Why I Can’t Quite Call Unforgiven One of the Great Westerns

I first saw Unforgiven soon after its 1992 release. Everyone else was calling it a masterpiece, but I was deeply disappointed. Last Saturday, no longer remembering clearly why I didn’t like it,  I saw it again.

Now I view it in much the same way as Apocalypse Now. For most of its runtime, it is an absolutely brilliant motion picture. But it falls apart at the end.

In some ways, its collapse is worse than Apocalypse Now‘s, because it’s a cop-out. The ending is too much like a conventional western. The blame goes to writer David Webb Peoples–as I understand it, it was shot as he wrote it–and director Clint Eastwood, who didn’t insist on changing it.

I’m assuming you’ve already seen Unforgiven. The rest of this post contains spoilers.

For most of the film’s runtime, it brilliantly critiques and deconstructs the western genre. Violence is ugly, painful, and cruel. Even more so if the violence results in death. "It’s a hell of a thing, killin’ a man," says Eastwood’s character,  Will Munny. "You take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have."

More than any other character, Munny represents everything false about the westernunforgiven_1 myth. Once a cruel and violent outlaw, usually drunk, he’s been reformed by a good woman. When we meet him, he’s a widower, a father of two young children, a tea-totaller, and a struggling pig farmer. He’s also, quite clearly, no longer a competent killer. Using a pistol, he can’t shout a paint can from a few paces.

Nevertheless, he teams up with old friend Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) and a young, inexperienced, near-sighted braggart calling himself "The Schofield Kid" (Jaimz Woolvett), to kill two cowboys who cut up a prostitute. Munny tells himself that the cowboys have it coming, but he’s done worse himself. He’s after the reward.

The bulk of the movie follows these three killers, as well as the sadistic sheriff (Gene Hackman) maintaining the peace by bullying others. Of course, if he had properly handled those cowboys in the first place, the peace would not have been threatened.

Peoples and Eastwood make the themes clear. Violence is horrible and solves nothing. Western gunfights were never like the heroic, romanticized versions. There are no happy endings.

They also make it clear that Munny is no longer able to do this sort of work, and because he is sober, he no longer wants to.

The film is a masterpiece…up until the point where a prostitute, paying off Munny and the Kid for killing the cowboys, tells them that the sheriff has killed Ned Logan. Then everything falls apart.

Munny grabs a bottle of whisky and starts drinking. He rides into town, confronts the sheriff and a large posse. When his shotgun misfires, he pulls out his six-shooter, shoots the sheriff, and then kills enough deputies to convince the others to run away. Then he safely leaves town.

In other words, Peoples and Eastwood give Unforgiven a conventional, happy ending. unforgiven_2True, it’s shot to look uglier than usual, but its still about the hero killing a lot of bad guys. It violates everything the film has said about the west up until that moment, as well as everything we know about Will Munny. Yes, the whiskey could have loosened his inhibitions, restoring his violent disposition. But the whiskey could not have improved his hand/eye coordination, turning him from a bad shot to a great one.

Forgiven deserves a better ending, and Will Munny, as a character, deserved a worse one. I can imagine two preferable ways this picture should have closed:

  1. Munny kills the sheriff, then his deputies shoot down Munny like a dog.
  2. When Munny hears that the sheriff has killed his friend (which, let’s face it, is no worse than anything Munny has done), he should have just rode away, feeling bad.

Those endings would not have been as commercially successful. But they would have kept the film’s promise.

Last Year at Marienbad

I first time I saw Last Year at Marienbad in college, in the 1970s. The teachers didn’t tell us what to expect, they just gathered several classes together in the auditorium and screened this “important film.” I found it deathly boring. We all did. One friend said it needed a pie fight–or even the Three Stooges.

The teachers were shocked at our response.

About a year ago, I decided to give it another chance. After missing a screening at the Pacific Film Archive, I put it in my Netflix queue. This week, it finally reached the top, and I watched it for a second time last night.

My opinion improved, but not by much. It’s still slow and pretentious, and gives you almost no information about the people onscreen (I hesitate to call them characters) and no reason whatsoever to care if they live or die. But the film is visually striking and technically dazzling, and if you’re willing to meet it halfway, it has a certain hypnotic charm.

Too bad it refuses to meet you halfway.

Photographed with the technical care of a Hollywood spectacle, Marienbad seems to care more about its setting than its story or characters. That setting is a very posh, upscale, and formal resort somewhere in Europe. The décor is plush and antique, with baroque furniture and decorations. The men wear dinner jackets, and the women expensive dresses. I would love to see what Buñuel might have done with this setting.

But Marienbad was directed by Alain Resnais, and despite the left-leaning themes of much of his work, he doesn’t seem particularly interested here in the discreet charm of the bourgeois. Indeed, he doesn’t seem interested in people, treating his actors as little more than animated statues–and when you come right down to it, they’re not all that animated. They barely move at all, and in some shots, only the moving camera tells you that you’re not looking at a still photo. (That’s actually pretty impressive, technically. The actors had to stay perfectly still, without even blinking, while the camera tracked around them. Today it could be done with computers.)

Eventually you figure out that two of these living statues are our protagonists. A man (like everyone else in this film, he’s never named, but the published screenplay calls him X and he’s played by Giorgio Albertazzi) tells a woman (A, played by Delphine Seyrig) that they met before and had a passionate affair–perhaps it was last year, and maybe in Marienbad. She’s skeptical. There’s another man (M, played by Sacha Pitoëff) involved. Perhaps he’s her husband.

Resnais and screenwriter Alain Robbe-Grillet are intentionally vague about what happened back then, what’s happening now, and what people are just imagining (or imagined back then). Although Seyrig has a few brief moments of actual acting, the leads rarely do more than stand in place and recite their lines in a slow monotone. That the film ends without your knowing what happened isn’t a problem; the problem is that you don’t care.

At least you get loads of atmosphere, and something to look at. The widescreen, black-and-white cinematography captures the luxurious setting in sumptuous detail. Endless hallways filled with bric-a-brac, huge gardens with statues and sculpted trees, and mirrors with ornate frames help relieve the boredom of the non-story–especially in the first half. I’m glad I saw this on the Criterion Blu-ray disc; on DVD, I might have hated it as much as the 16mm print I saw in college.

I still want to see The Three Stooges at Marienbad.

Second Thoughts on 3:10 to Yuma

On first viewing, I loved 3:10 to Yuma enough to give it an , despite a lot of problems I had with the last act. But the weeks went by, I’ve found myself more and more bothered with the movie’s inherent problems. So I’m officially downgrading it to a .

Don’t get me wrong; most of this picture is fantastic–easily the best new western I’ve seen in years. But as the movie works its way towards its climax, the story completely falls apart. It’s still fun on a simplistic, action-movie level, and even if it wasn’t, you’re held by the emotional investment you’ve already made in the characters by that time. But these characters keep doing stupid things, and if they didn’t keep doing stupid things, the story would resolve itself quickly and easily in a dramatically disappointing way.

The rest of this post is a spoiler. If you haven’t seen the movie, read at your own risk:

The problems start soon after the main characters arrive at Contention and check into a hotel room, when Ben Wade’s gang show up to rescue him.

  1. With the law looking down at him from a hotel window, Charlie Prince, the really bad guy in the gang, offers $200 to any townsman who kills a lawman. At that point, the lawmen have a strategic advantage and a legal right to shoot to kill. Prince’s brains should have been all over the ground before he finished talking.
  2. Three of the lawmen give up when they hear there’s a price on their head. They go out and surrender with their hands up, and get shot. Not a good idea–killing people who surrender in front of other people you hope will surrender.
  3. When Dan Evans takes Wade to the train, with everyone shooting at him, he neither covers Wade to make sure he doesn’t get away or use this man, whom the gang is trying to save; as a shield and hostage.
  4. And why does Wade just go along? If he wants to escape, he could just run the other way. If he wants to go peacefully, he could tell his gang to stop shooting.

The absurdities go on, but I won’t.

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