What If: When Harry Met Frank

Apologies for venturing outside my self-appointed remit of the 1960s but this is too good to ignore and the artwork above extremely rare.

It’s pretty hard to get out of our minds the vision of Clint Eastwood as the tough cop of Dirty Harry (1971) especially brandishing his .357 magnum and snarling lines like “Do ya feel lucky, punk?” It was such a high point of Eastwood’s career that it’s hard to see anyone else in the role.

But, in fact, Warner Brothers did. Long before Eastwood entered the equation the studio had Frank Sinatra lined up. If your notion of Sinatra comes from musicals like High Society (1956) or easy-on-the-eye Rat Pack ventures like Sergeants 3 (1963) or his Oscar-winning turn in From Here to Eternity (1953), you would be forgetting his harder-hitting roles in the later 1960s as a tough cop in The Detective (1968) and as private eye Tony Rome (1967) and sequel Lady in Cement (1968).

Nor was Don Siegel a shoo-in for the director’s chair. Warner had already assigned that task to Irving Kershner. The Sinatra-Kershner version got far enough up the production ladder for the studio to produce a piece of artwork with the actor in the title role – see above. This went out an advertisement that appeared in Variety on November 9, 1970, under the headline “Now In Production Or In The Can (And In Theaters Soon)” suggesting the movie with Sinatra in the title role was pretty much a lock. Though what exactly was in the briefcase was anyone’s guess.

Other films advertised in the same spread were Rabbit Run with James Caan (also seen in this section of the ad) and Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs Miller (though under a different title). However, the photo of Sinatra with a briefcase was hardly inspirational and a far cry from the eventual Eastwood image that went with the picture. Whether Sinatra’s interpretation of the character was intended to be quite as tough and mean as that of Eastwood, we shall never know.

The Gunslingers of ’69 – The Western’s Greatest Year

While Easy Rider was triggering a “youthquake” and Midnight Cowboy breaking censorship taboos, the western in 1969 hit a new peak. Or so I had thought for many years.

So I set out to see if my theory might have some truth in it. Four true masterpieces in The Wild Bunch, True Grit, Once upon a Time in the West and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – more than in any other single year – were helped along by a few others that for various reasons fell shy of greatness such as The Stalking Moon, Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here, and the hilarious Support Your Local Sheriff.

I watched the 40-plus westerns that were released in 1969 to write this book. New directors like George Roy Hill reinvigorated the western while veteran Sam Peckinpah at last found popular approval and the even more experienced Henry Hathaway turned his decades of skills onto True Grit.

Andrew V McLaglen fulfilled the promise of Shenandoah with the vastly underrated The Undefeated. Raquel Welch was anointed Queen of the Western. Old-timers John Wayne (True Grit and The Undefeated), Gregory Peck (The Stalking Moon and Mackenna’s Gold)and Robert Mitchum (Young Billy Young and The Good Guys and the Bad Guys) appeared in a brace of westerns each, as did newcomer Robert Redford. While Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin tried their hand at a musical (the latter scoring a hit single) it was Jean Seberg who stole that show.

Taken as a whole, I found themes repeated again and again. The most obvious, of course, were allusions in one way or another to Vietnam. But pursuit and escape were other dominant themes, and the movies also took a good hard look at women’s rights, changing attitudes towards African-Americans (100 Rifles turned Jim Brown in an action star) and Native Americans.

Watching so many movies from a single genre one after the other I also became very conscious of how directors used the screen, Hathaway’s use of extreme long shot, for example, or McLaglen’s widescreen compositions. Of all the books I’ve written this was the most enjoyable to write because I had so much fun watching the movies.

The Unforgiven (1960) ****

Largely ignored at the time and since due to similarities to The Searchers (and not to be confused with Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven)  this is worth a second look because it actually bears few similarities to The Searchers.

The overriding thrust (or threat) of the tale is, yes, forcible repatriation but this is a long way from John Wayne’s obsessive twenty-year hunt to kill an innocent girl. While it does ask questions about race and race hatred, it is as much an involving portrait of frontier life – breaking-in horses, cows on the roofs of houses, meals with friends – and a natural cycle of life, young girls bewailing their marital prospects, young men adrift in the wilderness agog at the prospect of visiting a town to see a saloon girl.

Audrey Hepburn plays a foundling, rumored of Native American blood, but brought up under the matriarchal gaze of Lillian Gish and fraternal protection of Burt Lancaster. But she doesn’t “play” a foundling, and certainly not someone unsure of her place in the world. She plays a skittish teenager on the brink of adulthood, on a spectrum between gauche and vivacious, who can’t make up her mind between a young suitor or an Native American horse expert and her suppressed feelings towards Lancaster. She is as apt to leap on an unsaddled horse as jump fully clothed into a river.

Lancaster has a more considered role than usual, a calming influence, sometimes an intermediary, sometimes taking control. Though some characters’ reactions to Native Americans are stereotypical, Huston does not go down that line.  Following the truism that action reveals character, there is a wonderful scene breaking in the horses: while white men struggle, being thrown off or otherwise injured, the Indian simply talks gently to the horse and climbs on board and rides it, revealing that Lancaster, who hired him, saw natural dexterity beyond the stereotype.

What caught my eye most was Huston’s fluidity with the camera. In many scenes, something interesting is developing in the background, in others characters move into frame or their reaction is momentarily captured as the camera busies itself on a more central activity. There are virtually no cutaways to subsidiary characters as you would find in Ford or Hawks. When an unarmed Lancaster confronts a small group of Native Americans at his ranch the camera tracks him as he goes out and then tracks him as he comes back, tension mounting as we wait for the Native Americans over his shoulder to possibly take action. 

The thoughtful and even-handed manner in which Huston handles the material is a bridge to his more mature later works. My only gripe was Lillian Gish’s very white face, as if she had never strayed from her silent film origins or never spent a minute in the sun. Otherwise, this is absorbing and rewarding stuff, and quite unlike anything else from the period.