Monday, May 30, 2011

Triple Feature: Lone Star, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and Touch of Evil

Similarities abound in this trio of films about law, history, and legends in the American West.

Lone Star (1996)

"Forget the Alamo."

In Lone Star, the past of a small Texas border town is dug up — literally, in the remains of Charlie Wade, a cruel and corrupt sheriff who some 40 years earlier controlled the town through intimidation, extortion, and racial hatred until a young deputy named Buddy Deeds confronted Wade and ostensibly ran him out of town. When Wade's skeleton and badge are found barely below ground in a remote spot of desert, though, Sam Deeds — Buddy's son and the current sheriff — soon has reason to believe his late and now-legendary father may have been the killer. Sam continues digging, talking to townspeople who lived through Wade's tyranny and who view Buddy as their emancipator. The closer Sam gets to learning the truth about Wade's death, the more he learns about his own past and what it could mean for his future.

Set in a contentious town along the Texas/Mexico border where parents clash with teachers about the history of the Texas Revolution, Lone Star fills every moment with consideration of the past — certainly the pasts of Wade and Buddy, but also those of Sam, his high school girlfriend Pilar, Pilar's mother and successful businesswoman Mercedes, Wade's surviving deputy Hollis, and the estranged father-and-son pair Otis and Del Payne. Everyone is made to consider the past and to decide if history should be rewritten or if old legends should remain untarnished.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

"When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

When prominent senator Ransom Stoddard arrives in the western town of Shinbone to attend the funeral of all but forgotten rancher Tom Doniphon, the editor of the local paper demands to know why. Stoddard unravels a tale of Shinbone's past, of his arrival in the frontier town as a young lawyer eager to bring civilized justice to the West, of a ruthless gunfighter named Liberty Valance who terrorized the town with a gun, and of how Stoddard's showdown with Valance catapulted Stoddard to fame and to Washington, D.C. The more Stoddard reveals, however, the more the reasons behind his now-legendary rise to power are made suspect. When the editor finally learns about the role of Tom Doniphon in these events and of the secret Stoddard has been concealing, he must decide how important the past is to Stoddard's reputation and to the town of Shinbone.

Touch of Evil (1958)

"He was some kind of a man. What does it matter what you say about people?"

Mike Vargas is a Mexican narcotics officer just married to an American woman. Out for a stroll with his new wife, he witnesses a murder-by-car bomb the moment he steps across the border into the US. He is soon joined on the scene by Hank Quinlan, an American cop who bears no love toward Mexicans and who doesn't hesitate to use intimidation and excessive force when interrogating Mexican suspects. Vargas and Quinlan butt heads and end up working the crime separately. To Vargas' surprise, Quinlan arrests the first suspect he finds, claiming to have found conclusive evidence. Vargas does some investigating of Quinlan, though, and what he finds threatens Quinlan's perfect record — and Vargas' life.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Superbear smackdown!

The Contenders

The bear from Grizzly (1976): A 15-foot, one-ton grizzly wandering outside its normal territory during a national park's busy post-season The bear from Prophecy (1979): A large animal mutated by mercury poisoning, wreaking havoc in the forest near a toxin-spewing paper mill
The location
An unnamed national park somewhere in the contiguous United States The deep woods of Maine
What makes it a monster
It's larger and stronger than the average griz, able to swat the head off a horse with one easy swipe. Unlike other grizzlies, this one hunts — and eats — people. A freak of nature created by the reckless pollution of its once-pristine environment, this grotesque creature walks and runs upright and can snap the head clean off a man with one bite of its massive jaws.
Method of attack
Grizzly stalks its prey in point-of-view shots, bursts out of woods or through shelter walls to batter victims with limb-severing force, then finishes with a deadly bear hug. Prophecy Bear forecasts its attack with heavy breathing, then surprises victims by breaking through trees, cabin walls, or the water's surface. It kills by hitting and biting.
Body count
8 people, 1 bear cub, and 1 horse dead; 1 person maimed 14 people and 1 dog dead
Gore factor
Victims' limbs are bloodily severed, a horse loses its head, human victims are dragged and shaken violently, and one spurts blood from the mouth while being squeezed to death. A couple victims get badly mangled in the face (one loses his head), but it's the bear's disfigured face and body, as well as the sight and sound of its mutant offspring, that are most repellent.
The hunter
Park ranger Michael Kelly EPA hired hand Robert Verne, MD
How it's killed
After absorbing several rifle shots, the big bear is brought down by nothing less than a shot from a bazooka, which blows it to bloody bits in a fiery explosion. The mutant beast is shot several times by rifle and bow, though it's the relentless stabbing in the eye by arrow-wielding Verne that finally does it in.
Judge's decision
It's tempting to declare the gruesome Prophecy Bear the winner on looks alone, for Grizzly, despite its ferocity, still looks like a big cuddly bear. But PB is an environmental avenger, and there is a sympathetic righteousness to its violence in defense of its home, its cubs, and its right to live free of industrial contaminants. Plus, it's killed by a city-slick MD using nothing more than a pointy stick. Grizzly kills for no reason but sport and snacks, and it takes a manly park ranger with an anti-tank weapon to bring him down. Winner: Grizzly.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Hang 'Em High: the Clint Eastwood primer

Hang 'Em High (1968), Clint Eastwood's first American western after the Sergio Leone trilogy, contains many of the motifs recurrent in Eastwood movies of the following decades, particularly his action movies and Westerns.

The lawman who clashes with the law
Eastwood's Marshal Jed Cooper repeatedly disagrees with his boss' idea of justice, at times seeing it as too lenient, at others too severe. This conflict is further played out in the Dirty Harry movies.

Delivering prisoners against great odds
Jed's cross-desert trek with three murderous cattle rustlers and no backup sets precedent for elements of Coogan's Bluff, Joe Kidd, The Gauntlet, and In the Line of Fire.

Back from the dead — for vengeance
Jed Cooper is left for dead twice‚ at the lynching that opens the film and the saloon shootout later on. Both times Cooper surprises his would-be assassins by reappearing and taking revenge, either with badge or gun. Other Eastwood characters make similar death-defying comebacks, symbolic or otherwise, in High Plains Drifter, Sudden Impact, Pale Rider, and Unforgiven.

Sex crime
Rachel Warren, Jed's love interest, is on constant watch for the men who raped her years ago. She looks at every prisoner brought before the judge, hoping one day she will see her assailants hang. Similarly victimized characters — several of them prostitutes — appear in The Outlaw Josey Wales, The Gauntlet, Sudden Impact, Tightrope, and Unforgiven.

The Clint Eastwood Repertory Company
Several actors appear frequently in Eastwood's movies. Hang 'Em High features regulars Pat Hingle (The Gauntlet, Sudden Impact) and Jack Ging (Play Misty for Me, High Plains Drifter).