Sophia Loren is enjoying a swansong with the Netflix feature The Life Ahead (2020), which may well net here another Oscar nomination to add to two wins for Two Women (1960) and an Honorary Award in 1991 and a previous nomination for Marriage Italian-Style (1964). She has dined at the Hollywood high table for over 60 years since taking America by storm in 1957 in a three-film blast comprising Boy on a Dolphin with Alan Ladd, The Pride and the Passion with Cary Grant and Frank Sinatra and Legend of the Lost with John Wayne. She was one of the greatest leading ladies of the second half of the twentieth century, combining style with ability. If you want an idea of how mesmerising she was in her pomp, check out this little number – Heller in Pink Tights.
Taken on its own merits, George Cukor’s western is a highly enjoyable romp. Hardly your first choice for the genre, Cukor ignores the tenets laid down by John Ford and Howard Hawks and the film is all the better for it. Although there are stagecoach chases, gunfighters and Native Americans, don’t expect upstanding citizens rescuing good folk.
Instead of stunning vistas Cukor chooses to spend his budget on lavish costumes and sets. You can see he knows how to use a colour palette, and there is red or a tinge of it in every scene (to the extent of rather a lot of red-haired folk), and although this might not be your bag – and you may not even notice it – it is what makes a Cukor production so lush. The film might start with comedic overtones but by the end you realise it is serious after all.
Sophia Loren is the coquettish leading lady and Anthony Quinn the actor-manager of a theatrical company managing to stay one step ahead of its creditors, in the main thanks to Loren’s capacity for spending money she doesn’t have. Of course, once a gunfighter (Steve Forrest) wins Loren in a poker game, things go askew. Quinn had never convinced me as a romantic lead, but here there is genuine charisma between the two stars.
Loren is at her most alluring, in dazzling outfits and occasionally in costumes as skin-tight as censors would allow in those days, but with a tendency to use beauty as a means to an end, with the conviction that a smile (or occasionally more) will see her out of any scrape. There is no doubt she is totally beguiling. But that is not enough for Quinn, as she is inclined to include him in her list of dupes.
While primarily a love story crossed with a tale of theatrical woes set against the backdrop of a western, when it comes to dealing with the tropes of the genre Cukor blows it out of the water. We open with a stagecoach chase but our heroes are only racing away from debt until they reach the safety of a state line. We have a gunfighter, but instead of a shoot-out being built up, minutes ticking by as tension rises, Cukor’s gunman just shoots people in sudden matter-of-fact fashion.
Best of all, Cukor extracts tremendous comedy from the overbearing actors, each convinced of their own genius, and the petty jealousies and intrigue that are endemic in such a troupe. An everyday story of show-folk contains as much incipient drama as the more angst-ridden A Star Is Born (1954), his previous venture into this arena. From the guy who gave us The Philadelphia Story (1940) with all its sophisticated comedy, it’s quite astonishing that Cukor extracts so much from a picture where the laughs, mostly from throwaway lines, are derived from less substantial material.
Quinn (his third film in a row with Cukor) has never been better, no Oscar-bait this time round, just a genuine guy, pride always to the forefront, king of his domain inside his tiny theatrical kingdom, out of his depth in the big wide world, and unable to contain the “heller.” I won’t spoil it for you but there are two wonderful character-driven twists that set the world to rights.
There is a tremendous supporting cast with former silent film star Ramon Novarro (Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, 1925) as a duplicitous businessman, former child star Margaret O’Brien, another star from a previous era in Edmund Lowe (Cukor’s Dinner at Eight, 1933), and Eileen Eckhart. Dudley Nichols (Stagecoach, 1939) and Walter Bernstein, who wrote a previous Loren romance That Kind of Women (1959) and had a hand in The Magnificent Seven (1960), do an excellent job of adapting the Louis L’Amour source novel Heller with a Gun, especially considering that contained an entirely different story.