Friday, January 19, 2018

The Overlook Film Encyclopedia: The Western

This behemoth of a source for Western film edited by Phil Hardy strives to give us reference and critical evaluation of practically every Western produced between 1929 and 1990.

Do some films fall through the cracks? Well, yes, it is inevitable that such a thing would occur with such a monumental task, but that doesn’t make this book any less a valuable resource.

Of particular use, to this this reader at least, are the Appendices in the back of the book—notably Appendix 4 which offers Top Ten Lists [and higher numbers] from 17 critics and other scholars of the Western film to guide you to more than a few undiscovered treasures.

Also of note, Appendix 6: Selected Sound Westerns and Their Novel Sources that allows the interested Western reader to track down novels that inspire their favorite films and vice versa.

An invaluable resource for Western aficionados.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Sweeney's Honor

A man who limps is still on his feet.”

This is another rugged, sweaty and gritty tale from Brian Garfield. Lt. Thomas Sweeney, a one-armed Irishman is charged with holding a desolate crossing on the Colorado River with only 10 unhappy men at his disposal. He’s got outlaws on one side and Yuma Indians on the other ready to take that crossing.

This fast novel is from Garfield’s later period where he has refined the down and dirty gritty style that compares favorably with Elmore Leonard’s work.

I enjoyed this one a good deal, but if one is new to Garfield, might I suggest starting with Tripwire [reviewed on this very blog] for some lean and mean one-man army fun.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Quote of the Week

"I have always believed the Western people to be much truer than the Eastern people. We in the East are overcome a good deal by a detestable, superficial culture which I think is the real barbarianism. Culture in it's true sense, I take it, is a comprehension of the man at one's shoulders. It has nothing to do with an adoration for effete jugs and old kettles."-Stephen Crane

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Bitter Sage

“I’ve got the revolver,” Vesser reminded.

“I wish you didn’t have it.” Tancred hesitated. “You’ve fired a gun, Mr. Vesser. And you’ve probably hit your target.”

“I’m better with a rifle.”

“You’re not better than they are,” Tancred said, earnestly. “There’s a difference in shooting at a deer and—and a man. You have an aversion to killing—any normal man has—and whether you’d want to or not, you’d hesitate before actually pulling the trigger on a human being, They won’t. They’re killers.”

This brisk 1954 novel from Frank Gruber tells of Wes Tancred, a sort of stand in for Bob Ford, of killing Jesse James fame. We follow Tancred as he tries to live down a reputation of having killed his own legendary outlaw.

This brief novel clocks in at a mere 144 pages, and while not world-shaking in novelty, it plays the old game well and is not a bad way to spend a winter afternoon.

Monday, January 15, 2018

A Conversation With Scott Von Doviak

Scott Von Doviak is a pop culture writer for the Onion’s AV Club and former film critic for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He has written three books on film and television (Hick Flicks, If You Like The Terminator, and Stephen King Films FAQ) and contributed to the 2017 collection Approaching Twin Peaks: Critical Essays on the Original Series. His debut novel Charlesgate Confidential will be published in 2018 by Hard Case Crime. He lives in Austin, Texas.

First things first, I want to thank you for your book Hick Flicks—I absolutely loved it. With that said, would you mind telling us what made you decide to devote so much effort to what is, admittedly, a niche genre?

 It was a book I wanted to read until I found out it didn’t exist and decided I would have to write it myself. I had been to an outdoor screening of Deliverance complete with canoe trip, and before the movie started there were all these trailers for ‘70s B-movies about moonshiners and truckers and swamps. I remembered some of them from my childhood and it occurred to me that this was a genre unto itself.

Could you sum up a definition of the genre for the uninitiated?

 Everyone knows about blaxploitation, a B-movie genre that peaked in the ‘70s. Those movies appealed to an urban audience, but at the same time stuff like Shaft and Superfly was playing inner city grindhouses, rural drive-ins were flooded with cheaply-produced action movies, mostly set in the South with good ol’ boy heroes pitted against redneck sheriffs. This was hixploitation (a term that’s been incorrectly attributed to me by some, though it pre-dates Hick Flicks).

The genre, to my eyes, in some cases has an element of the Western to it. A bit of Southern Pride, yes, but often it seems to be a sort of offshoot of wild and wooly story-telling. This dialogue from Sam Peckinpah’s Convoy encapsulates what I am referring to:

They’re all following you,” MacGraw monotones.

“No they ain’t,” Kristofferson gravels. “I’m just in front.”

I may have cherry-picked there as Peckinpah was a Western legend in both film and the small screen, but do you see that connection, or am I reaching?

 I don’t think you’re reaching. These are Southerns rather than Westerns, and the stagecoach has been replaced by the eighteen-wheeler, but many of the tropes transfer over pretty easily. There’s a tendency to glorify the macho loner figure and pit him against authorities that are frequently corrupt. It’s no coincidence that Peckinpah was drawn to Convoy.

I love how generous you are with your judgments. The genre has no pretensions to art, although it may hit it now and again as with Deliverance, but you admirably take the genre on its own terms. In many cases, if the film is fast, sweaty, and has a least a chuckle or two it may have done its job. With there being so many dogs in this genre were there times that you thought to yourself, “Good Lord, I can’t take seeing another one of these”?

 All the time. I wrote the book around 2002-03, which was before the dawn of streaming, and I’m fortunate enough to live in Austin which still has a couple of thriving video stores but had more of them at the time. I’d pile up these VHS copies of things like Dixie Dynamite and The Pigkeeper’s Daughter, and I’d get some pretty strange looks at the checkout counter. I’d say the low point was my 24-hour marathon of hillbilly horror, which I chronicle in diary form in the book. Once I’d survived the likes of Blood Salvage and three Texas Chainsaw sequels, I knew I could make it through anything.

You being the expert what films would make the Scott Von Doviak Hick Flick Hall of Fame? Say a good top 5 picks.

1.      Deliverance, the one that started it all for me and probably still in my top 20 movies of all time.

2.      The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, the Tobe Hooper original, a grimy masterpiece that transcends the hillbilly horror genre.

3.      Songwriter, a supremely underrated Willie Nelson vehicle loosely based on his own legend

4.      Smokey and the Bandit, a childhood favorite that still holds up as a thoroughly enjoyable comedic chase flick

5.      Southern Comfort, Walter Hill’s semi-ripoff of Deliverance that generates incredible suspense and tension in its own right

Let’s flip that over, can you name a few films that were so mind-numbingly awful you wanted to cry waiting for the third act?

 Too many to count. One that made me feel like I was losing my mind is Poor Pretty Eddy, also known as Redneck County Rape, among other titles. Lesley Uggams plays a singer whose car breaks down in a scary hillbilly town, with results both predictable and otherwise. As I said in the book, “It’s the kind of movie David Lynch might make if something heavy fell on his head.”

The genre is often cars, crashes, girls—rinse, wash, repeat, but there are more than a few sideroads taken, as in RVers vs. devil-worshippers in Race with the Devil. Can you name a few more films that may not necessarily be good, but you have an admiration for the “Wait till you get a load of this premise”?

 One particular subgenre that fascinates me is “Soul Winners,” which were shown at revival meetings in order to scare people back to the Lord. I definitely wouldn’t call them good, but they can be pretty deranged. There’s one called If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do? about a communist takeover of the United States in which a soldier tells a roomful of Bible students that if they want to pray for candy, they should pray to Fidel Castro instead of Jesus. And it works!

Did the project leave you with an admiration for the genre or did it sate you for life?

 I still have an affectionate for it, which is good because I’m sort of tied to it now. People are still discovering the book, and every now and then I’m contacted for comment about some hixploitation-related development, so I guess I’m the “Hick Flicks” guy for life now.

There have been a few recent films that fit the Hick Flick definition since publication, such as Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky. Any other films of recent vintage that you would love to include in a second edition?

 I used to keep a list in case I ever got the chance to do a revised or expanded edition of the book, but it doesn’t seem like that’s going to happen. In the years since the book was published, Winter’s Bone was one of the best, and I definitely enjoyed Logan Lucky. Nowadays, though, hixploitation is mostly found on reality TV, and it’s pretty depressing.

Again, I admire how you tackled a genre that has received little to no attention. Are there other genres that you wouldn’t mind shining a spotlight on? Biker flicks, Indiansploitation as in Billy Jack, et cetera.

 I’ve done a book on Stephen King adaptations and another on The Terminator and its influences, and from time to time I’ve pondered a book on Texas crime movies. I’m focused on writing fiction for now, though.

What’s next in the pipeline for Scott Von Doviak?

 My debut novel, Charlesgate Confidential, will be published in September 2018 by Hard Case Crime. It’s inspired by a famous Boston art heist and unfolds in three different time periods, with many twists and turns.

Scott, thanks for taking the time, best of luck to you in all of your ventures!

Thanks, Mark! I appreciate your interest in Hick Flicks.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Television Westerns Episode Guide

This huge volume from Harris M. Lentz III covers all United States TV Western Series from 1949-1996.

180 series in all are covered where we get network, stars and a brief plot synopsis for every single episode of a series. Keep in mind these are non-critical episode synopses of the thumbnail capsule variety and not of the in-depth criticism kind. But that is a small quibble when you realize the monumental amount of information within these covers.

It’s allowed me to check-off episodes of old favorites as I renew my acquaintance [The Loner & The Westerner come to mind] and to find a few undiscovered gems that were totally off my radar [my ignorance of Robert Culp’s easy charm in Trackdown, for example.]

If you like TV Westerns, this volume is well-nigh indispensable.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

The Ruthless Gun

“When the horse topped the hill, the angry sound of the Rio Despacio rose sudden and peremptory. The soft patter of rain had been long ago absorbed into the silence of the countryside that lay bleak and cold in the half-light of sunless dusk as though the rain had washed its color away.”

I may have just read a novel by an alcoholic. This T. C. Lewellen Western from 1964 has passages that are as good as any novel I’ve read: Honest, human heart-breaking insight. And there are sweeping sections that I haven’t the faintest clue what the hell is going on.

It’s not that it becomes fantastical it’s just that the beautiful coherence dissolves into slipshod chaos. Each time I think I’ll toss the book, the author slips back into a bit of beauty.

An odd one indeed.  A+ in passages but the schizoid nature makes this rough going.

The Overlook Film Encyclopedia: The Western

This behemoth of a source for Western film edited by Phil Hardy strives to give us reference and critical evaluation of practically ever...