Film review – Shane (George Stevens, 1953)

I’ve never been a huge fan of Westerns. It’s a slight bugbear of mine and I hate to be so sweepingly dismissive of an entire genre, but until recently they’ve always seemed so formulaic and lacking in unique characters.

That’s not to say I don’t have many fond memories of Westerns. My grandfather was a huge fan of any films with cowboys in. Growing up, I lived away from most of my family and so getting to my grandparents’ house was a long journey that would usually have us arriving in the early afternoon, by which point my grandfather would often be settling in to watch a good Western. At the time, the subtleties of the character development or the most intense of standoffs was undoubtedly lost on my pre-teen self.

With the trusted Master of Cinema label now lovingly releasing a select few Western films (with the typical smorgasbord of bonus material to help put the films into context), I’m giving the genre a second chance, if nothing else to prove my smarmy little 10-year-old self that he was wrong all along.

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Shane tells the story of the titular hero, played by Alan Ladd. As the opening credits play out, he rides into a small isolated town in Wyoming to meet the Starrett family. He has a mysterious past but quickly wins their favour before the father Joe (Van Heflin) invites him to stay on their property to help out on the ranch.

Over dinner, he learns that the entire town is being terrorised by Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer) and his gang, who are driving out families one-by-one to gain total control over the land in the area in order to better herd their cattle.

Thus, the story plays out with Shane and Joe forming a stern partnership to rally against the gang and save the town for those families already settled. As the conflict escalates, Shane emerges as the classic lone gunman hero in which the whole town’s hopes lie.

Whilst the story itself is quite familiar, befitting of any good cowboy or samurai film, director George Stevens gets away with the over-idolisation of Shane as the all-American hero by the inclusion of the young Joey Starrett (Brandon deWilde). It is through his eyes that we see everything happen. This has one of two effects. Firstly, it allows Shane to be as formulaic as he needs to be by virtue of the fact that the story can be considered as a retelling of the tale through Joey’s memory of the fact. If that doesn’t sit well as an interpretation, then at the very least the saintly actions of Shane can be seen as a means to leave a positive impression on the child – which he certainly does.

He is clearly a man wrestling with the wrongs of his past, and spends most of the film trying to hide this from the Starrett family. When he finally reveals his gunslinging credentials in front of the Joey, he decides it’s time to move on, presumably to the next place he stumbles upon that needs rescuing.

Whether he makes it to that next town is open to interpretation. Indeed, in the final shootout, he does take what looks like a fairly serious wound to the torso. He plays this down for his final leaving speech for Joey, but as he rides off I couldn’t help but wonder whether he was going to survive. After all, he’s spent the best part of two hours putting a brave face on for every other aspect of his life – he certainly wouldn’t let on to Joey that he was about to die.

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The romantic subplot between Shane and Joe’s wife Marian (Jean Arthur) adds an interesting subtext to the situation. Clearly she is pining for him, and her interest is underlined in every scene they share. It feels a little shallow, and does nothing for Marian as a character as she follows every stereotype in cinematic history. Alas, it was typical of the time and her only purpose is to add some sex appeal to Alan Ladd’s handsome hero.

Shane may be a typical Western, but it is a fine and pure example of the genre that is rightly being held up as one of the best of its kind.

[Note 1] The second screenshot in this review is how the film should look on your widescreen television, with black bars down the left and right sides of the picture. This is due to the aspect ratio used (1.37:1). There is a second aspect ratio available on the disc, though as Adam Naymar explains in the booklet note “Don’t Fence Me In” this is a controversial version of the film. I’ll let you read it for yourselves should you make the purchase.

[Note 2] Below is the theatrical trailer for Shane. It is proof that cinema goers in 1953 cared not for spoilers, as the critical climax of the final scene of the film is included. Quite why this was done is a mystery to me as it completely ruins the entire film, but since the film is now 63 years old I don’t feel it is fair to be angry towards me for including it in this article. After all, I’ve given you fair warning…

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Film review – Day of the Outlaw (Andre De Toth, 1959)

Andre de Toth’s unusually complex Western ‘Day of the Outlaw’ has found its way onto the Master of Cinema label this month as a dual-format release. A forgotten and under-appreciated film, shining the spotlight on it will hopefully mean it finds a much-deserved wider audience.

The film is set in an isolated town called Bitter in Wyoming. The story opens with a couple of men on horses riding towards the camera in a frosty snow storm. It is a clever opening scene by De Toth, setting up the rugged main character Blaise Starrett (Robert Ryan) with the ominous line, “I’m through with being reasonable.” We know he’s got a bone to pick with someone, with the assumption that we’re going to find out who and why pretty quickly. That we do.

What is essentially a boundry dispute about the location of a barbed wire fence reveals a hidden layer of complication when we learn that Blaise is having an affair with Helen Crane (Tina Louise), wife to Hal (Alan Marshal) of said boundry dispute. She seems absolutely loyal to her husband despite evidently being in love with Blaise.

As tensions continue to rise, the two men end up in a standoff that will likely lead to one or both being killed. This is poleaxed by the arrival of an out-of-town gang headed up by Jack Bruhn (Burl Ives), who pose a much greater threat to the men, their wives, their land and their livelihood.

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At 92 minutes long and a reported budget of just $400,000 (a little over $3m in 2016), De Toth has to work with what he has and work fast. It’s a great achievement that this was done so well, especially in what appears to be torrid weather conditions. Characters are fully realised despite often not being afforded enough screen time to develop them. A good example of this is young gang member Gene (David Nelson), who goes through an internal psychological journey in what amounts to about 10 minutes of screen time.

The film was cited by Quentin Tarantino as a reference point in the run up to The Hateful Eight and it’s easy to see the resemblance [1]. The opening sequence was a direct homage to Day of the Outlaw, with a long shot allowing the lead character(s) to naturally approach through a snow storm to join the viewer at the front of the screen. The secluded setting in increasingly worse weather, high tensions, conflicting characters having to live side-by-side whilst the story unfolds. Nothing is stolen, but it is clearly a film Tarantino rates.

Ryan’s Blaise makes a fantastic focal point around which the film plays out. He is a man who stands by his own morals. His affair with Helen is justified by him essentially saying he has no respect for her husband and thinks she deserves better. He undertakes an openly noble act of self-sacrifice for the good of the townspeople he thinks little of, though refuses to take any credit for it. He is the film’s only hero and he plays it coolly throughout. It isn’t Ryan’s most celebrated role but one worthy of a second look if you’re a fan.

Day of the Outlaw may be a flawed film but there’s enough on offer for fans of the anti-Western subgenre that seems to have found its way back to popular interest following the likes of Django Unchained, The Hateful Eight and The Revenant. If you liked any of these films then this is worth checking out.

[1] In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Tarantino stated, “I can definitely say that as bleak as our movie is, we are definitely the funniest snow Western ever made. This is funnier than The Great Silence, it’s funnier than Day of the Outlaw.” Quite what he means by this isn’t exactly clear. There isn’t much humour in Day of the Outlaw.

The Skull (Freddie Francis, 1965)

Freddie Francis’s 1965 Amicus Productions film The Skull was recently restored and released by Eureka Entertainment in the UK. It’s perhaps not the most gripping of horror films ever made, but with the classic pairing of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing in the leads roles it offers a lot to fans of Amicus and Hammer.

The film follows Christopher Maitland (Cushing), an antiques dealer with a penchant for the obscure and curious, particularly pertaining to the occult. He acquires the valuable skull of Marquis de Sade, a man we learn about in the opening prelude set over 100 years previous. The skull has been stolen from Sir Matthew Philips (Lee), a fellow antiques dealer. Valuable though the skull is, Philips has no interest in reclaiming it, for reasons that are initially unapparent.

  
When watched alongside modern horror films, The Skull may be hard to appreciate. This is to do with pacing. Watching a horror film celebrating its 50th anniversary needs to be watched with a mindfulness of the context. The cheap shots and by-the-numbers techniques used today are nowhere to be seen. The horror in a film like this is drawn from the suspense built up by every element of the film working together and a quality acting performance of the lead character. You simply can’t view any film like this out of the context of the landscape of cinema at the time of original release.

Lee is atypically subdued in his performance as Sir Matthew Philips. It is a supporting role but it’s really worth checking out to see him portraying someone likeable for a change.

The plaudits should go to Cushing though. He carries it towards a tremendous climax in a film that actually has almost no dialogue for the final act. He may have more popular roles – or indeed more mainstream roles – but this is an off-the-radar performance that warrants at least one viewing to underline his acting credentials.

Enhancing Cushing’s performance is some excellent camerawork and framing from director Francis and cinematographer John Wilcox. It’s all about intelligence in angles and getting close enough to feel the sheer panic on Maitland’s face as the cursed skull becomes increasingly threatening. They do such a great job that the skull becomes a character itself, especially when we’re seeing the world through its empty eye sockets.

A thoroughly enjoyable horror film for anyone looking for an unusual and obscure Cushing-Lee release.

The Skull is available to purchase on Eureka Blu-ray now.

Note: The poster I used for the featured image of this article was by the excellent Andy Potts. His website is full of fantastic posters he’s done for various reasons. Check it out.

Paper Moon (Peter Bogdanovich, 1973)

One of the most sure-fire ways of making an enjoyable and effective film is to ensure the chemistry between the two lead characters is strong. What better way to achieve this than by casting a father and daughter in what is essentially a buddy film?

In Paper Moon, we follow the story of tomboy orphan Addie Loggins (Tatum O’Neal) as she is taken under the wing of con-man Moses Pray as he agrees to take her from her mother’s funeral to her aunt’s house in Missouri. She is convinced he is her real father, a point that is hinted at throughout, despite his continued denial of the fact. One thing that they’re both convinced of, however, is that they make a great pair as a scamming duo, going door-to-door convincing recent widows that their recently deceased husbands had ordered them a personalised bible. This serves as an excuse for them to go on a prolonged adventure of dishonesty, an adventure that seems far more appealing than their other limited options.

The chemistry between the O'Neals is excellent.

The chemistry between the O’Neals is excellent.

Much was made at the time – and has been since – of Tatum O’Neal’s performance. Indeed, she remains to this day the youngest person to win an Academy Award for Acting. At 1 hour, 6 minutes and 58 seconds, it is also the longest performance to receive a Supporting Actor/Actress Academy Award. It is playful and at times unintentionally comedic, but the playoffs with father Ryan are brilliant to watch. One memorable scene involves a long one-shot as they drive and argue, both livid at each other before turning it around to agree despite their tones still being that of an argument. It’s almost so good it doesn’t feel like they’re acting, although it allegedly took 39 takes over two days to get right.

One thing the film never answers is the question of whether the two are really father and daughter. The decision is made instead to leave it open as they head off into the sunset, presumably to continue much as they did in this film (a relationship explored in a panned TV sitcom spin-off series starring Jodie Foster). It is a nice decision – the fact they need each other, either as a father figure or as a driver to act responsibly, is to them more important than finding out this truth, at least at this stage in their relationship.

The bonus features are worth watching and provide a valuable insight into the making of the picture. The highlight is an anecdote involving Tatum repeatedly fluffing a line, resulting in her father having to eat countless amounts of waffles, much to the delight of Tatum. In fact, this was deemed so important as an example of their chemistry that the outtake was incorporated into the original trailer.

The cinematography by the Hungarian László Kovács adds a great deal to the authenticity of the film and its success in recreating 1935 Kansas. Coupled with a timeless soundtrack and a great attention to detail in the scenery and costumes, the result is that it transports the viewer completely into the environment, adding further embellishment to the excellent performances of both stars and their supporting cast.

A unique film with a lot to offer even the most ambivalent of viewers, this is one of the best re-releases of the year.

Paper Moon is available on Masters of Cinema Blu-ray now.

青春残酷物語 / Cruel Story of Youth (Nagisa Oshima, 1960)

Released in 1960, Nagisa Oshima’s cutting critique of Japanese outsider youth culture was an unexpected success upon its original release, amid controversy and criticism over its content. Viewed now in its glorious 4K scan restoration by Shochiku, it is an enjoyable, if flawed, experience.

It is the story of high-school girl Makoto (Miyuki Kuwano), who we first see being advanced on by a sleazy middle-aged man. She is saved from being sexually assaulted by Kiyoshi (Yusuke Kawazu), a university student. As their unconventional romance blossoms, so too does their alienation from the society around them, running a corrupt business that involves using Makoto to lead men on, only for Kiyoshi to appear and demand payment to keep them from going to the police.

An unusually morose ending to the film.

An unusually morose ending to the film.

Clearly this isn’t an ideal way to build a relationship and it is by no means a traditional love story. It does make for an interesting dynamic for our two leads. At least, it would do but for an underwhelming performance by Kawano. Whilst Kawazu perfectly plays the disillusioned and rebellious student on the cusp of either prison, gang warfare or death, his female counterpart struggles with the dynamics that the role demands.

In a memorable early scene, soon after Kiyoshi saves Makoto, he takes her to the local docklands, forces himself on her, then threatens to drown her. It’s an uncomfortable scene to watch due to the nature of the content, but her efforts to make it look like she’s struggling to swim let the scene down. It’s also not very convincing that she is either desperate to avoid his advances, nor is the contrast to her giving in particularly stark.

This is all filmed in a brilliantly bold colour wash by Ôshima, which creates an unusual but impressive contrast to the wholly depressing content of the film. The negativity contained in the social commentary surrounding outsider youths became a staple of Ôshima’s later films. Whilst it isn’t a masterpiece, it is not without merit.

The package offered by Eureka and Masters of Cinema makes this release another great value for money Blu-ray. The transfer is top class and the booklet and extensive discussion with scholar Tony Rayns give a massive insight into the film. It’s rather like a short film study course on the film. If you can find an equivalent for around £10 then you’re doing well.

青春残酷物語 / Cruel Story of Youth is available on Blu-ray now.

Stalag 17 (Billy Wilder, 1953)

Billy Wilder made a habit of directing films that are arguably the quintessential examples of their genre. In 1944’s Double Indemnity he defined the film noir genre. Then in 1950 Sunset Boulevard hit the big screen, perhaps the best film to ever tackle Hollywood itself. With Stalag 17, a film released in 1953, he directed what many people consider to be the greatest Prisoner of War (POW) film ever released. Of course, fans of The Bridge on the River Kwai and The Great Escape may argue the toss, but Stalag 17 is up there with the best of them.

One of the most memorable scenes of the film, expertly framed.

One of the most memorable scenes of the film, expertly framed.

Set in 1944, the film focuses on the titular Luftwaffe POW camp where 640 American captured sergeants reside alongside Polish, Czech and Russian captives. It is narrated by Clarence “Cookie” Cook (Gil Stratton), reminiscing on his time in the camp. The opening sequence shows two men trying to escape from the camp, whilst the remaining men in their block argue with Sefton (William Holden) about their potential success at escaping as he takes their bets. As the only person sure of their failure, Sefton wins a large supply of cigarettes from his comrades. As the men come around to the thought that their failure may have been caused by a tip off to one of the Nazi officers, suspicion falls on the ever-cynical Sefton, who appears to be profiting nicely from various trades and deals far more than anyone else held captive. Unwilling to protest his innocence, Sefton resolves to find the real informer and expose him before another there are any more casualties.

What strikes most prominently about this film is its inclination towards comedy. It is certainly rooted in the seriousness of being held as a POW in Nazi Germany, but the comradeship and light-heartedness with which the Americans deal with their situation sets it apart from other films in this genre. It doesn’t just stop at the relationship between those of the same nationality. Indeed, it takes on quite a comical depiction of the relationship between the guards and the captives, illustrating a softer side to the Nazi officers that is seldom depicted elsewhere.

As the film progresses, however, the comical aspects fade somewhat to allow the seriousness of the situation to take centre stage. This contrast is less harsh than, say, Life is Beautiful (Roberto Benigni, 1997), but it works perfectly. The light-heartedness encourages the viewer to warm to all the characters quicker than would have otherwise been possible and by the time the final act plays out the tension is at its peak.

William Holden rightly won an Oscar for his performance as Sefton, spoiling the party that year for the likes of Marlon Brando (Julius Caeser) and Richard Burton (The Robe). The popularity of the film can be put down to two factors at the time. Firstly, the film was withheld from release until 1953 because Paramount Pictures didn’t believe anyone would be interested in a POW film; only when the release of prisoners following the end of the Korean War did it have a widespread political context (both the US release and the end of the Korean War occurred in July 1953). Secondly, the backdrop of the film industry itself was focused on the Hollywood Blacklist, a list of those industry professionals considered to be supportive of communism. This was at its height in 1953, but no studios would dare release a film to directly tackle these issues. The storyline of a lone man being singled-out by his peers based on false circumstantial evidence will no doubt have gained extra resonance against this ongoing issue.

Stalag 17 deserves to be seen, for its excellent performances, magnificent direction and historical relevance. With it being a Masters of Cinema release, there has never been a better time to check it out.

Stalag 17 is available to purchase now from Masters of Cinema on Blu-Ray.

Shohei Imamura Masterpiece Collection – Preview

This week Masters of Cinema announced the release of a new boxset titled Shohei Imamura Masterpiece Collection. So what does it contain and is it worth a purchase?

The box contains eight films, all of which have already been released before. The contents are as follows:

盗まれた欲情 / Stolen Desire (1958)
西銀座駅前 / Nishi Ginza Station (1958)
豚と軍艦 / Pigs and Battleships (1961)
にっぽん昆虫記 / The Insect Woman (1963)
人間蒸発 / A Man Vanishes (1967) – DVD only
神々の深き欲望 / Profound Desires of the Gods (1968)
復讐するは我にあり / Vengeance is Mine (1979)
楢山節考 / The Ballad of Narayama (1983)

In the Blu-ray era of Masters of Cinema, only three other boxsets have been released. The first was the three-film Martin Scorsese Presents World Cinema Foundation Volume One boxset, the second was the excellent Late Mizoguchi boxset and the final was the Shoah five-film boxset. All are worthwhile boxes to buy full of new films that hadn’t seen the light of day prior to their release (apart from the Mizoguchi release, which only had four  newly-transferred-to-HD films out of eight).

For those with any or all of the contents of this newly announced box, it no doubt represent a disappointing announcement. I was aware there was a gap in the numbering of the Masters of Cinema Blu-Ray releases, between 120 Medium cool and 129 Dragon Inn, so I was hoping that an eight-film director-centric boxset would be announced. Having just got back into Imamura I was underwhelmed when I realised the boxset would contain eight films, seven of which I already own on Blu-Ray.

That said, the films include one Palme d’Or winner, two Blue Ribbon Best Film winners, Imamura’s debut film and some excellent insights into the career of a film director considered to be one of the greatest ever to come out of Japan. Not every film is amongst his best – notably Nishi Ginza Station is fairly poor – but if you have a copy of both The Eel and Black Rain (not Masters of Cinema) then you’ll have pretty much all of his most important works. It spans his entire career and represents the only way in the UK to get any of his films on Blu-Ray.

Importantly, it is rumoured that this will be the last chance to buy these films as part of the Masters of Cinema releases as they have let the rights lapse on them. If this is true, and you don’t have these films yet, then this is a must-buy.

The Shohei Imamura Masterpiece Collection boxset is available for pre-order now.