Wednesday, October 28, 2009

SAM PECKINPAH - It's Alright Ma, I'm Only Bleeding

Sam Peckinpah: His way, or the highway

The one thing that many of the great directors have in common is their unique vision. However, the pressures of trying to get your pure artistic vision onto the big screen can be considerable. Movie-making is and always will be a commercial business, where the bottom line rules supreme. As a result the relationships between studios and the people they hire to bring movies to life is often characterized by a great deal of angst, which usually leads to excessive drug and alcohol abuse and other erratic behaviour. One individual who wore the 'difficult' genius mantle like he invented it was Sam Peckinpah. Notorious for his heavy drinking and fits of rage on set, Peckinpah was a true outsider - and one of the great maverick directors of the 70s. His films are intensely personal statements, very often conveying stories of men who are no longer right for this world. They feature a unique combination of beauty, melancholy, nostalgia and extreme violence. They are truly unique in every sense of the word.

The Wild Bunch (1969)

Director: Sam Peckinpah
Writer: Walon Green and Sam Peckinpah
Players: William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Warren Oates, Robert Ryan, Ben Johnson, Jaime Sanchez

The Wild Bunch
is widely regarded as Peckinpah's masterpiece, and it has several outstanding qualities that lend weight to that claim. Chief among them is the central performance by William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson and Robert Ryan. Call me nostalgic, but they don't make 'em like this anymore. Not a pretty boy among them, the lines and wrinkles on their well-used faces only adds to their believability. Wild Bunch became notorious for being the first film to depict actual blood spatter as bullets hit home. It was also the first to slow the action down, so you see the dying as it happens. But the violence is only a small part of what makes this film so magnificent. The wonderful music, fantastic set pieces and awesome camera work by longtime collaborator Lucien Ballard are also a part of it. But Wild Bunch is much more than the sum of its parts. A serious contender for greatest Western ever made.

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973)

Director: Sam Peckinpah
Screenplay: Rudy Wurlitzer
Players: James Coburn, Kris Kristofferson, Jason Robards, Chill Wills, John Beck

Peckinpah's other great contribution to the western oeuvre is an elegaic eulogy to one of the great legends of the old West: Billy the Kid. The message is similar to that of The Wild Bunch - the west is changing and outlaws like Billy have no place in it. The movie also deals with themes of loyalty and friendship, and how money rips the ties that bind asunder. Replete with a haunting soundtrack by Bob Dylan (and his first acting role), PG&BK is beautifully shot by John Coquillion. James Coburn does a magnificent job as the conflicted Pat Garrett and Kris Kristofferson manages to produce a very respectable performance as Billy, despite his relative inexperience at the time. Supporting roles are uniformly sublime. When the film was first released the studios chopped a big chunk out of it to get the pace up or some other deluded reason. This new release offers both a 122 minute version that was released in 1988 and a new 115 minute version that was edited by Peckinpah biographers Nick Redman and Paul Seydor, based on Peckinpah's shooting journal and notes.

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974)

Director: Sam Peckinpah
Screenplay: Sam Peckinpah and Gordon T Dawson
Players: Warren Oates, Isela Vega, Robert Webber, Gig Young, Emilio Fernandez

BMTHOAG is strong medicine and not for the faint of heart. Working with one of his regular stable of actors, Warren Oates, Peckinpah produced a bizarre and unique piece of story-telling that combines elements of love story, revenge epic, epic western and hard-boiled crime saga to memorable effect. Oates plays Bennie, a piano player in a Mexican bar. Bennie's life is no picnic, but he has a woman he loves that he plans to marry. In a cruel twist of fate, the one good thing in Bennie's world is taken from him and, mad with grief, he sets out to take his revenge and honour the memory of his loved one. Many of Peckinpah's signature techniques are in evidence here, and once again his life-long fascination for the mysteries of Mexico is evident. A truly bizarre and unforgettable movie and one that was very close to this great director's heart.

The Getaway

Director: Sam Peckinpah
Screenplay: Walter Hill
Players: Steve McQueen, Ali McGraw, Al Lettieri, Ben Johnson, Sally Struthers

Jim Thompson was one of the most original voices in crime fiction. Texas-born, he lived a hardscrabble life, doing all kinds of different jobs while he attempted to become a commercially successful writer. Like many great artists, he was only really discovered late in life and his highly original talents were seized on by several film-makers who brought his work to the big screen. Sam Peckinpah brought in famous action star Steve McQueen to bring the story of an expert bank robber and his wife on the run to life. As Doc McCoy Steve McQueen is, well, Steve McQueen - at his best when driving, running and shooting. Although the original story by Jim Thompson included a much more surreal and downbeat ending, the script is written by Walter Hill, who put more emphasis on the action and pace of the first three quarters of the book. As such, the movie is best viewed as a pure actioner, with some great set pieces and stunt work from one of the great action stars of the 60s and 70s.

Straw Dogs

Director: Sam Peckinpah
Screenplay: David Zelag Goodman, Sam Peckinpah
Players: Dustin Hoffman, Susan George, Dal Henney, David Warner, Peter Vaughan

One of the stand-out films in a decade packed with memorable releases Straw Dogs ran into trouble right out of the gate. The movie was violent as hell, yes indeed, but violence has never really been that much of an issue for censors. The real controversy revolved around sexual violence towards the female lead, British actress Susan George, in a highly charged rape scene. As a result Straw Dogs was banned in the UK and gained notoriety for all the wrong reasons. Viewed today, Straw Dogs is remarkable for many reasons. Its study of intellect versus brute strength and man's inherently violent nature is still highly fascinating. The superb editing, score and effective use of location ratchets up the tension to almost unbearable levels. Dustin Hoffman and Susan George both deliver career-defining performances. An intensely visceral experience that once seen will not be forgotten in a hurry. The cinematic equivalent of a kick in the groin.


Simon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Simon said...

“In all the long, wrought out, back-breakin’, kidney-shakin’, bladder-bustin’ miles from here to Lizard, there’s not one spot of wet relief for man or beast…” Surely no tribute to Peckinpah could be complete without The Ballad of Cable Hogue? The great man’s wistful yet lighthearted tale of revenge and redemption is characterised more by picaresque comedy than by Peckinpah's signature violence. With Jason Robards shining in the title role, the film deals with Peckinpah’s obsession with changing times and the death of the West in a completely different light to his other works. According to the commentaries and features included on my copy of the picture, Peckinpah wanted this movie to be a tribute to his family, particularly his grandfather, who had been a pioneer much like Cable Hogue. But, once filming began, the infamous Peckinpah foibles (drunkenness and meanness) emerged; he alienated everybody, and the film came in late and over budget. He was unquestionably a miserable bastard to work with. In retaliation, Warner Bros released the film without much fanfare and it crashed and burned miserably. Peckinpah was stung, but according to all accounts he had hardly anybody in his corner. But Cable Hogue remains – in its bawdy, lyrical simplicity – one of Peckinpah’s best.

lefistnoir said...

Ah, Straw Dogs... That's one amazing poster. Would do silly things to have that hanging on my wall! LFN