Archive for the ‘Lee Van Cleef’ Category

The Big Gundown (1966)

Sergio Sollima is only the third most famous of all the Sergios who made Westerns in Italy in the 1960s and 1970s.  You already know Sergio Leone, and you may even know Sergio Corbucci.  There’s also Sergio Martino, Sergio Garrone, and Sergio Bergonzelli, but I don’t have room to write a book here!  Sergio Sollima is a clever, versatile director who built sociopolitical concerns into his enormously entertaining filmography.  He is maybe best regarded for his terrific crime films, including REVOLVER and VIOLENT CITY — both amazing places to start.  He’s not the most prolific of “spaghetti” Western directors.  In fact, Sollima only made three Westerns, all in the span of three consecutive years – THE BIG GUNDOWN, FACE TO FACE, and RUN, MAN, RUN! but they are more than enough to place him among the exalted ranks of Leone and Corbucci.  All three of Sollima’s Westerns starred the Cuban-born Tomás Milián, who played the same role in two of them.

RUN, MAN, RUN!

In THE BIG GUNDOWN and its sort-of-sequel RUN, MAN, RUN!, Tomás Milián plays the crafty, unruly bandit Cuchillo.  In THE BIG GUNDOWN, Cuchillo spends the first several scenes entirely unseen, only discussed.  He’s wanted for the rape and murder of a young girl, and it’s his bad luck that the lethal Jonathan Corbett is the mercenary hired to find and destroy him.  Now I happened to have seen RUN, MAN, RUN! first, out of chronological order, so I knew going into it that Cuchillo may not be guilty of these crimes, but for most of THE BIG GUNDOWN, you are to assume he’s the bad guy. And that makes things complicated, because he’s so comical, funny and annoyingly likable.  Cuchillo is a thief and a scoundrel, and he isn’t always too polite to women, but he wouldn’t do something quite so horrific as the act of which he’s been accused.

 

Cuchillo & The Gang

 

One of many interesting elements of THE BIG GUNDOWN is that you don’t know that Cuchillo is innocent for most of the movie, which gives the majority of the scenes some mighty fascinating tension.  Cuchillo is a raging trickster and a puckish anarchist, a Bugs Bunny or a Daffy Duck, enjoyable and infuriating – and it’s frustrating to like him so much, if he is in fact the kind of man who the senator claims he is.  Contrast this situation to what goes on in THE GOOD, THE BAD, & THE UGLY, where a hangman rattles off a list of all the crimes of which Tuco, Eli Wallach’s character, has been accused, including “raping a virgin of the White race, and statuatory rape of a minor of the Black race.”  In Leone’s world, the way these offenses are added to a checklist is played — literally — as gallows humor.  Leone isn’t interested in exploring these accusations, preferring the punchline to the possible pathology.  In Sollima’s world, we still have the charming and devious Mexican bandit character, but not only is he more overtly interested in pursuing women throughout the course of the movie (Leone’s film runs almost three hours but has little time for female characters), but unlike Tuco, Cuchillo is definitively exonerated of egregious sexual misconduct.  Considering they were both released within a year of each other, it’s fascinating to ponder the parallels and variations between THE GOOD, THE BAD & THE UGLY and THE BIG GUNDOWN.  Most obviously, these two wonderful films share a wonderful lead actor.

 

 

THE BIG GUNDOWN is primarily built around its marquee star, Lee Van Cleef, best known for his role as “Angel-Eyes” (THE BAD) in Leone’s THE GOOD THE BAD & THE UGLY.  This movie was made soon after that one.  Sollima wrote it with Sergio Donati, who wrote for Leone (ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST) among many others. Here Van Cleef, as Jonathan Corbett, is playing a more heroic character than he did in THE GOOD THE BAD & THE UGLY – but for much of the film we can’t quite tell for sure.  Corbett can be pretty nasty, as seen in the introductory scene where he calmly toys with three wanted men he’s got cornered – we know he’s bad; we just figure he’s better than the man he’s tracking.  Once Corbett sets out on Cuchillo’s trail, the movie becomes the same kind of Tom & Jerry cat-and-mouse game Clint Eastwood and Eli Wallach played out in THE GOOD THE BAD & THE UGLY – only even more satirical and way more sociopolitically engaged.  There’s a scene where the two gunmen arrive at a ranch presided over by a beautiful woman who is surrounded by big beefy henchmen, and the subtext is practically exploding out of everybody’s ears.  It’s hilarious and awesome.

 

There is currently a version of THE BIG GUNDOWN up on YouTube, but the complete Italian cut of the film is what you want to see, and on the biggest screen possible, which is what I got to do in 2012 thanks to the “spaghetti” Western series at Film Forum.  It’s obviously one of the greats in the genre, having influenced everything from THREE AMIGOS! (in the form of the fancy-pants Teutonic killer with the monocle who haunts Corbett)to INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (Tarantino used parts of EnnioMorricone’s typically wonderful score).  It’s also, not for nothing, one of the most straight-up entertaining movies I’ve ever seen.  Ever!  No exaggeration.  Instantly one of my favorite movies of all time.  And it’ll probably be one of yours too, maybe even as soon as you hear the rousing Ennio Morricone theme song.

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The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

 

 

THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE (1962, d. John Ford) is essential.  It’s essential as a work of storytelling art.  It’s essential as cinematic text.  It’s an essential piece of the careers of its stars, and of that of its director.

 

Stewart,  Ford and Wayne

 

This film came towards the end of John Ford’s directing career, and it’s the second-to-last he made with John Wayne. (DONOVAN’S REEF, a lark, was their final collaboration.)  This one has incredible symbolic power.  Without getting into a more fraught conversation about offscreen politics, John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart are two of the stars in cinema history who most clearly represent America.  Wayne was the pioneering, swaggering, boistrous side of America, and Stewart represented a more relatable, emotional, idealistic, and valiant side.  THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE is where these two visions of America collide, and where they diverge.

 

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance PUNCH

 

This movie arrived at what was almost exactly the midpoint of American cinema.  It’s an explosive elegy for the great films of the 1930s, the 1940s, the 1950s.  From here, the 1960s dawned, and America changed.  The genius of this film is how it is about all of these things even while providing a terrific story.  The way that the film is bookended by scenes that take place in the character’s old age certainly confirms the historical reading of the film, but it’s certainly also possible to enjoy the film as a purely commercial old-school Western.

 

Wayne + Stewart

 

Stewart plays a lawyer whose Arrival in a frontier town called Shinbone begins with a brutal assault by the guy in the title, Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin!).  He’s rescued by the Wayne character, the only man around who isn’t afeared of Liberty Valance.  What follows is nothing less than a battle between civilization and frontier justice.   Wayne wants to deal with the outlaw gang in the most effective way, while Stewart argues for the more democratic solution.  On top of that, both Wayne and Stewart are in love with the same girl (Vera Miles, best known to younger generations for her role in PSYCHO).  This movie has an incredible cast, including Ford stock players such as John Qualen and Andy Devine, and Woody Strode and Edmond O’Brien on the side of goodness and decency, and Strother Martin and Lee Motherfucking Van Cleef on the side of lawlessness and nasty-actin’.

 

 

And then there’s Lee Marvin, patron saint of shitkickers, who from this role graduated to leading-man parts.  He played heels and heavies for years before playing this, quite possibly the nastiest of them all (although he’s pretty fucking ugly in THE BIG HEAT).  Lee being Lee, he continued to play bad men, but they were a more likable breed.  This was arguably his last straight-up villainous role.  After this definitive bad-guy, there was no way to deny that Lee was not on the iconic level of a John Wayne, rather than playing support to him, which is why their next movie, DONOVAN’S REEF, literally isn’t much more than a series of epic slugfests between the two of them.

 

Van Cleef, Marvin, Stewart, Wayne

 

This movie is necessary in every way.  It’s a virtual textbook of masculinity, it’s a profound statement on history and mortality, and it represents some of the best work of all of its bold-faced participants.  Fail to see it and fail to have your opinions on film taken seriously.

Stare me down on Twitter:  @jonnyabomb

 

Liberty

 

Lee Drankin

 

Woody

 

 

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).

2. GHOSTBUSTERS (1984).

3. DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978).

4.  ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (1968).

5.  UNFORGIVEN (1992).

6.  KING KONG (1933).

7.  PREDATOR (1987).

8.  MANHUNTER (1986).

9.  BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA (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).

21. RAISING ARIZONA (1987).

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).

28.  AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (1981).

29.  MY DARLING CLEMENTINE (1946).

30.  CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954).

31. PRIME CUT (1972).

32. WATERMELON MAN (1970).

33.  GROSSE POINTE BLANK (1997).

34.  25th HOUR (2002).

35.  COFFY (1973).

36. QUICK CHANGE (1990).

37.  MAGNOLIA (1999).

38.  HANNIE CAULDER (1971).

39. ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981).

40.  48 HRS. (1982).

41.  GOODFELLAS (1990).

42.  SHOGUN ASSASSIN (1980).

43.  PURPLE RAIN (1984).

44.  THE UNHOLY THREE (1925).

45.  TRUE GRIT (2010).

46.  THE PROFESSIONALS (1966).

47.  VIOLENT CITY aka THE FAMILY (1973).

48.  THE HIT (1984).

49.  EMPEROR OF THE NORTH POLE (1973).

50.  ATTACK THE BLOCK (2011).

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

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And that’s that…. for now.

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

Film Forum’s phenomenal “Spaghetti” Westerns series comes to a close tonight.  It’s been an amazing month of well-known and adored consensus-classics, seldom-screened rarities, and near-forgotten oddities.  As expected, I didn’t have nearly enough time to get downtown — as you may have noticed, I haven’t even had much time this month to write about movies, let alone see them.  Here are my expanded notes on A Fistful Of Dollars and Django, and please be on the lookout for my upcoming piece on Sergio Sollima’s vastly-underseen 1966 classic, The Big Gundown, to which I am trying to pay the kind of tribute it deserves. 

Tonight the festival ended with a quadruple-header of Duck, You Sucker!, Death Rides A Horse, Django, and my personal favorite anything, The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly.  I’ve written about this big, beautiful, belligerent odyssey before, and if you haven’t read that yet, please take a minute to do so…

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

There is literally nothing I can write about The Good The Bad & The Ugly that hasn’t already been written, and by more famous names.  It’s not exactly an underrated movie.  It’s certainly the most straight-ahead entertaining Great Movie that regularly makes the greatest-ever lists.  (It clocked in prominently on my own all-time top-50.)

Watching it again last Monday, I was struck by the fact that it’s not a movie with much of an agenda beyond pure 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, those monosyllabic 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, For A Few Dollars More, 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.  God DAMN.  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.

Try me.

Take a shot at my noose on Twitter:  @jonnyabomb