- Thu 24 at 7.30: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)
- Fri 25 at 7.30: Fistful of Dollars (1964) / For A Few Dollars More (1965)
- Sat 26 at 7.30: Once Upon A Time In The West (1968)
- Sun 27 at 7.30: Once Upon A Time In America (1983)
- Wed 30 at 7.30: Duck You Sucker (1971)
What a great little filmography Sergio Leone has. This is basically it, aside from his first, The Colossus of Rhodes (1961), one of the popular sword and sandal epics that Italy churned out in droves in fifties. But to describe it as little is to belie its stature since it includes at least two pictures with claim to the title of “Best Western Ever”. Having virtually invented to spaghetti western with the Dollars films, making a star of TV actor Clint Eastwood along the way, he broadened his canvas to take in a detailed Civil War backdrop for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. That film’s archetypal bent in turn laid the foundations for the operatic Once Upon A Time In The West, Leone’s first close examination of the progress of American history, and the motives that drive it (also an overwhelming quotefest of almost every classic western ever made).
Once Upon A Time In America returns to the theme, but updated to the first half of the twentieth century, and refracted through the experiences of a bunch of kids growing up on the lower East side of New York, seemingly destined become gangsters. These experiences in turn are being recalled by Robert de Niro’s Noodles, now an old man; the film is a complex mesh of flashback and present, memory and non-chronology. It was re-edited and shortened on first release, the two versions making both top ten and ten worst lists for many critics in 1984. The proper version is fantastic – elegiac and mournful as well as exciting and violent – and is considered by most to be his masterpiece.
But these are all great films. For purely generic reasons I prefer Once Upon A Time In The West; it’s hard to beat one of the greatest openings in all of cinema, as three gunmen wait at a remote railway station for the anonymous “Harmonica” (Charles Bronson), who doesn’t speak, only blows. And shoots, of course. And Henry Fonda as a villian! He’s usually so dull, but his clear blue eyes here glint with evil. Claudia Cardinale is a comely (and strong-willed) supporting presence, Jason Robards plays a Fool-like outlaw and there’s fantastic set-piece after fantastic set-piece.
In between these two Leone returned to the less ambitious scope of the Dollars movies for the fun little western Duck You Sucker , which has ex-IRA man James Coburn careening across the west on his motorbike, tossing sticks of dynamite around to help out Rod Steiger’s Mexican revolutionary. The title is lame, but the alternate A Fistful Of Dynamite isn’t much better. The two Dollars westerns are almost as much fun, but Eastwood is a far more laconic presence than Coburn and the mood is rather more tense. The first, A Fistful of Dollars, established Eastwood’s “man with no name” as an instant icon, wandering into town with hat poncho and cheroot, and playing off one feuding family against the other; if that sounds familiar, it is because it was ripped off from Kurosawa Akira’s Yojimbo (1961), itself (secretively) inspired by Dashell Hammett’s Red Harvest. It also stars the magnificently thuggish Gian Maria Volonte (under the credit “John Wells”) who returns with Clint for the slightly more expansive For A Few Dollars More. Volonte’s vicious outlaw is pursued by Eastwood and army colonel Lee Van Cleef. The struggle of wills and the shifting vectors of three men’s relationships is crystallised in my favourite of all Leone’s films: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. As the title suggests, the story attains to allegorical or mythic proportions. Van Cleef is back with those evil beady eyes of his, and Leone found his perfect dirty Mexican outlaw in the form of New York Method actor Eli Wallach. The three of them are on the trail of buried gold, avoiding one another’s bullets and the raging Civil War in which they take no interest except as a means to further their ends. They form uneasy alliances of various configurations, the fantastic set-pieces come thick and fast, and the magnificent three-way showdown in a hillside cemetary that crowns the film would assure Leone’s place in the cinematic pantheon even if all his other work disappeared in a puff of smoke. Awesome.
Two more things: all of this is accompanied by the music of Ennio Morricone, dramatic, funny in parts and even heart-tugging – there’s a moment in OUATITW where the camera soars over the station house to reveal a bustling new town; the woman’s singing voice on the soundtrack follows it in a swell of triumphant emotion that gets me every single time. And if you find this all takes your fancy, seek out My Name Is Nobody on which Leone did a lot of uncredited direction – funny and borderline surreal, with a totally winning turn from bright blue-eyed Terence Hill in the lead , plus Fonda again, it’s an absurdist but moving look at the passing of the mythical West.
- Wed 30 at 8.00: Rebel Without A Cause (1955)
Do you ever wonder why everyone makes such a fuss about James Dean? Take a gander at this. He’s a fireball of neuroses and frustrated ennui who can find no place to fit in in the world. Nick Ray directed it with his usual deep sympathy for the outsider – Bowie and Keechie have the same trouble in his debut They Live By Night (1948) – and here Dean’s outcast lover is Natalie Wood. Dean’s ambivalent sexuality is externalised by the presence of Sal Mineo as the weedy kid he takes under his wing and despite its appearance, the film is less about 1950’s juvenile delinquents (they’re far from the worst kids int he film) as about anyone’s anger at social constrictions and feelings of not fitting in, of not understanding how to, and of not even being sure you want to.
- Mon 28 at 7.30: The Wizard of Oz (1939)
This is just great fun, and has flying monkeys to boot. Popping with colour it’s a no-brainer to see it on the big screen. Watch out for the munchkin who hangs himself at the back of one of the scenes! (not really)
- Sun 27 at 5.30; Mon 28, Wed 30 at 7.30: The Wild Bunch (1969)
Another of the greatest Westerns ever made. Peckinpah was preoccupied with the passing of the West even more than Leone was, and in his first properly personal film he goes to town on it. The outlaw gang of the title are mostly old men – William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Ben Johnson, Edmond O’Brien – who have witnessed times change and found themselves out of place. Joined by young’uns Warren Oates and Jaime Sanchez, they are on the run from an ambushed bank job, pursued by old compadre Robert Ryan, and wind up walking nobly into a massacre in a Mexican fort. The presence of all those old stars makes its own point about ageing and changing times, and its great to see such no-nonsense guys with roles into which they can really sink their autumn years’ teeth. It’s celebratory and it’s sad. And it’s also damned violent – the opening fight is tremendous, with the law up high on the roofs and the outlaws on the ground, children and a temperance meeting caught in the crossfire. But the finale is something else, an almost abstracted bloodbath as the Bunch faces an almost endless army of Mexicans ready to take their bullets. Peckinpah was a borderline-deranged proponent of catharsis, but the superlative cutting and the beautiful slow motion of the violent sequences lay him wide open to charges of aestheticisation. That plus the fact they are just incredibly exciting.
- Sat 26 at 9.00 (doors 7.30 – get there early!): The Thin Man (1934)
The epitome of sophisticated grown-up comedy, Dashell Hammett’s Nick and Nora Charles solve murders in between martinis. That they are played by the incomparable William Powell and Myrna Loy (truly a goddess) clinches it, and spawned a series of films that progressively ill-served the starring talent (and increasingly foregrounded their “cute” terrier Asta). Even this, the first one, is a bit thin, but the marvelously convoluted plot never gets in the way of the shenanigans enjoyable and Powell and Loy manage the rarely achieved feat of actually making marriage sexy.
- Sat 26 at 7.30: The Earrings of Madame de… (1953)
A beautiful, cynical fin de siÃšcle romantic drama from master of mittel-European elegance, Max OphÃŒls. Danielle Darrieux has to hock her earrings to pay off debts. The jeweler tips off husband Charles Boyer (magnificent!) who buys them back, but gives them to his lover on her departure to Constantinople. Thence they return in the baggage of smooth Italian diplomat (director Vittorio de Sica) who, starting an affair with Madame de.. returns them, inadvertently, to their original owner and further complications ensue. The earrings are totems of three very different sorts of love affair, only the last of which has anything to do with love, and they are of course the mitigating factor in its destruction. Tragic and beautiful (with great gowns and jewels!)
UCLA at the Hammer:
- Tue 29 at 7.00: Kes (1969) / Pressure (1975)
- Wed 30 at 7.30: Radio On (1979) / The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982)
Four very different slices of British cinema, each with a good claim to uniqueness, and testimony to the fact that while the British film industry seems perpetually on its last legs, it has always been capable of brilliance. Kes was the second theatrical feature from (then TV-) director Ken Loach, the nation’s foremost exponent of engaged socio-realist cinema. A schoolboy in the north of England wrestles with bullies and family, a disintergrating school system and the economically moribund milieu. He finds respite and even joy in training a kestrel. The ending is not happy, but it is piercing, and it is a remarkably beautiful film despite the fact it really is grim up north.
It was pretty grim all over for Black-Britons in the ’70s, those born to (mostly West Indian) immigrant parents in a country that refused to accept them. A remarkable and heartfelt document, Pressure was the first ‘black’ British feature and tells the story of a black West London school-leaver trying to get a job. Not easy, and not pleasant in the then prevailing social and economic mood. The notorious Notting Hill race riots were not far off.
Chris Petit’s debut (financed by Wim Wenders) is another sour indictment of late 70s Britain (little did these guys know what Thatcher was yet to get up to..) dressed up as a road movie on the prosaic M4 between London and Bristol as a DJ travels to investigate the mysterious death of his brother. It’s terrifically shot in black and white, and the radio is, indeed, always on (Bowie, Dury, Devo, etc).
By the early 80s things were looking up for British cinema, mainly thanks to Peter Greenawway and Derek Jarman. While Jarman was all impulsive, flamboyant art school punk (not that he was really young enough) Greenaway was all controlled, literate and witty aesthete (and, some would have it, insufferably pleased with himself). The Draughtsman’s Contract plays like a weird amalgam of Blow-Up and Last Year At Marienbad as a series of ritualised, highly ordered scenes depict the story of a draughtsman commissioned to make a series of drawings of a country house. It turns into a murder mystery, full of clues in unlikely places, dead ends and red herrings. Greenaway was not courting popular appeal, but it’s weirdly compelling, the formality of the seventeenth century setting alleviating the intense formal self-consciousness (that detracts from his next two pictures set int he present), but it’s just gorgeous to look at, and it is the film that really unleashed the repetitive chamber-music-lite of Michael Nyman on the world, if you like that sort of thing.