Friday, April 21, 2017

Watch This: The Salvation

Recently I’ve had quite a few people discover the movie The Salvation and ask me if I’ve seen it. Well, the short answer is: yes. I saw it a few years ago and loved it. I think it’s the best Western made since Open Range. Although it’s obviously a very low budget movie, the filmmakers did an amazing job of using what they had to tell an extremely impactful story. The Salvation has no time for humor or romance. It's gritty, it’s brutal and it feels real.

Mads Mikkelsen gives a great performance as Jon Jensen, a European settler who is continually beaten down and pushed to his limits by a murderous gang. He is a man of few words and in many ways very Eastwood-esque. Eva Green’s character, Madelaine (the Princess) is unique and fascinating especially given the fact she doesn’t have a single line of dialogue. Jeffery Dean Morgan is the stand-out actor though in my mind. His Henry Delarue is the quintessential evil bad guy and is gloriously despicable. I absolutely love his performance and if I were to make a Western movie, he’d be one of my top choices for the villain.

The Salvation was shot digitally and uses copious amounts of well-hidden CGI (the multiple fires in the last act are all virtual) to make up for its low budget but still stands out as one of the most realistic, dirty and gut-wrenching Westerns in recent years. It’s also perfectly paced at just over 90 minutes. The Salvation is definitely a must-see and truly one of my favorites. 

Vera Cruz (2014)
Director: Kristian Levring
Writers: Anders Thomas Jensen, Kristian Levring
Stars: Mads Mikkelsen, Eva Green, Jeffrey Dean Morgan

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