold camps. After a stagecoach accident, Doc Frail must cure her, both body and spirit, and she loves him for it, a love he cannot accept. He would send her back to her country; she stubbornly refuses and eventually partners in a gold claim with Frenchy (played by the marvelous Karl Malden), a man with lust in his heart for both gold and women. The emphasis on character lifts this film above the realm of the ordinary. Add to that a memorable title song sung by Marty Robbins, an appealing music score by Max Steiner, a no-nonsense script based on a story by Dorothy Johnson and on location filming in the mountains outside of Yakima, Washington, and what you have is one really fine Western.
Hotaru no haka (1988)
Heartrending and poignant
Just when I think I have seen the best of what Studio Ghibili has to offer, I find another gem that matches or exceeds all that I've seen before. This film about two war orphans in Japan at the end of WWII succeeds at many levels, not the least of which is the ability to make us care deeply about the two lovely main characters. It's a touching story, showing the reality of life in a war torn country. People are essentially kind, but when they must struggle just to find food to put on the table, it is difficult to think about the needs of others. Cracks in the system appear and some fall through. Like the fireflies of the title, a human life may shine brightly but all too briefly. It is a testament to the people of Japan that although they suffered much from the American bombing raids that took place regularly during the last days of the war, little resentment or bitterness lingers. But we shouldn't forget the suffering, and this beeautiful, heartrending film is a poignant reminder of that.
A wild and magical ride
When I found this one at the rental store, I knew nothing about it. I just figured that with such great character actors as Christopher Lloyd, Gary Oldman and Chris Cooper, it couldn't be all bad. Those three certainly deliver the goods and guide us on a wild and magical ride along the mythical Interstate 60. I got more than I bargained for.
Oldman is O. W. Grant, who is part Indian, part leprechaun. He grants wishes and then sits back to watch the fun he has created. Into this scenario walks Neal Oliver, a young man undecided about his future life. He would like a career in the world of art; his father has his heart set on his son following in his lawyer footsteps. When he asks for an answer, the aforementioned Mr. Grant steps in and takes action.
Thus the stage is set for Neal to travel Interstate 60, not found on any map, in search of his life and the girl of his dreams. Along the way he meets a number of offbeat characters and visits some pretty strange places. These experiences shape Neal and move him along to his final destination.
This is a movie with a message or two. I don't mind that as long as it doesn't get in the way of the story, which I don't think it does. Before he embarks, Neal is warned that there is a killer on the loose. It is important for Neal, and us, to think about who this killer is and who or what he intends to kill.
I enjoyed the trip on Interstate 60. It's a fun place to hang out for a couple of hours.