USA cinema

THE MOVIE CHALLENGES

HOUR OF THE GUN

USA, 1967

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Director John Sturges went to his grave knowing that he had at least made some classic Westerns. The Magnificent Seven and Bad Day At Black Rock are the obvious highlights in a fine career.  Sturges, though, faltered after the success of The Great Escape in 1963. Hour Of The Gun appeared in 1967.   The opening credits of Hour Of The Gun feature the gunfight at the OK Corral.  The rest of the film is about what happened after the famous shootout.  The credit sequence promises a lyricism that the rest of the film fails to deliver.   In this opening scene there is an understated and mysterious moment.   As the Earps walk down the main street of Tombstone, we see and hear a distant figure urge the Earps to reconsider what they are doing.   Many years ago I walked the full length of Tombstone to the OK Corral, the same journey that Wyatt took with his brothers and Doc Holliday.  It is not a short walk. Wyatt Earp had plenty of time to think about what he was doing.

No Western character has inspired Hollywood moviemakers as much as Wyatt Earp. The story of what happened in Tombstone between the Earps and the Clantons has obliged many actors to reach for their holsters.   A few of these films have attempted a biography of Earp.  Others changed the names of the protagonists but shamelessly recycled the history.  Despite all this effort the character of Wyatt Earp remains as elusive as ever. Biographies like Tombstone and Wyatt Earp have their moments including a not to be forgotten performance by Dennis Quaid as Doc Holliday in Wyatt Earp.  All, though, fail to convince.  My Darling Clementine is supreme cinema from master filmmaker John Ford but romantic tosh.

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Wyatt Earp was a hard case that was interested in making money and having authority. The best of him stood up to other hard cases but the worst was not averse to taking advantage of the weaker. In Dodge City, and before he arrived at Tombstone, he was the local lawman that ran gambling and prostitution.   In the revisionist movie Doc the conflict between the Earps and the Clantons in Tombstone is presented as an economic contest between two rival families who each wanted to control the town.  The Earps did have economic interests in Tombstone but the Clantons were rowdy and unruly and their behaviour needed a law enforcement response.

Hour Of The Gun is not tosh.  It is interesting, decent and even important but for all that the movie somehow falls flat.   There are various reasons. The proclamation of historical accuracy at the beginning of the film invites an audience to expect authenticity and suspend disbelief.  Sturges fails to deliver and if there is a heaven, he may be there right now wondering why.   There are various reasons.  The casting is not as disastrous as it was in Gunfight At The OK Corral, which Sturges made ten years earlier, but it is not right.   Authenticity benefits from fresh faces and a different style. They do not bring realism but can supersede familiar theatrics.  James Garner tries hard as Wyatt Earp but the supposed moral decline of the lawman as he seeks vengeance for the shootings of his brothers is beyond an actor noted for his charm.   Jason Robards is watchable but he supplies scorn rather than the vicious temperament needed to make Holliday convincing.  The great Robert Ryan plays Clanton but is underused. Hollywood paid good wages, so it should have been able to recruit decent support players. There is not one convincing cameo in Hour Of The Gun.

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For the film to have impact we have to witness a supposed hero become a self-righteous serial killer. It never quite happens. The film suggests the dark side of Earp but it always gives the Western hero excuses. Nuance and ambiguity have merit but it is a short route from them towards timidity, and Hour Of The Gun takes it although even muted realism about Wyatt Earp is welcome. The gunfights in the film where the outcome is determined by the speed of the draw are fair contests that never existed. Earp killed the people he did because he was strong and sharp enough to gain an advantage.   This truth is hinted at in the gunfight at the train depot but the scene, which should have been a spectacular set piece full of suspense, is not well handled by Sturges. The point gets lost in our disappointment at the cinematic failure.

Edward Anhalt wrote the script for Hour Of The Gun.  Anhalt has an admirable sensibility and conceptual skill. The strength of the movie is how it analyses the changing relationship between Holliday and Earp. Before the film is finished Doc Holliday is warning Earp about seeking vengeance. The irony is satisfying because we are watching a man be counselled and restrained by the devil on his shoulder.   But Anhalt was a talented playwright who was tempted by Hollywood money.  His best work was outside the movies.  Hour Of The Gun would have worked better as a stage play with the emphasis on conversations between two men who have learnt much about themselves.   In Hour Of The Gun no one appears to learn anything of significance.   Holliday asserts that Earp will regret abandoning the law but that is about it.   The decision by Earp at the end of the film to quit being a lawman is not a surprise but the reasons behind the decision are unexplained and unexplored.  Earp spent much of the rest of his life as a gambler roaming the West.   He became an alternative version of Doc Holliday.  The two men were friends because they were alike.

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Earp only abandons the law when it proves ineffectual. When he can, he utilises the power of vested interests to give him the legal authority he requires.  Earp is also a public sector employee willing to cut corners.  For a brief period he is supported by Holliday, a man who is used to operating in a market where the winner takes all.   All this is believable but it is undercut by the cinematic presentation of Sturges and the performance of James Garner, which ensure that we cannot forget we are watching a resolute hero.   The truth, though, is that the story of what happened after the OK Corral gunfight is a dull one. Two public employees did what civil servants in Britain do often.   They exceeded their responsibilities and bent the rules to suit themselves.  Hour Of The Gun does not conceal the mundane element in the legend but its exposure weakens the action without ever providing enough intellectual interest.   No one should object to subtlety, and there is no reason why an audience cannot be expected to think about what they are watching. But for that to succeed or be justified the moviemakers need to approach their material with integrity, and it is lacking in Hour Of The Gun.   The subtlety on show feels like timidity.

Before Hour Of The Gun appeared in 1967 there were already precedents for realism in the Western.  Man Of The West appeared in 1960.  Gary Cooper is the hero with the dark past. Director Anthony Mann provides a bleak vision of human nature and somehow combines a King Lear tale with impressive action.   Hour Of The Gun has historical detail and two contradictory characters but, when compared to Man Of The West, it is superficial. Sturges and Anhalt refuse to be honest about a tale of vengeance and murder, material that could have been interpreted as stylised horror. There is nothing wrong with characters that are not obvious heroes or villains but the darkness within Holliday and Earp is underexposed.   Instead, we have the compromises in the life of a public sector employee presented as a Western adventure.   The inevitable happens. Hour Of The Gun is interesting but dull.

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Yet the film should be seen. A superficial man too willing to slay others is given the benefit of Hollywood glamour, and the result is an aesthetic confusion that pricks the conscience of the viewer. It may be an unintended consequence but, when we watch Hour Of The Gun, our relationship to violent drama becomes as baffling as the misunderstood men who inspired the tale.  Earp is an action hero but we do not know how to respond to his confident courage.  Something else stays in the mind, and it is the sense of entitlement that some people have.   Although Earp and the Clantons are preoccupied with each other, there is no concern for how their behaviour affects the townspeople.  People without power are invisible in Hour Of The Gun.  Earp feels entitled to his vengeance and influence.  He will not be denied. Holliday has appetites and expects comforts and pleasure beyond his enfeebled body.   Neither man has a conscience about the privilege that enables them to cut corners. They are philosophical about the premature death of others and callous.

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Those British Civil Servants who thought it would help their careers to accept impossible targets for reducing immigration into the UK were also willing to cut corners.  Because their careers and privilege were so important, they were prepared to have legal British citizens removed from their homeland.   No chance, though, of any of them becoming legends.  Earp was lucky.  He outlived his enemies and was able to present himself to writers as a hero. As hard as they try, the present British Government will not be able to rewrite their own history.   The stain is already spreading and it will be remembered.

Howard Jackson has had seven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections 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

HAPPY DEATH DAY

USA, 2017

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The title is not as smart as the people who made the movie but the word happy is important.  Happy Death Day is feel good horror.   The movie borrows from the light but entertaining comedy Groundhog Day, which is referenced in the final scene inside the coffee shop.   It is not the only cinematic reference in the film. The reverse tracking shot up the staircase that first appeared in the Hitchcock masterpiece Vertigo is repeated in a cute almost sentimental suicide scene. There are also references to post-modern horror movies like Scream and Halloween. Films that paid homage to earlier movies are now themselves objects of deification. Talk about going round in circles.

Happy Death Day may depend on Groundhog Day for its basic theme and ideas but it is an okay film. It is not, though, much more than that. Utilising the idea of the self-recycling day so that the heroine is repeatedly slashed to death is bold and clever, a concept that any horror writer would envy. The execution of the idea is also accomplished.  Happy Death Day was made by Blumhouse Productions. So far the company has produced half a dozen films. None are weak although a couple are routine.  The Gift is not a bad idea for a thriller but the final result is a little flat. Sinister is well made and has strong performances but is unexceptional. Oscar winners Whiplash and Get Out are not to be missed movies. The films from Blumhouse Productions have made enough money to keep the Company in business for a lifetime.    Happy Death Day cost $4.6m to make and so far has earned $122m. The business model for the company is to produce independent films but then sell them to the big studios for distribution.   This can be called having your cake and eating it.  It is how smart people sometimes think, and the people at Blumhouse Productions are very smart.   If they are undone, and if Happy Death Day has weaknesses, it is not because of stupidity.

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Jason Blum has his full name on the film as producer, and his surname features in the title of the production company.   Blum learnt how Hollywood operates working for Harvey Weinstein.   He would have needed pragmatism or something to survive. Pragmatism is not as self-effacing as the pragmatists suggest.  Often it nurtures wilful determination. If Happy Death Day had been pitched as an offbeat horror movie for art cinemas, it would have less ambition. The writer would have settled for exposing how lives are defined by predictability and routine. The changing but same scenes would have revealed the way we unwittingly shape what is around us and how our decisions and development influence other lives more than we imagine.  Those elements exist in Happy Death Day but, because the producers want maximum audience appeal, we also have a feminist message wrapped inside sentimental and conventional concerns that are anything but feminist.

Tree the heroine escapes death and learns how to be polite to her father and fall in love with a young man who is as cute and as dull as a young Tom Hanks. Tree has scope for moral progress, being slashed to death every night is bound to change a person, but her rapid moral transformation that covers all bases will make many wary and unsympathetic.   And yes the name Tree is intended to have significance.

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After preview screenings left audiences feeling something other than satisfied the final scenes of Happy Death Day were changed and that had implications for the rest of the film. There are holes in the plot of Happy Death Day but the repetitive day and its variations make it feel as if the holes are being filled in after the event. They are not. It just feels that way.  Tree assumes that the days will repeat themselves without a conclusion. Later she asks the question that has already occurred to the audience, whether there might be a day when she really does die. In one scene the boyfriend of Tree suggests how she can use the repeating days to discover the identity of the person who has slashed her to death. This scene is way too premature in the plot but on subsequent days it is ignored by Tree and has no consequence, so its slipshod heavy handedness is subsequently distilled. There are also loose ends like the issue of what happens to the other victims when days are repeated. Jason Blum has a track record that proves he is smart. Maybe, though, he thinks the rest of us are stupid. The climax has two twists, and in a film that is obliged to vary and repeat a single event the denouement needs to be simple and neat and not add more chaos.

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Happy Death Day was directed by Christopher Landon who is the son of the Little Joe who left the big house of Bonanza to live in a little one on the prairie.   Christopher Landon has talked about being gay and how it affected his family. There is a brief reference to coming out in Happy Death Day. As the reincarnated and reformed Tree conquers all, she persuades an ex-boyfriend to admit to his sexuality. The scene is glib but is not alone. The reconciliation with Dad not only provides healthy competition but also adds to an overburdened plot.   Happy Death Day may or may not have a gay context. The repetitive day that requires a false performance and ends in disappointment is an idea that suggests the experience of suppressed sexuality. Happy Death Day begins with the suspicion of what was probably unsatisfactory sex, not remembered and best forgotten. And in a sense Tree does eventually come out to reveal her authentic self. It helps the film that the character is female, and the absence of a male hero is evidence of the progress that has been made since The Graduate appeared in the late 60s. Both films, though, are lined with treacle.  Happy Death Day would have been improved and made more sense if Tree had been gay.   That, though, would have meant commercial underachievement, and Jason Blum is too smart for that.

Happy Death Day, like other ‘slasher’ horror movies, requires a resolute woman but any notion of female emancipation is undermined by the romantic ending and the contribution of the Tom Hanks lookalike.  Happy Death Day is smart but heartless. Instead, we are given slippery and calculating sentiment. The movie is weighed down by astute commercial ambition and a determination to embrace a wide audience. It lacks the clarity and the genuine grievance that informed Get Out.  In its favour there is the energetic performance of Jessica Rothe who is believable as both good and bad girl. Despite being almost thirty years old she looks like an adolescent student and it is encouraging that her boyfriend is played by an actor who is seven years younger.

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Happy Death Day, for all its superior compromises, is worth an hour and thirty-six minutes of the time of anyone. The defiance too often becomes a fashionable pose but the film has the charm and energy of TV hits Buffy The Vampire Slayer and I-Zombie. The movie is on the right side of tolerance and a reminder that we are too inclined to make decisions about who and what other people should be. Not only does this long-standing and regrettable inclination have unfortunate consequences for those we oppress it does not help us to make the right decisions about who and what we should be ourselves. Many go to their graves without a clue as to how their identity has been constructed, what is authentic and what is artificial.   In Britain right now we have a political leader whose identity was shaped by a narrow world and excess ambition.   Who or what she may be is for Theresa May to ponder. We are neither obliged to like the woman nor vote for her. Theresa May, though, has lost something in the construction of her identity. Otherwise she would not be able to tell conscience free lies in such a measured and confident accent or have needed to make the unforgettable hurried retreat from the victims of Grenfell Tower.   Her latest untruth concerns the dates documents of British citizens were destroyed, when the identities of some British people were redefined by politicians and opportunistic bureaucrats.

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When she was Home Secretary, Theresa May was keen to create what she called a ‘hostile environment for immigrants’. Few of us thought that would include those who had been welcomed to the UK over 50 years ago to ease the problems of an economy that had labour shortages. As Home Secretary, Theresa May was determined to not just define the numbers of the British population but to insist on who would qualify as pedigree stock.  Britons live in a country where the homes of people are invaded so those without identification papers can overnight be separated from their families and dumped into detention centres. For some time this has applied to people we would expect to be accepted as contributors to our society.  Now we know it was even happening to long-standing British citizens. Because of a rush to prejudice and persecution, the British Government has forced some British citizens to live in countries of which they have no knowledge.  It has even prepared advice on how these British citizens can adapt to the local population and pretend to be something other than, well, British.  Meanwhile the Government and the press celebrate the colour of what is an increasingly dubious British passport. Welcome to the 2017 version of what we call the United Kingdom.

Howard Jackson has had seven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections 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.