Tomorrow on TCM: Dawn to Dusk Westerns #5
Every Tuesday and Wednesday in July Turner Classic Movies will be showing westerns the entire day, for a total of 100 movies in all. The times below are all Eastern Standard Time, and beware that in full movie descriptions I always include spoilers.
Tomorrow’s line-up is focused on spaghetti westerns. While I have seen scores of Italian westerns, most of the classics of the genre, I am astonished to observe that I’ve only seen one of the films they are showing in the daytime (the soporific Guns for San Sebastian. You’ll quickly find I am not a huge fan of most Italian westerns). Several of the daytime films seem to be TCM premieres. As we go into prime time though, we get into Leone, etc and we’ll have a few squibs about those.
6:15am: Hate for Hate (1967)
8:00am: Guns for San Sebastian (1968)
10:00am: The Stranger Returns (1968)
12:00pm: The Silent Stranger (1968)
2:00pm: The Five Man Army (1970)
4:00pm: A Bullet for Sandoval (1970)
6:00pm: Red Sun (1971)
8:00: A Fistful of Dollars (1964)
Italian director Sergio Leone based this founding spaghetti western on Kurasawa’s Yojimbo. Clint Eastwood, as The Man with No Name, wearing a poncho and with a cigar clenched in his teeth, wanders into a desolate town where he somehow decides there’s money to be made. There are two rival gangs, the Baxters and the Rojas. Clint, a supernaturally good shot (he kills everyone he shoots at in one shot and no even gets a chance to shoot back) goes to work for both gangs. In the end he kills everyone from both gangs (which amounts to the entire town) and takes home twice the money. But he’s a little better morally than the gang — at a certain point, he helps a young couple and their child escape. The film is less a story that one follows and more like a collection of memorable scenes and images. Such as Clint making a bunch of guys apologize for insulting his mule, then killing all four of them in about a second. “Make that four coffins,” he says to the coffin maker. Clint accidentally punching a woman in the face. Clint propping up two dead bodies in the graveyard to stand in for a couple of soldiers. A bunch of U.S. soldiers stopping Mexican cavalry that is transporting a coach full of gold; they turn out to be Rojas’ gang. Rojas’ gang setting a house on fire and then shooting everyone who runs out, including the matriarch, laughing all the while. Clint, all of his bones broken, killing two pursuers by crushing them with a wine barrel, and then crawling across town on his belly to safety. Appearing like a magician in the end through a haze of dynamite smoke and then spooking his enemies by seeming impervious to bullets (he has sheet metal under his poncho). And it’s all for A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS.
9:45pm: For a Few Dollars More (1965)
This sequel to A Fistful of Dollars has Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef as rival bounty hunters, after a crook named Indio, a guy so evil his wanted poster depicts him laughing. Van Cleef, known as The Colonel, smokes a pipe, and uses a strange gun, a pistol that is adaptable into a rifle. He’s also the kind of guy who pulls the emergency brake to make an unscheduled stop on the train and then terrorizes the conductor when he dares to complain. The bounty hunters decide to team up after a contest in which they shoot each others’ hats. One of them must go undercover with the gang as they prepare to rob the bank in El Paso. Indio once killed his friend then raped his friend’s girlfriend (who shot herself while he was doing it). Maybe that’s why he keeps smoking grass to calm down but it only makes him more insane. He plays music in a little watch whenever he fights a duel. The film climaxes with a three-way duel. Of course Indio loses. It turns out the girl he had raped was The Colonel’s sister. This explains why the Colonel turns down the bounty in the end. The Colonel only wanted revenge. Whereas Clint wanted A FEW DOLLARS MORE.
12:00am: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (1968)
Leone’s third and last film in the Eastwood trilogy. When I first saw it I was alternately bored and scornfully amused by it. Now I think it’s amazing, though merely stylistically. Its cleverness is all directed at aesthetic elements. It doesn’t analyze or critique the human condition or America’s role in history or anything like that. I think the influence of many Italian film-makers on westerns has been in the main deleterious in this respect. Their storytelling makes no judgment between good or bad behavior. Revenge and vendetta are represented as legitimate human pursuits. We are occasionally invited to laugh at the pain and distress of others. It is a cruel universe. Yet many of the details and plot twists remind me of fairy tales: extremely fanciful, almost magical. At any rate, to the film at hand:
The film’s most indelible element is its justly celebrated soundtrack (Ennio Morricone), and the stylish way we are introduced to Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach as the titular characters. Essentially it’s the same story as It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World! The title characters are in mad pursuit of a cache of gold they didn’t even steal themselves (although these guys are plenty crooked already). Their paths keep crossing, the alliances keep shifting. Starts in New Mexico during the Civil War. “Angel Eyes” (Van Cleef) learns about the gold when hired by one of the robbers to track down one of the others. He kills a guy who knows the name his quarry is traveling under (and his son) and the man who hired him. “When I have a job, I always follow through”. Meanwhile, enter “Blondie” (Eastwood) and “Tuco” i.e., The Rat” (Wallach in Mexican mode). Tuco is a shifty eyed weasel, the cousin of Wallach’s character in The Magnificent Seven. These two are partners. Blondie brings Tuco into the authorities for the price on his head, and then shoots the rope when they are about to hang him (shooting everybody’s hats off in the bargain). When Wallach annoys him one too many times, Eastwood takes all the money and leaves him in the desert.
Wallach makes it back to town, washes his face, and goes directly to the gun store, where he gets a gun, whiskey, and a sombrero — and robs the til. Wallach catches up to Eastwood while he is “rescuing” his next partner. Wallach walks Eastwood through the desert now with no water and no hat, until he is seriously injured by the sun. He is about to put a bullet in his head when a wagon rides up. Everyone inside (they’re all wearing Confederate uniforms) seems to be dead. However, one is alive. He turns out to be the missing robber from the gold heist. He manages to give part of the location to Wallach, who then goes to get him some water and meanwhile he gives the rest of the clue to Eastwood. Then he expires. The two men are now bound together whether they want to be or not. Wallach brings Eastwood to recuperate at a hospital run by his brother, a priest. (They’re wearing confederate uniforms; they’ve disguised themselves as the dead soldiers, since they are actually wanted criminals). They’re then caught by Union soldiers, whom they mistook for Confederates, since they’re covered head to toe in grey dust. That’s one fairy tale twist. Another is that a major figure at the prison camp is Angel Eyes, who tortures Wallach for information, while Confederate prisoners play sweet music to cover the sound. Angel Eyes brings Blondie with him to get the gold. Meanwhile Wallach leaps off a prison train, handcuffed to a guard, knifing him on the way. Unable to get out of the handcuffs, he lays the chain across the railroad track, and waits for next train, which frees him. He catches up with the other two in a fantastic, dreamlike village that has been destroyed by cannon. Someone tries to kill Wallach while he takes a bath. He shoots from under the suds, saying one of my favorite lines: “If you have to shoot, shoot. Don’t talk.” Wallach and Blondie team up, shoot several of Angel Eyes’ men, but Angel Eyes escapes.
Their next episode is a digression, perhaps it is only there to bring the characters’ redemption. They encounter a Union battalion that is at a stalemate with their Confederate counterparts. They fight and lose men every day over a bridge they are not allowed to destroy. The two men blow up the bridge. Finally they make it to the graveyard. Wallach, through trickery, gets there first. The other two show up. there is a three way shootout. Angel Eyes dies of course. Eastwood shoots him, having emptied Wallach’s gun earlier. Wallach digs uo the gold. Eastwood makes him put his head in a noose, standing on a very shaky headstone. He then rides away, waiting until the last possible second to shoot the rope.
3:00am: Hang ‘Em High (1968)
A kind of American tribute to the spaghetti western, also starring Clint Eastwood. I think of this movie as The Ox-Bow Incident squared. It’s supposed to be Oklahoma, 1889, but it really takes place in some weird parallel universe that might be called “Hanging Land”. All anyone has anything to do with in this world involves stringin’ ‘em up. An unjust and botched hanging of Eastwood (definitely based on the one in The Oxbow Incident) launches the story. Then Eastwood goes to work for a hangin’ judge (Pat Hingle), to bring back all them guys who almost hung Eastwood so they can hang ‘em! Meanwhile, the judge does a whole bunch of other hangings, and the whole town gathers in the town square to watch this enormous gallows that dominates the entire town in a manner that seems to echo the guillotine in Paris. (The prisoners are also kept in a huge dungeon that evokes the Bastille). Though American, the film has a strong flavor of spaghetti westerns, including the stylized hyper violence; lengthy shots where nothing in particular is happening, and a cool soundtrack. Other side benefits: Alan Hale Jr is one of the bad guys (exceedingly surreal and weird to see Skipper in this context) as are Bruce Dern and Ed Begley, Sr. who are right in their element.
5:00am: The First Traveling Saleslady (1956)
I’m very much looking forward to seeing this light western comedy starring Ginger Rogers for the first time!