Masterpiece. Masterpiece. Masterpiece. Masterpiece. I almost don’t want to write about Unforgiven, not because it’s been written about to death but because I could write about it all day (and you’ve seen the length of some of the articles I write, so you can believe me.) It’s one of my top five favorite movies, it is among the zeniths of arguably the greatest career in American movies, and it has what is in my opinion one of the greatest scripts ever brought to screen.
The truth is that almost anybody could have made a good movie with the script (originally titled “The Cut-Whore Killings”) by David Webb Peoples, but of course Clint was the best man for the job, because he brought the full weight of his literally-legendary cinematic persona to it. He also brought out the humor in it, which is something I notice that people scarcely mention about Unforgiven. Clint’s humor is such a part of his films. Clint’s brand of humor is a light touch – gentle and breezy, so subtle you could miss it sometimes. Why would you ever think that the guy with that squinty glare was joking? It’s easy to overlook. But you’d never care about William Munny’s friendship with Ned Logan, and you’d never feel the way you do about what happens to Ned and what Will does about it, if you didn’t have those light moments of humor that pass like gusts throughout the early going.
Unforgiven showcases what is maybe Clint’s greatest acting performance, as understated as ever but with vast reserves of rage and loss just beneath the surface. Every other actor in the movie rises to that level — particularly Gene Hackman, who won the Academy Award for his performance as the charmingly down-home yet viciously despotic Little Bill Daggett. Morgan Freeman is wonderful as always as William Munny’s trusted friend, Ned Logan, bringing a needed warmth to the movie. I’ve read examinations of Unforgiven that accuse the film of dodging the issue of race in the old West, since the presence of Morgan Freeman automatically makes it pertinent. I don’t buy those critiques. Ned’s eventual fate has everything to do with race, whether or not it was originally written that way, and despite the fact that the matter of race is never overtly stated or discussed. Unforgiven chooses to portray the matter using the most subtle method possible — with casting. What happens to Ned would be horrible if it happened to anyone. But when it happens to Morgan Freeman, there is a historic context that doesn’t need to be spoken.
Everything about Unforgiven evinces this theme, which I personally find so appealing as a mission statement: Emotional power can still be derived from subtety and understatement. Eastwood’s insistence on choosing and staying loyal to like-minded collaborators has everything to do with the lasting impact that is taken away from every viewing of Unforgiven. The score by jazz composer Lennie Niehaus is spare but unforgettable. The production design by Eastwood’s longtime collaborator Henry Bumstead is absorbing and utterly, invisibly convincing. The most invisible cinematic art of all is editing, and the work done on this film by editor Joel Cox should not be overlooked. (And it wasn’t, by the Academy Awards that year.)
And then there’s Jack Green’s cinematography in Unforgiven – it’s probably my favorite look of any movie ever. I wish that every movie looked like Unforgiven, but then I guess they wouldn’t be Unforgiven. It’s an important thing to talk about, how a movie looks. So many people write about movies, but never talk about what they look like. They talk about the script, which you can’t see, but not the photography, which you can. They talk about the most obvious virtues, like actors and their appearances, but not the next most obvious, and that’s the reason why stars look as good as they do. Movies are moving pictures, that’s what they are. Few pictures move me like Unforgiven, and yeah, in this case I know for a fact it’s because of how good the script is, and how good the actors are, but I also know that it has plenty to do with how it looks. And that’s a credit to Jack Green. For his work alone, Unforgiven demands to be looked at on as big a screen as possible.
Unforgiven screens tonight FOR FREE! in Brooklyn Bridge Park.
And you can find more from me here: @jonnyabomb