Tag Archives: Ben Johnson

The Wild Bunch (1969, Sam Peckinpah), the director’s cut

The Wild Bunch opens with a methodically executed heist slash shootout sequence. Director Peckinpah quickly introduces cast members, partially due to the dramatic plotting, mostly due to Lou Lombardo’s fantastic editing. All juxtaposed with some kids watching ants kill scorpions. The Wild Bunch opens with one heck of a declarative statement. Peckinpah wants to look at violence and how people treat violence as entertainment.

Unfortunately, he also wants to do a Western about men getting old and being men and bonding even though they don’t like each other because they’re men after all and men stick together. Just look at “villain” Robert Ryan, who is pursuing his old gang–led by William Holden and Ernest Borgnine–and is now stuck with a bunch of low-life bounty hunters. Real men aren’t low-life bounty hunters with bad teeth. Edmond O’Brien, the eldest of the “Wild Bunch,” has bad teeth but he’s not a low-life bounty hunter. He goofs off in the steam bath just like Holden and Borgnine.

After the opening, which is simultaneously exhilarating and horrific, The Wild Bunch does a more traditional first act. There’s setup with Ryan hunting down the gang, there’s setup with the backstory between Ryan and Holden, there’s a full introduction of the supporting cast. Ben Johnson and Warren Oates are brothers and dissenting voices in the gang. Jaime Sánchez is the other guy, who’s apparently been there longer than Johnson and Oates, but not as long as Borgnine. It doesn’t really matter because the characters aren’t deep. They’ll occasionally get deep characterizations from the actors, but the script’s pretty thin. In the script they’re just old, mopey, angry, drunk, tired, horny, or some combination thereof.

For Johnson and Oates, it doesn’t matter. They’re around to be flashy so Holden can dwell on all his mistakes. For Holden and Borgnine, it does matter. Borgnine has almost nothing whatsoever to do except back up Holden, so it’d be nice for there to be a reason more than Borgnine admires Holden. And if not a reason, at least something melodramatic. Something melodramatic would show Peckinpah and co-writer Walon Green carried a little.

Instead, no. It’s undeveloped. Just like almost everything else in The Wild Bunch, except Sánchez’s backstory. Out of nowhere, the film goes from being Ryan hunting Holden and company to Holden and company hanging out in Sánchez’s home village in Mexico and becomes darn likable. Oates goes from ominous and dangerous to affable in about three minutes once they get to the village. Cute even. But Peckinpah doesn’t want the audience to like the characters for too long–at least not without reservations or comprise–so they’re always doing something awful.

There’s some good acting in The Wild Bunch. Holden’s a strong lead and he has a handful of phenomenal little moments. They don’t add up to anything, but they’re real good. And Peckinpah’s on for them too, which is nice. Borgnine’s fine. He really is just support for Holden. Sánchez is fine too; Peckinpah was apparently intentional about making him frequently pout. Oates is wild and crazy and it’s okay. It’s an enjoyable performance, but the character is still exceptionally unlikable. Johnson does a lot with a thin part.

Edmond O’Brien is amazing. He chews scenery, drools or spits it out with his chaw, but always with restraint. Whoever thought of dubbing his laughter over shots should’ve had a different thought, however. After some a lot of imaginative stylization in the first third, the film cools down until the grand finale. And that grand finale just shows the same techniques applied to different content; Peckinpah foreshadows pretty much everything in the spectacular open.

As far as the bad guys, Ryan’s okay. Strother Martin and L.Q. Jones are initially amusing as his most vocal moronic sidekicks. They soon get tiring, once it’s clear there’s no more material for them. Ryan gets it worst in that department, however. He’ll be going along fine and then get some trite, waxing nostalgic monologue. It makes for a long movie.

Jerry Fielding’s music is on the low side of mediocre. It’s kind of all right at times, but Peckinpah and Fielding go for a traditional Western score and it doesn’t bring anything to the film. And then there are the times Fielding does action thrill music, which do not work at all. In fact, they’re unpleasant. You’re sitting around waiting for something to happen and then there’s some action and Fielding kneecaps it.

I know Wild Bunch is a sparse, moody look at the male psyche, violence, and the myth of the Old West, but it should better at doing that thing. Peckinpah neglects his actors; not an insignificant problem since there’s only three or four intricate action sequences. There are a couple more elaborate ones, which have spectacle but not much else. But Peckinpah’s ignoring them when there’s nothing else going on except the characters walking, talking, riding.

Despite some dynamic filmmaking from Peckinpah, ably edited by Lombardo, Wild Bunch just doesn’t add up. There’s not enough for the actors, neither in the script nor in Peckinpah’s directorial attention.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Sam Peckinpah; screenplay by Walon Green and Peckinpah, based on a story by Green and Roy N. Sickner; director of photography, Lucien Ballard; edited by Lou Lombardo; music by Jerry Fielding; produced by Phil Feldman; released by Warner Bros.

Starring William Holden (Pike Bishop), Ernest Borgnine (Dutch Engstrom), Edmond O’Brien (Freddie Sykes), Jaime Sánchez (Angel), Ben Johnson (Tector Gorch), Warren Oates (Lyle Gorch), Emilio Fernández (Mapache), Strother Martin (Coffer), L.Q. Jones (T.C), and Robert Ryan (Deke Thornton).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE 2ND ANNUAL GOLDEN BOY BLOGATHON HOSTED BY VIRGINIE OF THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF CINEMA.


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Rio Grande (1950, John Ford)

Rio Grande doesn’t have much going for it. The best performance is probably Ben Johnson, who isn’t even very good, he’s just not as bad as everyone else. Harry Carey Jr. and Victor McLaglen aren’t good, but they’re likable. Carey’s performance is just weak, while McLaglen gets saddled with the silly, comic relief role of drunken Irishman.

The three leads–John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara and Claude Jarman Jr.–all have their own problems. Wayne and O’Hara have poorly written roles and no chemistry with Jarman, who plays their son. James Kevin McGuinness’s script is a mostly boring melodrama about too young Jarman enlisting and ending up at estranged dad Wayne’s calvary post; O’Hara shows up to bring him home. Meanwhile, Wayne’s got to deal with the escalating Native American attacks. He desperately wants to invade Mexico but the dumb Yankee federal government won’t let him.

Forgot–Wayne and O’Hara are estranged because she’s a Southern Belle and he’s in the U.S. Army post-Civil War.

There’s a lot of protracted exposition–and lots of songs–to cover the lack of story. Director Ford’s completely checked out. He directs much of the film like it’s a silent, which would be preferable given McGuinness’s lousy dialogue and the actors’ weak delivery of it.

Technically, Grande doesn’t do much better. Jack Murray’s editing is awful and Bert Glennon’s photography is flat. Glennon concentrates on the Monument Valley backdrops, even though Ford doesn’t.

Awful supporting performance from J. Carrol Naish.

Grande’s tediously lame.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by John Ford; screenplay by James Kevin McGuinness, based on a story by James Warner Bellah; director of photography, Bert Glennon; edited by Jack Murray; music by Victor Young; produced by Ford and Merian C. Cooper; released by Republic Pictures.

Starring John Wayne (Lt. Col. Kirby Yorke), Maureen O’Hara (Mrs. Kathleen Yorke), Victor McLaglen (Sgt. Maj. Timothy Quincannon), Claude Jarman Jr. (Trooper Jeff Yorke), Ben Johnson (Trooper Travis Tyree), Harry Carey Jr. (Trooper Sandy Boone), Chill Wills (Dr. Wilkins) and J. Carrol Naish (Lt. Gen. Philip Sheridan).


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The Getaway (1972, Sam Peckinpah)

From the lengthy opening credits to the big action finale, it's always clear sound is important in The Getaway. Editor Robert L. Wolfe does some wonderful transitions with sound foreshadowing the cut and the next scene, but there's something more to it. That something more is the isolation theme running through the film–Steve McQueen starts in prison, surrounded by these loud, garish, yet hollow sounds. The action finale, at a nearly deserted hotel, also has loud, hollow sounds. They amplify Peckinpah's composition–particularly for the finish–and reinforce the film's dreamlike quality.

The Getaway is a few things at once. It's a heist picture, it's a revenge picture, it's a seventies relationship drama. That relationship aspect to it, with recently released from prison McQueen and wife Ali McGraw having some big problems, is the film's quietest plot line… if only because there's so much noise around it. But Peckinpah, McQueen, McGraw and screenwriter Walter Hill always keep it present. McGraw's timid, nervous performance works wonders–she's apparently inscrutable, but not really.

She and McQueen have fantastic chemistry, which they need to give their story more gravitas than Al Lettieri's subplot. Lettieri is a opportunist thief who kidnaps Sally Struthers and Jack Dodson in his pursuit of McQueen. Lettieri runs away with a bunch of the film. He's spellbinding; no other word for it. Struthers is rather good as well.

Technically, the film's a marvel. The Lucien Ballard photography is phenomenal, day or night, action or drama.

The Getaway is a fantastic motion picture.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Sam Peckinpah; screenplay by Walter Hill, based on the novel by Jim Thompson; director of photography, Lucien Ballard; edited by Robert L. Wolfe; music by Quincy Jones; produced by David Foster and Mitchell Brower; released by National General Pictures.

Starring Steve McQueen (Doc McCoy), Ali MacGraw (Carol McCoy), Ben Johnson (Jack Beynon), Al Lettieri (Rudy Butler), Slim Pickens (Cowboy), Richard Bright (The Thief), Jack Dodson (Harold Clinton), Dub Taylor (Laughlin), Bo Hopkins (Frank Jackson), Roy Jenson (Cully), John Bryson (The Accountant) and Sally Struthers (Fran Clinton).


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Hustle (1975, Robert Aldrich)

Leonard Maltin calls Hustle pretentious. I think he’s referring to the spotlights Aldrich shines in people’s faces for close-ups. I think Maltin’s wrong about those shots and their pretense. Aldrich isn’t being pretentious, he’s just totally incompetent when it comes to directing a movie like Hustle.

But I’m not talking about the story content–it’s a really poorly written character study of Burt Reynolds’s uncaring cop and Catherine Denueve as his call girl girlfriend–but the production. Ernest Borgnine plays Reynold’s boss (the movie’s hilariously loose with police ranks and their responsibilities) and through Borgnine’s office windows is the city of Los Angeles. Well, a picture of the city. In black and white. Clearly in black and white.

The movie looks like it was shot on a bunch of cheap TV sets, with Joseph F. Biroc’s cinematography less artful than episode of the Adam West “Batman” show. It’s not all Biroc’s fault, Aldrich doesn’t have a good shot in the film. It looks like he’s directing a poorly budgeted television show, one with a great cast and an awful script.

As the leads, I guess Reynolds and Denueve aren’t terrible. When Hustle is just the two of them sitting around the sitcom set they call home, it’s just this incredibly boring character piece. It’s like a misfired play, but it’s not awful. Once they leave, however… trouble begins.

Worst is Ben Johnson in some ways–he’s almost good, but his character is so poorly written, he’s awful.

Hustle stinks.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Robert Aldrich; screenplay by Steve Shagan, based on his novel; director of photography, Joseph F. Biroc; edited by Michael Luciano; music by Frank De Vol; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Burt Reynolds (Lieutenant Phil Gaines), Catherine Deneuve (Nicole Britton), Ben Johnson (Marty Hollinger), Paul Winfield (Sergeant Louis Belgrave), Eileen Brennan (Paula Hollinger), Eddie Albert (Leo Sellers), Ernest Borgnine (Santuro), Jack Carter (Herbie Dalitz), Colleen Brennan (Gloria Hollinger), James Hampton (Bus Driver), David Spielberg (Bellamy) and Catherine Bach (Peggy Summers).


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