Tormented (Unforgiven, 1992)

Unforgiven_PosterOne night in a small town, local ranch hands are visiting the local whorehouse. One of the ranch hands becomes enraged with the girl he is with and brutally attacks her, leaving her scarred.  When the Sheriff, Little Bill, arrives, he sets the penalties for the ranch hand.  The Madam, Strawberry Alice, finds his verdict horribly insufficient.  They start to pool their money to hire a gunslinger to kill the man.

Elsewhere, we meet Will Munny.  He is a pig farmer with two kids.  When a young man calling himself the Scofield comes to try and recruit him for help with killing the ranch hand, Munny explains he does not live that way anymore.  His late wife cured him of drinking and his evil ways. But the lure of much needed reward money cause him to rethink his refusal. Bringing along (much to the Kid’s annoyance) his friend Ned, they start to make their way to the town.  Meanwhile, Little Bill has discovered the prostitutes’ plan.  He makes it clear that nobody will be allowed to kill the ranch hand.

Gene Hackman’s Little Bill is both charming and scary.  A former outlaw, he brutalizes an old cohort named English Bob. Bob is followed by a writer who puts his exploits into tabloid books.  He starts to be won over by Little Bill, who humiliates English Bob by revealing the truth behind the stories English Bob told the writer.

When the film came out, many people expressed discomfort watching Eastwood struggle to get on a horse or fire a gun. But this is a strength of the film.  Unforgiven is an exploration of the effects of violence.  As things spiral out of control, Bill finds it harder to fight the darker nature he has put aside all these years.

The Scofield Kid is exuberant and excited, claiming to have killed several men.  Munny, of course, sees right through him and has little patience for the Kid’s bravado.  Eastwood is not interested in presenting violence as a heroic act.  When Munny  proves himself to be every bit the frightening killer the Scofield kids expects him to have been, it is tragic. As much as you the viewer may desire to see Little Bill pay a price, it comes at a great cost to Munny.

Personally, I consider Unforgiven to be one of the all time great westerns.

Judge, Jury and… (Hang Em High, 1968

Hang_Em_High_PosterJed Cooper is a former lawman. After buying some cattle, he finds himself at the mercy of a posse. Believing he killed the owner and stole the cattle, they hang him. He is found before he suffocates by a lawman who brings him to see the Judge.  After being found innocent, the Judge convinces him to return to being a lawman.

Between jobs the judge sends him on, Jed tries to find and arrest the men who hung him, a prominent Rancher known as Captain Wilson and his employees.

Hang Em High kind of broke out of the standard Eastwood mold.  Jed is not really a mystery man.  He is a guy who is trying to quietly live his own life unencumbered by others.  But he is an innocent guy who gets pulled into a terrible situation.  It is interesting to see that many of the men who participate in the hanging are nit hateful mob types.  Instead, several really want to make sure he might not be guilty.  And one even turns himself in upon learning that Jed was found innocent.

This is also a bit unique as, Jed is trying to bring these guys in alive, so it is not a straight out revenge tale.  And at one point, he argues for mercy of one of the men who helped hang him.  The notion that Jed is an upstanding lawman is important to this tale. His love interest is a local woman with a horrible past seeking Justice…her story reflects his, in that they are both forced to confront the question of “what if they don’t get justice”.

The film has a great cast supporting Eastwood.  Pat Hingle is the no nonsense judge who finds being the final arbiter of Justice both a bit intoxicating and more than a bit of a burden. Bruce Dern is one of the more straight up bad guys in the film…and hey, it is a solid early Dern performance.

Hang ‘Em High makes for a good transition from the old school western to the modern one.

 

On a Pale Horse (Pale Rider, 1985)

Pale_Rider_PosterAn itinerant Preacher rides into a mining town facing pressure from a greedy mining company.  He ends up helping the town stand up to the owner of the mining company and his thugs.

The simple story is a throwback to earlier Eastwood westerns, with Clint’s character having no name other than “Preacher”.  I suspect Pale Rider has had the greatest influence on the perception of Eastwood’s western history.  He is almost supernatural in his fighting and shooting (and Eastwood has suggested that the Preacher is literally a ghost).

It feels like the film is transitioning away from heroic glorification of violence, but not entirely.  The bad guys are bad and never all that sympathetic.

Pale Rider draws from the Classic Shane very heavily in it’s story that you cannot help but compare the two…some have claimed the film is a remake, but Pale Rider gives no such credit to Shane.  I suspect more that Eastwood wanted to explore those themes.  And the key plot points are, at this point, such a trope of westerns that it is possible they did not even realize how close they were following Shane.

Pale Rider is, overall, a pretty strong Eastwood film, even though it brings little knew to westerns or even Eastwood westerns.

The movie had a beautiful poster too.

On the Run (The Outlaw Josey Wales, 1976)

Outlaw_Josey_Wales_PosterAt the end of the Civil War, Josey Wales just wanted to live in peace.  When Union Soldiers burn his house and kill his wife, he takes up with a band of rebellious Confederate Soldiers.  Eventually, their leader Fletcher convinces everyone to turn themselves in to the Union Army.  Wales refuses to join his compatriots.  Watching from afar, he starts to realize Fletcher has sold his men out and they are going to be killed.

After causing havoc, Josey only is able to save the life of one young man, Jamie.  The two go on the run from Union Officer Terrill and Fletcher. Along the way, Josey starts to pick up other strays, such as the wise old Lone Wati, Laura Lee and her grandmother.

Wales is a remarkably sympathetic character.  His whole motive for joining the Confederate rebels is the death of his wife at the hands of Union soldiers.  He never seems to display any interest in the motives that drove the Confederacy, and it seems clear he would have never joined the group had he and his wife been left alone.

Chief Dan George’s Lone Watie is a rather thoughtful character.  He is far more complex than the Native American representations of Hollywood westerns.  This is actually true of the film’s outlook on the Native American community.  They are not savages.  They are educated men with traditions and beliefs. They don’t speak in choppy english.

The Outlaw Josie Wales is before Eastwood started to question the portrayal of violence, and so it is unquestionably seen as justified behavior anytime Wales gets brutal. But it is an entertaining film with a terrific cast.

The Wanderer (High Plains Drifter, 1973)

High_Plains_Drifter_PosterThe small mining town of Lago is shaken by the arrival of a mysterious stranger who came from the desert.  After he guns down three men harassing him, the town wants his help.  The sheriff was killed by a gang, and they want him to help them deal the returning gang.

After agreeing, the Stranger discovers the town was actually complicit in the death of their sheriff, who had discovered important information about who owned the land the mine is on.  However, they turned on the gang.  This raises the question if the town will also turn on the Stranger.

To be honest, I have trouble rooting for the Stranger in this film.  Very early on, there is a scene where one of the women of the town berates the Stranger.  He drags her off and rapes her.  And this is not a scene I can play off as “it was the times…” This is not presented as one of those outdated “she really wanted it, he just needed to overcome her frosty exterior” sequences.  The film recognizes it is rape and treats it like she has it coming.  It casts the Stranger in a very unpleasant light previous Eastwood leads did not have, even prior “scoundrels”.

This casts a long shadow over the story making the entire affair tough.  The Stranger is clearly the hero of the story, but he commits an obscene act of cruelty that makes him impossible to see in the light of “hero”.  Not even an anti-hero.

The Kidd Is Alright (Joe Kidd, 1972)

Joe_Kidd_PosterEx-Bounty Hunter Joe Kidd is in jail.  His opportunity for freedom comes when Frank Harlan wants to hire him to take out the revolutionary leader Luis Chuma. Reluctant at first, when he learns Chuma has raided his ranch (and hurt a worker), Kidd joins up.

Kidd vows to bring Chuma to actual justice, rather than to a lynch mob, putting him at odds with  Harlan.

While Kidd is not a mysterious character, Joe Kidd leans more towards the violent tough guy of Eastwood’s western persona. Joe is a guy who would be happy to be neutral, and it really takes Chuma crossing a personal line.  But his willingness to avoid violent revenge makes him stand out a bit in the westerns of Eastwood.

Written by Elmore Leonard, Joe Kidd is a good western, though not quite as distinctive as some of the westerns that Eastwood had yet to come.

The Buddy Western (Two Mules For Sister Sara, 1970)

Two_Mules_For_Sister_Sara_PosterHogan comes across Sara, a nun in peril.  After saving her, the two become traveling companions.  Sara is on the run from the French and Hogan agrees to help her out.

Hogan is a more detailed character than his “man With No Name” role. This is needed for the film, because Hogan and Sara’s relationship is dependent on their ability to connect to each other.  The film has a light undertone, mainly in the verbal sparring of Sara and Hogan.  One scene that works well is when a wounded Hogan explains that he needs Sarah to climb up a bridge to place the dynamite to blow some train tracks. Her shock going to resignation that she has got to do this to help out makes it a fun exchange.

Unsurprisingly, Shirley MacLaine can hold her own with Eastwood in any scene.  I confess, I do not have a ton to say about this one, but I think it is one of Eastwood’s more fun westerns.

Cold Hard Spaghetti Pt 3 (The Good, the Bad & the Ugly, 1966)

good_bad_ugly_poster.jpgThe third film in the Man With No Name trilogy finds Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef returning.  Interestingly, Van Cleef is playing a different character in this film. This time around he is the untrustworthy villain Angel Eyes.

Eastwood’s Blondie (the film’s “Good”) is introduced as a bounty hunter who captures the violent criminal Tuco (the titular “Ugly”).  He turns him in to the authorities and collects the bounty.

But the film then takes a twist when we see Blondie save Tuco from a hanging.  They meet up and we discover they are in cahoots.  Blondie catches Tuco, collects the money and helps him escape so that the bounty on his head increases and they can do the whole act over again in a new town.

The two run across a carriage of dead people.  They discover a lone survivor who provides information about a huge stash of gold hidden in a cemetery. Tuco finds out the name of the cemetery, while Blondie finds the name on the grave that holds the gold. The man dies shortly after.  It turns out there was another man after him, the film’s “Bad”, nicknamed Angel Eyes.

The three form an uneasy alliance to find the gold and split it three ways.  Of course, greed interferes with their teamwork.

Ennio Morricone scored all three of the Man with No Name films, as well and a seemingly endless list of films.  His musical choices are beautifully sparse.  He is not afraid of quiet or “solitary sounds”.  The fact is, when you think of classic western soundtracks, you are most likely hearing Morricone in your head. And rightly so.

One of the things that stand out about Sergio Leone’s films is the wonderful talent he has for framing faces. In the Mexican Standoff between the three leads, it is a combination of extreme close-ups and distant wide shots that increase the intensity.

I noted the fact that Van Cleef plays a totally different character in this film.  But the truth is, I am not entirely sure that Eastwood’s Man With No Name is the same character in each film. The character of Blondie feels a bit different from the prior films in his coldness.

If there was one criticism I could offer, it is the length of the film.  Clocking in at three hours, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly can feel to drawn out.  It could have benefited from a bit of editing to make the film tighter and allow it to move a bit faster.

One of the more interesting little bits of trivia is that there is a sequence where Van Cleef slaps a woman.  They actually used a stunt double because Van Cleef stated his personal philosophy is that he doesn’t kick dogs and will not slap a woman on screen.

Cold Hard Spaghetti Pt 2 (For a Few Dollars More, 1965)

For_A_Few_Dollars_More_PosterEastwood returns for another round as the Man With No Name.  For a few Dollars More finds him living the life of a bounty hunter.

The film opens by introducing us to Col Douglas Mortimer. On a train a man is trying to talk to him, but Mortimer shuts him up by lowering a bible and revealing an icy stare (Lee Van Cleef has a steely eyed squint that can rival the intense gaze of Eastwood).  Mortimer has arrived in town seeking to catch local gang leader El Indio.  At the train station a man tells him nobody has had the courage as of late to try and catch El Indio…only to watch Mortimer grab the wanted poster without hesitation.

The Man With No Name finds himself at odds with Mortimer, but ultimately, they agree that to take down El Indio and his gang, teamwork might be the best route.

For a Few Dollars More leaves the Man With No Name as much a mystery as Fistful of Dollars, and that works in the favor of the character.  The less we know, the better.  Van Cleef is a perfect co-star for Eastwood, with both characters being charismatic and engaging.

The film employs humor effectively, never making a joke of it’s leads. Early on Mortimer breaks into a hotel room to catch a gang member who is with a woman, after the guy ducks out the window, Mortimer apologizes to the woman (who is in the bath) with a slight smile and heads off to grab his bounty.

 

Cold Hard Spaghetti Pt 1 (A Fistful of Dollars, 1964)

Fistful_of_Dollars_PosterA quiet drifter gets caught up in the local politics between two families of the town of San Miguel.   Playing both sides, he seeks to make, well, a fistful of dollars.

While Eastwood built up some fame through the late fifties, especially with Rawhide, it is really the Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns that set up his iconic persona.  1964’s Fistful of Dollars is a simple and tightly told story.

The Man With No Name is quickly established as quick in thought and action.  He confronts some local thugs demanding they apologize for laughing at his mule. We also see a subplot involving a mother and her child showing that the Man With No Name has a sense of nobility and compassion.

One of the things that stands out to me is how they play off the character as one who survives by his wits.  Even after a severe beating, he is able to find a way to escape the families and trick them to solve part of his problem, reducing his risk for the film’s finale.

The Man with No Name (in each of Leone’s trilogy he is called by different names) sets the stage for Eastwood’s western persona that was often imitated, but rarely duplicated. Eastwood displays a certain charisma right from the start here that carries the character, in spite of there being little to define him otherwise.

Simple in story and character, a Fistful of Dollars is a solid western that really (along with How the West Was Won) influenced the face of westerns as we know them today.

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