Tag Archives: John Vernon

Dirty Harry (1971, Don Siegel)

Dirty Harry only has one significant problem. It has a bunch of little problems, but it gets past those–sometimes manipulatively, sometimes just nimbly thanks to director Siegel and star Clint Eastwood–but the big one. It can’t overcome the third act. Villain Andy Robinson (I can’t forget to talk about him) has kidnapped a bunch of school kids. Eastwood’s got to stop him. It should incorporate the film’s (significant) stylistic successes–the big scale action sequence (Siegel loves shutting down a city block with Eastwood playing super-cop) and the harrowing thrills (the middle of the film has this phenomenal sequence where Robinson’s running Eastwood all around San Francisco from pay phone to pay phone).

Instead, the finale has neither. It feels tacked on, sure, but a lot of Dirty Harry feels tacked together. And I’m not just making that observation because I know from director Siegel’s memoir he, Eastwood, and screenwriter Dean Riesner literally sat around and taped scenes they liked from the various failed drafts of the script. Most of the time the tacking works–it leads to strange, nice scenes, usually giving Eastwood some depth–but not at the end. At the end, it flops. The big final action sequence? Well, it’s not big, but it should be. But it doesn’t work. Even if the film’s final shot, with the beatific, haunting Lalo Schifrin music, is awesome.

The film starts in the daytime–literally, with Robinson killing his first victim on a sunny, presumably warm day–and gradually moves the action to night. Much of the second act is at night. Most of the second act, counting screen time and not present action elapsed, takes place at night. Nighttime is where even affably, charmingly churlish super-cop Eastwood gets to be scared. The movie works up to it, establishing Eastwood as much of a caricature as it can–doing a good job of it, of course, and doing the occasional aside to make sure the audience knows he’s their kind of bastard.

The finale’s not at night. It’s during the day. A very, very problematic day. Plot holes galore in its timing. Plot holes really shouldn’t matter in the last fifteen minutes of a serial killer thriller.

So the daytime throws Siegel off a bit with the finale. As does the setting. As does the pacing (he’s only got about ten minutes to wrap things up). But he also seems to let editor Carl Pingitore take a break, which is a big mistake. Pingitore’s editing intensifies as the film does, through the first and second acts; it’s incredible during the nighttime suspense sequences. Siegel, Pingitore, cinematographer Bruce Surtees–Dirty Harry is often breathtakingly well-made. Often set to the perfect Schifrin score.

Plot holes, Siegel’s lax direction, and daylight timing aren’t the finale’s only problem. Dirty Harry’s big little problem–and one of its most surprising successes–has its (muted) blow-up at the end: how can these silly cops and politicians not get over their liberal sensibilities and understand Robinson’s dangerous?

By the end of the film, Robinson’s killed a wealthy, beautiful, young white woman, a ten year-old boy, a fourteen year-old white girl (who he raped), a cop trying to stop him (Robinson shot him up with an assault rifle), and maybe someone else. Maybe not. But definitely those four. Yet mayor John Vernon and district attorney Josef Sommer want to make sure Robinson’s “rights” are “protected” more than anything else. Double quotation works because, while the rights are specific, how to ensure their protection isn’t. Anyway, even worse, they’re convincing Eastwood’s boss–Harry Guardino in a nice, ruffled performance–they’re right.

Eastwood’s new partner is a pre-affirmative action but come-on hire. Except, after working a couple nights with Eastwood, college educated, Hispanic Reni Santoni comes to understand not just the reality of the street but also how much no one listens to Eastwood. How could they? Their characters are too thin to have ears.

Harry’s coats its dog whistles in beautiful filmmaking, but it doesn’t do anything to disguise any of them. So when it turns out the reality of the street is Eastwood’s rampaging super-cop basically gets along with the bad guys. Even when they’re black guys. It’s all in the game, though sort of in a pre-cop movie, post-Western sort of way. It can even make for likable Eastwood moments.

It just doesn’t add up when Robinson’s the villain. He’s a proto-incel gun nut who fantasizes about killing marginalized people. The film frequently dehumanizes the character with these whiny, squealing wails. It’s supposed to make it okay for Eastwood to torture him. But it also makes the character even more unlikable because Robinson’s wails are so good, you just want Eastwood to kick him in the face until he shuts up.

It’s also kind of okay because at that point in the film he’s killed two adults and two children in a variety of circumstances and methods. Harry’s other problem with making its political statement is how ill-suited it integrates with the story. Dirty Harry doesn’t have much character development. In its place is this subtext about the problems with liberal intellectual politicians letting pedophile, cop-killing spree killers literally run wild. At least be invested in that subtext.

Until the third act, the film does a pretty good job of integrating that subtext. It usually gets loud for a moment, then quiets down for a while. In between are some great scenes. Getting over that thin aspect of the script is one of Dirty Harry’s successes, because Siegel and Eastwood are able to leap and bound over the thinness. Until the third act.

So Dirty Harry doesn’t finish as strong as it should. It’s hard to imagine how it could. Aside from the final action sequence actually being suspenseful.

There’s a lot of good acting–Eastwood, Guardino, Santoni, Robinson (kind of until the third act), John Vernon (ditto). Amid all those third act problems, Ruth Kobart gives the phenomenal performance in a small role. The film’s expertly made. Siegel’s Panavision direction–with Surtees’s photography–is outstanding. Those great Pingitore cuts, that great Schifrin music.

It’s just got a bad finish.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Don Siegel; screenplay by Harry Julian Fink, Rita M. Fink, and Dean Riesner, based on a story by Fink and Fink; director of photography, Bruce Surtees; edited by Carl Pingitore; music by Lalo Schifrin; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Clint Eastwood (Harry), Harry Guardino (Bressler), Reni Santoni (Chico), John Vernon (The Mayor), Andrew Robinson (Killer), John Larch (Chief), Josef Sommer (Rothko), John Mitchum (De Giorgio), Mae Mercer (Mrs. Russell), Ruth Kobart (Bus Driver), and Woodrow Parfrey (Jaffe).


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Tell Them Willie Boy is Here (1969, Abraham Polonsky)

Is that the one where Katharine Ross plays an Indian?

Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

Tell Them Willie Boy is Here starts incredibly strong. It gives a real sense of building towards something, but when that something arrives–Robert Blake and Katharine Ross on the run from a posse–it’s handled so poorly, the film falls apart. Maybe it doesn’t fall apart, maybe it just ceases to be good and interesting. The relationship between Blake and Ross, which started as interesting, turns into propaganda. It’s fine, it’s for a good cause, but their scenes lose all sense of importance in terms of character development, motivation… any attempt at honesty. Actually, Willie Boy starts to fall apart earlier. Polonsky cannot handle, as a director, a lot of shots. The essential scene, the crime Blake commits to have to go on the run, is incompetently shot. It’s not until later, with the Dave Grusin score going non-stop, it becomes clear Polonsky had seen The Shooting and was aping its style. It’s not even a bad job of aping, it’s just Polonsky also seemed to think he needed to ape The Shooting‘s copout, indie-friendly ending.

For the first twenty or so, everything’s good in Willie Boy, then the Blake and Ross stuff falls apart, but there’s the excellent, complicated Robert Redford and Susan Clark story going to maintain interest and actually make important observations on the human condition. Except, it’s not propaganda, so Polonsky drops it and that story is the most important–most unique–part of Willie Boy. At the end, when he has a chance to reclaim it, he instead conjures some malarky about Redford the sheriff surrounded by people who think it’s still the old days being the alter ego of Blake, the Indian wrongfully on the run. It’s a bunch of crap and it’s really unfortunate, considering Redford’s excellent work in the film. Blake is okay, but his performance is identical to Charles Bronson’s performances in the early 1960s. Almost no different really.

As a conflicted Native American schoolteacher, Ross is silly sometimes and okay sometimes. When she’s quiet–actually, besides the scenes with Clark and Redford, everything is better when it’s quiet in Willie Boy. Clark’s fantastic and she and Redford deserved a lot of better of a project to work on together.

I don’t think there’s much else to say about the film, other than it being less an incredible disappointment than an unfortunate failure. Polonsky was screenwriter and a more understanding, more capable director would have turned out a far better, far less pretentious product… almost any director, really. Redford would have done wonders.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Abraham Polonsky; screenplay by Polonsky, based on the book by Harry Lawton; director of photography, Conrad L. Hall; edited by Melvin Shapiro; music by Dave Grusin; produced by Philip A. Waxman; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Robert Redford (Coop), Katharine Ross (Lola), Robert Blake (Willie Boy), Susan Clark (Dr. Elizabeth Arnold), Barry Sullivan (Ray), John Vernon (George Hacker), Charles Aidman (Benby), Charles McGaw (Sheriff Wilson), Shelly Novack (Johnny Finney) and Robert Lipton (Charlie Newcombe).


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The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976, Clint Eastwood)

There are a couple kinds of Westerns, once you break it down enough. Ones where people go places, ones where people don’t. The Outlaw Josey Wales is a going places Western. It’s about a man on a trip and what the trip does to the man on the trip. I’ve seen Josey Wales before, probably twelve or fifteen years ago, maybe more–long before I could appreciate it. The Outlaw Josey Wales is a different kind of Eastwood directorial film. Stylistically–visually–it’s more in line with his early 1970s work. There’s also a lot of visible Don Siegel influence. Story-wise, The Outlaw Josey Wales is different from just about any other Eastwood film I’ve seen and can recollect, which leaves out maybe three contenders (but I’m doubtful of The Gauntlet’s artistic import).

Eastwood, the star, gives more in this film than he does for the entire 1980s, more than since he had to back in the 1960s. The film’s about Josey Wales and people–his effect on them and their effect on him, try as he might not to let it get to him–and Eastwood’s rarely alone. The relationships are all peculiar, with none of them having any earth-shattering importance to the character, though the romance with Sondra Locke comes the closest, but there’s more revealing character moments between Eastwood and Chief Dan George’s tag-a-long Indian friend. The Outlaw Josey Wales is so good I need a long sentence like the previous one, to show off my excitement at thinking about it. Other good performances (it’s Eastwood’s best acting job in the 1970s) include Sam Bottoms and John Vernon. I recently said Vernon’s only good in small doses and, while Josey Wales is a smallish dose, it’s more than I’d usually prefer. But I couldn’t care, since he’s fantastic. The rest of the cast is all excellent and many actors seem hand-picked from previous Eastwood films.

Since I’ve already had to acknowledge my misdiagnoses of Vernon, I have to now get on to Bruce Surtees, the cinematographer. In my response to Tightrope, I said Surtees didn’t know how to compensate for 1980s film stock. The Outlaw Josey Wales is from 1976, so I have no idea whether or not Surtees’s absolute brilliance in regards to this film proves my statement true or false. After just watching two color-drained Surtees-shot films, seeing Josey Wales was a revelation. The colors are sumptuous. It’s a stunning film to see–also to hear. Jerry Fielding’s score is fantastic. Production-wise, it’s uniformly great.

I’ll come across films I should have known were great–and Josey Wales is one of those physically-affecting good films–I had a physical reaction to experiencing it (kind of a soaring thing in the chest)–but this one kind of pisses me off. I mean, I should have thought to give it a look a long time ago….

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Clint Eastwood; written by Philip Kaufman and Sonia Chernus, based on a book by Forrest Carter; director of photography, Bruce Surtees; edited by Ferris Webster; music by Jerry Fielding; production designer, Tambi Larsen; produced by Robert Daley; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Clint Eastwood (Josey Wales), Chief Dan George (Lone Watie), Sondra Locke (Laura Lee), Bill McKinney (Terrill), John Vernon (Fletcher), Paula Trueman (Grandma Sarah) and Sam Bottoms (Jamie).


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The Black Windmill (1974, Don Siegel)

The Black Windmill features Michael Caine and John Vernon shooting it out with Uzis. I’m sorry, I’m wrong. They’re shooting it out with MAC-10s. It’s an absurdity worthy of Siegel’s directorial protege Clint Eastwood–actually, Eastwood might have been paying homage to Siegel’s choice of lunacy here in Blood Work (when the serial killer happened to have an M-16 handy). Without Eastwood the star, however, Siegel is lost. The Black Windmill is excruciatingly boring. Something about the way it’s shot makes it unpleasant to watch. It’s too muddy and Siegel’s out of place shooting in London. He feels like he’s shooting a tourist film, not something natural.

Shockingly, the film does offer one of Michael Caine’s finest performances. Really. The script occasionally fails him, especially when it comes to the story between him and his wife (played by Janet Suzman, who fluctuates). It’s too short on the character relationship and too heavy on the bad intrigue. There are some nice performances in the film–Donald Pleasence is great as Caine’s suspicious, clumsy, neat-nick boss. Joss Ackland shows up for a few minutes and is real good. John Vernon is terrible. I once tried watching this film… ten years ago, probably, and Vernon’s scenes probably made me turn it off. He does accents (poorly) and then he’s just in the film far too long. John Vernon is fine, so long as he’s not around too long. He’s around way too long in The Black Windmill.

Some of Siegel’s work–just the shot construction–is really nice. The action scenes are mostly crap, just because he’s so out of his element, but he takes a sensitivity to the actual relationship between Caine and Suzman–Caine’s a spy whose son is kidnapped (it makes no sense, which is why I didn’t bother bringing it up earlier)–and it’s a sensitively I’m not used to seeing from Siegel. It’s a sparse sensitivity, but I would have loved to have seen more. Instead, there’s three or four chase scenes and a shootout. With John Vernon and Michael Caine and machine pistols….

1/4

CREDITS

Directed and produced by Don Siegel; screenplay by Leigh Vance, based on a novel by Clive Egleton; director of photography, Outsama Rawl; edited by Antony Gibbs; music by Roy Budd; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Michael Caine (Maj. John Tarrant), Joseph O’Conor (Sir Edward Julyan), Donald Pleasence (Cedric Harper), John Vernon (McKee), Janet Suzman (Alex Tarrant), Delphine Seyrig (Ceil Burrows) and Joss Ackland (Chief Superintendent Wray).


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