Snowy Spaghetti

great3The Great Silence (Il Grande Silenzio), 1968, 105 mins, Blu-ray

It started with Ennio Morricone, as it so often does. He composed music for so many films and television series (over 400) that its probably a familiar tale. Over a decade ago, when I was collecting CD soundtracks during a period when so many expansions and remasters were being released, and I delved into Morricone’s work, I bought many CDs utterly blind, generally based on recommendations online. You could listen to Morricone’s music without any prior knowledge of the films/television shows that it was composed for, and indeed even now, much of Morricone’s music that I know exists for me utterly independent of whatever it was composed for. Haunting music such as his score for The Red Tent/La Tenda Rossa exists for me utterly independent of its film (which reminds me, I really should attend to that).  One of the scores I bought was Il Grande Silenzio/The Great Silence, a Western that I had otherwise never heard of. Its score wasn’t really like any of Morricone’s other Western scores that  I knew- it’s a far cry from his Leone Western scores, for instance, an utterly different beast- it had a strange, haunting quality; somewhat moody, grim and driven.

Well, now I now why. My goodness, The Great Silence is bleak. It’s monstrously bleak. It’s ending -sorry, but we have to discuss its ending- is such a downer that I actually mumbled “what?!” when I realised it was actually the end and that there wouldn’t be another reel to set things right. I mean, that’s how it usually happens in movies –  the hero suffers or fails but he then recovers and makes things right, gives us a satisfying ending. There’s no satisfaction to The Great Silence‘s conclusion.: its frustrating and horrible and yes, its perfect in its way and I guess its the ending that The Great Silence was always relentlessly heading towards but all the same…. is the title of the film a reference to its main character or to the sound of the audience numb with surprise as the end credits roll?

I’ve seen bleak endings to films. That last shot of  Gilliam’s Brazil is utterly perfect but its hardly one to put smiles on audience faces, its intellectually perfect but nonetheless a gut punch to a viewers hopes. The Great Silence‘s conclusion is just like that. But goodness, its as bitter and cold and bleak as the film’s beautifully terrifying snow-swept landscapes. But what a magnificent piece of work.

great4I can’t say that I’m a huge admirer of what we refer to as Spaghetti Westerns, a sub-genre of the Western that references European films, mostly made in Italy hence the ‘spaghetti’ reference and immortalised chiefly by the films of Sergio Leone: A Fistful of Dollars, For A Few Dollars More, The Good the Bad and the Ugly, Once Upon a Time in the West and Duck, You Sucker!/A Fistful of Dynamite.  There’s something amateur about many of them, likely stemming from the awful dubbing that often distracts me horribly. Indeed, I watched a few months back director Sergio Corbucci’s Django, which was a film he made a few years prior to The Great Silence. Django was a hugely popular film and quite influential, but it still left me a little cold. Ha, that’s quietly ironic considering the setting and denouement of The Great Silence.

But I will say this- The Great Silence informs Django, looking back on it. The Great Silence is a far better, far more mature work. Back when I saw Django -and hey, how is it possible it was as far back as last September when I watched that?- I noticed that Corbucci was considered with some reverence online and I couldn’t figure out why, but I can now. I can see, watching this later film, possibly what Corbucci was aiming for in Django. Sure, some of it is obvious, the mud (Django may be the dirtiest-looking film ever made) clearly a substitute for the snow he couldn’t afford at the time, but in the graphic violence and bleakness its clearly a precursor to what he achieved in The Great Silence.

greatsilencebluraySo what’s The Great Silence actually about, I hear you wondering. In the bitterly-cold Utahn mountains during the Great Blizzard of 1899, bounty-hunters are running amok, making fortunes by hunting down innocent citizens wrongly brandished as outlaws and criminals by the corrupt banker Henry Pollicut (Luigi Pistilli). A widow hires a mute gunfighter, Silence (Jean-Louis Trintignant), to revenge her dead husband who has been killed by Tigero (Klaus Kinski) a psychopath who clearly enjoys killing, preferring to shoot his quarry dead rather than take the option of capturing his bounties alive.

From that summary you can likely assume how the plot of the film would usually go, but The Great Silence is instead a very subversive piece of work which counters such expectations. Its dark and frustrating and really rather perfect in how it undermines what you would expect it to be. The landscapes are powerfully used, and beautifully shot, and Morricone’s score is haunting and lyrical and imbued with a sadness that in hindsight should have clued me in to what I was watching. Its far from the operatic ode to American cinema that runs through Leone’s work- this is something else, something clearly European, possibly predating the American westerns revisionism that would follow in the next decade (arguably culminating with Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven in 1992).

The Great Silence is a mesmerising piece of work and something of a masterpiece indeed. On first viewing I can’t say I appreciated the darkness of its ending but thinking back upon it, it clearly makes the film more interesting than what a more traditional ending of the film would be. It clearly confounds audience expectations, though, and this is obviously why  the film wasn’t well-received back in 1968. Corbucci actually appreciated this would be the likely outcome, shooting alternate, happier endings that are included in Masters of Cinema’s Blu-ray disc, but they come out of nowhere, countering everything that comes before and so don’t at all work (they are much worse than the tacked-on ending of the original theatrical cut of Blade Runner). The film is just what it is, and thankfully those alternate endings were never used, and their inclusion on disc just reinforces how wrong they are and how right the film is. I’m sure when I watch the film for a second time it will be much more satisfying.

Masters of Cinema’s lovely-looking Blu-ray has several interesting special features that I’ve been delving into, and three audio commentaries that I really want to listen to sometime if ever I get the chance. Clearly the film has become rightly well-regarded over the years since its first release. There is something beautiful in its darkness.

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Riding to the undiscovered country

ca3Ride the High Country, 1962, 92 mins, Blu-ray

I’m not the biggest fan of westerns. Maybe I saw just too much of John Wayne growing up, but the myth of the American West that Hollywood and early television was both fascinated by and creative of, the good guys and bad guys, the nobility of the gun, the racist view of Native Americans, the freshly laundered and pressed shirts and jeans… its the stuff of parody and farce and maybe a little distasteful too. The reality of the West had little if any part in the Hollywood films, whose stories were the stuff of reassuring fables in just the same way, I suppose, as the early cop shows, stories where the cops were righteous and good, and the criminals always got caught ( I well remember the consternation when UK crime series The Sweeney aired in the 1970s and sometimes episodes ended with the criminals escaping justice, leaving the police thwarted and powerless: a far cry from how Kojak, Columbo and Starsky and Hutch were getting along).

What I’m getting at is, I can see the appeal of those Westerns of the 1940s and 1950s, the technicolour vistas, the sense of freedom, the popularity of the simple good versus evil plots… after all, that was the same initial appeal of Star Wars in 1977 to the mass general public, and I recall the wise observation at the time (by who, I cannot remember) that Star Wars was the first Western set in space- because that was what it was. While George Lucas obviously has one eye on the Flash Gordon serials he had the other on the simplistic Westerns that had faded in popularity through the 1960s and largely disappeared by the 1970s. But the Westerns that I gravitated to came after the Old Hollywood variety had largely had their day- I loved the Leone films, the Dollars trilogy, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Once Upon a Time in the West, and films like The Outlaw Josey Wales. They had a  decidedly shady sense of morality, a tactile sense of dirt and reality, that totally ripped apart the tidy old Hollywood Western tropes (even if the Leone films were actually his love-letters to American Cinema).

Sam Peckinpah was a director whose life is as fascinating as any of his films, and who became famous (or infamous) for his increasingly revisionary and violent Westerns.  It is telling, however, that Ride the High Country is markedly different – and indeed, its quite alarming, almost, to consider the shift in tone between this film and his next – the ill-fated Major Dundee. One can read -and of course many have- Ride the High Country as a clear marker of the shift from the western of Old Hollywood towards those that were coming thereafter.

Indeed, the film almost feels like a pause for breath prior to the era of the Spaghetti Westerns; its a reflective film that considers both the end of an era (we see automobiles starting to replace horse-drawn carriages, and uniformed police walking the streets replacing the law of the gun), and perhaps also the end of a certain kind of Western film/adventure. Aging lawman Steve Judd (Joel McCrea), taking a risky job transporting gold from a mining camp up in the mountains down to the bank in a burgeoning town, bumps into an old pal, Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott) and recruits him to help him in the risky enterprise. Westrum has been reduced to featuring in a carnival show that promotes the myth of the West, perhaps a commentary about the fake narrative that popular authors and Hollywood would continue thereafter. Westrum has a young sidekick Heck Longtree (Ron Starr) who he brings along for added security during the perilous trip back with the gold, but unknown to Judd, Westrum actually intends with the help of Longtree to abscond with the gold himself for one final payday. What he feels he is owed having been left with little to mark for his years in the West.

Along the way up to the mining camp, the two old men consider their past and the changing world around them. They feel, as many reaching maturity of middle-age do, a sense of not belonging, of disenfranchisement from the changing world they find themselves in. They share stories of the Old West, and those they knew who have mostly died with that Old West. They might as well be reminiscing about old movies: the two actors McCrea and Scott were Western stars of old, a sense of meta-reality leaking into the film in just the same way as the revisionary Unforgiven acted as a swansong/commentary for both Eastwood the actor of so many Western films as well as its narrative’s lead character William Munny. One almost has to wonder; are McCrea and Scott’s characters recounting tales of their past in-narrative lives or those of characters the actors played in decades-old Western movies-  as someone not at all familiar with those films, it doesn’t make much difference, it could be either and the film still functions the same. All this lends Ride the High Country some added weight, and indeed its general plot is arguably inconsequential to its considerations of integrity and morality and the passing of the West, both the real in-narrative one and and the mythical West of McCrea and Scott’s old films. Its a lovely film, even if it feels like one awkwardly positioned between eras, and McCrea and Scott are both excellent.

Along the way to the mining camp they arrive at a remote farmstead run by Joshua Knudsen (R.G. Armstrong, a veteran of 1960s and 1970s television and even an appearance in Predator) and his frustrated daughter Elsa (Mariette Hartley) who runs away from her strictly religious and disciplinarian father, seeing an opportunity to tag along with the cowboys up to the mining camp where her unlikely fiancé Billy Hammond works. I used to have something of a crush on Hartley when growing up, from her guest appearance in an episode of the ’60s Star Trek show, and she is very good here as a foolish, sheltered young girl on the cusp of womanhood who is destined for a sudden growing-up lesson when she learns her Billy is a disreputable lout whose brothers seem to think they have as much right to bed their new sister-in-law as her husband does, her wedding day quickly turning into a nightmare. Realising her mistake she rushes back to the safety of Judd, whose moral code ensures he will protect her while the more pragmatic Westrum is more concerned with the gold. Pursued by the Hammonds and with Judd inevitably betrayed by Westrum, the film ends in a deadly gunfight in which a reconciled Judd and Westrum battle the Hammonds, who have murdered Elsa’s father and staged a trap at her home.

One of the men is redeemed, and the other embarks on one final journey to an undiscovered country, having vindicated his moral code one last time. Ride the High Country is a very good film, lovingly shot and with a very fine cast in top form. Its story is very entertaining but its the films position in the pantheon of the Western genre, and the meta-narrative of its aging stars of Westerns of old and the director who would soon play his own part in transforming the Western forever, that makes it particularly interesting and rewarding.

Columbia Noir: A Bullet is Waiting (1954)

abulletOh this was cheeky, Indicator slipping this modern-day (well, modern in the 1950s) Western into a film noir boxset. Okay, there is some excuse for some noir undertones but really, its just spectacularly flimsy nonsense that doesn’t really validate its inclusion here: noir is a notoriously debatable style that can be seen in all sorts of widely different films, but this film… noir? Naughty, Indicator. That said, I suppose I’m thankful that it was included in this noir box, because there’s simply no way I’d probably encounter this film otherwise, and I’m always glad of experiencing something I might otherwise have never seen. I mean, when is this film ever next going to get shown on television, and when indeed was it ever aired on any network here in the UK in the past? This is a film that simply screams obscure.

My chief interest in the film is seeing a young Jean Simmons in an unlikely and rewarding role (I think she was a very good actress generally denied the roles she really deserved) and the way the film weaves the general plot of Shakespeare’s The Tempest into a 1950s-set Western. It was something done, albeit with a science-fiction bent, not long after by MGMs Forbidden Planet (1956). To be honest, Forbidden Planet did it much more successfully- the unhealthy dynamic of a daughter on the brink of sexual maturity having lived too close to her father and remote from other people, when young males come upon the scene threatening to break up the status quo, is one that is clearly ripe for drama. Heaven only knows what either David Lynch or Lars von Trier could make of Shakespeare’s The Tempest in a film, set either in some dim period or present-day. Obviously you couldn’t expect something like that from a studio film in the 1950s, but oddly enough some of the social mores of the day can be decidedly troubling. There is a scene in which Rory Calhoun and Jean Simmons get caught in a romantic clinch that’s uncomfortably more akin to rape than anything particularly romantic, but I guess audiences didn’t mind their heroes getting a little rough with their romantic interests back then? It certainly felt an uncomfortable watch from the vantage point of 2021.

Its clearly not a noir, no matter what tenuous claim some might make about one character’s actions/motivations in particular, and really, its also not a film I’ll rush to return to, but I’m glad I own it and that I can return to it someday. I’m not familiar with Rory Calhoun but he’s very good here with considerable screen presence, and I understand he had a long career particularly in Westerns, so I figure he might become a familiar face if I watch a few Westerns over on TNT. The disc’s commentary, and a short featurette, both cast some light on Jean Simmons’ life and career that I was quite ignorant of- its actually rather alarming how the studio system and its old contract system (Simmons running foul of a contract with Howard Hughes’ RKO Pictures) harmed some careers, and Simmons’ marriage with Stewart Granger seems to have been shockingly dysfunctional, frankly. Likely my view on the latter is unfair but goodness me, in some ways it reflects the subject of A Bullet is Waiting in some curious way, as Simmons apparent tendency to look for something of a father figure in her love life (both Granger and her second husband Richard Brooks were rather older than she) seems to mirror an uncomfortable subtext of Shakespeare’s tale, dimly as it may have been transferred to a Western and a science fiction film over sixty years ago.  It adds a certain element to whenever I do return to the film, anyway.