Saturday, July 4, 2020

THE FUTURE - CRITERION CHANNEL

This review was originally written for DVDTalk.com in 2011.


Man, I'm like...what?

There are times when this job is just a pain. When I probably would have stopped a movie before it was done and just walked away. When I can't, and so I have to instead come into my office and try to figure out something to say, and it's just not there.

The Future has inspired one of those times. It's the new film from performance artist/author Miranda July, who made half a good movie back in 2005 called Me and You and Everyone We Know. That movie chronicled the twee romance between two average people and the growing pains of a pair of children, and it had moments of true insight (the kids) and other moments of contrived oddness (the romance). But it was all right, nothing too baffling, nothing too unctuous.

July's sophomore effort is a whole other matter. The ratio of what works to what doesn't has gotten a lot more lopsided, and though I wouldn't call The Future bad, it does lack focus and seasoning.


The script portrays a couple in their mid-30s who have decided to adopt a stray cat they have found. They named it Paw Paw and took it to an animal shelter where it is being treated for its hurt front paw (I guess that's where they got the name) and other health problems. At first they were told that Paw Paw would only live six months, but now the vet says it could be several years if they take care of it. So, instead of six months of adult responsibility followed by a lifetime of freedom, the couple sees the thirty days they have to wait for Paw Paw to be healed enough to come home as their last month to live. Jason (Hamish Linklater from The New Adventures of Old Christine) decides that they need to go nuts now and sow any remaining wild oats before they become parents, so he quits his tech-support job answering distress calls in their apartment and encourages Sophie (July) to give notice at the dance school where she's an instructor. Having loosed the shackles of employment, they can do anything they can dream up.

Except they don't dream big. Jason volunteers for an environmental initiative selling trees door to door; Sophie decides to record a dance a day for the full thirty and upload them to YouTube. As it turns out, Jason isn't cut out for sales and Sophie isn't very creative. So, he pretends to go to work and instead spends the day with an old man (Joe Putterlik) who turns out to be himself from the future while she sneaks out and has an affair with a single dad (David Warshofksy) they randomly met at the vet.


Yeah, you read that right. Jason meets himself from the future. There are funny things with time in this movie. There are also scenes where the cat Paw Paw speaks to the audience, explaining his (her?) changing life, anticipations, and disappointments. Surprisingly, these are the best parts of The Future. The tricks Jason pulls make for a neat pay-off, bringing up questions about fate and how much of our lives we waste and what it might take to wrest control back from the universe. Even the talking cat is endearing, despite the voice Miranda July gives Paw Paw being pretty damn terrible. You can forgive her lack of vocal chops because it's kind of cute and, somehow, the cat ends up being the most emotionally honest character in the whole film.

The rest of The Future, however, is pretty underwhelming and tainted with a forced oddness. July seems desperate to maintain a labored indie cool, which maybe she could do if she were a better actress. The writing is fairly sharp, but her affected screen presence is tiresome. Hamish Linklater spends the entire movie outclassing her, and it gets embarrassing. He is so natural and heartfelt in front of the camera, you can't help but wish he were in a different movie. It's like July keeps trying to push The Future one way and no matter how much her lead actor points her the other way, she refuses to listen. Even the music by Jon Brion (Magnolia, I Heart Huckabees) is overly contrived, nearly spoiling the movie's most surprising scene by spreading a sickly organ underneath.


There's a Pet Shop Boys song called "Being Boring" where, essentially, they play with the old phrase that if you're never boring, you won't be bored. It came to mind a lot while watching The Future. Sophie and Jason are people who don't really do anything because they aren't very interested in what they set out to do. I suppose this is Miranda July's point: they don't know what they want, and the movie represents a divide between their purposeless younger lives and what may possibly be a new beginning. Or not. She goes back to bed, he sits and reads a book, that's not very interesting either. It's ironic, but ennui needs more flair than this. The Future lacks any pronounced style, and its magical moments have the same drab look of the everyday life that makes up the rest of the picture. If you're going to be weird, Ms. July, be weird, don't settle on quirky; if you're going to track your characters crawling out of their boredom, shoot it like you care. Or are at least trying.

Because it makes it hard for me to care or try when you don't. And it makes it not just hard to start reviewing your film, but also hard to finish. I've come up with a lot to say, but no clever way to wrap it up, no cohesion. Call it "giving as good as you get."


Sunday, June 21, 2020

HAPPY-GO-LUCKY - CRITERION CHANNEL

This review as originally written for DVDTalk.com in 2008.


Happy-Go-Lucky is one of th more lauded filmes from British director Mike Leigh, who is known for telling stories of the working class that chronicle their fancies and their doldrums in a modern style that resembles the Kitchen Sink cinema from the 1960s. In this latest offering, Leigh could have easily adopted Charlie Chaplin's "Smile" as the movie's theme song, as it seems to be what he's encouraging his audience to do: smile, even when it's not that easy to do.

Sally Hawkins, last seen as Colin Farrell's girlfriend in Woody Allen's Cassandra's Dream [review], stars as Poppy, a kindergarten teacher with a relentlessly upbeat outlook on life. Practically a child herself, she's equally at home in the classroom or on the dancefloor. Like any single young woman at age 30, she still likes to go out drinking with her girlfriends, but she's also slightly adventurous, booking weekly trampoline sessions and joining a co-worker for flamenco lessons because it sounds like fun. At the beginning of the movie, Poppy's bike is stolen, and instead of lamenting over it, she decides to learn to drive instead.


Poppy's driving instructor is one of the first of several challenges to Poppy's worldview. Scott (Eddie Marsan, Hancock [review]) is an angry little man with a lot of pent-up issues. He takes his job way too seriously, and he is easily provoked. Thus, he and Poppy get on like paper and a match, since she seemingly can't take anything seriously. In fact, she's often exhausting to watch, so I can't imagine what it must be like to be around her. Poppy can't let any comment pass without tossing out a silly joke, and she rarely answers a serious question with a serious answer. Honestly, I found her to be extremely annoying at first, and I was dreading spending two hours in her company.

Then came the first flamenco lesson. My whole attitude changed watching her interact with the class. Regardless of how stern the lead dancer's demeanor, Poppy always maintains her smile and her gung-ho attitude. She doesn't necessarily follow instruction, instead looking around the room at the other students and trying to elicit a reaction from them. Watching her pantomime amongst the group, a silly grin on her face and a knowing look in her eyes, it occurred to me that Poppy was like other clowns in motion picture history, characters like Chaplin's Tramp or Tati's Hulot. Though she is clearly more vocal than these mostly silent characters, she is like them in that she realizes that the rest of the world is too uptight and is doing her level best to keep from letting it grind her down.


Happy-Go-Lucky is Mike Leigh's study of this kind of figure. The movie is the writer/director's way of deconstructing the clown in order to see what makes her function. Throughout the film, he continually disarms Poppy, tossing her challenges she can't get out of by cracking wise. Her driving instructor, an abused student in her class, the recriminations of her middle sister (Caroline Martin), the prodding of her long-suffering roommate (Alexis Zegerman)--all of these people pick at the clown's mask and question if her brave face is real. It's to Poppy's credit that she is able to dial it down and prove that she can handle the bad as well as the good. Like all people who make us laugh, she is a caregiver, intent on alleviating the sadness of others even if it means harboring her own. She can be fierce, such as when she witnesses a boyfriend yelling at her youngest sister (Kate O'Flynn), but she can also be extremely empathetic. When she randomly encounters a homeless man (Stanley Townsend) in the middle of a psychotic episode, she sits with him rather than running away, answering all of his half-finished utterances with affirmative responses. It's a beautiful acting moment, centering on a look that Hawkins and Townsend exchange at the end of the scene, the masks clearing away for both of them for one truly honest moment.

Sally Hawkins is actually superb throughout. I don't think I would have wanted to strangle her as much as I sometimes did were she not. She makes Poppy a complete character, not just a collection of catchphrases and nervous ticks. She never once breaks character or appears to be an actress performing a role, every moment is authentic. During much of the joking, there is obviously more going on behind it. The outward expression may be physical, but the true weight of the performance is all mental. Thus, when it's revealed how much strength is really backing up the buffoonery, we can believe it.


Mike Leigh's shooting style is often stark, letting the setting and the actors dictate where he takes his camera. Once or twice, he indulges in a larger shot, pulling back to show us the landscape, but it's not just decoration, it's purposeful. The world these characters live in is just as important to their state of being as anything else. Over the course of the various conflicts, he slowly moves in closer, until in the final confrontation between Poppy and Scott, their heads take up the entire frame, and he rapidly cuts back and forth between them. (Though, such is the gravitational pull of the Poppy character, in all of the conversations, Leigh has no choice but to quickly cut back to Hawkins to catch her rejoinders.) There's a psychology to how Leigh sets up Happy-Go-Lucky, but it's not forceful or overbearing. The characters, their environment, and the greater narrative are all perfectly entwined. The final scene of the film is a little on-the-nose in comparison to the rest, but better to drift out of a story like this than superimpose a false dramatic arc over the top.

I doubt Happy-Go-Lucky is going to make Mike Leigh a household name. If anything, he's like Woody Allen in that he puts out a consistent stream of product that tends to cover a lot of the same ground, and when either of them hits the mark, they hit it quite well. Happy-Go-Lucky is a good movie propped up by excellent actors, and as seems to be its intention, is sure to leave you smiling.



Monday, June 15, 2020

THE CAMERAMAN - #1033


Buster Keaton was an independent producer and director making his own starring vehicles in the silent era when, in 1928, he decided to sign on with MGM and let them foot the bill. This was despite warnings from his friends and peers, who didn’t see why a successful artist would give up his freedom and control. Keaton probably should have listened, as MGM immediately paired him with a director, Edward Sedgwick, and though their collaborations yielded some excellent funny business, it does feel like something is different in the two features offered on Criterion’s release of The Cameraman

Before criticizing things, though, it should be noted that there is much to rejoice about in this new 4K restoration. Though still missing three minutes of footage, this is the most complete version of The Camerman that anyone has seen in quite some time. The picture is clear and beautiful, and it allows for a fresh perspective of this pivotal moment in Keaton’s career. The score is also very good, enhancing the picture as necessary without overplaying the comedic actions or trying to hard to mimic what is onscreen (the same cannot be said for the music on the second film). 


The scenario as devised by Clyde Bruckman and Lew Lipton sees Buster playing a street portrait photographer who falls for a beautiful girl (Marceline Day), whose picture he takes before she is whisked away by her boyfriend (Harold Goodwin). The fella, Stagg, is a cameraman for MGM newsreels, and Buster decides to get his own movie camera and join the freelance crew as a way to get close to Sally. What follows are plenty of mishaps as Buster tries to figure out the business, finds a monkey to be his pal, and gets tangled in a Chinatown gang war. The latter sequence is incredible for the chaos and mayhem that erupts on the screen. There is a real sense of peril, and we fear for our stone-faced hero. 

This is probably the closest we get to a vintage Buster Keaton situation. His previous comedies all have a sense of danger, as his elaborate set-ups and stunts would consistently put him in harm’s way, only for him to stumble through unharmed. Most of the gags in The Cameraman are dialed way back from what audiences would have expected from Buster. Weirdly, we get more wordplay in the title cards than ever before, which is not really what we signed up for. We also get more romance. If anything replaces the danger, it’s an increased sweetness. Sure, we’ve seen Keaton work the love angle before in pictures like Battling Butler, but there is a dogged earnestness to The Cameraman that is almost less effective because it replaces his trademark cluelessness with confidence. 


In truth, The Cameraman and the second feature on the disc, 1929’s Spite Marriage, also directed by Sedgwick, remind me more of classic Charlie Chaplin than classic Buster Keaton. The relationship of City Lights comes to mind, where we root for the Little Tramp to win the blind girl’s heart. It’s not that we don’t also root for Buster in his other films, but I think we are more inclined to see him take a licking, his famously rigid face keeping us from being nearly as invested in his well-being. Perhaps this was what MGM was hoping to undo, thinking that maybe making him more like Charlie he could start to outpace the other man’s success. 


It’s hard to say. And it’s also still hard not to like both The Cameraman and Spite Marriage. Both are very funny. Spite Marriage even features one of Keaton’s most lauded bits, when he has to put his drunk wife to bed. It a routine he would perform live for many years to come. It’s just some of the inventiveness is gone. The precarious situations, the elaborate sets, the prop work, the daredevil stunts--these are all dialed back. 

You know what it is, actually? It’s that Buster Keaton was always the little guy standing up to an indifferent world that consistently outsized him. Just as MGM took away his full control, so too did they shrink the threats. It levels the playing field, it’s not nearly the contest it once was. Buster is still the champ, but fighting in his own weight class, and so the victory is not as sweet. While the performer has the charm to be a rom-com lead, it’s not what he really made his name on, and it’s a classic example of the business side of show business not really understanding the show.


 This disc provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.



Sunday, June 14, 2020

TARNATION - CRITERION CHANNEL

Originally written for my personal blog in 2005. While, were I to write the piece again, much of my initial reaction would stay the same and is perhaps more relevant (sadly) fifteen years later, I would like to note that the comments about the veracity of Renee Caouette's accusations toward her father (marked with a *) were something I should have taken more seriously. While the filmmaker's techniques can be in question as it regards to the older man's portrayal, Renee's claims of abuse deserve to be given their full due.


Jonathan Caouette's Tarnation is a puzzling, disturbing film. On one hand, it's arguable that it's like one of Godard or Orson Welles' essay films, updated for a time after music videos have affected how visuals and music are combined, with the whiz-bang editing style familiar to any MTV viewer. On the other, it possibly sidesteps what it wants to say by distracting us with that same style. The film is about one boy's journey into his family's mental history and how he fits into it, but does Caouette obscure his discoveries by over-abstracting? Or is the abstraction just a way for him to continue to avoid the hard answers? 


Caouette is his own worst artistic enemy, it seems. Something about how he presents himself offset me as a viewer, made me inclined to distrust him. All artists are self-obsessed, but most step away from who they are when they deconstruct their lives for their art. Ironically, Caouette is always away from himself: he suffers from a mental disorder that causes him to disassociate from his own reality and view life as a dream. He uses film to try to get back into his own shoes. But I couldn't shake the feeling throughout Tarnation that the exercise was all bullshit. I wasn't witnessing soul searching but a masturbation tool for a man who is in love with his own visage. Caouette started filming himself at age 11, creating disturbingly graphic monologues where he'd play characters like battered wives and drug addicts. While they suggest a natural talent for film, these scenes also begin a pattern of Caouette staging his own life for the sake of the movie of it. In his final confession, when he is alone in his bathroom with the camera, I wanted to believe he was sincere in his epiphany; instead, I was more appalled by how badly he was mugging for the lens.

Caouette begins his history before his birth and carries us all the way through 2002. The way he puts images together, a decade can pass by over the space of a montage set to a single song. Midway through the picture, I was beginning to question what it was I was being shown. I didn't feel like I was getting to know Caouette or his family. The photos seemed random. I could have been looking at any stranger's photo album, purchased in a thrift store or found in the road. When the rush of images would stop, it was rarely to contextualize what had just been presented. Rather, the viewer is given increasingly exploitative, drawn-out sequences of the filmmaker's mother, Renee, losing her grasp on reality. One sequence, when she dances and sings with a pumpkin, feels like it will never go on forever as Caouette milks his audience for every last squirm. Renee believes she is Elizabeth Taylor's daughter and Dolly Partner's sister, and she's going to perform for us just like they do. This is where her son got it from. A former model and actress, mom's mental illness has become an elaborate stage for her to play her part on. Caouette witnessed her being raped and abused when he was four, and Tarnation oftentimes seems like his attempt to recreate that kind of trauma over and over so we can share it with him. 


I couldn't help but feel sorry for Adolph, Renee's father and Caouette's grandfather, for being caught up in all this. He may have done the things his daughter claims (we'll never know)*, and he certainly was misguided when consenting to give her shock treatment, but the character Caouette gives us is of a genial old man who has tried to smile his way through it all, not the monster he'd have us believe. When his grandson moves to New York, he sincerely wishes him well and speaks supportively of the boy's abilities; except Caouette has him say his farewell into a machine that turns the old man's voice robotic. A prescient contrivance so he can suggest the sentiment is false? When Caouette accusingly turns the camera on Adolph near the end of Tarnation, it just feels vicious, and when grandpa declares he has had enough, I frankly felt I had, as well.



It's hard not to think of the famous scene from Madonna's Truth or Dare documentary where Warren Beatty says to the singer, "Why would you do anything off camera? What's the point of living if it's not on camera?" Often in this day and age, it feels like the majority of the population missed that Beatty wasn't saying that like it was a good thing. Technology has put the means of expression into just about everyone's hands. This blog is a perfect example of that. If I wanted to, I could follow the example of many others and record my every waking moment on here as if it were absolutely vital and important. The problem is, self-expression (and its evil twin, self-obsession) in itself is not all there is. We can't simply present what happened to us on our lunch break and expect the fact that it happened to grant it meaning. I like to joke that everyone has a right to an opinion, just not the right to express it...but I'm starting to think it's not so funny. Unless we start to demand that people extract something out of these experiences before they frame them for public consumption, we're going to lose sight of the big picture that is capital-A art. All the little snapshots are going to cover it up. 


It's not an either/or question. One should dare to tell the truth.



Friday, May 15, 2020

THE SNIPER - CRITERION CHANNEL

This review originally written in 2005 for my Confessions of a Pop Fan blog.'


The Sniper is a 1952 release from director Edward Dmytryk, also known for Murder, My Sweet and The End of the Affair. Dmytryk really has to struggle against some heavy-handed material here. The film stops dead twice as the police psychologist explains his theories about sexual predators and the proper course of treatment, but even as these monologues grate on modern ears, you have to appreciate the progressiveness in even approaching the subject. The titular sniper is a disturbed young man who has developed an obsessive hatred of women, and he is compelled to climb the rooftops of San Francisco and shoot ones he feels have done him wrong. Arthur Franz plays the killer as a lost soul who just wants to belong somewhere, only to find himself barred from the social situations he finds himself in. He goes from placid happiness to rage to self-loathing and guilt all in the course of single scenes, the smallest slight setting him off. It all has an unexplained connection to baseball, stemming from his first violent outburst as a child, and it comes to the fore at a carnival where an obnoxious woman in a dunking tank game taunts customers. Franz buys nine balls, sinking the woman five times in a row before really losing his cool and hurtling the rest of the balls at the tank itself. It's explosive, and makes perfect sense for a character overcome by irrational anger.


The movie truly shines, though, when we focus on the cops (including the amusingly named Lt. Frank Kafka), who approach the crime scenes with a gallows humor and a dogged determination they never quite let show. The best scene is when a parade of sex perverts is led through an open interrogation where they are more ridiculed than questioned, the sort of snarky bad-cop interrogation that has become a staple of police stories. Dmytryk's fantastic location shooting is another high point, adding a realistic touch to the film. The steep San Francisco streets seem to personify the sniper's internal struggle: he can never walk normally on even ground.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

SALOME (1953) - CRITERION CHANNEL

This review originally written for DVDTalk.com in 2013. 



I've written some pretty harsh reviews of older Biblical movies in the past, and generally take heat for it whenever I do. It's a genre that hasn't necessarily aged well. The earnestness of movies like The Song of Bernadette [review] has only grown more clunky over the decades, and some dramas like The Robe [review] now come off as more campy than intended. It's not that I am opposed to these kinds of movies, but it seems they need to be of a finer vintage, like DeMille's The King of Kings [review] or the silent version of Ben-Hur.

William Dieterle's 1953 interpretation of Salomé proves to be a solid exception, albeit an imperfect one. Rita Hayworth leads a fine cast as the stepdaughter of King Herod (Charles Laughton, Island of Lost Souls [review]). Herod's marriage to Salomé's mother (Judith Anderson, Rebecca [review]) has brought him unwanted attention from John the Baptist (Alan Bedel), a prophet in a new religion who also preaches sedition against Rome. While Herod is in service to Rome, he is afraid to move against the Baptist due to an old prophecy and his fears that the preacher may be the Messiah.


Salomé herself recently left Rome, tired of being persecuted and rejected by Roman men as an outsider. She is thus understandably upset to hear that her mother is suffering from small-minded bigotry, as well. Travelling with her is Claudius (Stewart Granger, Caesar and Cleopatra), an emissary sent to check up on Herod. Claudius turns out to be sympathetic to Herod's dilemma, sensing that harming the Baptist would turn the King's subjects against him. The soldier also turns out to be susceptible to Salomé's charms.

The gnarled motivations and backstory of Salomé is largely what makes the movie still interesting. At first I thought it odd that Harry Kleiner and Jesse Lasky Jr.'s script was working so hard to humanize the people who are, essentially, the villains of the piece, but this ends up working toward establishing Christianity as a transformative movement. John the Baptist's message appeals to the fundamental humanity in his oppressors, and it offers redemption to all, including Salomé, who ends up joining his cause. It's her mother who will be the one to demand the prophet's head.


No surprise there, really. Anderson is at her best when she is being selfish and shady. Laughton mainly sleepwalks through yet another bored ruler role, while Granger and Bedel play their parts with a stiff reverence. At times, they serve as little more than props on the elaborate sets, clotheshorses for the fancy costumes. The colorful photography of Charles Lane (Charade [review], Summer and Smoke) eclipses just about everyone. Salomé is a Technicolor delight.


Only Rita Hayworth, with the help of her trademark red hair, manages to stand out. As always, she is lovely, and she wears her gowns with elegance. (Her outfits were designed by Jean Louis, who also made Rita's knockout black dress in Gilda [review].) The actress struggles slightly with Salomé's naïveté, overdoing the wide-eyed routine just a tad. This could just be the downside of playing a character who was considerably younger than she was, even if she somehow still manages to look as fresh-faced and youthful as required. It was interesting to watch this film back-to-back with Miss Sadie Thompson [review], released in the same year. In that one, Hayworth plays a woman of some experience, and she is allowed to show her maturity, both in performance and appearance. You'd swear they were shot at least a decade apart.

The climax of Salomé is Hayworth performing the "Dance of the Seven Veils" to distract Herod. It's an excellent number, with both the costumer and the dancer delivering on the choreography's sensual promise. It's too bad that an uncut version of the routine doesn't exist. It's a crime every time Dieterle breaks away from his star to show the backstage shenanigans. It's Salomé's biggest selling point, and makes the more rickety plotting well worth sitting through.


Sunday, May 10, 2020

THE BIG COUNTRY - CRITERION CHANNEL

This review was originally written in 2011 for DVDTalk.com.


My first encounter with The Big Country was a couple of years ago. I wasn't familiar with William Wyler's 1958 film until George Clooney was talking about how he borrowed a scene from it for Leatherheads [review]. When Clooney's character goes and gets John Krasinski in the middle of the night and takes him outside to settle their differences without anyone else spying in, that's a direct lift from The Big Country. Gregory Peck does the same with Charlton Heston. They need to fight, that's inevitable, but the score is between them, and there is no need for bragging or showboating.

It's a pretty impressive fist fight, with both men whaling on each other until neither of them can stand up. It's also central to understanding Gregory Peck's character in the film, and really, the whole of Wyler's message. Life's hurdles are for each individual to tackle in his or her own way, and though might may sometimes be required, it may not always make right. This didn't all sink in the first time I watched The Big Country, but seeing it again, I am awed by Wyler's expansive transformation of the cowboy epic into a politically relevant tale of personal responsibility and ethics.


The Big Country is based on a novel by Donald Hamilton, perhaps best known now as the creator of the Matt Helm character (Dean Martin played Helm in four movies in the 1960s). Wyler and a team of writers bring Hamilton's book to the screen as a western that is as grand in scope as the open land allows, but as deeply personal as human drama demands. Peck plays James McKay, an East-coast gentleman and former Navy man who travels West to join his fiancée (Caroll Baker, Baby Doll) at her family home. When he arrives, he is immediately out of place. His bowtie and rounded hat say "dude," and the local roughnecks immediately doubt his suitability as husband for one of their own. In particular, Steve Leech (Charlton Heston), the foreman on the girl's family ranch, doesn't like this dandy threatening his own place in the scheme of things.

But it's not just McKay's clothes that set him apart, it's also his attitude. Little did he know that by joining with the Terrill family, he was signing on to a long-running feud between the well-to-do Major Terrill (Charles Bickford, Brute Force [review]) and a neighboring rancher, the less successful Rufus Hannassey (Burl Ives, who won an Oscar for his performance). Their main squabble is over the Big Muddy, the land that separates their properties, a lush spread with a healthy water supply. Since its owner died, leaving the deed to his granddaughter (Jean Simmons, The Robe [review]), each man has fought to get his hands on the property and cut his rival out, even though the woman has every intention of honoring her grandfather's promises and letting both water their cattle on the Big Muddy.


The truth is, neither Terrill nor Hannassey are really fighting over water. Their bitterness goes deep down, and it's indicative of class divides and social ranking. Major Terrill is respected and rich. He calls Hannassey and his boys "the local trash;" Hannassey, in his blistering opening speech, calls Terrill "a high-tone skunk." As McKay learns more about this feud, the murkier the motivations of each man becomes and the obvious first impressions lose their luster. It also becomes harder and harder for McKay to stick to his own principles, as the natural suspicion of outsiders undercuts him at every turn. It would be easy to show up his detractors. When he first arrived on the ranch, Leech tried to haze him by putting him on the farm's most ornery horse. McKay beggared off, though later that day, returned to the corral and kept getting on Old Thunder until it stopped bucking him off. He knew he could do it, he didn't need outside validation.


James McKay is another of Gregory Peck's great screen heroes, a man as philosophically and morally resolute as the progressive reporter he played in Gentleman's Agreement or his career-defining turn as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. Peck is the very embodiment of intelligent masculinity. While watching The Big Country, I texted a friend and said, "Damn, I'd like to have a drink with Gregory Peck." He is stoic and smooth as McKay, displaying plenty of backbone but in a manner that is quietly assertive rather than shouty or violent. He also gets to be funny and romantic, particularly in his scenes with Simmons. There is at least one laugh-out-loud moment when he feigns being queasy during their contest of who has the most gruesome story from their respective adventures.


William Wyler was no stranger to big productions. A decade prior he had made The Best Years of Our Lives, a multi-layered portrait of post-War American life. Though The Big Country doesn't branch out in quite the same way as that film, it is no less impressive in terms of how Wyler handles large themes. He expertly moves from contemporary life to the untouched countryside of America's past, appropriating it as a backdrop where these near-mythic conflicts can play out. The Big Country was photographed by Franz Planer (The Nun's Story, Breakfast at Tiffany's [review]) using the widescreen Technirama process (a Cinemascope knock-off). Wyler and Franz use the gorgeous mountains and untouched plains of California and Arizona as their canvas, drawing their drama under the blue skies and using the grandeur to show both the smallness of human pettiness and also how majestic individual endeavor can be when placed in the context of the big, beautiful world we live in. Their compositions are fantastic, particularly in the final scenes of conflict. Gunmen dot the landscape as far back as the camera eye will permit.

For western fans expecting quick-draw showdowns and black hat/white hat morality, The Big Country likely won't be your thing. For those who want something a bit more enriching, who want to see complicated men wrestle with maintaining a personal code of honor and maybe get a little romance for good measure, then The Big Country is soon to be one of your new personal favorites. As another friend pointed out, this is like The Quiet Man [review] set in the American West, with all the expansiveness such a transplantation implies.