Monday, April 25, 2016

Silver Screen Influences: Vera Cruz

My character Cincinnati is an amalgamation of some of my favorite on-screen badasses but his look was almost completely influenced by Burt Lancaster’s character, Joe Erin, from Vera Cruz. There’s a lot of Joe’s swagger and attitude in Cincinnati as well but if you want to know what my infamous gunfighter looked like, just watch this Cooper/Lancaster classic. I don’t know if it’s ever been officially noted but I’m willing to bet George Lucas was also hugely influenced by Lancaster since Joe Erin not only looks just like Han Solo, he acts exactly like him, too.

Vera Cruz is epic in scope with huge battle scenes and countless extras but the story is relatively straight forward and with an running time of just over an hour and a half, it has a pace more like the B-westerns I love. Gary Cooper is very Gary Cooper-y as the white-hat wearing Benjamin Trane but simply can’t compete with Lancaster’s awesome performance as Joe Erin. Lancaster steals the show more than once with this cocky, white-toothed delivery and his phenomenal gun-spinning tricks. He is the epitome of cool and well worth the price of admission alone.

I like Vera Cruz just fine, especially since it’s only around 90 minutes. It’s the type of movie that, if it were made today, would surely be bloated to three hours simply to justify its grand scope. I like the fact that it’s beautiful to watch but hasn’t had a convoluted plot and inane dialog shoe-horned into it just to make it more “epic.” Hell, Lancaster’s performance does that all by itself. 

Vera Cruz (1954)
Director: Robert Aldrich
Writers: Roland Kibbee, James R. Webb
Stars: Burt Lancaster, Gary Cooper, Denise Darcel

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Silver Screen Influences: Joe Kidd

An argument could be made that every Clint Eastwood Western has had an influence on my writing but one in particular stands out above the rest. My first novel, TEMPERANCE, wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for Joe Kidd. While watching it for the first time a few years ago, a certain scene hit me and gave me an idea for a whole story. When Eastwood is holed up in a church and quietly takes out two guys with his bare hands (he drops one through a trap door in the ceiling and crushes the other one's skull with a swinging, water-filled pot—it’s awesome!) I wondered what it would be like to have a main character who didn’t carry a gun go up against a whole town of men who did. The idea germinated and when I decided that I’d never be able to get a screenplay produced, it became my first novel.

It’s really no mystery why I happen to like Joe Kidd so much. Elmore Leonard wrote the screenplay (no, it wasn’t a screenplay based on his book, he actually wrote the thing), Lalo Schifrin wrote the score (his Bullitt soundtrack is one of my all-time favorites), John Sturges (The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, etc.) directed it and then, of course, there’s Clint Eastwood in one of his best performances.

As a side note, something just came to me. I’ve always said that there are two types of people: the ones who think Revolver is the best Beatles record and the ones who think Rubber Soul is. I think this also applies to Westerns. I find that there are John Wayne people and then there are Clint Eastwood people. I happen to be a Rubber Soul—Eastwood. Leave me a comment and tell me what you are.

Anyway, Joe Kidd oozes Elmore Leonard with a plot about natives fighting with the white man over land and of course his dry humor which Eastwood is perfect at delivering. Robert Duvall is great as the disgruntled land owner Frank Harlan and his gun-toting cronies could have been pulled from the pages of any of Leonard’s books. Hell, there’s even a shot where a train goes through a building. What else could you want?

Joe Kidd is fun and over-the-top and although it may not be as epic in scope as some of the films Sturges is known for, it sill is a great collaboration of some of the best creative people of the time.

Joe Kidd (1972)
Director: John Sturges
Writer: Elmore Leonard
Score: Lalo Schifrin
Stars: Clint Eastwood, Robert Duvall, John Saxon
Buy on Amazon

Friday, April 8, 2016

Silver Screen Influences: The Gunfighter

The Gunfighter may not be a perfect movie but it has so many great little parts and bits that I find myself re-watching and borrowing from it more than most. One of the more influential images I’ve used is the gag where we see a wannabe gunfighter get shot as he pulls his gun by someone off screen. When the camera cuts to the Jimmy Ringo (Peck), his revolver is out and smoking and his yet-to-be-finished whiskey is still in his hand. The reveal implies a faster-than-the-eye quick draw that when left up to the imagination seems superhuman. I use the same technique all throughout my first novel TEMPERANCE continue to utilize it to this day.

You really can’t go wrong with Gregory Peck and his character, Ringo, is both mysterious and menacing. The movie does a good job of implying a long history between Ringo and the town’s reformed marshal, played by Millard Mitchell, without giving too much detail. Although her presence is brief, Helen Westcott does a good job as Ringo’s estranged wife and helps to add depth and ground his character.

Like I said, The Gunfighter isn’t perfect but it sure is fun. The plot is simple and the reveals are somewhat predictable but the ending is great and the performances are spot-on. If you dig Gregory Peck you really can’t go wrong with The Gunfighter.

The Gunfighter (1950)
Director: Henry King
Writers: William Bowers, William Sellers
Stars: Gregory Peck, Helen Westcott, Millard Mitchell

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Silver Screen Influences: Open Range

Open Range isn't just one of my favorite westerns, it's one of my all-time favorite movies. From its breathtaking scenery to Michael Kamen's beautiful score, Open Range has the feel of a classic epic with the intimacy of a micro-budget drama and the intense violence of a war documentary. It's obvious that Kevin Costner poured everything he had (he even shot a portion while suffering from appendicitis) into what I consider to be his best film and I'm sill amazed it doesn't get the recognition it deserves.

Robert Duvall is perfect as Boss Spearman—a character not unlike Lonesome Dove's “Gus”—and an ideal complement to Costner's ex-gunfighter, Charley Waite. Charley is second only to Eastwood's William Munny from Unforgiven when it comes to harboring a pent-up urge to un-holster his gun and unleash some extremely satisfying vengeance. Costner's character does have more depth than Eastwood's, especially when it comes to how he acts toward Annette Bening's Sue Barlow. Their relationship is tentative and sweet and has a childlike innocence that perfectly contrasts Costner's hidden violent tendencies. Bening is an extremely strong female character (do you see a pattern forming in the films I dig?) who does something at the climax of the movie's final gunfight that I wish more characters would do.

Speaking of the final gunfight—damn! It's the most brutal and realistic sequence from any western I've seen and absolutely on par with the bullet-ridden bank robbery in Michael Mann's masterpiece, Heat. Much like the final confrontation in Unforgiven, we finally get to see what Charlie Waite is capable of as he and Boss Spearman take on an evil ranch owner and his gun hands. I've stolen a lot from Open Range but one of the things that’s been on my list that I finally used in The Gunfighter Cincinnati was the free-the-hostage-by-sooting-the-bad-guy-in-the-face move Costner employs during the climax of this film. At one point he's so angry it looks like he's punching the bullets from his Colt into the bad guy. Did I mention it was brutal?

Open Range is perfect. I've already stolen so many ideas and nuances from it but I'm not about to stop. If you haven't seen Open Range, drop what you are doing, buy it and watch it. I promise it will make your day.

Open Range (2003)
Director: Kevin Costner
Writers: Lauran Paine, Craig Storper
Stars: Kevin Costner, Robert Duvall, Annette Bening. 

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Silver Screen Influences: Yellow Sky

The three top-billed stars in Yellow Sky directly influenced three of my favorite characters from my TEMPERANCE TRILOGY. With an extended sequence shot in Death Valley’s salt flats and a story that takes place in a ghost town, Yellow Sky not only has a unique setting for Westerns of its time, it has a unique story as well. While a lot of Westerns in the ‘40s were slightly cartoonish and seemed to be geared for a light-hearted crowd, Yellow Sky stands out as an escape to the dark side where rooting for the bad-guys doesn’t seem all that bad.

Gregory Peck is outstanding as a bank robber called Stretch who leads his band of miscreants across a barren landscape trying to outrun the law. Dazed and near death, Peck and his crew come a cross a nearly-abandoned ghost town with a population of two — an old man and his pistol-packing, tomboy granddaughter played by Ann Baxter. Baxter’s character, who calls herself Mike (I love that) is one of the strongest female leads in any Western to date and was the basis for my character, Abigail Gibson. She’s tough, she’s great with a gun and — in the words of the movie trailers of that era — she’s all woman. Richard Widmark’s clean-cut, all-black-wearing gunfighter called Dude (it seriously has the best character names of any Western) is only concerned with the almighty dollar and will do anything to get it — not unlike my own gunfighter Cincinnati.

Yellow Sky is fun, it’s different and it’s well worth a screening if you love Westerns. I might just go watch it again to see what other ideas I can “borrow” from it.

Yellow Sky (1948)
Director: William A. Wellman
Writers: Lamar Trotti, W.R. Burnett
Stars: Gregory Peck, Anne Baxter, Richard Widmark

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Silver Screen Influences: Ride Lonesome

If TEMPERANCE was my salute to Unforgiven and A THOUSAND YESTERDAYS was my salute to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, then my newest novel THE GUNFIGHTER CINCINNATI is my tribute to Ride Lonesome. My second favorite of the Scott, Boetticher, Kennedy collaborations (Seven Men from Now is still my favorite), Ride Lonesome has their signature straight-forward, no-nonsense plot seasoned with awesome visuals and a fascinating group of characters.

Randolph Scott’s Ben Brigade is a grittier, harder version of the likably steadfast character he’s known for. Although he usually plays someone with a mysterious past, the reveal at the end of Ride Lonesome that shows Brigade’s motivation has a lot more weight to it than usual. Scott is joined by an excellent group of multi-layered characters but both Pernell Roberts and James Coburn stand out as the morally-questionable anti-heroes I love to watch. Karen Steele is adequate in her role as the damsel in distress and only has one instance of screaming like a crazy person.

I nodded to a lot of things in Ride Lonesome in my newest novel. From the obvious group of miss-matched characters thrown together in a quest, to the dim-witted criminal being dragged along for the ride. Even the contorted hanging tree in Ride Lonesome made its way into the pages of THE GUNFIGHTER CINCINNATI. Ride Lonesome also has one of my favorite shots combined with one of my all-time favorite lines. As Ben Brigade and Pernell Roberts’ Sam Boone ride across a valley, a group of Indians are slowly revealed atop a ridge behind them. In the foreground, the two men are discussing Karen Steele. Boone says, “I guess she’s about the best overall good-lookin’ woman I’ve ever seen.” Just before Brigade acknowledges the riders, he replies, “She ain’t ugly.”

Ride Lonesome (1959)
Director: Budd Boetticher
Writer: Burt Kennedy
Stars: Randolph Scott, Karen Steele, Pernell Roberts, James Coburn, Lee Van Cleef

Monday, March 7, 2016

Silver Screen Influences: 3:10 To Yuma (1957)

Elmore Leonard was a master. He wrote so many great books and short stories and an amazingly high number of them were made into great movies. Although I love his crime novels and the movies and TV series based on them—like Justified, Jackie Brown (Rum Punch), Out Of Sight, Get Shorty and even the newest adaption, Life Of Crime (The Switch)—my favorites are still his Westerns. Hombre, The Tall T (The Captives), Valdez Is Coming, and the Elmore Leonard scripted Joe Kidd are some of my favorites but the top of my list has got to be the original 1957 3:10 To Yuma. Masterfully shot, beautifully scored and amazingly acted, 3:10 is a great movie.

Let’s just get down to it. Glenn Ford’s performance is a masterpiece. He’s evil, he’s cunning and he’s ruthless but in spite of that he’s still one of the most charming and likable characters ever put on screen. Glenn Ford’s Ben Wade is the devil incarnate. The interplay between Ford and Van Heflin’s Dan Evans is tense and complex and has yet to be matched in any movie since. There are only two women in 3:10 but both Leora Dana and Felicia Farr are strong and beautiful and can stand their own.

3:10 To Yuma is a rough adaptation of Leonard’s short story but with all of the added backstory and changed names, the spirit of his voice still comes through. Aside from the more obvious influences to my writing—like the despicably likable bad guy—my favorite takeaway was inspired by Ford’s story about a sea captain’s daughter from San Francisco who, “… had the greenest eyes. I used to look into them and they’d just change colors. They’d get all fiery, you know, all the colors of the sea …” Abigail Gibson from my TEMPERANCE TRILOGY has big green eyes because Ben Wade convinced me that they should be.

The 2007 remake of 3:10 is good. It was shot well and the performances are fine but it simply can’t hold a candle to the original. Buy 3:10 to Yuma. Don’t hesitate, just go buy it. And don’t settle for the DVD. The Criterion Collection Blu-ray is amazingly remastered and should be the only way you watch it.

3:10 To Yuma (1957)
Director: Delmer Daves
Writers: Elmore Leonard, Halsted Welles
Stars: Gelnn Ford, Van Heflin, Felicia Farr, Leora Dana

Monday, February 29, 2016

Silver Screen Influences: Lawman

Lawman staring Burt Lancaster is one of my most influential Westerns yet seems to be one of the most overlooked by fans of the genre. Fresh off the heels of Peckinpah’s Wild Bunch, Lawman takes another big step into the darker, bloodier '70s version of the Wild West. With quotable dialog that easily rivals films like Tombstone and The Good The Bad And The Ugly, Lawman is violent, ruthless and complex and has left its mark on every novel and story I’ve written. Even the description in my book TEMPERANCE of a dime novel cover featuring the legendary killer Duke Valentine is a literal description of the Lawman movie poster.

Burt Lancaster’s Marshal Jared Maddox is also the basic template for my character the gunfighter Cincinnati. He has a code and a set a rules he calls the law and no amount of reason or sense can sway him from it. Maddox is so blinded by the law he’s created he becomes more of a mindless killer than the mindless killers he’s after. Robert Ryan plays Marshal Cotton Ryan, an old acquaintance of Maddox who tries his hardest to be the level-headed go-between for the bloodthirsty lawman and the reasonable rancher who employs the men he’s after. At one point Ryan tries to sway his marshal counterpart’s decision by saying, “There’ll be dyin’.” Maddox simply replies, “It’ll be their doin’.”

Lawman is dirty, it’s harsh and its ending will catch you so off guard that it’ll keep your mind busy for days. I absolutely love this movie and wish more people would get to know it. If you’re a fan of the darker Eastwood films like High Plains Drifter and Unforgiven, Lawman is a no-brainer.


Lawman (1971)
Director: Michael Winner
Writer: Gerald Wilson
Stars: Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan, Lee J. Cobb

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Silver Screen Influences: The Fastest Gun Alive

Another lesser-known film that hugely influenced my first novel TEMPERANCE, was The Fastest Gun Alive. From its slow-building tension to its clever reveals, Fastest Gun served as my template for creating a character whose main adversary is his own reluctant self control.

The amazing Glenn Ford truly steals the show as George Temple, a simple shopkeep who obviously has more to him than his humble station in life would allow. If the proverbial devil on Ford's shoulder is his own past, his wife, played by the lovely Jeanne Crain, is his angel. She stands alone as his strong voice of reason without being a whining nag like so many movies of that era would have her be. Broderick Crawford's Vinnie Harold isn't the most multi-layered Western bad guy but he's gruff and narrow minded enough to serve his purpose.

The Fastest Gun Alive may not be a perfect movie—the first act's silly but brief dance number is the type of cringe-worthy kitsch that only the '50s could offer—but it still stands as a great character piece driven by Glenn Ford's engaging performance. Fastest Gun is quick, fun and if it were a frilly drink with a tiny umbrella, it would be hard to put down.

The Fastest Gun Alive (1956)
Director: Russell Rouse
Writers: Frank D. Gilroy, Russell Rouse
Stars: Glenn Ford, Jeanne Crain, Broderick Crawford

Silver Screen Influences: Seven Men From Now

I watch a lot of Westerns and thought I should share some of my lesser-known favorites with you. Not only is Seven Men From Now one of my all-time favs, it's also had a huge influence on every book I've written. If you read TEMPERANCE then watch Seven Men, the nods I make should be plainly apparent.

Although I love every collaboration between director Budd Boetticher and actor Randolph Scott, Seven Men is by far the coolest of their many films together. The opening scene between Scott's ex-sheriff character and the first two of the seven is full of tension and is more badass than most things in theaters today. Scott is joined by Gail Russell's big blue eyes—she play's a strong female character unlike a lot of women in Westerns of that time—and Lee Marvin as a likably sinister gunfighter who steals every scene he's in.

Seven Men From Now stands out as a fast-paced, intense romp with an awesome twist that is sure to make you want to watch it over again.

Seven Men From Now (1956)
Director: Budd Boetticher
Writer: Burt Kennedy
Stars: Randolph Scott, Gail Russell, Lee Marvin