I was riveted. Never mind the spider-walk, this is one of the most extraordinary films I have ever seen. Highly under-rated and largely dismissed for not conforming to audience expectation that horror pictures should involve full moons, castles, darkness, fog, costumes, nubile female victims, graveyards, a male leading character, shocks to make a viewer gasp, and the current trend for full-on gore. So if that’s what you’re looking for, give this a miss. Even arthouse critics, spoiled by striking pictures by the Italian triumvirate of Fellini, Visconti and Antonioni, were equally scornful. For the most part this takes place in broad daylight and is set in an impoverished town in the Italian mountains where primitive farmers till the soil with horse and plough and water is collected in buckets from the river.
One of the most striking aspects of the picture is that it creates its own unique universe. The townspeople are both highly religious and deeply superstitious, every traditional Catholic ceremony matched by age-old ritual. Even some of the formal traditions seem steeped in ancient belief, sinners marching up a steep hill with people being scourged or carrying a heavy rock, in a convent the tree of a suicide covered in barbed wire. At a wedding in a church, how low the candles flicker is deemed to indicate the length of the marriage. A wedding night rite involves shoving a scythe under the bed to cut short Death’s legs with the bedspread covered in grapes – to soak up evil and discord – arranged in the form of a cross to act as bait for bad thoughts and poison them before they can cause the couple harm. When the people run through the town brandishing torches it is not, as would be genre tradition, to set fire to a castle but to vanquish evil from the air.
It is filmed in austere black-and-white. In the Hollywood Golden Era of black-and-white movies, lighting and make-up transformed heroines, rich costumes enhanced background. Here, if the heroine is wearing make-up it’s not obvious and the only clothes worth mentioning are a priest’s robes or a plain wedding dress. Otherwise the most arresting feature is the stark brightness against which the black-dressed figure of the heroine Puri (Daliah Lavi) scuttles about.
And although there are no jump-out-of-your-seat shocks, there are moments that will linger on in your mind, not least the heroine enduring a vicious extended beating from her father, an exorcism that turns into rape and (Exorcist-fans take note) a spider-walk, the young woman’s torso thrust up high on elongated arms and legs. Virtually the entire success of the picture relies on atmosphere and in places it is exquisitely subtle, the audience only realizing she is being raped by the look on her face.
The picture opens with a dialogue-free scene of stunning audacity, foreshadowing the idea from the start that image is everything. Puri pierces her chest with a needle, cuts off a chunk of her hair to mop up the blood, throws the hair into the oven and rams the crisp remains into a loaf of bread. Not to be consumed, as you might imagine, but as a tool of transport. Shortly after, having failed to seduce Antonio (Frank Wolff), she tricks him into drinking wine infused with the ashes of her bloodied hair, bewitching him, so she believes, to abandoning his betrothed. In an echo of a Catholic sacrament she shouts, “You have drunk my blood and now you will love me, whether you want to or not.”
The next morning when collecting water at the river she has a conversation with a boy Salvatore, only to discover he has just died. His death is blamed on her because his last words were a request for water, which she is judged to have denied him. She is beaten by women. She is feared by everyone in the village, her family tainted with the same brush, wooden crosses nailed to their door. She is not a ghostly figure, flitting in and out of the townspeople’s lives, an apparition tending towards the invisible, but fully formed, highly visible in her black dress and anguished expression, doomed by her often vengeful actions and forceful words.
Much of the film involves Puri being beaten or chased or captured, at one point trussed up like a hog. Attempts to exorcise her, whether pagan or Catholic, focus on getting the demon to speak his name. The ritual performed by heathen priest Guiseppe involves blowing on a mirror before taking on sexual aspects which culminate in rape. The Catholic version in a church in front of her family is primarily, as it would be in TheExorcist, a duel between the priest and whatever possesses her.
Movie producers who took one look at the beauty of Palestinian-born Daliah Lavi (Blazing Sand, 1960) thought she would be put to better use in bigger-budgeted pictures made in color that took full advantage of her face and figure. So they stuck her in a series of hardly momentous movies such as The Silencers (1966) and Some Girls Do (1969). they should be ashamed of themselves for ignoring her astonishing acting ability. And much as I have enjoyed such films, I doubt if I could watch them again without thinking what a waste of a glorious talent. This is without doubt an acting tour de force, as she alternatively resists possession and adores the being who has taken hold of her mind. She dominates the screen.
The rest of the mostly male cast are dimmed in comparison, as if overawed by the power of her personality. Future spaghetti western veteran Frank Wolff (Once Upon a Time in the West, 1968) comes off best. Director Brunello Rondi (Run, Psycho, Run, 1968) is better known as a screenwriter for Federico Felllini. He made few films, none matching this in scope or imagination, perhaps as a result of the picture not receiving the praise it deserved. Even now it does not have a single critical review on Rotten Tomatoes.
One other point: you may have noticed that in general the proclivities of male horror characters are never in need of psychological explanation. Nobody considers that the Wolfman must have suffered from childhood trauma or that a vampire drinks blood because he was a rejected suitor. Strangely enough, as would be the case in The Exorcist and other instances of female possession, psychiatry is usually the first port of call and here all reviews I have read implicitly see Puri’s actions as based on sexual inhibition and rejection by Antonio.
I saw this on an old DVD but you can catch it for free on Youtube.
This Brandon Cronenberg (son of you-know-who) rumination on identity is heavily disguised as a gory and occasionally sexy dystopian thriller. What appears at first glance a homage to giallo – toplining on shock, flesh and blood – soon reveals deeper layers of something more insistently disturbing. Focusing on an identity thief whose victim turns the tables into a who-owns-who, the films asks questions about the nature of identity and the effect of memory loss or memory accrual on individual personality. An early scene, part-debrief/part-interrogation, sees identity mind-robber Andrea Riseborough interviewed by boss Jennifer Jason Leigh to determine her own memory status, picking her way through a box of items carrying emotional connection, but it later becomes clear that Leigh has more sinister concerns: is the Riseborough returned from her latest adventure the same one as was sent out or has she been infiltrated by another?
Riseborough borrows identities in order to perpetrate a series of assassinations for an unseen corporation. Such murders are gorier than her employers would expect, invariably involving sharp implements, and setting the viewer to wonder whether the source for such brutality comes from a deeper part of the woman’s psyche. How much she is who she says she is is also questionable; before turning up on her ex’s doorstep, she rehearses what she wants to say. So there is mental and emotional dislocation at play, though whether that is the result of the experiments she appears to willingly undertake or whether from an existing characteristic is hard to say. So Cronenberg always has us at a disadvantage, and he keeps us that way, one step removed from what is going on, and may have occurred in the past, and only the determined assurance that nothing is going to turn out as it should.
One of the elements that places this picture in the top-notch category is that Cronenberg’s future does not fully work, components appear constantly out of place, as if a gear is always slipping. When Riseborough impersonates a man it is clear she has not quite grasped his full personality. When she possesses the identity of Christopher Abbott, a lowly drone partnering boss’s daughter Tuppence Middleton, he/she appears to be sleepwalking, parts of his personality eluding her, the disconnect so obvious that Middleton continues to ask what’s wrong and Abbott seems to forget that he is having an affair or has a friend at work. Again, it’s not clear whether this is Riseborough’s skillset drifting, or an extreme example of the dangers of identity theft. Instead of this whole concept being a scientific marvel, he/she is always one step behind. (Nothing to do with the plot but the previous butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-her-mouth English actress Middleton has also gone through a screen persona transformation, searching out her inner raunch for hot action with Abbott).
When Abbott begins to imagine inhabiting Riseborough’s face, the ghastly apparition seen on the poster, and in one of the movie’s most compelling scenes, the story takes a different turn, as if a Terminator is now on her tail.
The world depicted is an invasive one. Riseborough can infect the brain and take over the body, while Abbott’s day-job appears voyeuristic, as if the internet eye had become all-encompassing. To complete the dystopian feel, streets are always deserted and although that may be the result of budget restriction it fits the overall tone, this concrete jungle in sharp contract with murder in marble halls (a cameo by Sean Bean).
Riseborough is at her haunted best, Leigh steely as her boss, Abbott a revelation as the disturbed stolen property. Nod to Jim Williams for a brilliant score. While Cronenberg tags Blade Runner, Brazil, Blue Thunder and Terminator, the movie is an original. With enough drive and mystery to keep the thriller aspects at full tilt and while following in father David Cronenberg’s footsteps in his thirst for gore, the thrust of the picture is quite different, the concept so good it could have gone any number of different ways: the burglar trapped between two identities: the identities at war: or the personalities trying to make up what has been removed. You are left wondering what else could be going on in the world of Cronenberg’s imagination and not so much begging for a sequel but another parallel adventure in this particular universe. When a movie is still preying on your mind several days later, that’s when you know you have uncovered something special.
Arguably Alfred Hitchcock’s most difficult film and with some attitudes that will not sit well with today’s audiences nonetheless this is an assured work and the completion of an unofficial trilogy that tries to explain the unexplainable. The director had not been making what might be termed traditional Hitchcock pictures for well over half a decade if you take North by Northwest (1959) as the anomaly in a sequence that began with the obsessive Vertigo (1958). You could argue that Hitchcock had turned a bit “north by northwest” himself, the “hero” of Psycho (1960) a mother-obsessed serial killer, the “bad guys” in The Birds (1963) the titular rapacious creatures who besiege the leading characters and set the world on an apocalyptical course.
Attempts are made in both Psycho and The Birds to explain the actions of the predators, but such explanations are external, remote, and with Marnie Hitchcock takes the bold step of attempting to explain what makes such a devious, compulsive, frigid liar tick. Hitchcock called the movie a “sex mystery” but it was unclear whether he was just once again trying to tantalize his audience or whether he believed it was film about the mystery of sex, what causes attraction between two people and what sets others up to steadfastly reject the concept. To embellish his thesis he chose one of the world’s most beautiful actresses (Tippi Hedren) and the actor (Sean Connery) who could easily lay claim to being the world’s sexiest man (as he was later anointed in various polls).
It seemed almost an indecent proposal to deny the bed-hopper-par-excellence – as viewed from the James Bond perspective. And it certainly took all the charm Connery could muster to prevent audiences baulking at the almost perverse scientific aspects of his character, an amateur zoologist who welcomed a known criminal into his world for the chance to examine her at close quarters. The audience is constantly kept at one remove. In the first section we watch enthralled as Hedren carries out her bold thefts, as if she is capable of wrapping the entire male population around her little finger by the simple device of adjusting her skirt.
But in the middle section, it is Connery who is in control and the trapped Hedren who is twisting and turning searching for an escape route. In the final section, when it is clear that it is the lover, not the scientist, in Connery that tries to find a way round the problem, the tension is at its height because we have no idea whether she will run true to form and manage to steal and lie her way out or whether Connery’s patience will snap and he will throw her to the wolves who are certainly by this point circling.
The central device on which Hitchcock hooked an audience was the moviegoer demand for a happy ending. He duped cinemagoers in Psycho, slaughtering the heroine halfway through. In The Birds Rod Taylor and Tippi Hedren underwent a harrowing physical assault and while clearly romantically involved by the end Hedren was a wreck. Here, the assaults are mental. There is none of the romantic banter that defines the greatest of his traditional works. Hedren and Connery are together because he has forced the issue and loving though his blackmail is it is still an unequal relationship and one from which she will seek to escape at every opportunity. Hedren’s compulsive character is a mystery that appears insoluble as she resists every attempt to break down the wall she has erected to protect herself from her past.
The story is straightforward with few of the twists of other pictures. We meet Hedren as she escapes with nearly $10,000 stolen from her employers. We learn quickly that she is a master of disguise, has several social security cards up her sleeve, can turn from brunette to blonde, and is so practiced in her deception that she can convince an employer to take her on without references. As that particular duped employer is spelling out his predicament to the police, an amused Sean Connery, a customer of her employer, appears. Hedren runs off to a bolthole, an upmarket hotel, close to the stables where she keeps a horse, Forio.
Shifting back to Hedren we find her visiting her mother in a tawdry street near the docks. The artifice of confidence is shredded away. She is jealous of the attention her mother gives a little girl whom she looks after. She wants love that her mother is unable to give. When she lays her head on her mother’s lap waiting for the soothing stroke of a hand all she receives is rebuke for leaning too heavily on her mother’s sore leg. The mother in North by Northwest was played for comedy, in Psycho an occasion for murder, and here a means of control. Here, too, we witness the color red sparking an inexplicable and frightening experience.
When Hedren applies for a new job it is at Connery’s firm, where he is the coming man. He watches amused as she is interviewed, intervenes to ensure she is hired. They have in common that they are widowed. Hedren is already planning her next big score, discovering that the combination to the safe is kept in a drawer to which her employer’s secretary has the key.
But he is ready for her and it seems almost perverse that he does not let her know he is aware of her true identity. Instead, under the guise of asking her to work overtime, he gives her an academic paper to type. The subject is predators, “the criminals of the animal world” in which females feature. His gentle pressure is almost sadistic and she is saved by a sudden storm which triggers another bad subconscious reaction.
Her theft of money from the office is a classic Hitchcock scene. It begins in complete silence. The screen is divided in two, the office and the corridor. Seeing a cleaner appear, Hedren removes her shoes to make her getaway. Almost as she reaches the safety of the stairs, a shoe falls out of her pocket and clatters on the floor. The cleaner does not look up. She is very hard of hearing.
But Connery is again prepared and when she disappears tracks her to her bolthole, confronts her, questioning her again and again until he thinks he is close to the truth. He can’t turn her in because he has fallen in love. Her choice is stark – him or the police. Soon they are married. But the honeymoon, despite his patience, is a disaster, she cannot “bear to be handled” and they return home further apart than ever.
Meanwhile, figures from her past begin to appear. Lil (Diane Baker) who lusts after Connery brings peril to their door. Connery persists with trying to get Hedren to open up.
Eventually, there is a break in her compulsive syndrome, brought on by love, and we head back to her mother’s to get to the root of the problem. Even when the problem is solved her mother remains distant, still won’t stroke her hair. If there is a happy ending it is like that of The Birds, an immediate problem solved but who knows when or if the crows will return, and there is a similar resolution here, Hedren learns the source of her nightmares but it would be a very blind person who did not see terrible ramifications for the future.
There are certainly a few jarring moments, Hitchcock’s insistence on back projection for a start, but then you didn’t really think in North by Northwest that the director was allowed to film in front of the United Nations, did you? Rather than a technical flaw, the back projection seems to fit another purpose, a device to make the audience stop and examine what is going on, for much of it occurs when Hedren is in her fantasy world. And you would have to take exception to Connery’s actions in the bedroom on honeymoon, no matter how gentle his caresses at other times. And certainly, the psychological assumptions ring hollow given our current knowledge of such conditions, but despite that make for tense viewing.
But the meat of the movie is self-deception. Hedren is convinced she can get away with a series of thefts. Connery is convinced her can cure her. His constant interrogation is what passes for lovers’ banter. In aligning himself as her moral guardian and perhaps her savior, “dying to play doctor,” Connery has entered a nightmare of his own making. Only an arrogant man would believe all women would fall at his feet and Hitchcock clearly makes a connection with Connery’s ongoing incarnation as James Bond where that is exactly the case. Connery is every bit as flawed, as obsessive, as Scottie in Vertigo, determined to shape a woman into perfect form, and, yes, expecting to eradicate the imperfect past.
Connery emanated such ease, such amazing grace, on the screen that it backfired. Critics often didn’t believe he was putting much into his acting when in reality he was acting his socks off. This is a tremendously difficult part, walking the tightrope between looking a deluded fool and retaining audience empathy and coming across badly when he pushes a vulnerable woman too hard. This is a very rounded character, a gentle adoring lover in the main, but not one to be crossed. His interrogations are intense and yet still you can see that it will kill him if he is double-crossed. The casual amusement with which he greeted her appearance at his office is replaced by fear at her sudden departure.
Hedren, too, whose acting ability was often called into question, carries on where she left off in The Birds. By the end of that picture her nerves had been shredded. Here, her emotions, which she cannot as easily control as the rest of her life, too often fly off into a high pitch. Half the time she is the cool collected customer of The Birds, the rest of the time she is demented. Except in The Birds she was self-confident around men. Any self-assurance she has now is skin deep. There was always a fragility about Hedren, hidden behind the glossy exterior and fashionable outfits, and here it is exposed. The touching scenes with her mother, the mouth tightened in jealousy over the little girl, are perfectly played. A little girl lost in wolf’s clothing. And trapped, she is almost snarling at her captor, the submissive dialogue concealing the mind hard at work looking for an exit.
The interrogative scenes between Connery and Hedren are extremely difficult to pull off. It would have been easier if Connery was not in love with her, and to some extent pulled his punches. It would be easier for her if he was an out-and-out predator who could be paid in kind to shut up and go away. Instead, they both have to walk a verbal tightrope and only actors of some excellence can pull off that trick without losing the audience.
Many of the films from the 1960s are to be found free of charge on TCM and Sony Movies and the British Talking Pictures as well as mainstream television channels. Films tend to be licensed to any of the above for a specific period of time so you might find access has disappeared. There is a particularly awful pan-and-scan version of this film on YouTube. But if this film is not available through these routes, then here is the link to the DVD and/or streaming service.
Director Sidney Lumet (Fail Safe, 1964) could have made an excellent film just about the customers of a pawn shop, the haunted individuals haggling for more bucks than they will ever be paid, the sad sacks, junkies, lost souls and general losers whose stories are told in the items they pawn or redeem – candlesticks, lamps, radios, musical instruments, occasionally themselves. You don’t need to be a pawnbroker to know that three hoodlums turning up with a pricey lawnmower are dealing in stolen property. And it comes as something of a surprise to learn that the pawnbroker is involved in some kind of money-laundering scam for a local gangster. Clearly shot on location on a bustling low-rent area, north of 116th St in East Harlem, New York, there’s enough going on in the streets – the markets, the tenements, poolrooms, the bustle, the eternal noise – to keep you hooked.
But you might think twice about positing as your hero an “absolute bastard” as Lumet himself described shop owner Sol Nazerman (Rod Steiger). He is more haunted than any of his clientele, a Holocaust survivor, plagued by flashbacks to the concentration camp where he witnessed his son die and his wife raped. He is devoid of life, completely shutdown to any emotion, rejecting overtures of friendship, and his life is played out in tiny elliptical shreds. He does not even derive any enjoyment out of his affair with a widow and although he claims to worship money – according to him the only “absolute” outside of the speed of light – that brings no fulfillment either. It is surprising he has lasted so long without imploding. After his war experience, you would have to wonder at a man who spends his life behind the bars of the grille in his shop and just in case he considers escaping from his predicament designer Richard Sylbert (Chinatown, 1973) incorporates other visual aspects of imprisonment into the production.
Steiger gives a very restrained performance, especially for an actor known for his volubility and over-acting. He seems to sink into the role. He is accused of being among “the walking dead.” Around him are a set of very lively characters, his ambitious assistant (Jaime Sanchez, The Wild Bunch, 1969) trying to go straight and his girlfriend (Thelma Oliver), a very smooth and wealthy and gay gangster (Brock Peters), and a trio of small-time hoods with whom the assistant is friendly. But also the deranged and the lonely. A widowed social worker (Geraldine Fitzgerald) who suffers from the “malady of loneliness” offers him friendship but is rejected.
There is little plot to speak but it is just enough to teeter him on the brink of self-destruction. So it is primarily a character study. Unusually, Lumet observes without any sentimentality those around Steiger. “Sol has buried himself in this area,” Lumet wrote (“Keep them on the hook,” Films and Filming, October 1964, p17-20) “because he needs to be with people that he can despise….This is a man who is in such agony that he must feel nothing or he will go to pieces.” There is no redemption and he lacks the courage to commit suicide. It’s a stunning, bold picture, as raw as you can get without turning into a bloodsucker.
The film had a few firsts. It was the only mainstream American picture to deal with the Holocaust from the perspective of a survivor (although films like Judgement at Nuremberg, 1961, has shown camp victims). It broke mainstream conventions on nudity, bare breasts being seen for the first time. Lumet experimented with incredibly short cuts – just one-frame and two-frames in places (a technique he had first used in television)- when the standard assumption was that audiences required three frames to register an image. Brock Peters played not just the first openly gay person in a mainstream picture, but the first gay African-American (although The Long Ships the same year had a bit of comedy about a eunuch chasing Vikings).
Quincy Jones made his debut as a movie composer. If you listen closely you might detect a piece of music later made famous by the Austin Powers pictures and if you look closely you might spot a debut sighting of Morgan Freeman. And if want another anomaly, try and work out why Rod Steiger lost out to that year in the Best Actor Oscar stakes to Lee Marvin in Cat Ballou (1965).
Many of the films from the 1960s are to be found free of charge on TCM and Sony Movies and the British Talking Pictures as well as mainstream television channels. But if this film is not available through these routes, then here is the link to the DVD and/or streaming service.
Ever since Broadway had produced an elegy to a man broken on the rack of the American Dream in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Hollywood had been searching for an equivalent, but had only managed to come up with tales of men self-destructing through drugs (The Man with the Golden Arm, 1955) and alcohol (Days of Wine and Roses, 1962). The Swimmer, with its physical and mental dereliction, filled that void. It was the bravest choice of Burt Lancaster’s career – William Holden, Paul Newman and George C. Scott turned it down – the athletic prowess that had carried him through a host of films from The Flame and the Arrow (1950) to The Professionals (1966) now virtually redundant.
The final scene when, in the pouring rain, clad only in swimming trunks, he crouches, broken, on the steps of his abandoned house, as if seeking sanctuary in a church, was a stunning image. But it was more than that. Few actors of his generation would have been willing to stoop so low. Yes, the likes of Marlon Brando were often beaten to the point of humiliation (The Chase, 1966), but that was in the course of duty, not in pursuit of the American Dream. That Lancaster, a touchstone to Hollywood virility, the man-god with the dazzling style, was the one to come apart made the drama even more powerful.
The under-rated Frank Perry had struggled to find a footing in Hollywood even after the (minor) success of David and Lisa (1962), but he was one of the few directors willing to tackle the uncommercial subject matter. It was such a troubled production that producer Sam Spiegel, never one to shy away from publicity, did not put his name on it and Sydney Pollack who had directed Lancaster in The Scalphunters (1966) was called in to re-edit the rough cut. Eleanor Perry, the director’s wife, fashioned the script from one of the most acclaimed short stories of all time, by John Cheever.
The story is a simple one. Lancaster plans to swim across the county via the swimming pools of his upmarket neighbors to reach home. At the start he is vigorous, powerful, with a terrific dive and swimming stroke. He names the journey “the Lucinda river” after his wife. But he is like Ebenezer Scrooge, meeting ghosts from his past, facing up to the present, and left with only a desolate future. With each successive visit to a swimming pool, another part of his life unfolds. From the outset we can tell something is wrong – couples exchange odd looks and occasionally he is met with sympathy or hostility, neither of which he comprehends, and persists with a rose-tinted version of his life. And gradually, his physique deserts him and he limps, can’t pull himself effortlessly out of a swimming pool and instead of being warmed by the sun begins to shiver.
Stylistically, the movie begins with the idyllic, a camera tracking through the countryside from Lancaster’s point-of-view, his footsteps on the soundtrack, deer, a rabbit and an owl popping into view. As a counterpoint to long tracking shots of Lancaster trotting down a sunlit avenue of trees, Perry employs the zoom camera (an innovative technique at the time) to go so deeply into his eyes it must pierce his camouflaged soul. Harsher music and slower movement by Lancaster prefigure the onset of dangerous reality. And it is not the end of summer as Lancaster imagines (making reference to flowers or trees) but the beginning of autumn as the drifting leaves show.
By focusing so much on the actor’s physicality – he is never out of swimming trunks – we see at once his strength and his eventual weakness. There is one glorious sequence where he races a horse. In another, he leaps a five-barred fence. This is as the character perceives himself, a triumphant physical specimen.
But what we see, as he is pitifully stripped of dignity, is something else. Scenes that start brightly end ominously. For part of his adventure he is accompanied by former babysitter Julie (Janet Landgard). Initially, this is a picture of lost innocence, a three-minute sequence of Lancaster and Landgard mostly in longshot walking in dappled sunshine through the trees, as if they belong in a fairytale, with their voices detached from the images. But when she professes an adolescent crush (stealing one of his shirts, for example) and he begins to act in overprotective paternal fashion she takes it the wrong way and although nothing untoward occurs it clearly creeps the girl out and makes us realise that Lancaster is living in the past.
The present he could – and should have – enjoyed is tantalizingly all around. Every pool he visits belongs to the rich. There is alcohol aplenty. The houses are fabulous. As well as swimming pools, people own horses. Middle-aged neighbors sit out, ignoring the attractions of the pool, enjoying what their wealth has brought.
It is not a descent into madness for he must already have been unhinged to embark on his excursion but a nightmare that never ends. There is no safety harness for the American Dream. Once you fall, there is nothing to stop the plummet. Nothing left but, to mix the metaphors, swimming on empty.
The Swimmer is on Amazon Prime. Incidentally, there is an excellent documentary, directed by Chris Innis, The Story of the Swimmer (2014) which you can find on YouTube.
Since this is my 100th blog, I am in celebratory mood and hope to convince you that The Undefeated is one of the most under-rated westerns of all time. (Be warned – this is longer than my normal reviews.)
While John Wayne was at a career peak, Rock Hudson was in a trough. Wayne had just posted his biggest-ever box office figures for True Grit, which had opened in the summer, the first western ever shown at the Radio City Music Hall, the country’s biggest auditorium with nearly 6,000 seats, although it was advertised as an ‘outdoor adventure.’ He had appeared on the covers of both “Time” and “Life” magazines, and was being talked-up as a genuine Oscar contender. True Grit was proving to have such popular appeal that, in the year of Midnight Cowboy and Easy Rider, it would finish sixth on the annual box office rankings, just shading the former and well ahead of the latter.
Rock Hudson had ended up nearly at the top of another list – of the worst-performing stars at the box office, according to Variety his last five pictures tallying a total of $8.5million. After a decade at the top of the trees, segueing from Douglas Sirk melodramas to Doris Day comedies, he had come unstuck with John Frankenheimer’s black-and-white experimental Seconds (1966), derided at the Cannes Film Festival and ignored by ticket buyers, and thereafter gone downhill fast with Blindfold (1966), Tobruk (1967), A Fine Pair (1968), and MGM’s big-budget Cinerama Ice Station Zebra (1968).
Director Andrew V. McLaglen, son of Victor McLaglen (The Informer, 1935), got his break on John Ford’s The Quiet Man (1952). Wayne provided the guarantee four years later for McLaglen Jr. to make his first foray into direction, the western Gun the Man Down. After making a splash in television – over 200 episodes of Have Gun Will Travel and around 100 of Gunsmoke – his career moved into higher gear with McLintock (1963), Shenandoah (1965) and The Rare Breed (1966). Three further westerns followed – The Way West (1967), The Ballad of Josie (1967) and Bandolero! (1968) – before diversifying into oil wildcatting adventure Hellfighters (1968).
McLaglen was the victim of two erroneous assumptions. The first was that he was happy to be type cast as a director of westerns. He refuted this notion in an interview for Conversations on Film and claimed that “it’s the way my course was laid out for me,” suggesting that, in the early days at least, he had little control over the kind of projects for which he was deemed most suitable. Secondly, he was unfairly condemned as a “journeyman” director, an unworthy successor to John Ford, although Christopher Frayling put it more kindly when he asserted that McLaglen was a “figurative painter when everyone else had gone abstract,” indicating that the director was out of keeping with the times.
However, this was equally unfair, since in the 1960s, until Sam Peckinpah produced The Wild Bunch, there had been no real contenders for the Ford crown apart from a critic-driven revival of the 1950s films of Budd Boetticher long after he had stopped making them while Anthony Mann’s decade-long love affair with the western had ended with the dismal Cimarron (1960). U.S. recognition of Sergio Leone was slow in coming. Other directors considered as candidates such as John Sturges (Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, 1957; The Magnificent Seven, 1960) proved too erratic, while the likes of Henry Hathaway had only consistently turned to the genre in the 1960s. McLaglen was underrated as a director of westerns, McLintock hugely enjoyable, Shenandoah belonging close to the top rank, and, as I shall attempt to prove, The Undefeated a far better movie than given credit for. While not in itself a masterpiece in the category of Once Upon a Time in the West or The Wild Bunch, it is McLaglen’s masterpiece.
Wayne played Unionist colonel John Henry Thomas and Hudson his opposite number in the Confederacy Col. James Langdon. The rest of the cast was composed of newcomers like Michael (later Jan Michael) Vincent and Melissa Newman (not the daughter of Paul), pro-football players Merlin Olsen and Roman Gabriel of the Los Angeles Rams, members of the John Ford stock company like Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jr, and Mexican actor-singer Antonio Aguilar. The movie was filmed on a 1,600 acre plantation in Louisiana and in and around Durango in Mexico. Nonetheless, at $7.2 million, it had a bigger budget than Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), Valley of the Dolls (1967) and Planet of the Apes (1968), which cost $6.8 million, $4.6 million and $5.8 million, respectively.
I don’t usually begin a discussion of a film by examining its composition but I am making an exception with The Undefeated. I had come to this picture with vague memories of having seen it on original release in second- or possibly third-run at my local theater. I do not recall being particularly impressed, although at that age I had not formed any critical faculties for the evaluation of the western, nor any movie for that matter, being only 16 or 17 at the time. As a result, I did not hold out much hope for the movie when it came to the current re-evaluation, in part because it lacked the critical status of The Wild Bunch or Once Upon a Time in the West, which I had viewed many times since their original release, and in part because it had not been a box office or critical hit and therefore subject to the theatrical reissue, continuous television programming and re-evaluation that had accompanied The Wild Bunchor Once Upon a Time in the West.
What struck me most was how Andrew V. McLaglen constructed the movie on screen. A substantial number of scenes were in long shot, but, unlike, say True Grit, the director made more consistent use of the divisions between background, center and foreground. Most often by using the 3,000 horses as the long distance focal point in the middle of the screen, or a line of cavalry, the director achieved a fine separation of elements that, to me, at least appeared to show a mastery of composition. The screen, lengthways, was consistently divided into three, or four. Sometimes the entire action took place in the bottom half of the screen, the upper part reserved for sky or sky peering through mountains. Like a traditional landscape painter, McLaglen would work with the horizon line, sometimes with a vanishing point. It seemed to me that an artist, in the most ordinary sense of the word, was at work. This conceptual approach is apparent from the very start. When a rider arrives to announce to the Union troops that the Civil War is over, half the screen is sky.
What does let the movie down is the story. The basic concept – the reconciliation of deadly enemies – is an intriguing one and more than enough to carry the picture, but, the plot is overly complicated and the ending, while in one respect emotionally satisfying, is an anti-climax. In post-Civil War America, a group of ex-Union soldiers and a contingent of former Confederate soldiers (plus families) both converge on Mexico, but for different reasons. The Union soldiers, led by Col Thomas, are intent on selling a herd of 3,000 wild horses to the Mexican army, while Col. Langdon’s Confederates are taking their weapons and money in the same direction but in the hope of setting up a second front in order to continue the fight against the Unionists.
On the way, both groups encounter double-dealing, the Mexicans attempt to renege on the agreement to buy the wild horses, while the rebels are taken hostage by, ironically enough, forces in opposition to the existing Mexican government. The Unionists come to the rescue of the Confederates twice, once in a rousing battle against bandits, and, at the climax, by trading their horses (and their futures) for their former enemies’ lives. But this is an unsatisfactory conclusion since, to complete the circle, it should have been the Confederates baling the Unionists out of trouble, and therefore, honors even, they can come to a peaceful accommodation.
The movie opens with a battered Confederate flag. The camera tracks left along lines of grey-uniformed soldiers waiting for the expected attack. Almost immediately, their ranks are decimated by cannon fire followed by a Union cavalry charge, sabers cutting the defending soldiers to ribbons, Colonel John Henry Thomas (John Wayne) in the thick of the action, a Confederate flag abandoned on the ground. As a rider brings news of the cessation of hostilities, the camera, from Thomas’s point-of-view lingers on the dead. Thomas seeks out the enemy to accept their surrender.
To his astonishment, the Confederates already know that peace has been agreed when they continued fighting and, as far as the rebel commanding officer is concerned, the war is not over. “Are you telling me,” asks an incredulous Thomas, “that you intend to keep fighting?” The officer replies, “Haven’t we just proven it?” A few minutes into the picture, the entire concept is established, emotional sides taken, Unionists exhibiting disbelief, Confederates appearing resolute.
Mustachioed and resplendent in a Southern uniform that incorporates a cape and a hat with a feather in it, the dashing Colonel James Langdon (Rock Hudson) spells out his post-war secret mission to his troops, a 2,000-mile trip to Mexico, arms and ammunition and uniforms hidden at the bottom of wagons, their rendezvous, 500 miles south of the border, in Durango leading to being escorted by representatives of Emperor Maximilian to the country’s capital. Langdon sets fire to their grand mansion as a romantic subplot unfolds involving two juveniles, Langdon’s daughter Charlotte (Melissa Newman) and the slightly older Bubba Wilkes (Michael Vincent).
Thomas hands in his resignation, explaining that the 10 men remaining out of the 75 he recruited three years prior takes priority over continuing as a soldier. “Those left deserve more than a pat on the back from some newspaper editor and I’m gonna see they get it,” he snaps, as he leads his men away on their mission, to round up 3,000 horses to sell to the U.S. Army. What do men do while they wait around, capture flies as in Once Upon a Time in the West, or bicker as The Wild Bunch? Like Peckinpah’s squad, these men like to make fun of each other and, reminiscent of the scene when Warren Oates is teased over a bottle of whiskey, the ex-soldiers toss a chew of tobacco around until one stops after catching sight of approaching Indians.
In a mild twist, these are not enemies, but a group led by Blue Blood (Roman Gabriel), who, in another twist, we learn later, is Thomas’s adopted son – a major twist, in fact, if we are the homage business, given The Searchers (1956) when Ethan Edwards is dedicated to hunting down and killing Debbie (Natalie Wood) simply because she has lived with Indians after being kidnapped. The arrival of the riders is typical of McLaglen’s compositional skills: the men appear in long shot below the horizon. The screen, in reality, is divided into two – sky at the top, land at the bottom. Crammed into the middle is a tiny stretch of men.
We cut the first rousing adventure scene, a two-minute scene of the lassoing, capture and breaking-in of thousands of horses, the screen filled with images of the racing animals. As Col. Langdon’s wagon train sets off, Charlotte tells her beau that she is “looking for something more substantial” in a man than this lovelorn youth, as if she has quickly grown up during the war. Thomas and Short Grub (Ben Johnson) head off to a staging post for a meeting with the agents who buy horses for the government but instead they come into contact with a “couple of popinjays” representing Emperor Maximilian and willing to buy the entire herd. The loyal Thomas rejects their offer out of hand until, in an attempt to defraud him, the government agents offer him $10 less per horse than the going market rate, and for a fraction of the herd.
Summary justice, in the form of a punch, is meted out to the agents. In the middle of a fog we learn that the Confederates are being pursued by Union Cavalry intent on turning them round. When Langdon hears the Union horses he orders his wagon train to race the enemy to the Rio Grande. Once across, there is a close-up of the Confederate flag and McLaglen pulls back to reveal the train of wagons which takes up only the bottom half of the screen, the upper half entirely sky. Thomas faces the same dilemma and only a massive stampede of the horses sees them safely across.
As 1969 westerns are filled with dreamers (Butch Cassidy filling his head with ideas of Bolivia and, later, Australia; Omar Sharif’s bandit in Mackenna’s Gold dreaming of Paris), there is a short scene among Thomas’s men when they talk about what they will do with the money they will earn. Most of their notions are relatively mundane but one entertains a vision of a small library under a big elm. Thomas is in no mood for such frivolities, going to sleep with his guns cocked, telling his men, “We’re Americans in Mexico taking horses to a very unpopular government.”
Blue Blood, who has been scouting ahead, returns the next morning to inform Thomas that he has found a box canyon four miles ahead where there is forage and water for the horses. But he also warns that he came across two trails, the first of wagons and horses, and the second, following the first, about 40 riders. “I’d suspect an ambush,” says Thomas. When Blue Blood and Thomas go off to investigate they find the Confederates. In a nod to the opening shot, McLaglen gives a close-up of the rebel flag, this time in pristine condition. Approaching the wagon train, arranged in a circle, they explain the situation to Langdon, who asks what the bandits could be after. “Gold, horses, women,” replies Thomas, at which point Langdon’s wife Margaret (Lee Meriwether) and sister-in-law Ann (Marian McCargo) Ann look up.
This is another twist, or will be, for what happens to captured women has been a constant theme of westerns, especially in 1969, the treatment of white women at the hands of Indians forming a central plank of The Stalking Moon and Mackenna’s Gold, and any women taken by any men in 100 Rifles, The Wild Bunch and True Grit. Hatred for an enemy being subsumed by Southern hospitality, Langdon shares a whisky with Thomas who learns that Langdon’s son was killed at Shiloh, an engagement in which Thomas participated. Meanwhile, Blue Blood who has been making eyes at Charlotte, is send by Thomas on an errand.
Next day the night picket returns, strapped to his horse, and dead. Captain Anderson (Edward Faulkner) suspects Blue Blood is involved, but Thomas reveals Blue Blood is his adopted son, information that receives a glance from Ann as she cocks her rifle. As Thomas gives her some advice, “Windage and elevation” we suspect this may be the beginning of a romance. But the Mexican leader is not open to negotiation. “We want everything,” he says, “We want wagons, horses, guns, and gold and you also have some women.”
Bearing in mind that Thomas is a soldier rather than a frontiersman or a citizen of the West who, in confrontation, would not, in the grand Hollywood tradition, shoot first, it still comes as a surprise when Thomas simply kills the Mexican as a solider would employ the element of surprise. Back at the wagons, Thomas is upbraided by Ann, “Why did you have to shoot him?” His dry response, “Conversation kind of dried up,” would not have been out of place in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and while there are many other funny quips, and while McLaglen has an eye – and ear – for comedy as demonstrated in previous films, there is a big difference in audience response between lines delivered by the amiable Butch Cassidy and those uttered by the no-nonsense Thomas.
Maintaining compositional discipline, the battle begins with McLaglen creating a shot that places the wagons horizontally in the bottom quarter of the screen, the line of charging bandits above them but still below the screen’s halfway point, with the rest of the picture taken up with two huge rocks on either side of the screen with the sky peeking through them. The bandits are beaten off. Ann says to Thomas, “Tell me they’re leaving.”
If romance is brewing,McLaglen’s shorthand method of showing it is simply to put them in the same frame without resorting to anything more intimate. “No, ma’am,” replies Thomas, “they’re reforming to charge again.” He pauses, “At least that’s their plan.”
What follows is easily the best action scene in the picture, especially as it is entirely done in long shot and not, as others would be tempted to do, with lots of close-ups of individual pieces of action. As the bandits race away to reform, they head for the shelter of rocks where they are ambushed by the rest of Thomas’s outfit. When they twist away to escape the relentless gunfire, Blue Blood leads his band of Indians in a charge against them and the Mexican bandits are routed.
The symmetry of the action as the bandits race from one side of the screen to the other, encountering conflict at every turn, is stunning. Following the battle, Thomas confides in Langdon that he was at the battle where Ann lost her husband. In part, this is further shorthand, Thomas expecting such a revelation, which clearly he expects the Confederate to pass on, to kill off any incipient romance, but, in the wider emotional context, it binds the former enemies together, not in conflict, but in sadness for what they have all lost. Winners and losers, McLaglen appears to point out, all suffer the same losses. Meanwhile, Charlotte and Blue Blood are getting closer, the Indian having waved his hat in her direction on his triumphant return, the girl’s eyes lighting up at the sight.
No sooner has Thomas returned to his own camp than his men are invited back to join the Confederates to celebrate the Fourth of July. One of the reasons for Thomas to grow closer to Ann is a technical one, so that he can unburden himself. Romance, if it is that, is not advanced one iota except for the way the woman listens to the man, who recounts his own tale without prompting and without being accused of being uncommunicative and without it being beaten out of him.
It turns out that Thomas was once married but his wife left him. “She was so busy being a lady that she forgot to be a woman.” She objected to him going off hunting but, most of all, she did not want children so he adopted Blue Blood and is “as proud of him as if he were my own blood.” The adoption of the Indian was not as odd as all that in 1969 western iteration, Glenn Ford brought up by Indian in Smith! (1969) and, two years before, in Hombre (1967) Paul Newman’s character nurtured by Indians, but those were matters of chance not individual decision, a child has no say in who brings it up, but for an adult male to choose to adopt an Indian boy is a different story altogether.
Nothing more is made of Blue Blood’s adoption, but, as loyal viewers of many westerns over many years, audiences will have grown accustomed to romances between an Indian and a white woman hitting the skids.
But just as the movie clicks into gear, with two incipient romances and bandits thwarted, the question of the Confederate dream still unresolved, issues regarding the acceptance of Indians into society under discussion, former enemies halfway to reconciliation by fighting together against a common foe, both groups still to conclude their missions, the script almost destroys the fine work so far by introducing a western stereotype – the fistfight. As usual, there is no good reason, plot-wise, Thomas and Langdon dragged in, until the unnecessary fracas (with the usual side helping of low comedy) is halted by Ann firing a rifle.
Thomas and his men take their and comes across buzzards scavenging the French troops[i] sent by Emperor Maximilian to meet the Confederates. Blue Blood races off to warn the Confederates and, invited to stay the night, kisses Charlotte and, as a consequence, is beaten up by Wilkes and Captain Anderson who send him away. Later, the Indian spots Mexican troops. Meanwhile, Thomas, awaiting a rendezvous with the Mexican agents, is annoyed that his team have lost 500 horses on the journey (none of this has been dramatized) and worried that Blue Blood is three days late.
There is a nice exchange worthy of the self-delusion exhibited in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid between Thomas and Short Grub. The latter says, “I’d be thinking that he’s made off with that little Reb girl and he’d be just about by Rio Grande by this time.” Thomas replies, “That’s what I’m thinking.” Short Grub continues, “He wouldn’t do that.” Thomas agrees, “He wouldn’t do that,” while his expression shows the opposite. The agents count 2,505 horses and promise money is on its way.
Langdon’s party reaches Durango to the Confederate flag being raised and a local band playing Dixie. Host General Rojas (Antonio Aguilar) lays on a welcoming banquet. But it is a trap they are surrounded by gunman on the rooftops. “Consider yourselves prisoners of the revolution,” explains Rojas. Now Langdon’s contingent are held hostage until Thomas’s herd is brought in exchange. This is the worst possible dilemma for a Southerner. “I’m not asking any Yankee for anything,” blusters Langdon, at which point one of the Confederates is dragged in front of the firing squad, and Langdon has no option but to capitulate. Rojas sets a deadline of “noon tomorrow” or all will be shot. Blue Blood is in the crowd, and at night, when Charlotte is set upon by Mexicans he rushes to her rescue.
At the cowboy camp, Langdon explains the situation. The Unionists agree to help. But the Mexican government has no intention of paying for the herd when they can as easily steal it by force of arms. A regiment of cavalry will do the enforcing. Seizing the initiative, Thomas sets the herd on collision course with the Mexicans, leading the stampede two wagons bristling with guns.
The attack takes the Mexicans by surprise, the wild horses punching through the cavalry line, rifles picking off the enemy, Langdon slashing with his sabre. In Durango, with time running out, the General begins selecting Confederates to face the firing squad but just at that moment Rojas hears approaching hooves. All are saved. Blue Blood kisses Charlotte. Thomas, Langdon and Rojas drink to Juarez, the Mexican rebel leader.
Now comes the final twist for students of the American western of 1969. Many of the key pictures of the year had involved escape of one kind or another. The Wild Bunch take refuge in Mexico, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in Bolivia. All the refugees have no intention of returning home. Only in The Undefeated do the would-be escapees return home, having resolved their differences rather than running away from them. While that is an intriguing ending – Langdon resolving to run for the House of Representatives, Charlotte determined to go with Blue Blood to his home, the romance between Thomas and Ann remaining, unusually for a western, unresolved – the incidents leading up to this are, for many, anti-climactic.
Whether the ending has been truncated for reasons of running time or because McLaglen believed a longer scene showing the herd racing towards Durango and the clock ticking away was redundant is unknown. As it stands, the ending convinces me, although, to Hollywood, the idea of Americans helping foreigners overthrow their government always provides an easy get-out clause, and, as I mentioned before, in order for the picture to run full circle, it should be the Confederates who save the Unionists’ skin.
Nonetheless, it is a bold decision to end the picture in this fashion, and although the movie is not seen as having a political point to make, what could be more political, at the height of the Vietnam War, than of finding a way for bitter enemies to put aside their enmity and resolve to work together in the future? The film ends in compromise, riding out, returning as companions not enemies, to the U.S., they play “Yankee Doodle Dandy” instead of, in an echo to an earlier scene, the divisive “Battle Hymn of The Republic” or “Dixie.”
This is another impressive performance from John Wayne, especially as his character is fully-formed by his experiences in the Civil War, where, unlike the traditional western, the good guy does not need to wait for the other fellow to draw first and an astute commander will take the enemy by surprise. This is Wayne in a more thoughtful register, looking after his adopted son and the soldiers he has equally “adopted,” able to speak openly about regret and accepting the part he played, courtesy of the war, in inflicting grief on others. Gung-ho is long gone.
The actor cracked a couple of ribs during filming so for some weeks could only be filmed from one camera position, but that appears to have been no limitation on his performance, which is considerably more rounded than in the past. Had there been no True Grit between this and Hellfighters, his performance might have been praised. For a country still rooted in bigotry and inflamed by race hatred at the end of the 1960s, Wayne, taking on a role where he espoused racial appeasement and where he accepted the sadness war inevitably inflicts on families regardless of which side they are on, sounds like the opposite to his character in The Green Berets.
Rock Hudson is a shade over-the-top in his portrayal of Colonel Langdon but movies work best with opposites and it would not do if he was as reflective as Wayne. Nobody came within a mile of Oscar consideration but spare a thought for Marian McCargo’s quiet dignity as the widow.
As I mentioned at the outset, what impressed me most was McLaglen’s cinematic handling, the consistent way in which he used the screen, a discipline he maintained right up to the end when the screen is divided in two by the Rio Grande with in the bottom half the wagon train itself splitting the screen by going up the its middle. Should anyone decide to celebrate the 50th anniversary of The Undefeated by showing it on the big screen, then take the opportunity of seeing exactly why Andrew V. McLaglen should not be denigrated as a “journeyman” director.
You could be forgiven for thinking that the movie’s main influences were the early Cinerama pictures that focused on extensive tracking shots of scenery (in this case, the open road) and unusual customs (ditto, alternative lifestyles, dope-taking etc) and Mike Nichol’s use of contemporary pop music in The Graduate (1967). But it also drew on the assumption, as did Hitchcock in Vertigo (1958) and Kubrick with 2001: A Space Odyssey a decade later, that a camera doing nothing can be hypnotic.
Message pictures were the remit of older directors like Stanley Kramer and Martin Ritt and films that had something to say about the human condition generally emanated from Europe and not low-budget efforts coming out of Hollywood. Easy Rider has a European sensibility, an almost random collection of unconnected episodes with no narrative connection to the main story, itself incredibly slight, of two mild-mannered dudes heading to New Orleans to see the Mardi Gras.
Road trips were not particularly unusual in American cinema but the form of previous locomotion was horse-related – westerns. The journey has been a central theme to movies. This is an 80-minute picture masquerading as a 95-minute one, a good fifteen minutes of screen time taken up with endless shots of Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper on bikes passing through the landscape, with a contemporary soundtrack as comment.
Unusually, it’s also a hymn to ancient values, heads bowed in prayer at meals as different as you could get, the Mexican family and the commune, a marching band playing “When the Saints Go Marching In” and the recitation of prayers in the cemetery.
What marks the film out stylistically, perhaps enforced by the lean financing, is the sparing way it is told. The most dramatic scenes – the three murders – are filmed in shockingly simple fashion. There are often long pans along groups of characters. While innovative, the flash-cut flash-forward editing adds little to what is otherwise a very reflective film. Inspired use is made of natural sound, the muffled thumping of oil derricks at the cemetery, the soundtrack to one death is just the battering of unseen clubs by unseen assailants.
The dialogue could have been written by Tarantino, none of the confrontation or angst that drives most films, but odd musings that bring characters to life. At the beginning of the trip, Hopper and Fonda are welcomed wherever they travel, but towards the end resented, treated as though a pair of itinerant aliens. They entrance young girls but are vilified by authority, jailed for no reason except the threat to traditional values they apparently represent.
Elements not discussed at the time of release make this more rounded than you would imagine. The excitable Hopper, a nerd in hippie costume, is driven by the American dream of making money. The more reflective Fonda senses something is not only missing from his life but has been lost forever. He has the rare stillness of a top actor, face reflecting unspoken inner turmoil.
It remains an extraordinary film, a series of accumulated incidentals holding up a mirror to an America nobody wanted to acknowledge and the brutal climax no less powerful now.
Of course, the Easy Rider soundtrack itself summons up memories of the era and it is worth listening to just by itself and you might even want to go all the way and listen to it in the original vinyl.