Wednesday, 7 August 2013

A Man Called Sledge (1970)

When I discovered that this film existed a few weeks ago I was immediately very interested in seeing it for a few reasons. I'm a big fan of James Garner, his two famous t.v shows Maverick and The Rockford Files are among my favorites and he appeared in a very good mix of serious and comedy Western films in the 60's and early 70's. What's interesting about A Man Called Sledge is that Garner plays Luther Sledge a completely against type a ruthless violent character which is very much outside the charming, funny Bret Maverick style good guy roles that Garner was usually cast in especially strange as Garner filmed this in between his popular roles in the comedy Western movies Support Your Local Gunfighter/Sheriff. The film is also unique in that it's a Spaghetti Western with very few Italians in the lead roles, alongside Garner are veteran t.v actors Claude Akins, (B.J. and The Bear) Dennis Weaver (Gunsmoke) and Wayde Preston (Colt .45) joined by John Marley, another older actor perhaps best remembered for playing the film producer who awoke to find his horses head in his bed in The Godfather. The only Italian in a major role is actress Laura Antonelli (almost unrecognizable from other roles with dyed blonde hair) as Garner's prostitute love interest. Again unusually for a Spaghetti Western the film was directed by an American Vic Morrow, best remembered for his starring role in the 1960's television series Combat! and for his gruesome death in 1982 while filming Twilight Zone: The Movie. Morrow was mainly a television director and it would be fair to say that shows at points during the film, he also appears in a cameo as a Gold Guard Scout. The score at least was typically Spaghetti Western provided by Gianni Ferrio who scored over 100 of these kind of films and recently provided music for both Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds and the popular Western themed video-game Red Dead Redemtpion. Although acceptable the score is abit of a mish mash of styles and is not generally what one would expect in this setting, it incorporates jazz and is very dull compared to the average score of a Spaghetti Western which can usually be counted on to greatly enhance the movie. The movie's title song Other Men's Gold by the British writing duo of Phil Coulter and Bill Martin is however very enjoyable and fits in nicely with the tone of the movie. Filmed in Almeria, Spain the location of many a Spaghetti Western the film contains beautiful shots and scenery of the desert and surrounding areas which we have become accustomed to when watching this kind of film.

The film opens with an explosive start which is always a benefit in this type of movie and it gets us right into the action, Garner and his accomplice are robbing a stagecoach and kill the driver, with their proceeds they head for a saloon and joke about the death of the saloon driver, the tone is clear early on, these are not good people and this is not your typical James Garner character, he leaves his friend to play poker while he liaisons with a prostitute he is fond of. Hearing a gunshot in the night Garner emerges to find his friend has been shot over a game of poker, as Garner cradles his friends body he manages to get his gun and shot the two assailants before they can react, an old man (John Marley) looks on but when Garner turns the gun on him he assures Garner that he saw him act in self defense. The start of the film was action packed and did a good job of establishing what Garner's character was all about while not forming too much of the plot, while Garner is convincing as a bad guy it's still hard for me (and I imagine others) to accept him in this kind of role which makes him more a victim of bad casting rather than bad acting.

Things move on as Garner heads back to his gang hideout with the old man following him at a distance, when Garner realizes this he captures him and demands to know why he's following him while admitting that he is an outlaw with a large bounty ($5000+) on his head. The man tells Garner that he is not following him but is watching a regular gold shipment being moved to a prison where he spent the last 20 years, when Garner hears of this naturally he is interested in getting his hands on the gold, although the old man warns it is impossible as it is kept in solitary confinement in a maximum security prison. With this in mind Garner takes the old man back to his hideout and tries to work out a way to get the gold, his gang (including Weaver and Akins) are skeptical but he sends the old man and a prostitute into town to get the weapons and ammunition needed for their attack on the prison. While in town the Sheriff (Preston) recognizes the old man as a former jail inmate and becomes suspicious as to why he needs so much armament, realizing the game is up Garner steps out of the shadows and grabs the Sheriff starting a shoot out in which one of his deputies is killed, Garner and his gang manage to escape with the Sheriff vowing revenge on them. The shootout scene is quite well shot incorporated an old dusty town into the foreground and does it's job of establishing Preston as Garner's main adversary going forward in the film. The first half of this movie with the plot of trying to steal gold from an armored truck and the scenes with the gang planning to do so are very similar to the John Wayne-Kirk Douglas 1967 film The War Wagon.

With Garner failing to come up with a plan to get the gold his gang begin to lose faith and begin to threaten to walk out on him, seeing it as his one chance of a huge score Garner is desolate and rejects prostitute Ria's (Antonelli) pleas for her to settle down with her. When the old man remarks that he was closer to the gold in prison than Garner ever will be, Garner formulates the plan of staging his own arrested and breaking out of the prison from the inside, taking the gold with him. Weaver posing as a U.S. Marshall takes Garner to the prison claiming he has captured him, the Warden of the prison (Ricardo Garrone) is skeptical but says he will keep Garner overnight, after Preston is called and beats Garner still angry over the death of his deputy Weaver insists on staying in the cell with Garner overnight so that nothing will happen to his prisoner before he can claim the sizable bounty on his head. Garner and Weaver are locked in the maximum security area of the prison with many deranged and volatile prisoners who constantly shout, with one of them howling like a wolf. All this noise attracts the guards and with the help of the other prisoners Garner and Weaver manage to overpower both guards and get their hands on the cell keys, freeing the other prisoners. With the prison overrun and the warden killed by the prisoners Garner needs the old man to remember the combination if he is to get the gold, at the last second the old man comes through and Garner and his gang take off with the gold in their possession. On the way out of the prison Weaver is killed by Preston and motivated by revenge he and Garner face off with Garner killing the Sheriff. The scenes leading to the breakout and the breakout itself are by far the most entertaining scenes in the entire film, the other prisoners are very humorous and Garner's disgust at them is fairly warranted, when the prisoners escape the prison explodes in an orgy of violence with deaths pretty much everywhere, the filming of the prison is very good especially covering all the action in the courtyard and this is perhaps not surprising as Morrow's only other directorial effort Deathwatch (1966) was also set in a prison. The decision to kill off the Sheriff here is a strange one as that would seem the natural ending of a movie such as this one, one of the big problems with the movie is the pacing with it taking too long to get up to the prison scenes and seemingly not knowing what to do after them, unfortunately the movie pretty much falls apart after the hour mark and goes off on a tangent I really wasn't expecting.


With the gold in their possession at a safe house Garner's men inexplicably decide to play poker against each other with the gold as the stake, after catching him cheating the old man shoots one of the other gang members which leads Garner decide to enter the game, having won all the gold from his gang Garner rides off leaving them with only a cup full and swearing to get revenge on him. In retaliation they kidnap the prostitute Antonelli who has not been seen for awhile and tell Garner to return the gold or they will kill her. Sledge agrees to give them the gold but they rape and kill her anyway and Garner faces off with the rest of the gang one by one lastly killing the old man who says that he has hidden the gold so that Garner will never find out, before he kills him Garner remembers Antonelli's dieing words "we did not need the gold to be happy" seemingly realizing that there are more important things than gold Garner rides off into the sunset. I really did not like the ending to this as from the card game on the I felt the plot was very nonsensical. All men had an equal share of the gold why would they play cards for more of it, and why would Garner leave his friends with nothing? The film is seemingly trying to make a point about greed and how it get's us all in the end but given how evil all the characters involved seemingly are it doesn't really work, even when his prostitute/girlfriend is killed it s hard to feel any sympathy for Garner's character as he has brought it all on himself and has killed countless people throughout the movie in order to get what he wanted. That is however not to say the film is all bad, although I don't think the role was a good fit Garner does well with this out of character role as Luther Sledge and John Marley is also very entertaining as the gold crazed old man, Weaver, Akins and Antonelli also do well but do not receive very much screen time. The movie is almost worth watching for the excellent prison sequence alone, and is certainly watchable for any fans of Garner or the Spaghetti Western genre in particular. It is not a bad movie and does some things well but the last half hour really lets it down 5.5/10

Saturday, 3 August 2013

Three Faces West (1940)

Hot off the heels of John's Fords 1939 Western Epic Stagecoach which solidified Wayne's place as one of the top up and coming actors in Hollywood, Wayne took on his first non-Western role at Republic Pictures (where he had been making Westerns since 1935) in Three Faces West. Wayne's first non-western since a string of flops at Universal in 1936 and 1937 this was Wayne's 6th movie at Republic since Stagecoach as they worked Wayne hard in an attempt to capitalize on his rising popularity.

 Directed by Bernard Vorhaus who also worked with Wayne on Lady From Louisiana along with directing a string of other B pictures for Republic over the years (before his career was effectively ended when Edward Dmytryk named him as a communist before the House of Un-American Activities Committee) Three Faces West tells the story of a doctor (Charles Coburn) who flees Austria with his nurse daughter (Sigrid Gurie) to escape Nazism during the Second World War. Gurie's doctor fiancee gave his life to allow them to escape and they both hope to find a fresh start in the United States. When they arrive Coburn appears on the radio in an appeal to win himself a job, and using his witty charm he gets one, in the dust bowl of the United States

 When they arrive in their unidentified farming town they are greeted by John Phillips (Wayne) and his Doctor/Vet uncle (Spencer Charters.) Both are shocked at the conditions they find themselves living in during the grip of America's dust bowl with their home, clothes, etc all being covered with dust and sand, Gurie who is already suffering from a severe bout of home sickness is adamant she wishes to return home and Coburn is torn between the need to care for his daughter who has already been through so much, and the people of the community who also desperately need his help as a doctor. While he agrees to leave Coburn refuses to go before he can operate on a young boy who needs a simple operation to allow him to walk again, but which his mother cannot afford. During the time it takes for the operation to be performed Gurie is won over by Wayne's character as he shows a love and commitment for his community and the people in it, while deriding her as a refugee for turning her back on a community who would be only too happy to take her in. Wayne is very good in his early scenes with Gurie, although still a young man at this point he plays a more subdued version of the strong and moral character he would become known too millions as, this was the time Wayne really began to come into his own and his renewed confidence in himself as an actor is clear. It also does not hurt that there is clearly real chemistry between Wayne and Gurie who had a brief fling during the making of this film, but she was also deserves credit for her role, which begs the question why her career in movies was so short as on this evidence she was a much better actress than the quality of leading lady Duke was commonly paired at Republic, the much maligned Vera Ralston (wife of studio head Herbert Yates) would be one such example. 
With the relationship between Wayne and Gurie slowly growing Wayne turns his attentions to helping his community fight off the effects of The Dust Bowl and after getting plans from the government on how to combat the dust he encourages them to stay and fight for their land by building irrigation ditches and other farming techniques. When Wayne goes to meet the department of agriculture and tell them of the communities progress he is informed that no matter what measures they take their land will remain useless and he is encouraged to move to Portland where farming land is plentiful and cheap. Desolate Wayne hits the bottle before returning home drunk informing Gurie she was right all along, that their town is unlivable and she would be better off leaving as would he, here she reveals her true feelings for him and they kiss in the rain while Coburn approvingly looks on. Wayne decides to convince the community to pack up together and move to Portland where they can start again but remain together, dissension spreads through the community as some favor moving to California instead which Wayne is against as he feels competition for job's there would be too high and they would be better off going to Portland and continuing what they know, farming. More bad news follows as it's revealed that Coburn is leaving to work at a medical institute and that Gurie's fiancee is not dead after all, he survived the escape and is waiting for her in San Fransisco, Wayne tries to convince her to marry him, but as she owes her life to her former fiancee and with Coburn's encouragement she feels she must return to him. There's a scene where Duke is trying to convince her to stay with him that is quite reminiscent of Wayne's famous bedroom scene with Maureen O'Hara in The Quiet Man as he forcefully asks her to ignore everyone else and be with him which he knows she truly wants, again this is the beginnings of the strong willed Wayne character audiences would be bombarded with in the coming years. 

Dejected Wayne and the rest of the community set off for Portland and a new life, with Coburn and Gurie leaving them at San Fransisco, along the way the group begins to split and Clem Higgins (Trevor Bardette) stands up to Wayne and insists they head to California, Wayne who at this point has had enough of the infighting and is still angered at the loss of Gurie speeds off and tells them to do what they want as he doesn't care anymore. The plot takes a strange turn when Gurie and Coburn go to meet her fiancee and former colleague Dr. Eric Von Scherer (Roland Varno) who has inexplicably become a Nazi, disgusted at this they leave and go to reunite with Wayne. When they find out he has abandoned his community Coburn is angered and tells him that Higgins is running rough shed over anyone who speaks against him and that Wayne is the only one who can put things right, this is all Wayne needs to hear and he goes after Higgins in a car chase, which is one of the first I have ever seen in a film from this period, a car chase with wind up cars! Wayne runs Higgins off the road and regains his position as community leader, re-united with Gurie they all set off for Portland and a new life together. 

Three Faces West is a surprisingly enjoyable film from a studio not known at the time for making very good non-western or indeed non-Wayne movies. The story while basic is an enjoyable one as The Dust Bowl is not a subject that has been overdone in American cinema, the only thing that hurts the film is the side story of Nazism which isn't really needed and is over propagandized but is understandable given the drive from the government to try and make Hollywood films as patriotic as possible during this time period. What elevates the film is the enjoyable and entertaining cast, I enjoy these older Wayne films as you can almost see him grow in stature as an actor on screen before your eyes and here he shows much of what made him a star in Stagecoach a year prior while also showing what was still to come from him. Charles Coburn is also a quality character actor and I never find the warm and fatherly characters he generally plays to be disappointing and he would go on to win an Academy Award in The More The Merrier while again appearing with Wayne in Trouble Along The Way in 1953. As already mentioned Gurie and Wanye's real life relationship translated onto the screen and good support was offered by Spencer Charters as the older comic relief type character that appeared in all Wayne's films around this period while Trevor Bardette makes a good villain for Wayne to face up against. John Ford stock company member Russel Simpson also makes a short and entertaining appearance as a preacher. All in all I would give Three Faces West 7/10 as it is an interesting little film especially for those who are fans of Wayne or are interested in this period of American history. I imagine the film was hurt at the time by coming out around the same time as The Grapes of Wrath which covered a similar topic much more successfully.