Much-maligned melodrama. No more episodic over a three-hour running time than Ben-Hur (1959) or Doctor Zhivago (1965) and though bookended by the American Civil War has less grandiose views on history. Part of the problem is that, faced with such length, critics expected something with greater depth rather than just ordinary people caught up in circumstance. As if a stunning treatment of madness was not enough, inside the warring mind of a beautiful woman, whose realisation of her condition sets her on the road to tragedy. But it is riddled throughout by an element of fantasy, the fabled “rain tree” with golden leaves triggers a moment of madness in all who seek to find it in the swamps.
Like Zhivago, the narrative arc is a love triangle between principled teacher John Shawnessy (Montgomery Clift), southern belle Susana (Elizabeth Taylor) and reporter Nell (Eva Marie Saint). Sub-plots involved drunken gregarious Flash (Lee Marvin), bumptious Garwood (Rod Taylor) and the charming adulterous Professor (Nigel Patrick). The characters intertwine at various points and John, Flash and the Professor come together during the war while Garwood tries to make political capital out of it afterwards.
John and Nell have known each other since childhood, but there’s no real sense that they are childhood sweethearts. If they have passion for each other, it’s well hidden, and when Susana turns up, she steals him away, in part by the ruse of pregnancy. Despite her incipient madness, perhaps because of it, John sticking by her no matter what, there’s grand passion in full view. But the best scenes are Susana talking not about her condition, but what she believes to be true and her fears that her truth may be false. She lies, for example, about her age when a fire killed her father and his lover. She leaves her husband a note that she discovers she has never written. Her confusion at the depth of her illness, fear that she might have inherit the genes of her mother (also insane), is very touching.
She also does one thing that smacks of “Hollywood madness,” the crazy action that is shorthand for insanity, but within the twisted confines of her mind that is out of love for John. She has a dark secret about her role in the events surrounding the fire. But she overcomes her innate racism out of love for him, prior to the war freeing her slaves. She clings to John because she knows he is the one route out of her madness.
Audiences wouldn’t buy a three-hour picture about madness. You might perceive the other episodes as mere filler, and in some senses that’s true, but the episodes in themselves are quite entertaining and revealing. Though told the “rain tree” is a local myth, a kind of “holy grail”, John is the only character who tries to find it, out of idealism or insanity who knows, and nearly drowns as a result. Flash has come by his nickname for his running exploits and is challenged to a race by John and the otherwise outwardly idealistic Professor, a gambler, tries to influence the outcome.
Though a stranger in town Susana (“I’ll arrange it”) positions herself to place the garland of victory upon his head. When the Professor tries to make off with another man’s wife, John’s skills with a bullwhip prevent him getting shot. Although John’s mother and Nell push him towards politics, Susana leaves him be, recognizing the joy and fulfilment he gets from teaching.
The war is primarily viewed through the perspective of the Professor, a non-combatant who has found himself a job as a war correspondent, making wry comment as he illustrates various battles. By the end of it, soldiers on both sides are weary of the slaughter.
This was intended as one of the first roadshows, MGM’s initial attempt at incorporating its innovative widescreen process Camera 65 (meaning 65mm – the other 5mm in the more common 70mm taken up with the sound strip) that was later used to tremendous effect on Ben-Hur. And while this lacks the scope or action sequences of the Biblical epic, it looks just sumptuous on the wide screen.
Director Edward Dmytryk (Mirage, 1965) has a keen compositional eye and he also favors actors over showing off his directorial skills. But there are exceptional scenes from the directorial perspective. In one the camera remains fixed on Montgomery Clift at the side of the screen while in the background Lee Marvin is creating havoc. In another we follow a female warden as she unlocks door after door in an asylum before Montgomery Clift is led to Elizabeth Taylor.
The acting is superb, Elizabeth Taylor was nominated for an Oscar and might well have won except Joanne Woodward was playing a character with a split personality in The Three Faces of Eve. But it was a bold role for a young star like Taylor, and a tremendous piece of casting. As much as she uses words to try to explain or understand herself, when the camera cuts to her face you can see the terror in her eyes.
Clift had disfigured his face during an accident during shooting and that clearly physically affected his performance. Eva Marie Saint (36 Hours, 1964) is very effective as the rejected lover. Lee Marvin (Point Blank, 1967) takes the showboating approach to his role while Rod Taylor (Chuka, 1967) is not above some scene-stealing himself. But then both are competing with the over-the-top Nigel Patrick (The Battle of Britain, 1969). Millard Kaufman (The War Lord, 1965) wrote the screenplay from the Ross Lockridge Jr. bestseller.
The kind of film to immerse yourself in the performances and let the running time take care of itself.
Universal pulled a fast one with this tidy courtroom drama. The studio resurrected a two-part television piece originally made as the The Case Against PaulRyker five years before under the Kraft Suspense Theatre brand to capitalize on the unexpected box office success of Lee Marvin, the decade’s most unlikely new star after a straight run of hits from the Oscar-winning Cat Ballou (1965) through western The Professionals (1966) to The Dirty Dozen (1967).
Re-titled and hoping audiences would not notice the sleight of hand, this was thrown out into first run. By normal standards it would be deemed a flop for a star of Marvin’s newfound magnitude but the $1 million notched up in rentals Stateside and more overseas prove a handy cache of found money for the studio. Audiences might have smelled a rat when the star’s name came at the bottom of the opening credits with an “And” billing, which generally denoted guest – rather than main – star.
Still, despite being promoted as an actioner, posters show Ryker with machine gun in hand in the midst of a battle scene – there is such a scene but Marvin plays no part in it – it’s actually a decent drama, especially given the unusual background. Set in 1951 during the Korean War there’s nothing gung-ho about it. The Americans are retreating, evacuating Seoul, when army attorney Capt Young (Bradford Dillman) feels Ryker was short-changed during a trial that condemned him to death as a traitor.
Young and Ryker’s estranged wife Ann (Vera Miles) embark on a deadline-dogged mission – he’s due to be hanged in a couple of days’ time – to clear his name. Strafed by enemy planes during a trip from Tokyo to Seoul, there’s a hint of nascent romance. And when they are later caught together in a clinch, this adds to the murky atmosphere, Young facing court martial accused of the deadly sin of having an affair with a colleague’s wife and deemed a pariah by colleagues. He has another strike against his name – he dug up a grave.
The situation is exacerbated by high command caught between troops needing the morale-booster of seeing a traitor hanged and fearing scandal if they are found after the event to have sent an innocent man to the gallows. And there is the irony that Young, in his capacity as prosecutor, was the man who found Ryker guilty in the first place. He only ends up on the opposite side as punishment for exposing technical irregularities in the defence’s handling of the case.
Ryker doesn’t help himself by initially proving to be an unreliable witness, remembering in erroneous detail minor matters but not the one thing that could clear his name, whether his commanding officer, now deceased, had left a note clearing Ryker. The sergeant, caught behind enemy lines, had claimed he was acting under orders during a counter-intelligence mission.
So the odds are heavily stacked against Ryker, at the re-trial the sheer malevolence of his boss Major Whittaker (Peter Graves), and sex-obsessed pal Capt Appleton (Murray Hamilton) and what seems like ranks of generals barely concealed. The investigation focuses on finding missing items – watch, pen, notebook – of the dead officer, none of which it transpires helps the case.
The courtroom has plenty of the usual twists including a surprise witness proving Ryker fraternised before the war with a Korean general. So, with army politics and a downbeat take on war thrown into the mix it’s a generally absorbing drama.
Bradford Dillman (A Rage to Live, 1965), usually relegated to leading man or supporting star in the credits, one or two places below the star in the billing, gets the chance to shine, essaying both a man standing up for his principles against heavy opposition and a lover guilty of attempting to steal another man’s wife. Appearing in virtually every scene, he gives a better account of his acting skills than in most of his movies, far more than the often one-note performances to which he was consigned. One-time Hitchcock protegee Vera Miles (Hellfighters, 1968) doesn’t bring quite enough of the internal conflict to her role but she’s a reasonable sidekick.
Had any big studio been paying attention, Lee Marvin gave pretty good notice of his potential for star status especially the menace he could impart with just a glance rather than the showy over-acting to which he was inclined in previous villainous outings such as The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). He’s careful to allow the shiftier and gloomier elements of his character to come into play rather than playing the role as heroic innocent. There’s good back-up from Peter Graves and allowed, a little leeway from their normal movie personas, Murray Hamilton md Norman Fell (both from The Graduate, 1967).
Buzz Kulik (Villa Rides, 1968) directed from a screenplay by Seeleg Lester (Change of Mind, 1969) and William D. Gordon (Cotter, 1973).
At a crisp 85 minutes it doesn’t outstay its welcome as long as you’re not taken in by the still-misleading poster. A good example of the species with excellent performances.
The prospective casting was tantalizing. How about Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin, a pairing for the ages, two of the toughest guys in screen history? Failing that, Eastwood and Charles Bronson, The Man With No Name vs The Monosyllabic Man? The role of Colonel Mortimer could also have gone to Henry Fonda or Robert Ryan before in one of the movie business’s oddest tales it ended up with Lee Van Cleef.
In due course Bronson and Fonda would work with Sergio Leone in the director’s best film, Once Upon a Time in the West (1969). Fonda’s agent had already dodged Leone’s entreaties once, having rejected A Fistful of Dollars (1964). Marvin was, in fact, all set, an oral agreement in place until a few days before shooting began on For a Few Dollars More he suddenly opted instead for Cat Ballou (1965), a decision that won him an Oscar and turned him into an unlikely star.
When none of his first choices proved available or interested, Leone turned to Van Cleef. Or, more correctly, a photo of the actor pulled from an old casting catalog. Although a western buff like Leone remembered Van Cleef from his debut in High Noon (1952) plus Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), The Tin Star (1957) and a dozen other bit parts and supporting roles in westerns, Van Cleef had not been credited in a movie since The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962).
He proved virtually impossible to track down. No small surprise there because he earned a living mostly as a painter now, a car accident having left him with a limp. He couldn’t run, much less ride anything but a docile horse. He required a stepladder to get mounted. Leone flew to Los Angeles and his first sight of Van Cleef, older than his photograph, proved his instincts correct, Van Cleef’s face “so strong, so powerful.” The salary on offer, for a down-on-his-luck actor scarcely able to pay a phone bill, was a fat purse of $10,000. (Eastwood’s salary was $50,000 plus a profit share compared to just $15,000 for the first film).
Leone put him to work right away, the day he arrived in Italy filming reaction shots. It was just as well his input that day was so simple because, as Clint Eastwood had discovered, the language barrier was a problem. Equally disconcerting was that Van Cleef had no idea why he had been chosen, and since A Fistful of Dollars had not been released in the U.S., no inkling of the kind of western the director had in mind. At Eastwood’s urging, he nipped out to a local cinema and returned with the understanding that the script was “definitely second to style.” Van Cleef was easy to work with, and although he could put away a fair amount of liquid refreshment it never interfered with his work. He came ready for direction.
Leone had not wanted to make a sequel. His original plan was a caper picture called Grand Slam or a remake of Fritz Lang’s classic M to star Klaus Kinski or an autobiographical drama – Viale Glorioso – set in the 1930s. Jolly, the producers of A Fistful of Dollars, offered him a 30 per cent profit share on that film if he made a sequel, as they felt he was legally obliged to do. Instead, furious with his treatment at their hands, the director hit upon the title of a sequel For a Few Dollars More, the actual storyline only coming to fruition when he came across a treatment called The Bounty Killer by Enzo dell’Aquilla and Fernando Di Leo, who in exchange for a large sum, surrendered their screen credits. Luciano Vincenzoni completed the screenplay in nine days, leavening it with humor, after the director and his brother-in-law Fulvio Morsella had produced a revised treatment, Leone also involved in the final screenplay.
Leone found a new backer in Alberto Grimaldi, an Italian entertainment lawyer who worked for Columbia and Twentieth Century Fox and had produced seven Spanish westerns. He promised to triple the first film’s budget to $600,000, with the director on a salary and 50 per cent profit share.
Success bred artistic confidence. A Fistful of Dollars had broken all box office records in Italy, grossing $4.6 million, and so Leone sought to improve on his initial offering and develop an “authorial voice.”
Thematically, with two principals, initially rivals who end up as “argumentative children,” it took inspiration from westerns like The Bravados (1958) – the photo and the chiming watch – and Robert Aldrich’s Vera Cruz which pitched Burt Lancaster against Gary Cooper. While bounty hunters had cropped up in Hollywood, they were not ruthless killers, actions always justified, rather than merely professionals doing their job. So in some sense Leone was drawing upon, and upending, films like Anthony Mann’s The Naked Spur (1953) and The Tin Star, Andre De Toth’s The Bounty Hunter (1954) and Budd Boetticher’s Ride Lonesome (1959). Just as Clint Eastwood’s bounty hunter underwent change, gradually the character played by Gian Maria Volonte evolved from a straightforward outlaw called Tombstone to a stoned, sadistic bandit named El Indio.
With artistic pretension came attention to detail. Leone required historical exactitude not just relating to weapons used, but their ballistics and range. Lee Van Cleef’s arsenal included a Buntline Special with removable shoulder stock, Colt Lightning pump action shotgun, Winchester ’94 rifle, and a double-barreled Lefaucheux. Carlo Simi’s town, constructed near Almeria, contained a two-storey saloon, undertaker’s parlor, barbershop, telegraph office, jail, hotel and an adobe First City Bank. And there was nothing pretty about it. The saloon was dirty and overcrowded, machines belching so much smoke it “looked as if a man could choke in there.” Filming took place between mid-April and the end of June 1965.
Perhaps the biggest area for improvement was the music. Ennio Morricone had scored another nine films since A Fistful of Dollars. Both director and composer had ambitious ideas about how to use the music. The score was not recorded in advance, nor was Morricone given a screenplay, instead listening while Leone told him the story and asked for individual themes for characters. Morricone would play short pieces for Leone and if met with his approval compose longer themes. Each character had their own leitmotif, sometimes the same instrument at different registers, the flute brief and high-pitched for Monco (Eastwood) but in a low register for Mortimer, church bells and a guitar representing El Indio. In a very real sense, they were experimenting with form. Bernardo Bertolucci regarded Morricone’s music as “almost a visible element in the film.” Musical ideas regarding El Indio’s watch, however, were developed at the rough cut stage, its repetitive melody becoming “sound effect, musical introduction and concrete element in the story.”
As well as creating music for audiences, Leone’s films are punctured with music that holds particular meaning for characters, here the watch and in Once Upon a Time in the West the harmonica, in both films flashback used to assist understanding.
The myth of why it took so long for either film to reach the United States was based on two misconceptions, firstly that Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, whose Yojimbo (1961) A Fistful of Dollars closely resembled, had blocked its progress, secondly that it relied on screenwriter Vincenzoni to make the breakthrough via a contact working for United Artists.
In fact, there were more obvious reasons for resistance from American distributors. In the first place, you could not discount snobbery. The notion that the country that had invented the western should now be reliant on importing them from Italy seemed a shade abhorrent. Although For a Few Dollars More was sold to 26 countries in a day at the annual Sorrento trade fair in 1965 – at the same fair a year earlier there had not been a single taker for A Fistful of Dollars – the United States was not among the buyers, distributors perhaps even more daunted by the prospect of introducing so much violence to American audiences reared on the traditional western.
Foreign movies that made the successful transition to the United States arrived weighted down with critical approval and/or awards or garlanded with a sexy actress – Brigitte Bardot, Anna Magnani, Sophia Loren among the favored – and risqué scenes that Hollywood dare not include for fear of offending the all-mighty Production Code.
But sex was a far easier sell in the U.S. than violence. And an actor with no movie marquee such as Clint Eastwood did not fill exhibitors with delight and even the notion that A Fistful of Dollars was a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) failed to stir the critics (as with The Magnificent Seven being a remake of Seven Samurai, most viewing the notion as repellent). So both the first and second pictures in the “Dollars” trilogy were stuck in distribution limbo for three and two years, respectively, before being screened in America.
And, initially, it had appeared that Italian audiences shared the same distaste for a cultural intruder such as A Fistful of Dollars. One cinema chain owner refused to book the film on the grounds that there were not enough female characters. A Fistful of Dollars was released in Italy in August, a dead period, since the month is so hot and everyone has abandoned the city for the beach. It opened – only in Florence and with neither publicity nor advertising – on August 27th 1964, a Friday, and did poor business that day and the next. But by Monday, it was a different story, takings had doubled and over the following two days customers were being turned away. New films typically played first-run for 7-10 days in Florence, A Fistful of Dollars ran for three months, triggering a box office story of Cinderella proportions.
But my research indicated there had been ample opportunity for an American distributor to snap up the rights to A Fistful of Dollars in 1965, two years before it was finally released there. In the first place, the music rights had already been purchased by New York firm South Mountain Music in March 1965 in expectation the film would acquire release that year. In December 1965 Arrigo Colombo, partner in Jolly, flew to the United States for the specific purpose of lining up a major distributor for A Fistful of Dollars. The company had previously secured U.S. distribution for horror product like Castle of Blood (1964) and Blood and Black Lace (1964) but those were outright sales.
With the movie already sold to Spain, West Germany, France and Japan, Colombo aimed to conclude a deal for the English-speaking market, “purposely holding back” from releasing the picture in those countries as he sought an all-encompassing contract. At that point, Kurosawa no longer stood in the way, that issue “now cleared up” settled in the normal fashion by financial inducement, in an “amicable settlement” Toho snagging the Japanese and Korean rights, the deal sweetened with a minimum $100,000 against a share of global profits. But Colombo went home empty-handed, unable to secure any deal and his temerity ridiculed by trade magazine Variety
Although Sergio Leone had one other legal obstacle to surmount that would not have got in the way of a U.S. distribution deal, the worst that could happen being that a contract might be struck with a different company. Italian companies Jolly Films/Unidis, which had backed the original, took umbrage at Leone going ahead with the sequel without their financial involvement, cutting them off from the profit pipeline. So in April 1966 they took Leone to court in Rome arguing that For A Few Dollars More “represented a steal as well as unlawful competition for its own Fistful.” Four months later the judge denied the claim on the grounds that “the character played by Clint Eastwood in each film is not characterized to such a degree that a likeness exists” (even though to all intents and purposes it was the same character, cigar, poncho, gun, bounty hunting!). Ironically, Italian laxity in such matters counted against Eastwood when he failed to prevent the distribution of a film based on two segments of Rawhide stitched together.
It would also be highly unusual if United Artists was not aware of both A Fistful of Dollars and For A Few DollarsMore since, in keeping tabs on the foreign performance of both Goldfinger (1964) and Thunderball (1965) the studio could scarcely fail to notice the Italian westerns close on their box office tail, the second western outpointing Thunderball in daily averages in Rome.
But the story still, erroneously, goes that it was the intervention of writer Vincenzoni which proved decisive. He had contacts in U.S, namely Ilya Lopert of United Artists. Grimaldi was, meanwhile, trying to sell U.S. and Canada rights relating to the second picture. Vincenzoni arranged for UA’s representatives to view A Fistful of Dollars in Rome and cut himself in for a slice of the profits when the distributor surprisingly purchased the entire series.
Since A Fistful of Dollars had already been sold to most major territories, UA could only acquire the North American rights – for a reported $900,000 – but for the other two films gained a considerably larger share of global distribution
United Artists was an unusual company among the Hollywood hierarchy, and not primarily due to recurrent Oscar success, but because it had, completely unexpectedly, hit box office gold with James Bond. There was nothing particularly odd about a series, as Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes etc (still flourishing in the 1960s) testified. What was distinctive about the Bonds was that each picture – the four so far had earned close to $150 million worldwide, not counting merchandising – had done better than the last, which went against the standard rule of sequels of diminishing returns and higher costs. Given the opportunity to buy into a ready-made series (two films in the can, the third in production) UA made an “attempt to calculatedly duplicate the (Bond) phenomenon” and in so doing “create a trend.” Assuming the movies would follow the Bond formula of increased grosses with each successive picture, the studio was prepared to spend “many hundreds of thousands” of dollars to establish the first picture.
United Artists embarked on an unusual sales campaign to the trade. Instead of marketing the pictures one at a time, they started to promote the series with the tagline “A Fistful of Dollars is the first motion picture of its kind, it won’t be the last.” The advertising campaign was unusual in that it was based entirely around introducing the character rather than the story (much in the same way as James Bond had been), three separate slivers of the poster devoted to visual aspects, the cigar, gun and poncho, each carrying mention of “The Man With No Name,” such anonymity one of the talking points of the movies.
Cinema managers were briefed on release dates, A Fistful of Dollars in January 1967, the sequel for April and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly for Xmas that year. Like the Bonds, it was expected that box office would progressively, if not explosively, increase. The studio unveiled a “hard-hitting campaign” designed to “intrigue the western or action fan.”
However, the North American premiere was held not in the United States but Canada, at the Odeon-Carlton in Toronto. Having committed to a four-week engagement, a risky prospect for an unknown quantity, the cinema started advertising a teaser campaign three weeks in advance. During the first week, posters were not just focused on the “man with no name” but also “the film with no name” and the “cinema with no name,” all those elements removed from the artwork until the second week of the campaign. UA allocated $20,000 in marketing, up to four times the usual amount spent on a launch there, and was rewarded with strong results – “bullish but not Bondish” Variety’s verdict.
However, the UA gamble did not pay off, especially when taking into account the high cost of buying the rights allied to huge marketing costs. Initial commercial projections proved unrealistic. Despite apparently hitting the box office mark in first-run dates in key cities, the film was pulled up short by its New York experience. Shunted straight into a showcase (wide) release rather than a first-run launch, it brought in a pitiful $153,000 from 75 theaters – even The Quiller Memorandum (1966) in its second week did better ($150,000 from 25). As a consequence when For a Few Dollars More was released in April/May, UA held off boking it into New York until “a suitable arrangement” could be made, which translated into hand-picking a dozen houses famed for appealing to action fans plus 600-seat arthouse the Trans-Lux West.
United Artists predicted $3.5 million in rentals (the amount returned to studios after cinemas take their cut of the gross) for A Fistful of Dollars and $4.5 million with For a Few Dollars More. Neither came close, the latter the marginally better performer with $2.2 million in rentals (enough for a lowly 41st on the annual chart) with the first film earning $2.1 million in rentals (46th) way behind more traditional performers like Hombre ($6.5 million for tenth spot), El Dorado ($5.9 million in 13th) and The War Wagon ($5.5 million in 15th).
The vaunted Bond-style box office explosion never materialized and it might have helped if UA had kept closer watch on the actual revenues posted in Italy for the series. While For a Few Dollars More increased by $2 million the takings of A Fistful of Dollars, the final film in the trilogy, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly produced lower grosses than even the first.
However, it did look as if The Good, the Bad and the Ugly would come good. UA opened it in two first-run cinemas in New York where each house retained it for six weeks. But although the final tally of $4.5 million (24th spot in the annual rankings) was the best of the series, it did not herald returns that made it anywhere near comparable to the Bonds.
It’s possible the movies did better in terms of admissions than the box office figures show. Distributors pushing foreign product into arthouses were generally able to achieve a high share of the rental – 50 per cent the going rate – because they were able to set rival arthouses against each other and movies with a sexy theme/star had inbuilt box office appeal, La Dolce Vita (1960) and And God Created Women (1956) the classic examples. But that would not be possible when trying to interest ordinary cinemas with a film lacking in sex.
When I researched the early Bonds for a previous Blog, I found that United Artists had only managed to achieve bookings for Dr No (1962) by lowering its rental demand. Exhibitors paid the studio just 30 per cent of the gross. And I wondered if perhaps the same occurred with A Fistful of Dollars given the star, like Sean Connery, was completely unknown. Of course, it would not explain why the series did not grow as expected.
Of course, there was a surprising winner and an unexpected loser in the whole ‘Dollars’ saga. Clint Eastwood emerged as the natural successor to John Wayne with a solid box office – and later critical – reputation for American westerns starting off with Hang ‘Em High (1968) which beat The Good, the Bad and the Ugly at the box office, while Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1969) proved a huge flop in the U.S.
Christopher Frayling, Sergio Leone, Something To Do With Death (Faber & Faber, 2000), p160-162, p165-200; “Italo’s Own Oater Leads Box Office,” Variety, December 2, 1964, p16; “South Mountain Buys Dollar Score,” Variety, March 10, 1965, p58; “Jolly’s Colombo Discovers N.Y.C. Busy at Xmas,” Variety, December 22, 1965, p3; “Tight Race for Box Office Honours in Italy Looms as Thunder Leads Dollars,” Variety, January 65, 1966, p15; “Dollars World Distribution for UA,” Variety, March 22, 1966, p22; “Clint Eastwood Italo Features Face Litigation,” Variety, April 13, 1966, p29; “UA Cautious on Links to Italo Fistful; Faces Slap from Kurosawa,” Variety, July 13, 1966, p7; “Rome Court Rejects Plea for Seizure of Few Dollars Made By Fistful Film,” Variety, August 3, 1966, p28; “Clint Eastwood vs Jolly on 2 Segs of Rawhide ‘Billed’ New Italo Pic,” Variety, September 7, 1966, p15; “Italy Making More Westerns, Spy Films Than Star Vehicles,” Box Office, October 31, 1966, p13; “Hemstitched Feature,” Variety, November 23, 1966, p22; “UA Division Holds Screenings of Westerns,” Box Office, December 12, 1966, pE2; Advertisement, Variety, December 21, 1966, p12-13; “UA Gambles Dollars As Good As Bonds,” Variety, December 28, 1966, p7; “Fred Goldberg Shows Ads on UA ‘Dollar’ Films,” Box Office, January 2, 1967, pE4; “Review,” Box Office, January 9, 1967, pA11; “Fistful of Dollars: Male (and Italo) B.O.,” Variety, January 18, 1967, p7; “Fistful of Dollars: The Glad Reaper,” Variety, February 1, 1967, p5; “This Week’s N.Y. Showcases,” Variety, February 8, 1967, p9; “Fistful’s Weaker N.Y. B.O. Clench,” Variety, February 8, 1967, p7; “Methodical Campaign Kicks Off Ideal Fistful Ballyhoo in Toronto,” Box Office, May 1, 1967, pA1; “Few DollarsMore Runs 30% Ahead of First Dubbed Italo-Made Western, So Bond Analogy Makes Out,” Variety, May 31, 1967, p4; “N.Y. Slow to Fall Into Line,” Variety, May 31, 1967, p4; “B’way Still Boffo,” Variety, July 12, 1967, p9; “Carefully Picked,” Variety, July 12, 1967, p4; “B’way Biz Still Big,” Variety, July 19, 1967, p9; “Big Rental Films of 1967,” Variety, January 3, 1968, p25; “B’way B.O. Up,” Variety, January 31, 1968, p9; “Big Rental Films of 1968,” Variety, January 8, 1969, p15.
Hollywood has been hitting the retread button for over a century. Today’s reboots and re-imaginings are nothing new. Although in the past the excuse was technological development, the splurge of remakes in the 1960s including Beau Geste (1966), Stagecoach (1966) and Goodbye Mr. Chips (1969) were superior to the originals in one particular aspect – they were in color.
When silent films went from two-reels to four-reels and from six-reels to eight-reels, roughly the length of a modern picture, and when silent gave way to sound the remake business went into overdrive. The 80-minute Tess of the Storm Country (1914) starring Mary Pickford was transformed into a 137-minute version eight years later headlined by the same star. Zane Grey westerns starring William Farnum Raiders of the Purple Sage (1918), The Lone Ranger (1919) and The Last of the Duanes (1919) were remade as Tom Mix vehicles between 1923 and 1925 and toplining George O’Brien between 1930 and 1931. Over 120 remakes were made between 1928 and 1930, with around 80 per cent going out with the same title. There was another remake burst at the end of the 1930s including The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939).
Color was the prime instigator for the remake business in the 1960s. But you could also add the technological development of 70mm, the key element of roadshow pictures. Many big-budget films of the 1920s and 1930s had hit the box office target and with studios looking for as many sure-fire winners as possible it seemed sensible to give a new look to older projects. Ben-Hur (1959) could be seen as lighting the remake touch paper especially when it scored equally highly at the box office and the Oscars. MGM followed through with roadshows of Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), one-third as long again as the 1935 original, Cimarron (1960) with an extra 20 minutes compared to the 1931 Oscar-winner. But the reimagining of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1962) ran about the same length as the Rudolph Valentino version of 1921 as did King of Kings (1961) compared to the 1927 Cecil B. DeMille version.
Prior to considering the expensive business of investing in a remake, studios had been able to rely on sticking out the old movie as a reissue, limited financial exposure often resulting in considerable box office. But it was impossible to sell silent pictures, excepting comedians like Charlie Chaplin, to a modern audience and many of the big hits of the 1930s had either been already sold to television or were considered dated by contemporary standards and although black-and-white films were still being made halfway through the decade (In Harm’s Way, 1965, for example) they were a difficult re-sell.
Far easier to revamp a well-known, perhaps beloved, product with the addition of color cinematography, better sound, and possibly with major stars in the vein of Marlon Brando (Mutiny on the Bounty) and Peter O’Toole (Goodbye, Mr. Chips). It also seemed the case that lesser stars could still prop a remake with little adverse effect on the receipts especially if the lower-priced actors substantially reduced the budget and consequently the income required to turn a profit.
Some movies appeared to be on an endless recycle. The Count of Monte Cristo (1964) had been filmed in 1956, 1954 and 1934, the latter starring Robert Donat. The Perils of Pauline (1967) had been remade twice since Pearl White had made the character her own in 1914. Back Street (1961) with Susan Hayward had been filmed twice before in 1941 and 1932. The Spanish-made The Last of the Mohicans (1963) starring Jeffrey Hunter was the fifth attempt at filming the famous novel after movies made in 1920, 1932, 1936 and 1957.
Some remakes changed their titles. Cary Grant comedy Walk, Don’t Run (1966) was based on The More the Merrier (1943), Stolen Hours (1963) with Susan Hayward on Dark Victory (19390 with Bette Davis, Doris Day vehicle Move Over Darling (1963) on My Favorite Wife (1940), and Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians (1963) on The Old Dark House (1932). William Wyler’s The Children’s Hour (1961) starring Audrey Hepburn drew on These Three (1936), Uptight (1968) was a modern take on John Ford’s Oscar-nominated The Informer (1935), and comedy The Shakiest Gun in the West (1968) with Don Knotts had its origins in The Paleface (1948) starring Bob Hope. Akira Kurosawa’s Japanese classic Rashomon (1950) retuned as The Outrage (196) starring Paul Newman. The Bonnie Parker Story (1958) was drastically retuned as Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Frank Capra’s A Pocketful of Miracles (1961) was based on his own Lady for a Day (1932). Gregory Peck thriller Mirage (1965) took only three years to re-emerge as Jigsaw (1968).
Other studios decided the original title was too big an attraction to be discarded. Of Human Bondage (1964) with Kim Novak and Laurence Harvey had been made 30 years earlier with Bette Davis and Leslie Howard. Night Must Fall (1965) starring Albert Finney had originated 27 years prior. Raquel Welch-starrer One Million Years B.C. (1966) had been slightly truncated from One Million B.C. (1940), Lee Marvin and Angie Dickinson headlined The Killers (1964) based on characters originally essayed by Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner 18 years previously, Mayerling (1969) with Omar Sharif and Catherine Deneuve had starred Charles Boyer and Danielle Darrieux in the 1936 version.
Horror was the most obvious genre to receive a revamp. Robert Bloch rewrote The Cabinet of Dr Cagliari (1962) forty-two years after the original. Hands of Orlac (1961) with Mel Ferrer had previously been known as Mad Love (1936). Herbert Lom reprised The Phantom of theOpera (1962) following on from Lon Chaney in 1925 and Nelson Eddy in 1943. French-made The Golem (1967) was based on versions screened in 1921 and 1937.
Some films were remade with music, Goodbye Mr. Chips – the Robert Donat, Greer Garson original belonging to 1939 – the most obvious example but The Sound of Music (1965) was essentially a musical version of the Germanic The Trapp Family (1956), and Three Coins in the Fountain (1954) set in Rome turned up as the musical The Pleasure Seekers (1964) set in Madrid, both films directed by Jean Negulesco. On the other hand, State Fair (1962), which had been turned into a drama in 1945 despite being based on a Rodgers & Hammerstein musical, was restored to its roots.
Not every remake idea proved a slam dunk. Projects that failed to get off the ground included: TheBirth of Nation (1915), Ecstasy (1933), Metropolis (1927) to be directed again by Fritz Lang, Wuthering Heights (1939) to star Richard Harris, Dark Angel (1925 and 1937) with Rock Hudson, The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935), The Crusades (1935), The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936) with Roger Moore – although it was remade in 1968 – Wee Willie Winkie (1937), Jane Eyre (1943) to star James Mason, The Macomber Affair (1946) and The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). Anthony Quinn was touted for a remake of Kurosawa’s Sanjuro (1962) and Saul David planned a westernized version of that director’s The Hidden Fortress (1958).
French director Claude Chabrol had ambitions to make a version of Hamlet (1948) from Ophelia’s point of view though a Russian version appeared in 1964. MGM blocked a remake of Tarzan of the Apes (1931). Francis Ford Coppola proposed Heaven Can Wait, a reworking of Here Comes Mr. Jordan, to star Bill Cosby. Stephen Boyd was mooted for a remake of The Quiet Man (1952).
Producer Ray Stark (Funny Girl, 1967) announced new versions of Casablanca (1942) and a Peter Collinson-directed The Maltese Falcon (1941). Musical versions were announced of The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), Our Town (1937), Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Roman Holiday (1953), the latter to star Robert Redford.
SOURCES: Brian Hannan, Coming Back to a Theater Near You, A History of Hollywood Reissues, 1914-2014 (McFarland, 2016), p21, 27, 31; “Drift Towards Remakes Grows on Coast,” Box Office, March 11, 1939, p37; “That Birth of a Nation Title,” Variety, April 13, 1960, p6; “Sales Come-On But Never Mislabel Content – Hathaway,” Variety, October 26, 1960, p13; “Bischoff-Diamond To Make Charge,” Box Office, July 10, 1961, p11; “Bash Vindicated – After 4 Yrs,” Variety, July 12, 1961, p5; “MGM Is Upheld In Suit over Tarzan,” Box Office, July 10, 1961, p13; “New Cycle of Classics for French Prods,” Variety, July 12, 1961, p16; “Dark Angel Remake to Writer Lee Mahin,” Box Office, December 18, 1961, pW-8; “Robert Blees Plans Remake of Macomber Affair,” Box Office, March 12, 1962, p16; “Anderson-U.A. Talk Wuthering Remake,” Variety, August 28, 1963, p22; “Spain’s Latest Western,” Variety, October 23, 1963, p18; “MGM Signs for 3 Co-Productions in Spain,” Variety, January 15, 1964, p22; “Hollywood Report,” Box Office, February 10, 1964, p16; “Japanese Sanjuro Remake for Quinn,” Variety, May 5, 1965, p4; “Weintraub Sends Down L.A. Roots,” Variety, January 12, 1966, p5;“Universal Re-Do of DeMille 1935 Crusades,” Variety, April 13, 1966, p3; “Plan Rebel Without Cause For Remake As Musical,” Box Office, April 18, 1966, p9; “Lee Thompson Busily Reprints His Musical Version of Henry VIII,” Variety, April 27, 1966, p17; “U’s Future Parks 17 Vehicles,” Variety, May 25, 1966, p33; “Re-Do of Quiet Man,” Variety, March 5, 1967, p5; “De Laurentiis in New Par Dickers,” Variety, January 10, 1968, p5; “David to Re-Do Kurosawa Plot As U.S. Western,” Variety, June 12, 1968, p4; “Re-Do of Falcon,” Variety, July 10, 1968, p14; “Star In W7 Pic,” Variety, January 15, 1969, p3.
A mighty cast headed by John Wayne (True Grit, 1969), James Stewart (Shenandoah, 1965), Lee Marvin (The Dirty Dozen, 1967) and Vera Miles (Pyscho, 1960) with support from Edmond O’Brien (Seven Days in May, 1964), Woody Strode (The Professionals, 1966), Strother Martin (Cool Hand Luke, 1967) and Lee Van Cleef (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, 1967) do justice to John Ford’s tightly-structured hymn to liberty and equality and reflection on the end of the Wild West. So tight is the picture that despite a love triangle there are no love scenes and no verbal protestations of love.
The thematic depth is astonishing: civilization’s erosion of lawlessness, big business vs. ordinary people, political chicanery, and a democracy where “people are the boss.” Throw in a villain with a penchant for whipping and a lack of the standard brawls that often marred the director’s work and you have a western that snaps at the heels of Stagecoach (1939), Fort Apache (1948) and The Searchers (1956).
The story is told in flashback after Senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) and wife Hallie (Vera Miles) turn up unexpectedly in the town of Shinbone for the funeral of a nobody Tom Donovan (John Wayne), so poor the undertaker has filched his boots and gunbelt to pay for the pay for the barest of bare coffins. Intrigued by his arrival, newspapermen descend and Stoddard explains why he has returned.
The backstory unfolds. Arriving on stagecoach, novice lawyer Ransom is attacked, beaten and whipped by outlaw Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin). He is found by horse-trader Donovan (John Wayne) and taken to a local boarding house-cum-restaurant where Hallie (Vera Miles) tends his wounds. With a young man’s full quotient of principle, Stoddard is astonished to discover that local marshal Link Appleyard (Andy Devine) has ducked out of responsibility for apprehending Valance on the dubious grounds that it is outside his jurisdiction and that Valance has so mean a reputation he has the town scared witless. When Valance turns up he humiliates Stoddard and only Donovan stands up to him, rescuing an ungrateful Ransom, who detests violence and any threat of it.
Stoddard soon turns principle into action, setting up his shingle in the local newspaper office run by Dutton Peabody (Edmond O’Brien) and on learning that Hallie is illiterate establishing a school for all ages. In the background is politics, but the push for statehood is inhibited by big ranchers who employ Valance to intimidate. Despite his aversion to violence and insistence that due legal process will eliminate the law of the gun, Stoddard practices shooting. When Donovan gives him a lesson and, to point out his unsuitability to confront such a mean character as Valance, covers him in paint, Stoddard floors him with a punch.
That principle I mentioned has something in common with Rio Bravo (1959) – Howard Hawks’ riposte to High Noon (1952) – in that Stoddard, determined to fight his own battles, refuses to ask for help when targeted by Valance. The inevitable showdown is extraordinary, not least because it takes place at night and Ford, a la Rashomon (1951) tells it twice from different points of view.
Precisely because it retains focus throughout with no extraneous scenes as was occasionally John Ford’s wont, the direction is superb. As in The Searchers, to suggest emotional state-of-mind, the director uses imagery relating to doors. This time the humor is not so broad and limited primarily to one incident. Both main male characters suffer reversals, in the case of Stoddard it is physical but in the instance of Donovan it is emotional. Either way, action is character. In the romantic stakes, they are equals, dancing around their true feelings.
Upfront there is one storyline, the upholding of law and order whether against an individual such as Valance or against the attempts of big business to thwart democracy. But underneath is a subtly-told romance. Donovan and Stoddard are allies but in terms of Hallie they are rivals. Neither have an ounce of sense when it comes to women. Neither actually protests their love for Hallie. Although Donovan brings her cactus roses and is, unknown to her, building an extension to his house to accommodate what he hopes is his future bride, his idea of romance is to mutter, in patronizing manner, the old saw of “you look pretty when you’re angry.” He would have been wiser to have taken note of her spunk, because she can be more than direct if need be.
Stoddard isn’t much better. Despite her growing feelings towards him being obvious to the audience, he assumes she prefers Donovan. Action drives the love element, the need to save or destroy.
All three principals are superb. This may seem a typical Wayne performance, a dominant figure, comfortable with a gun and his abilities, but awkward in matters of the heart. But he shows as great depth as in The Searchers and the despair etched on his face at the possibility of losing Hallie eats into his soul. Stewart combines the man-of-the-people he essayed for Frank Capra with some of the toughness he showed in the Anthony Mann series of westerns. Vera Miles tempers genuine anger with tenderness and practicality. Unlike many Ford heroines she is not a trophy wife, but a worker, mostly seen running a kitchen. Lee Marvin cuts a sadistic figure, with an arrogance that sets him above the law, his tongue as sharp as his whip.
As well as Woody Strode, Strother Martin, Edmond O’Brien and Lee Van Cleef, you will spot various members of the John Ford stock company including Andy Devine (Two Rode Together, 1961) as the cowardly gluttonous marshal, John Carradine (Stagecoach), John Qualen (The Searchers) as the restaurant owner and Jeanette Nolan (Two Rode Together) as his wife.
The boldest part of the picture, however, comes at the end, when the director dismantles the myth built up around Stoddard and which the politician has used to create a career that spanned two terms as a Senator, three terms as a Governor and been the American Ambassador to Britain. So be warned, if you ain’t seen the picture, this is spoiler alert. In some respects, Ford was way ahead of his time. The twist at the end where the good guy is revealed as the villain of the piece is more of a contemporary trope. There were plenty of pictures where the villain appeared to have gotten away with it only to be caught out at the very last minute. This is not that kind of movie. Stoddard gets away with it for the simple reason that he fits the heroic mold.
“Print the legend” is very much the standard American attitude to myth. Dig deeper and what you find is hypocrisy. Man-of-the-people Stoddard’s life is based on bare-faced fraud. He took the glory for an action he did not commit. Of course this was in the days before newspapers found that bringing down politicians sold more papers than building them up and these days I doubt if such a scoop would be ignored.
Nor for all his upstanding image does Stoddart show the slightest sign of remorse – until now when he must know his confession will never see the light of day. (Maybe, if he had gone to the New York Times but not the Shinbone paper). He built his entire career on this violent action, the antithesis of his supposed stance on process of law. He takes all the plaudits and fails to acknowledge Donovan, except when it’s too late, and Donovan has died a pauper, his rootless life perhaps engendered as a result of losing Hallie. Hallie’s character, too, is besmirched. She chose Stoddart precisely because he was a man of principle who risked his life to tackle – and apparently kill – Donovan. Those two elements are indistinguishable. Had she know Stoddart had failed and was only saved by the action of Donovan it is questionable whether she would have chosen the lawyer.
There are a couple of other quibbles, not so much about the picture itself, but about other quibblers, commonly known as critics. Alfred Hitchcock famously came under fire for the use of back projection, not just in Marnie (1964) but other later films. That spotlight never appeared to be turned on the at-the-time more famous John Ford. The train sequence at the end of the film uses back projection and the ambush at the beginning is so obviously a set.
Don’t let these put you off, however, this is one very fine western indeed and fully justifies its growing critical status.
CATCH IT ON THE BIG SCREEN: By the way, if you live in Italy you can catch this on the big screen in Bologna where it is showing at Il Cinema Ritrovato – Fondazione Cineteca di Bologna on July 20-27, 2021.
This is by way of a trailer. By the end of the month – i.e. tomorrow – this Blog will have been running for an entire year. One of the interesting aspects of the Blog for me has been reader response to particular pictures. Some pictures I though would be stone-cold faves such as Easy Rider (1969), “Rat Pack” vehicle Sergeants 3 (1962), Lee Marvin in Point Blank (1967) and the unfairly neglected historical epic The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) have turned out to be less popular – in terms of views – than I might have imagined.
And, on the contrary, some films have generated an enormous number of views, far more in many cases than I had believed they would, far more than I had any reason to suppose any of my postings would.
So tomorrow (June 30) I am going to list the films I enjoyed most throughout the year – movies that qualified for my own five-star rating.
I am going to follow that up on Thursday (July 1) by publishing the list of the Top 25 most popular movie posts as judged by my readers.
But I thought it might be interesting as a little competition for people to guess what the most popular film has been. There’s no prize so there’s nothing to be gained by seeing what other people have suggested. It would certainly be interesting. So if you fancy doing this, then just put your suggestion in the Comments section.
I have posted over 200 reviews, the bulk of them on films themselves, though regular readers will know I also write about the makings of films, about how books are adapted into films and a few other movie-related subjects that catch my eye. But this tally will just refer to films rather than anything else.
Given this is my first year, I had no real expectations of what to expect, least of all that I would attract a regular following and that, overall, the Blog has exceeded my wildest expectations. I have attracted readers in over 70 countries, so it’s fascinating to observe how this particular decade has proved so interesting to such a wide audience.
Make sure you check out my post on July 1 to find out which were the most popular films of the first year of the blog.
The Man With Half A Name doesn’t have quite the same ring to it as The Man With No Name. Lee Marvin’s professional thief Walker (first name absent) is a close cousin of the spaghetti western’s amoral gunslinger. But where Leone is disinclined to fill in the emotional blanks in his anti-hero’s story, British director John Boorman, making his Hollywood debut, feels obliged to look for redemptive features in keeping with American tradition.
Along with several unnecessary arty elements, that gets in the way of a brilliant character portrait. The movie also suffers from critical assessment, not in the manner of bad reviews, but from an irrelevant and misleading insistence on discovering the film’s “true meaning.”
However, where Boorman gets it right, the movie is a cracker. The bursts of brutal explosive violence still shock, Walker a force as unstoppable as The Terminator, while representing the Mafia as a faceless corporation is a stunning concept. Walker refuses to recognize the dictum that there is no honor among thieves and expects repaid the money stolen from him by a Mafia henchman. In his mind payment will come either in cash or retribution. There is double-crossing aplenty, but Walker is ready for it.
Boorman’s palette is fascinating, the grey bleakness of early scenes giving way to yellow (even the pillar in a parking garage is painted yellow) and other colors. And he has learned from Hitchcock how to apply silence and use natural sound effects like footsteps.
But there are some changes to Richard Stark’s original novel that the movie can do without. The introduction of the abandoned Alcatraz, for a start, is an illogical nonsense, cinematically stylistic though it is. Walker, as shown in the original novel is far too clever to allow himself to be led to a place so open to ambush. Nor would he allow himself to be emotionally blackmailed into doing the job that caused the trouble; he would have walked away from someone as unstable as the double-crossing Mal Reese (John Vernon).
The ambiguous ending, where Walker appears to fade away, issues unresolved, also attracted odd critical theories when, having spent ninety minutes demonstrating the gangster’s destructive capacity, it seems more likely to me that the two Mafia gents left alone with him on Alcatraz would be in the greater peril.
That said, the rest of the picture has an inbuilt dynamic and Marvin’s laconic menacing performance is mesmeric. By comparison Major Reisman in The Dirty Dozen was garrulous. The original novel was called The Hunter and Walker ruthlessly stalks his prey even though they are some of the most dangerous men alive. Angie Dickinson is dropped in to provide some emotional core and a scene of him as a younger man courting his wife is along the same lines. Ignore the arthouse elements and run a mile from critical theories and you are in for one hell of a ride.