Vera Cruz: Classic Western Fun

DATELINE: Clash of the Titans

 Coop & Burt

When you cast Burt Lancaster as the villainous rogue cowboy against stalwart Gary Cooper, you have a humdinger. So, it was in 1954 when these two titans clashed in a Technicolor epic called Vera Cruz.

Cooper was fresh off his High Noon Oscar, and Lancaster liked to do an adventure movie between his high-brow efforts (like From Here to Eternity).

It was a rousing Western in which double crosses and triple crosses were the norm. With friendly enemy banter between the two principals, you have a quest to steal a couple of million gold dollars in Mexico in 1869. It is sheer delight every step of the way.

Burt’s gang includes Charles Bronson, Ernest Borgnine, and Jack Elam, which may be one of the foremost gangs of the 1950s. On top of that you had Cesar Romero as the aide-de-camp of the Emperor (George Macready, no less), who is also a rogue like a laughing cavalier.

The film starts with a series of set-up challenges between the stars, and their bonding and chemistry is delightful. Burt flashes all the teeth repeatedly as his tricks, cheats, and banters with Cooper.

The director is no slouch: Robert Aldrich of Baby Jane and Dirty Dozen, managing to orchestrate this rousing shoot’em up and horse chase movie.

Produced by Lancaster, the villain is so charming in his black hat and black leather vest that we may find ourselves rooting for the two actors to do a sequel. Nowadays, it would be standard. How could you waste such talent without a follow-up?

If there was a problem on the set, it was a production decision on whether to kill Burt Lancaster in the movie.

Alas, back then, franchise sequels were not really done.

 

 

 

 

Death Wish 45 Years Later

DATELINE: Willis Versus Bronson

 death 3

Bruce Willis is every bit as good as Charles Bronson in the remake of the classic Brian Garfield story. But, the movie is less about vigilantes this time and more about revenge.

A new version of Death Wish, 2018, seems like yesterday’s headlines.

If you want to match up Willis versus Bronson, you may be making the wrong comparison. Both are brilliant in the role of Paul Kersey, though Bronson always seemed more dangerous than smarmy.

Taking the law into his own hands, Paul Kersey is back for a new generation, armed with smartphones, video surveillance, and automatic weapons on every city block.

The more things change, the worse it becomes in American society. Indeed, the media chorus in the movie keeps telling us that Chicago is a murderous city. The senseless cruelty seems on a par with fifty years ago.

Gun control is a joke in 1974 and is a punchline now.

The 1970s might seem like a placid time next to today’s weekly shoot’em ups. However, the movie stays with the split-screen approach to story-telling that was the rage in the 1970s. We have a definite throwback movie here.

This time Bruce Willis has a brother (Vincent D’Onofrio) as a foil, but the police exasperation is partly admiration for the Grim Reaper’s work. You know the police will never convict, nor apprehend Paul Kersey, though the 1970s movies better explained why they let him get away.

When Willis shoots the bad guys, you still have the urge to commend the vigilante killer and excuse gun control as a bad idea. This time Kersey is a top-notch big city surgeon, obviously dedicated to life-saving. Bronson’s Kersey was a big business architect.

He has his eyes opened even with his father-in-law (Len Cariou in a delightful cameo) and with the commissioner of police (Stephen McHattie, a long-ago familiar face).

The shoot out is a stand off.

Once Upon a Time: The West Reconsidered

DATELINE:  NOT Young Abe Lincoln!

not-young-abe-lincoln

When last we watched Sergio Leone’s grand epic, Richard Nixon was president.

It’s time for an updated opinion. Oh, yes, this Western is still longer than the Nixon Administration and more opera bouffe than operatic; however, we now admit this is a masterpiece of filmmaking.

Once Upon a Time in the West was Leone’s attempt to escape the spaghetti and meatballs and go directly to the steak and potatoes of American Westerns. He succeeded with a Dead Man’s Hand of storytelling.

From the magnificent faces of stars like Woody Strode and Jack Elam, to the star power of character actors Keenan Wynn and Lionel Stander, Leone avoided the dubbed spaghetti mess of the ripoff westerns made in Europe in his name.

His film gives stars Henry Fonda (as a sociopathic killer as bad guy) and Charles Bronson (as sociopathic killer as good guy) some startling moments on screen. What a joy to find these actors together in a movie that gives them free reins.

We now forgive Claudia Cardinale as she seems rather good as a New Orleans madam come West for the money. We also liked Jason Robards in the Eli Wallach role.

Leone could have made this with Clint and Lee, as a fourth in his Eastwood series, but the casting here is inspired—matching the staggering scenes of desert, grit, and horse opera. Editing and music mesh perfectly.

Those stunning blue eyes of Henry Fonda become weapons—and his transformation into his younger self in a climax flashback (30 years earlier) is a sight to behold.

Everything is exaggerated and hilarious, but not quite a disrespectful spoofing of his own spaghetti westerns. Homage is a delicate exercise, and master filmmaker Leone succeeds here.