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Posts Tagged ‘John Vernon’

People talk a lot about the decline and even the death of the western as a film genre, despite the fact that they still make cowboy movies, just nowhere near as many as they used to. Just when the genre fell out of favour is relatively easy to determine: as long ago as the late seventies, John Badham was making Outland, which is essentially just a western set on one of the moons of Jupiter, his logic being that it was easier to raise the money for a science fiction film than something with a historical frontier setting.

More evidence for the ‘George Lucas killed the western’ school of thought, perhaps (a little ironic given the western imagery and tropes sprinkled through the first of his stellar conflict movies in particular). If we accept this, we can quite accurately date the Last Days of the Western (as a popular mainstream genre, anyway) to 1976 or 1977 – which, if nothing else, bestows the title of Last Great Traditional Western on Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales, a film better equipped to bear it than almost any other.

Eastwood himself plays Wales, who at the start of the film is a struggling farmer with a wife and young son. But then they are caught up in the savagery of the American civil war: his home is burnt to the ground and his family are killed by Unionist fighters. For a moment the familiar chilly Eastwood mask slips and we see him rendered almost insensible with grief: but then he teaches himself to shoot and  joins up with a Confederacy militia.

As the opening credits end, so does the war: with defeat for the Confederacy. Wales’ commander, Fletcher (a terrific performance by John Vernon, who is rather under-used) has negotiated the terms of their surrender – but Wales cannot yet bring himself to relinquish his hatred, and does not go with the others. This proves to be a wise move, for Fletcher has been sold a pack of lies: the other soldiers are ruthlessly shot down after giving up their arms. Despite an attempted rescue (this yields up the daunting image of a grim-faced Eastwood manning a gatling gun), only Wales and another young man escape, and the lad is grievously injured.

Perhaps not quite realising who they are dealing with, the Union authorities commission Fletcher to hunt Josey Wales down, so he can be killed by Terrill (Bill McKinney) – the man who killed Wales’ family – and his men.

It almost sounds like a chase movie, but for the fact that after a while, Wales isn’t sure he’s being pursued (he does keep running into bounty hunters everywhere he goes, though).  But where is he running to? Nowhere, really: he’s just running. Even this would be easier if he didn’t keep acquiring waifs and strays and misfits on the trail: an aging Cherokee chief with a nice line in dry repartee (Chief Dan George), two settlers heading for a new home in Texas (Paula Trueman and Clint’s then-wife Sondra Locke), and so on. As the chief suggests, Josey Wales is very good at getting rid of people he doesn’t like – but will he find it quite to easy to dispense with people he does genuinely care for?

The context for The Outlaw Josey Wales is interesting. You don’t really need to know anything about the American civil war to follow the story, but if you do know the topic it is immediately apparent this is another film laden with regret regarding the conflict. I always used to think it felt almost as if Hollywood believed that the wrong side won – you can sense that same regret in movies from Gone with the Wind to Cold Mountain – but now I wouldn’t put it quite so strongly. This movie doesn’t concern itself with the causes or politics of the war any more than The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, in which it is just an appropriate backdrop for a cynical tale of adventurous gunmen trying to get rich quick. However, The Outlaw Josey Wales deals with the end of the war, and feels almost post-apocalyptic in places: there is a sense of a shattered civilisation beginning to pull itself back together and rebuild, particularly in terms of the nascent community that Wales finds himself increasingly committed to.

This itself is a bit of a departure considering Eastwood’s role in his films for Sergio Leone was essentially that of the Angel of Death, cooler, faster and meaner than anyone else in the west. The role is almost an operatic cartoon character; what sets the two great westerns Eastwood directed apart is the way in which they examine how a person gets that way (or at least gets to be perceived that way), and – crucially, in the case of this film – if there is a way back to being a human being.

‘We all died a little in that war,’ says Eastwood towards the end of the film, basically encapsulating the theme of the movie. The story is about death, and loss, and grief, and then learning to go beyond it  and find hope somewhere else. At one point, when the climax seems imminent, Wales rides off to single-handedly take on the local native tribe, with little expectation of a safe return – but rather than the bloodbath the audience may be expecting by this point, Eastwood (underplaying masterfully) delivers a quiet speech about the unimportance of governments compared to the reality of people learning to live together in peace, without endless violence. When I first saw this movie it felt like a left turn; now I watch it and it is one of the most moving and powerful scenes I can think of. (Needless to say Eastwood knows his audience and still manages to orchestrate the movie so it concludes with a hum-dinger of a shoot-out.)

That’s the joy of The Outlaw Josey Wales: you get all the stuff you want – Eastwood at the height of his powers, commandingly cool, with great one-liners and superb action – but also a genuinely touching story about a man who has surrendered himself to violence finding the courage to contemplate that, perhaps, there is another way of living. If this movie does mark the end of an era, then it does so in the best possible way, for this is an excellent film.

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Sometimes you hear talk of ‘the imperial phase’, that period of a career or ongoing project where everything is unassailably perfect, invincible, glorious to look upon, breathtaking to consider – pop groups have them, TV series, football teams, even individuals. They seldom last more than a year or so, and the return to the realms of mundane normality is often abrupt and embarrassingly graceless. One minute you’re conquering the world, the next you’re being whipped 5-0 at home to an unseeded team. One minute you’re making The Trouble with Tribbles, then not long after you’re filming Spock’s Brain. And, if you’re Alfred Hitchcock, you can be rewriting the cinema rulebook with Psycho and The Birds, and then only a couple of films later be troubling the world with a project like Topaz.

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This is one of the most obscure of Hitchcock’s later films, and – I am irresistibly tempted to say – deservedly so. Released in 1969, it is an espionage thriller drawn from a based-on-true-events novel by Leon Uris. Hitchcock doing a spy thriller? No obvious cause for alarm there. Hitchcock adapting a book? Well, Psycho started off as a novel, too. But something has gone wrenchingly adrift here.

After opening with jolly scenes of the May Day parade in Moscow, the setting switches to Copenhagen in 1962, where a top Soviet agent defects to the US. Handling the case is CIA man Nordstrom (John Forsythe), who discovers that the USSR is in the process of supplying its allies in Cuba with nuclear weapons, a severe threat to American security. Ooh, those Russians!

So, naturally – and this is perhaps the first sign that this is a film made when a totally different sensibility ruled – the CIA recruit a Frenchman to assist them. He is Devereaux (Frederick Stafford), and he is essentially the protagonist of the movie. The rest of the first act of the film concerns Devereaux’s sneaky attempts to get hold of photos of documents confirming what’s going on in Cuba, an undertaking where most of the risk falls on the agents he employs, principally one played by Roscoe Lee Browne.

So far we’ve seen Forsythe, Stafford, and Browne all effectively take the lead, and the effect is somewhat distancing. Which one of these guys is really the hero? Is this just going to be one of those reportage-style films without a central character? Some degree of conventionality is restored as Devereaux jets off to Cuba to try and get photos of the actual missiles (getting other people to take photos of things seems to be his spy speciality). His chief adversary in his mission is fanatical Communist Parras (John Vernon, who seems mainly to have been cast because he’s terrifically good at brooding behind a Castro beard), but matters are complicated by the fact that Devereaux shares the same mistress as Parras (he really is the most incredibly French man in movie history).

Things resolve themselves in a manner which is notably melodramatic and lacking in tension, and Devereaux heads back to the USA, where – a long way into a film which is not notably in a hurry to go about its business – he learns of the existence of Topaz, a Soviet spy ring inside French intelligence itself. And so… zzzzzzzzzzz….

I’m sorry, but despite having watched this film with the Wikipedia synopsis open in front of me at the time, I still found it almost impenetrably dull to watch and difficult to follow, especially in the concluding act. My researches (all right, Wikipedia again) have revealed that such were the scripting travails of this movie that it was basically being written as it went along at some points, an almost experimental way of working more commonly associated with the outer fringes of the avant garde (or a Steven Seagal DTV movie) than a major studio movie.

Just coming up with a coherent movie under these circumstances can be a challenge so I suppose Hitch is to be applauded for coming up with something which hangs together as much as it does. On the reflection the main issue with Topaz is not that it is particularly hard to follow, just that it is very, very tedious, so much so that it doesn’t really feel like following the plot is worth the effort.

The reasons for this are numerous. There is a rambling, very nearly disjointed plot, a hero who does very little you could actually call heroic, and an almost total lack of set pieces of action, tension or suspense. Hitchcock’s original cut ended with a duel between the hero and villain, but this was apparently considered overlong and discarded in favour of a much more matter-of-fact conclusion in which the bad guy just jets off into Russian exile… and apparently even this only features in certain versions of the film, in others he commits suicide off-screen (the money had run out).

But above all, to a modern viewer Topaz feels extremely dated in a way that the great Hitchcock movies don’t. I suppose the background to the Cuban missile crisis still has potential for traction with a modern audience, but the film only really touches on this before turning into something about the internal affairs of French intelligence. It’s just that the style of the thing is so staid and conservative, the characters so drab and unengaging. This is a movie made the same year as Easy Rider, but it looks like something ten or fifteen years older. There are evil Communists. Every Frenchman has a mistress or two tucked away somewhere. People travel around in open-topped cars by the miracle of back-projection. As a sealed bubble of yesterday, it takes some beating, and more effort to really break into than I found myself able to make as a casual viewer.

There are, I suppose, more problematic Hitchcock movies in terms of their tone and content, and possibly technically worse ones – not that I can think of any off-hand, though. But in the end the biggest problem with Topaz is simply that it is very low in wit, tension, warmth, or humour – in short, it is by far the least entertaining Hitchcock film I can remember seeing. One for completists only.

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