The Lonely Man, 1950s Latency Period

DATELINE: Another Oddball Western

not so lonely Tony Meets Jack at Gay Bar?

The Western lone rider is the loneliest guy this side of the Maytag repairman in the 1950s.

After appearing as the despicable gunfighter in Shane, there was only one place to go for Jack Palance: revisionist hero from hell. So, he was cast as the good guy in The Lonely Man. This was a trend, as Ernest Borgnine had just transformed into an Oscar-winner after a villainous streak. Rod Steiger was around the corner.

In 1957, the way to do this was to play either a wronged teenage son or a well-meaning father. The James Dean phenomenon was at work: so, they cast Anthony Perkins as the fey son, long separated from his gunslinging father (called an ‘aging’ gunfighter).

Perkins plays it so silly as rebel with a cause that James Dean would have laughed. He likely would have laughed too that mid-30s Palance was considered aging as a father to mid-20s Perkins. It could have been Tab, but Tony will do.

Yet, that was the style of those days. Daddy didn’t know best, but he tried.

And, you use the baritone country music of Tennessee Ernie Ford instead of Tex Ritter.

Some bad guys are unremitting: Neville Brand, Lee Van Cleef, and Elisha Cook.  They are planning on gunning down Palance first chance that comes their way. Elisha Cook’s revenge comes after Palance gunned him down in Shane.

Brand would turn goodie on TV within a few years, but it would take Van Cleef more than a decade to turn to goody-two-shoes roles. All are in their evil-doer prime here.

If you have a strong sense of homoeroticism in this movie, you are not paranoid. Palance “picks up” his son in a bar for the price of a drink. Perkins boasts anyone can have him at those prices. These guys are all interested in their male on male relationships over all else.

As a piece of Hollywood Western ersatz history, this film is a true curio.


Sad Hill Unearthed! Fake Cemetery

 DATELINE:  Restoring the Un-Dead to Fake Life

sad hill trio Famous Trio at Sad Hill!

In Burgos, Spain, an amateur group of archeologists located the place where the climax of the movie The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly was filmed in 1966.

You have to love the spaghetti western (and it is hilarious horse opera with Eli Wallach, Lee Van Cleef, and Clint Eastwood). Its climactic graveyard shootout is magnificent film-making—and its restored grandeur is stunning.

It is called Sad Hill Cemetery (not real), except as reel film history.

The responsible men are descended from locals who worked as extras in the movie, and they find the place is magical. It had been lost and buried under six inches of dirt. They dug up to find the circular stone center. Around it were mounds where the fake graves once stood with crosses.

It took much work, and many volunteers. They sold gravesites, with your name painted on a wooden cross, to finance the excavations.

A few survivors of the movie:  film editor and composer Ennio Morricone gave interviews. The film documentary is enhanced with behind-the-scenes photos—and movie clips. Old interviews with Sergio Leone are also a treat.

It was backbreaking work to restore the concentric circles of Leone’s visionary shootout scene among the crosses, row on row.

When finished, the magic returned. A large crowd showed up in the rural area where an orchestra played the film score, the archeologists re-enacted the shootout. It went on for ten to fifteen minutes in the film, and Clint even sent a recorded thank you message to the assembled crowd.

restored reel cemetery Restored at Last!

If you love this classic Western, you need this companion piece to history, myth, and movie magic.


The Hard Way Made Easy

DATELINE: Little Known Classic

McGoohan & Van Cleef Old Stars Die Hard!

It comes across as a movie made for British TV, but The Hard Way is easily a thoughtful and careful drama.

The stars are the mainspring of this film:  you have a chance to see Lee Van Cleef play an American mobster with Irish ties, and his assassin Patrick McGoohan. What a treat to find these aging legends together in a taut character drama.

Since the film is set in and made in 1979, the two stars are about 15 years past their prime.

As a consequence, both stars look like extremely tired versions of their middle-aged selves. They are not quite old, but soon will be there. The film has long been unavailable in the United States, but now can be streamed from Prime.

As we all know, Patrick McGoohan made a career out of playing some kind of British secret agent with a license to kill, whether he was The Prisoner or Danger Man.  And, here he is not too far afield as Connor, a secret mob hitman.

Van Cleef was more at home on the range but seems not too far removed when he visits McGoohan’s bleak, spartan cottage in the rural wilds of Ireland. In seclusion, far from family, McGoohan’s noir hero stays alone, apart from close contacts for miles, but the depressing little house has electricity in some miraculous fashion.

Van Cleef will force his enforcer to kill again by some dint of personal loyalty. It is not a case of enthusiastic friendship, and their scenes together are fascinating in the politesse of criminal etiquette.

John Boorman produced this film, which was done in Ireland entirely as a modern film noir with redeeming moments of stunning silence. The sense of bleak coldness is palpable.

The film is a treat for aficionados, more akin to a LeCarre story.

Good/Bad &/or Ugly

DATELINE: Leone’s 50-Year Old Masterpiece

Ugly or Bad? Ugly or Bad?

Apart from the title being incorrectly punctuated, the Sergio Leone classic western cannot be judged by any normal standard of movie-making.

It is singular, both hilarious and horse opera bouffe. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is amazing, now restored and digitally remastered. It never looked better. It is 3 hours of utter charm.

The film starred Clint Eastwood, but he was outshone in every moment by Eli Wallach’s Tuco the Rat. It is a performance that comes once in a lifetime of great acting. It is so over-the-top and looney that it works as perfection. There is some question as to which is the Ugly one. In trailers, it is Lee Van Cleef, and in the movie the word is placed over Wallach’s image.

Scenes are historically inaccurate, overlong, and seem to be in some fantasy world that is not the real west. It does not matter one whit.

If the scenes were not epic enough (Tuco in a bubble bath with guns) or Lee Van Cleef’s Angel Eyes shooting kids, you do have Clint’s nameless character with a nickname of “Blondie,” which Eli Wallach seems to relish.

Scene-stealing should be added to the list of crimes that Tuco commits (the litany includes murder, rape, and cheating at cards).

We have not even touched on the iconic music that dots every panorama and desert viewpoint. The plot has something to do with three mercenaries with no morality and ethics seeking a gold treasure in someone’s grave.

The climax may be the longest stand-off shoot-out in the history of movies with three gunslingers facing off for six minutes.

There may well be deep messages conveyed here, but all that is secondary to the delight and mirth of showing the American Civil War as a dirty business. Indeed, all the major actors have flies on them.  We do learn how Clint took that iconic serape off a dying young blond man who looks like a younger version of him.

This film is a thing of beauty and a joy forever.

Spaghetti Western Throws in Meatballs

DATELINE: Another Ashcanister of Film

When we heard that in 1971 Lee Van Cleef, Gina Lollobrigida, and James Mason, teamed up for a spaghetti Western, we could not resist.

We thought we had seen all of Mason’s singular performances, even those he preferred to relegate to the “ashcan,” as he called it.

Apparently when the script for Bad Man’s River came to him, he was in particular need of cash. Producers feared he would not show up—but he flew in to Madrid a day before shooting.

Mason surely had better offers, but maybe he owed someone a favor. We could not explain it any other way. We know that Lollobrigida received $50,000 for her effort—and felt she was ill-paid for her efforts.

Mason later told press members that just because a movie is made in the middle of nowhere in Spain doesn’t mean someone in England won’t see it, especially if the Rank Organisation decided to embarrass the star.

The film is light and played broadly with an annoying balladeer who finally disappears. After an hour or so, James Mason shows up as one of the many husbands of Gina. The running gag in the movie is that she is frequently a widow, often cheating her spouse unto death.

The story revolves around the fact that all three principals are not to be trusted: well, we would never have guessed that.

Van Cleef seems to have been the subject of more plastic work than Gina. Mason may look youthful for the last time in his career. Perhaps this movie took it out of them.

The producers were at ends when Lollobrigida and Van Cleef clashed on set. To his credit, Mason was the epitome of professionalism. He just wanted to finish this ashcan candidate and get the hell out of there.

Escape from Escapism


In an age when superheroes and special effects seem to dominate the new movie fare, we turned to an old chestnut, circa 1981, and pulled out a plum: Escape from New York.

Directed by John Carpenter when Thriller was his métier and his films contained danger elements woven into the action. Who can forget Twilight Zone: The Movie?

Not only are the special effects primitive by today’s sense-surround noise, but the computers are positively pre-Internet. When a policeman uses his cell phone, it seems to be in a shoebox. Prognostications are not this movie’s strong suit.

The movie has a glorious cast, including Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine, Isaac Hayes, and Donald Pleasance as the President of the United States. Perhaps we forgot that Adrienne Barbeau was also featured; once the daughter of Maude on TV, she ended up as the director’s wife and found a career in his films.

In case you missed it, the film depicts the dark future of 1997 when Manhattan has been turned into a walled prison (complete with Twin Towers). Into this mess, Air Force One is hijacked by terrorists with the President hiding in escape pod, and he is unceremoniously dumped in Manhattan at the mercy of the merciless.

Only Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell resplendent in his Clint Eastwood rasp and his John Wayne eye-patch from True Grit) will go into the dead zone to save the President. He is no patriot; he wants a full pardon for all his crimes. If you trust Lee Van Cleef and Donald Pleasance in a 1980 movie, you also have brain cell issues.

Ludicrous and slow, the film seems positively Shakespearean by today’s superhero standards. It is also inadvertently funny, which helps.

We hesitate to call it a classic, but it is watchable and a throwback to real movie history.