Category Archives: Sam Peckinpah

Cross of Iron (1977)

3.5 stars out of 4

Cross of Iron is the WWII war film that gladly takes the WWII out of the mind and reintroduces the true horrors of man. We spend our entire time with the German army, and not once do we ever think of them as anything other than men caught in a terrible fate. Not once do we think of the Fuhrer and the dark oppression of Germany. Like All Quiet on the Western Front before it, this is a tale of flawed human beings caught in a thing bigger than them that was created by sheer stupidity by people they have nothing to do with. Unlike anything else, Cross of Iron is also dissonant.

Sam Peckinpah makes a war film. Sounds like a match made in heaven. And it was, especially since this was Sam’s last good film. Interestingly, there are little of Sam’s trademark cinematic techniques, and instead there is a deep attention to historical detail and crafting a universe of warfare. This further allows us to believe the events we are seeing and fall in with the troops, much as in Major Dundee (1965).

The film is very low-key, but never really betrays its low budget. The reason that this works is due to the intensity of the performances and the sharp focus on only a few men of the German army. This is never about war or politics, but about men trying to stay sane in the midst of absolute chaos.

We focus on a German platoon on the Eastern front of Russia in 1943. Commanding these men is Corporal Steiner (James Coburn), the kind of individual soldier who captures a small Russian boy as a prisoner does not follow his orders to kill any Russian, but keeps the boy hidden as a fellow being amongst his squad. Steiner’s immediate superiors (James Mason, David Warner)  understand the way the war is being fought and the way the German army must endure the bombardment.

Unfortunately the same does not go for the newest addition to the German officers, Captain Stransky (Maximilian Schell). Stransky has moved from occupied France to the Eastern front entirely for one purpose: to win the Iron Cross. This immediately puts him at odds with the rest of the men, who know the true worthlessness of the stupid piece of metal. Stransky immediately butts heads with Steiner who is immoveable to his Prussian high-mindedness.

In an attack, Steiner and his men bravely defend their position whilst Stransky struggles to even remain standing. Steiner is wounded by a mortar shell and wakes in hospital with a head wound. He sees visions of the dead and gone and convalesces with a nurse…until leaving ahead of schedule and going back to the front. The nurse asks him why he goes, but Steiner cannot answer. The war has consumed him.

Steiner returns to find that Stransky is claiming the defense was all his responsibility in a cheap attempt to gain the Iron Cross. Stransky has named Steiner and another as witness. (He blackmails the other man’s homosexuality, and promises Steiner will be looked after after the war.) Steiner retreats to think about his answer. Meanwhile the army decides to move out and Stransky does not relay the order to Steiner’s men. Thus, the army pulls out and Steiner’s platoon is abandoned to the masses of oncoming enemy Russians.

You think they’re dead. They think they’re dead. Yet Steiner pushes his men across impossible odds and they actually escape the enemy and reach the woodland. Then begins a long journey back to their comrades through enemy lines. Along the way they encounter a group of Russian women and are repulsed when the women refuse to fully submit to their guns and thus kill two of their team.

Steiner’s platoon makes it back to the German lines and are gunned down by the duplicitous Lieutenant who was blackmailed by Stransky. Steiner and one other survive the machine gun onslaught, and Steiner dispatches the Lt. He finds Stransky and then refuses to just shoot him. He gives Stransky a gun and challenges him to go onto the battlefield. Then while being shot at, Stransky cannot reload his gun.

The ending is where I find the most fault with the film. It makes sense but is completely unnecessary and does not fit with the film’s natural progression in any way. It feels forced and jarring and does not sit well with the end credits. Ultimately, the major theme of there being no reason to any of the madness is underlined because the film itself has no real defined meaning! This completely scraps any and all possibility of an overarching point and the film could have simply ended fifteen minutes before with a single mortar shell.

Cross of Iron is a well-made little war film that feels and is of it’s time. Aside form a few moments there is little of the Peckinpah touch we have come to know and the end result is rather impersonal. The ending leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

EDITIONS: For years, we have put up with terrible, lousy pan and scanned transfers of this movie. We have become used to it being cropped horribly, interlaced and very contrasty. Chock every other release out the window because the new Region B Optimum Blu-ray is simply put, the best this film could look in the home. Clean, sharp, colorful: the 1080p image is nothing short of stunning. Audio is at a simple 2.0 PCM (as it should be!). Extras are plentiful, but the main draw is the feature being presented in a very good straight transfer with no tinkering and little frills. A great transfer in every way.

DVDBeaver comparison: http://www.dvdbeaver.com/film/dvdcompare5/crossofiron.htm

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Filed under 3.5 stars, Film Directors, Film Review, Sam Peckinpah

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974)

4 stars out of 4. Immortal film.

“I been here before and you don’t know the way.”

A film that is balanced completely on a single swing of a shovel, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is also one of the most unfairly ridiculed of all films. Typically disregarded as low budget 70’s trash with a title used for laughs, Alfredo Garcia is instead a distillation and advancement of Sam Peckinpah’s favorite themes. He went off to Mexico and made this completely without studio interference. If  only we could all do the same.

Alfredo Garcia is a film that exists on its own time and in a place that seems so completely real that from the opening titles you completely believe everything that unfolds. It essentially is a feature film composed of all the little scenes that make Peckinpah’s previous films so lifelike. Patched together into a single story these moments sear into our memories and make the films truly come alive. For Alfredo, they are the film.

Shot entirely on location in Mexico and with a Mexican crew, Alfredo takes on a realism that really makes the film work. You see a Mexico that hasn’t been examined, a land of real people living in poverty yet still proudly defiant. It is a naked portrait of the characters and of the land itself.

The plot is beyond simple. The daughter of El Jefe, (Emilio Fernandez in another wonderful villainous role) who is some sort of major crime lord, has become pregnant by Alfredo Garcia. El Jefe declares an open bounty of $1 million to anyone who can “bring me the head of Alfredo Garcia”. This sends a multitude of people out to Mexico City in an ever widening net to catch the rogue father. After searching though every stopover and local watering hole, two men come into a bar and begin talking to the American expatriate piano player.  Bennie (Warren Oates) is a disillusioned man whose life has gotten away from him. He says he knows nothing about Alfredo, but in fact everybody knows of the guy. Only Bennie’s girlfriend Elite knows where he is. She admits that he has already died in an accident after admitting that he was her lover and more passionate about it than Bennie will ever be.

This turn drives Bennie back to the agents of El Jefe, where he tells them that he will bring them Alfredo. What follows is a journey into the heart of the Mexican countryside and into an even deeper hell.

The darkness inherent in Peckinpah ratchets up to almost unbelievable levels for the entirety of this film. The entire film feels almost as if it were an exercise in foreshadowing with everyone in any capacity seeming doomed. This goes on and on until that shovel appears. The film then has a rebirth, becoming an unbearable out and out descent into violence and madness after the greatest cinematic resurrection since The Mummy’s Curse.

The Warren Oates performance is usually referenced as being largely based on the director’s persona. In fact some have even said that Oates actually plays Peckinpah in the film. Whether this is true, there is enough of Sam’s presence that the film is undoubtedly his. Oates has no sense of an actor, his Bennie is a tortured soul with no point to any actions. He is a completely and utterly washed out shell of a man. Thus with this “assignment” essentially dropped in his lap he once again has a purpose and with his mentioned Army background takes to it much like a soldier would to a new set of orders. Taken along for the ride unwittingly is Elita (Isela Vega) who at once seems to exhibit the pure qualities of nature and the warm-hearted goodness of the Mexican people. She does not know why Bennie want to see Alfredo’s grave, but when finding that Bennie wants to sell his head reacts against this idea as it is unnatural and wicked. She pleads with Bennie to give up this task, that it will only bring greater darkness and destruction upon them. But Bennie cannot do this anymore than he cannot breathe. Like Bogart’s unforgettable Fred C. Dobbs in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (often referenced in this film) the task has become a personal crusade, the desire for money is also the promise of freedom from any and all constraints. However mad the dream may be, it is still a great dream.

Many speak of the more standout moments in the film, but there is one small Peckinpah touch that gets to me every time. In a small hotel room, Elita is revealed to be sitting in the shower with the water raining down upon her head. This is a representation of our lowest points, where even the cathartic nature of the hot water cleansing our bodies cannot rinse off our fears. I’ve even put this into my own films.  And Bennie comes to her and finally says “I love you” without any provocation. That they then continue their quest gives this touching moment the bad flavor of being Bennie’s attempt to convince her to keep going with him.

Upon release, the film was decried as a debasement, an exploitation movie gone wrong, filth, trash and utter garbage. Very very very few like Roger Ebert saw it for what it actually was. Now  with the passage of time it becomes easier to see the film’s true nature and really sink your teeth into its context. No this isn’t a mere exploitation movie. There’s nothing exploitative about it at all. It is absolutely heartfelt, made by a man who never beat around the bush in anything. Peckinpah: “I did ‘Alfredo Garcia and I did exactly what I wanted to, good or bad, like it or not. That was my film.”

Yes, it damn well is. In the end, that’s exactly what it is.

25 people will die, all because of Alfredo Garcia.

“Why? Because it feels so god damn good.”

Yes it most certainly does.

EDITIONS: In 2005, MGM finally released the film on DVD with a nice 1.85:1 transfer with 16:9 enhancement. The transfer is nice and clean with very little print artifacts. Grain is consistent and pleasing, and the mono soundtrack is clear in Dolby 2.0. The almost mandatory commentary by the usual bunch of Peckinpah scholars is more down to earth than some of their other recorded tracks and is very informative for fans of the film. The film has been released on Blu-ray in Spain which seems to use the same transfer, bumped to 1080p with the sound presented in mono PCM. Importing this disc is recommended as it will likely take MGM/Fox about 5 years at least to even think about a mainstream US Blu-ray release.

Wishful thinking, Al.

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Filed under 4 stars, Film Directors, Film Review, Immortal Films, Sam Peckinpah

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973)

Note: This review is about the 1988 Turner Preview Version, which was the Director’s rough assembly cut.

4 stars out of 4. Immortal film. Forgotten American masterpiece. Along with The Wild Bunch, the great American Western.

Without any doubt, Pat Garrett is one of the saddest American films ever made. Every single frame of this film conveys such a deep emptiness that you can’t help but feel some of the characters’ erosion of the soul. Butchered by a vengeful  studio head, antagonized at every turn, besieged by technical problems, Peckinpah turned to drinking even more heavily.

It is a marvel that a film even came out of this mess. But it did, and it is a highly personalized reflection of Peckinpah’s own self-loathing.

In the opening, we are shown the death of an older Pat Garrett inter-cut with the younger Billy the Kid blowing the heads off of some chickens. So in five minutes we’ve already been hit over the head with a bag of rocks and are sent reeling into the rest of this supreme exercise in melancholy.

Pat Garrett continues many of the themes and methods of The Wild Bunch, but is incredibly internal. There is never any vocalization of inner thoughts, only long reaction shots of slow-burning internal fires. Chief amongst these is James Coburn’s mesmerizing portrayal of Garrett, a former outlaw who has sold out both himself and his kind by becoming a lawman. His assignment: get his best friend out of town. By force if necessary. Preferably the latter. The so-called reputable society members want the outlaw gone form their universe. Of course these are primarily greedy rich land barons who will stop at nothing simply to amass more wealth and property. Garrett goes to his friend and warns him to leave or he will come after him. Unfortunately, Pat’s old friend is Billy the Kid. (Kris Kristofferson)

Billy is this immediately likeable roguish son-of-a-bitch who doesn’t really give a damn who or what stands in his way. As soon as he and Pat lay eyes on each other, the game is up. Even without knowing a thing about the real life story of these two figures, you know 5 minutes into the film that Pat will be forced to shoot Billy down. They both know that, and because they refuse to directly acknowledge it the film becomes something else entirely. Metaphoric? Possibly. Elegiac? Definitely. How can we live with ourselves when all of our humanity has been eradicated in the name of advancement? You can’t. To quote The Wild Bunch: “We’re gonna stick together, just like it used to be. When you side with a man, you stay with him. And if you can’t do that, you’re like some animal – you’re finished! We’re finished! All of us!

The rest of the film revolves around Pat’s dogged pursuit of Billy. He captures him at one point, and while in jail Billy escapes with the entire town looking on in bewilderment. In the crowd we see a lowly newspaperman who is spurred on by this to go off and join Billy’s gang. Known only as Alias, and featuring virtually almost no dialogue the character is portrayed by Bob Dylan.

Yeah, it’s that kind of movie. Dylan is the symbol of the film’s beyond-weary poetics. His score for the film is a combination of elegy and simple underscore. “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” came out of this film and perfectly realizes the film’s ultimate message.

The film is a workout of your depression endurance threshold. It is not a “revisionist Western” but a plunge into the emptied soul of an aging man and how he comes to realize there’s none of himself left to do anything. The moment where Slim Pickens’ mortally wounded sheriff sits down by a river at dusk and comes to the realization of his death is done without comment directly in front of the viewer with no quarter. There’s another moment where Garrett is resting on a tree by the river and a family on a boat is passing by. The father is shooting at a bottle in the water. Garrett shoots at it and the father aims at Garrett in surprise. Garrett aims back and the two hold this bead in silence until the boat passes out of range. Both of these just reiterate how we as a people have become so completely deadened by our societal constraints that we simply waste away each and every day.

These moments appear as little parables almost along the long journey that Garrett takes to Billy. Finally, he reached the Kid and stalks him throughout the town, closing in on him in a small house where Billy is spending the night with his favorite companion. Outside the house he encounters a coffin maker, played by Peckinpah himself. The director berates Garrett and tells him  to “go on, get it over with.” Garrett does, but cannot face himself and shoots the full mirror bearing his own reflection. Looking at himself in the mirror’s shards, his own destruction is complete with the killing of the Kid. The fact that he lives on for years is unimportant. Garrett effectively dies right there in that room.

Upon finally finishing the lengthy troubled production and somehow avoiding slipping into an even deeper black hole, Peckinpah returned to California to begin the editing process. The studio head of MGM, James Aubrey, had had it in for both Peckinpah and the entire production since before filming had even begun. Demanding a completely unreasonable and impossible completion date, Aubrey attempted to salvage a commercial product to market out of the film where there was none to begin with. Peckinpah and his editors completed a rough Director’s cut which is what is being reviewed here. Commonly known as the 1988 Turner Preview version, this edit is not so rough, and more of a strong 1st assembly. It is hard to say what Sam would have tweaked or changed had he been given the opportunity, but as it stands this version is an American masterpiece. (Much the same case with Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999))

Aubrey forced Peckinpah out and had him barred from the studio grounds. He then had the film cut down to 106 minutes for a bastardized theatrical release. the reception was one of confusion and disgust for such a messy film, but word soon began to leak out that it was not authorized or made by Peckinpah. Sam had tried to have his name removed, but this was never achieved. Pat Garrett died a slow death at the box office and was quickly forgotten. Jump ahead to 1988 when the personal copy of the rough assembly that had been held for years by Peckinpah himself was  rediscovered and released to TV and home video. As with the rediscovery of many of his other films, finally people were able to see just what Sam had been getting at.

EDITIONS: The 2005 DVD features two versions of the film: the 1988 Preview version as a secondary disc, and a new re-cut “Special Edition”. This “Special Edition” is a hack-job meant to make things more “fluid and correct”. It was done by Peckinpah scholar Paul Seydor who is a feature editor in his own right. But the only benefit is the addition of a missing scene between Pat and his wife. Otherwise, it messes with everything Sam did on the first assembly cut, adds in extraneous music, cuts scenes to pieces because “this is the common way of doing things”. When did Sam ever do anything normal or by the book? This is just atrociously stupid. Thankfully the masterful original assembly cut is maintained. This copy of  Preview version may not look as good at first, but it has not been manipulated or processed.The SE cut has image manipulation, edge enhancement, color tweaking and boosting and a new soundmix which isn’t very good. The Preview version has print damage and reel change markers but works just fine. The mono has some occasional defects but also plays fine. Why Warner didn’t include the theatrical version is strange as it includes scenes that are different to these two versions. Maybe on an eventual Blu-ray this can be rectified alongside the restored Preview version in it’s rightful place on Disc 1 with a clean lossless rendering of the mono. It deserves as much. The DVD is available separately or in the economical Sam Peckinpah Legendary Westerns Collection.

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Filed under 4 stars, Film Directors, Film Review, Immortal Films, Sam Peckinpah

The Getaway (1972)

Japanese poster that is better than the film itself. And it cuts off McQueen's bad haircut.

3 stars out of 4. Mismatch between commercial overtones, big star power and director.

After the colossal failure of Junior Bonner (1972), Sam Peckinpah re-teamed with star Steve McQueen in this box office smash. Of course the box office of that time was not really what Peckinpah had in mind, so the resulting film is really a bit of a mess. It also the first film in the director’s career that bears little or none of a personal stamp. It’s more of a for-hire job to be honest.

The reasons? Not much to work with and star power. Steve McQueen essentially began to dictate where the production would go and how things were going to get done. He also had a little thing called final cut. What little interest Sam may have had in the film seems to have been completely evaporated. For such a boring film to come out of a Jim Thompson novel is truly incredible.

The film tells of inmate Doc McCoy (McQueen) who is fed up with his 10 year stretch in a Texas prison. After being refused parole, he tells his wife Carol (Ali MacGraw) to begin “arranging” for his release with corrupt business man Jack Benyon (Ben Johnson). McCoy is released on the understanding that he will now complete a bank robbery with an appointed team. There’s a double cross of course, (several actually) and the result leaves McCoy and his wife on the run.

The plot loses itself constantly, and at the point that the story decides to have some logic again, this will soon go right back out the window. It is a frustrating experience to try and understand this movie. Not only do the characters make illogical decisions that seems to have no basis in anything, but the ending sequence is something that should never have happened. There is a point where the McCoys can simply go anywhere, and they just go to  a prearranged location where they can easily be ambushed!

The best parts of the film are about the lesser characters. The subplot about the wounded gunman and the veterinarian’s wife is far interesting than the “plight” of the McCoys. The action is pretty standard fare, so that the film drags even in the places where it’s supposed to be exciting. There’s very few scenes that even have a semblance of Peckinpah’s touch, the most notable being the garbage truck sequence. Other than that there’s a wonderful Slim Pickens cameo. Really. That’s it. This film was built around the McQueen-MacGraw relationship and that’s exactly what sold it to people in 1972. Thompson’s book simply became yet another 70’s star vehicle.

There is one great sequence though. In a train station, Carol is hoodwinked into losing a bag full of money. The simple con man doesn’t know what he’s got a hold of and slips onto the next train. McCoy goes after him and methodically stalks him through the moving train. It’s a brilliantly executed sequence that has the right balance of tension and humanity that Peckinpah could deliver so well. For a moment you forget what film you’re actually watching.

The Getaway is not a bad film, but it is strangely indifferent to itself or anything else for that matter. A bit of a mess that stands out as a curio maybe. You get left with a bad taste in your mouth. To top it all off, the whole “couple on the road chased by police in the early 70’s” bit was done two years later in The Sugarland Express (1974), and absolutely bests this film. It even features Ben Johnson in a much better role, here his part is basically a cameo.

The Getaway is compromised, commercially minded Peckinpah-lite. Which of course is still better than most directors anyway. It isn’t anywhere near the awfulness of Convoy (1978, and rumored to not have even been truly directed by Sam), and is much more cohesive than The Killer Elite (1975).

Oh, and there’s another great scene where McQueen actually slaps MacGraw. It’s such a wonderful moment of nasty self-disgust that perfectly reflects the film.

Note: This film was photographed in the rare Todd-AO 35 process. This was a process made by Todd-AO to try and compete with standard 35mm production, not that it made any difference here.

EDITIONS: Originally released on an early snapper case DVD by Warner, the  2005 DVD Deluxe Edition was simultaneously released alongside a Blu-ray and HD-DVD. All three come from the same new master. 1.85:1 16:9 anamorphic video image which looks quite clear, with maybe an occasional blemish or two. Of course, there’s very little to distinguish the film visually as this was an early 70’s production. The HD-DVD is no longer viable, so the Blu-ray is your best bet. Being the same transfer, the disc is stuck around the single layer size. Unfortunately no release has lossless mono, not that it was that enveloping of a soundtrack to begin with. So DVD or Blu-ray take your pick, but one’s $5 and the other usually $7.

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Filed under 3 stars, Film Directors, Film Review, Sam Peckinpah

Straw Dogs (1971)

One of the great film posters.

4 stars out of 4. Immortal film. Bold and uncompromising.

After the massive failure of The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), Sam Peckinpah found it near impossible to find work in Hollywood. So he took an opportunity with a small film company to make a film in England. What he didn’t realize is that this would place in the center of an emerging radical film movement that was completely unintentional. Almost as if it were the logical conclusion to the initial part of the New Hollywood of the late 60’s, early 1970’s British film was and is some of the most inventive and challenging material ever filmed. In this time of landmarks such as A Clockwork Orange, Get Carter, Don’t Look Now, The Wicker Man and The Devils, Peckinpah was bound to get his name back in the papers. Letting loose the director of The Wild Bunch in the middle of all of this creative freedom after being beaten by Hollywood yet again? Get ready, cause this one’s nasty. Nasty. Brutal.

Straw Dogs is a very simple story. Young couple moves to the remote English countryside in order to escape the increasingly turbulent times in America. Davis Sumner (Dustin Hoffman) wants to reside in a quiet old house in order to focus on his mathematics sabbatical. Amy Sumner (Susan George) is somewhat childish girl who simply wants pull David into having a bit of fun. She needs a bit of excitement in life with a certain amount of attention paid to her needs. Both of these things David cannot and will not be able to give her. So needless to say this new marriage is already on the rocks when the two bickering youths arrive in Amy’s hometown. They alternate between smooching, fooling around and bitter quarrels much to the amusement of the local populace. They laugh, cavort, fight, argue, scrap, screw and repeat the same steps in varying ways.

Gradually David unintentionally wears out his welcome with the locals who turn to manipulating him at every opportunity.This begins to turn violent when David and Amy find their cat strangled in the closet.

Amy had once been the local vixen of sorts, and some of the men remember those days only to well…this leads to the most controversial scene in the film where she is brutally raped by her ex-boyfriend and made to submit to his body. Then again with another man. Many hold this up as prime evidence of Peckinpah loathing women, but if you really look at the scene again, it isn’t in the slightest bit. The idea that this scene explores the context of “no is yes” is true as far as taking the phrase as an extremely sick joke. We are meant to be just as confused as the two players onscreen. This is heightened by the detached performances given by the entire cast. Amy invites Venner inside wrapped casually in a bathrobe. She doesn’t seem to be fazed by him at all until he caresses her talking of their former relationship. It is only at the point of physical contact being furthered that she begins to react negatively. Already the audience is confused at the implications of the scene because Amy seems to not want sex but her physical reactions are almost robotic. Venner encourages her to comply and repeatedly insists that he doesn’t want to hurt her. This brings up his protective side that almost seems comforting as he begins to force intercourse. Peckinpah edits the scene in such a way that it begins to become a sensory experience so that we are plunged into the same whirlwind of stimuli as Amy. What becomes most disquieting is how Amy seems to give into Venner via intercourse. In 1971 this seemed extreme but with the passing of time we as a culture have become more accustomed to real-life stories of how women have done this to escape their attackers. And after he is done, Venner looks over the dazed and breathless Amy with a sense of bondage, as if to say: ” I missed you”. Then Venner’s pal Norman Scutt forces him off at gunpoint with intent to have his way with the bountiful offering before him.

Now it becomes brutal. Though it is really more of the same, and still forced, the second rape is vile and cut more frantically as Amy is now crying out in a completely wrenching guttural mixture of pain and final surrender. The two men leave, with Venner in complete uncertainty of what to do.

The performances in this film are as cold as the English weather. This has left many detractors to proclaim the story as slow and uninvolving. The action is not really conveyed through dialogue but in little things that actors do, little moments that bring the characters to life as in all of the great Peckinpah films. Straw Dogs is one of the few films where it can be said that an entire scene revolves around chewing a piece of gum. You really get the sense that these people mean what they do and that it isn’t play acting. Dustin Hoffman gives arguably his finest performance as the stuck up turtle like David, who can’t even commit to fixing a toaster because it would make him more responsible. He prefers to be curled up surrounded by his work and protected by his large glasses and  highly fashionable turtleneck pullover sweater combo.

This contrasts of course with his actions in the film’s riveting climax. David has accidentally struck down the village idiot, who happened to be seen with the daughter of the local drunk. Having accidentally strangled her, the villagers are now out for his blood. David has no connections to this man, and all he needs to do is hand the man to the brazen men outside his house. Amy begs him to just give him over so they can be left alone. David is at his crux, we can see the ramifications of his options play across his face. Then he declares to Amy: “I will not have violence against this house.” David’s breaking point has been reached and crossed. Handing over the man would certainly mean his death, and soon the villagers reach the point of no return so that the Sumners must fight for their survival. They will die if they don’t.

“Jesus Christ, I got ’em all.” David goes into an unbelievable overdrive mounting a defensive inside his home. He constructs various little traps, barricades the doors and windows, withstands all kind of projectiles, and holds his own against greatly superior numbers and his own terrified wife. It is an unbelievable testament to the determination of one individual in the midst of insurmountable odds. He is bruised, bloody with clothes in tatters but alive. And he is for once enjoying himself. disturbingly, in violence he finds himself and then wants more. After striking down a man with a golf club, he does so again. And again. And again in a rhythmic expression of carnal joy.

“He’s playing music!” David begins blaring a record of bagpipes in the living room so that in the midst of all the carnage, there is an odd bit of defiant humor. Amy continually berates David to give them what they want, and despite what has happened to her, we and David cannot believe her coldness.

Very few films give the audience so many things to reflect over. Or leave one so completely exhausted afterwards. That is the mark of a great film, when you have been irreversibly marked by an experience that was unexpected. Straw Dogs is an experience every time and one of Peckinpah’s masterpieces. The next time you see it, you will likely do as I did and cheer in the ending, not caring any longer about the point of inner bestial urges in all of us. Because there’s really an even deeper point there that no one ever gets into. Peckinpah’s one recurring theme that defines all of his work is  the perseverance of the human spirit in the midst of overwhelming odds. It is sometimes eradicated, but no matter its fate it was still worth something. Something that we have lost hold of and must struggle to get back lest we lose it forever. David discovers this in acting for himself and his principles. He has turned to violence, but not become the thing he despised. He is wearier and stronger after finally taking action to declare his own humanity. Gone is the self-serving automation seen for the entire film. The violence was merely the key to unlock the door of his humanity. The thick barrier of indecisiveness has been shattered as completely as the windows by shotgun blasts.

There is a reason why the aftermath is scored by the deadwax of a record. Deadwax occurs when a side of music has ended and the needle has entered the locked groove at the edge of the label. It will loop until you lift up the needle and flip or remove  the record. The ending of the film is just like the ending of a record. It is a forced silence where you contemplate what you’ve just listened to and try to understand what it means. But it is not really our place to understand life, we are only meant to endure and it is this idea that makes it unbearable for us to live with ourselves.

Then we are treated to a locked groove message: “I don’t know my way home.” “That’s okay. I don’t know either.”

 

The vile 2011 remake has no purpose of being. I once asked the film’s maker why he had decided to make a new version of the film. Essentially I was told that it was because he could. Great answer. The film is dull, lifeless, stupid, inane, conventional and putrid. It transplants the action from rural England to the American South and we now have a cross with Deliverance. That’s just great. Just what we needed. Sam’s film had a depth, combining real people with real emotions, action and pain. This has nothing. Vile.

EDITIONS: The film was one of the original “video nasties” in the UK and remained banned until the early 2000’s. The main release was a nice 2 disc SE from Criterion with the excellent BBC documentary Sam Peckinpah: Man of Iron. The video was a nice 16:9 1.85:1, with clear Dolby 2.0 mono. MGM took back the rights and released essentially the same transfer sans extras on their own disc. Now the film has been released via MGM on Blu-ray in essentially what is a straight transfer of their best available elements. Unfortunately there are no extras and the sound has been remixed into 5.1.  The Optimum UK Blu-ray features their exclusive extras and lossless mono. But their transfer is downright awful. The best version would combine the MGM video with the Optimum audio and extras.  All of these editions are uncut.

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Filed under 4 stars, Film Directors, Film Review, Immortal Films, Sam Peckinpah

The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970)

They really did not know how to market this film at all. The trailer is just as bad.

3.5 stars out of 4. Quirky and meditative.

How do you follow up one of the most notorious films ever made? When The Wild Bunch hit theaters, many recoiled at the amount of violence and the scathing nature of this look into ourselves as a people disguised as a “Western”. So, Sam Peckinpah came back with a whimsical little quasi-comedy about a man staking a claim in the desert because he found some water.

Whimsical. Comedic. These are really the last words you would ever think of using in the same sentence as the director’s name. Cable Hogue is such a radical departure from everything Sam had done before, that it is sometimes hard to believe what you’re seeing. And it isn’t that he couldn’t direct lighter material. It just feels weird. Unnatural, in a way especially during the songs. (Oh yes, there’s songs too.)

Jason Robards plays the titular character who is not that far off from the character of Cheyenne from Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in The West (1968). In fact, Cable Hogue seems almost an extension of that same character, if not a cousin. The film opens with Cable abandoned in the desert by his two nefarious ex-partners. He staggers about the barren landscape in search of water, people, shelter-anything. (This is done to some very cheesy and dated split screen titles.) After four days of fruitless wandering and bickering with God, Cable arrives at the point of death. In a violent sandstorm he loses consciousness only to awake and discover water.

This spot lies between two important stops on a stagecoach route. Realizing the importance of his find, Cable quickly re-purposes the small strip of land and begins to work his claim like a man possessed. His first “customer” is the odd and supposed Reverend Joshua. Joshua questions Cable and prods him into officially buying the land in town. Of course, he is nearly laughed out of the said town when trying to explain his find. Cable is granted his measly little plot of land by the land office and promptly thrown out of any prospective investor’s domain. Eventually a banker takes pity on the downtrodden man and decides to back him at a minimal loss. In the process of all this, Cable encounters Hildy the local blonde vision and prostitute. After deciding to enjoy a bit of his new found wealth, he inadvertently angers her when realizing he hasn’t set up property markers and leaves before the transaction has been…consummated.

After achieving this he returns with the oddball preacher already obviously tipsy. He makes up with Hildy and the Reverend is free to go and “console” those women around who need “solace”. The two comrades return to the desert and build the place into a respectable stopover for the bustling stagecoaches to take on water and food. As more and more success is heaped upon Cable, hildy suddenly appears after being thrown out by the ever-respectable town society. They no longer want dens of vice in their precious settlement and thus Hildy is now on her own. She says she will push on to San Francisco to find her dream of wealth but will stay with Cable for a few days. she stays for an idyllic three weeks. This finally collapses after one unintentionally hurtful muttering.

Hildy leaves, and Cable is left alone without anyone save for himself and his undying desire for vengeance against the two bastards who left him to die. And of course, one day they show up in a stagecoach. Astonished to find Cable both alive and substantially well, they quickly make their goodbyes and double back to rob him for the second time. Cable is long ready for this moment and wastes no opportunity to embarrass them and gain the upper hand, but he still after all of this time does not want to actually kill them. This is not just a lowly frontiersman, but a symbolization of what a man used to  mean in the world.

Hildy later returns, in a car no less, looking like a wealthy lady of society. she is now a widow and has a massive fortune to play with. Now she wants to know if Cable is finally ready to leave and go away with her. he takes one look at the transportation of the future and sees that his precious settlement is soon to be nothing for his freedom will be eradicated. He agrees to leave and the viewer’s heart enters into a state of complacency.

Of course, that state of complacency is stuck down by your own rationalizations because that would just be too easy.

This is still recognizably Peckinpah territory, as Cable is a lone individual attempting to remain steadfast and claim a foothold in the open land in the midst of an overbearing society that wants little more than to crush him. It is a quirky mishmash of comedy, tenderness and the Peckinpah envisioned West. Many who knew Sam have said that few ever saw his softer side and that this was a closely guarded element of his personality that few were ever allowed to glimpse. Cable Hogue certainly feels like this softer side came out a bit and decided to make a film. But it cannot ever fully distance itself from rationalizing. There is a constant underlying theme in the film of “This can’t turn out very well” that gives the proceedings an almost logical procession to follow. It is as if Peckinpah believed in something but could not cut out the voice in his head saying that it could never happen this way in the real world. And it is this internal discussion that makes the film a meditative and metaphoric discourse on the progress of man and society.

Some have said that the structure of the opening gives the idea that the rest of the film is merely a dying man’s wishful thinking. Whether this is actually true is of course up the the individual viewer.

The film ran over-schedule and over-budget. The studio didn’t know how to market it, nor did they want to even try. Cable Hogue was buried upon release and has been little seen over the years. But this is probably as it should be. Sometimes you just have stumble upon the gems in the desert.

EDITIONS: Warner’s DVD is a overall nice disc, featuring a commentary,trailer gallery, and interview with lead actress Stella Stevens. (The listed vintage featurette is nowhere to be found) The 1.85 image is presented at 16:9 anamorphic 1.78:1 in a nice enough looking transfer. Colors are robust and damage is pretty much nonexistent. The source used was relatively clean but at some points a bit too grainy, especially in the opening titles. Sound is a clear but unremarkable Dolby 2.0 mono. Available individually or packaged at great discount in the Sam Peckinpah Legendary Westerns Collection.

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Filed under 3.5 stars, Film Directors, Film Review, Sam Peckinpah

The Wild Bunch (1969)

4 stars out of 4. Immortal film and an American classic. Peckinpah’s crown jewel and the greatest American Western ever made or attempted.

If they move…kill ’em!

These famous words bring us into the film that introduced many into the cult of Peckinpah. (Myself included.) With The Wild Bunch, Sam Peckinpah successfully eradicated Hollywood completely from the Western. Without any bit of doubt this can proudly stand as the single greatest achievement in the American Western. And with this bit of blasphemy to John Ford disciples I begin.

The Wild Bunch was and is unlike anything else that had come before (or since for that matter). It is a Western so completely devoid of the classical cliched plot elements we despise but continue to be force fed. For the first time, an American film looked at the West unflinchingly. It was a dark time, mirroring the turbulence of 1969. And this is not the West we typically think of, this is a West we never see. The West that even the history books tend to gloss over. The is the death of the open West, the death of the open country circa 1913.

The Bunch is a group of outlaws coming to the end of the West. World War I is on the horizon, the automobile is beginning to reach the open landscape, there is less and less to do and little or nothing left to explore. “We gotta start thinking beyond our guns.” Pike (William Holden) leads the motley crew on a robbery of a railroad office that opens the film. It is an ambush and we descend into a violent hell where the Bunch narrowly escape the hired killers sen by the railroad company to eradicate them. This is a group of thieves, bounty hunters and lowlifes that is reluctantly led by Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan) who used to be a member of the bunch until caught. Now he’s out of prison and forced to go after his former comrades. This begins a game of cat and mouse between the posses as the Bunch heads into Mexico seemingly to escape their pursuers. However, the real reason why they head south of the border is more telling. Mexico remains the last refuge of the open frontier. The American West at that point had been swallowed whole by industrialization. There simply was nowhere left to go and even the Bunch cannot admit it to themselves.

Everything we ever thought or knew about classical Hollywood filmmaking and the stability of standard Western fare is thrown out the window. It isn’t just dropped, it is ripped out by the roots and obliterated. The characters spring to life in small moments that come off as so incredibly realistic that it seems impossible to have written them into a screenplay. It feels as if this is not fiction, and that we’ve somehow been transported to this desolate horrible place. In this world everyone can earn a bullet in the head, a woman breastfeeds wearing a bandolier, a degenerate killer masquerades as a general, and when the going gets rough your friends are left to die.

John Wayne never rode through here.

And to be perfectly honest, this is what Sam could bring out of his cast and crew. Only he would and could get actors to actually ride their horses into a river simply for a transitional shot. This is not a series of sets, it is a world to inhabit. A universe of hard bitten men with deeply imbedded moral codes languishing in the last vestiges of freedom they can conjure up in their increasingly desolate minds.

The cast completely inhabit their roles, with many of the actors giving some of their finest performances. We always knew Bill Holden was a great actor, but it wasn’t until the Bunch that we could see that depth that was hinted at for so long.There is so much in Pike’s hard beaten face that just a glimpse of his eyes relate a lifetime of unimaginable pain. And then there’ s Robert Ryan as Deke Thornton. Finally one of the most underrated actors of the noir period gets a role worthy of his depth. Ernest Borgnine, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, Jaime Sanchez, and Edmond O’ Brien as old man Sykes. Just these names alone bring images of the Bunch to mind. Once seeing the film one can’t help but completely associate the actors with their roles. And this goes for every part really. The characters seem to be written into the actor’s faces. Especially Emilio Fernandez as General Mapache, who simply reeks of pure villainy without saying even a word.

The editing is famous for its manipulation of speed, pacing and time in the action sequences. Revolutionary yes, but the editing of the film as a whole is effortless. It flows as if the events are actually occurring in front of your eyes and not a film narrative designed to give you the requisite number of highs and lows to make you feel better about buying a ticket. It is deliberately paced to test your endurance. It wants to get inside your head, play with your expectations, wants, fears, desires, bloodlust and then leave you questioning everything.

For a film so associated with violence, the characters seem to laugh a lot. As in life, there are just sometimes where things become so grim that nervous spontaneous laughter can be the only release from a private hell. Laughter becomes a necessary and welcome ally to the Bunch in order to temporarily escape themselves.

The leaps Sam took in directing prowess between films are markedly clear. The Wild Bunch builds on everything Sam founded in Ride the High Country and Major Dundee. It is a culmination of ideas and themes that transcends mere storytelling and genuinely affects us in a way that no else ever dared in a “Western”.

Originally the film was shorn of a little over of ten minutes for the US theatrical release. This was done to make the film be able to have a few extra showtimes each day for maximum studio profits. Oddly, instead of the studio meddling with the original cut by removing the controversial violence, they removed the backstory and quiet moments. This made the film seem even more intensive to original audiences and less humane. And something more than just some exposition was lost.  A bit of the film’s identity was lost in this unforgivable edit. In the early 1990’s, Warner Brothers restored the footage and embarked on a full restoration of the film for an Anniversary roadshow style theatrical reissue. With the quiet moments reinstated and the film restored, the MPAA gave the film a rating of NC-17. This could be one of the big examples of the board’s complete ineffectiveness and complete futility.

But this reiterates just how none of the film’s power has been lost. It can still shock and awe in today’s world of desensitized schlock and meaningless fodder. And this unquestionable American masterpiece will still bring you to your knees.

Who here hasn’t cried in the end of the film? You should weep indescribably. I do. Still. Maybe for something we lost in the changing times, maybe for a story, maybe for neither but it is certainly for humanity I think.

“We all dream of being a child again. Even the worst of us. Perhaps the worst most of all.”

 

Let’s go.”

“Why not.”

EDITIONS:

DVD: The original DVD issue was rather poor. An early disc in the format, Warner’s original issue broke the film across two sides of a flipper disc. Many digital glitches reared their ugly heads and overall the delayed laserdisc might be better in some shots. Still the color was seemingly well balanced (like the Laser which was timed like the 1995 restored prints) with little manipulation and the audio was repurposed into 5.1. included is the “Album in Montage” documentary.

DVD SE: Long waited for, WB finally reissued the film as a 2 disc SE with added bonus features, commentary and new 16:9 anamorphic transfer. The transfer is ahead of the original DVD, but has a greenish cast which looks odd. Same 5.1 mix here with no original mono option. The added documentaries are good but really add nothing new to those familiar with the film and its maker. the additional scenes are nothing more than some silent outtakes and bits found in a bin somewhere. The commentary is okay, and like all the tracks made by these Peckinpah scholars they seem to get a bit too “look at what he meant here” and “this shows greatness” there’s not really much of a point to this track, so sample at your leisure.

Blu-ray: also an early disc on a new format. The bunch looks spectacular to see in HD glory detail-wise. For some reason this transfer has a purplish cast overall which does not look right to the eyes. It looks better in motion and you’re not likely to notice on a first viewing. The same extras are ported over along with the same outdated DD 5.1 mix. And they didn’t even bump that up to a lossless codec. Or give us the original mono. Again. The single layer disc can be easily had for under $10 today, but it’s a shame to see one of the true American classics so casually disregarded.

DVDBeaver comparison between the three: http://www.dvdbeaver.com/film/dvdreviews8/wild-bunch.htm

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Filed under 4 stars, Film Directors, Film Review, Immortal Films, Sam Peckinpah