Dark City has enjoyed a poor-man's version of The Shawhsank Redemption's afterlife. What? That is to say that both movies performed relatively poorly in theaters, only to receive its true due as a DVD. But while 'Shawshank' has so much post-theater popularity and buzz that it has skyrocketed to No. 2 on IMDB's Top 250, 'Dark City' (unranked, below such pantheon achievements as 'Pirates of the Caribbean' and 'Serenity') is confined to that small but coveted niche of 'if you know, then you'll know' cult status. It's not for everyone, but for those who can make it through the first act usually come to find one of the best films of the '90s.
'Dark City' actually received critical acclaim upon its release, with Roger Ebert going as far as saying it was the best movie of 1998. Others agreed, but few saw it. Part of it may be due with how it was marketed, I remember seeing the trailer and thinking it was a horror movie, which it clearly is not. Then there's the name, most of the population will pass on a title like 'Dark City,' especially when something like Beloved is also playing at the theater. I didn't see 'Dark City' until a few years later, buying it blindly, based mostly on Ebert's acclaims.
What I found was a film that is frustrating on first viewing, especially if there are other people in the room who keep asking just what the hell is going on, no this is a disc you need to watch alone. And if you're reading this wondering just what the hell I'm talking about, here's a quick introduction to 'Dark City':
A man wakes up in a bathtub with no knowledge of where, or who, he is. He soon finds out he is John Murdoch, wanted for a series of gruesome murders in this strange city where the sun never rises and everything stops at midnight. Oh it's a swell time at midnight, everyone goes to sleep and the whole landscape of the city shifts, people even seem to change identities. But not John, he's the only one unaffected. There's also the matter of these strange ghost-white men who are after him, and the curiousity of John being able to alter the physical reality around him by merely thinking about it. Somewhere in this city there's an answer for John, but he may not like what he finds.
'Dark City' is one of the few movies that is confusing by design. The audience is dropped into this world just as John is and we learn information at the same pace as him, which at the beginning can be very slow. Director Alex Proyas has deliberately sharp and jarring cuts early on, with the viewer having little time to observe this strange world before we are taken to a new location or character.
One of the first things you will notice about 'Dark City' is how goddamn beautiful it looks. Proyas uses natural light in every shot, that is to say that if a light is hitting a character, it is emanating from a source within the shot, such as a streetlamp or lightbulb. There is no 'moon spotlight' here, where there is a curious amount of light even when characters are in a forest at night. This allows Proyas to play with shadows and enhance the claustrophobic feel of the world he has created. There never seems to be any way out of 'Dark City' or anywhere that is safe because you can rarely see the end of an alley.
Ebert talks about this in his wonderful commentary, and I couldn't agree with it more: 'Dark City' is one of the few shining examples of sci-fi noir. There have been many attempts to merge these two genres, from Naked Lunch to Gattaca, but 'Dark City' succeeds because it isn't 'trying' to be noir, rather it seems it is a science fiction story elevated to noir through its unorthodox characters and pace. The prototype noir film has characters that are impossible to trust, regardless of whose side they are on and a consistent pace, one that never really slows down or speeds up much, often told out of sequence or in flashback. The best examples of this in 'Dark City' is Kiefer Sutherland's Dr. Schrieber, who seems to want to help John, but seems to revel in the pain and displeasure of others.
Of course, it doesn't hurt that Proyas creates a new standard for what a modern noir should look like. While his city is dark and black, it also bristles with color and jarring bright lights. The contrasts he creates with this are sometimes startling, such as when John wanders into the Automat, which is stark white and features bright colors sprinkled in (a plate of wiggling green jello never looked so good).
Yet the main reason 'Dark City' has gained such a devout following is its frighteningly original sci-fi story. It's interesting that The Matrix came out a year after 'Dark City,' because the stories are so similar. Both deal with a person born into a new reality, questioning what world we really live in and overthrowing the puppet masters of our supposed reality. 'Dark City' does it better, of course, because it doesn't need three movies to wrap up its plot, which is ultimately more satisfying. Proyas is wise to leave much to the viewers' imagination, since we are told little about The Strangers, or what they really thought they could gain from their experiments, nor are we really given an answer on why John developed his ability to tune.
There are small moments and characters that help elevate 'Dark City' onto a higher plateau: just about everything Mr. Hand says ('So we ... must become ... like him,' 'It lit up like a floating birthday cake'), the genuine sadness of Emma Murdoch and the brilliant special effects, which put substance over style (they are relatively spartan, using simple but striking morphing techniques).
The legacy of 'Dark City' is hard to predict, as its director hardly has a well-known body of work (ranging from The Crow to I, Robot). It may never achieve the popularity that it richly deserves, but that may be for the best, die-hard fans like myself will have to get by writing long-winded letters of appreciation like the one you just read.
Monday, October 31, 2005
Filed Under Classic reviews
Tuesday, October 25, 2005
Just like Christmas, there are movies that get waaaay overplayed during Halloween. It's true that you need a scary movie on while waiting for trick-or-treaters to arrive at your house, it is false that said movie needs to be Halloween, Friday the 13th or A Nightmare on Elm Street. This Halloween, surprise your guests or trick-or-treaters by having one of the following on your tube:
The Thing From Another World
This movie gets top-billing in part because it's what the kids are watching in 'Halloween' while Jamie Lee Curtis' friends are getting killed. It's an excellent sci-fi/horror title that was remade later by John Carpenter as The Thing. While this version does not have Kurt Russell or grisly creature effects, it does have Howard Hawks behind the camera (as an uncredited co-director and screenwriter) and two scenes that will melt your fun-size Snickers: the scientists who join hands to form the shape of the UFO they found under the ice (seen in 'Halloween'), and the first time you see the monster. The lavish title sequence is also unforgettable and can also be seen in 'Halloween.'
Tales From the Crypt Presents: Demon Knight
My God, have you seen this movie? Apparently, neither have many religious groups, as they would use this movie to show that religion is actually pretty kick-ass. Did you know kids that the blood of Christ, when applied on a window or door will prevent any demons from entering? Or that there are demons lurking in the world who look like Billy Zane, and the only way to combat them is to shoot them in the eyes (apparently, pretty easy to do) or wield some divine blood? It has been said before, but this movie is much better than it should be, and is one of the most fun horror movies ever made. Zane is The Collector, a ferociously over-the-top salesman for Satan who lures people into giving away their souls. But there's something he wants even more than souls: a talisman held by a drifter that contains some of Christ's blood spilled at his crucifiction. The sparks, and blood, flies as the residents of a lonely motel are under siege by Zane and his demons. Did I mention Dick Miller, Thomas Haden Church and Jada Pinkett are in this as well, and it was directed by the same guy who made Surviving the Game?
The Monster Squad
Sadly, this gem is not yet available on DVD, and I doubt Blockbuster still stocks it. Anyone who watched HBO much in the late 80s had to have seen this about 10 times. When Dracula gets the grand idea to rule the world, he'll need the help of the Mummy, Frankenstein, the Creature and a Werewolf. Naturally, all the hijinks occur in Anytown, USA like many 80s movies and the only people on to their scheme are a gang of pre-teen cutups. 'Monster Squad' is actually a very entertaining lil' flick, with great nods to all sorts of horror movies and some very good special effects. It also contains two of the best lines the 80s had to offer: 'Wolfman's got nards!' and 'My name [cocks shotgun] is Horace!' Look for Jason Hervey (Kevin's brother in 'The Wonder Years') and the best Mummy-killing ever caught on film (why didn't anyone ever think of that?)
Like The Monster Squad, this is another monster spoof movie from the 80s, with one difference: Transylvania 6-5000 is verrrrry stupid. Jeff Goldblum and Ed Belgley, Jr. play dumb reporters who are investigating sightings of Frankenstein, the Wolfman and vampires in a small Transylvanian town. Things aren't all they seem as the wolfman is very sensitive, Frankenstein just wants to play cards and the female vampire just wants sex (that's her in the picture, played by Geena Davis!). It's really just a setup for a bunch of physical comedy (mostly good, like the brilliant Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde sequence) and Michael Richards moments. A movie like this would never be made again and it's hard to believe that it was made when it was. One more warning: it is verrrrry stupid.
John Carpenter's The Fog
Yes, the original and yes I really do like it. This was John Carpenter's attempt to follow up Halloween with another ground-breaking horror movie. Of course it didn't live up to 'Halloween's' standards, but what could? Nonetheless, this is a very spooky movie with excellent special effects for the era and an awesome location. The beginning is one of my favorite scenes, as a crusty old man tells campers a 'ghost story' of what actually happened to a ship of lepers at the harbor where they live. It's 100 years after that terrible incident and weird stuff starts happening, like car windows exploding and stuff falling off shelves (yikes!). But the weirdest thing is this glowing fog that starts drifting into town and killing people. There are some great 'Carpenter' moments here, like the great use of a lighthouse and the showstopping final scene (when the priest is killed) that makes the movie for me.
Thursday, October 20, 2005
It can be done, believe me. Ever since I first played Doom, on my 100 mhz Gateway with no sound effects, I knew it could be done. After reading a couple early reviews of 'Doom,' it's clear that it missed out on its enormous potential. And I really believe there is potential here, starting with the fact that 'Doom' is the ultimate McGuffin for blowing everything up and killing lots and lots of monsters. It's a good time for a Doom movie, because the zombie resurgence is coming to a close, and 'Doom' would offer everything people like in a zombie movie (lots of shooting, hordes of monsters), only with more variety in the monsters, a more exotic location (Mars) and none of the 'drunk zombie' syndrome that happens at the end of zombie movies wherein our heroes simply start running past their pursuers. I'm pretty optimistic my game plan for a Doom movie would go over much better than what you could see in theaters now.
My reason for optimism is the ending that I've had in mind since about 1995. After you beat the first 'episode' of the game Doom, your character essentially enters Hell. To me, Hell has always been an underutilized locale for movies. There's really no right or wrong way to portray it, and if you have a guy with a chainsaw and shotgun in there blasting hooves and horns off demons, then it's all the more merrier. So here's my ending: after our hero dispenses a legion of demons and zombies on Mars, and is the only marine left, he finds the portal to Hell where all this crap has been emanating from. And what does he do? He grabs a few more guns, lights a cigarette and jumps in. The End.
To me that's the only way you can end this movie and a damn fine way if you ask me. So we have the ending, now let's work backwards, starting with the cast. The Rock is an excellent choice for the main character because he has a surplus of the credibility and camp needed to convince audiences that he can shoot his way through thousands of demons. The Rock is a good start, but we need a few people around him to make 'Doom' more appealing. We need a couple of stars who will make people say 'He's in it?' and the perfect fit for that phrase is Nick Lachey. Since he and Jessica have split up he's in the market for a career, and some fast cash, so he's in as the pretty-boy Marine who's a bit slow with the trigger and pays for it bigtime. The third tier star in 'Doom' (not a good title to own) will be Donny Wahlberg, who also needs work and will amiably fill the role of the God-fearing-explosives-expert-who-quotes-Genesis-as-he's-setting-a-bomb.
So there's our cast, now how about a story. If you don't know anything about the game of Doom, here's a refresher: guy all alone on Mars vs. zombies and demons, here's a chainsaw, good luck! This actually works in favor of the movie 'Doom' because there are no essential characters or plot points to include, which leads to my idea about the plot: very, very simple. Think 'Aliens' without any side story about Newt or exposition about what happened in the original. Most of the Marines will be killed early, followed by a Donny Wahlberg setting off a big bomb as he says 'Amen!' giving the survivors enough time to barricade the doors and listen to a few cheesy lines from The Rock. Demons pour in, they find bigger guns, a Zombie Marine attacks Nick Lachey, he hesitates to shoot him because they were childhood friends and loses his face as a result.
There will be a couple more scenes like that, including one where the mandatory Asian Marine saves The Rock's life, but his smile quickly turns to fright as he sees a huge monster creep up behind Asian Marine and eat him. The Rock somehow escapes and trips over The BFG 9000, which he uses to clear out a whole room of demons, setting up our soon-to-be-famous ending.
Would it work? I'm pretty sure it would be better than the current 'Doom' attempt. It would gain steam from word-of-mouth, especially with Lachey in it and eventually earn around $30 million before settling into semi-cult classic status on DVD. It may be a stretch, but 'Frank's Doom' would also gain notoriety for its running time of 68 minutes and unintentionally hilarious bits of dialogue from The Rock.
Filed Under Essays
Monday, October 17, 2005
You know 'em. You're watching a movie with a crowd of people and cannot for the life of you figure out what the hell is going on. You want to ask someone, but wisely choose against it in fear of them pointing out your ignorance. There are some movies so rediculously hard to follow that you eventually just stop trying ('The Big Sleep'), others that are clearly not supposed to make sense ('Beyond the Valley of the Dolls') and some that are just so damn weird and inconsequential you don't even know where to start ('Orlando'). Here's ten of my favorite 'WTF?' movies, but only one of them is actually a bad movie (you'll see).
10. Miller's Crossing
This is perhaps the only movie I've seen where I loved every minute of it, yet I only understood about three of said minutes. Miller's Crossing drops you right in the middle of a complex mob prohibition plot. It feels like you wandered into a party where you only know one person, and they're discussing thermo dynamics in Mandarin Chinese. None of the characters are really introduced and while you're trying to dicypher just who the hell everybody is and what their relationships are, people are getting double-crossed and killed. But boy is this one hell of a movie. The Cohen Brothers put together a visual fiest soaked in Irish whisky (which is either being poured or drunk in every shot). At the end I was smiling but had so many questions: What exactly was Gabriel Byrne's job? Was it supposed to be tongue-in-cheek? If not then how could Albert Finney blow up a car 100 yards away from him with a Tommy gun?
9. Blow Up
Gorgeous depiction of the mod scene in 1966 London, Blow Up is full of camera tricks and lots of did-you-really-see-that? questions. When he's not photographing models and rolling around on the floor with naked teeny boppers, Thomas takes pictures of random people and generally acts like a rich, British jackass. No matter, one day he takes pictures of a couple dancing at the park, or were they? Upon closer inspection, there was a dead body in the background. Or was it? He gets a visit from the woman in the picture (or was she?) who wants the pictures back, or does she? It goes round and round as Ratt once sang until finally Thomas goes back to the park, watches some mimes play tennis and then literally disappears (WTF??!!) It does contain one of my favorite scenes, when Thomas goes into a club where the Yardbirds (complete with Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck) are playing a reworked version of 'Train Kept a Rollin' while an audience full of young hipsters are observing without emotion or any movement.
8. Dark City
One of my favorite movies, but Dark City makes the list because, like 'Miller's Crossing,' it does its best to confuse its audience in the early going. The brilliant ploy is to make the viewer just as confused as the main character, who knows nothing about the environment he was just born into. We learn about what's happening at the same rate as John Murdoch does. It's easy to get frustrated with this movie, it's also possible to see different aspects of it even after 20+ viewings, like me. But there can still be parts of it that are confusing even after so many viewings: How did Walenski 'wake up,' and why did his character not change every night? Why exactly did Murdoch get the ability to tune?
7. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls
Go into your kitchen, fill a bowl with peanut butter, vodka, cloves and cumin, beat on high for two minutes, dump it on a lawnmower then unload a few hundred rounds from a Browning Machine Gun on it. This is the closest physical representation you can get of how random, weird and maddening Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is. One of the first regular budget films Russ Meyers made, 'BVD' concerns a group of models who compose the band The Carrie Nations and their subsequent trip to Hollywood in search of riches. While there they find themselves corrupted by the weird hipsters they party with and end up in a mess of heads rolling on the floor, a murderous tranny who wishes to be called 'Supergirl' and a narrator who seems very out of place. Even stranger than the story is the style of Meyers, who seems to cut each shot about two frames before he should, which ends up looking more bouncy than some of the movie's characters.
6. Blade Runner (Director's Cut)
Not to brag, but I am one of the seemingly few who 'got' the new ending of Blade Runner. No, the oragami was not in the shape of a unicorn by accident. Yes, this new ending does kick ass. For those of you who already knew this, congrats, but I have watched this movie with enough people who had no freaking clue what the oragami meant to warrant its inclusion in this list. For directors wishing to have a 'gotcha' ending without ramming it down the audience's throat (I'm looking at you, M. Night Shyamalan), take note.
This is a movie that either makes you seriously question your intelligence or simply question your imagination of how incoherent a seemingly good movie could be. Here's a cliffnotes version of Orlando: Girly-looking boy Orlando is told by Queen Elizabeth I to stay forever young and he takes those words a little close to heart. Somehow this young man does not age, but one day something even weirder happens: he wakes up and discovers that he has become a woman. She, still named Orlando mind you, goes through time experiencing all the trials of a woman (such as hearing 18th century aristocrats talk about how women aren't that smart) until finally she gives birth to a daughter in the 20th century then looks up in the sky and sees an angel that looks like herself. Credits roll. Yup, that's it. Somehow I managed not to throw my shoe at the screen.
4. Blue Velvet
Luckily, I limited this list to just one movie each from weird-masters David Lynch and David Cronenberg, otherwise this list would be entitled 'Top Ten Lynch and Cronenberg Movies,' they only make 'WTF?' movies with very little exception. Blue Velvet is my choice for Lynch. Sure, Eraserhead would have been a good pick too, but I like 'Blue Velvet' as Lynch's top 'WTF?' movie because it lures you into thinking it is actually a semi-normal movie. It starts out with a young Kyle McLachlan trying to find the owner of an ear he found in a field (we've all been there), before the plot quickly devolves into a nice blend of sadomasochism, kidnapping, Pabst Blue Ribbon, Candy Coated Clown and some affection for blue velvet. You don't think it could get any weirder after seeing Dean Stockwell do karaoke for a tearful Dennis Hopper, then you Dennis Hopper after a few hits of gas, then gain a new understanding for what a 'love letter' is before finally wondering what happened to that nice story about a boy searching for the owner of an ear.
3. Naked Lunch
There's a great 'Simpsons' gag where Bart and his friends gain fake IDs and promptly go to see Naked Lunch thinking it's a T&A flick, when they leave, Nelson remarks 'I can think of at least two things wrong with that title.' For anyone who has seen 'Naked Lunch,' this is probably the funniest line ever uttered. 'Naked Lunch' is the simple story of Bill Lee (Peter Weller) who is an average exterminator, except his wife is addicted to sniffing his roach powder, giant bugs start talking to him, he kills his wife in an attempted William Tell game, heads to Inter Zone, types reports on a typewriter that is also a large bug that talks to him, dabbles in the centipede drug trade, watches his bug typewriter eat a rival bug typewriter, chases a dominatrix maid to South America only to discover that she is really his doctor who is running an alien goo drug racket before finding his wife alive and then promptly killing her again. I mean, 'Naked Lunch' is just chock full of Hollywood cliches you see in almost every movie. 'Naked Lunch' is probably a pretty fine movie if you know anything about William Burroughs (which I do not) or if you like bugs alot (which I do not).
2. 12 Monkeys
I know, you completely understand 12 Monkeys, I thought I did too, until I tried to read this analysis of the temporal anomalies contained in the movie. Just try comprehending the seven different timelines outlined in that article before feeling dumber than your average Blockbuster employee.
1. The Big Sleep
There are many movies stranger and weirder than The Big Sleep, but there may be no movie with a less confusing and complicated plot. Although it is a truly great movie, you will dump your tub of popcorn on a loved one trying to figure out just who Sean Regan is, why (or if) he was killed, why the chauffer was killed, why the villains seem to keep switching sides and what for the love of god is Lauren Bacall's character really up to? It is nearly impossible to keep up on first viewing because the main character (Regan) is never seen and many of the biggest moments in the plot also happen off-screen. Nevertheless, there is an easy to follow love story between Bogart and Bacall that keeps this train rollin, along with some of the best Bogart dialogue you'll ever hear ('She tried to sit on my lap while I was standing up'). If you haven't seen it, just accept the fact that the plot has befuddled millions and you'll be the next.
Filed Under Lists
Wednesday, October 12, 2005
Thought I'd give some updates on some of the recent movies I've seen, which have shuffled through the "Last 5 watched" list on the right.
'The Osterman Weekend'
I was interested to see this as it is Sam Peckinpah's final movie. Probably my favorite director, Peckinpah's films all had the same theme of characters who were pushed to the edge by double-crosses and back-stabbing until finally they said 'screw it, I'm doing it my way.'
'Osterman' is no different in this respect and has a great cast of a young Rutger Hauer (a rare non-psycho role for him), Craig T. Nelson, Dennis Hopper and Burt Lancaster. You even get to see Meg Foster, who is best-known as one of the main characters in They Live, as well as having the freakiest eyes you'll ever see.
'Osterman' centers around John Tanner (Hauer), an investigative journalist who thinks he may have landed the story of his life when CIA agent Fassett approaches him and tells him of three suspected Soviet spies living in the U.S. Just one catch: they're three of John's friends who are coming over for the weekend. In exchange for Fassett coming on his show, Tanner must help turn his friends over to our side. What follows is a tense, emotional couple of days where the true intentions of Fassett are revealed.
'Osterman' holds up well because a large part of the plot is how television can manipulate the truth. Hauer and Nelson are fantastic, but I thought the movie was too short to really flesh out the overly-thick plot (adapted from the Robert Ludlum novel), which gets very confusing.
This movie also falls in the class of an older film that would resonate more with audiences today than when it was originally released. Peter Bagdonovich's first real turn as a director, 1968's Targets blew the doors off conservative America with a story that seems a little too realistic today.
Bobby is a clean-cut young man who, along with his wife, live at home with his parents. His existence is pure starched collar and TV dinner: he calls his dad 'sir,' is told by his mom not to stay up too late and lives in a house with nary a crumb on the floor. But Bobby also has a cache of guns in the trunk of his Mustang convertible and a brooding anger that just won't go away. One day, Bobby kills his wife and family, then heads to a water tower so he can pick people off on the freeway. His night won't be over until he heads to a packed drive-in and continues his marksmanship from behind the screen.
The other story in 'Targets' concerns the character Byron Orlock, a fictional horror actor played by Boris Karloff. Orlock is attending the drive-in that night as the premiere for his final movie and he will have a great deal to say in how Bobby's night ends.
What I liked most about 'Targets' was that there was no attempt to explain Bobby's actions. I read a synopsis that said he was a Vietnam vet but saw no evidence in the film. When he is hauled away by police, the only thing he can say is 'I barely missed!' Bagdonovich takes great care to show that Bobby appears as a wholesome person (he even packs himself a sandwich and Dr. Pepper to have on the water tower). Audiences in 1968 were probably by such a frank depiction of random violence, but viewers today would see it as reality, since such violence is depicted regularly in the media.
This was a nice surprise for me. I had little experience with anti-authority, pro-pacifist hippie movies, but this has to be one of the best. Billy Jack tells the story of its title character, a half white, half Indian ex-Green Beret who protects an Indian reservation and a liberal school located on it. The townies aren't too fond of the Indians, and when they try and push them out of their ice cream shops, Billy Jack is there to unleash some kung fu justice on them.
While there's plenty of action in it, 'Billy Jack' is still a hardy anti-violence movie because the Indians do not fight back as they know they cannot win and while Billy kicks his share of ass, he quickly discovers that it is a fruitless fight.
The uneasy tensions in this Arizona town come to a head when a hard-ass policeman's daughter runs away to the school on the reservation and falls in love with an Indian boy. Bad news. While trying to protect their newest student, the Indian school also tries to be accepted by the square townies, who view them as long-haired hippies.
The Indian school specializes in dramatics and actually much of the film was filmed via improvisation, giving it an even more realistic feel. Look for a young, shaggy Howard Hesseman as one of the school's performers.
'The Bank Dick'
Another nice surprise, as it was tragically my first W.C. Fields movie. It's amazing to think that Fields died two years after this was made, in 1942, because he seems so vibrant and lively in The Bank Dick. .Fields plays Egbert Souse, a clumsy drinker who is reviled by his wife, mother-in-law and daughters who he lives with. Souse's daily routine is a trip to The Black Pussy Cat Cafe (you don't see that name often enough these days), where he indulges in the various adult beverages they have to offer. But today he stumbles onto the set of a movie, where he ends up directing and then catches a pair of bank robbers. Now in his debt, the bank offers him a cushy job as the 'bank dick,' which is still not cushy enough for Souse
Watching Fields, it's easy to see the comics that have been inspired by him. The most obvious is Stephen Root's character Jimmy James on the much-loved sitcom 'News Radio,' it's almost a carbon copy of Fields' trademark bumbling annoying ways.
Filed Under Quick reviews
Monday, October 03, 2005
You know a movie is intensely personal to you when you feel the need to defend it whenever possible. That happens to me a lot with Once Upon a Time in the West, which is often mislabeled as slow, confusing or inferior to The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. Those descriptions could easily be true to many people, but for me 'OUTW' is a Western opera if there ever was one, a movie that should not exactly be compared with 'GBU' but rather paired with it, as they parallel each other and could be described as pseudo-sequels. When scanning through The DVD Panache Library, my eyes always stop at 'OUTW,' as watching it is such a rewarding experience no matter how many times I've seen it.
After Sergio Leone made the international smash hit 'GBU,' he naturally had to make a follow-up, and this time his ultimate vision of a Western would be put on film. His cast would be comprised of both well-known American actors (Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, Jason Robards) as well as actors from his native Italy (Claudia Cardinale, Gabriele Ferzetti), the drawn out closeups from 'GBU' would in even fuller force this time around and the biggest leap forward from 'GBU': it would be filmed on location in America.
'OUTW,' like 'GBU' and also Once Upon a Time in America, is a tribute to the American West. Even though he was Italian, Leone saw the potential for epic filmmaking by setting stories against the background of events such as the Civil War, the Westward expansion and the early 20th century. Beneath its adventurous story, 'GBU' has a commentary on the paradoxes of war while 'OUTW' looks at how the railroad pushed aside the Old West canons that Leone cherished in his early movies.
The opening of the movie is perhaps its best known scene. It's amazing to think that a nearly silent scene of three bandits waiting for a train could be this entertaining. The creak of a windmill and the rhythm of dripping water create the opening score, while the audience gets extended introductions to the criminals who are living out the last minutes of their lives. What I love about this scene is how ugly the train station looks. There is no freshly-laid timber here like in other Westerns, rather it is old, weather-beaten and seemingly on the verge of collapse.
The story concerns a quiet stranger who comes into town on a train and how he destroys the perfectly laid plans of two dastardly barons. As in 'GBU,' there are no 'good guys' in this movie, rather a couple are a few notches less 'bad' than the others. For every character in the movie, none of their visions of grandeur takes shape, except for Bronson's character who merely wanted one man to feel the pain of all of his victims.
Cardinale's Jill arrives on a train to wed a soon-to-be-rich family man who sees the potential of the approaching railroad. Though his land is in the middle of nowhere, it has the only water source for miles, in the exact spot where the train is coming through. But Jill never sees the McBain family again, because they are brutally killed by Frank (Fonda) and his gang as they are setting up a picnic for her arrival. Frank, together with the railroad baron Morton (Ferzetti) planned to strongarm the family estate away, but they didn't count on Jill having legal ownership of the plot since she and Brett were secretly married in New Orleans before she made the trip out west.
Matters are further complicated when Bronson's mysterious character arrives. Known only as "Harmonica" because of his musical instrument of choice, Harmonica comes to town seeking vengeance on Frank for all of his victims in his earlier years.
The last side in this twisted triangle is Cheyenne (Robards), a bandit who just escaped his captors and is looking to benefit in some way from all the double-crossing that is sure to go on.
It is an intricate and at times confusing plot that is wrapped up in cinematography and a score (believe it) that rival GBU. Yes, I said the score is better than the legendary GBU 'wahh wahh wahh.' While Ennio Morricone's classic riffs for GBU are more widely recognized, I prefer the more diverse themes in OUTW, which are more varied and seem to fit their respective characters perfectly. Leone thought so much of Morricone's score that at times he 'set' the movie to his notes. There is a scene of Cheyenne riding off and his horse's steps are right on cue with his theme's tempo. George Lucas famously used this technique in The Empire Strikes Back when the Milennium Falcon is leaving Cloud City (the laser blasts are set to the score).
The cinematography takes on a life of its own not only because it was filmed in the famous Monument Valley in Utah where John Ford shot many of his films, but also because of the perfect sets. Leone's Wests are rough, decaying visions and OUTW does not disappoint in that department. The roadhouse where Jill meets Cheyenne is no saloon, rather it's closer to a barn than anything. Brett McBain's estate is imposing but certainly no mansion and Frank's gang's hideout is literally a cave.
There isn't too much dialogue in OUTW by design, Leone always wanted his characters' faces to do the talking, and they have a lot to say. This is the reason for the shockingly high amount of closeups, especially of Bronson and Fonda. Many viewers are turned off by this technique, but to me the eyes of these two actors say more than their mouths ever could. Fonda's baby blues were always the picture of wholesome America before Leone got ahold of him and filled them with unrelenting evil. Bronson's steely green eyes show a broken, driven man who will only be satisfied with the death of Frank.
But the most vital character in OUTW doesn't even get a credit: the railroad. In every scene we see Morton's locomotive there is a distinct steam engine sound that sounds like it is breathing. Leone used this to convey the animal nature of the railroad at the time, how it was gobbling up the previously untamed west and moving at a breakneck speed.
It's hard for me to pick a favorite scene in OUTW, but it has to be a small series of scenes beginning immediately after the McBain auction. Frank finally has a chance to sit down with Harmonica and try to figure out just who the hell he is. Instead, Harmonica frustrates him even more by repeating more names of his victims and showing that he will not be bought off. This sets up the blockbuster scene that follows, with Harmonica hanging out in Jill's hotel room (as she sits in a bubble bath), he watches Frank leave the saloon and walk into an ambush by his own men. Rather than watch him die, Harmonica subtlely gives off their hiding places to Frank and actually saves his life. Why? Harmonica didn't travel this far to see someone else knock off Frank.
Filed Under Classic reviews