Canyon Passage (1946)

Moving from the Coen brothers’ modern reinterpretation of the form to a rather more classic western, dealing with themes of the frontier, of capitalism and exploitation, in a ravishing package.


When American studio pictures are at their best — and quite often it’s in the western genre that they’re at their best — they present a microcosm of high capitalist American society with all its ideological contradictions and self-destructive tendencies. After all, you can make a film about people living scrappy violent lives on the frontiers of society and pretend that it’s about these other people distant in time and place, when really it’s about what’s going on around us even now. The quandaries that these saloon-hopping gamblers face, the choices they make in the people with whom they do business, the colonial aggression they unthinkingly enact towards Native Americans (who, of course, take their revenge, as is undoubtedly not surprising to any of the characters, hence their wearied assumption of the consequences), these are all prescient stories. But also this is a gorgeous film, all beautifully hued landscapes and light filtering through forests, with some sensitive acting as well. (I probably need to see this on the big screen when next I have a chance, and might even rate it higher if I do.)

Canyon Passage film posterCREDITS
Director Jacques Tourneur; Writer Ernest Pascal (based on the novel by Ernest Haycox); Cinematographer Edward Cronjager; Starring Dana Andrews, Brian Donlevy, Susan Hayward, Patricia Roc; Length 92 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Thursday 12 April 2018.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)

Most Westerns are set in the 19th century, at a time when the United States was aggressively expansionist within its continent, and settlers were pushing the boundaries of the territory towards the western coast. The Coen Brothers treat this history as fodder for a number of stories in this Netflix-originated anthology, some of which focus on the comic side of the genre, but others delve into something more primal.


Until I saw True Grit (2010), I didn’t have a particularly high opinion of the films of the Coen brothers. I know it seems heretical (and, sure, I found The Big Lebowski enjoyable), but I thought they were essentially charlatans and made arch, bitter films about people they considered themselves superior to — or so it seemed to me up until that point. There are parts of this anthology which I think hark back to that, so maybe the hardcore will be pleased; it’s a pretty thorough mixture of impish comic touches (Stephen Root prancing about shouting “pan shot!” is a highlight), character portraits (like Tom Waits’ solitary gold prospector), brutal violence and nastiness (the story with Liam Neeson particularly callously so). Pretty much every story ends up with one of the characters dying (not always the one you expect), and while some of them the film treats as pretty funny, others are laden with pathos. My favourite story is probably Zoe Kazan on the Oregon Trail (“The Gal Who Got Rattled”), and even if the way it ends does seem particularly indebted to a certain spirit of male-centred alienation, heartbreak and loss, it at least seems to be dealing with a character arc rather than a punchline.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Joel Coen and Ethan Coen (based partly on the novels All Gold Canyon by Jack London, and The Girl Who Got Rattled by Stewart Edward White); Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel; Starring Tim Blake Nelson, James Franco, Stephen Root, Liam Neeson, Tom Waits, Zoe Kazan, Brendan Gleeson; Length 133 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Saturday 24 November 2018.

Films by Warwick Thornton

In my week focusing on Australian films, I’ve already covered some modern classics including Aboriginal director Tracey Moffatt’s beDevil (1993) and a number of documentaries interrogating Australia’s colonialist and racist societal dynamics, notably Another Country (2015). Warwick Thornton is probably the most prominent director from an Aboriginal background currently working in the country, and over the course of a number of short films and two features has burrowed into this history, stepping back to the 1920s with his most recent feature Sweet Country.

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Films by Moustapha Alassane: Return of an Adventurer (1966) and Two Short Films

My themed week of African cinema has seen a lot of strategies for dealing with post-colonial issues, but Nigerien (that is, from Niger) filmmaker Moustapha Alassane used the generic codes of that most American of genres, the western, to critique Western involvement in Africa. It’s witty and never outstays its welcome. Equally amusing are his shorter, animated films, most of all the glorious Kokoa (which may have been made in the 1980s, though most resources list its year of production as 2001). Needless to say, Niger isn’t currently one of the most highly-developed film-producing nations in Africa, although Wikipedia relates that it was once far more productive, with the ethnographer Jean Rouch being heavily involved in work there, followed by a number of native-born directors. Production in the last few decades has dwindled, although at a recent London Film Festival, I did see The Wedding Ring (2016) by a woman director, Rahmatou Keïta.

Continue reading “Films by Moustapha Alassane: Return of an Adventurer (1966) and Two Short Films”

The Gunfighter (1950)

I do love a western, especially an existential one — because if there’s one thing that The Gunfighter lacks it’s gunfights (sure it has some shooting along the way, but as the local ladies of Cayenne are keen to point out to their Marshal, this isn’t Deadwood or Tombstone or one of those lawless places). And the crisis of Gregory Peck’s character is that while trouble is what he’s trying to avoid, in every town he pulls into the bored local youth want to pick a fight with him because of his ‘fast gun’ reputation. What I like about this Henry King western, aside from its hardboiled dialogue, is that Jimmy Ringo (for that is Peck’s marvellous character name) seems pretty well liked by everybody in the service industry: the barkeep in Cayenne knows him from way back, and so does the Marshal (Millard Mitchell). The local kids skip school to get a look, and when the town ladies (as mentioned) drop by the Marshal, they don’t recognise Ringo and find him quite charming and persuasive (it’s a delightful scene all told). But trouble will catch up with a man, especially when he’s looking to settle down and turn a corner, and so it does here too, and it’s clear right from the start as he rides into view from out of the darkness.

Film posterCREDITS
Director Henry King; Writers William Bowers and William Sellers; Cinematographer Arthur C. Miller; Starring Gregory Peck, Helen Westcott, Millard Mitchell; Length 85 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Jolly, Bologna, Thursday 27 June 2019.

Sound Barrier: The Wind (1928) and Lady Macbeth (2016)

I’m stepping out a little from my usual editorial policy on this site to feature two films, separated by 90 years, because I was roped into a podcast by my friend Pamela who runs the fantastic Silent London website, and her collaborator Pete. It’s called Sound Barrier and is available at that link. I may have had little to contribute, but the others keep up a fine repartee.


This is a review of two films, both of which I’d only seen for the first time recently. And while one of them may have been available for some significant period of my life (i.e. all of it), and despite it clearly being one of those late masterpieces of the silent era (and an enduring film even now, able to stand alongside the already hymned greats of Murnau, Dreyer, von Sternberg and the like), it sadly seems difficult to find a copy currently. In The Wind, silent-era great Lillian Gish plays a frail if determined character, Letty, though her frailty, if anything, is the frailty of humanity in the face of Nature, and nature is duly windy and will destroy a (wo)man. If it’s suggestive of her sexuality (there are at least four men who fall for her, and one of them’s her cousin), it’s also even more suggestive of impending death that’s coming for everyone in the film, these people who have the temerity to stand on the frontier and try to make a life in such isolation. But the Swedish director, Victor Sjöström (aka Seastrom for his American films), also finds a really striking tone, with beautiful cinematography and a feeling of constant lingering unease, expressed via lap dissolves of rampant horses, a small play of feet, and that howling wind whipped up at every window and through every crack. I would love to see this film in a restored print on a big screen. I hope it happens soon.

There’s an even more unbridled emotional intensity in Lady Macbeth, much of which is held in Florence Pugh’s steely gaze, and that lingers over everything that happens. Of course, there’s a point at which she somewhat loses the audience’s sympathy (well mine anyway; it really depends what level of suffering you’re willing to tolerate your protagonists inflicting), but those eyes abide. Although there’s a stateliness to the scenes with her husband and father-in-law that are reminiscent of some of the more austere period films (like the recent A Quiet Passion, not least for largely eschewing a musical soundtrack), this more reminds me of Andrea Arnold’s interpretation of Wuthering Heights (2011), as the camera becomes looser in intense emotional scenes, but also for the range of actors represented — with prominent roles for black actors and actors of colour in particular (Naomi Ackie’s servant Anna, and Cosmo Jarvis as stablehand Sebastian only the most notable). Now there are still romantic/doomed/servile archetypes at play, but it seems to be reflecting on these a little, in the way that Pugh’s Katherine toys with them all as she finds some power. Nevertheless​ it remains Pugh’s film, and it’s a drama that by its close has gone full-bloodiedly Shakespearean in its destructive fancy.

The Wind (1928)
Director Victor Sjöström [as Victor Seastrom]; Writer Frances Marion (based on the novel by Dorothy Scarborough); Cinematographer John Arnold; Starring Lillian Gish, Lars Hanson, Montagu Love; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Saturday 22 April 2017 (and again on DVD at home, Wednesday 26 April 2017).

Lady Macbeth film posterLady Macbeth (2016)
Director William Oldroyd; Writer Alice Birch (based on the novella Леди Макбет Мценского уезда Ledi Makbet Mtsenskovo uyezda “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District” by Nikolai Leskov); Cinematographer Ari Wegner; Starring Florence Pugh, Cosmo Jarvis, Naomi Ackie; Length 89 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Aldgate, London, Sunday 23 April 2017.

The Hateful Eight (2015)

Whatever else it might be accused of, it can’t be said that Quentin Tarantino’s latest film isn’t a coup du cinéma in its 70mm ‘roadshow’ version, harking back to a lost showmanship of printed programmes, overture fanfare, intermission and extra-wide widescreen format. There are many things indeed that I might accuse the resulting film of, yet I find it difficult to build up the necessary steam of self-righteous anger. In short, it is everything that everyone most vociferously damns it for: it is a distillation of all Tarantino’s most annoying tropes, all the abused women (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and their abusers (Kurt Russell), racist Southern rednecks (Walton Goggins) and gentlemen (Bruce Dern), noble yet weirdly homophobic black men (Samuel L. Jackson), and disarming patter of movie-literate self-reflexiveness against the backdrop of real and disturbing historical periods (the post-Civil War Reconstruction period). It sets up a beautiful wintery world using its widescreen palette, quickly drawing us into the single remote location where the eight title characters (as well as one nice guy, and some surprise late arrival characters vying for equal hatefulness, one of which is the director’s voice) spend much of the film battling for one-upmanship, but it leaves a bitter aftertaste as it descends into the usual Grand Guignol of bloodshed that you expect. However, Tarantino’s filmmaking is so desperate in its mugging for cinematic approval that even the nastiest events (with the exception of a hanging towards the end) just pass by with a shrug of my shoulders. Perhaps the title should be a hint that its protagonists are hardly likeable, but for me the film isn’t either and that’s a problem. It doesn’t seem to speak of anything so much as of all the films Tarantino has seen (so no change there). Others have enjoyed this opus, others have eviscerated it. Me, I just can’t be bothered anymore.

The Hateful Eight film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Quentin Tarantino; Cinematographer Robert Richardson; Starring Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Tim Roth, Bruce Dern; Length 187 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Leicester Square [70mm], London, Sunday 10 January 2016.

Slow West (2015)

It’s always nice to see a movie western, even if it’s not shot in the United States, though I am partial to the New Zealand landscape as someone who grew up there. I would say it seems to me to be pretty distinctive as far as landscapes go, but then this is a film shot through with plenty of style (and stylisation). If some of the still-life framings are reminiscent of Jarmusch’s Dead Man (albeit in colour), a lot of the film’s tone comes closer to the deadpan of the Coen brothers, and is freighted with some of their archness as well. The narrative is based around a one-sided romance of one young Scottish lad, Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee), for Rose (Caren Pistorius). Rose has left Scotland to go on the run from the law with her father, while Jay pursues her out of love. He is taken in by Silas (Michael Fassbender), who turns out to be a bounty hunter on Rose and her father’s trail. As a film shot in NZ starring Irish, Scottish and Antipodean actors, it’s really strong on that sense of the modern US as a nation of immigrants, though the Native Americans get fairly short shrift (and one overtly comedy sequence of horse rustling gone awry). So even if I don’t wholeheartedly embrace it, there’s enough in the film to suggest interesting work in director John Maclean’s future.

Slow West film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer John Maclean; Cinematographer Robbie Ryan; Starring Michael Fassbender, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Caren Pistorius, Ben Mendelsohn; Length 84 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Tuesday 7 July 2015.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (aka دختری در شب تنها به خانه می‌رود Dokhtari dar sab tanha be xane miravad, 2014)

There is a lot to like about this film. As a feature-length debut it casts a long (chador-clad) shadow, with a largely stylish use of its widescreen black-and-white frame, and a commanding central performance from the laconic Sheila Vand as the unnamed girl of the title. It’s a vampire film, but not a horror precisely, more of an existential mood piece, like the Jarmusch of Dead Man but without the deadpan humour, with a central character who takes her style cues from Anna Karina and the early nouvelle vague. It has been called a ‘western’ as well, which I think gets at some of the frontier-like emptiness of its setting, nominally an Iranian town called “Bad City” but actually shot in California.

But the style can be a weakness, as you get the sense that the project started with a visual motif — the forbidding figure cut at night by a woman wearing the traditional Iranian chador, the long cape-like black garment which is affixed over the head and billows out behind — with the film then being built up around this. So those sequences where Vand is walking down darkened streets have a compelling inky monochrome beauty, with her lithe movements practised at home in front of a record player, but when other characters are introduced — whether Arash Marandi’s putative love interest, or Marshall Manesh’s drug-addicted father — the narrative focus wavers a bit, as if uncertain what to do.

At times, too, the film turns into something of a musical, as a track is cued up on the turntable then plays out at length, though the director’s taste seems geared towards mid-2000s indie rock, which doesn’t always seem to mesh with the forbidding atmosphere created by the musical score elsewhere. Possibly the most compelling other character is the even more laconic performance from Masuka, a cat, whose presence structures the film and also conveys key plot points to lovelorn Arash.

However, for all this — and surely some of my reservations boil down to personal taste — it remains a strong and distinctive directorial debut with a compelling representation of female empowerment that undercuts the expectations created by its title.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Ana Lily Amirpour آنا لیلی امیرپور; Cinematographer Lyle Vincent; Starring Sheila Vand شیلا وند, Arash Marandi آرش مرندی, Marshall Manesh مارشال منش; Length 101 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Thursday 28 May 2015.

The Ranown Cycle of Westerns

Strictly speaking, the ‘Ranown Film’ credit applies to only two films (Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station), but it’s generally extended to refer to the cycle of six (or sometimes seven) Westerns directed over a five year period by Budd Boetticher, produced by Harry Joe Brown and starring Randolph Scott (the latter names combining for the production credit). I haven’t seen 1959’s Westbound (a contract picture for Warner Bros. that Scott was tied to, and which Boetticher directed though didn’t personally consider part of the cycle), but certainly the other six combine to create a singular body of work. They’re united not just by their director, producer and leading man, but by their common shooting location in California’s Alabama Hills, and their themes — generally speaking, they’re about men and the manifestations (and perhaps, if we’re being generous, limitations) of masculinity. For these are very much manly films, though there are women in them (and some strong supporting roles at that, particularly Gail Russell in Seven Men from Now and Nancy Gates in Comanche Station). Indeed, “A Man Can Do That” is the subtitle of the somewhat patchy documentary about Boetticher included as an extra on the boxset of the latter five films, and much of the dialogue has that kind of laconic old-fashioned ring to it, along the lines of “A man gets to thinking…” that emphasise the hero’s status as a lone outsider forging his own way in a tough frontier country. No doubt some of this comes from Boetticher’s own interests and upbringing, manifested by his fascination with bullfighting (a subject he returned to in a number of his other films), but this is an enduring trope of a genre that has periodically returned to popularity since, but was still in its most classical phase in the 1950s, prior to the revisionism of the latter part of the 60s.

Continue reading “The Ranown Cycle of Westerns”