The Electric Horseman (1979)

Fondathon 4 Text

Now I’ll Choose Your Outfit. Robert Redford in Electric Horseman

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

The Electric Horseman is a very old fashioned movie for the 1970s; Its a return to the type of movie made during Hollywood’s more innocent days and could have easily been a vehicle for an actor like Gary Cooper. There’s something about the movie that’s just very wholesome to it from the absence of sex, bad language and the innocent nature from the “that would never happen in real life” plot which hits all the emotional beats. A movie in which you’re rooting for a horse is going to have something inherently innocent about it. Even the opening shot of a running horse is very similar to the opening shot of Sydney Pollack’s earlier film They Shoot Horses Don’t They but they are, tonally, completely different.

The opening montage catalogues the story of rodeo star Sonny Steele (Robert Redford); a rise and fall story which echoes Walter Matthau’s final words in A Face in the Crowd. Sonny, a once legitimate figure is now nothing more than a mascot for a product he doesn’t even use. He is trapped in a world of corporate superficiality; no surprise then that the movie is set in Las Vegas of all places. Even the villains of The Electric Horseman are two dimensional, slimy businessmen who don’t have an ounce of empathy. They are about as cliché as it gets but in an enjoyable love-to-hate way.

Sonny’s horse Rising Star is a metaphor for Sonny himself; the horse’s story is essentially Sonny’s. When he talks about what the horse has been through and its desire to be free, he is talking about himself – A former champion who is leading a pampered life and has become no more than a corporate icon. It’s clear that Sonny has no sex or family, as evident from his recent divorcee just like how Rising Star has been sedated by drugs. Sonny is left with no choice but to try and break free from this existence and set Rising Star (and metaphorically himself) free because anything’s better than the living hell he is currently experiencing.

Jane Fonda’s role as Hallie is a throwback to the fast-talking, Hildy Johnson like news reporter. I also have to question if Fonda’s hairstyle and glasses had any inspiration on the look of the titular character in Sydney Pollack’s Tootsie three years later. The scenes between Redford and Fonda alone in the wilderness are reminiscent of classic screwball comedy in the age-old classic “they hate each other but love in love” scenario. Likewise one of my favourite scenes in the film involves Sonny giving passionate monologue to Hallie about the horses’ mistreatment unaware he’s being recorded. Once he thinks the recording has started he has nothing interesting to say (“He’s one of the great animals…in the history…of animals”). A lesson to filmmakers of any stripe really.

I also imagine the inclusion of Dave Grusin’s Disco Magic probably didn’t help the move when it came out in December 1979; six months after the Disco Demolition Night. However, The Electric Horseman is part of Hollywood’s urban cowboy phase the late ’70s and early ’80s. This oxymoronic combination does give the film one of the most unique action sequences I’ve ever seen as Sonny rides his horse against an onslaught of police cars and motorcycles through a small town (I’d like to see this in Grand Theft Auto).

The ending in which Sonny releases Rising Star into the wild is ridiculous. How long would a champion racehorse survive in the wilderness? It would probably die of starvation and loneliness and certainly not be immediately accepted by a wild herd. But at the end of the day, it still strikes an emotional heartbeat.

Call of the Wild (1935)

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Baby its Cold Outside

The beginning of Call of the Wild (a very loose adaptation of Jack London’s novel of the same name) is made up of hard to decipher plot set up exposition which I was only able to get my head around until my third viewing; surely there could have been a more interesting and engaging way the film could have delivered all this information to the viewer. Likewise, a scene during the beginning of the film in which Jack Thornton (Gable) returns to his room only to find his love interest (and possible prostitute) Marie (Katherine deMille) having an affair with another man doesn’t appear to have any effect on the rest of the plot. According to TCM originally Marie had an earlier scene but this was cut from the original print of the film. After this rather static opening, the film gets rolling and finds one of its emotional cores.

Call of the Wild is one of the best dog movies with its complex relationship and emotional bond between Gable and the Saint Bernard named Buck, one majestic looking beast. Buck is a dog that would be of no use to Jack yet is willing to pay $250 to save its life. The image Gable hugging the pooch tells more than words can; truly man’s best friend.

Arguably the most powerful scene in the film is that of Buck trying to pull 1,000 pounds as the result of a bet. You couldn’t ask for a more powerful and barbaric display of willpower knowing if he doesn’t succeed his life will be taken.  The dog in the film appears to be legitimately struggling regards the weight it is actually carrying in real life. Much of the scenes in Call of the Wild featuring dogs would never make it to screen today due to the unethical treatment of animals which is more than apparent on screen. Near the beginning of the film two dogs fight each other on screen and uncut which today would ether to edited to create the illusion of a fight or with horribly unconvincing CGI. Likewise, the general handling of the dogs and even the use of an actual rabbit as bait for dogs to hunt creates a gritty and brutal realism on screen which could not be replicated today.

Reginald Owen is the show stealer as Mr. Smith, the posh, sinister English gentleman with a sick vendetta against a dog; those ridiculous magnified eyes give him the look of a madman. Likewise, Jack Oakie as Shorty comes off to me as an uncowardly version of the Cowardly lion, even down to that laugh. Shorty was killed off in the original cut of the film, as evident from the foreshadowing of his dice turning up snake eyes after Gable throws them to him. The new ending in which Shorty and Jack are reunited prevents the film from being darker in vein like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

It took me a long time to get the appeal of Loretta Young but I gradually came to see her immense likeability, partially in due to those gazing, soulful eyes. In Call of the Wild her makeup is applied flawlessly despite being stuck in the freezing cold wilderness but she’s still she’s a tough cookie who can lecture Gable on a thing or two. I love a good man and woman alone in the wilderness film in which their chemistry fully shines through and the process of falling in love happens organically which in this instance may have been aided by Gable and Young’s affair they had during the production which bore a child named Judy. In a moment of art imitating life Shorty even says; “You know I know a couple of people who used to fool around like that and they got children now”.

I like this sub-genre of the northern western, a refreshing alternative to the mundanity I can often experience in traditional westerns. This is aided by the extensive use of location shooting present in Call of the Wild with those beautiful mountains, silhouetted trees and all that gleaming white snow – I don’t believe there could be a better natural light reflector than the white stuff.

There Was a Crooked Man… (1970)

It’s a Dog Eat Dog World

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

If more westerns were like The Was a Crooked Man I could consider myself a bigger fan of the genre. The opening scene in which a black maid who fakes the mammy act sets the stage for a film which defies convention. To date I’ve never seen another western like it; it’s not like a John Ford western or a Howard Hawks western, this is a Joseph L. Mankiewicz western; the first and only Mankiewicz western. I also love that theme song and am happy to hear it again and again in instrumental form throughout the film.

Mankiewicz was a master of handling dialogue and thus there is such a snappy pace to the whole film. “Nothing like fried chicken while it’s still hot and crispy” may be my favourite line Kirk Douglas has ever uttered in a film. The film is full of characters whom each get their own unique stories. The two homosexual lovers and comic buffoons played by Hume Cronyn and John Randolph have the most interesting character arc with an outcome which is the only time in the film someone isn’t totally out for themselves. The large-scale prison set on the other hand captures the mundanity of prison life with the film gradually building up to the impending escape, ranking There Was a Crooked Man among the great prison escape movies.

There Was a Crooked Man is a movie which combines old Hollywood mixed with new Hollywood with its traditional western setting and it’s dosing of cynicism. The cast features stars both veteran actors and younger stars and a script by David Newman and Robert Benton of Bonnie & Clyde fame. Even the one moral character in the film ends up turning bad. Henry Fonda plays the moral role he was known for throughout his career right up until the very end of the picture, leaving me with a big smile on my face. The movie is very cynical but it’s that kind of wonderful cynicism that makes you feel happy, and not feeling down. Although I would call There Was a Crooked Man a funny movie, it is not the kind of film in which I find myself laughing but rather laughing inside to myself.

The Frisco Kid (1979)

Hanukkah Solo

Its movies like The Frisco Kid which are right up my alley – a totally bizarre, odd ball comedy. A movie which feels like a classic Hollywood western but about a man who is in a totally alien world. The odd pairing of actors Gene Wilder and Harrison Ford works like a charm. Just like how you wouldn’t expect these actors to team up, you wouldn’t expect a rabbi and a Wild West cowboy to be a duo. There’s such pleasure watching the two interact and develop their odd, endearing bromance; Tommy (Ford) has no reason to stay with Avram (Wilder) other than he’s formed a liking to him. Harrison Ford goes from space cowboy in Star Wars to actual cowboy in The Frisco Kid, showing he really had a knack for playing ruffians. However, his character is not just a Han Solo redux. Unlike Solo, he’s not just out for himself but wants to give a helping hand to underdogs.

The Frisco Kid showcases the absurdity of faith but also celebrates it at the same time. Rabbi Avram Belinski follows his faith to a tee (despite being ranked almost last among his peers strangely enough). He would put his life and the lives of others on the line for the Torah or in order to obey the Sabbath. Yet Tommy defends and even lauds Avram’s actions as a man dedicated to his faith, even if he put his life in danger for religious reasons.

Likewise the Native Americans they encounter along their travels have a failure to understand the God of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In one dialogue exchange, the Indian chief is perplexed that this God can make rain yet he doesn’t because as Avram puts it, “that’s not his department”. Yet the chief asks if he wanted to he could, and Avram replies yes. Yet Avram contradicts this statement later in their discussion when he proclaims God can do anything; the chief responds with “then why can’t he make rain?” and Avram loudly states “because he doesn’t make rain!”. However, on top of this Avram tells the chief that there is only one God and that he’s your God too. Take that as a bit of falsifying another’s faith.

However, The Frisco Kid is a movie which showcases peace and unity between cultures. Along his travels, Avram encounters whites, blacks, Native Americans, Christian monks and the Amish. When he first encounters the Amish he mistakes them for rabbis due to their similar attire, perhaps symbolising that we’re not all so different. Here Gene Wilder shows he is an actor who is not afraid to celebrate their religion and culture on screen; even if he is playing a neurotic Jew but not in an annoying way. The Frisco Kid is a movie which could possibly appeal to the both the religious minded and the atheist alike.

Dances with Wolves (1990)

Writes With a Keyboard

It’s more than apparent that Kevin Costner has such love and reverence for the western, continuing the long tradition of epic Hollywood filmmaking with Dances with Wolves. In this revisionist western the Indians are the good guys and white men are the villains with Costner playing a character that likely would have been played by Gary Cooper 40 years earlier. The white man is shown killing mass amounts of Buffalo only for their horns, throwing their trash on the ground and polluting the water. The Native American mentality conflicts with the white man’s use of resources much like America’s carbon footprint today. I can’t say if Dances with Wolves is a movie intended to carry an environmental message but that is an impression I get from it. John Dunbar’s desire to see the western frontier before it disappears is comparable to the Arctic and Antarctica being the last great frontiers today which are apparently on the risk of eventually disappearing. John Dunbar doesn’t want to take advantage of the land but to admire and bask in it.

I find it refreshing to see westerns which include the Indian point of view. The insight in Dances with Wolves into the Sioux culture and lifestyle as well as hearing a not often heard language is fascinating. The Indians in Dances with Wolves are humanised with moments such as when Dunbar sees Kicking Bird having sex in the tipi, a relatable awkward moment or with the Indian children of the tribe having the desire to be grown up and act older than they are. The Indians, however, are not saintified ether; some members of the tribe are vicious killers and display prejudice against the white man. The movie presents both douches and more noble individuals on both sides. The passage of time in which Dunbar very slowly over the course of a four-hour movie becomes assimilated into this culture and learns the language represents an astounding piece of storytelling. Unfortunately, social justice warriors will look upon a movie like Dances with Wolves and decry it as offensive for its display of so-called “cultural appropriation” because apparently, the embracing of other cultures doesn’t represent unity between races but thievery of one culture’s ways by another.

Although not many people share the fondness I have for Kevin Costner dismissing him as a dull, monotone actor. I point to Dances with Wolves as a showcase that the man is a great screen presence; a four-hour long movie which he carries on his shoulders with no dialogue for long spaces of time while at other times he is exuberating his commanding narration voice. The scene in which Dunbar is being held by US soldiers as they assault him, denying him to return to his new found way of life as well as killing Two Socks and using his diary as toilet paper is so painful to watch. I’ve become so attached to the character at this point that I can’t bear to watch everything he has worked towards being destroyed.

Who needs CGI when there’s a world of scenic and natural beauty out there to capture on film? Simply look at the majestic landscapes of the badlands accompanied by John Barry’s score evokes a real sense of wonder. “Why go out to a location when you can just create it on a computer. Isn’t that so much easier?” Sigh. Likewise, the famous buffalo hunt scene is the real deal. How do you recreate a buffalo hunt? Why get huge herds of buffalo of course. Like the chariot race in Ben-Hur, history is brought back to life with buffalo as far as the eye can see with stuntmen on horseback right in the middle of it all; pulling off something as huge as this and retaining continuity is astounding.

Dances with Wolves doesn’t come off as cold, callous Oscar bait but sadly it is another movie in which its Best Picture win has hurt its reputation; “Dances with Wolves is just that movie which beat Goodfellas”.

The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)

The Mob Doesn’t Think. It Has No Mind of Its Own. The great Spencer Tracy said in Fury!

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

When I think to myself what are the most pessimistic films, The Ox-Bow Incident is one of the first to come to mind. This is the type of film you never forget. Whenever I hear a story in the news related to mob mentality, I always think ‘The Ox-Bow Incident’! In the same way how any news story of political corruption or ineffectiveness makes me think Mr Smith Goes to Washington. The eerie music throughout the film sets the tone that something bad is going to happen.

This is the type of film that needs public exposure. It showcases how people can be pack animals who will rally behind something whether or not it’s true; demanding quick, speedy justice regardless of the consequences, with an ending which is a pessimistic punch to the gut, making you feel bad about humanity. The characters having no patience for the legal system and bend the law to fit their own agendas by allowing a deputy sheriff to deputise others. The result: three men are lynched on flimsily evidence that later turn out to be innocent. And if that wasn’t bad enough; the man they were accused of murdering is actually still alive. Remember just how easily false information can spread – do you hear that internet?

All the cast members of The Ox-Bow Incident have their moment in the sun, although it’s Dana Andrews is the one of who steals the show for me – just what you expect for a man threatened with lynching for a crime he is not proven to have committed. The hung bodies themselves don’t appear on screen as this would have been too graphic for the time. Only their shadows appear which is no less a powerful image.

Henry Fonda’s character is like the man in the painting in the saloon who is about to reach out for a woman – “In reach but can’t do anything about it”. Henry Fonda was not a producer on The Ox-Bow Incident but it’s likely had more of a role than just an actor. At the age of 14, Fonda’s father took him to witness the lynching of a young black man accused of rape – an event which had a profound impact on him, so it’s clear the material of The Ox-Bow Incident was of prime interest to him. Even in the film’s trailer he appears as himself talking about the book and film, and states “it’s not ethical for an actor to talk about a picture he’s in”. Yikes, times have changed!

Lynching was still prevalent in 1943 and the movie takes a jab at southerners with much of the posse being southern stereotypes. One of them even says at one point “Down in Texas where I come from we just get a man and string him up”, and even the unofficial leader of the posse Major Tetley wears a Confederate uniform.

The movie also packs a punch with its critique on machismo. The character of Major Tetley tries to make himself out to be more than he is while trying pathetically to be manly and tough. He tries to make a man out his effeminate and possibly gay adopted son (Tetley refers to him at one point as a “female boy”) by forcing him to be part of the lynching mob; needless to say things end in a tragic state. The son barely utters a word throughout the film until the end in which he gives a monologue to his father on what a depraved animal he is – such a release of anger. Likewise, Jane Darwell plays an annoying loud-mouthed old hag (ugh, that laugh) who is essentially one of the guys and believe you me: you just want to tape her mouth shut.

At only 75 minutes the film doesn’t screw around and gets straight to the point. The only disruption in the film’s pacing is a subplot regarding Henry Fonda’s character and his ex-girlfriend. I haven’t got any answers to how this is relevant to the rest of the plot. Westerns are not my favourite genre so to enjoy one they have to be incredibly well done or stand out of the crowd. In The Ox-Bow Incident, the western setting is merely a backdrop. The film has a low budget complete with obviously fake backdrops but it’s unlike anything else being made in Hollywood at the time. The film I found it held the most resemblance towards was Paths of Glory but preceding it by 14 years. The world wasn’t ready for The Ox-Bow Incident in 1943 – but is it still ready?

The Cheyenne Social Club (1970)

Quit Badmouthing the House!

The Cheyenne Social Club sounds like a bad idea on a number of levels. For beginners it stars two elderly actors towards the end of their careers in a comedy about prostitution, not to mention Gene Kelly would be one of the last people I would expect to be directing a western. For a long time it remained a movie I doubt I would ever watch yet much to my surprise the film turned out not only to be perfectly dignified but also very funny and surprising endearing. The idea of Jimmy Stewart being the owner of a brothel and becoming a sugar daddy sounds wrong on paper yet somehow it manages to work. The Cheyenne Social Club paints an idealized version of a whore house in which the women are proud of their profession and worship their boss. The movie doesn’t shun prostitution and while propaganda might be a strong word I certainly got the impression the movie was voicing its support for the legalisation of prostitution.

Henry Fonda is by far the funniest thing in the film; a child in an adult’s body living out a completely carefree existence with Stewart being the straight man and the grown-up one of the two. Even as soon as the film begins Fonda babbles through the entire opening credits which according to the movie lasts for literally over a thousand miles which helps distract from how ordinarily plain the test in the opening credits are. The relationship between the two is incredibly endearing with one of my favourite moments of the film is the two of them innocently sleeping in the same bed together. It is also very amusing as Fonda just follows Stewart wherever he goes as he has nothing else to do with his time but also because he just likes his company. It’s evident through their own screen chemistry that the two where lifelong friends. The film’s other major highlight is Stewart and Fonda’s discussing of politics (Stewart being a Republican and Fonda a Democrat) mirroring their real-life personas and bringing to mind an occasion when their friendship was almost brought to an end when they got engaged in a fist fight over politics in 1947 (“I don’t like to dispute you John but didn’t you always vote democratic?, Well…that was when I didn’t know any better”) .

The Cheyenne Social Club is the third of three films James Stewart and Henry Fonda starred in together. The first two of which are among the weakest films I’ve seen from ether actor. Thankfully the third time was the charm; it took 35 years to get these two legendary actors in a great film together but it was worth the wait.

Cactus Jack (1979)

Meep Meep!

Kirk Douglas and Arnold Schwarzenegger did a movie together?! Yeah, I couldn’t believe it at first either. But that’s only the tip the iceberg of bizarreness with Cactus Jack. It’s also live-action Road Runner cartoon! So let’s sum this up: “One of the all-time Hollywood greats and the granddaddy of cheesy action movies team up for a live action road runner cartoon.” How did this movie bypass me for so long?!

Douglas wasn’t as a big a star as he once was by the 70’s so did he take this role due to lack of superior film offerings or was he not ashamed to show that he had a sense of humour about himself. It’s also worth noting the relationship he has with his horse in this movie is very reminiscent of another Kirk Douglas film, Lonely are the Brave. I’m also not sure if Arnold Schwarzenegger’s lines are intentionally or unintentionally funny. The scene in which he narrates a flashback about when he tried to stop a bunch of horses from injuring woman, children and old men while trying his hardest to emote cracks me up.

The main problem with Cactus Jack is that the jokes are very hit and miss. At 85 minutes it’s already a short movie but even then it could have trimmed down to meet the requirements of its high concept premise. The roadrunner inspired gags are undoubtedly the highlight. By far my favourite gag is the classic painting a tunnel onto the side of a rock. Of course, having this gag in a cartoon is funny itself, however, I find having it played out in live action is even funnier in the sense that I couldn’t believe they were doing a live-action rendition of this joke, having me pondering if that the carriage would really go through that painted tunnel. However is it just me or does the very last gag in the film makes no sense? Why is Kirk Douglas laying a trail of gunpowder into a shed full of dynamite when he’s using this shed as a hideout…oh never mind. On the whole, it’s a flawed film but it is Kirk Douglas and Arnold Schwarzenegger in a live action cartoon. Do I even need to say anymore? This is the type of film I could watch more than once purely based on its novelty value.

A Big Hand for the Little Lady (1966)

6 Angry Card Players

The opening of A Big Hand for the Little Lady has so much frantic build up, the scoping scenery shots as far as the eye can see with a grand western music score and for what? A game of poker; but rightfully so as this may be the best poker movie I’ll ever see. I don’t know how to play poker nor do I have any interest in cards, but it doesn’t stop me from being absorbed in this fascinating and inspired comedy.

Much humour is derived from Henry Fonda’s performance as a gambling addict who attempts to act naive and innocent in order to mask his addiction; resulting in the man becoming a ticking time bomb and the suspense which derives from watching this guy throwing his livelihood away. At one point in the film, however, it stops being entirely comic in which I start feeling sorry for how pathetic Fonda’s character has become; the effective quick switched between comedy and drama is superb. Backed by a cast of charismatic gents as they bicker and tell outlandish stories of what they abandoned in order to attend the game of poker and take the rules of poker so seriously, even when a man’s life is on the line. The only issue I would take with the film is the unnecessary remaining 10 minutes which drag along after the film’s plot has been resolved.

I’d love to see this concept of a poker game going out of control expanded upon and taken to new heights. Not a remake but the same concept in a different setting and perhaps a bit zanier, I would like to see. The sub-genre of the western comedy intrigues me. Westerns as a whole I find hit and miss but when presented in comedic form I have a much easier time caring about what’s happening on screen.

Back to the Future Part III (1990)

Once Upon a Time In Hill Valley

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

While I loved Back to the Future Part II for how frantic and fast-paced it is, I love Part III for largely the opposite reason; for being more simple and laid back. You need a dark chapter like Part II before you can have something more romantic and light-hearted like Part III. I love the western setting, there’s a certain innocence to it and is classic in every sense of the word. There’s monument valley, cowboys, Indians, a saloon as well as the atypical western music score. It’s also fun to see Marty and Doc in a date much further back in time as well as seeing the images, quotes and motifs from the first film reapplied in the western setting. The film shows us Hill Valley during its early days thus over the course of three films we get the entire history (and near future) of this town, making it a character onto itself even if the western setting does raise the question about Hill Valley’s geographical location.

Part III is the Doc’s movie; it gave his character a whole new dimension as his scientific ethics are challenged by falling in love for the first time. I don’t think many people realise it but Doc Brown is a pretty dark character. He blew his family’s fortune on inventions which don’t work (at least until he invented time travel) and is ostracised from the rest of Hill Valley so it’s about time something finally went right in his life and he finds a love. Plus it’s cute, two geeks falling in love who were previously separated by space and time for that added romantic element.

My only complaint with Part III (really my only complaint with any film in the trilogy) is that the film pulls the liar revealed, one of my most dreaded of movie clichés. We know the Doc and Clara are going to get back together towards the end of the movie, so do really need to have the movie abruptly stop for a period. But I’m more forgiving of it in this instance as their separation does contribute to the suspense during the film’s finale which is one of the highlights of the entire trilogy. The interactions between Marty and Doc, on the other hand, are just as great as ever, even more so that they have to find a way to get the DeLorean up to 88 miles per hour with the technology available to them in 1885. Although I do have to ask is Doc not going against his principles at the end by creating another time machine, oh well, it’s still a great ending. Back to the Future Part III is my least favourite of the series but I still love it. Unlike other film franchises, the trilogy is done and dusted. It’s not polluted with further sequels, prequels, remakes, reboots, re-whatevers, and hopefully, it will stay that way.

The End.