Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Minor Dundee

After rewatching Major Dundee recently because I had never seen the restoration on it (TCM aired the so-called producer’s cut in November 2019), I’m not convinced that the restored scenes help clarify many of the plot loopholes people used to complain about. Sam Peckinpah still loses control of the material about halfway through, despite the undeniable power of individual scenes and set pieces, although the full cut makes the movie seem less like a studio hatchet job than it used to seem. Peckinpah was inebriated most of the time during the shooting, according to Charlton Heston, so it isn’t surprising that he was unable to exert a hang-together coherence over his script (the well-made play format was never his strength as a director, anyway). Written largely on the fly after production began, it’s brilliant in patches but also meandering and overreaching.
Man with a mission. Charlton Heston

When you watch Dundee from 1965, you see the burn in Peckinpah’s molten vision 
— the deconstruction of Old West fables — but you also feel the bleary result onscreen of Peckinpah’s confusion with the Melvillean morality play of obsession. It seems as if the whole sordid path of Peckinpah’s infamously self-destructive career is bottled up in this movie.

Some of the actors pull through with career-defining performances: Charlton Heston, James Coburn, and Warren Oates (in his big capture scene, his crafty deserter demands his life rather than pleads for it). One shot of the troops crossing a river in the fog rivals Kurosawa for kinetic majesty, but other scenes — especially of festive, cavorting peasants (their dancing and eating are framed in atrociously noble terms) or of speechless young lovers — are stultifying. How drunk do you have to be to copy so little of Kurosawa’s best and so much of John Ford’s worst?

Thursday, July 9, 2020

True Gold and Fool’s Gold

The biggest flaw in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), one of the Hollywood studio system’s mysteriously wrought miracles (the mystery is how people of exceptional talent were occasionally able to beat back the deadening forces of a mass-market industry and bring personality and vision to the screen), is a flaw that really doesn’t affect your enjoyment of a damn good movie. Sierra Madre is a superb adventure picture, but the character transitions (largely in Humphrey Bogart’s Fred C. Dobbs) from decency and generosity to greed and sociopathy seem a little forced and abrupt. These dramatic transitions occur in five or six specific scenes in which two characters confront each other—Dobbs and Howard (Walter Huston), Dobbs and Curtin (Tim Holt), and occasionally Howard and Curtin, who, in a scene of comedy that rises to classic French farce, eye each other warily from their bed rolls at night as they take turns getting up to “check on the burros.” In fact, the movie is better at dramatizing Dobbs’s cynicism and violence in the opening scenes, in the way he interacts with the Mexican boy (Robert Blake) trying to repeatedly sell him a lottery ticket and the work overseer McCormick (Barton MacLane, in an oily, great performance). With premonitory irony, Dobbs whips around on the young boy and yells, “Get away from me, you little beggar,” only to walk up to a mysterious tourist in white (John Huston) and ask three times for a handout. The movie is filled with a number of sophisticated layers of irony; the story’s richest veins are mostly comedic, not mineral.

Once Dobbs, Howard, and Curtin are out in the wilderness on their trek for gold, the action is handled beautifully by the script, which doesn’t freight the story with premonitions of catastrophe like a ponderous Robert E. Sherwood play—whose style Hollywood often mistook for depth—but instead adds casual, comic ebullience to scenes so that the audience isn’t tipped off to expect failure early on.

But back to the flaw: the script mishandles the character transformations, and the movie perhaps overemphasizes this theme and becomes more of a position paper than an adventure story. The theme—of a seed of barely suppressed greed slowly sprouting deep within a character’s psyche, nourished by the desolate environment—strikes me as too insistent. Instead of the measured, insidious spread of greed across the picture, Huston and the script give us brief exchanges of dialogue in which one man says something reasonably “innocent” but is immediately misconstrued by his partner, whose face scrunches up with too-sudden animosity. You know what the movie is trying to dramatize, obviously, but you see the grinding mechanics of overinsistent dialogue spoil the believability of the effect, which not even a John Huston at the top of his game can make fully convincing. 

One other, very minor, flaw is the bandit attack on the train. The action inside the railroad car seems unsteady, not timed quite right—the rhythm a little off. It’s a shoot-’em-up that looks under-rehearsed. I couldn’t help thinking that John Ford would have aced the scene.

Character disintegration. Humphrey Bogart and Walter Huston
The story goes that the original scene of Dobbs’s death was much more graphic than what the censors allowed in the movie—that Huston filmed the decapitation and you saw the murdered man’s head roll into a muddy watering hole. I wish that recent restorations of the film for home video would restore that scene because, knowing Huston, it was probably a macabre, witty comment on the greed theme of Dobbs losing his head.

These flaws are quibbles. To paraphrase perhaps the movie’s clearest-eyed fan, James Agee, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is bursting with energy and intelligence and talent. The performances—even the minor performances, like the barber (who snips and trims with panache and self-satisfaction at his grooming skill while toweling Dobbs’s face)—benefit from Huston’s economy and clear eye. Part of an effective screen performance is where the camera is situated, and Huston and his cameraman, Ted D. McCord, keep the camera where it belongs; the best adventure movies of the era excelled at action sequences, not exchanges of dialogue, but Sierra Madre is equally great at both. The camera angle, slightly askew and off to one side in closeup, adds both lyricism and naturalism to the exchange between Walter Huston and Jack Holt in the flophouse. In scene after scene, the action unfolds beautifully, and inspiration is abundant everywhere, from the jig that Howard dances in front of a disbelieving Dobbs and Curtin to the terrifically tense interactions with James Cody (Bruce Bennett) and the bandit honcho Gold Hat (Alfonso Bedoya), whose grotesquely grinning face and crooked teeth have become one of the iconic images in movie history. Bedoya and his idiot posse unknowingly dump the gold all over the desert floor, but they’re abundant providers of many of Sierra Madre’s truest, most lasting riches.

Monday, July 6, 2020


I don’t think it’s being talked about much, but Shadow, by the major Chinese director Zhang Yimou and released in 2019, is a spectacular advance in film art. I hope that audiences for the film were breathless and dazed at what they saw. Movie audiences for the epics of Griffith and Gance, seeing film grammar for the first time—crosscutting, narrative discontinuity, tracking, framing, flood lighting (the technique that Griffith and other artists used of throwing beams of colored light from the wings)—must have felt a similar sense of wonder, witnessing a young art form take shape in the work of movie pioneers. The greatest thing a director can do in a mass-market industry like the movies is to excite you all over again with the limitless possibilities of the medium.

I’ve never seen a film lighted as uncannily as Shadow. I don’t know how Yimou and his cinematographer (Zhao Xiaoding) and art director (Ma Kwong-Wing) did it. The only way I can describe the production design is “chthonian.” Much of the film takes place in a hidden cavern, where you wouldn’t expect any dominant light source. But refracted light undulates across the screen in a preternatural play of not-quite-color. In fact, you’re never quite sure whether you’re seeing the story in chromatic color or grayscale—it’s like seeing some newly invented achromatic palette—what some people think they see in dreams, perhaps. Otherworldly lighting is photographed through billowing gowns and translucent scrolls (on which the jagged shapes of Chinese orthography unfurl). This lighting is obviously painstakingly planned and must have been headachy to produce, but the movie blessedly doesn’t give you the impression of watching mind-numbing computer-generated graphics (CGI is what keeps a movie from being a classic, based on the evidence so far). Images breathe and float across your view with fairytale loveliness, beads of rainwater on skin quiver as if alive, and everyday objects are rendered in ebony and ecru and washed-out lime.

Beyond color. Deng Chao and Sun Li

The palette has no visible primary colors, except blood, which turns murky and opaque when it mixes with rainwater. The effect isn’t anything like a traditional black and white; it’s elegantly desaturated and, finally, revolutionary. We’re so used to standard color palettes, including the saturated hues of Technicolor or the angular chiaroscuro of noir, that this matte-like lambency seems to create a new physical law of depth perception. The creamy radiance and indiscernible sources of moving light make you feel weightless.

Aside from its art design, the film has an abundance of atavistic images that recall the work of Mizoguchi, with scenes of energy that burst forth with the strength and poetry of Kurosawa. In fact, you’re reminded of a number of past masters of Asian cinema, and the overall effect is that of a student having learned the important things from his spiritual teachers and who now proudly and justifiably speaks with an unforgettable personal voice.