Sam Peckinpah

THE MOVIE CHALLENGES

THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE

USA, 1948.

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The actors are great, which is a surprise because Bruce Bennett and Tim Holt had modest careers. Bruce Bennett went to Hollywood to earn money after being an Olympic athlete.   Because of his physicality and good looks, he was cast as a muscular Tarzan in a string of B movies. Tim Holt was nowhere near as physical but he did something similar in cheap Westerns. In The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre the two B-movie men are pitched against top grade Hollywood talent. Tim Holt is ordinary but convincing as a naïve young man. Bennett sought advice on his characterisation from director John Huston. Bennett was told that the character he played was more intelligent than the three prospectors. It worked. Bennett was believable as a man who told it straight and who was prepared to think it through. He was effective in a similar role in Mildred Pierce.

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Holt and Bennett coped and survived in The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre, which is just as well because Humphrey Bogart and Walter Huston deliver unforgettable performances, possibly the best they ever did in Hollywood.  Barton McClain is also great as the slimy businessman who objects on principle to paying wages to his employees. Alfonso Bedoya plays the Mexican bandit, Gold Hat. He became famous for how he spat out the line, ‘I don’t have to show you any stinking badges’. But every time Bedoya appears in the frame he is a reminder of how The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre inspired the great Sam Peckinpah.  Part of the fun of watching The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre is spotting the moments that Peckinpah borrowed for his Western masterpiece The Wild Bunch. These moments include the final conversation against a broken wall, the fight over the shoes of a dead man, the arrival of sinister but innocent Mexican villagers, the adoration of the American guests by the spiritual villagers, and Walter Huston stamping his feet as he, in rapid fire dialogue, expresses maniacal contempt for his colleagues.

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Although acclaimed by critics The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre was not a box office hit. There are no heroes in the film and no happy ending unless you happen to be a German left wing anarchist who by 1927 had had enough of modern capitalism.  B Traven was the name used by the author of The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre. The identity of Traven is a mystery but we know he was German.  What may or may not have happened to Traven has inspired a couple of books.  John Huston may have been a talented director but he relished his celebrity and he often behaved like a scoundrel. For some years his daughter Angelica and the irresponsible and self-serving Jack Nicholson lived together. For a while Nicholson was useful as a father substitute. Traven was different. He walked away from fame and fortune and disappeared somewhere in Mexico. The rumour is that Traven ran a bar that was successful at deterring customers. His legend may have inspired Sam Peckinpah when he made Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia.  In that film an expatriate American hero owns a run-down bar in Mexico.   The name of the hero was Benny. The Christian name of B Traven is unknown.   People speculated, and Peckinpah let them.

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The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre is not without flaws. The plot is not coincidence laden but it feels a little neat. The arrival of James Cody at the camp of the three prospectors adds a lively scene to the narrative but it is no more than an addition and, if anything, it diminishes what distinguishes the characters of the three prospectors. The mental decline of Fred C Dobbs is too rapid to be believable. The deterioration, though, is not relentless. There are moments when Dobbs becomes sympathetic to his fellow prospectors and forgets his compulsion to triumph and have all the gold. These interruptions in the unravelling of Dobbs add some credibility to the events.

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Traven claimed that his novel was inspired by a German ballad. If this was the case, Rudyard Kipling must have had a knack for remembering German folk songs. The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre both evokes and mimics Kipling. It is neither subtle nor original. The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre just happens to be a fabulous movie. Huston was a fan of Kipling and the adventure stories of Victorian imperialists. B Traven provides the thrills of predecessors like Rider Haggard and Conan Doyle but, because of his sympathies for anarchism, he avoids racist right wing baggage.  When the old prospector Howard visits the Mexican village to care for a sick child, he is welcomed with spiritual warmth that is absent from his own Western society.  The gold is blown away by the wind. It will return to the mountain from where it came.  Howard the old prospector recognises this as a joke played by God.  Howard and Curtin sit down against a wall, think about what happened to Dobbs because of his desire for gold and settle for mere survival.  Nobody says so but the two men have found valid purpose, the treasure that too many of us ignore.   The scene and film may have religious significance.  Dobbs, Curtin and Howard meet in a town called Tampico. The Spanish word for neither is tampoco.   The Treasure Of Sierra Madre is an adventure that perhaps begins in Purgatory.

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The characterisation in the movie is solid. Howard is an independent and self-reliant eccentric, Curtin is the loyal companion and Fred C Dobbs is competitive and ambitious.   Dobbs dominates the movie. The opening scenes are devoted to Dobbs begging in the streets of Tampico. It helps us understand his need for wealth.  Dobbs wants vengeance against a world that has inflicted him with indignities. The prospect of fortune allows Dobbs to imagine what it will be like to assert his status over others.  The anger that was previously suppressed surfaces and twists his character.   Ambition, though, makes him vulnerable to fate, and he becomes paranoid. Dreams shaped by wealth not available to others have to be protected and require aggression and suspicion. It makes sense that the three prospectors are separated by age. Howard is old and has no need to worry about the behaviour of others. He can rely on an identity shaped by experience and memory. As the youngest of the three men, Curtin has not yet suffered the indignities of the middle-aged and weary Dobbs. The other characters are incidental but have memorable detail. Gold Hat is a little slow, friendly but ruthless.  Pat McCormick is the unprincipled businessman that prospers because he is shameless and values money more than people. He wears two hats. One is a Stetson, and the other a straw hat. It is clear that they help McCormick lie and perform, provide him with alternative identities. And James Cody is rational and honest but also mysterious. Howard and Curtin find a purpose they do not understand, and Cody leaves a legacy that will soon be shaped by another man, a stranger.

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American fans of The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre are keen to admire the characterisation and make great claims about what it says about human nature. B Traven was, though, a left-wing anarchist. The movie follows the plot of the book and makes the same political points.   Greed, hierarchy, selfishness, inequality, and the exaggerated role wealth has in human affairs, are what create not just the tragedy of Fred C Dobbs but also the confusion that leads to the gold returning to the mountain where it belongs. What has happened to the gold has to be explained by an innocent child. Audiences may have yearned for a recognisable happy ending but there is final contentment. Howard will have a privileged existence as the medicine man in the Mexican village but he will also work to support the lives of the peasants. Curtin feels a responsibility to the widow of James Cody.  Both men understand the attraction of space and landscape and, because neither will no longer be diverted by the need for gold and wealth, they will spend the rest of their lives close to the land and appreciating serenity. This message is not unique to Traven but what made him unusual as a writer and man was his willingness to test his beliefs.  There are various theories but the real identity of Traven remains unknown.  Somewhere in Mexico, though, the legacy of a secretive man who settled for a quiet life amongst human beings he regarded as his equals will be remembered. Or so I like to think.  If not, we can always watch The Treasure Of Sierra Madre, a film that has a sympathetic character called Howard. This alone makes it an event.

Howard Jackson has had six books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and Horror Pickers, a collection of film criticism.   If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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THE MOVIE CHALLENGES

CREEPY

JAPAN, 2016

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The movie begins with a stand off between a policeman and a violent criminal after a chase through a police station. It suggests a high-octane thriller might follow. The opposite happens. To describe Creepy as post-horror is inaccurate. Post-horror includes mild supernatural elements and believable drama. Creepy is somehow grisly but restrained. It is weird rather than realistic. There is not one jump scare in the whole movie. This has been heralded as an achievement. Creepy is an unusual and audacious film from the confident director, Kiyoshi Kurosawa. In his career he has mixed horror, thrillers and romance.   He also expects an audience to handle ambiguity and the unexplained. This may be why the horror genre suits him better than anything. The rigorous demands of plot that the thriller demands can be avoided in horror. Kurosawa takes full advantage in Creepy. Its critics will argue that there is little that is credible in the film, and even amongst its fans few will be convinced that sinister neighbour Mr Nishono has the wit and method to survive as a serial killer. The plot relies on dubious logic, and the characterisation is wayward. Mio the teenager is a dodgy and unpredictable mix of conspirator and rebel. Takara the detective is an appealing character and deliberately underplayed but, when it is revealed near the end of the film that his marriage had tensions that persuaded his wife to be self-destructive, there will be more than a few in the audience who will feel cheated. Up until then evidence of domestic strife had been non-existent. Apart from that inconsistency there are few surprises in the film. What happens next in Creepy is what we expect although there are moments when we wonder how we can anticipate what feels absurd. The link between the past and present requires the kind of coincidence lottery players dream about. And yet Creepy is a fabulous film. It may not possess the twists and turns that shock and surprise but it is unlike anything else.

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Compared to Creepy, so many films feel contrived. Takara the detective is haunted but by a crime that is important to what he discovers during the film.   There is no quirky characterisation or self-destruction designed to hook audiences. Instead, we have the dull characters that we recognise from bureaucratic institutions, men and women who settle for a routine job and modest lives and say little about how they feel. There is no heroism in Creepy, merely curiosity and responsibility. I cannot remember a scene where either of the detectives travels in a car. Their methods are measured and pedestrian. The good are defined by their suspicions, and the bad by their secrets.

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Kiyoshi Kurosawa the director has been compared to Kubrick and Tarkovsky. He is rated because he blends genre entertainment with art. This, though, has been happening for several decades, especially in the horror films of Japan and South Korea. Kurosawa has mentioned that he is interested in American genre directors from the past. In Creepy there are two subtle references to Hitchcock. At one point we hear music from Psycho. The excerpt is brief and from a quiet moment in the Hitchcock classic. The reference is not laboured. Kurosawa also steals an idea from Vertigo. A witness is pushed by Takara the detective to remember what happened before her family disappeared. As she explains the past and reveals her difficult memories, the room goes dark. The light outside has not changed, so the emerging darkness is inexplicable. In Vertigo, Hitchcock used the same trick in the San Francisco bookshop when Scotty enquires about the history of Carlotta. It is a marvellous scene, and credit should be given to Kurosawa for paying homage to the master.   Creepy also has the subtle style of the French movies of Michael Haneke. The interiors are dominated by white walls and windows. The indoor environment is bland and clean. Outdoors is ordinary and more chaotic.

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Kurosawa expects his audience to be patient. There is an explanation of sorts in the final scene although it should not be taken too seriously.   There is a happy ending but not because romance prevails. Instead, steps are taken towards understanding reality. We have characters that are obliged to accept the responsibility that will define them in a way that they had not realised. That sounds complicated and a little obscure but Kurosawa, as he demonstrated in Pulse, is not afraid of challenging an audience to think and wonder about his movies. As well as the abstract ideas in Creepy there are some fine moments. The disposal of the dead bodies is protracted but compelling and must have been inspired by at least two films of Hitchcock. And there are scenes in Creepy that the inspired Englishman would have admired. There may even be a reference to The Wild Bunch in the final scene but other viewers can decide whether Peckinpah is an influence or not.  In an odd way the Peckinpah reference feels like an apology for the perfunctory denouement.

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Creepy benefits from an inspired performance by Teruyuki Kagawa as the threatening Mr Nishino.  Kagawa manages to be both pathetic and terrifying.   Mr Nishino is a vulnerable human being but also a monster and he provokes a complicated response in his neighbours. They both pity and fear him. Teruyuki Kagawa is the son of a kabuki actor. Kabuki is the dance drama that Western movie fans should remember seeing in The Lady From Shanghai.  Kabuki theatre manages to be both traditional and avant-garde. It has its rules but permits innovations and examines controversial subjects. Since 2004 Teruyuki Kagawa has appeared both in mainstream cinema and as a kabuki actor. His performance in Creepy has been compared to Peter Lorre. There is a physical resemblance, and the voices are similar. Kagawa, like Lorre, is able to express a desire to please while being a quiet threat. As Lorre demonstrated in M the classic thriller by Fritz Lang, serial killers can have feelings and be sensitive. The willingness of Lorre in M to share his psychological burden made the film memorable. Kurosawa does not invite sympathy in the way that Lang did in M. In the final scene we are aware that the human wreckage and limitations extend well beyond the psychopath.

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Place may be defined by nature and geography but locations are created by human beings. The cities and homes we live in define our existence and reality. In Creepy the home and the office exist as alternative locations, places to rest and to be.  Takura the detective admits that he finds it difficult to separate work from home. The crimes of Mr Nishino the serial killer occur in locations that share certain qualities. If he has to move because of his crimes, he can at least find homes that offer him consistency in his existence. Location as opposed to place is what we settle for because we need to have a sense of ourselves. Our homes and the places in which we work give us purpose but also filter and censor reality.  In the modern competitive world our need for censorship of the horror that may exist elsewhere is fundamental to how we live. Neighbours and colleagues who follow the rules will support that censorship and even help us to imagine that what we need to ignore may not exist. The threat to the pretence is the unruly neighbour or difficult colleague.   These people, though, are like the rest of us. They also need places to live and jobs to do. There is a marvellous moment in Creepy when Mr Nishino looks at an estate where he sees a possible future home.   We understand his needs but fear for his neighbours.   Yasuko the wife of the detective Takura realises the importance of location to identity and lives. She hopes that their new home will transform her existence and marriage. Her illusion and hopes are soon punctured by the disturbing presence of Mr Nishino.

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Creepy is great because it has ambitions. It mixes domestic tension, psychological drama and horror. The plot and characters may be inconsistent but we recognise moments of truth and revelation in all three elements. The film is concerned with submission and the line humans will cross on their way to subjugation and passivity. The methods that Mr Nishino uses remind us of consumerism and how we have a way of life that persuades us to be obedient and to believe resistance and independence are futile. Mr Nishino creates appetites and dependence. He denies responsibility for what is happening inside his household. It may be fanciful to say so but what happens in Creepy feels like a micro version of neoliberalism. The victims of Mr Nishino are also his dependants. As he exploits and persecutes them, he protests his innocence. He lives, and his victims fulfil his wishes.  In the real world the poor struggle and have to bow their heads.   The rich refuse to take responsibility for the suffering in an unequal world. They prefer to blame a supposed human nature that none of them attempt to understand and to claim the state of the world has nothing to do with them.

Howard Jackson has had six books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and Horror Pickers, a collection of film criticism.   If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.