Tombstone as Myth: My Darling Clementine on Blu-ray

By all rules of the western genre, John Ford’s My Darling Clementine shouldn’t work. The plot, the primary motivations, and the action all but disappear for the whole middle part of the movie. And yet it’s one of the greatest westerns ever made.

Ford’s westerns, at their best, danced along a thin line between reality and myth. The characters seem down-to-earth, and can surprise you with their all-too-human frailties and contradictions. But the atmosphere created by framing, lighting, and music suggests something bigger than the story of these people–the story of America..

Of all Ford’s westerns, Clementine gives us the greatest sense of myth. That’s hardly surprising, since it’s built around one of the west’s most famous legends–the shootout at the O.K. Corral.

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Yes, I know that it really happened. But the tall tales about this gunfight overtook actual history long before Ford rebuilt Tombstone in Monument Valley. And Ford and his screenwriters pretty much ignored history in their goal of creating an American myth.

Ford never used Monument Valley as extensively and as effectively as he does here. Every daytime exterior in the film uses the Valley as its background. When you’ve got Wyatt Earp, Doc Holiday, and the Clantons on the streets of a Deadwood right smack in Monument Valley, you know that you’re watching a myth.

The plot is simple. The Clantons rob Wyatt Earp’s cattle, and murder one of his brothers. So Wyatt (Henry Fonda), who was just passing through, becomes the town’s marshal, clearly without any ambitions beyond vengeance.

All that is set up in the first 20 or so minutes. Then the film all but forgets about vengeance. Instead, it introduces us to Tombstone, pictured as a wide open western town inching its way towards proper civilization.

And in that changing town, Wyatt Earp develops a complicated and not-always-imagecooperative friendship with Doc Holiday (Victor Mature). Holiday’s Mercurial, self-hating, and possibly suicidal personality makes it impossible to know when he’s with Wyatt, and when he’s against him. If you need any more proof that John Ford was a great director, consider this: He pulled a terrific, conflicted, and empathetic performance out of Victor Mature, a movie star known for being a bad actor. Even he would joke about it later in life. But here he even manages a slice of Hamlet’s "To be or not to be" soliloquy without it looking ridiculous.

While praising the cast, I have to recognize Walter Brennan as the Clanton’s evil patriarch. This is one of the great villains in the movies–spiteful, angry, intelligent, and terrifying even to his own four sons. They’re as evil as he is, but considerably less intelligent. 23 years later, he played a comic variation of the same character in Support Your Local Sheriff.

Alas, the female leads scarcely appear to be their own people. Cathy Downs as the titular Clementine, is little more than a symbol of civilized American womanhood. She’s the pure, perfect woman that Wyatt loves but can’t approach with anything but stiff politeness. And Linda Darnell’s Chihuahua, lovesick and full of larceny, would be a horrible Mexican stereotype if some dialog didn’t define her as Apache. That doesn’t help.

The climatic gunfight is one of the best, with slow-building suspense before the bullets fly.

My Darling Clementine was John Ford’s first film after he was mustered out of the navy after World War II. In it, he took one of America’s strongest myths and made it his own.

First Impression

imageCriterion has given up their policy of putting DVDs and Blu-rays in the same package. Now, you have to buy one or the other.

The Blu-ray version of My Darling Clementine comes in a simple plastic case. There’s one disc, and a small foldout rather than a full book. The foldout is dominated by an essay by David Jenkins, "The Great Beyond."

As is standard for Criterion, the disc opens to the main menu the first time you insert it into a player. After that, it offers an option for Resume Playback. A timeline allows you to set bookmarks.

How It Looks

Like most films of its time, My Darling Clementine was shot in black and white, and in the Academy Ratio, 1.37×1. it’s one of the most visually striking films of its era.

Fox and Criterion have done a wonderful job on this 4k restoration. Fine details, including stubble on men’s chins, are clearly visible. The grayscale is excellent, from near-whites to deep blacks, with fine shadow detail.

How It Sounds

The audio is PCM 2.0 mono. As such, it succeeds in producing the original sound as well as could be imagined.

The Preview Cut

Like most Hollywood movies, My Darling Clementine was previewed and recut multiple times before its release in the final 97-minute version. One of those preview cuts, running 103 minutes, has survived.

The Blu-ray offers this preview cut as a supplement. The disc also contains a 42-minute documentary, narrated by UCLA’s . Robert Gitt. Both cuts, plus the documentary, were on the original Fox DVD release.

As Gitt reminds ups, this is "Not a director’s cut, but a work in progress." Both of these cuts were supervised by studio head Darryl Zanuck, and they’re almost certainly closer to each other than to Ford’s lost rough cut.

Most of the differences are minor. A few scenes go on a little longer, and these are seldom the best scenes. One scene is visually identical, but with different music cues. Overall, I prefer the release version.

But I wish that Zanuck had kept Ford’s original ending. Zanuck, in a memo, admitted regret for altering the ending for commercial reasons. Ford’s original ending, available now in the preview version, makes a big improvement.

Although transferred in HD, the preview cut doesn’t get the full 4K-mastered, 1080p treatment of the release cut. It looks like broadcast HD, with that annoying video smoothness that movies shot on film are not supposed to have.

And the Other Extras

  • Commentary by Ford biographer Joseph McBride. This is a new commentary; not the one on the original Fox DVD. McBride covers pretty much every issue about the film, from historical inaccuracy to how Chihuahua becomes idolized once she’s dying. He even explained a few things about the gunfight that had me confused.
  • Print the Legend: 14 minutes, HD. New interview with western scholar Andrew C. Isenberg, author of Wyatt Earp: A Vigilante Life. He talks about the real Earp and Ford’s fiction.
  • David Brinkley Journal: "tombstone": 8 minutes. A 1963 NBC-TV piece on Tombstone. Moderately interesting.
  • Today: "Report on Monument Valley": 6 minutes. 1975 episode of NBC’s Today show. Talks about the location, the Navaho, and the movies. Doesn’t mention My Darling Clementine by name, but does mention the Tombstone set.
  • Lost and Gone Forever: 18 minutes. Video essay by Tag Gallagher. Discusses Ford’s early friendship with Earp, the different cuts, music, framing. Makes a good argument that Ford’s wartime experience influenced the film and made it Ford’s darkest work.
  • Bandit’s Wager: 14 minutes. 1916 western short starring and directed by Ford’s older brother, Francis Ford. John also plays a supporting role. I only figured out who is was by matter of subtraction; only three people in the movie. Not all that funny. Music by Donald Sosin.
  • Lux Radio Theater: 58 minutes; audio only. I have to confess, I got only 12 minutes into this 1947 radio adaptation of the film. 
  • Trailer

The Blu-ray is available now.

Sunday at the Mill Valley Film Festival

I spent Sunday at Mill Valley Film Festival. Amazingly, I was actually in Mill Valley.

Here’s what I saw:

The 3D Sideshow

3D enthusiast and filmmaker Robert G. Bloomberg introduced this selection of shorts with a trailer to a 50’s 3D movie called The Maze. He followed this with his own Frogs & Friends–a selection of (mostly) still images of wildlife–often very tiny insects.

That one was wonderful, but the best movie in the show was unquestionably Jason Jameson and James Hall’s One Night in Hell. Stylistically Victorian, yet with a modern sense of humor, it followed Satan on his rounds, using the 3D for very funny effects.

I also liked Jeff Boller’s rock video, A Geek Like Me.

A Geek Like Me

Some of the shorts were pre-3D. They screened Georges Méliès’ The Infernal Cauldron, accidentally shot in 3D (I’ve already described how that happened). Also included: a colorized and 3D-converted version of the Safely Last climax; it was hilarious–almost as funny as the 2D, black-and-white original. And one of the two Disney shorts in the show started as an old, early, black-and-white Mickey Mouse cartoon that exploded into widescreen, color, and 3D.

Speaking of big names, Fox provided a Simpson’s cartoon of Maggie in the world’s worst daycare.

In Order of Disappearance

Local Citizen of the Year Nils Dickman (Stellan Skarsgård), is a peaceful man. But when his son turns up dead from a drug overdose, and he wasn’t using drugs, our hero sets out to make the bad guys pay. I’m not really a fan of revenge thrillers, and this one is exceptionally violent, both in the body count and in the gruesome nature of the deaths. But a strong sense of absurd humor helps the violence go down easily. When was the last time you saw a movie where the horrifically evil organized crime boss is also a high-strung vegan? A sick, twisted, yet entertaining thriller from Norway.

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I’m giving this film a B+, and can recommend it to anyone who likes dark and gruesome humor. Unfortunately, you’ll likely never get a chance to see it, as it’s not expected to get an American release.

Wild

Before the show began, we  were treated to Pixar’s new short, Lava, about a lonely volcano who finds love. Yes, the story is silly, but fun enough for a short.

After the short, Director of Programming Zoë Elton, who introduced one of the stars of the film, Laura Dern. Dern actually has a relatively small role in the picture, but the event was in her honor.

Elton interviewed Dern for a few minutes about being a second-generation actor and the people she’s worked with.

Then they screened the film.

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Judging from this adaptation of her memoirs, Cheryl Strayed led a pretty wild life before she walked into the real wild and got herself together. This film adaptation of Strayed’s memoir follows her as she hikes the Pacific Crest Trail and learns how to be a fully in-the-moment adult human being. Interspersed with the hike, the film shows us flashbacks that tell us what sort of person she was before the difficult and dangerous three-month voyage. We learn about her struggling but loving mother who died too soon, and the self-destructive streak that destroyed Cheryl’s marriage.

It’s a powerful film, and I’m giving it an A. It opens later this year.

MVFF: A Bridge to a Border

Saturday afternoon, I made it to the Rafael for a Mill Valley Film Festival screening of Rob Nilsson’s A Bridge to a Border. To be honest, I wouldn’t have picked that film if I had recognized the director’s name. Two years ago I caught his Maelstrom, and hated it.

I’m glad to say that A Bridge to a Border is nowhere near as bad as Maelstrom. This time around, the characters seem vaguely interesting, and are actually involved in trying to do something. It even gets exciting near the end. I’d give it a C+.

This time around, a quarrelsome group of left-wing terrorists plan to blow up the Bay Bridge. Why? I’m not sure. There’s some talk about how successful the Weather Underground and the Black Panthers had been, and how pathetically the Occupy Movement failed.

Because it’s a Rob Nilsson film, there’s a lot of semi-improvised dialog, much of which goes nowhere. Occasionally the dialog succeeds to letting us know something about the the characters, but not often. We get to know what turned some of them into violent radicals, but others are left as cyphers. Things pick up near the end, and the climax kind of works.

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After the movie, we were treated to a Q&A with Nilsson and members of his cast. Some highlights:

  • Nilsson said the film was made not so much with money but by  "people power."
  • The climactic scene on the Bridge was done with a green screen.
  • Someone asked about Nilsson’s unique approach to working with actors (who he prefers to call players). He runs a workshop where people work on relaxation and concentration. "We try to find the places inside ourselves"
  • "We do a lot of backstory improvisation."

Addition, 10/13: I just discovered that A Bridge to a Border) is available on Fandor. So if you want to see it yourself, you can stream it.

What’s Screening: October 10 – 16

The Mill Valley Film Festival finishes Sunday. But don’t’ despair. The Arab Film Festival opens today (Friday). The  one-day Berlin & Beyond Autumn Showcase happens Saturday. And the Bay Area ReelAbilities Disabilities Film Festival opens Wednesday.

Plus, there are all of these:

A The Two Faces of JanuaryEmbarcadero Center, Shattuck, opens Friday; Rafael, opens Monday. The Two Faces of January is the best new thriller I’ve seen since Headhunters, but it’s a very different imagekind of thriller–more cerebral, less fun, and more plausible. When we first meet them, Chester and Colette MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst) are a wealthy, attractive, and happy American couple vacationing in Greece in the early 1960s. Then they meet Rydal (Oscar Isaac), also American, but scratching out a living as a tour guide–and sublimating his earnings with petty larceny. Of course there’s a love triangle, but the story is really about crime and deception. But who’s the criminal? And who’s deceiving who? Read my full review.

A+ Night of the Living Dead, New Parkway, Saturday, 9:30.  This is fear without compromise. The slow, nearly unstoppable ghouls (sequels and imitations would rename them zombies) were shockingly gruesome in image1968. Decades later, the shock is gone. But the dread and fear remain, made less spectacular but more emotionally gripping by the black and white photography. Night of the Living Dead is scary, effective, occasionally funny, and at times quite gross. It can be viewed as a satire of capitalism, a commentary on American racial issues, or simply as one of the scariest horror films ever made.Read my essay.

A+ The Last Waltz, Balboa, Thursday, 7:30. On Thanksgiving night, 1976, The Band played their final concert at San Francisco’s legendary Winterland Ballroom. Among their performing guests were Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Muddy Waters, and Joni imageMitchell. The filmmakers were just as talented: director Martin Scorsese,  cinematographers Michael Chapman and Vilmos Zsigmond, and art director Boris Leven. No wonder this was the greatest rock concert movie ever made. Scorsese and company ignored the audience and focused on the musicians, creating an intimate look at great artists who understood that this was a once-in-a-lifetime event.

A+ Sunrise, Castro, Saturday, 8:00. Haunting, romantic, and impressionistic, F. W. Murnau’s first American feature sunriseturns the mundane into the fantastic and the world into a work of art. The plot is simple: A marriage, almost destroyed by another woman, is healed by a day of reconciliation and romance in the big city. But the execution, with its stylized sets, beautiful photography, and expressionist performers, makes it both touchingly personal and abstractly mythological. Basically a silent film, the 1927 Sunrise was one of the first films released with a soundtrack (music and effects, only). But the Castro will have live organ accompaniment by Warren Lubich.

A- Two Days, One Night, Sequoia, Saturday, 5:45; Rafael, Sunday, 2:00. The boss gives his employees a choice: Either Sandra (Marion Cotillard) keeps her job, or everyone else receives a large bonus. Over the weekend, Sandra must visit 16 workers and convince a majority to sacrifice €1,000 for her sake. To make matters worse, Sandra is recovering from severe depression and has become dependent on pills. This latest film from the Dardenne brothers gives us modern capitalism in a nutshell. Workers, who would naturally be allies, are forced to fight over the limited resources available to pay non-management employees. Rather than becoming a political tract, this film feels like a very real situation, where everyone must make a difficult decision that will inevitably result in moral compromise. Part of the Mill Valley Film Festival.

A+ Cary Grant double bill: Notorious & Only Angels Have Wings, Stanford, Saturday and Sunday. The A+ goes to Notorious, where a scandal-ridden Ingrid Bergman Notoriousproves her patriotism by seducing, bedding, and marrying Claude Rains’ Nazi industrialist while true love Cary Grant grimly watches. Grant’s secret agent sends her on this deadly and humiliating mission, then reacts with blind jealousy. Sexy, romantic, thought-provoking, and scary enough to shorten your fingernails. I discuss the film more deeply in my Blu-ray Review. In Only Angels Have Wings, Cary Grant heads a team of mail plane pilots in a remote corner of South America. There’s little plot here, just a study of men who routinely fly under very dangerous conditions, and how they cope with death as an every-day part of life. On its own, I’d give this one an A-.

A Rome Open City, Castro, Wednesday. Roberto Rossellini helped create Italian neorealism in this dark tale of the German occupation. Gritty and at times horrifying, it imagevividly recreates the physical dangers and mental strains of living under Nazi rule. Technically, I suppose, it shouldn’t count as neorealism, since two major parts are played by established stars: Anna Magnani takes the central role of a pregnant woman who discovers that her fiancé is working for the underground, and the usually comic Aldo Fabrizi takes on a rare dramatic role as a priest who finds he has to administer to more than just souls. On a double bill with The Fugitive Kind.

A Key Largo, Castro, Sunday. In the 1930’s, movie stars like Edward G. Robinson got to kill punk character imageactors like Humphrey Bogart. But by 1948, Bogey was the top star and Robinson the supporting player (and a great one). Set in a lonely Florida hotel during a hurricane, war veteran Bogart faces off against gangster Robinson. Most of the movie is talk, but when Richard Brooks and John Huston adopt a Maxwell Anderson stage play, and Huston directs a solid and charismatic cast, who needs more than talk? On a double bill with Harper, which I haven’t seen.

C Tu Dors Nicole, Rafael, Friday, 3:45; Sequoia, Saturday, 8:45. Like its main character, this low-key French-Canadian comedy/drama seems to make a point of going nowhere. That would be fine if it was already in an interesting place. imageThe protagonist is a young woman sharing in her parent’s comfortable home (while they’re out of town) with her brother and his band. Early on, writer/director Stéphane Lafleur shows a nice touch for quiet, off-beat humor, with an awkward end to a one-night-stand and a 10-year-old boy with the baritone voice of a large man. But the humor dries up soon, and then there’s nothing left but characters who–aside from some occasional moments–are neither deep nor interesting. Another part of the Mill Valley Film Festival.

B+ American Graffiti, Rafael, Thursday, 7:30. Benefit for the Friends of the San Rafael Public Library. A long time ago, in a Bayimage Area that feels very far away, George Lucas made an entertaining (and extremely profitable) movie without action, a big budget, or special effects. Talk about nostalgia. You can also talk about old-time rock ‘n’ roll–American Graffiti makes great use of early 60s music in one of the most effective and creative sound mixes of the ’70s.

A Spartacus, Castro, Saturday, 1:00. This very fictionalized version of the famous Roman slave revolt is simply the most powerful, intelligent, and coherent toga epic from the golden age of imagetoga epics. And yes, I know that sounds like weak praise, but it isn’t. Stanley Kubrick’s only work as a director-for-hire doesn’t give us the glory of Rome, concentrating instead on the horror, cruelty, and exploitation of an empire. Star and Executive Producer Kirk Douglas gave Dalton Trumbo a well-deserved screen credit, which helped end the blacklist. For more, see Cemeteries and Gladiators, On the Moral Dilemma of Gladiator Movies, and How I lost my love for Stanley Kubrick.

B+ This Is Spinal Tap, UC Berkeley’s Crescent lawn, Friday, 8:00. Free outdoor screening. The mockumentary to end all rockumentaries. Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, imageand Harry Shearer play the subject of this fake documentary–an English heavy metal band of questionable talent on a disastrous American tour. Director Rob Reiner plays, appropriately enough, the documentary’s director. Uneven, but often brilliantly hilarious, although you need a good grounding in rock music and concert movies to get most of the jokes. On a scale of one to ten, the best scenes rate an eleven. Part of the PFA series, Endless Summer Cinema.

B- A Clockwork Orange, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 8:30. Stanley Kubrick’s strange, “ultra-violent” dystopian nightmare about crime and conditioning seemed imageself-consciously arty in1971, and it hasn’t improved with time. But several of its scenes–the Singin’ in the Rain rape, the brainwashing sequence, Alex’s vulnerability when he’s attacked by his former mates–are brilliant, as is Malcolm McDowell’s performance as a hooligan turned helpless victim. But it just doesn’t add up. Part of the series Eyes Wide: The Films of Stanley Kubrick.

A Chinatown, Oakland Paramount, Friday, 8:00. Roman Polanski may be a rapist, chinatownbut you can’t deny his talent as a filmmaker (which doesn’t excuse his actions as a human being). And that talent was never better than when he made this neo-noir tale of intrigue and double-crosses set in the Los Angeles of the 1930s. Writer Robert Towne fictionalized an actual scandal involving southern California water rights, mixed in a few personal scandals, and handed the whole story over to Polanski, who turned the script into the perfect LA period piece.

C- Popeye, Balboa, Saturday, 10:00am. Robert Altman’s one attempt at a big-budget family musical manages to be both imageextremely odd and utterly mediocre. The story is a mess, the gags are too outrageous to be funny (there are some things that only work in animation), and Harry Nilsson’s songs are utterly forgettable. The only real joy is watching actors who are remain recognizable as themselves while managing near-perfect physical embodiments of famous cartoon character; for the best example, consider Shelley Duvall’s amazing likeness to Olive Oyl.

C- Vertigo, Castro, Monday and Tuesday. I recently revisited everybody else’s favorite Alfred Hitchcock film, officially now the greatest film ever made, and I liked it better this time, so much that I’m bringing its grade up from a D to a C-. My main problem with the movie is that neither the story nor most of the characters make any sense, and I don’t believe anyone’s motivations. The film contains one wonderful, believable, and likeable character, Barbara Bel Geddes’ Midge, but we don’t see enough of her to offset everything else. Yes, the film is very atmospheric, but that’s just not enough. I don’t need to stare at a screen to experience San Francisco’s fog. New 4K restoration.

Mystery Science Theater 3000, New Parkway, Friday, 10:30. Regular readers know that I’m a fan of the classic bad-movie-with-commentary TV show, Mystery Science Theater 3000. I have never seen an episode on the big screen with a full audience, but I suspect I’d enjoy it–especially if it’s a really good episode. I hope this will be a good episode, no one is telling us which one will be screened.

B- Terror by Night, Stanford,  Friday. In the early 1940s, Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce starred in 12 low-budget, updated Sherlock Holmes adventures for Universal. This is one of the best, with our heroes riding on a imagenight train while tracking a jewel thief who’s not above murder. The enclosed setting of the train, combined with the rumbling of the tracks, adds atmospheric suspense that you usually don’t get in these films. True, the identity of the villain is both ridiculously obvious and totally unbelievable, but Rathbone was such a great Holmes that you can forgive such silliness. On a double bill with a Charlie Chan picture called Castle in the Desert, which I have not seen. For my thoughts on both of these series, see Charlie Chan, Sherlock Holmes, and the Strange Case of the Stereotyped Detective.

MVFF: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly, and the Lark

Wednesday night I finally got to a 2014 Mill Valley Film Festival event–a screening at the Lark of one of my favorite westerns, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

imageBelieve it or not, this was my first visit to the Lark. Yes, I’ve been covering it at Bayflicks for years, but this was the first time I actually stepped inside.

The Lark is a modest-sized neighborhood theater of the sort that dotted the small towns and suburbs before the invention of the multiplex. The art deco décor has been lovingly restored. The lobby is small, with two small areas off to the side where people can sit and talk.

The screen isn’t huge, but it’s big enough to create a real movie feel. The seats are comfortable, with good drink holders.

Before the movie, Festival Executive Director Mark Fishkin came onstage and introduced James Hetfield of Metallica, who hosted the screening. Metallica is this year’s Artists in Residence, and each member of the band got to select a favorite film to be screened.

Hetfield talked briefly about The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and how it had influenced him. He discussed the three main characters, the use of close-ups, and–not surprisingly–Ennio Morricone’s iconic score. The film started at about 7:15.

The Great, the Crazy, and the Iconic

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is an epic quest motivated purely by greed. Three violent and deadly criminals, all very skilled at their job, set out to recover $200,000 in stolen gold. None of them knows exactly where the loot is hidden, but individually each has a piece of the puzzle. They constantly change allegiances, sometimes collaborating with and then double-crossing each other.

Meanwhile, war rages around them. Director/co-writer Sergio Leone set this western in the American Civil War. Issues like succession and slavery never comes up, but the destruction is vast and senseless. As the rebel army retreats from a town, an innkeeper loudly hails the Confederacy, while privately telling his wife that the Yanks will be better because they pay in gold. Another town has been battered to ruins–perhaps an echo of Leone’s adolescence in World War II Italy. Twice a day, armies clash over a bridge that both sides want and no one can hold. Soldiers on both sides speak with sarcastic hate of their commanders.

And through it all, our three lead characters (I can’t quite call them all protagonists) cheat, threaten, bribe, and murder their way to their ultimate goal.

The Good: Clint Eastwood plays his iconic Man With No Name, although in this film his friends call him Blondie. He’s a thief and a con artist, a quick and deadly draw who feels no remorse after killing someone. When he tires of his partner, he leaves him in the middle of the desert without horse, food, or drink. In any other movie, he’d be the villain. But he doesn’t kill without reason, and he occasionally displays acts of generosity to minor characters. By this film’s standards, that makes him the good guy.

The Bad: Lee Van Cleef’s Angel Eyes stands amongst the vilest villains in film history. His nickname is clearly ironic–his eyes look as evil as Satan. He tortures people for information, robs prisoners, and murders with the slightest of motives. His only code of honor: If he takes the money, he sees the job through. Early on, he kills two men because each of them paid him to kill the other one–and he shoots one of them in cold blood.

The Ugly: The Jewish-American actor Eli Wallach played Mexican banditos in at least three movies, but only here did he make the character funny, touching, lovable, and utterly horrible. His Tuco–devious, dumb, proud, and as wily as a rat–carries The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. When he’s out for vengeance, his cruelty surpasses Angel Eyes. But when he needs the victim of that cruelty, he becomes the dependable partner–just so long as you don’t turn your back. More than anything else, Wallach’s performance raises this movie from very good to great.

Leone and his collaborators tell the story of these men in a flashy and daring style. In addition to the close-ups and musical score I’ve already discussed, there’s the striking use of the widescreen frame, splashy editing–especially in the climatic three-way gun duel–and the dark humor that pervades the picture.

Versions and restorations

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is an Italian film with American stars, shot in Spain, and set in the American west. Like most Italian films of its day, it was shot without recording a dialog track. All of the dialog was dubbed in separate Italian and English versions (and other languages too, I assume).

Leone’s original cut ran 175 minutes–too long for the American distributor, United Artists. So Leone cut it back to 161.  The cuts were made before the English dubbing; the removed scenes could not easily to restored to the film.

That was fixed in 2003, when MGM/UA created the Extended English Language version. They restored and redubbed the cut scenes. Eastman and Wallach dubbed their parts, but another voice actor talked for the late Van Cleef. They also added a scene that Leone had cut from the Italian version, bringing the running time to 179 minutes. They also remixed the soundtrack, taking it from mono to Dolby Digital 5.1.

So the film has now grown by 18 minutes from the version I first fell in love with. I have mixed feelings about the changes, and I still cling to my 161-minute DVD. Some of the recovered scenes add atmosphere and character development. Others fill in plot gaps that never really needed to be filled. I love both versions, but I love the shorter one more.

This year, MGM/UA gave this picture a 4K digital restoration. They stuck to the 179 extended version, and–I’m glad to say–they restored the mono soundtrack. The festival screened the film from a 4K DCP, with the mono sound.

Aside from a rather ridiculous MGM 90th Anniversary trailer (see MGM 90th Anniversary…without MGM), it was a great presentation, showing the deep colors and heavy grain expected in a Techniscope production of the 1960s. Unless there’s an archival dye-transfer print from the original release somewhere, this is as good as the picture can get.

Overall, a very good evening.

The Two Faces of January: The Best Thrillers Take Their Time

A thriller

  • Written by  Hossein Amini, from a novel by Patricia Highsmith
  • Directed by  Hossein Amini

The less you know about The Two Faces of January when you walk into the theater, the more you’re going to enjoy it. So I’m going to try talking about this thriller without giving away much of the plot.

Wish me luck.

The Two Faces of January is the best new thriller I’ve seen since Headhunters, but it’s a very different kind of thriller. Headhunters was funny and outlandish, telling a preposterous story in an entertaining way. But the events in January feel like they could happen, and if you make the wrong mistake, they could happen to you. The picture gives you time to become familiar with the characters, then draws them into a life-or-death situation that seems entirely likely, but impossible to escape.

Screenwriter/director Hossein Amini adapted the story from a novel by Patricia Highsmith. Her other novels include Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley–quite a track record. It follows the fortunes, and mostly the misfortunes, of three Americans spending leisure time in Greece in the early 1960s. The period setting doesn’t play an important role; the film could have been set it in the present without losing any atmosphere.

I think I can safely tell you a bit about the three lead characters. When we first meet them, Chester and Colette MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst) are a wealthy, attractive, and happy couple on vacation in Greece. Rydal (Oscar Isaac) has been living in Greece for a year, is estranged from his family back in the States, and is scratching out a living as a tour guide–with some petty larceny thrown in for good measure.

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Rydel knows the culture and speaks the language. In one early scene, he helps Chester buy Colette a bracelet, and uses his linguistic skills and knowledge of the currency to pocket a considerable amount for himself.

Of course there’s going to be a triangle. All three stars are exceptionally good looking (that’s why they’re not just actors but stars). And Colette, much younger than her husband, is obviously attracted to the young and handsome Rydel.

But no, the love triangle doesn’t drive the story. That’s a job for crime and deception. Who’s the criminal? And who’s deceiving who? I think I better stop there.

The Two Faces of January marks Amini’s debut as a director, although he has been an established screenwriter for years (The Wings of the Dove, Drive). Yet he handles the film like a pro. Marcel Zyskind’s photography captures both the beauty of the locations and the terror of the characters’ predicament. The editing by Nicolas Chaudeurge and Jon Harris holds and builds the suspense despite the relatively slow pacing by thriller standards.

The slow pacing does a lot to make The Two Faces of January such a wonderful film. Not only does it allow the story and the characters to breath; it also adds to the suspense.

And if you love to be scared at the movies, you really need to see The Two Faces of January. And you need to see it with as much ignorance as possible.

What’s Screening: October 3 – 9

The Mill Valley Film Festival, which opened last night, runs through this week and beyond. My festival recommendations and warnings are at the end of this newsletter.

A Gandhi, Castro, Sunday, 7:00. The closest thing to a 60’s style historical epic since Patton, Richard Attenborough’s masterpiece follows the life of Mahatma Gandhi fromimage his days as a young lawyer in South Africa through his bittersweet triumph and his assassination. Yes, the film simplistically worships its protagonist, but it also describes the general arc of his life in an  entertaining way (with factual liberties, of course), and effectively dramatizes his revolutionary techniques of non-violent resistance. What’s more, the film is visually spectacular and centers around an Oscar-winning and star-making performance by Ben Kingsley.

B Way Down East, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30. Lillian Gish at her best as a naïve young woman who gets impregnated by a cad, loses her baby, and then has to run away and hide her shameful past. The film suffers from moralizing intertitles image(a frequent Griffith problem) and gratingly bad comedy relief, but the central story is still moving and effective, thanks largely by Gish’s performance. The climatic chase across ice flows is one of the best action sequences of the era, thanks largely by Gish’s willingly to put herself in real danger (if only her leading man, Richard Barthelmess, had been quite so courageous.)

B The Invisible Man, Cerrito, Thursday, 9:00. A lesser effort by director James Whale, Universal’s early image1930s "King of Horror." But  this H. G. Wells adaptation provides plenty of pleasures. Claude Rains, in his first film role, gives a distinctive voice to the unseen title character–a scientist whose invisibility has turned him into a megalomaniac. The story is full of holes and absurdities–even if he can’t be seen, a naked man running around the English countryside at night has some serious disadvantages–but it’s fun.

A Samsara, Castro, Wednesday. Ron Fricke (Baraka) provides us with a succession of stunningly beautiful and occasionally shocking images, accompanied by a hypnotic musical score and almost no other sound. I sat, enraptured, my eyes and mouth open in astonishment. Although there’s no real story, Samsara is structured like one. Or if not a story, then at least a journey. Fricke shot Samsara in the 70mm format, providing a level of detail impossible to capture with today’s digital cameras or with standard 35mm film. See my full review as well as More on Samsara, 70mm, and 4K Digital Projection. On a double bill with Lucy, which I haven’t seen.

M*A*S*H, various CineMark Theaters, Sunday (2:00 only) and Wednesday. I never cared much for what everyone else considers an important comedy. Even inimage 1970, when it was new and I was right smack in the middle of its demographic, I found it only a moderately funny military comedy with pretensions of significance. I saw it again about ten years later, and felt that age had only turned it into a misogynistic, moderately funny military comedy with pretensions of significance. This may sound sacrilegious, but I prefer the TV show that spun off from it. I’m not giving it a grade because it has been a very long time since I’ve seen it.

B- Terror by Night, Stanford,  Thursday and next Friday. In the early 1940s, Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce starred in 12 low-budget, updated Sherlock Holmes adventures for Universal. This is one of the best, with our heroes riding on a imagenight train while they try to catch a jewel thief who’s not above murder. The enclosed setting of the train, combined with the rumbling of the tracks, adds atmospheric suspense that you usually don’t get in these films. True, the identity of the villain is both ridiculously obvious and totally unbelievable, but Rathbone was such a great Holmes that you can forgive such silliness. On a double bill with a Charlie Chan picture called Castle in the Desert, which I have not seen. For my thoughts on both of these series, see Charlie Chan, Sherlock Holmes, and the Strange Case of the Stereotyped Detective.

A Young Frankenstein, UA Berkeley, Thursday, 9:00. Once upon a time, Mel Brooks hadyoungfrank talent. And he showed it off beautifully in this sweet-natured, 1974 parody and tribute to the Universal horror films of the 1930′s (specifically the first three Frankenstein movies). Gene Wilder wrote the screenplay and stars as the latest doctor to be stuck with the famous name (which he insists on pronouncing “Fronkenshteen). But blood is fate, and he’s destined to create his own monster. Wilder is supported by some of the funniest actors of the era, including Marty Feldman, Madeline Kahn, Cloris Leachman, and Peter Boyle as the lovable but clumsy creature.

A Psycho, New Parkway, Saturday, 3:00; Clay, Friday and Saturday, midnight . You may never want to take a shower again. In his last great movie, Alfred Hitchcock pulls the rug out from under us several times,image leaving the audience unsure who we’re supposed to be rooting for or what could constitute a happy ending. In roles that defined their careers, Janet Leigh stars as a secretary turned thief, and Anthony Perkins as a momma’s boy with a lot to hide. I’ll always regret that I knew too much about Psycho before I saw it for the first time; I wish I could erase all memory of this movie and watch it with fresh eyes.

B+ 2001: A Space Odyssey, Pacific Film Archive, Friday, 7:30. I used to worship Stanley Kubrick’s visualization of Arthur C. Clarke’s imagination, but it hasn’t aged all that well. We’ve seen the actual year, and know that Clarke and Kubrick got 2001almost everything wrong. Although I’ve lost my love of Stanley Kubrick, there’s no denying the pull of2001’s unorthodox storytelling and visual splendor–if you can see it properly presented. 2001 was shot for 70mm projection on a giant, curved, Cinerama screen–an experience that’s simply not available in the Bay Area today. The PFA’s modest screen can’t provide the full experience. Part of the series, Eyes Wide: The Films of Stanley Kubrick.

B- Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, UC Berkeley’s Crescent lawn, Friday, 8:00. Free outdoor screening. Tim Burton’s first feature revels in its own peeweesbigadvensilliness. Pee-Wee Herman, before children’s television and indecent exposure, is a strange, almost neurotically innocent creature. The movie is uneven, and most of the jokes are extremely dumb, but the oddball charm cannot be denied. Besides, the last sequence, reworking the plot as a Hollywood action flick, is alone worth the price of admission. Part of the PFA series, Endless Summer Cinema.


A Dr. Strangelove
, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 8:40. A psychotic general named Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) imageorders his men to bomb the USSR and start World War III. But have no fear! The men responsible for avoiding Armageddon (several of them played by Peter Sellers) are almost as competent as the Three Stooges.  We like to look back at earlier decades as simpler, less fearful times, but Stanley Kubrick’s “nightmare comedy” reminds you just how scary things were back then. Another part of the series, Eyes Wide: The Films of Stanley Kubrick.

C- Vertigo, Balboa, Tuesday, 7:30. I recently revisited everybody else’s favorite Alfred Hitchcock film, officially now the greatest film ever made, and I liked it better this time, so much that I’m bringing its grade up from a D to a C-. My main problem with the movie is that neither the story nor most of the characters make any sense, and I don’t believe anyone’s motivations. The film contains one wonderful, believable, and likeable character, Barbara Bel Geddes’ Midge, but we don’t see enough of her to offset everything else. Yes, the film is very atmospheric, but that’s just not enough. I don’t need to stare at a screen to experience San Francisco’s fog.

Mill Valley Film Festival

A Hide and Seek, Sequoia, Saturday, 3:00; Rafael, Monday, 3:30. Four young adults, two women and two men, move into a large and remote country house, intent on a life of self-discovery and sex. Mostly sex. That sounds like a wild fling, but everything is oddly still-1planned and organized. For instance, they have a schedule defining who will sleep with whom each night. Of course, things won’t stay that organized. For a drama and character study, Hide and Seek is unusually upbeat, and has surprisingly little dialog. Much goes unexplained–finances, for instance. And yet, through looks, gestures, and some well-chosen words, we come to know these four extremely well–and not only because we see a lot of them with their clothes off. A remarkable work, and a pretty explicit one.

A The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Lark, Wednesday, 7:00. Considering the unethical behavior of the three leads, Sergio Leone’s epic Civil War western should have been called The Bad, the Worse, and the Totally Reprehensible. But morality is relative when armies are slaughtering thousands, and besides, it doesn’t really enter into Leone’s tongue-in-cheek point of view. While the war rages around them, three outlaws battle lawmen, prison guards, and each other for a fortune in stolen gold. Check your scruples at the door and enjoy the double- and triple-crosses, the black comedy, the beautiful Techniscope photography of Spain doubling as the American west, and Ennio Morricone’s legendary score. Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef are fine, but Eli Wallach’s performance as the half-bright, devious Tuco steals the picture.

A- The Empire Strikes BackCentury Cinema, Corte Madera, Monday, 5:00 & 8:30.  The second (and in most people’s view, best) Star Wars movie plays the Mill Valley festival for the second time in five years. While I don’t love Empire as much as most fans, it’s still an excellent piece imageof big entertainment, with many great action set pieces and a considerably darker, more morally-complex story. On the other hand, it has some serious continuity errors that have bothered me since 1980. Nevertheless, I’d give this an A+ if they were showing the original, pre-digitally-altered version. On the other hand, the Century, with its giant, curved screen, is the place to see it.

B+ Clouds of Sils Maria, Sequoia, Friday, 8:45 (sold out; rush tickets may be available at showtime), Rafael, Monday, 1:00.A great actress (Juliette Binoche) reluctantly accepts a part in a revival of the play that made her famous. But this time, she’ll be playing imagea different, older character. To prepare for the role, the actress and her personal assistant (Kristen Stewart) take up residence in a remote house located in an astonishingly beautiful part of the Swiss Alps. As they run lines, they almost unconsciously work through their own complicated relationship, which only  slightly echoes play’s characters. This isn’t quite a two-person film, but Binoche and Stewart truly carry the picture.

B- For Those About to Rock: The Story of Rodrigo y Gabriela, Rafael, Sunday, 8:00 ; Rafael, Tuesday, 2:15. For the first two thirds of its 84-minute runtime, this appears to be yet another music documentary woefully lacking in music. We watch and hear Rodrigo Sanchez and Gabriela Quintera talk about their work and their imagestruggles to get recognized. We learn how they developed their unique style–which I’d describe as instrumental, acoustic heavy metal with a Latin flare–in their native Mexico City, and how they found fame in Ireland. But you only hear snatches of the music itself. and that could easily leave you wondering why these two are worthy of a documentary. But then, almost an hour into the movie, it becomes the concert film it always should have been, and thus becomes exciting and magical.

D Soul of a Banquet, Rafael,  Sunday, 5:00 (Director Wayne Wang and subject Cecilia Chiang in attendance), Sequoia, Tuesday, 2:15. In his first documentary, the usually reliable Wayne Wang appears to have imagemissed the point. He suggests that his subject, restaurateur Cecilia Chiang, led a fascinating and exciting life. But he gives us little information, and spends most of the picture just showing us food. The biographical first third offers tantalizing hints at Chiang’s history and her importance in the development of Chinese-American cuisine, but Wang doesn’t give us enough information to prove his argument. The following two thirds is just food porn, with close-ups of succulent dishes being prepared, served, and eaten. Read my full review.

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