The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

A true Western

I’ve been meaning to review
this movie for some time as it is one of my favorites. There are some dolts who
say it isn’t a Western but they know nothing.
Great movie
On the surface, yes, this
is a gangster film of classic proportions. Set in Prohibition West Texas, it
tells of rival bootlegging gangs and a lone gunman who plays one mob off
against the other. Sound familiar? It should. It’s A Fistful of Dollars
remade, and of course Fistful was Yojimbo remade and anyway they
are all based on Dashiell Hammett’s Red
(also made into a gangster movie), if not, indeed, Goldoni’s A Servant of Two Masters (1743). This story has been around.

However, this is ten times
better than A Fistful of Dollars. The Chandleresque first-person
voiceover of the hero gives a depth to the character that Leone never managed
with Eastwood. And Bruce Willis is superb, a true Western hero. He is tough and
outwardly just a cynical gun for hire but we come to see the integrity beneath
as he cleans up the town. Actually, he cleans it out rather than cleaning it
up. This is one of Willis’s best roles. He is of course a man with no name –
well, he goes by ‘John Smith’ but that’s pretty much the same thing.
The man with not much of a name
Then there is outstanding
support acting. We might mention in particular my hero Bruce Dern as the
corrupt sheriff. Dern did heavies supremely well for many years but he was
rarely better than the complex character he portrays here.
It’s rude to point
In a very short part, Ken
Jenkins also takes honors for his Ranger captain, icy in the torrid heat. Ted
Markland as the silent Deputy Bob, RD Call as the dumb Irish heavy, William
Sanderson (always excellent, Lippy in Lonesome Dove and EB Farnum in Deadwood) as
the saloon keeper Joe, these are all first class.

Christopher Walken is
positively psychopathic as the chief Doyle shooter. We are told that
at 15 he burned down an orphanage and enjoyed watching
the “little kids go up like candles.”
Oo, that’s bad. The Italians
are very good too: Ned Eisenberg doesn’t sound too Italian but he has the
gestures and style pat as chief mobster Strozzi and Michael Imperioli, who does
sound Italian alright, later to appear in The
, is first class as Strozzi’s cousin Giorgio. You have to check the
credits to see they are Strozzi, though, because they are always referred to by
Bruce as Strasi.
Smiling psycopath
Those haircuts! Weren’t
they hideous? But very realistic. Nice cars too. Bruce rides into the town of
Jericho (which looks very Western) in a 1928 Model A Ford, a twentieth century
equivalent of Clint’s mule.

The picture has an orange
tint, or perhaps blood-red. This has got redder and redder as my VHS tape ages
but that’s fine. It suits it. The heat and dust permeate through the screen at
you. There’s very fine Lloyd Ahern photography of El Paso and New Mexico locations.
Ahern had shot both Geronimo and Wild Bill for Walter Hill so has the
The music is by Ry Cooder
and manages to give us menace, gangsterism, Mexico and a Western all in a
modern key. I must get that soundtrack on my iPod. Elmer Bernstein had been hired
but was fired for not getting the tone right. Ry is perfect.

This film is sometimes over
the top. When Bruce shoots mobsters with his twin Colt 1911 45s the shot badmen
fly through the air and into the street in Desperado fashion. It verges
on a cartoon. But boy, do they stay shot.
Blam! Blam!
It’s funny, isn’t it, how
critics can vary so much in their opinions. The late, respected Roger Ebert
called this movie
“a mannered, juiceless, excruciatingly repetitive exercise in style.” Oh
well, other critics than I have a right to their opinions. Anyone has the right to be

The dark scenes where Bruce
gets beaten up and recovers with help to get his revenge reminded me of Unforgiven.
It’s a Western alright. Walter Hill, the director, did Westerns (he once
said that all his films were Westerns and when you watch this one you see his
point) and he wrote this one as well, giving due credit – unlike Fistful
to Kikushima and Kurosawa. There is something son-of-Sam about Mr. Hill and the
Peckinpah influence is there alright.

It’s a great title. And the
pictures of Hickok on the hotel wall and a print of Custer’s Last Stand aren’t
an accident.

Four revolvers, pards.
Clementine reference

2 Responses

  1. Just read that Christopher Walken was the studio's choice when Hill wanted the excellent Jacques Remar – Dutch Schutz in Coppola's Cotton Club -, one of his favorite actors (48 Hours, The Warriors…). Walken – always brilliant – was probably more bankable but the film was a quasi flop before becoming a quasi cult, happy the simple minded… JM

    1. The whole subject of director v studio casting choices is an interesting one.
      Quasi-flop or quasi-cult, this quasi-reviewer quasi-likes it.

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