Archive for August, 2011

“Il Federale” (1961)

August 28, 2011

Luciano Salce’s Il Federale appeared long enough after the war that the Italians could laugh at what’s nearly a slapstick comedy about collaborating with Mussolini’s government.  Ugo Tognazzi plays a hard-ass fascist functionary who’s been ordered to arrest a politically troublesome professor in a provincial village and transport him back to Rome to a certain death sentence. He makes the arrest without any trouble, but he has terrible luck with every mode of transportation he employs, plus the professor, when he’s not badgering the fascist with questions that prick at his humanity, keeps trying to escape. If that sounds like a certain Robert De Niro movie, well, there are also a couple of shots and situations that are near clones of Midnight Run.

It’s still only a very charming comedy until the final 10 minutes, when it turns into something more. Tognazzi lands his mitts on the provincial party secretary’s uniform he’s been lusting after throughout the movie, and having worn out his own clothes he dons the uniform and proudly marches his prisoner into Rome. He doesn’t notice the strange new street-signs dotting the intersections, and it isn’t until he spots a platoon of GIs relaxing atop crates of Pall Mall cigarettes that he realizes how things have changed in his absence. Some civilians on the street spot his spiffy new uniform, and in a stunning tracking shot Tognazzi finally realizes his danger and makes a break for it, only to be hauled under by a crowd intent on beating him to death. He doesn’t die, but neither does he wind up humbled or humanized by his adventures. Il Federale finishes on an ambivalent, somewhat bleak note that looks forward to the ending of The Conformist. It’s a surprisingly filling movie.

“McCarthy: Death of a Witch Hunter” (1975)

August 27, 2011

Emile de Antonio rehashes the Army-McCarthy hearing footage, but that’s always a good time. It’s interesting to see the camera that close in on a bad liar just when his credibility is being completely ravaged in an extremely public setting, while McCarthy’s exchange with Welch about pixies and fairies (“I think he might be an expert on that”) ought to be a staple in any history of the gay rights movement. McCarthy’s increasingly desperate ploys, the moment when John McClellan decides even he’s had enough of McCarthy’s bullshit, and McCarthy’s peroration to a rapidly emptying committee chamber, with the throng paying not even a scintilla of attention to his tinny last stand—it’s a comeuppance you usually don’t see outside of Capra movies.

Good Morning, Irene

August 27, 2011

State of the Bunion

August 22, 2011

My boss is a 63-year old ex-Marine vegan teetotaler who as long as we’ve known each other has given me shit in a (mostly) joshing way about certain habits of mine—mostly the smoking but my diet, too—and a constant theme in this has been his occasionally irritating certainty about what does and doesn’t give a person cancer. So, fine…go ahead and give me shit, I don’t care, just so long as you’re sure to give me a long leash along with it—that was my attitude, and it worked for both of us. Then, some time back, he started having trouble peeing and found out he had bladder cancer. They removed his bladder and he was out for four months, recovering and whatnot, and he finally came back to work two weeks ago. His energy and sense of humor have been remarkably high, but he’s also been  thin and frail since the operation, looking a lot older than his age. (One day I mentioned the irony that of the two of us he should be the one to get sick, and he crowed “I know it! I can’t believe it!”) He was limping around all day today, and it turns out he took a tumble while walking from the train to the office this morning, landing on one of those skinny little hips of his. It was still bugging him this afternoon so he just now took off for home, and to top things off he’s supposed to get the test results today showing whether the cancer’s spread to  his other lymph nodes—a big fat worrisome if  since it already spread to the one by his bladder.

And of course I’m still dealing with my dad, who, when I ask him how he’s doing, simply tends to mutter “Not good. Not good.” (You know you’re talking to your 84 year old father when he asks you if you know who Pat Boone is, and he doesn’t hear you screaming “YES! YES! I KNOW WHO HE IS!” because he’s too busy telling you Boone used to be on the old Arthur Godfrey show.) Dad’s going blind, he’s got emphysema, he has a double hernia that his HMO won’t touch because of his overall condition, his back is giving out, and he has an enlarged heart, plus his skin looks like shit because he doesn’t have enough energy to smear himself down with some moisturizer. And yet he keeps floating the idea of coming to San Francisco for a visit, which is obviously the looniest idea in the world. I pointed out that if making it across the living room is a Herculean labor for him, how the hell does he expect to get to the airport for a two-hour plane ride, keep his energy up for 2-3 days, and so on, all of which only begs the question of why he’d want to travel when he can barely see or move around. I told him it’d make more sense if I visited him again, an idea I’d barely gotten out of my mouth before he was on it like a ton of rocks: “That’d be great!” Then, of course, it was easy to see he really just wants to see me one more, or one last, time.

This bullshit’s giving me the intimations-of-mortality blues, I know that much. Some folks would say it’d be easier if I’d written a great book or had kids so I could feel like I was living on through them, but that just brings to mind Woody Allen’s line “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying.” Okay, maybe I don’t need to live forever, but the current system of things leaves a lot to be desired and I keep coming back to the idea that I was just born too early in the evolutionary tide. Sure, it beats where the caveman came in, but you just know that 100 years from now cancer’s going to be a thing of the past, and maybe the Tea Party, too. Maybe people won’t even be dying by then, and they’ll have gotten past all prejudice and superstition, and we’ll all be living on peaches and Irish whiskey. I feel out of touch with most every goddam thing anyhow, and when I go downstairs for a cigarette I spend most of that time staring into the middle distance and wondering “What did I want?” Well, in the immortal words of Elaine Benes, I know it wasn’t this. Just now I was down there and some cute young thang in a classless, clueless star-fucker get-up—Ugg boots, miniskirt and cowboy hat—came moseying up the sidewalk when a second woman appeared, walking in the opposite direction. This one was closer to my age, and she had appealingly scruffy gray hair, a denim jacket, and blue jeans with a hole in the knee, and she was moving like she didn’t give a damn about anything in the world. When the two of them passed each other they seemed to lock into a single human being for one elongated second, and I felt like tilting back my head and baying at the sky.

“Gettin’ Better, Aren’t I?”: A bit of loveliness from “Poor Cow”

August 22, 2011

“The Crime of Monsieur Lange” (1936)

August 18, 2011

It’s a matter of settled faith for me that the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost are actually named Jean Renoir, William Faulkner and Bob Dylan, so I see it as a boon for all mankind that Renoir’s The Crime of Monsieur Lange is finally available on DVD. To me it’s more than just “a great film”—it’s almost the pure embodiment of everything I like about movies, right down to its modest budget.

Amédée Lange (René Lefèvre) is a dreamy, unassertive clerk in Paris who spends his nights alone writing stories about “Arizona Jim”, his fictional cowboy hero who deals out trouble to bandit and Indian alike. But by day Lange must submit to his employer, the comic-book publisher Batala—a fast-talking, double-dealing cobra played by Jules Berry, and one of the great satanic bosses in cinema history. Batala mercilessly exploits his workers, stealing their time and ideas and labor, but saving his greatest efforts for the female employees whom he wishes to bed. When he’s reportedly killed in a train wreck, his old employees don’t waste a second on crocodile tears, choosing instead to celebrate their freedom by  converting the dead man’s company into a worker-owned cooperative. It isn’t long before their honest labors make “Arizona Jim” a hit across France, and its success causes Batala, who’s only been hiding from his creditors, to return from the dead like a Goldman Sachs vice-president, ready to reassert the status quo.

If it sounds like there’s a lesson here, you’re onto something.

The scriptwriter Jacques Prévert filled out this simple story with a host of  characters, all of whom have their own feelings and concerns: a sassy, maternal blonde who takes an interest in the newly invigorated Lange; a naïve laundress (the achingly beautiful Nadia Sibirskaïa) and her boyfriend, who have to decide what to do after Batala knocks the girl up; a homely streetwalker who strolls into the action for a single scene, bringing out a side of the timid Lange we wouldn’t have suspected otherwise. (One of the movie’s most pleasing qualities is its sane attitude towards sex.) Renoir, too, was feeling his oats, using playful wipes to transition between scenes (and even through walls), following the delivery boy on a heady bike ride through the streets of 1936 Paris, and capturing the final confrontation between Lange and Batala in a single sinuous shot that’s been fucking with the heads of movie critics ever since.

In theory at least*, The Crime of Monsieur Lange could work splendidly as an Americanized remake. I’m not holding my breath for that to happen, though, because it’s so obviously a communist film, even if it’s “communist” in the most positive, small-c sense of the word. Renoir made Lange following the Popular Front’s victory in the 1936 elections—one of those halcyon moments in history, the way November 2008 was for America, where hope and reason briefly flourish before weariness and rage set in again. Today The Crime of Monsieur Lange necessarily looks slight beside the behemoths Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game, nor is it the near-perfect distillation of emotion that  A Day in the Country is. But it blazed a trail for the great democratic comedies of Sturges, Altman and Demme, while its warmth, high spirits and palpably civilized values are as pleasing as ever.

* In 1986 Renoir’s Boudu Saved from Drowning was Americanized as Down and Out in Beverly Hills, with painfully predictable results: director Paul Mazursky hammered away at Boudu’s trenchant and poetic takes on class and conformity until a Bette Midler comedy fell out of it.

August 17, 2011

Got a haircut in my old-timey barbershop tonight, and the guy in the chair next to me asked for a shave. While the barber was tilting his chair back I said “I haven’t seen anyone get a shave in a barbershop since The Untouchables,” at which point the two oldest barbers, guys both in their late 60s or early 70s, made pained “Oooohhh” noises and began laughing. Albert Anastasia, wherever you are—you still got it, baby.

Daft in August

August 15, 2011

Last week my office building’s management was emailing advisories about a possible protest at the Civic Center BART station—the BART cops shot a drunk dead there a couple weeks ago. The protest didn’t materialize then but today we got another email, and sure enough while I was walking to the subway after work a squad car followed by two vans packed with cops came roaring down Mission. Inside the subway the P.A. told us that our MUNI car wouldn’t be stopping at Civic Center, and when we got to the station it was like the opening image of Among the Thugs in reverse: instead of standing on a platform and seeing a trainload of brawling soccer hooligans flash by, I was standing on a train flying past an eerily deserted platform—eerily deserted, that is, except for one old man in an orange vest, who was sleepily working a push-broom in one spot. There was no telling what, if anything, was going on one floor below us.

I got off at Church and my feet had barely hit the pavement before I heard an unearthly yowl followed by another one. Two women were in the middle of Market Street, one of them a homeless-looking black woman who was sprawled helplessly on her back, the other a white chick who looked like an office-worker. The white chick was straddling the black woman and totally whaling on her, raising her fist straight up into the air before swinging down and punching the other gal in the head as hard as she could. By the time I got across they’d separated and the white woman was stomping away with the black woman chasing and yelling after her. I’d have chosen another tactic myself, and for good reason, because suddenly the white chick started throwing kicks, half-karate and half-mule, back behind her, and one of them managed to catch the black woman in the stomach and knock her backwards off the curb, flat on her ass at my feet. I got her to sit up and sit still long enough for the white woman to get clear; then she started crying and digging her nails into me and refusing to move even though a bunch of cars were bearing down on us. Somebody found her shoe and her cell phone—because, you know, everybody has to have a cell phone now—and I finally got her to let go of me.

And now here I sit, with my happy little jug of apple juice and the roar of helicopters at the Civic Center coming through the windows. I believe I’ll be hunkering down tonight…O, happy day.

“Home” (2008)

August 12, 2011

Isabelle Huppert, Olivier Gourmet and their three kids have lived for years in their idea of Paradise: a house in the middle of nowhere, with the one sign of civilization an abandoned highway that practically runs through their front yard. They’re perfectly contained, perfectly contented (a little too well contented, judging by their communal bathing habits)…but then the highway is suddenly reopened, and a J.G. Ballard story breaks out. The family doesn’t fall apart right away; at first they try to see something festive in the tractor-trailers whipping past their noses. But the kids’  school bus picks them up on the other side of the road, simple tasks like grocery shopping become ordeals, and the noise—the noise especially—is relentless. They begin cracking up in interesting ways, and by the time they start hauling in materials to soundproof the house, you know they’re toast. This thing’s good, though it’s easy to imagine some people thinking the family’s descent doesn’t go far enough—that it ought to involve butcher knives, incest, cannibalism and backward-talking midgets. I had Home in my shopping cart for weeks and kept reading the synopsis, thinking there’s no way a film could live up to that idea, but it doesn’t sag for a second, which you can’t say about a whole lot of movies. It’s got a lovely ending, too. It’s the first feature from the French-Swiss director Ursula Meier, who had to shoot it in Bulgaria—the only place with both the right look and a crumbling highway she could make her own.

“Sands of the Kalahari” (1965)

August 12, 2011

Last night I tried to watch Cy Endfield’s Sands of the Kalahari, but it was too much like really being trapped in the desert with Stanley “Charisma Bypass” Baker and Stuart “I’m famous, but how? And why?” Whitman. Also in not-peak form: Theodore Bikel, doing what he does best, which is wearing butt-ugly eyeglasses and spitting all over his co-stars’ shirt-fronts. The movie is less than five minutes old when Endfield’s camera impatiently climbs into the shower with Susannah York, and though we don’t actually see any of her naughty bits, it’s still Mission Accomplished time because now the movie’s got me thinking about Susannah York and her naked naughty bits, which is apparently why we go to movies in the first place. Jesus.

Less than 10 minutes later the cast gets stranded in the African desert thanks to a swarm of locusts hitting their airplane (cue disgusting shots of bugs mashing the windshield in egg-yolk bursts of exploding insect guts), setting off one of those tedious will-to-live, last-man-standing contests. Around the 30-minute mark the pilot begins threatening to rape York, who coolly faces him down until he raises one hand like Ward Cleaver about to backhand Wally for mouthing off about Negro rights at the dinner table. Oddly, it only takes this one timid act of aggression for York to instantly fall apart: turning her squinched-up face to one side, she begins bleating, “Please! Please! You can do anything you want to me! Just please don’t hurt me!”, as if the guy is going to perform some kind of special non-painful rape. A few seconds later York repeats the part about doing anything to her, just in case we missed it the first time around, and it’s kind of like being back in the shower with her, with a lot of yummy visualization going on inside my head that nobody but me will ever know about, only this time the camera is aimed up her skirt to help things along. This proves too much even for the raping pilot, who suddenly loses all interest in York, and maybe in the whole idea of sex as well. He  listlessly wanders away to impugn Whitman’s manhood, but Whitman’s too busy slaughtering a family of baboons to listen to him.

It was around the time that the first baboon went down that I started leaning on the fast-forward button. How bad is Sands of the Kalahari? Well, it’s still excruciating at 4X normal speed, because you can still make wild guesses about what’s going on in it, but it’s halfway bearable if you watch it at the speed of the three-way sex scene in A Clockwork Orange. However, I did slow back down at the very end, when a gang of pissed-off baboons finally took its revenge on Stuart Whitman. That was one scene I knew I’d  enjoy.

August 8, 2011


I Can Die a Happy Man

August 6, 2011

When I was a kid I had this 45 I used to listen to a lot—it was a novelty song about a guy who finds a mysterious box on the beach. It tantalized me, probably because it frightened me a little, too, and I listened to it obsessively until I outgrew it at some point.  I lost the record while I was still a kid and I forgot all about it until 10 or 15 years ago, when I stumbled across my dusty old copy of another childhood favorite, Kenny Ball’s “Midnight in Moscow”, and it caused me to suddenly remember the song about the box—but I didn’t know who did it, couldn’t remember any of its lyrics, and my best guess at its title was a Googly unfruitful “The Box”.  I only recalled that the singer talk-sang the lyrics and that there seemed to be something about sand in it.

Then about a half hour ago I was sitting here watching Solaris, of all the fucking things, and something in it, I don’t even know what, triggered the tune in my head, and this time I was able to conjure up the first line: “I was walking down the beach one bright and sunny day”. So I Googled that + “box”, and lo and behold up popped…“The Thing”, by Phil Harris. (He was a pop fixture in the ’50s and ’6os; if he’s remembered today, it’s probably for his voice work in The Jungle Book.) Weird thing is, “The Thing” was a hit in 1950, four years before I was even born, and I was at least four when I was listening to it so much. Whatever, man—I’m just happy to scratch it off the list. From Wikipedia:

The song aired on radio concurrently with a series of teaser ads which ran weekly in Collier’s promoting Howard Hawks’ science fiction movie, The Thing from Another World. The Hawks film was released April 6, 1951. While the song had no connection with the movie, some suspect it was a clever marketing tool to increase interest in seeing the film.

And so, ladies and gentlemen, I give you “The Thing”. Don’t say I never did anything for you.

And what the hell…since it’s a song I actually still dig.

Maybe I’m Semi-Amazed

August 4, 2011

Thanks to the miracle that is Facebook—what’s the emoticon for sarcasm again?—it’s been brought to my attention that my 40th high school reunion is coming up next summer (do I feel that old? Oh, hell, yes!), and naturally someone started a central page for all us geezers to gather together in our wheelchairs so we can click our dentures in unison. It’s been an odd sensation, to say the least. I’ve been lucky enough to stay in touch with about a dozen of the people I knew back then—we’re talking the class of ’72 from Bellaire High School in Houston—but now the floodgates have opened for real. Some of the folks I’ve been dealing with the past few days have names and faces that are permanently imprinted on my brain-pan; others of them, umm, not so much. It doesn’t matter; it doesn’t matter. Right now, for instance, we’re discussing (or maybe we’re debating, I’m not sure) the relative merits of Cormac McCarthy’s various novels, which is a pastime I never expected to engage in with these particular people, not at any point in my lifetime. And today one of them posted this photo featuring several of my cohorts from the drama department, our time in which—for a great many of us, I think—constituted our real high school experience. (If you think I can ramble on about my family and shit, just get me started on this stuff.) If I walk into work tomorrow morning and find King Tut shaving his callouses in my cubicle, I’ll be less surprised than I am right now.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I see someone just answered my post about Blood Meridian

Two Ways of Looking at a Rooster

August 2, 2011

The Coen brothers’ True Grit fills me with a lot of different emotions, not least of which is regret for having waited so long to read Charles Portis’ terrific novel. I avoided the story in all its forms when Henry Hathaway’s film version appeared in 1969 (the paperback was ubiquitous then), but the truth is I was in no position to appreciate it. I had your basic longhair’s bias against John Wayne, whose loud certainty about Vietnam placed him in the enemy camp and made him seem a one-dimensional grouch. It didn’t help either on Oscar night when the sentimental favorite Wayne snatched the Best Actor award away from Dustin Hoffman, whose work in Midnight Cowboy had hit this 15-year old like a hurricane.

But Wayne’s halo and caveman politics wouldn’t have mattered so much had he only been making good movies. John Ford’s 1962 The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was a great film, but it was Wayne’s last great film—in fact, it’s arguably his last good one, with 26 pictures still to go. By the time he directed The Alamo in 1960 all of that American manly-man bullshit was clogging his acting arteries, and by the mid-’60s he was specializing in overripe beer-bust entertainments—McClintock!, The War Wagon, The Undefeatedwhose very titles put you to sleep. His characters kept getting louder, broader, less interesting; both the lively amiability and the pointed bitterness of his great films were gone, along with his figure. He spent his screen-time bawling out the characters around him, he could never be wrong about anything that mattered, and even when he was supposed to be happy he was just overbearing. Who in the world wanted to spend two hours with a pot-bellied scoldand with Kim Darby, wearing that haircut? Even the eyepatch seemed like a dodge for an actor who barely bothered to refresh his wardrobe from one movie to the next.

(1963, 1966, 1967, 1969, 1970)

Of course no home video market existed at the time, and repertory houses didn’t screen Wayne’s older movies—the ones that might’ve opened my mind about him—precisely because young audiences couldn’t relate to an ever-stiffening movie star who, like a hero out of Peckinpah, was losing his race against time. (Kael, in her review of El Dorado: “Wayne has a beautiful horse, but when he’s hoisted onto it and you hear the thud you don’t know whether to feel sorrier for man or beast.”) Most of the people I knew were so poisoned against him for cultural reasons that they would have simply denied his charm in Stagecoach and his bewitching watchfulness in They Were Expendable. They certainly wouldn’t have admitted that he showed any guts by visiting Harvard University.

My favorite Wayne performance can be found in Ford’s perfectly rounded Fort Apache. Awakening to her first morning at the fort, Shirley Temple runs out onto her balcony and stares with giddy awe at a parade ground teeming with men and livestock, and the movie gives us a top-to-bottom view of this society, ranging from the officers as they lay out their war-plans against Cochise, to their wives, engaged in the no less serious work of furnishing Temple’s quarters, to the hard-luck troopers mucking out the stables. The story required a foil for the Custer stand-in played by Henry Fonda, and the result—Captain Kirby York—allowed Wayne to air all of his best qualities. York the character and Wayne the actor were both in their prime, able to draw on a veteran’s larder of experience yet young enough to perform their duties with great dash. (Near the movie’s midpoint York and a cavalry sergeant go on a scout of the territory, and their long ride over river and mesa, backed by Richard Hageman’s zesty score, is a celebration of movement through the great outdoors.) York is a study in moderation, virile and decisive without being macho or rash. An ultra-competent soldier, he’s also decent, sensitive to the Indians’ needs and their thinking, and encouraging, even nurturing, to those around him. Wayne gave more powerful performances in his career but he never gave a sunnier one—he warms every scene he’s in. I’d take Captain Kirby York over any action hero of the last 60 years.

With the onset of the New Hollywood, Kirby York gave way to a new rootless protagonist who was guided by a personal and often fungible morality. Jeff Bridges, as unmistakably American in his multivalent way as the monolithic Wayne had been, got his break in The Last Picture Show a mere two years after True Grit appeared, then set to work building a career out of roles which Wayne wouldn’t have touched with a ten-foot pole—assuming, of course, he could have played them in the first place. Losers, stoners, ex-cons, club fighters, army deserters, gunmen, has-beens, deadbeat dads, and even (once) a wife-killer—that was Bridges’ speed. He was morally unfit to serve in any John Wayne movie precisely because he was as wild and anti-authoritarian as the Ringo Kid, except that he stayed that way.

He had a keen eye for parts that suited him, and over the years he rode the crest of changing film tastes in a way that Wayne, James Stewart, and James Cagney couldn’t approach. Fat City, The Last American Hero, Rancho Deluxe, Hearts of the West, Ivan Passer’s gimlet-eyed requiem for American idealism Cutter’s Way, Jagged Edge, American Heart, Fearless (with that pure, time-stopping airplane crash), Wild Bill, The Contender—all of these films are worth seeing for what Jeff Bridges brought to them. He seemed especially drawn to post-Vietnam dropouts, knockabouts and paranoids, a quality which made his eventual casting as Jeffrey Lebowski just that much more fitting. And yet talented and adventurous as he was, he never attained the star voltage of a De Niro or Pacino, perhaps because his insistently heterosexual demeanor was offset by irrepressible ripples of femininity, courtesy of his full lips, a mane of hair that required constant fussing with, and a voice that approached a falsetto when he giggled. (Michael Cimino absolutely tortured this side of Bridges’ image in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, dressing him, for one long scene, in all too convincing drag.)

He was 61 when he took on Rooster Cogburn, a year or two younger than Wayne had been when he assayed the role. Yet where Wayne’s performance is interchangeable with a dozen others in his scrapbook, Bridges’ Rooster is fresher than Adam. Speaking in a half-asleep yowl which I’ve never heard him (or any other actor) use in a picture, he outfitted Cogburn with a series of tossed-off gestures which together add up to a personality: the fathomless hard/soft gaze he aims at LeBouef that quells one of their arguments, the way his finger rises like a compass needle to indicate where “the federal house in Detroit” is, or the way he sprays self-deprecation all over the line “Aw, it’s just a turkey shoot” to tamp down a compliment from Mattie. For the clearest difference between them, listen to the two Roosters react to Mattie’s claim that a frivolous coon hunt has prepared her to chase Tom Chaney through the Indian Territory: Bridges absolutely bays in ridicule while Wayne’s comeback is generic canned corn. Bridges, who knew he was the favorite to win an Oscar for Crazy Heart before True Grit was in the can, didn’t have to go to all this trouble; Wayne, having finally landed a plum part after almost a decade’s worth of losers, couldn’t understand why Kim Darby cared about keeping the tone of the book intact.

In the novel Rooster is only about forty, and Mattie barely alludes to his one sightless eye. The decisions to age him and give him a eyepatch served to particularize him, and the fact that they were conceived for Wayne’s interpretation only makes Bridges’ ability to retain them and still bury the older performance that much more impressive. But Bridges had his advantages. Where Henry Hathaway tried to flatten all meaning, the Coens enlarge things, to the point of filling in physical details—the measured rise of the tree branch when Mattie cuts the hanged man loose, a small apron of dampened pine needles under the water bucket—which give actors and viewers both a toehold onto their fictional worlds. Nothing says more about Hathaway’s lackluster intentions than his pressing the Rocky Mountains into service as Oklahoma or the casting of non-actor Glen Campbell as LeBouef—the worst kind of commercial pandering there is. By contrast Barry Pepper, as Lucky Ned in the Coens’ version, infused an outlaw caught in the wilderness with a synthesis of some of our greatest Western performances.

It’s hard to think of another movie about revenge that takes less pleasure in its accomplishment; even when Mattie pulls the trigger and blows Tom Chaney over a cliff, the movie doesn’t give us time to crow before the gun’s recoil has knocked her into a snake pit. The feeling of regret and missed opportunities that permeates the movie practically enshrouds LeBouef, the vain Texas Ranger played by Matt Damon, who’s pursued Chaney for months and come close to him a single time—only to miss his shot. LeBouef, a peacock in buckskin, is another solitary wanderer, and his sharp campfire exchanges with Rooster pop with emotional firecrackers thanks to the men’s unspoken suspicion that they have wasted their lives. It’s a doubt which throbs throughout LeBouef’s farewell to Maddie, in a beautiful scene invented by the Coens. “The trail is cold, and I am considerably diminished,” he admits to her, though he must struggle to get the last phrase out.

It’s a confession John Wayne could never bring himself to make. I’ve been hard on him here, I know, but nothing I ever say can blunt his image: he was too great, and too many people take it on faith that no modern-day star, not even Eastwood, will ever top the legendary Duke. Fort Apache appeared in 1948, as the curtain was still rising on the Cold War, and while guessing at what-if’s is a sucker’s game, I’d give anything to know what directions Wayne might have gone in if he hadn’t spent World War II making movies in the States. He spent the rest of his life living down that evasion, and without it, just maybe, his movies wouldn’t creak so heavily under the armor of self-righteousness.

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