Archive for the ‘Claudia Cardinale’ Category

The Professionals (1966)

THE PROFESSIONALS is a politically-charged white-men-in-Mexico Western that starts out bombastic and boistrous and maintains that stance throughout.  The opening vignettes introduce the four lead characters in their most characteristic arenas.  Rico Fardan, the reserved, pragmatic, always-prepared leader, is shown testing out a new machine gun that you know full well you’ll eventually see him use, due to the fact he’s played by Lee Marvin.  Hans Ehrengard, the frontier-era horse whisperer, is shown punching the shit out of an animal abuser.  That’s quintessential Robert Ryan, doomed decency and temperamental violence often in the same character.  Jacob Sharp, the archer, is  bringing a live captive into town for sentencing.  As played by Woody Strode, he’s a proto-DJANGO [UNCHAINED-style], a calmly-effective bounty hunter in an unfriendly time for guys who look like him.  And Bill Dolworth, the devilish explosives expert, is first introduced in bed with a woman who we quickly find out is another man’s wife, because the guy is about to walk in the door and Dolworth is pulling on his longjohns and diving out the window.  Burt Lancaster, one of the greatest Hollywood leading men ever, could play noir and he could play arthouse drama, but here he’s the comic relief and the leading man all in one.

Lee + Burt

Burt Lancaster, Lee Marvin, Robert Ryan, and Woody Strode.  That is kind of an all-star super-team of old-school movie tough guys.  If I have to bring up THE A-TEAM to get some of you youngsters to go watch this lesser-acknowledged classic, then that’s what I’m going to do.  It’s clear where that popular 1980s action template came from — the grizzled and grey veteran soldier, the horndog ladies’ man, and the two other guys who handle all the transportation.  Four guys with their own individual and shared histories take on a dirty job no one else is able or ready to handle.

The Professionals (1966)

In THE PROFESSIONALS, these four rough riders are hired by big-business tycoon Ralph Bellamy — you know him best from a weirdly similar role in TRADING PLACES — to rescue his young wife from a marauding revolutionary who has taken her south of the border.  Bellamy perenially played a lovelorn shnook but here he’s an intriguingly nastier sort of character.  In the great Hollywood tradition of casting great stars in ethnically incongruous roles, Jack Palance plays the revolutionary, “Jesus Raza,” and the Tunisian-by-way-of-Italy bombshell Claudia Cardinale plays the Mexican-born “Maria,” an old flame of Raza’s, as it turns out.  If you’ve read my page before you already know how I feel about Claudia Cardinale. Or you could just look at a picture:

The Professionals (1966)

THE PROFESSIONALS is a great big-screen action classic, three-times Oscar-nominated, with some fascinating sociopolitical subtext.  Writer-director Richard Brooks (BLACKBOARD JUNGLE, CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF, IN COLD BLOOD) adapted Frank O’Rourke’s novel for screen with the legendary Conrad Hall (COOL HAND LUKE, BUTCH CASSIDY & THE SUNDANCE KID, FAT CITY, AMERICAN BEAUTY) believably and beautifully shooting California for Mexico.  The movie works just fine on the level of supreme entertainment, but if you read Richard Slotkin’s Gunfighter Nation, as I did when I was lucky enough to learn from him as an undergraduate, it becomes apparent that THE PROFESSIONALS is reflective of the era during which it was made.  The Professionals are comparable to the American Green Berets, an elite military-trained fighting force, who are sent into a foreign nation for dubious reasons and in the course of their adventure they become disillusioned with their mission.  Very potent stuff, but it’s buried under a rollicking mainstream Western facade.  The subtext is there if you want to think about it, but you can also just sit back and enjoy.

The Professionals (1966 film)

Since I’m a huge Robert Ryan fan, I do wish he had a little more shine in the movie.  According to some interviews on the Blu-Ray, Ryan wasn’t well during filming, which could explain it.  (I’m also a Woody Strode fan but unfortunately Woody Strode being underused in a film is somewhat more routine occurrence.)  Ryan and Strode, as the horse wrangler and the team scout, are really playing strong support to the buddy-movie pairing of Marvin and Lancaster, the gunman and the dynamite setter.  Ryan does play an interesting contrast to his frequent noir antihero persona, though.  This is one of his most thoroughly decent roles – Ryan’s horse expert is tender and protective of every horse the group encounters.  He’s one of those guys who seems to care more about animals than people, and who can blame him, in a movie where one species is clearly more consistently trustworthy than the other.  Many of this movie’s heroes have abandoned ideals for commerce when it begins.  What makes the movie ultimately so thrilling and rewarding, then, even more than the banter and the gunfights, is to watch them rediscover actual virtue.  That these Professionals end up refusing a hefty payday for the right reasons and manage to stick it to a corporate fatcat in the process is arguably even more satisfying today than in 1966.  Besides, who can resist the following exchange:


“Yes sir. In my case an accident of birth. But you sir, you’re a self-made man.”

THE PROFESSIONALS showed tonight at 92Y Tribeca but I didn’t get this piece up in time.  So:

Call me a bastard on Twitter:  @jonnyabomb

The Professionals (1966 film)

The Professionals (1966)

The Professionals (1966)

Looking over the list of my top fifty favorite movies today, it seem like a good time to expand a little bit on my writings on Sergio Leone’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST.  Some days it’s my second favorite movie of all time, after Leone’s own THE GOOD THE BAD & THE UGLY, and most critical writings on the movie call it Leone’s masterpiece.  Clint Eastwood played the lead in A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, he shared top billing with Lee Van Cleef in FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE, and they made it a trio in THE GOOD THE BAD & THE UGLY.  With ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, you have four main characters this time around, each time with their own personal musical cues courtesy of Leone’s most important collaborator, Ennio Morricone, and each one of the quartet  is among the most eternally memorable incarnations of the archetypes they are meant to represent:

The movie’s lonesome stranger, in a role originally offered to Clint Eastwood, is played by cinema’s other great stoneface, Charles Bronson.  His character is known only as Harmonica, and the reason why is a brilliant reveal which I wouldn’t dream of ruining. 

The charismatic rogue, who may or may not be on the side of the angels, is called Cheyenne and played by Jason Robards.  This is arguably the coolest character of all goddamned time, in my opinion.  The tragic romantic figure that the younger Robards was so good at playing is imbued with a terrific (and tremendously quotable) sense of humor in Leone’s hands.

The whore with the heart of gold, Jill, is played by Claudia Cardinale.  For my money, Claudia Cardinale in this movie is as beautiful as a human woman can look.  She’s great for a lot of other reasons, some of them I listed here when I named her my number one of all time, but you can’t argue with that face.

Frank, the bad man in the black hat, is played by all-American good guy Henry Fonda, and seriously speaking, he is one of the greatest villains ever.  I’m sorry to keep using generic platitudes, but that’s the kind of blindly expansive adoration that this movie elicits from me.  Frank has a cruelly and coldly sadistic introduction, and he maintains that level of villainy throughout the movie.

As you can tell from the title, Leone thought of ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST as “a fairy tale for adults,” and the fact that each one of these classic Western movie archetypes are simultaneously so broad and so memorable is proof that Leone succeeded.  This is a definitive Western, and a legitimately perfect movie.  It probably helps to go in on it with a working knowledge of Westerns, just so that you can see how Leone so definitively aced it, but I figure it’d be just as good even if you can’t tell a Colt from a Derringer from a Remington.

For plenty more about movies all the time, find me on Twitter@jonnyabomb

And we’re back!  Ready for round two.  Inspired again by my friend-in-movies at Rupert Pupkin Speaks, I’m re-presenting and reshuffling my top fifty movies of all time.  “Reshuffling” sounds a little more extreme than what I’ve done here — most of the titles remain the same, and the order isn’t much different.  But there’s a fair amount of new blood, and I’ve updated the links to any movies I’ve written about at length (those are bolded in red.) 

This list is absolutely subject to change, so keep watching this space, but while you’re at it, don’t forget to keep watching the skies.

1. THE GOOD, THE BAD, & THE UGLY (1966).


3. DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978).


5.  UNFORGIVEN (1992).

6.  KING KONG (1933).

7.  PREDATOR (1987).

8.  MANHUNTER (1986).


10.  MOTHER, JUGS & SPEED (1976).

11.  John Carpenter’s THE THING (1982).

12.  HEAT (1995).

13.  FREAKS (1932).

14. JAWS (1975).

15.  Berry Gordy’s THE LAST DRAGON (1985).

16.  THE WILD BUNCH (1969).

17.  SHAFT (1971).

18.  BEVERLY HILLS COP (1984).

19.  THE BIG GUNDOWN (1966).

20.  SEA OF LOVE (1989).


22.  EVIL DEAD 2 (1987).

23.  OUT OF SIGHT (1998).

24.  THE INSIDER (1999).

25.  ALLIGATOR (1980).

26.  COLLATERAL (2004).

27.  THE GREAT SILENCE (1968).




31. PRIME CUT (1972).

32. WATERMELON MAN (1970).


34.  25th HOUR (2002).

35.  COFFY (1973).

36. QUICK CHANGE (1990).

37.  MAGNOLIA (1999).

38.  HANNIE CAULDER (1971).


40.  48 HRS. (1982).

41.  GOODFELLAS (1990).

42.  SHOGUN ASSASSIN (1980).

43.  PURPLE RAIN (1984).

44.  THE UNHOLY THREE (1925).

45.  TRUE GRIT (2010).


47.  VIOLENT CITY aka THE FAMILY (1973).

48.  THE HIT (1984).


50.  ATTACK THE BLOCK (2011).

50 1/2.  The five-minute skeleton swordfight in JASON & THE ARGONAUTS (1963).


And that’s that…. for now.

For a little bit more all the time, find me on Twitter:  @jonnyabomb

For my money, the most beautiful woman ever to appear in movies is Claudia Cardinale.  No offense, Raquel.  It was a photo finish.
There are other reasons to see THE LEOPARD, the 1963 Italian historical epic directed by Luchino Visconti.  Big, important reasons, in fact.  But you’d better believe that Claudia Cardinale is the only thing I paid much of any attention to, the first time I saw the movie as a scrawny 19-year-old undergraduate.
In THE LEOPARD, Cardinale plays Angelica, the fiancée of the nephew of Burt Lancaster’s lead character, Don Fabrizio, an aging Sicilian patriarch who is watching older dynasties fade and younger generations arrive with increasing arrogance and decreasing couth.  Cardinale’s character is the incarnation of that generation gap, and the focus of some scorn by the nobles in the movie.
The Leopard
Serious students of the mechanics of cinema will appreciate the craft of Visconti’s direction of THE LEOPARD – the sweeping cinematography, the ornate production design, the insanely ornate costumes.  There is a legendary central ballroom sequence, elaborately choreographed and clocking in at forty-five minutes, that in my own weird way I might compare to the gunfights in HEAT.  Maybe it’s the length.
At 205 minutes in its full version (in other words: nearly three-and-a-half hours), THE LEOPARD a commitment.  Not to belabor a crude point, but it’s probably a commitment worth making for serious students of female beauty:  With only a small amount creepiness, I have to admit that, with all of the impeccable craft and historical weight of THE LEOPARD, the basic appeal of the movie hasn’t changed much for me, several years down the road.  To get a look at Claudia Cardinale on the big screen in this particular movie, 25 when this movie was made and at the peak of natural human attractiveness, is reason enough to make the trip to the theater any time it plays on one of its semi-regular revivals.
For the record:  Ladies shouldn’t feel left out, either – the man-pretty Alain Delon, the Brad Pitt of his day, plays Tancredi, Cardinale’s suitor.
THE LEOPARD is playing tonight at 7pm at the Rubin Museum Of Art as part of their Cabaret Cinema series, in which guests present international films that speak to them.  Tony-Award-winning costume designer William Ivey Long introduces tonight’s show.  If you miss the screening, the Criterion Collection recently released an incredible Blu-Ray edition.

And for more from someone who will never win an award for his wardrobe, follow me on Twitter:  @jonnyabomb

I probably should be doing about 50 other things at this very moment, but I saw this great top-50 list today and was inspired it to immediately answer it.  I made my list very, very quickly, so in plenty of ways it’s the most honest form a list like this could ever arrive in.  While the numbering is fairly arbitrary (until the top five, where shit gets definite) and while the contents could easily change as soon as five minutes from now, this is still a fairly good representation of what a top fifty movies list from me should look like.  Anyway, let’s hit it.  Links where they fit.  I eagerly await any and all comments you might make!

50. Watermelon Man (1970).

49. Fletch (1985).

48. The Great Silence (1968).

47. Creature From The Black Lagoon (1954).

46. The Hit (1984).

45. Knightriders (1981).

44. The Night Of The Hunter (1955).

43. Of Unknown Origin (1983).

42. Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid (1973).

41. Prime Cut (1972).

40. Grosse Pointe Blank (1997).

39. Coffy (1973).

38. Trainspotting (1996).

37. In Bruges (2008).

36. Quick Change (1990).

35. Collateral (2004).

34. Out Of Sight (1998).

33. Halloween (1978).

32. Magnolia (1999).

31. Raising Arizona (1987).

30. Escape From New York (1981).

29. Shogun Assassin (1980).

28. Goodfellas (1990).

27. Purple Rain (1984).

26. True Grit (2010).

25. The Unholy Three (1925).

24. My Darling Clementine (1946).

23. The Insider (1999).

22. Alligator (1980).

21. Animal House (1978).

20. High Plains Drifter (1973).

19. Freaks (1932).

18. Beverly Hills Cop (1984).

17. An American Werewolf In London (1981).


16. Predator (1987).


15. Jaws (1975).

14. Shaft (1971).

13. Evil Dead 2 (1987).


12. The Wild Bunch (1969).

11. Manhunter (1986).

10. Mother, Jugs & Speed (1976).

9. Heat (1995).

8. King Kong (1933).

7. John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982).

6. Big Trouble In Little China (1986).

5. Unforgiven (1992).

4. Dawn Of The Dead (1978).

3. Ghostbusters (1984).

2. Once Upon A Time In The West (1968).


1. The Good The Bad & The Ugly (1966).


Time to pretty up this here website…


Not to knock the guys in the cast, but I’m in a Claudia Cardinale kind of mood today.  Hopefully y’all can understand the sentiment.


Here’s another great one for the archive:


By Jon Abrams • 06.04.2010 • Blogs

First of all, “Spaghetti” is in quotes up there because Sergio Leone reportedly never liked the term “Spaghetti Westerns.” I may have to use the term because that’s how the genre is commonly known, but if Sergio didn’t dig the nomenclature then I don’t either. Respect.


Last week, The Onion’s A.V. Club posted a primer for “Spaghetti” Westerns, the genre of films that encompasses the Western films that were made in Europe (primarily in and around Italy by Italian filmmakers) in the 1960s and 1970s.  The writer of the article, Keith Phipps, does a thorough and admirable job of spotlighting most of the genre’s highlights and explaining why they’re so good.  I really recommend that you read the article, which includes YouTube links so that you can watch the trailers.

But really all it did was remind me that I’ve been meaning to do this myself for you all, for nearly as long as I’ve been posting these columns.  Besides the A.V. Club article, I’m getting signs all over the place:  This week on the main page you’ll see a couple of the movies that I’m going to cover on the list below, and due to the birthday of the patron saint of the genre on Memorial Day, Turner Classic Movies aired the original “Dollars” trilogy. 

So there’s clearly no better time for me to talk about one of my very favorite genres of film.  Let’s start near the beginning:


A Fistful of Dollars (Per un Pugno di Dollari) (1964)

Director: Sergio Leone

A Fistful Of Dollars wasn’t the very first entry in the genre they call “Spaghetti Western,” but it sure as hell was the spark that lit the firing pin.  Sergio Leone is arguably the greatest and certainly the best known and most influential of the “Spaghetti” directors.  He started out working on historical epics, and was somewhat hilariously credited as “Bob Robertson” on the American release of this, his first Western, but the name Sergio Leone is now synonymous with the genre.

Leone’s inspired approach was right there in Fistful – his absolute mastery of the widescreen frame, his deliberate and confident pacing, and his enlisting of his most important collaborator, composer Ennio Morricone, whose name will recur on just about every movie on the list you’re about to read.  Morricone is the most innovative and experimental of the great film composers – there is literally nothing in movies like a Morricone score.  Leone reportedly played selections from Morricone’s scores on the set – a brilliant inspiration that was unprecedented then, and completely unheard of today.

The plot of Fistful is an appropriation of the story from Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo – a taciturn stranger strolls into a town that is ruled by a feud between two warring families, and plays them against each other for his own gain.  In this movie the families are recast as the Baxters and the Rojos, which adds a dash of racial tension to the mix, but not really.  Leone wasn’t really concerned with social implications, and besides, the Rojos are mostly played by Italians – including popular “Spaghetti” fixture Gian Maria Volonte.

Of course, the main legacy of A Fistful Of Dollars, beyond its world-changing score and the fact that it remains entertainment of the highest order, is that it brought us Clint Eastwood.  Leone took a guy who was wrapping up eight years on a TV show that is now largely forgotten but for its theme song (Rawhide) and cast him perfectly as the mysterious lead, who despite the famous “Man With No Name” ad campaign, does have a name here.  It’s “Joe.”  Of course there isn’t a last name, or anything resembling a backstory.  Whether Joe’s sparse dialogue was a function of character or a response to the international nature of the production, he sure doesn’t talk too much, and when he does, it either means a mountain, or it reflects a sense of the blackest humor.  This introduced the main Eastwood persona that has proven a durable basis for five unprecedented decades of the greatest career in movies.

If you’re looking for an entry point, this movie is the best possible choice.


For A Few Dollars More (Per Qualche Dollaro in Più) (1965)

D: Leone

The title indicates a sequel to A Fistful Of Dollars, but it’s not in any way a continuation of the previous movie.  Again, Clint’s character does have a name – “Monco” – but unless you want to imagine that he’s a drifter who changes his name from town to town and movie to movie, there’s no indication that he’s the same character. 

He definitely has a cooler sidekick this time around – not that the bartender from Fistful isn’t a lot of fun, but More’s Lee Van Cleef is one of the baddest badasses ever to step in front of a camera.  Leone cast the journeyman supporting player because he thought he looked like a hawk, and goddamn if Sergio wasn’t right on.  Here Van Cleef plays Colonel Mortimer, who actually turns out to be a good guy, and the true protagonist of the movie.  Clint’s character is more of a friendly rival, a bounty hunter, mostly in it for the money, whereas Van Cleef’s motive turns out to be more personal.

The two of them are pursuing El Indio, a well-known criminal and a wanted man.  He’s played by Gian Maria Volonte (him again), who plays Indio in what will become a Leone fixture – the thoroughly despicable villain who has his moments of poetry.  Indio is a vicious killer, an animal really, but as played by Volonte and directed by Leone (and scored by Morricone), he still somehow manages to resonate with a melancholy, even tragic air. 

Leone’s Westerns do not have an absolutist morality, the way that so many American Westerns were known to have.  Look at how Clint is portrayed in these movies:  We read him as a hero, but less because he’s written that way and more because he’s Clint and we love him.  In the unusual moral universe of For A Few Dollars More, Clint’s character isn’t all that great a guy, a career villain like Lee Van Cleef can play the hero, and even the worst villains provide the movies with their most romantic moments.


The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Il Buono, il Brutto, il Cattivo.) (1966)

D: Leone

What can you say about your favorite movie?  This one is mine.

There’s literally nothing I can write about The Good The Bad & The Ugly that hasn’t already been written.  It’s not exactly an underrated movie.  It’s certainly the most straight-ahead entertaining great movie that regularly makes the greatest-ever lists. 

Watching it again last Monday, I was struck by the fact that it doesn’t have much of an agenda beyond storytelling.  It’s not a grand statement on humanity or history.  It’s a story.  As the poster’s tagline (one of the best ever written), “For three men, the Civil War wasn’t hell.  It was PRACTICE!”  Sure, for some characters in this demented picaresque, war is hell, but for the three leads, the archetypes in the title, war is just an appropriately chaotic backdrop for their self-involved quest.  The whole thing is about three guys looking for buried treasure!  Good, Bad, Ugly:  Does it really matter? They all have the same damn goal.

The Good The Bad & The Ugly is a callback to the previous Leone classic in that it stars the blond/brunet tandem of Clint Eastwood (The Good) and Lee Van Cleef (The Bad), although it escalates the setting and the scale (and the running time) to an operatic degree.  What’s really fascinating to me about this movie the more I watch it is that Eli Wallach (The Ugly) is truly the star of the movie.  The movie begins and ends with him, and he seems to have the most screen time by a wide margin.  After the first introductory scenes of The Good and The Bad, I don’t think either of them have a scene that doesn’t also include The Ugly.  He not only has a first and last name, but a ton of middle names (Tuco Benedicto Pacifico Juan Maria Ramirez) AND an alias (a.k.a. The Rat), and he is the only one with the backstory (a life of crime begun to aid sick parents, which has now alienated him from his brother the priest).  Meanwhile, Clint’s character has a name but probably one that Tuco gave him – “Blondie” – and Van Cleef is referred to as “Angel-Eyes” – which is hilarious if it was also given him by Tuco, but either way is still an alias.  The Good The Bad & The Ugly is really Tuco’s movie.

Again, the underrated scriptwriting of Leone and his staff and the accurately-praised career-highlight score of Morricone, along with the cinematography of Tonino Delli Colli, have everything to do with the perfection of The Good The Bad & The Ugly, but the importance of the casting of Eli Wallach to the tone of the movie should not be underestimated.  He brings a wealth of serious training to the role, but also a go-for-broke sense of humor.  There’s a real mischievous sparkle in Tuco’s eye – he’s a quintessential survivor and a classic rogue.  Wallach really commits to this role – you couldn’t call him handsome in this movie, and his accent is as solid as any gringo has ever pulled off.  And he’s funny.  Holy shit.  This movie is so damn funny, without ever losing its mythic grandeur.

It’s weird though – for a movie that defines its three main characters in such rigid terms, “good,” “bad,” and “ugly,” the morality (or faltering degree of such) isn’t remotely as rigid.  Clint’s character doesn’t do much good for anyone outside of offering and lighting a couple of cigars, and even Angel-Eyes, as unrelentingly violent as he can be, clearly operates under a certain code of behavior.  Tuco doesn’t seem to have any rules or boundaries or philosophy – just greed, gluttony, and self-preservation – but at least we have a faint suggestion of how he became that way, so even he isn’t strictly “Ugly.”  So it’s not a morality play.  It’s just a story.  It’s just a story, but it’s the one I’d watch all the way through, any time of night or day, right now if I could.

Once Upo (C’era una volta il West)n a Time in the West (1968)

D: Leone 

Okay, well this one also makes the personal top ten.  Some days it’s my second favorite movie of all time, and most writings on the movie call it Leone’s masterpiece.  You have four main characters this time around, each time with their own personal musical cues courtesy of Morricone, and each one of them is among the most eternally memorable incarnations of the archetypes they are meant to represent:

The movie’s lonesome stranger, in a role originally offered to Clint Eastwood, is played by cinema’s other great stoneface, Charles Bronson.  His character is known only as Harmonica, and the reason why is a brilliant reveal which I wouldn’t dream of ruining. 

The charismatic rogue, who may or may not be on the side of the angels, is called Cheyenne and played by Jason Robards.  This is arguably the coolest character of all goddamned time, in my opinion.  The tragic romantic figure that the younger Robards was so good at playing is imbued with a terrific (and tremendously quotable) sense of humor in Leone’s hands.

The whore with the heart of gold, Jill, is played by Claudia Cardinale.  For my money, Claudia Cardinale in this movie is as beautiful as a human woman can look.  She’s great for a lot of other reasons, some of them I listed here when I named her my number one of all time, but you can’t argue with that face.

Frank, the bad man in the black hat, is played by all-American good guy Henry Fonda, and seriously speaking, he is one of the greatest villains ever.  I’m sorry to keep using generic platitudes, but that’s the kind of blindly expansive adoration that this movie elicits from me.  Frank has a cruelly and coldly sadistic introduction, and he maintains that level of villainy throughout the movie.

As you can tell from the title, Leone thought of Once Upon A Time In The West as “a fairy tale for adults,” and the fact that each one of these classic Western movie archetypes are simultaneously so broad and so memorable is proof that Leone succeeded.  This is a definitive Western, and a legitimately perfect movie.  It probably helps to go in on it with a working knowledge of Westerns, just so that you can see how Leone so definitively aced it, but I figure it’d be just as good even if you can’t tell a Colt from a Derringer from a Remington.

A Fistful of Dynamite (Duck, You Sucker) (Giu la testa) (1971)

D: Leone

Just so you don’t think that I’m some crazy fool with a Leone monomania, I will admit that Duck, You Sucker is not a favorite of mine.  I’ve only seen it twice, and I’m not dying to see it again the way I am with the other four movies I’ve mentioned so far.  It’s good, and it’s fun, but it’s nowhere near as much of either as the better-known Leone movies are.  This is a Rod Steiger/ James Coburn buddy picture, which is pretty great in my world, but not remotely as great as a Clint Eastwood/ Lee Van Cleef buddy picture.

To make matters weirder, Rod Steiger is playing a Mexican here.  He’s playing the Eli Wallach role, but he’s not remotely as perfect as I believe Wallach to be.  Rod Steiger is a great actor, and he can do a great Southern accent (see In The Heat Of The Night), but he probably shouldn’t have headed any further south.  However, that’s not as weird to me as James Coburn’s Irish accent is.  Coburn is a great, underrated badass of cinema, but for some reason the accent doesn’t play well with me.  He’s way more convincing as an Irishman than Steiger is as a Mexican, but I think it might be one too many accents for one three-hour movie.

Also, this movie has one of the most bizarre and eventually cloying scores that Morricone ever wrote – and I’ve gone deep in the catalogue, so I know the extents of bizarreness of which the man is capable.  You won’t forget it, but you probably won’t want to hear it again either.

On the plus side, a whole lot of things blow up in this movie.  We Americans love our cinematic explosions, and for that reason maybe this movie deserves to be better remembered.  Coburn’s character is an artisan with dynamite, and that’s how his character and Steiger’s bond.  That gives me a good chuckle, by the way; two dudes bonding over a love of dynamite.  But the movie never really gets better than its title (either of ‘em) – again, it’s good, but that title promises a lot more insanity than the movie ultimately wants to provide.

Don’t let me steer you away – any Leone is worth seeing, and you’ll want to get around to it if you’re half as much a Leone fan as I am.  But this is definitely not the place to start.  It could be off-putting to newcomers.  Not for nothing, but Leone never made another Western after Duck, You Sucker.  He only even made one more movie after this one (Once Upon A Time In America), but of course there were different reasons for that, and that’s a story for another time.


My Name Is Nobody (Il mio nome è Nessuno) (1973)

D: Tonino Valerii

Tonino Valerii was Leone’s assistant director.  While My Name Is Nobody enlisted Valerii as director, it was produced by Leone, and, reportedly, Leone directed some scenes in it too.  That’s surprising, because it doesn’t feel too much like a Leone film.  It’s way more broadly comic than anything in the Leone canon, and the humor isn’t nearly as sharp in my opinion.  Part of that is due to the fact that the movie’s star, Terence Hill, is no Clint Eastwood.  Hill was an Italian actor who went on to star in a few more movies like this one, including the comedic “Trinity” Spaghetti Westerns – he’s fine, but compared to a roster that includes Eastwood, Bronson, Wallach, Robards, and Coburn, he just doesn’t hold the weight.

The best reason to see this movie is Henry Fonda, who plays a much less villainous role.  Here he’s Jack Beauregard, a famous gunslinger who wants to retire in peace but is continually being challenged.  From what I understand, Fonda enjoyed working with Leone and was interested in doing it again.  He’s always worth watching, but with images of Frank still fresh in mind, the character pales in comparison. 

My Name Is Nobody has a great title and an interesting (if purposefully goofy) score by Morricone, but to my eyes it’s more of a curiosity.  It’s interesting because of Leone’s involvement and because parts of it were shot in the United States – previously Spaghetti Westerns were shot largely in Spain – but it’s not a hallmark of the genre by any stretch.

Interestingly, there is a supporting role for Geoffrey Lewis (Juliette’s dad), who went on to be a stock player in Clint’s movies.  I wonder if Sergio recommended him to Clint.  I bet Geoffrey Lewis is a guy with some amazing stories to tell.  (You’d recognize him if you saw him, if not by name.)


Navajo Joe (A Dollar A Head) (Savage Run) (1966)

D: Sergio Corbucci

Corbucci!  Okay, cool:  Now we’re getting to some stuff you may have heard less about.  Navajo Joe is a thoroughly underrated Italian Western, even among cinephiliacs who know about ‘em.  It begins with a legitimately brutal opening scene, and continues through, at a slightly less violent pace, with some memorably cool cinematography by Silvano Ippoliti.  It features the third-hottest lady I’ve seen in a spaghetti Western (the first was Claudia Cardinale, the second is coming up soon) – her name is Nicoletta Machiavelli, really!  Other things to keep an eye and ear out for in Navajo Joe:  A villain who looks very much like Jimmy Kimmel; the biggest nose ever formed on a comedy sidekick’s face; a familiar Morricone score if you’ve seen Kill Bill or Election (Tarantino and Payne know their film history), and BURT REYNOLDS.  Yes, this is an early starring role for Clint’s buddy Burt Reynolds, and, I believe, his only Western.  Burt’s pretty serious here, which isn’t what he’s best known to be, but as an action lead, he’s pretty good.  As a Navajo Indian, no less!  Also, he gets to utter what has become one of my favorite movie quotes ever:  “Some jobs a man can’t do.  But the big blond can do it… maybe.”   

Check this one out; it’s pretty fun.





Django (1966)

D: Corbucci

First of all, Corbucci’s productivity was pretty amazing during this period.  This is the second of three Corbucci movies released in 1966 alone!  Once you’ve seen the movies though, it’s fascinating to consider that Corbucci made Navajo Joe and Django in the same year.  As I noted, Navajo Joe is extremely violent, but compared to Django, it’s like a Diane Keaton comedy.  Django is ridiculously violent (that infamous ear scene from Reservoir Dogs was a lift from Django.)  Also, at least Navajo Joe cracks a smile – Django is unremittingly grim.  That may be due to the difference between the films’ two stars:  Whatever else he may be, Franco Nero is no Burt Reynolds. 

Franco Nero is a name that is going to come up a few more times on this list of movies.  He’s had a long career in Italian films – in terms of box office, he actually was their Burt Reynolds, in a way, just not as funny.  Nero appeared in a prodigious amount of Westerns and crime movies in this period – he was the go-to guy.  It makes sense, I guess; he’s a striking guy who looks convincing in period costumes and can truly rock a mustache – he just isn’t a very expressive actor.  He sure was game, though – Django is notoriously violent.  Its most famous image is that of the lead character dragging a coffin around with him everywhere he goes.  I won’t tell you what’s in it, but let’s just say that it’s not good news for anybody who crosses Django. 

Since it’s another spin on Yojimbo and I’m a huge Fistful Of Dollars guy, I’m not as big a fan of Django as I am of some other Corbuccis, but I’m in the minority there – Django was and still is immensely popular, and it incited several official and unofficial sequels, which seem to still be happening occasionally!


I Crudeli (The Cruel Ones) (The Hellbenders) (1967)

D: Corbucci

“Spaghetti” Westerns occasionally launched stars, the way it happened for Clint, and more frequently reinvigorated the careers of established stars, as we saw with Henry Fonda, but sometimes they were just a paycheck for stars whose shine was fading.  Joseph Cotten seems to be that kind of a case.  An immensely likable actor who was a confederate of Orson Welles (you’ll recognize Cotten from Citizen Kane and The Third Man) and had his fair share of leading roles, Cotton didn’t exactly find his career highlight with The Hellbenders.  Here he plays a patriarch of a family of twisted morality who is trying to restart the Confederacy by obtaining a coffin full of money.  Things don’t go as planned.

It’s strange that I adore several Corbucci films but recoil so much at this one – maybe it’s that Corbucci was working so much that he was bound to turn out a clunker, or maybe it’s just my personal taste.  I have a lot of trouble watching violence done to women, and this movie has a surplus of that.  Violence against women is an unfortunate commonality in Italian Westerns, but it can usually be explained away as having a story-based reason for being, and besides, the men get it way worse.  But this time around, the violence seemed particularly unpleasant to me.  If you’re working off my recommendations, I’d say that The Hellbenders is low priority, but of course, every movie has its champions and there are many who would disagree with me.


The Great Silence (Il Grande silenzio) (1968)

D: Sergio Corbucci

Remember when I said I had a list of the three hottest women ever to be in Spaghetti Westerns?  Well here’s where you can find the second one, and when you’re talking about the runner-up to Claudia Cardinale, you know you’re doing well.  Her name is Vonetta McGee and she’s pretty lovely.  Unfortunately, the sight of her is the happiest thing about The Great Silence.  While filmmaker Alex Cox insists that The Great Silence is the best of the Spaghetti Westerns and it’s a point with a fair amount of ammunition behind it, it’s also true that The Great Silence is one of the most depressing movies ever.

Here’s when I said when I named it #2 on my list of The Top Ten Winter Movies Of All Time:

Sergio Corbucci’s The Great Silence is among the best-regarded of Italian Westerns – it’s about a mute gunslinger that tries to help a small community who have been besieged by vicious criminals led by the ever-disturbing Klaus Kinski. And it all takes place on a wooded frontier blanketed with snow – even the horses have a hell of a time getting anywhere. The Great Silence has probably THE down ending of all time, and the score by Ennio Morricone is one of the most haunting I’ve ever heard. If you think you can handle it, then I couldn’t recommend this movie any more highly.

The Great Silence is even crushingly sad offscreen – its most likable character, played by Once Upon A Time In The West’s Frank Wolff, took his own life not long after the film’s release.


Compañeros  (Vamos a matar, compañeros) (1970)

D: Sergio Corbucci

Oh, I love Compañeros.  This is a really fun one.  It stars Franco Nero, who for some reason really resembles Viggo Mortensen in this movie only, and Tomas Milian, who you’re about to meet two entries down from this one.  The two leads have a funky, international rhythm together (one is from Italy, the other is from Cuba, and they are playing Swedish and Mexican, respectively), and in all the movies I’ve seen him in, Nero has never been more lively and funny.  Milian always is lively and funny.

The villain is Jack Palance, and there’s where this movie goes over the top.  Palance’s character has a wooden arm and a pet hawk and the two items are related.  He’s got this weird rapport with this bird that you will absolutely love, especially if you enjoyed Mickey Rourke’s routine in Iron Man 2.  Also, if you love seeing people buried up to their necks in sand (a strange pleasure of movies to be found in films as diverse as Creepshow, The Scorpion King and One Crazy Summer), then this is your movie.  It probably shouldn’t be your starting point into the weird and wonderful world of “Spaghetti” Westerns, but once you’ve seen a couple of the high-water marks for a main course, you’ll get a kick out of this one for a dessert.  Extra points for the theme song by Morricone, which you won’t want to get unstuck from your head.


A Bullet for the General (El chuncho, quien sabe?) (1966)

D: Damiano Damiani

One strange cultural undercurrent of the “Spaghetti” Western is its evocation of period-specific politics.  American Westerns are known for having within them the subgenre of “Mexico Westerns”, where unaffiliated characters get wrapped up in the revolutionary movements of that country at that time.  (The most famous example of such is probably The Wild Bunch, with other examples including Vera Cruz, The Magnificent Seven, and Major Dundee.)  It’s historically fascinating and maybe even a little bizarre that Italian Westerns picked up on that, but they did.

Compañeros was one example of the Mexico Western transplanted to Italy – another example is A Bullet For The General.  This example, however, is not nearly as cinematically memorable.  It was cool to see Gian Maria Volonte take on a lead role as the outlaw who finds meaning in revolution, but that was more for me as a fan of A Fistful Of Dollars and For A Few Dollars More.  Genre regulars Klaus Kinski and Aldo Sambrell also make appearances, but again, that only serves to remind that they were in more fun movies than this one.  My rating for A Bullet For The General:  Academically interesting, but not remotely as rollicking and exciting as this next entry…


Corri, uomo, corri (Run, Man, Run) (1968)

D: Sergio Sollima

Rent this one pronto.  You need more?  Okay…

Sergio Sollima is considered the most political of the makers of Italian Westerns.  I can’t speak to that in depth, since I’ve only seen three of his films, two of them crime flicks – The Family (a.k.a. Violent City), starring Charles Bronson and Revolver, starring Oliver Reed – and the other one Run, Man, Run, starring Tomas Milian, who was once a big international star but who you’d only now recognize from a small role in Soderbergh’s Traffic, if at all.  But Milian was a livewire presence in a ton of Westerns, and this is the best of them. 

Run, Man, Run is kind of a picaresque, or a man-on-the-run movie, and Milian’s character Cuchillo is a larger-than-life Bugs Bunny kind of character.  The name Cuchillo alone sounds more than a little naughty to gringo ears, and I think it’s of a piece with the movie’s anarchic spirit.  Run, Man, Run is firstly very, very funny, and an energetic blast.  It’s the easiest to find of Sollima’s Westerns – thanks to the amazing DVD label Blue Underground – and I really hope that I get to track down more.  Check out the trailer – that’s Tomas Milian himself caterwauling over the hellaciously catchy theme song (by Morricone, naturally.)


I Quattro dell’apocalisse (Four of the Apocalypse) (1975)

D: Lucio Fulci

I was expecting a lot more from this movie.  A) Cool title.  B) Eclectic cast, including the aforementioned Tomas Milian and Michael J. Pollard from Bonnie & Clyde and Scrooged.  C) Director best known for zombie horror (Lucio Fulci.)  It doesn’t meet those expectations.  The four in the title are a gambler, a whore, a drunk, and a guy who sees dead people.  Tomas Milian plays the villain, but he’s shackled with a character who’s all despicable, without a single chance at humor.  When a movie is this bleak, it should be for an appropriate genre – “Spaghetti” Western connoisseurs are looking for more fireworks and one-liners with their maimings, victimized women, and down endings.  I’m being arch, but the real problem is that Four Of The Apocalypse is not an attractively photographed movie – it just plain looks unpleasant.  As harrowing as it is, at least The Great Silence has moments of great cinematic beauty and inspiration.  If someone out there disagrees, please let me know, but otherwise, I say look for apocalypses elsewhere.


Keoma (Django’s Great Return) (The Violent Breed) (1976)

D: Enzo G. Castellari

Enzo G. Castellari – that’s my man!  This guy directed just about every genre of movie under the sun (and many that don’t belong in daylight) – he may be the ultimate midnight-movie director.  He’s a mentor of Tarantino’s, having directed the original Inglorious Bastards (which I’d choose over the newer movie any day of the week – no offense, Quentin!).  That said, Keoma is a hard watch. 

It’s not really the movie’s fault.  Franco Nero is reliably solid as a part-Indian gunman on a revenge quest, and there’s a good supporting cast, including the legendary Woody Strode and genre stalwart Donald O’Brien.  There are a couple interestingly filmed gun battles too.  The problem is the movie’s score.  We are a very long way from Morricone territory here.  The movie’s theme song is sung by a wailing woman who’s operating in a pitch only dogs can hear.  I think my neighbor’s window shattered while I was watching Keoma.  And that song plays over and over again. 
If you can figure out a way to isolate the Keoma theme song out of Keoma, I say it’s worth a look.  Otherwise, you have plenty of other neat Castellari features out there to choose from. 

P.S.  No actual connection to Django


Mannaja (A Man Called Blade) (1977)

D: Sergio Martino

Some genres don’t have the good sense to know when to end.  So it is with the “Spaghetti” Western, which continued until the early 1980s (!).  That’s not entirely fair to Mannaja, which isn’t awful.  It just feels like an afterthought, or at best, a late-period work that lacks the stylistic innovation and cultural value of the movies that beat it to the punch.  Mannaja has its moments, most of which relating to the title character’s facility with throwing an axe, and maybe not coincidentally, there are a couple of spooky atmospheric visuals that have more in common with horror movies.  But that atmosphere is frequently undone by the constantly repeating theme song, which sounds like a duet between David Bowie and Leonard Cohen, if both singers had suffered a diving accident.


100 Rifles (1979)

D: Tom Gries

Okay, okay – 100 Rifles doesn’t really belong on this list.  It’s an American production, with an American director and American movie stars.  I’m only including it because if you enjoyed some of the other movies I mentioned, you might enjoy this one too.  It’s an enjoyable cinematic footnote, as one of the first movies to feature an interracial sex scene (between stars Jim Brown and Raquel Welch), and one of the surprisingly common movies that feature Burt Reynolds as a Native American.  (Wikipedia says that Burt is actually part Cherokee, so it’s not as strange as you think.)  Of course, it’s probably most famous in the world of the internet for the scene where Raquel Welch causes a distraction by taking an open-air shower in a white shirt, but that’s not such a bad reward for all of you who were nice enough to read this far.  Here’s the YouTube link:  


And here ends this guided tour of “Spaghetti” Westerns.  I hope you enjoyed reading it, and I really hope that something you read here inspires you to watch or rewatch some of the movies I recommended.  This list was hardly comprehensive, so if you go out and find something I may not have seen, let me know about it!

 McCabe & Mrs. Miller.

The Disappearance Of Alice Creed.

Big Deal On Madonna Street.

Night Train To Munich.

127 Hours.


When you get in a habit of writing about movies and their makers, you get in a secondary habit of writing memorial pieces to the dearly departed.  Looking back doesn’t have to be a melancholy process; it can also be an occasion to celebrate favorite film presences who always deserve the attention.

Today, November 11th, is Robert Ryan’s birthday.  If you don’t know who he is, I’m about to help you with that.

Robert Ryan is one of the great unsung movie stars of the past century.  While it’s certainly fair to classify Robert Ryan as “unsung”, it may not be entirely accurate to generalize him as a movie star – while he had the occasional lead role and his headshot lines the walls of the Formosa alongside much more famous names, Ryan was more often a supporting player, a character actor, and very often, a heavy.

It’s somewhat fitting that today is Veteran’s Day, as Ryan served in the United States Marine Corps as a drill instructor during World War II.  He was also a boxer, a ranch hand, and an attempted playwright.  When he entered movies as a contract player at [initially] RKO Pictures, film noir was the name of the game, and Ryan was a perfect, if unlikely, fit for the genre.  He was equally adept at playing cops and killers, and so he did, for the majority of his career (sometimes even playing both at once).  As he started looking older, he started getting cast more often as generals and men out of step with changing times.  Never could he have been cast as an out-and-out weakling, but very rarely was he allowed to play a thoroughly decent man either.

I suggested that Robert Ryan was an unlikely fit for the dozens of tough-guy roles he played because he was in real life a pacifist and a prominent civil rights activist.  More than that, though, all you have to do is look at a still photograph of Robert Ryan to wonder how he ever got pigeonholed as a tough guy.  He had the heavyweight boxer’s frame and the dark brow of a tough guy, and clearly the integrity and the talent, but there is a kindness and an obvious sensitivity in his eyes that cannot be missed.  Maybe it’s that dichotomy that was so endlessly fascinating to directors and casting agents.  He looks immediately like a good guy; maybe that’s why it was so shocking and effective when he played against that initial impression.  That conflicted image is still potent and alive and born out by his many performances if you watch them today.

There’s not a ton written about Robert Ryan.  There are a couple scarce or out-of-print biographies, but otherwise I’ve just used the internet and David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary Of Film to write this piece.  The best place to learn about Robert Ryan, fittingly, is in his movies.  Here are some of my favorite Robert Ryan roles (a couple are probably already familiar to you, but some, like The Outfit, are harder to find, and I am still questing to see them myself!):

Crossfire (1947)

In this movie, Robert Ryan plays one of a group of American soldiers released home from the military.  One of them apparently killed another man, and Robert Mitchum and Robert Young play the investigating officers in the case.  The motive turns out to have been anti-Semitism, and the guilty man turns out to be Ryan’s character.  It’s a testament to his frightening talent that it’s not immediately apparent that Ryan is playing a hateful murderer, and that he’s never quite entirely, one-sidedly, despicable either.  The horrifying thing about racists is that they begin as people, before hatred twists them into the demons they are, and Robert Ryan resolutely illustrates this idea in this movie.

Also, in a movie with a surplus of ‘Robert’s, including the venerable Mitchum, he stands out as the most memorable.

Act Of Violence (1948)

This is a quietly astounding movie, one which is not as well-remembered as it could be.  Directed by Fred Zinnemann (who also made High Noon and From Here To Eternity), Robert Ryan plays a crippled POW who returns to plague a local war hero, played by Van Heflin (from Shane), and his young wife, played by Janet Leigh (of Psycho fame).  Ryan is so furious in his pursuit that Heflin, in desperation, turns to some shady characters for protection.  Why is Ryan’s character so intent on wreaking vengeance on such an all-American hero (and his former friend)?  The answer to that question is truly surprising – it’s one of the great morality plays of the film noir era.  In Act Of Violence, Ryan literally appears from shadows; he’s intense, and scary, and ultimately, entirely within comprehension, as the kind of tormented figure that can emerge from wartime.


The Set-Up (1949)

The Set-Up is another film noir, this one directed by the versatile Robert Wise.  Though shot in film noir tradition with film noir themes of steep odds and tragic heroism, The Set-Up is primarily a sterling example of a boxing picture, and it is a widely-acknowledged inspiration for Martin Scorsese while shooting Raging Bull.  (I guarantee you that Quentin Tarantino saw it too, when considering Bruce Willis’ storyline in Pulp Fiction.)  In this movie, Robert Ryan plays an over-the-hill boxer who discovers that he’s expected to take a dive by a powerful gangster.  He’s a loser several times over, but he’s not about to lose for lack of trying – but there’s a price to standing up against the underworld.  That price is apparent through the pummeling Ryan takes throughout the movie.  He was seldom better cast – imposing enough to be credible as a professional boxer, but at heart, lacking of the drive and the viciousness of the most successful champions.  He’s too down-to-earth, too human for that.  Essential Robert Ryan.

The Racket (1951)

Another film noir, The Racket was actually a remake of an earlier, Howard Hughes produced, Academy Award nominated film.  Just goes to show that remakes aren’t always a terrible thing.  The Racket is a fairly straightforward story of an incorruptible cop who goes up against an otherwise unstoppable crime boss.  It’s a story at least as old as cinema itself, but one thing that distinguishes it  — besides the classic tough-guy dialogue — is the casting of Roberts Mitchum and Ryan, reteamed from Crossfire, as the two polar opposites.  Guess who plays who?  Actually, maybe it’s not necessarily that obvious.  Both stars had a tremendous capacity for menace as well as embattled decency, but in this case Mitchum is the cop and Ryan is the crook.  The Racket is a solid B-picture, maybe not as transcendent as some others of the same vintage, but for certain fans of studio-era crime movies, this could be considered the Heat of its day.

The Naked Spur (1953)

For his role in this movie, I put Robert Ryan on my list of the top twenty movie villains of all time.  Already well-practiced at threatening Janet Leigh on screen (as in Act Of Violence), Ryan also gives Jimmy Stewart a run for his money in The Naked Spur, the third of the batch of five dark-themed Westerns that Stewart made with director Anthony Mann.  Those who only know Jimmy Stewart from the perception of the idealistic and square persona that he is believed to have embodied in several Frank Capra films (a perception that isn’t entirely accurate to begin with) would be surprised to see Stewart in the films he made with Mann (and in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, for that matter) – Stewart plays a desperate, stern man who is determined to bring a notorious killer to justice, dead or alive.  Ryan plays the killer, of course, but this time without his usual shades of gray.  In this movie, he’s a schemer who thrives on the discord and chaos that he creates; pretty unrepentant.  If this were the only movie one ever saw Robert Ryan in, one might despise him on sight, so good is his performance.


Bad Day At Black Rock (1955) 

Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin play Robert Ryan’s henchmen in this movie.  Let me repeat that:  Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin, in their imposing prime, play secondary bad guys to Robert Ryan’s lead bad guy.  Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin take orders from Robert Ryan.  And in this corner:  the ever-lovable Spencer Tracy, as a one-handed stranger who arrives at a small town run by the aforementioned gentlemen, stirring up secrets that they may kill to keep hidden.  All we can say to you, Spencer Tracy, is “good luck!”

I’m being somewhat flippant about this John Sturges classic, which is a comparatively-lesser-known great American film of the 1950s – both a solid thriller and a significant political statement.  It’s just that so much has been written about Bad Day At Black Rock already, that it’s hard to add much besides additional praise.  Paul Thomas Anderson is just one of many contemporary directors who have cited this movie as a formative influence; I wonder how many contemporary onscreen bad guys have studied Robert Ryan’s performance in it!


The Professionals (1966)

Ten years later, Ryan’s friend Lee Marvin was a big movie star, and he, along with the eternally great Woody Strode, played supporting roles to Marvin and Burt Lancaster in The Professionals.  This is kind of an all-star super-team of old-school movie tough guys, the four of whom are hired by railroad tycoon Ralph Bellamy (you know him best from a weirdly similar role in Trading Places) to rescue his young wife from a marauding revolutionary who has taken her south of the border.  In the great Hollywood tradition of casting great stars in ethnically incongruous roles, Jack Palance plays the revolutionary, “Jesus Raza,” and the Italian bombshell Claudia Cardinale plays the Mexican-born “Maria,” an old flame of Raza’s, as it turns out.

The Professionals is a great big-screen action classic with some fascinating sociopolitical subtext, but as an item of interest for Robert Ryan completists, it’s more of a fun sidebar than a necessity.  He and Woody Strode, as the horse wrangler and the team scout, are really playing strong support to the buddy-movie pairing of Marvin and Lancaster.  Ryan does play an interesting contrast to his frequent persona, though.  This is one of his most thoroughly decent roles – Ryan’s horse expert is tender and protective of every horse the group encounters.  He’s one of those guys who seems to care more about animals than people, and who can blame him, in a movie where one species is clearly more consistently trustworthy than the other.


The Dirty Dozen (1967)

What can I tell you about The Dirty Dozen that you don’t already know?  Hopefully, not much.  This is a man’s-man’s classic, featuring some of the screen’s toughest tough guys in a story of an elite squad of criminals and killers who are recruited by Lee Marvin himself to fight the Nazis.  My one regret about The Dirty Dozen, which reunites Marvin with Borgnine and Ryan, is that the latter two aren’t on the team – instead, they play a bureaucrat and an officious rival, respectively.  As Colonel Breed, Ryan definitely gets saddled with the most thankless role (well, second to those Nazi creeps, anyway).  He’s the Walter Peck.  More accurately, if you’ve seen Stripes, he’s the John Larroquette.  He’s still on our side, technically, but he’s a total prick.  Not the best movie to be a fan of Robert Ryan in, but otherwise, The Dirty Dozen is an action-movie essential.


The Wild Bunch (1969)

The Wild Bunch is one of the greatest American films, without hesitation.  It’s arguably rebel-director Sam Peckinpah’s masterpiece.  It’s one of those classics that doesn’t feel like homework; it feels like a still-living document.  It feels dynamic, alive.  If it’s that, though, it’s more like the flare-ups of a dying bonfire.  It’s the last mission to end all last missions.  It’s one of the best-ever examples of possibly my favorite genre of film, the badass-old-guy movie.  The Wild Bunch captures a group of movie actors at a moment closer to the ends of their careers than the start.  (Except for Ernest Borgnine, of course, who’s still a fully active badass at 93 years of age.)  This movie is notorious for setting new levels of onscreen bloodshed and gore, but that reputation obscures its true legacy as a melancholy recording of the twilight years of the Western.

In a film full of unforgettable performances, Robert Ryan gives arguably the most affecting one.  Certainly he’s my personal favorite character, as Deke Thornton, the bounty hunter so designated by the railroad tycoons (them again) who are blackmailing him against his freedom to hunt down his fellow outlaws, most of whom – specifically William Holden’s Pike Bishop — he used to run with in their glory days.  (I’m not sure if it was screenwriter Walon Green’s contribution or Peckinpah’s that makes The Wild Bunch a movie that has some of the best character names ever.)

The Wild Bunch was one of Robert Ryan’s last screen performances.  At this point in his career, he was 60 years old, but looked significantly older (perhaps due to the lung cancer that eventually claimed his life in 1973, a year after his wife died of the same disease.)  The life lived shows in every moment of the performance.  Thornton is a neutered pit bull on a leash, forced to track down his old partners by a venal corporate monolith.  If he were free to roam, would he join back up with Pike and the others?  What would be the point?  Those guys are pretty clearly doomed, one way or another.  There at the dusty, wind-swept border, at the end of a violent life whose most hard-lived days are well in the past, what is the point of going on?  And if you do, then which direction do you go?  Nobody says anything remotely like this in the movie, by the way – it’s all there on Robert Ryan’s face, all of the above and much more.  His face was his character, and he knew how to wield it like a mighty instrument.  You can watch and re-watch The Wild Bunch for many great reasons, but I find myself watching it more often than not for Robert Ryan.

So there’s a start; some enthusiastic recommendations to get acquainted with one of the great film careers.  You can go further, or choose different movies, but whichever way you choose, you won’t go wrong.