Friday, September 9, 2022

The Big Screen: The Professionals


“Maybe there’s only been one revolution—the good guys against the bad guys.

The question is, who are the good guys?”

Now, we’re talking!

A seriously entertaining film that holds up to repeated viewings, while not as A-level as The Dirty Dozen, The Great Escape, or The Magnificent Seven this is of a feather, a “Gather together, Crew, we have a job to do” tale that more than holds its own.

Written and directed by Richard Brooks from the novel A Mule for the Marquesa by the mighty talented Frank O’Rourke, this is a cynical testosterone dripping saga of the sweaty southwest.

The cast features Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan, Woody Strode, Jack Palance but…

To my eye, what lifts this film, elevates it, is Lee Marvin.

Marvin practically carries this film on his back with an easy lived-in nonchalance.

Don’t get me wrong, the cast is quite good—Lancaster is at his charming “I’m Burt Lancaster” best but, it is Marvin’s almost invisible believability that drives this engine.

Each stance, each step seems to result in a position of “Can do, will do” without ever being a pose, without ever being a performance.

It is easy to point to action scenes to illustrate what works well in this film but, allow me to direct you to a simple scene. At one point, Marvin and Lancaster are made privy to a plot shift that alters their perception of what their mission is all about—Lancaster reacts like, well, an actor whereas Marvin, he takes like a man who is honestly surprised.

A tremendously entertaining film with one of the great closing lines of all time, which I shall not spoil here.

Dial it up—you’ll be pleased.

Small Screen Icons: Robert Culp in Trackdown


Two recent dips into Robert Culp prove the actor is always capable even if the material he is offered is not up to snuff.

This first season episode, “Like Father” penned by John Robinson and directed by John English is in the form of a small moral lesson regarding an outlaw and his loyal son.

It is the sort of thing that the similarly produced Rifleman did often and did well.

Here, it is not done badly but there is simply nothing special to distinguish it even with Culp’s efforts.

My vote, watch Hannie Caulder again.

Small Screen Icons: Robert Culp on Bonanza


Robert Culp, was no stranger to the genre having been the star of Trackdown, portraying Texas Ranger, Hoby Gilman.

To my mind, and to Quentin Tarantino’s mind, his portrayal of gunfighter Thomas Luther Price in 1971’s Hannie Caulder is the epitome of cool.

Culp always has heft as an easy calm cool presence and on occasion offers some remarkably able gun handling skills.

With that said, I looked forward to seeing his visit to the Bonanza series.

That visit came in “Broken Ballad” a season three offering, written by John T. Kelly and directed by Robert Butler.

Unfortunately, this is a rather formulaic “Gunfighter returns to home town to hang up his guns” trope. The difference here is that Culp carries a guitar rather than a gun.

The guitar allows both Culp and Pernell Roberts show off a bit of musical skills.

The performers are fine, the episode is fine, it is simply hampered by story beats that can be predicted on a minute by minute basis.

All involved have done better work.

Wednesday, September 7, 2022

Small Screen Icons: Charles Bronson on Bonanza


I never make a secret of the fact that I am a dyed in the wool Charles Bronson fan. With that said I will make the occasional sojourn into his Western work, particularly his lesser seen guest appearances on television.

We begin with an episode of Bonanza from the 6th season [1964-65] titled The Underdog.

It was written by Don Mullally and directed by occasional Western author William F. Claxton.

As per usual, no spoilers.

Here we have Bronson as Comanche half-breed Harry Starr seeking work on the Ponderosa.

The story is one of apparent prejudice—to say more than that would do disservice to those who choose to view it. I will say, I was caught by pleasant surprise by the turn of events.

The episode really gives Bronson a chance to shine, we have more nuances than we usually expect from the “stoic” actor. We have smiles, we have a bit of cowed behavior, we have virile acting.

I call attention to the many bareback mounts that he makes throughout the episode—some of them one-handed, with an easy lithe agility that tells you, “Yeah, this guy is a Hoss of an athlete.”

Bronson himself is quite good as is the rest of the cast.

The episode has heft and a meat on the bones heart that is seldom seen anymore.

I dialed it up for Bronson alone and wound up enjoying it top to bottom.

Tuesday, September 6, 2022

A Texan Came Riding by Frank O’Rourke


The fresh smell of mint was in the air. Kearney had crushed some between his fingers as he rose from drinking, and he lingered in the juniper shade with lemon sunlight filtering through the branches across his face, remembering other years when fresh, bright smells brought a surge of fresh joy to life. What was it about mint, and mown hay, and honey and apples and spice, that made happiness grow stronger? Was it the simple joy of living fully, or the senses reacting with typical human greed to rich smells? He did not know and he could never make the spent pilgrimage again; youth’s fine-honed edge of enjoyment was dulled beyond full repair.

O’Rourke is easily one of my favorite western authors, yet I must profess an odd relationship with his work.

The opening passage embodies so much of what I love about his work: deeply and richly observed with full sensory involvement.

Add to that the soul of a wistful poet, a man who seems to always remind us, “This moment is all we got, don’t take it for granted.”

The first third of this novel is simply extraordinary, far above formula fare—the problem, and this holds for many of his novels, there comes a point when the author seems to say, “Well, I guess I gotta speed this thing up and get all about the plot.”

It is this rushed feel that disappoints [this reader at least.] Too bad--he plots well, perhaps he simply required longer than the usual 170 pages to say what he really wanted.

With that said, the novel is a fine one, but I prefer the more measured tone that begins it.

Now, let’s forget my quibbles and close with another of his remarkable passages fraught with insight.

Eating, Kearney saw the blindness in the man across the table. Living was nothing more than making the shift from one kind of existence to another. He’d done it, others had, but it seemed that Malcolm cheated because he carried his own personal being from place to place. And that was worse in many ways than such men as Shaffer who, going broke, just picked up the scraps, moved on to another existence, broke completely with the past and made the best of the present. Malcom’s life was empty because Malcolm brought his own world into the personal existence of others and, instead of accepting and respecting their world at least on the surface, laughed at them and imposed his own while making them dry. Malcolm was cheating the world but, ironically, he was cheating himself worst of all. He always had, he always would, and one day when he was an old, old man—if he survived—he would find life so bleak and thin and lonely that his hell on earth would encircle him, and make him yearn for death. And that was just when nature played her trump card on such a man, kept him dangling by one weak heartbeat, one half-ruptured blood vessel, one soft blood clot, until he felt transparent as glass and received less from life for all his fat years than the saddest, poorest man in the world.

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

Mojave Guns by Roe Richmond


They jogged onward in the eerie brilliance of moonlight and starshine, breaking the stillness with the chop of hoofs, the rustling creak of leather, jingling bridles and clinking metal, the grunt of horses and the breathing of men. Alkali dust spiraled up, and shod hoofs struck occasional sparks off the stones. A coyote howled sorrowfully and was answered from afar. An owl hooted and then another. When Raven halted the column, they could hear the faint stir and scrape of small earth creatures. The air smelled of blistered sand and rock, greasewood, sage, and once in a while the pure breath of pines.

My first by this author, and a curious one for me. That opening selection is typical of the excellent renderings of scenery and the punishing feel of conducting campaigns in such conditions.

Yet, most all else is a fairly rote cavalry tale related almost indifferently, that is, compared with the skill shown in the “Men in landscape” sections.

The author shows such skill in some sections, and then seems rushed and detail skipping on others.

Most curious in that the demerits are not from lack of ability.

Not at all.

Another selection.

The sun soared higher in the molten blue, and the heat became barbarous, brutal in its intensity. Drenched in sweat, silted Confederate gray with dust, the column toiled on across the barren broken plains of Hellsgate toward the principal range of the Osages. Girths frothed white, saddle-leather scorched through uniform pants, rifle barrels burned the most calloused palms. Lips were parched and split to the texture of scar tissue, each lower one with its central gash, eased only by leaves of chewing tobacco. Eyes sank ever deeper into blackened, hollow-cheeked skulls of faces. Misery grew in the harassed ranks until death seemed almost welcome, if it could come in one quick flash.

Again, the land lives and breathes in a way that the people within do not.

Most curious.

Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Robbers by Christopher Cook


Ray Bob said, You ever watch westerns? That sounds just like a line out of a western. Outlaw shows up to see his old runnin buddy, and the little woman says, He’s changed. He don’t want your kind of life no more. Why don’t you just go on, leave us alone? And if he’s a good outlaw, he understands and rides off and you feel sorry for him, being all alone again. But if he’s a bad outlaw, he hangs around waiting, playing with his gun, making her all nervous. Ever notice that?

Here we have a Neo-Western complete with outlaws and a dogged Texas Ranger. It is unapologetically violent, but there is no “romance of violence” here. It portrays violence for what it is, stark and senseless.

Even our “heroes” are reflective of real-life, nobody’s perfect and often those we ask to protect and or fight for us may not fit the “shining armor” ideal but…they sometimes get the job done.

“You the first Ranger I ever met, he said. Rule grinned. Well, they say we’re something special. That’s PR mostly. Deep down inside, I’m the same as anyone else. The sheriff hooked his thumbs in his gunbelt. Nodding thoughtfully at the apparent sagacity of that remark, at its implied candor. I’m a regular sonofabitch, Rule said. Why I work alone. Nobody can stand me.”

The novel is no mere genre piece, it approaches literature without straying into pretension.

It stands in the middle-ground between Stephen Hunter’s elevated noir of Dirty White Boys and Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men.

The novel can be thought of as Hell or High Water without the redeeming motive.

Along the way we are treated to ideas that bring one up short as in this observation from a Texas honky-tonk owner.

Cause you a roots man, Bubba Bear was saying, off on another run, cause you’re not modern, post-modern, avant pop, all that wonka-wonka jive. World’s gone theoretical, friend, vicarious and abstract. Image over substance. Folks bored of the real thing, not that they see it much. They disconnected from the past, their own nature. But not you. Am I right or wrong? Eddie said he reckoned so, one way or the other. Bubba Bear grinned. You’re sharp, Rufus, you got that inborn native intelligence. Comes from having your feet on the ground. All that black Mississippi mud between your toes, the wisdom of the gut. You’re not a spectator, man, you’re a creator. I built my soul a lordly pleasure-house, wherein at ease forever to dwell. That’s Tennyson. I celebrate myself and sing myself. Whitman, another roots man. What I’m saying, friend, is you’re too busy creating the universe to pay attention to the ancillary bullshit. You’re rooted. Otherwise you’d be living secondhand sucking off TV and pop music, reading People magazine, have a soul about as big as my left nut. Know what you’d be? Eddie allowed he wasn’t sure but had a notion. That’s right, Bubba Bear rolled on, a consumer. A corporate subject. Someone whose sole allegiance is to money. Someone who lives within the borders of his debt in permanent exile. Make it, spend it, finance the difference, living on the installment plan. Eats what they throw at him, says yum-yum. Garbage, his only creation.

An unapologetically real journey.

Highest marks for this reader.

The Big Screen: The Professionals

  “Maybe there’s only been one revolution—the good guys against the bad guys. The question is, who are the good guys?” Now, we’re talkin...