Tag Archives: Lee Van Cleef

High Noon (1952, Fred Zinnemann)

High Noon is a film all about courage and cowardice, so it’s appropriate the film starts with the most courageous thing it’s ever going to do and it does a few. It commits to its theme song. Not a piece of music from Dimitri Tiomkin, but a country song (written by Tiomkin, lyrics by Ned Washington, sung by Tex Ritter). It’s about the movie. It’s the story of the movie, sans specifics, from the perspective of the protagonist.

And High Noon uses the song throughout when lead Gary Cooper is walking around alone. Only the character in the song is nothing like the character in the movie so it creates this disconnect. The song lionizes, Cooper humanizes. Fits sort of perfectly in with the Western hero, which the film comments on rather quietly. High Noon is an intentional metaphor for the HUAC witch hunt. It’s all about Cooper needing help from his neighbors and his neighbors chosing their own self-interest, with a lot of excuses.

In those excuses, screenwriter Carl Foreman comes up with a great deal of transcendant material. Noon becomes not just about a person’s cowardice in HUAC, but about a community’s cowardice in general. There’s a lot of little stuff in High Noon–the film’s not even ninety minutes and it often refuses exposition–and there’s the steady theme about how greed and racism fuel self-interest. The racism comes in with Katy Jurado, who plays a Mexican businesswoman. She gets one of the four plot lines. Well, she sort of shares it with Grace Kelly but Jurado gets the better character.

Let me back up.

The film opens with the song and Lee Van Cleef. Van Cleef is by himself, waiting, playing with his gun or something. Just being creepy and ominous. As the song plays, the lyrics soon confirm the ominous. But Van Cleef does it on his own. Along with Zinnemann’s stark composition. The settings aren’t neccesarily stark, but Zinnemann and cinematographer Floyd Crosby shoot the film with completely empty skies. It’s bright and unforgiving, intensely examining its characters.

Cooper is marshal in a developing frontier town. Thanks to him, decent women can walk the streets during the day. Not sure about night time. After Van Cleef joins up with two other villainous types–Sheb Wooley and Robert J. Wilke–they ride into town and passed the justice of the peace where Cooper is getting married to Kelly. The song has already let us know what’s going to happen in the movie and introduced at least two characters–Cooper and wife Kelly–so the actual introduction to Cooper and Kelly is… not strange, but startling. It’s a long song. It takes Van Cleef and pals a while to get through the opening titles and into town.

The three bad guys are going to the train station to meet another bad guy. That bad guy is the one who’s going to come after Cooper. He just got out parolled from prison (“up north,” where the bleeding hearts free killers) and so he’s on his way home to kill Cooper. Or so everyone assumes.

And so the good townsfolk put Cooper and Kelly on their wagon and send them out of town. They were leaving anyway. Cooper just resigned as marshal. In addition to being half his age, Kelly’s a Quaker. No more gunfights for Cooper.

Only then Cooper decides he can’t run. So he turns back, confident the good townsfolk will help him. They’re all neighbors and friends.

The first friend to turn Cooper down is judge Otto Kruger, who hightails it. Then there’s Harry Morgan, Thomas Mitchell, and Lon Chaney Jr. They’re all good friends with Cooper, but none of them will help. See, the town doesn’t have enough deputies and the only other active one, Lloyd Bridges, picks that day to finally lose it.

See, Bridges is jealous of Cooper and wishes he could be Cooper but resents Cooper for his envy. Bridges wants to be the next marshal, Cooper thinks he’s too immature. Of course, Bridges has already proven his manhood by shacking up with Jurado, who had a romance with Cooper a year before. Pre-Kelly. Jurado’s aware of Bridges’s personality flaws, but apparently finds him amusing. It’s in Jurado’s performance. She has a patience with Bridges.

So Bridges isn’t going to help Cooper. Bridges has a fantastic character arc in the film. Probably the best. It culminates in a great fist fight where Zinnemann and editor Elmo Williams show off. High Noon’s fist fight is better than its gun fight, because Zinnemann’s got a reason not to glamorize the gun fight but the fist fight is fair game.

The story lines are Cooper, Bridges, Jurado and Kelly, and Van Cleef and friends. Everyone except the bad guys intersect throughout the film, which is fairly real time and has Cooper trying to find people to help him before the bad guy arrives at, well, High Noon.

And there’s the song to accompany Cooper when he’s out alone. Until it’s not there anymore. The film picks just the right time to eighty-six the song and let Cooper’s performance take over. And it’s no different in how it handles Cooper, other than the song being gone. He’d been doing this performance the whole film. The film just decides it’s time to stop talking about Cooper and instead be about him.

And the other story lines. Though the bad guys’ waiting for the train one is pragmatic and Bridges’s masculinity one is truncated (and very nicely echoed through a lot of the rest of the town, definitely in the bar scenes), the one with Kelly and Jurado gets a lot of attention. It’s the film’s main subplot, specifically Jurado. She connects to all the characters, eventually.

Cooper’s great. A lot of his part is reactive and the film never gets too interior–Cooper’s experiencing a lot of fear, anger, and disappointment. He ought to be seething, but he doesn’t get to seethe because he’s got to be the guy in the song. The song haunts him. And hounds him.

Kelly and Jurado are good. While Kelly will break down in front of Cooper, she won’t in front of anyone else. Jurado doesn’t break down in front of anyone. So when they finally get together, Kelly and Jurado are adversarial. Only Foreman’s script has much higher ambition for the characters. It gives Jurado a great arc in the film too. Cooper and Kelly end up with the least impressive character development arcs in the picture. They still have perfectly good arcs, Foreman just concentrated on Jurado and Bridges. Because Cooper and Kelly’s arc is tied and very complicated. She doesn’t just object because he’s outnumbered and she’s a Quaker. There are things going on. With Cooper too. Their arc builds–is surface, is subtext–it even echoes.

Foreman’s script is really, really good throughout and especially on that arc.

Bridges is fantastic. Mitchell, Chaney, Morgan. They’re all good. They’re kind of cameo parts though. Kruger’s fine. He’s a lot better being a weasel than not, however.

High Noon’s great. Zinnemann, Foreman, Cooper, producer Stanley Kramer. They make something singular. And not just because they get away with that song.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Fred Zinnemann; screenplay by Carl Foreman, based on a magazine story by John W. Cunningham; director of photography, Floyd Crosby; edited by Elmo Williams; music by Dimitri Tiomkin; production designer, Rudolph Sternad; produced by Stanley Kramer; released by United Artists.

Starring Gary Cooper (Marshal Will Kane), Grace Kelly (Amy Fowler Kane), Katy Jurado (Helen Ramírez), Lloyd Bridges (Deputy Marshal Harvey Pell), Sheb Wooley (Ben Miller), Robert J. Wilke (Jim Pierce), Lee Van Cleef (Jack Colby), Thomas Mitchell (Mayor Jonas Henderson), Lon Chaney Jr. (Martin Howe), Harry Morgan (Sam Fuller), and Otto Kruger (Judge Percy Mettrick).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE 4TH WONDERFUL GRACE KELLY BLOGATHON HOSTED BY VIRGINIE OF THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF CINEMA AND EMILY OF THE FLAPPER DAME.


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The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966, Sergio Leone)

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly ends up being about three criminals–of varying type–hunting down some stolen Confederate gold. But that Confederate gold story line takes a break after getting setup in the first ten minutes–for almost an hour of the two and a half hour plus film–so Good, the Bad and the Ugly can introduce its protagonist and his antagonist. Eli Wallach, playing the Ugly, is the protagonist. Clint Eastwood, the Good, is the antagonist. Lee Van Cleef is the Bad, but he doesn’t really figure in until the second hour.

Wallach’s a criminal. Eastwood’s a bounty hunter. Only they’ve got a scheme worked out where Eastwood will bring Wallach in, collect the bounty, then save him from hanging. Only things go bad in their partnership, partially because Wallach’s such a scumbag, partially because Eastwood’s greedy. The film follows Wallach, with Eastwood getting maybe five scenes to himself away from Wallach. And at least two of them are Eastwood with Van Cleef. Eastwood’s practically a special guest star in the film, despite being top-billed.

The film opens with vingettes setting up the three characters. Well, not Eastwood. His setup vingette is a continuation of Wallach’s. Van Cleef’s vingette introduces the missing Confederate gold. He then gets some occasional investigation scenes before disappearing for a half hour or so. The film’s got to move Wallach and Eastwood into position to intersect with the missing gold plot line. Through exceptional plot contrivance.

It’s fine though, because Good, the Bad and the Ugly can get away with plot contrivance. Director Leone’s style and Wallach and Eastwood’s performances (more Wallach, Eastwood just has to be charming) can carry it through. There’s a lot of humor–Wallach’s such an abject bastard he’s lovable–and some rather excellent action scenes.

But then, in the second hour, Good, the Bad and the Ugly changes completely. It’s no longer a Western with Civil War trappings, it’s a Civil War picture with Eastwood, Wallach, and Van Cleef shoehorned in. Even if Van Cleef’s working as a Union prison camp sergeant hoping to get a line on that missing gold. During that sequence, which involves Van Cleef’s enforcer (Mario Brega) viciously beating Wallach for information, while the Confederate soldiers play a song to cover the noise, Leone transitions from making that Western to the Civil War picture.

Only he still then follows the plot of that Western quest for gold, gunfighters, bandits, doublecrosses. But until the end of the film, none of the non-Civil War stuff (save Wallach’s solo hilarities) can compare to what Leone’s doing with the Civil War stuff. The prison camp sequence is jarring and affecting, it’s also nothing compared to what Leone’s got coming.

There’s a shorter sequence involving Eastwood and Wallach coming upon a Union encampment. They’re on one side of the river, the Confederates are on the other. They’re fighting over the bridge. The Union captain (Aldo Giuffrè, in what’s got to be one of the best dubbed performances ever) is a drunk, crushed under the weight of sending his men to needlessly die twice a day for a bridge he wishes he could destroy.

If Eastwood had a real character arc, this sequence would kick off its final stage. He doesn’t though, but the movie uses him like he does and–for a while–gets to pretend it’s a thoughtful look at the two bandits encountering an entirely different kind of violence than they’re used to experiencing. It doesn’t even last as long as Eastwood and Wallach are at the Union camp, but it’s spectacular. It picks up again a little when they continue on their way to the inevitable showdown over the gold; just for Eastwood though. The film’s back to treating Wallach as the lovable bastard.

The Civil War material is passionate–with the Ennio Morricone score having a different, more romantic tone than the Western action sequences–and technically ambitious in terms of scale. The Western action sequences (for the most part, Eastwood and Wallach taking on Van Cleef’s thugs is a confused mix of the two styles) are a glorious mix of composition, editing, music, and photography. The cemetery-set finale, with Van Cleef, Eastwood, and Wallach in a standoff, the cuts getting more rapid between their faces, the tension (and music) intensifying with each cut, is a fantastic style culmination.

It’d be even better if Leone could’ve somehow figured a way to integrate the film’s differing tones. He doesn’t even try. He toggles away from the war rumination and back to the Western action. It’s great action. It’s just nowhere near as special (or as ambitious) as that war rumination.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is a technical marvel, with some great performances–Wallach, Van Cleef, Giuffrè–and superior photography, editing, and music. Eastwood’s perfectly good, he just doesn’t get any material. Visually, Wallach’s his stooge. Narratively, with the two Civil War reaction exceptions towards the end, Eastwood’s Wallach’s stooge. Van Cleef isn’t in it enough to be distinct to the narrative, his vicious, brutal performance does wonders what little he does get.

In the supporting roles, Giuffrè is the standout, but there are some other strong ones. Despite a large cast, the supporting players don’t get a lot of material. Brega’s a great villain, Antonio Molino Rojo has a good scene as Van Cleef’s knowing commanding officer, and Enzo Petito has a swell single scene as one of the unfortunates who encounters Wallach. And Luigi Pistilli has a good scene as Wallach’s brother; it’s the two and a half hour film’s single attempt at character development.

Morricone’s score, both for the Western action and Civil War sequences, is singular. Eugenio Alabiso and Nino Baragli’s editing is glorious. Leone’s composition, ably facilitated by Tonino Delli Colli, is excellent. Good, the Bad and the Ugly is an outstanding success.

It’s just nowhere near as ambitious as it ought to be, as Leone seems to want to make it to be.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Sergio Leone; screenplay by Agenore Incrocci, Furio Scarpelli, Luciano Vincenzoni, and Leone, based on a story by Vincenzoni and Leone; director of photography, Tonino Delli Colli; edited by Eugenio Alabiso and Nino Baragli; music by Ennio Morricone; production designer, Carlo Simi; produced by Alberto Grimaldi; released by Produzioni Europee Associate.

Starring Eli Wallach (Tuco), Clint Eastwood (Blondie), Lee Van Cleef (Angel Eyes), Aldo Giuffrè (Captain Clinton), Mario Brega (Cpl. Wallace), Luigi Pistilli (Father Pablo Ramirez), Antonio Molino Rojo (Capt. Harper), Enzo Petito (Storekeeper), and Antonio Casale (Bill Carson).


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Escape from New York (1981, John Carpenter)

Man and boy, I’ve probably seen Escape from New York ten times. This viewing might be the first where I noticed the film’s quietness. Carpenter uses the relative silence to make the first third (even before Isaac Hayes shows up), the most memorable parts of the film.

Some of that memorable quality has more to do with Carpenter’s approach than the script. The flying sequence is phenomenal. The deliberate cuts between Kurt Russell, delicately lighted in the cockpit, and the glider silently moving through the New York streets, the music barely audible… it’s one of Carpenter’s more “beautiful” moments as a director.

That sequence also showcases how Carpenter and his crew were able to take a lower budgeted picture like New York and make it more impressive than most big releases of the day. Carpenter sets up a dystopian future, but make the futuristic aspects imaginative and thrilling to the audience.

Lots of seventies Carpenter regulars show up–Tom Atkins, Charles Cyphers, Nancy Stephens (not to mention Donald Pleasence and Adrienne Barbeau)–but the additional supporting cast members are iconic. Obviously, Isaac Hayes as the Duke of New York is a flashy role, but Harry Dean Stanton and Ernest Borgnine are great too.

In a very Altman fashion, suggests these complex relationships–particularly Barbeau and Stanton, but also Russell and Van Cleef–and lets the viewer decide for him or herself. He does something similar with Pleasence’s finish.

The film is a significant masterpiece, something I’m not vocal enough about.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by John Carpenter; screenplay by Carpenter and Nick Castle; director of photography, Dean Cundey; edited by Todd C. Ramsay; music by Carpenter in association with Alan Howarth; production designer, Joe Alves; produced by Larry J. Franco and Debra Hill; released by Embassy Pictures.

Starring Kurt Russell (Snake Plissken), Lee Van Cleef (Hauk), Ernest Borgnine (Cabbie), Donald Pleasence (The President), Harry Dean Stanton (Brain), Isaac Hayes (The Duke), Tom Atkins (Rehme), Charles Cyphers (The Secretary of State), Season Hubley (Girl in Chock Full O’Nuts) and Adrienne Barbeau (Maggie).


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