Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, August 31, 2018

Director Report Card: Sam Peckinpah (1983)

14. The Osterman Weekend

After almost twenty years of pissing off every producer he worked with, along with his growing dependence on alcohol, Sam Peckinpah found himself out of work. He was truly an industry pariah. In the early eighties, his old friend and mentor Don Siegal gave him a second unit director job on comedy flop “Jinxed!” This showed Peckinpah was still capable of working. At the same time, B-movie producers Peter S. Davis and William N. Panzer acquired the rights to Robert Ludlum's espionage thriller “The Osterman Weekend.” They hoped Peckinpah's name would lend the movie, their attempt to break out of B-pictures, an air of respectability. Predictably, the director began feuding with the producers immediately. Peckinpah's ailing health would make “The Osterman Weekend” his last feature but production was as embattled as always for ol' Sam.

John Tanner hosts a popular and especially incendiary political talk show. He's famous for bringing on major public figures and having them reveal state secrets. Knowing this, the CIA chooses Tanner as an operative. Agent Lawrence Fassett believes his wife was murdered by a secret Soviet spy ring known as Omega. Tanner's old college friends, he is told, are also associated with Omega. Under the orders of director Maxwell Danforth, Fassett fits Tanner's house with cameras and monitors. So a normal weekend with old friends – television producer Bernard Osterman, plastic surgeon Richard Tremayne, stock trader Joseph Cardone, and their wives – becomes a tense two days full of paranoia. However, as the night goes on, John discovers not everything is as it seems.

“The Osterman Weekend” is the first movie Sam Peckinpah really made about the Cold War era. Yes, “The Killer Elite” was set in that world but, with its ninjas and secret assassins, handled things on a more obviously fantastical level. “The Osterman Weekend,” however, comes very close to capturing an effective atmosphere of paranoia. There are few scenes in the movie where the characters aren't under surveillance. Once the cameras are installed in his home, Tanner is frequently either secretly watching people or secretly being watched himself. As effective as this can be, Peckinpah also undermines this with odd touches of humor. Like Fassett's monitor getting stuck and having to pretend to be a weather man when Osterman and the others enter the room.

In addition to his copious consumption of alcohol, by this point Sam Peckinpah had also added a serious cocaine addiction to his list of vices. Considering his poor health, I have no idea what Sam was using during the production of “The Osterman Weekend.” However, the movie has the kind of jittery, uneasy energy that you associate with the drug. (At least one character inhales the powdery substance several times on screen.) All the characters seem on edge, even when they're ostensibly suppose to be calm. Everyone is irritable. This fits in with a story where none of the characters know who to trust. Yet the oddly unsettling atmosphere seems like a deliberate choice in the film and not a reflection of the story.

Despite resembling “The Killer Elite” some in plot, the previous Peckinpah movie “The Osterman Weekend” most resembles is “Straw Dogs.” Both films concern fragile male egos coming to blows within a tight location. From the beginning, Osterman and the others suspect Tanner knows about their illegal activities. Compared to family man Tanner, all his friends are cock-swinging macho guys. Joseph seems ready to kill Tanner during a disagreement over a simple volley ball game. As the weekend goes on, the Tanner house seems smaller and smaller. This tension eventually boils over around the dinner table, the characters yelling at one another and trading fisticuffs. Yet the film frames all these arguments and combativeness as petty bullshit. If everyone calmly talked it out, things probably would've been okay. But everyone has to be hot-headed and idiotic. (As in “Straw Dogs,” Peckinpah also has a dead pet shoved into a hiding place. Luckily, the director ultimately spares the family dog this time.)

With everything “The Osterman Weekend” has going for it, the story remains a big distraction. I haven't read Robert Ludlam's source novel, or any of Ludlam's novel for that matter. However, I'm familiar with his reputation for convoluted espionage plots. That certainly holds true here. Once “The Osterman Weekend” is over, the motivations and master plans of the characters seem fairly straight forward. In execution, there's a number of plot twist, zig-zags, and story swerves. It quickly gets hard to follow. The nature of the climax is especially baffling. You really wonder if this convoluted series of events was really the easiest way for the villains to get what they wanted.

Throughout his career, Sam Peckinpah would direct some groundbreaking action sequences. His use of violence, slow motion, and quick editing was famous and renowned. However, something is seriously off in “The Osterman Weekend.” During a car chase, Tanner drives to drive around an impaling pipe. This moment is conveyed through alternating jump cuts and slow motion. It's also paired with a bizarrely drawn out sound effect. That unusual sound design continues in the second half. Melee attacks sound like thunder strikes. Firing machine guns are like nuclear explosions. The odd sound choices are paired with Peckinpah's trademark slow-mo but in a way that's more baffling and off-putting than powerful. Considering Sam didn't get to edit “The Osterman Weekend” how he wanted, it's hard to say if this is even his fault.

Peckinpah's final also, strangely enough, shows the director trying his hand at eroticism. While sex and nudity has cropped up in Sam's movies before, they were far from steamy. “The Osterman Weekend,” however, opens with a lengthy sex scene. Tremayne's cokehead wife is frequently topless, when she's not lounging around in a slinky bikini. Later, Cardone and his wife also have an intimate moment, which is caught on the spy cameras. The sex scenes are long enough to feel gratuitous.  They seem to contribute little to the film and just make Peckinpah look like a dirty old man.

For all its flaws, “The Osterman Weekend” does have a pretty stacked cast. It's led by Rutger Hauer as Tanner. On the surface, Hauer probably seems miscast. The famously blue-eyed Dutchman brings little of the intensity you associated with his various villain roles or performances in Paul Verhoeven films. As a loving family man, Hauer seems slightly disinterested. As a grilling television host, he's practically mechanical. As the film progresses, and the situation grows more dire, Hauer displays an effectively nervous, sweaty quality. He does a good job of conveying how out of his element John Tanner really is.

Essentially as the secondary lead is John Hurt as Lawrence Fassett. While Hauer is reserved, Hurt makes the pain his character is feeling all too obvious. Beneath his hardened face and gravelly voice, Hurt conveys the angst Fassett feels over his dead wife. As the character's true villainous colors are revealed, Hurt's performance becomes more and more unhinged. By the end, his eyes are wide and starring and his skin is sweaty. This dual approach, of conveying the villain's pain and his clear insanity, manages to make Fassett a sympathetic but dangerous villain. Even if his evil scheme ends up being needlessly complicated.

Playing the trio of Tanner's old college buddies are some familiar faces. Craig T. Nelson, sporting an incredibly bushy mustache, plays Osterman. Nelson, though better known for his fatherly roles, is effectively physical in the part. The character is a bruiser and Nelson's large frame conveys that. Dennis Hopper is underutilized as Tremayne, the character ending up as something of a red herring. However, Hopper's trademark intensity still adds something memorable to the part. Chris Sarandon plays Cardone, who is by far the biggest asshole in the movie. I mean, he kicks a dog for no reason at one point. Sarandon makes the character as deeply unlikable as possible, in an over-the-top and entertainingly hammy manner.

There's other notable names throughout the cast. Burt Lancaster appears as Danforth. Lancaster was familiar with roles like this, masking a cold and calculated villainy behind a mask of respectability and civility. Meg Foster plays Tanner's mouth. She has decent chemistry with Hauer in what's mostly an underwritten role. Foster does get an action scene to herself, taking out some mercenaries with a bow-and-arrow, an image cool enough to make the poster. She's by far the most stable of the film's actresses. Helen Shaver goes over-the-top as Virginia, Tremayne's drug addict wife. She shrieks much of her dialogue, never letting the audience forget the character is a slutty cokehead. Cassie Yates is more exaggerated in her bitchiness as Cardone's wife, though she at least seems to be a real human being.

As you'd come to expect by now, “The Osterman Weekend” had a difficult production. Peckinpah's director's cut reportedly feature more sex, an even less clear plot, and several comedic scenes openly mocking the material. Test audiences hated this version and the producers demanded the director re-cut it. When he refused, they re-edited the film without him. If Peckinpah's preferred cut would've been superior to what we got is hard to say. “The Osterman Weekend” is a bizarre, occasionally effective thriller that still makes many baffling decision. It is far from the director's best movie but it is a defiantly interesting one. [Grade: C+]

By the early eighties, Sam Peckinpah was not doing well. Supposedly, he was ill all throughout filming "The Osterman Weekend" and did post-production work on the film while bedridden. His professional life was faring just as poorly, as no film studio was interested in working with such a notoriously difficult director. Despite these circumstances, Peckinpah continued to work right up until the end of his life. A few months before he died, he directed two music videos for Julian Lennon. (Neither show much of his trademark style, primarily being simple performance pieces.) Around the same time, he was apparently prepping a new film, an action movie called "On the Rocks." It was not be. Bloody Sam died in December of 1984.

What else can be said about Peckinpah? By most accounts, he was a deeply principled man and also a drunk jerk. Few filmmakers sum up the legend of the self-destructive but brilliant director like him. Putting his turbulent life behind, he certainly left behind one hell of a legacy. Though deeply uneven, this Report Card sure had some high highs.

Long time Film Thoughts readers should know what's coming up next month. I'm hoping to get out some other short projects before You Know What starts. Until then, see ya soon.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Director Report Card: Sam Peckinpah (1978)

13. Convoy

For years, I've always assumed Sam Peckinpah ended up directing “Convoy,” a movie based on a novelty country song, because he had no other options left by 1978. A truckers-ploitation flick certainly does not seem like a project becoming of the director of “The Wild Bunch.” This is basically true, as the director really needed a hit, but is not quite the whole story. Peckinpah was offered the project while still working on “Cross of Iron.” He agreed to make the movie only if he was given complete creative control. Naturally, the trouble began almost immediately. Despite a hellish production, “Convoy” would still go on to become a hit. In fact, it is the highest grossing film of Peckinpah's entire career, making 45 million dollars and becoming the twelfth most popular film of the year.

A long-ranged trucker known as the Rubber Duck meets a photographer named Melissa on the open road. She soon agrees to ride with him. Immediately afterwards, he incurs the wrath of Sheriff Lyle Wallace, a small town cop with a grudge against truckers. After Wallace attempts to arrest Spider Mike, a fellow trucker and friend of the Duck, the truckers beat up the cop. A band of truckers – with names like Love Machine, Widow Woman, and Big Nasty – rally around Rubber Duck as he heads on the road. Soon, the truckers have formed a mighty convoy and are all being pursued by the cops.

“Convoy” is a textbook definition of a “fad” movie. The film was made to cash in on the trucker and C.B. radio craze of the late seventies. Other examples of C.B.-sploitation include the previous year's “Smokey and the Bandit,” “Breaker Breaker,” and “Handle with Care” as well as TV shows like “B.J. and the Bear” and “Movin' On.” The film, of course, is also based on C.W. McCall's novelty song of the same name, also made to cash in on the C.B. craze, making it one of the few films based on a pop hit. In fact, it's a pretty close adaptation of McCall's “Convoy.” The bear in the air, the Jimmy haulin' hogs, and the long haired Friends of Jesus and their chartreuse microbus all put in appearance. Then again, the film deviates from McCall's song by ending with a blazing machine gun and a huge explosion. That's how you can tell Sam Peckinpah directed this movie.

One of the reason C.B. radio became a fad in the seventies is do to truckers becoming something like outlaw figures, using convoys to fight the nationwide enforcement of a 55 mile-an-hour speed limit. With this in mind, it's possible to see some parallels between “Convoy” and the western archetypes Peckinpah frequently employed. If the truckers are outlaws, the Rubber Duck is a legendary figure like Billy the Kid or Jesse James (Who he's directly compared to.) Cops and other “bears” like Wallace are comparable to the sheriffs and deputies chasing the outlaws. Truck stops are like saloons. The eighteen-wheelers are like horses. Supposedly, these connections are what attracted the director to the material in the first place.

And it's fair to say that Peckinpah inserted some of his pet themes into what amounts to a rip-off of “Smokey and the Bandit.” The truckers have a special bond, due to their weird lingo and mutual disregard for authority, similar to the men-on-a-mission seen all throughout Peckinpah's filmography. They have their own form of honor as well, best displayed when they destroy a prison in order to free Spider Mike, a black trucker brutalized and arrested by the cops. That honor runs into commerce, as in “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” and “Ride the High Country,” when politicians try to cash-in on the Rubber Duck's popularity. Even in a project as demonstrably dumb as this, Peckinpah makes room for questions about brotherhood and capitalism.

Peckinpah also brought some of his visual trademarks to the table as well. The truck driver's sweaty cabs are ideal for the kind of cramped interior shots the director has employed his entire career. The slow-motion shots of violence are maintained. Instead of being saved for shots of guys being gunned down, they are used for shots of guys being slammed across truck stop bars. Or a bizarre slow-mo sequence of trucks driving through the Arizona desert, kicking up huge clouds of dust. There's also an attempt at some “Wild Bunch”-style editing, the film cutting quickly between Kristofferson's eyes and his truck crushing a barricade, but the results are just awkward.

Despite Peckinpah's many attempts to add some grit to the material, “Convoy” still comes off as an excessively corny movie. This is most apparent in the movie's sense of humor. You see it in the slow-mo truck stop brawl, where the cook and waitress make goofy comments over the fight. Borgnine's Wallace accosts a pair of teenage stoners, forcing the kids to quickly hide their pot by eating it. This results in the cop driving around in a ridiculous dragster with flames painted on the side. The cops are frequently targets of ridicule. Such as one deputy who gets stuck behind a watering truck, his windshield wipers going constantly. It's all very hammy and silly. At one point, Peckinpah even seems aware of what a bad fit this stuff is for his style, when he utilizes his trademark slow motion for a ridiculous sight: Chickens falling from a wrecked barn.

This corniness also manifests in the film's soundtrack. Naturally, McCall's titular song makes an appearance. In fact, McCall wrote and recorded a new version of his hit to accompany the song. It appears several time throughout the film, subtitles on-screen sometime directly quoting the lyrics. This is not the only campy country song on the soundtrack, as songs with titles like “Cowboys Don't Get Lucky All the Time,” “Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Blue,” and “I Cheated on a Good Woman's Love” can also be heard. Moreover, Chip Davis' score is completely ridiculous. Burning banjos and wangy mouth harps frequently score the action scenes. You'll notice these as instruments that make pretty much anything funny. 

All of these problems likely meant little to the audiences who saw “Convoy” the most. They were there to see guys driving around in fucking trucks, smashing into shit. And, yes, “Convoy” certainly delivers on that. There's several huge vehicular stunts. An eighteen-wheeler smashes through the wall of a prison, real trucks plowing into real walls. There's a totally silly, though admittedly entertaining, stunt of a car driving through a religious billboard and landing in a barn. Two trucks squeeze a police car between them. Some of the stunts weren't even planned. A shot of a truck flipping was caught on camera and Peckinpah kept it in the movie. It's all pretty neat, from a stunt work perspective.

Playing the role of McCall's Rubber Duck is Kris Kristofferson, in his third collaboration with Peckinpah. It's a part well suited to Kristofferson's abilities as an actor. Kris has a folksy charm, which makes sense for a trucker. He's able to spit the ridiculous C.B. chatter and goofy folkisms about ducks with conviction. He also brings a laconic attribute to the part, manifesting as the Duck's ambivalence to his folk hero status. I guess if someone had to bring the Rubber Duck to life, Kris was probably the best choice. Oddly, despite the amount of country music on the soundtrack, Kristofferson doesn't sing once in the movie.

Peckinpah actually fills the film with quite a few familiar faces. Ernest Borgnine, who hadn't worked with the director since “The Wild Bunch,” plays Sheriff Wallace. It's a mostly thankless role, a hard-bitten villain, but Borgnine brings some charm to the part. Ali McGraw reappears from “The Getaway,” sharing some decent romantic chemistry with Kristofferson. However, McGraw is still playing a fairly thin love interest role, fairly inessential to the plot. Paul Young, coming back from “The Killer Elite,” appears as Love Machine, A.K.A. Pig Pen, another trucker. Though Young is not the most believable cowboy, he's certainly having fun hamming it up in the role.

It's been supposed before that a movie about the production of “Convoy” would probably be more interesting than the actual film. Peckinpah feuded with producers all throughout filming, in addition to heavily abusing alcohol and cocaine. Production went over schedule, necessitating a break in filming when Kristofferson had to go on tour. Peckinaph added elements of social commentary, especially concerning police brutality against black people and politicians co-opting of social movements, into the film. This was against the wishes of the producers, who wanted a light-weight popcorn movie. His director's cut was supposedly over three hours long, serious in tone, and featured none of the songs on the soundtrack. Once again, he was locked out of the editing room, with the film's producers emphasizing comedy and action.

As fascinating as Peckinpah's intended version of “Convoy” probably would've been, I can't imagine anyone watching a 200 minute long movie based off a fucking novelty song about truckers. Despite being a potentially embarrassing oddity in Peckinpah's career, “Convoy” has become a cult classic. Tarantino stuck the Rubber Duck hood ornament in “Death Proof” and I've occasionally seen it in real life. Maybe this is because the movie is just unbelievably goofy, maybe because its story of outlaw truckers genuinely resonates with some people. Either way, it's a very silly, if occasionally very entertaining, film. [Grade: C+]

Director Report Card: Sam Peckinpah (1977)

12. Cross of Iron

As a director keenly focused on violence and masculinity, warfare is a subject Sam Peckinpah touched upon a few times throughout his career. “Major Dundee” and “The Wild Bunch” both technically belonged to the war genre, while military records were part of the back story of a few of his protagonists. Yet, before 1977, the director never touched upon modern warfare. That would all change with “Cross of Iron.” Adapted from “The Willing Flesh” by Willi Heinrich and loosely inspired by the life of Nazi officer Johann Schwerdfeger, the film would show Peckinpah putting his definitive stamp on the war genre. Like many of the director's films, it would be overlooked in its time but later reevaluated.

It's 1943 and World War II rages on. Sergeant Rolf Steiner leads a small platoon on the Eastern Front. The Germans are getting hammered by Soviet forces. Steiner and his men are completely disenfranchised from their national cause. Entering into this area is Prussian officer, Captain Stransky. An aristocrat, Stransky's greatest goal is to earn the Iron Cross. Steiner is injured following a Russian attack on their encampment. After recovering in a hospital, he returns to his platoon. Steiner then learns Stransky has lied about leading the counterattack against the Russians and is now in line to receive the Cross. Steiner refuses to support Stransky's version of events. This begins a conflict between the two men, which will last as long as the war does.

Peckinpah's no-punches-pulled depiction of violence has often been mistaken for a celebration of bloodshed. With his World War II picture, Peckinpah didn't want to leave any room for confusion. “Cross of Iron” is an anti-war movie. Its atmosphere is fittingly oppressive. The film begins with a patriotic German song, accompanied by images that could be out of a Nazi propaganda movie. The film concludes with the same song but the images are now of executions and dead bodies. As the film's story makes abundantly clear, there is no glory to be had in war. “Cross of Iron” is about blood and mud, death and disgrace. As far as atmosphere goes, it's the most brutal war movie I've ever seen.

“Cross of Iron's” plot is largely episodic, following Steiner and his men as they try to survive the war. The common thread bonding these events together is a story of class warfare among literal warfare. Back home, Stransky is an aristocrat. He joins the war effort for glory. He specially asked to be transferred from the more stable Nazi-occupied France to the violent Eastern Front so he could prove his heroics. He has no idea of, and is deeply unprepared for, the realities of war. Steiner, meanwhile, has seen too much. He immediately hates Stransky. Later, he clarifies that he hates all commanding officers, the well-to-do people that send men like him to their deaths. “Cross of Iron” shares this opinion, having nothing but disdain for the rich and powerful that profit off of war, in comparison to the actual soldiers who fights for their lives.

Peckinpah's use of violence is always uncompromising. However, “Cross of Iron” is especially grisly. During the first scene, Steiner's platoon discovers a dead child. This proceeds the platoon capturing a young Russian boy as a prisoner. Steiner takes pity on the boy and frees him, only to see the child gunned down by his own countrymen. During the following attack, a soldier is eviscerated by a blast, his disemboweled body laying on a barb wire fence. Later, we see men blown away by tanks, stabbed with bayonets, and gunned down. Peckinpah's use of slow motion – as a way to emphasize the agony of dying men, the horrors of their demises – have never been more pointed. This further builds up the movie's main theme, that there's no glory in dying.

In fact, Peckinpah only depicts one type of honor existing in the trenches. That's the camaraderie that forms between the soldiers. Steiner cares about his men and they care about him. Even after being cleared to return home, after his injury, he decides to go back to the Front instead. This is something else commanding officers like Stransky doesn't understand, as they are more preoccupied with their own honor. This element provides another layer to the story, as Steiner and his platoon are explicitly characterized as not Nazis. They are not loyal to Germany. They are only loyal to each other. So it's okay for the audience to root for them.

The consequences of war are not just depicted on the battlefield. After receiving a serious concussion during the shelling of the German encampment, Steiner awakens in a military hospital. Still shell-shocked, he suffers from hallucinations, seeing his platoon members and the dead Russian boy during a banquet. When commanding officers come to the banquet, the film's main point is visualized. An officer reaches out to shake a veteran's hand... But he doesn't have any hands, only stumps below his elbows. Steiner sees other injuries from people who were less lucky than him, such as a young man with a huge scar across his head. It's an astonishing sequence and it's easy to imagine a whole movie being made from this alone, especially with the subplot of Steiner developing a romance with his nurse.

This is not the only episode from “Cross of Iron” that could've been expanded into its own story. After Steiner's platoon is abandoned behind enemy lines, they eventually make their way to an all-female Russian detachment. What follows is a very peculiar scene. The men antagonize the women. One of the soldiers leaps into a tub with a bathing woman. Later, Steiner asks the ladies to strip, so they can change into the discarded uniforms. One of Steiner's men, an actual Nazi, attempts to assault a woman. Just when it looks like we're wandering into “Straw Dogs” territory again, the woman bites off the soldier's cock. When Steiner sees what the solider under his command has done, he locks him in with the other women, allowing them to take their revenge. The gender politics of this scene are tricky to decipher, though it eventually lands on the anti-rape side of things. It proves once again that Peckinpah's feelings towards women were complicated, being progressive in some ways and backsliding in others.

Leading the film is one of Peckinpah's favorite leading men. James Coburn, whose German accent slips fairly early in the film and never comes back, plays Steiner. It's an intense performance, Coburn inhabiting the role of a man hardened by war. Coburn's best scene occurs when asked to confirm Stransky's lies. He speaks slowly but his words drip with a subtle venom. This moment is nearly topped during the scene were Steiner confirms his hatred of all officers. Coburn is impressive throughout, running the gamut of emotions but also maintaining the hard exterior of an experienced solider.

Most of the other notable names are in the officer roles. Maximilian Schell appears as Stransky. Schell is perfectly conceited and condescending as a man more concerned with glory than the lives of those around him. Schell embodies this kind of villainy during a scene where he blackmails a homosexual soldier. James Mason, his instantly recognizable voice kind of bending into a German accent, is more sympathetic as Oberst Brandt. Mason wears a heavy brow throughout, the decisions he has to make clearly weighing on him. David Warner makes his third Peckinpah appearance as Captain Kiesel, a younger officer who faces down the horrors of war with a quiet sarcasm.

When “Cross of Iron” was released in 1977, reviews were typically mixed. One criticism leveled against the film that was fair was its length. At 133 minutes, it's the longest movie of Peckinpah's career. Several scenes perhaps go on too long. A sequence of German forces being attacked by a Russian tank definitely feels a bit excessive. The last act also feels a bit too bloated. The conflict between Steiner and Stransky is resolved, their rivalry becoming even more bitter following his return. However, the film keeps going for a while longer. Its final image – Coburn laughing madly while wildly firing a machine – is certainly unforgettable. But we probably could've gotten there a little quicker.

“Cross of Iron” was another domestic flop for Peckinpah. The same audiences that embraced “Star Wars” were probably not prepared for a war epic this grim. However, the movie did significantly better overseas. “Cross of Iron” was a German co-production, which was the country where it was most popular. A sequel, “Breakthrough,” was even produced. Richard Burton replaced Coburn as Steiner, who becomes involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler. It's hard to imagine a film as brutal as “Cross of Iron” spawning a franchise. To this day, it remains a sobering and intense watch, an uncompromising film about the wages of war. It is Peckinpah's final masterpiece. [Grade: A]

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Director Report Card: Sam Peckinpah (1975)

11. The Killer Elite 

It seems to me that most of Sam Peckinpah's movies get written about. Even relatively overlooked films of his, such as “The Deadly Companions” or “The Ballad of Cable Hogue,” have at least been talked about in the context of the director's career. Except for “The Killer Elite.” Going into this retrospective, it's the only one of Sam's films that I knew nothing about. It is easily the least discussed of his career. There might be a reason for that. Peckinpah was assigned the film by Mike Medavoy, the head of United Artists, more-or-less to prove that the notoriously difficult director could still finish a project. Which suggests the film was basically a work-for-hire gig, possibly explaining why it's so rarely discussed.

The titular killer elite is a secret division of the U.S. government assigned with assassinating enemies of the state. Their front is a company called Communications Integrity, or COMTEG. Mike Locken and George Hansen are two such agents. After a successful job, Hansen murders the man they were sent to protect and seriously injuries Locken, his friend. After recovering for a year, and now walking with a cane, Locken receives a new mission. He is to protect a Japanese client, Yuen Chung, who is being targeted by ninjas. Hansen happens to be working for the other guys, allowing Locken a chance at revenge. He puts together a team and set out on the mission.

An adaptation of “Monkey in the Middle” by Robert Syd Hopkins, Medavoy appointed Peckinpah to the project because he thought it was perfect for him. Some of Peckinpah's tendencies are present in the story. “The Killer Elite” revolves around a betrayal between best friends. Hansen shoots Locken strictly because the enemy agency offered him a higher payday. Once again, the director is touching upon the idea of men sacrificing their personal honor for a payday. Unsurprisingly, this aspect of the film is the most interesting. The friendship between the men is quickly and effectively established. When that trust is destroyed, the audience feels the sting of that treachery.

“The Killer Elite” is also a men-on-a-mission story, another classic idea Peckinpah has touched on many times throughout his career. The parts of the film dedicated to setting that mission up are fairly compelling. Watching Locken recover from his injuries is interesting enough, especially how he goes from being told he'll never walk again to learning martial arts. So is how he decides to get back into the spy game. Seeing him recruit old friends, each one having a special skill or talent, rolls along well. None of this is cutting edge stuff, or anything Peckinpah hasn't done before and better, but it serves its purpose.

After Locken gets his team together and they set off on their mission, “The Killer Elite” slowly starts to fall apart. Eventually, we discover that Hansen was paid to betray Locken by a double-crossing agent within ComTeg. The exact goals of this double-cross remains obscure. What Yuen Chung and the ninjas have to do with everything is similarly not expounded on. The film's convoluted spy narrative is sloppy, to say the least. Apparently, Peckinpah and his cast was rewriting the script as they filmed, which might explain why the story doesn't hold up to very close scrutiny.

Part of this muddled narrative is the blunt resolution to the story's main rivalry. The only part of “The Killer Elite” the viewer is really invested in is Locken getting his revenge on Hansen. The two pursue each other throughout the film. They finally face off, with about twenty minutes of the overlong 122 minute run time left. Hansen is then sniped from a distance, dying bluntly and without much fanfare. At that point, any amount of tension that existed inside “The Killer Elite” dissolves into nothing. It is another example of just how sloppy the writing in this movie is, how disinterested the filmmaker was in telling a coherent story.

Throughout his career, Peckinpah was accused of making overly violent films simply for the sake of violence. Watching his films back to back, it's evident to me that Peckinpah was actually very critical of violence, that he attempted to show the awfulness and brutality of it. With “The Killer Elite,” for the first time, I wonder if his critics were right. The movie shows the director attempting to make “cool violence.” He employs his slow-motion, murdered men falling backwards from the fatal blows. A man is shot in the head, early on, leading to a huge squip. There's a karate fight throughout an airport, with faces being shoved through glass. Yet the film is largely free of the critical streak present in Peckinpah's other films. For once, it seems the director is just making a straight ahead action movie.

This is most evident during the increasingly ludicrous climax. Locken and his team take Yuen Chung onto a retired battleship. There, the man responsible for betraying them and the enemy ninja clan attack. The ninjas, in their gray and black pajamas, look very silly. Cartoonish ninjas being gorily gunned down by machine guns is not the kind of thing I'd expect from a gritty filmmaker like Peckinpah. At the same time, some of the stiffest and least convincing martial arts fight scenes I've ever seen play out. It's clear that Peckinpah had no investment in the Asian side of the story, as he freely mixes Japanese and Chinese attributes without care.

There are even a few scenes where I think “The Killer Elite” is trying to be funny. Following a pretty neat car chase, the auto expert on Locken's team removes a bomb from their car. They are then stopped by a patrol officer. The cop ends up being handed the bomb and, greatly confused and concerned, wanders off with it. Judging from an explosion we later hear in the distance, he apparently blows up off-screen. Later, during the ninja duel to the death, Locken comments on the battle. He seems to think the entire thing is pretty silly. Those comments make me wonder if the ninja element of the film was inserted against Peckinpah's wishes, just to cash in on the martial arts craze of the day.

“The Killer Elite” stars James Caan. Caan maintains an amiable attitude throughout most of the film. He's joking in early scenes and partying with girls. Even after being injured, while attempting to recover from his wounds, he's still making jokes and goofing off. He plays Locken as someone he enjoys hanging out with his boys, no matter how grave the circumstances might be. Caan seems confused by the plot and even actively annoyed by it at times. Yet he still gives it his all, contributing a performance that is entertaining if not especially deep.

Starring opposite Caan is Robert Duvall. Well, sort of. See, Duvall's Hansen seems like he should be a pretty big role. His betrayal sets the plot in motion. He's the primary antagonist for most of the story. Yet Duvall isn't on-screen very much. That his role in the film is limited is disappointing. The early scenes, where Duvall and Caan are playing off each other, are entertaining. The two seem to have a good rapport. If the film could have built off that more, especially when time comes for the two to have their final showdown, it probably would've been improved.

At least the supporting cast is pretty awesome. Burt Young plays Mac, the car expert Locken employs. Young does not play the character that differently than his most famous role of Paulie from the “Rocky” films. This makes it seem like Pauly is hanging out with spies and assassins for some reason, which is pretty funny. Bo Hopkins, reappearing from “The Wild Bunch” and “The Getaway,” plays Jerome. A psycho-for-hire who's very good with a gun, Hopkins is having fun hamming it up. Mako plays Yuen Chung, a Japanese ninja with a Chinese name. Even in a part as underwriten as this, Mako brought a certain degree of respectability to the role.

I have no idea how “The Killer Elite” did at the box office. Considering the zero impact it made on wider pop culture, I'm going to guess its performance was uninspiring. The critical reception was largely negative, though Japanese director Shinji Aoyama considers it one of the best films ever made. Even the people who made the movie didn't like it, as James Caan considers it one of his worst films. Peckinpah was forced to recut the movie to receive a PG rating, a process I can't imagine the director enjoyed. (The R-rated version is the only one that's easily available now.) The film is a bit of a mess. However, it presumably proved that Peckinpah could still complete a film, ensuring he would make a few more movies. So that's good, I guess. [Grade: C-]

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Director Report Card: Sam Peckinpah (1974)

10. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia

The root of “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia” began in 1970, during the production of “The Ballad of Cable Hogue.” Frank Kowalski presented Sam Peckinpah with the title and the premise. The director kicked the script around for several years. The fallout of “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” turned out to be the perfect time to make it. It would be another Peckinpah film that would be largely misunderstood upon release. Roger Ebert considered it one of the best films of all time. The Medveds considered it one of the worst. Audiences ignored it. Over the next few decades, it would become one of the director's most enduring cult classic.

A Mexican crime boss known only as El Jefe discovers that his daughter is pregnant. After she is tortured, she reveals the name of the man responsible: Alfredo Garcia. Jefe puts a million dollar bounty on Garcia's head and just his head. When hitmen begin snooping around his bar for leads, down-on-his-luck piano player Bennie decides to pursue Alfredo himself. He believes the money could change his life and drags his girlfriend, Elita, along with him. And thus a journey into Hell begins.

Peckinpah claimed “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia” was his most satisfying film, the one that most matched his vision for it. Perhaps this is because the film is obviously the director's most personal work. Bennie is clearly based on Peckinpah himself. He's a self-destructive alcoholic who sacrifices his own honor in pursuit of a big payday. He struggles against authority along the way and manages to screw it all up, partially out of a self-sabotaging instinct. As more of his life falls apart, he becomes more unhinged. It's very easy to spot parallels between the protagonist, his journey, and the director's own life. “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia” inhabits the nihilistic, self-hating world of its director. The film is a sweaty, blood and booze soaked journey through a self-interrogating Hell. The destination is catharsis but, pointedly, not redemption.

It's fitting that Warren Oates, one most of the director's most frequent collaborators, would star in such a personal project. Oates supposedly pattern his performance after the director, wearing Sam's trademark sunglasses throughout most of the film. It's easily among the veteran's actor's best performances. Bennie has a likable veneer. When we first see him, playing piano and shooting the shit, he seems like a down-to-earth guy. He's even playful at times. As his quest becomes more self-destructive, as he looses what he loves the most, an anger and entitlement creeps into Oates' performance. This quickly sours into an even uglier pathetic quality. By the end, Bennie is constantly drunk to drown out the horrible regrets. It's an unhinged and impressive performance from Oates.

What makes Bennie's courtship of death and destruction tragic is that it didn't have to be this way. His relationship with Elita is beautifully lived-in. Their scenes together have a natural, deeply intimate feeling. They joke around together, playfully teasing each other in bed. They have many peaceful moments together, such as driving down the road or enjoying each other's company under a tree. The two seem to compliment each other. Isela Vega is extremely good in the role. She seems totally comfortable with the material, having an easy and natural chemistry with Oates.

And he throws it all away for money. The conflict between personal honor and capitalism has certainly cropped up in Peckinpah's films before. Like men selling out long-standing friendships for gold in “Ride the High Country” and “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.” In “Alfredo Garcia,” the pursuit of riches is nothing less than self-destructive. Elita criticizes Bennie's goal of digging up Garcia's body, considering the desecration of a grave an act of sacrilege.  But Bennie persists. By the time he has acquired Garcia's head, and lost an awful lot because of it, he begins to actively question why this man's life was worth the death of so many others. Which, when compared to the lust with which Bennie once pursued the award, can only come off as self-critical. Having lost everything, Bennie is questioning his own greed. But it's too late now to really make a difference.

Another reoccurring element throughout Sam Peckinpah's films is the casual way men abuse women. This forms a part of “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia” as well. It begins early, when El Jefe stripes his daughter and has her tortured. A hit man slaps a waitress to the floor in Bennie's bar. A group of bikers corner Bennie and Elita, one of them taking the woman off with the intention to rape her. Bennie kills the assailants, seemingly more because they've hurt his pride than because Elita is in danger, as the woman seems oddly serene about the situation. Even minor interactions, like when a hotel manager assumes Elita is a prostitute, can be read by this theme. The movie's entire plot is sent in motion because a man believes he can control a woman's sexuality. All the violence is a side-effect of the mistreatment of women by short-sighted, power-hungry men.

“Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia” was filmed and produced entirely in Mexico, which Peckinpah found to be a very freeing experience. He was determined to capture Mexico as he knew it on camera. The result is probably the grimiest version of Mexico ever put to screen. Every surface in the film is seemingly covered with dirt. Bennie passes through small villages, composed of homemade buildings in dirt fields. The hotel Bennie and Elita visits barely seems to be standing in. Peckinpah was not exaggerating, as the film was largely shot in real locations. He doesn't dehumanize or disrespect the people who live in these places. However, all the locations were picked seemingly to emphasize the deteriorating nature of the protagonist's mind.

This is also apparent in the increasing absurdity of the film's second half. After Elita's death, Bennie starts to drink more and the film grows stranger. He carries Alfredo's head around with him. He often converses with the decapitated cranium, calling it “Al,” and treating it like a friend.  He takes it with him everywhere, determined to personally deliver it to El Jefe. As two separate Letterboxd reviewers have pointed out, he seemingly takes the head onto an airplane with him. Yet that's not the only strange behavior put on-screen. The hit men pursuing Bennie are seemingly in a homosexual relationship, an odd sight in Peckinpah's hyper-macho world. One of Bennie's contacts surrounds himself with fawning women in bikinis while reading a magazine with Richard Nixon on the cover. Some of these surreal images even seemed to be played for comedy. Following a shoot-out on a Mexican hill, one old man is left standing, his hands up the entire time.

As originally written, Bennie was to survive the film. During filming, Peckinpah changed his mind. Instead, Bennie murders El Jefe on his daughter's order. He then drives off and is gunned down in a hail of machine gun fire. Bennie has nothing else to live for, having lost his love and delivered the head. His mission – to make the man truly responsible for this bloodshed pay – is complete. His self-destructive journey has reached its inevitable conclusion. The film's final image is a close-up of the guard's gun barrel, spitting fiery death until it comes to a stop. It's among the most haunting endings in Peckinpah's entire career.

So there's an almost dream-like quality to parts of “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia.” In this context, the director's trademark slow motion takes on a new quality. Now, as gunned-down men fall into their death throes in slow-mo, it takes on an oddly balletic quality. There may be no honor in death but there is an odd beauty. Aside from the trademark slo-mo, of which there's quite a bit, “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia” also features another Peckinpah trademark: Cramped and isolated interiors. Almost every building in the film, even churches and the large mansion where El Jefe lives, have a sweaty and uncomfortable quality to them. The rolling vistas of his Westerns, which this movie sort of is, are long gone. This is a more uncomfortable visual experiences.

As it's mostly focused on Bennie and Elita, the film does not have a large supporting cast. However, a few faces pop out. Emilio Fernandez plays El Jefe. Speaking very little English, Fernandez still manages to make the character intimidating, a man that blusters and rages in a frightening fashion when he doesn't get his way. Gig Young as Quill, one of the two gay hit men hunting Bennie. Apparently the choice to make the couple lovers was Young's and it certainly adds a new dimension to what probably would've been undistinguished villain roles otherwise. Lastly, Kris Kristofferson has a small part as the biker who attempts to rape Elita. As in “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid,” Kristofferson hides a threatening energy underneath a charming smile, which works well for this small role.

“Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia” would be another box office failure for Sam Peckinpah. However, the movie has since made its mark. First off, the awesome title has been referenced and parodied countless times over the years. Secondly, it's now frequently regarded as one of the director's best movie. By going to a very personal place, and allowing himself to get a little strange, Peckinpah create a singularly powerful motion picture experience. It's probably my favorite of his movies, a true cult classic and a bold personal statement. [Grade: A]

Monday, August 27, 2018

Director Report Card: Sam Peckinpah (1973)

9. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid

Sam Peckinpah's self-destructive streak insured that a pattern emerged over his career. He would direct a film that was a commercial success, causing a studio to take a chance on the infamously hell-raising filmmaker. Production on his next movie would be a disaster, Bloody Sam returning to his old ways, resulting in a box office disappointment. For example: The record breaking “The Getaway” was followed by “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.” During filming, Sam feuded with the president of MGM and drank too much. The film, of course, took too long to shoot and cost too much to make. It was taken away from the director in post-production and re-edited. The version released to theaters was poorly received by critics and audiences. Only after Peckinpah's director's cut emerged years later did “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” get reevaluated. 

In 1909, former New Mexico Sheriff Pat Garrett is assassinated. Twenty years earlier, Garrett was friends with William Bonney, otherwise known as the outlaw Billy the Kid. In the aftermath of the Cattle Wars, Garrett was made into a sheriff of New Mexico. He was tasked with hunting down the Kid, his former friend. After Billy escapes imprisonment, a manhunt ensued across the state. Garrett and his crew chase after Billy and his gang, both parties making friends and causing bloodshed as they go. Eventually, the two former friends meet again in Roswell for one last time.

Sam Peckinpah's first five movies were westerns, forever associating the director with the American genre. By 1973, the director had taken a break from oaters, his last three films being in more contemporary genres. “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” would be his last proper Western. The film would be his definitive statement on his often revisited theme of the death of the West. The cattle barons and authority figures are attempting to bring order to the West, meaning untamable outlaws like Billy must die. When the Kid is killed, it's not just the West that goes with him but also a very American form of honor and camaraderie. Garrett's mission has him betraying his friend for strictly capitalistic reasons.  This makes Peckinpah's ruminations on the death of the West far more personal than in his previous films.

Another reoccurring aspects of Peckinpah's films were two men, usually old friends, going on one last mission together. They are always weighed down by their mutual nostalgia, as well as their regrets and mistakes. This becomes more of a fabric of the story than ever before with “Pat Garrett.” As the two men journey towards each other, both encounter old friends and enemies. It's almost as if they are tracking back through their own pasts. Yet there's very little bittersweet about this journey. The regrets have soured into something more bitter, Pat and Billy's trek becoming more indulgent and self-destructive as they go along. Which is fitting for a film as much about the death of friendship as the death of Billy the Kid.

The film's use of violence fits into this theme as well. More so than ever before, Peckinpah emphasizes the uselessness and hollowness of bloodshed. This is most apparent in a scene where Billy stops by an old friend's house for dinner. One of Garrett's deputies just happens to also be there. After eating, the two step outside for a duel. The other man miscounts and Billy shoots him dispassionately. It's a totally senseless death, having no real reason to occur and little affect on the story. You see this again in a sequence where another friend of Billy's is found tortured, his skin bloodied and slashed. Many men die throughout “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” and none for a good reason. Maybe there's never a good reason for anyone to be killed.

Another topic Peckinpah has repeatedly touched upon is the way men abuse women. The male protagonists of “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” often mistreat the women around them. In an early scene, Garrett argues with his wife before leaving on his mission. He does not respect her opinion. On the path towards locating Billy, he meets and violently interrogates a prostitute. Afterwards, he sleeps with several of the women in the brothel. The camera lingers in this sequence, drawing attention to the excesses of Garrett's action. Many of the women in the film are prostitutes, the men using them without care for their feelings. When non-working girls appear, they're usually loyal wives who questioned their husband's violent ways but are ignored.

Peckinpah hoped “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” would be his definitive statement on the Western genre. He would re-team with his “Straw Dogs” cinematographer, John Coquillon, in order to achieve a visual presentation that was a cross between the classical widescreen western presentation and Peckinpah's grittier aesthetic. The cramped interiors frequently present in Peckinpah's films reappear here, in the bars and brothels and small houses the characters call home. This is in contrast to the wide and flat vistas that also appear throughout, that classical western imagery. This combination gives us a look at both versions of the west, the one of legend and the grittier, deconstructionist angle.

The film would allow Peckinpah to re-team with one of his favorite leading men. James Coburn, last seen in “Major Dundee,” plays Pat Garrett. Coburn is well cast in the role. He plays Garrett in a multi-layered way. The first shoot-out between Pat and Billy has an almost playful quality, as if the two old friends are toying with each other. As Garrett continues on his quest, he butts heads with the money men in charge, compromising his honor but attempting to hold onto it. As the story progresses, more and more joy goes out of Coburn's eyes. Garrett's weariness becomes more and more a part of the character. He exits the film chased by a child throwing rocks, the world around him recognizing Garrett for the traitor he is.

Starring in the other title role is Kris Kristofferson. This was only Kristofferson's third proper film role and he was still best known as a musician at the time. One of the stars of outlaw country and the director of the grittiest westerns were an awfully good fit. Kristofferson plays the Kid as a mischievous hellraiser at first, who almost commits murder like it's a game. However, he also proves to be a man of odd principals. As chaotic and bloody as Billy's quest is, he's his own man. Kristofferson is very well suited to this part, being equal parts charming while embodying the character's wild spirit.

“Pat Gerritt and Billy the Kid” is also among the few Peckinpah films that could be called epics. The cast is fittingly large. Many recognizable faces, many of them Peckinpah regulars, appear in small roles. Slim Pickins has a small but unforgettable part as the ill-fitted sheriff that briefly joins Pat Gerrit's journey. Jason Robards appears as Governor Lew Wallace, bringing his distinctive voice and odd sense of authority to the shifty part. A young Harry Dean Stanton has a brief part as a member of Billy's gang. Lastly, Peckinpah regulars L.Q. Jones and R.G. Armstrong also show up as an untrustworthy gangster and a self-righteous deputy.

Also among the supporting cast is Bob Dylan, making his feature acting debut as Alias, a mysterious blacksmith that joins Billy's gang. Dylan's quiet, somewhat stilted performance suits the odd character. Dylan, naturally, also contributes several songs to the soundtrack. Among them is “Knockin' on Heaven's Door,” which memorably plays during Pickins' death scene. This, of course, would become one of Dylan's trademark songs. The song's haunting melody and thoughtful lyrics work beautifully in that moment. Dylan's main theme song, several different versions of which play throughout the film, isn't as immediately memorable. However, his particular voice and meaningful words, which transform in meaning through the movie, still work just fine.

Three versions of the film exists. The version released in theaters in 1973, that Peckinpah asked to have his name taken off of, runs 106 minutes. Which is quite a bit shorter than any of the other versions. Unless you dig up a VHS release from the eighties, this cut of the film is now hard to find. More commonly seen is the Turner Preview Version and the 2005 Special Edition. The Preview Version is a rough director's cut, assembled as a preview for the studio. This is the version Peckinpah would show friends for years. The 2005 Special Edition was assembled for the DVD release by Peckinpah scholar and experienced editor Paul Seydor. I watched both versions for this review.

While the Preview Version is the only one we can consider truly definitive, as it's the only version available actually cut by Peckinpah, I do like some of the choices Seydor's cut makes. Such as the inclusion of the scene with Garrett's wife or using the complete version of “Knockin' on Heaven's Door.” Seydor also switched around a few scenes and shortened some others. None of these choices really affect the flow or pacing of the film much. Seydor's most unusual cut is removing the final scene of Garret's death, reducing bookends to just a cold open, and making some questionable decisions during the opening credits. But both versions of the film are good and they are similar enough that you're not missing too much watching one or the other.

Considering its often tinkered with status, over the years, “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” acquired the reputation as Peckinpah's lost masterpiece. Since we never truly got to see the director's ideal version, it's hard to rank the film definitively within Peckinpah's career. However, in its current version, the movie still makes an impact. It's a crystallization of many of the themes Peckinpah explore throughout his career, with many wonderful and moving moments, a strong soundtrack, and a well utilized cast. It is clearly among his best films. [Grade: A-]

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Director Report Card: Sam Peckinpah (1972) Part Two

8. The Getaway

After the non-performance of “Junior Bonner,” both Steve McQueen and Sam Peckinpah needed a hit. McQueen's next film was to be “The Getaway,” based on the classic crime novel by Jim Thompson. Peter Bogdanovich was originally attached to direct but left the project before filming began. Eager to work with Peckinpah again, McQueen would offer the director the script, which had been re-written by Walter Hill. Filming would begin only a few weeks after “Junior Bonner” wrapped, the two projects being released within the same year. While critics weren't impressed, audiences loved it. “The Getaway” would be a big hit, eventually becoming one of the highest grossing movies of 1972.

Professional thief Doc McCoy is serving a ten year prison sentence. His wife, Carol, sleeps with a politically influential crime boss, Jack Benyon, to ensure Doc's early release. In return, Doc is expected to rob a bank for Benyon. After an attempted double-crossing, Doc and Carol kill Benyon. They go on the road with the million dollars they stole from the bank, headed for the Mexican border. Soon, the couple are pursued by the cops and Benyon's enforcers. There also being chased by Ruby, the only other survivor of the robbery, who is determined to settle his personal score with Doc.

Though based on a novel from the fifties, “The Getaway” feels like a neo-noir befitting the seventies. It begins as a heist movie and observes the rules of that genre.  The robbers laid down a plan but it quickly goes wrong. There's plenty of double-crosses and back-stabbings after that. From that point on, “The Getaway” morphs into a road trip movie with an urgent and downbeat energy. The characters are on the road but it's an ugly journey. This, combined with the typically nihilistic Peckinpah violence, creates an atmosphere of existential grief. “The Getaway” is a movie where the character's action frequently feel morally bankrupt. The good guys are bad and the bad guys are really bad.

Based on what we know about its production history, it's easy to assume “The Getaway” was basically a work-for-hire job for Peckinpah. Yet Sam was supposedly a fan of Thompson's novel and the two's themes feed into each. “The Getaway” begins as something like a men-on-a-mission flick, though that quickly goes wrong. Like “The Wild Bunch” and “The Deadly Companions,” it's a story that begins with a bank robbery. With its story of revenge and outlaws on the run, it's not impossible to think of “The Getaway” as a western in disguise. It's even set in Texas, features a few cowboy hats, and concludes in Mexico. (Slim Pickins appears at the last minute too, as if to confirm the film's western roots.) I know it's a cliché to say every film is secretly a western but the shoe seems to fit especially well on this one.

For me, “The Getaway” is most successful as a thriller. From its earliest scenes, there's an uneasy atmosphere in the film. As they prepare the heist, you can already tell that the men around Doc are going to betray him. When this inevitably happens, the tension does not let up. Instead, the couple only encounters more inconveniences on their journey.  The occasional bursts of violence, explosive as they are, are only temporary releases. More screws are put to the two antiheroes, their trip growing nastier and uglier, and the tension does not abate. “The Getaway” is just as tense as “Straw Dogs” and maybe more downbeat at times.

Despite an at-times oppressively dark atmosphere, “The Getaway” is still most remembered as an action movie. It definitely features some surprisingly big action beats for the time. There's two surprisingly massive explosions early in the film, one occurring on the road. This proceeds a series of car stunts, Doc's vehicle weaving in and out of traffic and finally crashing into the patio of a home. It's not as impressive as the car chase in “Bullett” but it's still pretty cool. Doc's shotgun roars throughout the second half. A shoot-out begins at a drive-in restaurant, glass shattering and vehicles colliding. The film's climax is an increasingly bloody shoot-out in a crowded apartment, doors splintering and bodies flailing. The action is certainly viscerally directed and it's easy to see why it made an impression on audiences in 1972.

Sam's direction is a big contributor to the action scenes being so powerful. Naturally, he employs quite a bit of his trademark slow motion. Once again, this causes the moments of violence to make more of an impression on the viewer. Slow-mo car crashes or someone falling backwards from gun fire will never not look cool. Even when Doc turns his shotgun on a stationary police car, completely tearing it apart with the blast, Peckinpah slows down the point of impact. Of course, the director doesn't just do this because it's neat. The slow motion emphasizes the ultimate empty feeling behind the violence, the senselessness of the crimes, adding to “The Getaway's” grim tone.

The film's commercial success can likely be attributed to Steve McQueen's star power. As a performance, “The Getaway's” Doc is both similar and different to McQueen's previous roles. Similar in that, once again, he's playing a blue-eyed and stoic tough guy. His ability for violence and divisive action is hidden behind calm expressions and an effortless sense of cool. At the same time, Doc is far rougher than McQueen's usually heroic characters. He's an unabashed criminal. He's impulsive and, with the way he lashes out, even seemingly unhinged at times. There's even a scene where he slaps Carol around, revealing how rough he's truly capable of getting. It's interesting to see McQueen both subvert and play his star image straight so many times within the same movie.

No matter how rough he can get with her, the romance between McQueen's Doc and Ali MacGraw's Carol is another plus in the film's favor. McQueen and MacGraw, who was married to super-producer Robert Evans at the time, fell in love during filming. So their on-screen chemistry is genuine. It is not an easy love. When Doc discovers Carol slept with Benyon, his faith in her is shattered. The two spend quite a few scenes on-edge, uncertain of their future. However, they eventually reconcile. As ugly as “The Getaway's” world is, the couple's love is always depicted as something pure and good. This unashamed romantic side makes you willing to root for the couple, no matter how violent their actions make become.

“The Getaway” has a hell of a beginning. Everything leading up to the heist, and the immediate aftermath, is excellent. After that, once the titular getaway actually begins, the film's pacing becomes hugely uneven. There's exciting moments, like the destruction of the police car or the climatic shoot-out in the hotel. This contrast against scenes that drag badly. Like a long sequence where Doc and Carol hide inside a garbage truck for an entire night. Or another drawn-out scene where the money is stolen and Doc has to ride another train to retrieve it. In fact, there are way too many scenes of the protagonists sitting on trains or in cars, getting from one location to the next.

This odd pacing is most apparent in the film's bizarre subplot. Rudy survives being shot by Doc. He breaks into the home of a veterinarian and forces the man to tend to his wounds. At the same time, he seduces the doctor's younger wife. At this point, the three go on a road trip, following Doc and his money. Rudy and the girl, Fran, mess around and sleep together, while the doctor is tortured and forced to watch. Many of these scenes feel very long, such as a sequence of Rudy eating ribs in the car that quickly shifts from playful to violent. These scenes, with their casual brutality, just break up the flow of the story. I don't know why the film spends so much time on them.

Originally, Peckinpah commissioned his usual composer, Jerry Fielding, to provide the music for “The Getaway.” McQueen was unimpressed with Fielding's work and hired Quincy Jones to deliver a funkier score. Jones' soundtrack is eclectic. Harmonica is featured all throughout the movie, providing an odd and nostalgic energy to much of the music. The action scenes are often proceeded by a janglier and more funky bassline, giving a certain energy to these scenes. The most famous piece of music from the film seems to the reoccurring love theme, which is slower than most of the score and suggests just as much melancholy and romantic longing between the leads.

Production on “The Getaway” was – you might notice a trend by now – difficult. His alcoholism renewed, Peckinpah was frequently intoxicated during filming. This would lead to several conflicts with McQueen. During post-production, the star would re-edit the film to make himself look better. This is probably why the two never worked together again. Despite the behind-the-scenes turmoil and critical rejection, the film's success would raise both McQueen and Peckinpah's boats. In time, “The Getaway” would be reevaluated as a classic crime flick and one of the best action films of the seventies. (That classic status would be confirmed when the film received a mediocre remake in 1994.) Though it's got some noticeable pacing problems, it's definitely an effective and entertaining film. [Grade: B]

Friday, August 24, 2018

Director Report Card: Sam Peckinpah (1972) Part One

7. Junior Bonner

“Straw Dogs” was controversial and that controversy attracted a lot of attention from moviegoers. The film was a financial hit. Sam Peckinpah was once again bankable. As he previously did with “The Wild Bunch” and “The Ballad of Cable Hogue,” the director would follow-up a violent box office success with a more low-key film. “Junior Bonner” would unite the director with Steve McQueen, one of the biggest stars of the decade. However, poor marketing and a limited release meant the film would grab little attention. In the years since, “Junior Bonner” has been reassessed as an idiosyncratic film from one of the cinema's most famous raconteurs.

The titular character is Junior “JR” Bonner. A rodeo rider, Bonner travels the country, riding bulls and broncos at various county fairs all across America. Following an injury, he's broke. As the Fourth of July approaches, he returns home to Arizona. His brother, Curly, is a successful businessman and recently sold the family ranch to a real estate company. His father, Ace, is a cowboy like Junior. He's also an alcoholic, a braggart, and a conman who currently dreams of moving to Australia. His mother, Elvira, is estranged with both her sons and her husband. As the family drama plays out around him, Bonner dreams of getting back onto the bull.

Once again, on the surface, “Junior Bonner” looks like a notable change of pace for Peckinpah. There's no shoot-outs, bursts of blood, or slow-motion death scenes. Instead, the film is a slow paced and low-key character study. The film is mostly composed of its characters sitting around and talking. As in “Cable Hogue,” there are even instances of broad comedy. However, a deeper look reveals that “Junior Bonner” deals with many of the same themes the director has touched upon in the past.

Firstly, the film is a western of sorts. With its cowboys, horse riding, and Arizona setting, it would be impossible not to make that comparison. However, “Junior Bonner' is not so much about the mythic death of the American West. That legend is long dead by the time the story starts. The Bonner family ranch being turned into a trailer park – the conflict of which is shown early on, when Junior's car faces off with a bulldozer – is just the latest example of western legends facing off against modern commerce. Junior and his dad are anachronisms, adherents of a practically extinct lifestyle. The Bonner men's love of the ridin' and ropin' world is directly at odds with the world around them, the main source of conflict in the film. This is not too different from how “The Wild Bunch” or “Ride the High Country” depicted bandits and gunfighters racing off towards their own annihilation. Peckinpah often focuses on men out of step with their own time, aware that the world has little use for them. “Junior Bonner” is just a more mellow story about this same subject.

It's also a story about family. The brotherly bond between tough guys on long missions is another reoccurring element of Peckinpah's films. “Junior Bonner's” more literal blood bond is similar to this as well. Curly's ability to adapt to the modern world puts him in conflict with Junior, the two eventually coming to blows over it. The elder Bonner is a rascal, who's hellraising ways has alienated most of the people around him. Despite that, his wife can't quite let go of her feelings for him. They all have their differences. Yet they are bonded together, by blood and by experiences. This makes even their positive interactions tinged with melancholy, the hurtful memories hard to ignore, but family is still family. The film successfully captures that bittersweet feeling.

Since the film's western heroes have no outlaws to chase or banks to rob, they have to rope calves and ride bulls instead. This places “Junior Bonner” into a genre far more unexpected from Peckinpah: The inspirational sports movie. Junior's adversary at the rodeo is a feisty bull named Sunshine. The bull injuries him at the film's beginning. Near the end, he gets a rematch with the bunking bruiser. It's rare for Peckinpah's heroes to succeed. Yet Junior manages to best Sunshine on his second go-around, sitting atop the bull. The underdog besting the odds and claiming their long-sought prize is pretty common in sports movies though. This odd fusion of approaches ends up working pretty well. If nothing else, Junior has earned his win, after so much failure.

Steve McQueen and Sam Peckinpah are a good match. McQueen's brand of heroism is classically stoic but combined with a more post-modern, and thoroughly seventies, sense of cynicism. “Junior Bonner” is not an action movie, not really, but McQueen brings many of those same qualities to the role. JR usually doesn't say much. The film turns McQueen's trademark quiet act in a different direction. This time, McQueen's soulful blue eyes expresses the character's inner sadness and his nostalgia for a long-passed time. The star's rogue-like charm and rakish grin is also well utilized for a man holding onto whatever fading glory he has left. It's easy to see why Junior thinks of himself as a star, even if that stardom is short-lived and quickly falling out of his reach. It's a good performance from McQueen, who makes the character likable and soulful mostly with his body language and what he doesn't say.

As good as McQueen is, Robert Preston steals the show from him. The former Music Man plays Ace Bonner. Ace is a rowdy fellow. At the film's beginning, he's in the hospital. Being pinned in like this does not suit Ace, so he gripes and hits on his nurse and ultimately leaves early. Soon, he's drinking too much, stealing horses, and crashing local parades. Yet Ace still feels pinned out by the changing world, which is why he seeks the seemingly wild countryside of Australia. Despite his negative qualities, Preston makes the character incredibly charming. He has a big smile and is seemingly always having a good time. It's easy to see why Ace has made so many friends but also why he's alienated most of them over the years.

The rest of the Bonner family is no less defiant. Ida Lupino plays mother Elvira as a strong-willed woman. She learned long ago that the men in her life, including her sons, are always going to do whatever they want. Yet she also projects a sense of warmth, someone who is lovable despite the hardships they've faced. Joe Don Baker, who really seems like he should've worked with Peckinpah more often, appears as Curly, the more successful Bonner brother. Baker also had a fabulous shit-eating grin, managing to make Curly a charming good ol' boy with a keen business acumen. Also watch for smaller roles from Ben Johnson, as a businessman giving offers to Bonner, and Charles H. Gray, as JR's steely rodeo rival.

As a comedy, “Junior Bonner” is a lot less broad than “The Ballad of Cable Hogue.” There's no wacky, sped-up slapstick here. However, the film still got a few laughs out of me. The funniest  sequence in the film occurs near the end. JR ends up starting a rowdy fight at a bar. However, he quickly ducks out, to make kissy-faces at a rodeo groupie. Meanwhile, the fight goes on until the confused band begins to play the national anthem. At which point, the brawl pauses so the cowboys can take off their hats and stand at attention. That's a pretty amusing observation about life in the deep south.

Another decision added to “Junior Bonner's” particular charm. Peckinpah actually filmed the movie in Prescott, Arizona. He would cast many of the town locals in background parts. You can see these folks during the parade, the rodeos, and the bar fight at the end. This adds to the movie's sense of location, making “Junior Bonner's” setting seem more alive and lived in. It also adds a feeling of color. Prescott feels like a real place, with local characters who get into scrapes and adventures all their own.

“Junior Bonner” is most obviously a Peckinpah movie in the director's themes. However, you can occasionally see his visual style emerge. There's no slow motion shoot-outs but shots of the director's favorite tactic is employed during the bull-riding sequence. It actually helps stretch out the suspense during the climatic ride, as it makes you wander if Bonner will successfully best Sunshine. Peckinpah's fast-paced editing is also apparent during a montage, devoted to showing numerous other guys get tossed around by bulls. The camera quickly cuts between the spills, the bucking, and the flashing ride light the signals the end of the round.

Rather improbably, “Junior Bonner” had the bad luck to be released around the same time as several other rodeo-themed movies. The film was released within months of “J.W. Coop,” “The Honkers,” and “When the Legend Dies.” I guess bull riding, for whatever reason, experienced a brief popularity in the early seventies. When combined with a misleading advertising campaign, which sold the movie as a typical Steve McQueen action flick, the low-key “Junior Bonner” got lost in the shuffle. Since then, “Junior Bonner” has been taken in the context of Peckinpah's career. It was the last of his quiet films and it remains a charming, funny, and oddly sweet motion picture. [Grade: B]