If you’re even slightly interested in seeing Logan, you probably know that it’s getting rave reviews. So much so that for some people, it’s going to be tough for it to live up to the hype. So let me say right out of the gate that Logan isn’t a perfect movie. But it is a very good one, and a significant enough departure from previous instalments in the X-Men franchise that your enjoyment (or lack thereof) of the earlier movies probably isn’t a very good predictor of whether you’ll like this one. On the other hand, if you’re a fan of Westerns – and specifically the gritty, melancholy, washed-up-gunslinger-reluctantly-takes-on-one-more-job trope, this film is for you.
Let me say first that you should all be extremely proud of me for making it this far before indulging myself with my favourite villain of all time, Al Swearengen. Come to think of it, Al isn’t just my favourite villain, he’s my favourite TV character of all time, period. So the fact that I made it through five Villains of the Month before scratching that itch shows remarkable restraint, don’t you think? Yes, thank you, I think so too.
Stark says: “We sure gonna be mighty rich corpses.”
Yellow Sky is one of those films that I’ve been meaning to watch for ages; mostly because a) it has a female co-lead and b) it’s often referred to as a precursor to that most idiosyncratic of western sub-genres, the Acid Western.
Acids, if you haven’t come across them before, are known, and named, for their counterculture tendencies; the desire to kick the western away from the glowy sunset of manifest destiny and into the dark corners of the soul. Made right on the cusp of the 1950s – the decade of the Western Epic – Yellow Sky is a surprisingly off-beat film. Adapted from a novel by W.R. Burnett, who flitted with ease between Westerns and gangster noir, and directed by ex-World-War-One fighter pilot and all round hell-raiser, William A. Wellman, it’s easy to see how Yellow Sky had the potential to stand out as an unusual Western from the start.
Gregory Peck plays Stretch, the leader of a gang of bank robbers and ruffians, who, after looting a small-town bank, are pursued onto seventy miles of deadly alkaline salt flats. With no choice but to cross, they find themselves dying of thirst in the isolated ghost town of Yellow Sky, inhabited only by an old prospector (James Barton) and his granddaughter (Anne Baxter). Apparently loosely based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, what follows is a clashing of morals, loyalties and greed set within a claustrophobic, visually compelling pressure-cooker.
Without a doubt, the setting is the real star of this film. Yellow Sky looks great, almost alarmingly so compared to other Westerns of the same era, which were often forced to make do with B-movie budgets and materials. Even the quality of the film stock is a surprise, incredibly crisp and clear for something shot almost seventy years ago. Working in black and white, MacDonald makes full use of the Death Valley location with its the arid, inhospitable, terrain; boulder fields in the sun are exploited for chiaroscuro effect, pale dust clouds are kicked into dark angles of shade, silhouettes and shadows abound. Perhaps most memorable in this respect is the final duel between Lengthy, Dude and Stretch; rather than showing the shoot-out itself, we’re presented with the outside wall of the saloon, with its broken window, where the silhouettes of two horses rear in fright.
It all adds to the general feel that the town of Yellow Sky is a no-place, like Hellman’s desert in The Shooting or the snow-locked wastes of Day of the Outlaw. A setting that both highlights and reflects the stark, brutal and often arbitrary nature of humanity; how a person might behave when denuded of society and civilisation.
But what of the actors? Oh yes, them. Gregory Peck is a decent lead, playing a former hard-hearted bandit who finds his moral compass swinging towards honesty. However, Richard Widmark (who you might recognise as the lead from Jules Dassin’s wonderful 1950 noir, Night and the City) steals the show as Dude, Stretch’s treacherous second-in-command. Neatly dressed in a white shirt and tie where the others are scruffy, Widmark is a wonderful foil. He plays Dude with a casual viciousness tempered only by a lust for gold.
Yellow Sky is a bit of a smorgasbord of Western character actors. John Russell – star of Lawman and, many years later, crooked Marshal Stockburn in Pale Rider – gives a good turn as brooding lout Lengthy, while Harry Morgan, (aka Col. Sherman T. Potter in M*A*S*H) does a decent job with not many lines as turncoat-turned-ally Half Pint.
Anne Baxter (who was, incidentally, the granddaughter of Frank Lloyd Wright!) does a great job here as the trouser-wearing, shotgun-toting Mike. When Stretch attempts to bully her into giving them food, she threatens him with her gun. He swipes it off her, only to get socked in the face. This being 1948, there are plenty more opportunities for Harassment of The Female Character (more on this later), but not without Mike rather skilfully shooting off some of Stretch’s scalp the next time he tries anything. All in all, Baxter is a compelling lead; she plays Mike as tough, resilient and hot-headed, without being too clichéd. HOWEVER:
As we might suspect from the grabby-grabby poster, there’s a lot of that ol’ Hollywood favourite: kiss-first-don’t-ask-later. Wellman’s guilty of exploiting this, leaning rather heavily on sexual threats to create tension. The film opens with a scene of the gang leering at a painting of a woman on horseback, commenting: “I sure would like to know what she plans to do after she gets done riding that horse”. The subsequent introduction of Mike, a young woman alone in an isolated town with only her grandfather for back-up, has a predictable effect on the gang. She is mocked by Walrus, quietly idolized by youngster Bull Run, and harassed by Lengthy, subjected to constant not-so idle threats.
Again, after seeing that poster, we also shouldn’t be surprised to discover that one of the worst physical offenders is the upstanding Stretch himself. After sternly forbidding his men to bother Mike, he can’t help but break his own rule, firstly by insulting her: “You know if you was prettied up a bit you’d look almost like a female,” and secondly by dive-tackling her to the ground to assault her, just to prove that he can. Although she wins both rounds, shooting him in the head and insulting him right back "You smell. Didn't anyone ever tell you before that you smell bad?" eventually forcing him to – literally – clean up his act, it’s still frustrating stuff. But then, this is 1948. Although she rides off at the end in the company of Stretch, wearing a flowery hat, I suppose the fact she does it as part of a gang, on her own horse, wearing her usual shirt, trousers and gun-belt is some sort of minor victory.
One thing: don’t let the opening of the film fool you. In the first frame we’re told that this is THE WEST, 1867 while an instrumental version of Oh! Susanna plays. Ignore that. Things are about to get better. Also ignore the first line of the film: “Hey! Look at that!” followed by someone pointing to a skull with an arrow through it. IT GETS BETTER. I PROMISE. Of course, we encounter the usual Native American stereotypes and racial slurs, in this case focused on Apaches. Grandpa does comment that Mike was “raised by Apaches… fine people if you can understand them”, and although there’s some standard nonsense whooping and shooting, it’s mostly offscreen, thankfully.
All in all, Yellow Sky is a mixed bag; a Western of its time that makes a decent attempt to side-step the usual tropes, a visually compelling piece that uses the landscape to reflect its overall themes, and a film that has more than a few hidden currents beneath its surface… As Grandpa says: "Guess the war upset a lot of those boys. Got them off on the wrong foot.” What was true of 1867 could be as true of 1948: yet another group of young men, spat out by war, suddenly adrift in a world that has made its moral fragility abundantly clear. A precursor to the Acid Western indeed.
Stark says: “Wounds, shock, sore feet, Kolaloka will cure all!”
Ever since I staggered headfirst into a clip from Lemonade Joe on YouTube, I’ve been dying to review it. “Who the hell is that?” I thought, watching a man with a curly moustache prance through a musical routine, “what is this film? Why are those Jan Švankmajer-style wax heads spinning around? Wait, IS THIS A WESTERN?”
Stark says: “Gimme uh double one”
Yes, so granted you’re getting used to me reviewing some pretty odd Westerns, but I have to say this one’s particularly odd, even for me. In it a six-year old girl – who also happens to be Sheriff – smokes a cigar and cheerfully massacres a room full of strangers, later beating up a load of troublemakers with a stick. Sounds like something out of a peyote-crazed Acid Western, right?
Wrong. It’s a Disney film.
Stark says: “I don’t give a curly-hair, yellow bear, double dog damn if ya did.”
If you like your Westerns obscure, oblique and cult then I have four words for you, friend: Monte. Hellman. The. Shooting.
Stark says: “Obliged.”
Monte Hellman’s Westerns are a strange breed. For one thing, it’s hard to talk about one without talking about the other. The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind were shot back to back, after the film’s financier reckoned that, if you’re making one film, why the hell not make two? And while both are considered to be prime examples of revisionist, acid Westerns, they’re also very different films. As a Western, The Shooting, written by Carole Eastman, is female-led, abstract, uncompromising and hallucinogenic. Ride in the Whirlwind, on the other hand, is defiantly realistic; more conventional and plot-driven. It was also written, produced and acted in by Jack Nicholson.
Stark says: “You won't find much mercy anywhere in Wyoming.”
Seen The Revenant, yet? No? Well, if you’re pushed for time but harbouring a hankering for a hardscrabble, snow-choked Western, then go for Day of the Outlaw instead. If nothing else, it’ll save you an hour and a half, which you can spend doing… other things. Like smoking meat or practising macramé.
I will admit, there’s less grunting than there is in The Revenant, and less bear. Directed by Hungarian-born Andre de Toth – of House of Wax fame – what’s on offer here is a psychological, powder-keg of a Western that feels less like a yee-haw-thankee-ma’am-cowboy-movie and more like a taut, 1930s noir thriller.
Another random famous person listicle, sorry! But this is an interesting list - Quentin Tarantino's twenty favourite Spaghetti Westerns. And the sort of thing that will keep Stark busy:
- The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (Sergio Leone, 1966)
- For a Few Dollars More (Sergio Leone, 1965)
- Django (Sergio Corbucci, 1966)
- The Mercenary (Sergio Corbucci, 1966)
- Once Upon a Time in the West (Sergio Leone, 1968)
- A Fistful of Dollars (Sergio Leone, 1964)
- Day of Anger (Tonino Valerii, 1967)
- Death Rides a Horse (Giulio Petroni, 1967)
- Navajo Joe (Sergio Corbucci, 1966)
- The Return of Ringo (Duccio Tessar, 1965)
- The Big Gundown (Sergio Sollima, 1966)
- A Pistol for Ringo (Duccio Tessari, 1965)
- The Dirty Outlaws (Franco Rossetti, 1967)
- The Great Silence (Sergio Corbucci, 1968)
- The Grand Duel (Giancarlo Santi, 1972)
- Shoot the Living, Pray for the Dead (Giuseppe Vari, 1971)
- Tepepa (Giulio Petroni, 1968)
- The Ugly Ones (Eugenio Martin, 1966)
- Viva Django! (Ferdinando Baldi, 1967)
- Machine Gun Killers (Paolo Bianchini, 1968)
The playlist above contains the trailers for all 20. This comes via Open Culture, who picked it up via The Spaghetti Western Database (which doesn't seem to exist any more?). Open Culture have been stalking Tarantino's faves for some time, and have a recent post that does compares Tarantino's 2002 and 2012 'top 12' lists...
Stark says: “If you shoot me, I’ll fall. And if I fall, they’ll have to alter all the maps.”
A Fistful of Dynamite… sounds almost like a Leone film doesn’t it? Yeah, well that’s because it is a Leone film: his least known and most overlooked Western, but a Leone film all the same. It also marks his exit from the Western genre with a deafening, nitroglycerine-fuelled bang.
We’ve covered a few Western subgenres – weird westerns, acid westerns, dinosaur westerns, surrealist animated Westerns – but get ready because here’s another one coming at you: a revisionist-epic-spaghetti-Zapata Western.