Thursday, April 29, 2010

"Hang 'Em High" and the lesson about revenge

Title: Hang 'Em High
Released: 1968
Genre: Spaghetti Western Lite
Notable for: Clint's first starring role in U.S.
Clint's subliminal message: There's never a bad time to grab a whore

As proud Americans we are pained to say it but it is true: Clint’s triumphant return to Hollywood was weak compared to his time as an Italian sensation.

“Hang ‘Em High,” the first American film starring Eastwood, is a Western that is Spaghetti Lite. It’s not horrible, by any means. It has impressive casting with early roles by guys like Dennis Hopper and Bruce Dern. But, unlike a real spaghetti Western, the only humor thrown in is by bit players whose characters are about to be hung. And we get the impression this movie tries to say something important and we don’t understand what it is.

“That’s the worst ending ever,” Andrew said. “The story is not finished."

No one with a trace of testosterone in his bloodstream ever said any Clint Eastwood movie made by Sergio Leone had a bad ending.

“Hang ‘Em High” starts when a freelance posse mistakes Clint, a former lawman, for a killer and hangs him from a tree.

Clint’s tormentors are incompetent vigilantes. He survives the hanging with just a rope-burn scar on his neck. A roving lawman cuts him down and takes him to jail to sort things out.

When cleared of wrong-doing, Clint is deputized to work for a hanging judge. He takes the job only because it allows him to enjoy revenge by legally hunting down the men who hung him.

All indications suggest the audience is supposed to ponder the nature justice. We did not want to ponder.

Clint, for the first time but definitely not the last, plays a man motivated by revenge. He meets and eventually seduces a beautiful blond woman storekeeper who craves revenge.

This is fine and dandy until, somewhere along the way, things go slightly incomprehensible.

Clint begins to resent his judge boss for handing out the death penalty like candy on Halloween.

When two teenage brothers are hung against Clint’s recommendation, he is so upset he, um, grabs a whore and gets laid while everybody else in town watches the hanging.

Screwing to cope with injustice may have seemed edgy in 1968, but it is a little creepy now.

Clint's most studly line comes after Bruce Dern says, "You'll never get me alive, boy." Clint answers, "Then I'll get you dead. Boy."

Over time, Clint comes to despise the judge. He even complains about "that hole you call a jail” and insists on a pardon for one of the guys who tried to hang him.

At the end, Clint quits his job as a lawman. Then he takes it back. Then he looks uncomfortable about tracking down the last two guys on his revenge list. Clint seems to lose his thirst for vengeance, but we are not sure why. Is it because he is screwing a storekeeper now instead of a whore? And what about the blond storekeeper? Maybe Clint gives her up to wear the badge but we don't know because it is not explained.

Is there a lesson for manhood? Maybe.

Revenge is good up to a point, Clint’s example says, but don’t get carried away.

Either that or he’s telling us a man never has a bad time to grab a whore.

Let’s go with the thing about revenge.

Next up: "Coogan's Bluff."

Saturday, April 24, 2010

"The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" and the power of shutting up

Title: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Released: 1966
Genre: Leone with a budget
Notable for: The best damn theme music ever
Clint's subliminal message: "Hey, I've got a social conscience."

Andy proposed doing something bold and audacious to honor "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly," so we went to KFC and got a couple of those new Double Downs to eat while watching.

Intelligent commentators say the Double Down represents everything that is wrong with the United States of America. It is a greasy slab comprised of two pieces of boneless chicken with bacon, cheese and sauce in the middle. Even many Americans consider the concept repulsive.

Luckily, we are not intelligent.

We pushed the "play" button and waited for that unforgettable theme music. Then we took bites. A person can do anything -- clip his fingernails or vacuum a rug -- and feel bold and audacious if that music plays in the background.

"The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly," is the last and most lucrative of Clint's three spaghetti Westerns directed by Sergio Leone. Despite top billing, Clint is overshadowed by Eli "The Ugly" Wallach. Wallach had more lines, more scenes and his character stole the show. Clint fared better than poor Lee "The Bad" Van Cleef, who is mostly invisible.

Clint is "The Good," but this description is a head-scratcher. Early in the film he marches Wallach, his uneasy partner con-man crime, into the desert and leaves him to die. This unnecessary and unexplained cruelty far exceeds anything bad he did the first two Leone films. So he does not seem particularly good.

The basic story is a gem. The three main characters are in pursuit of a fortune in buried gold. They endure various extreme hardships to find it. None of them is trustworthy but necessity forces them to form shifting alliances. At the end, they have a classic three-way showdown in a cemetery.

One minor complaint: Clint's so-called Man with No Name once again has a name and this time it is stupid. He is "Blondie." One character describes him as blond. Maybe in Italy Clint qualifies as blond, but not in the land of Double Downs.

One major complaint: Leone was finally given a budget and he used it to bloat the film.

Just as it reaches its climax, an excellent story is sidetracked by about a half hour of Civil War bullshit. Viewers at the time would judge from the trailer that this is a Civil War movie, which it most definitely is not. By the way, if you click the preceding link to the trailer, you may notice it confuses which character is "The Bad" and which is "The Ugly." It was a very poor model of accurate promotional material.

Civil War stuff is thrown in, by all appearances, so Leone can use his big budget to film a battle scene, blow up a bridge and let Clint fire a few cannon shots. Clint also mumbles something about the waste of war. The effort to give him and the film a social conscience is clumsy and unconvincing.

But what the hell? It's still a great film.

Clint's quiet loner character is taken to an extreme in this film. He never seems to string more than two sentences together. His version of a monologue is, "I have a feeling it's going to be a good, long battle." Usually his lines are more like "We better wait for nightfall" or "Yeah."

Critics took this as a sign Clint cannot act, but he was onto something big.

The big thing about silence was nicely laid out in the best line of the film, which was delivered by Wallach. A revenge-seaking lowlife sneaks up while Wallach takes a bath, pulls a gun and starts explaining intentions. Then Wallach shoots him dead with a pistol hidden beneath soap bubbles in the tub.

"When you have to shoot, shoot," Wallach says to the dead man. "Don't talk."

Real men don't confuse talk for action, and Clint knew it all along.

Next up: "Hang 'Em High."

Saturday, April 17, 2010

"The Witches" and the alarming rise of the anti-Clint

Title: The Witches (better known as "Le Streghe")
Released: 1965
Genre: Art house bullshit
Notable for: Being almost unknown by Eastwood fans, or anyone else, for that matter
Clint's subliminal message: "Cowboy? I am an act-tor!"

Why Clint agreed to make this movie is a mystery. It is a blessing to both him and the world at large that almost no one has seen it.

Eastwood fans who manage to track down "The Witches" will be alarmed and despondent to see images of Clint picking nose hairs, smiling stupidly, snoring, losing interest in sex, swishing and spitting and generally being a boring, buttoned-down American husband who cannot satisfy a hot-blooded Italian wife. Plus, we almost see his pecker.

Shudders. No other Clint Eastwood film is dominated by such dark and powerful forces of the anti-Clint.

"The Witches" was made between the second and third of the spaghetti Westerns that launched Clint into movie stardom but, due to legal issues, neither of those first films were yet released in the United States. Clint was famous only in Europe as the grimacing, deadly cowboy.

Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis sought out Clint for "Le Streghe," a showcase movie for actress Silvana Mangano, the producer's wife. The film has five separate stories shot by five directors, and Mangano stars in all five stories.

Clint's segment, which lasts 19 minutes, is last. Our review of the first four parts is: 1.) boring and too long; 2.) dumb but short; 3.) a weird farce that at least holds attention; and 4.) sorry, lost interest.

"It is so desperately trying to be artistic, and it's stupid," Andy said.

Clint plays a guy enmeshed in domestic futility while living in Rome. He complains his life is "family to the office, office to the family, back and forth." He falls asleep on his wife when she wants to screw.

The story alternates between boring reality and Mangano's fantasies. The climax comes when she imagines herself stripping (unfortunately, no nudity is shown) in front of thousands of cheering men as Clint kills himself. Then she snaps back to reality, moans "I love you!" to the sleeping Clint, and the film ends. Yeah, right.

De Laurentiis clearly thought it amusing to cast Clint in a light-comedy role opposite of his image. To drive home the point, a figure of Clint wears a cowboy hat and shoots pistols during the opening credits. In one scene, Clint and Mangano talk about going out to a movie and he reads a listing of films playing in Rome. Near the middle of the list, he says, "Fistful of Dollars, western."

Like we said, it is a mystery why Clint agreed to do it. He looks uncomfortable in his role, which is the right reaction.

Legend says Clint was swayed by the offer of a Ferrari car as part of his pay. He probably also succumbed to that egotistical actor's thing about not wanting to be type-cast. Good thing he got over that.

Can we draw masculinity lessons from the anti-Clint? Yes. The lesson: A man is not afraid to take chances by doing something unexpected, even when he should know better.

This film never went into general release in the United States and evidently it was never big in Italy, either. The movie is so rare an L.A. Times blogger reported it was once thought lost. Securing the English-dubbed version was one of the greatest logistical triumphs of The Clint Eastwood Project.

To capitalize on our triumph, we are seriously considering burning DVDs to sell on eBay. Who knows how much money we can make off Eastwood fans before Clint's lawyers notice and seek restraining orders to keep a lost film lost?

Settlement proposal to Eastwood legal team: We won't do it if you give us a Ferrari.

Next up: "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly."

Saturday, April 10, 2010

"For a Few Dollars More" and the lesson about a fair fight for justice

Title: For a Few Dollars More
Released: 1965
Genre: Spaghetti Western, part 2
Notable for: Cementing Clint's international stardom
Clint's subliminal message: "No sophomore jinx here."

Right from the start we reject the idea "For a Few Dollars More" is Clint's first sequel. It is not a sequel.

The movie poster said "The Man with No Name is Back," which is a lie on two fronts. Once again, Clint's character has a name. He's "Monco." He is identified by name early in the film. Second, even though Monco dresses and acts the same as Clint's character in "A Fistful of Dollars," Monco is a well-known "bounty killer." There was never a clue Clint had that profession in the first movie.

Most telling, the same actor who played the evil Ramon in the first movie, Gian Maria Volonte, is back as a different villain, the evil Indio. A sequel would have to make Indio out to be Ramon's twin brother seeking revenge on Clint, or something equally asinine.

But perhaps we are a tad too anal on this point.

"For A Few Dollars More" has the same director, Sergio Leone, and all the same general ingredients as "Fistful of Dollars" except for low expectations.

This second effort did not disappoint anyone but critics of the era, who were stupidly intent on failing to see Clint's character was more than selfish and murderous.

Casual viewers must be smarter than critics, because they saw Clint had more than homicide in his character.

Clint sets out after Indio and his gang of vicious misfits, who have huge rewards on their heads. He quickly encounters a second bounty killer played magnificently by Lee Van Cleef. Their first encounter is a great scene where each man calmly shoots the other man's hat, with Van Cleef besting Clint in firepower. They join up to pursue Indio in what seems a partnership destined to end in betrayal.

But it does not end in betrayal. It ends in a real sense of honor, and maybe even friendship.

Along the way, Clint figures out that Van Cleef has personal reasons to want revenge on Indio. Indio once raped Van Cleef's sister, who committed suicide by shooting herself in mid rape. Indio is such a creep he pines for the dead rape victim.

Indio gets the advantage on Van Cleef and is about to kill him near the end of the film. That's when Clint comes to the rescue. Instead of shooting Indio dead, Clint evens the playing field between Van Cleef and Indio, then sits down to watch their gunfight.

Naturally, Van Cleef kills the scumbag. He then tells Clint to keep all the bounty money.

Only then does the audience see this was not a movie about killing for money. It was a movie about finding justice, or at least just revenge.

The lesson from Clint's character was real men recognize justice and want it to have a fair fight. They also enjoy kick-ass theme music heavy on whistling.

Next up: "The Witches."

Saturday, April 3, 2010

"A Fistful of Dollars" and Clint's lesson about a real man's love of money

Title: A Fistful of Dollars
Released: 1964
Genre: The original Spaghetti Western
Notable for: The first real Clint Eastwood movie
Clint's subliminal message: "A star is born."

Now we are talking! Well, Clint does not say much. But we here in the Flory man lair are talking!

Forty-six years after "A Fistful of Dollars" was released, no one can convince us it is not still one of Clint Eastwood's very best films. Screw Oscars and Golden Globes, dude. This is the image people instantly associate with Clint's name -- the poncho, the stony silence, the squinty stares, the hail of bullets between puffs on a stubby cigar.

This breakthrough movie made Clint an international star and icon-in-waiting. Never again would he play small roles. He was officially larger than life.

Italian director Sergio Leone received all the credit at the time for inventing this different sort of western movie and very different sort of lead role. Everyone assumed Clint was a stupid slob from a TV show.

Now we know better. Clint himself pushed to underplay The Man With No Name (never mind that one character repeatedly calls him "Joe") to such a classic extreme. Many elements of his characterization -- the quiet loner, the rejection of traditional "good guy" image, the capability of deadly violence, the personal code of justice -- became standard Clint Eastwood stuff.

At the start of the film, Clint rides into a god-forsaken Mexican town and discovers it is controlled by two rival gangs of lowlife cutthroats. Sensing an opportunity, Clint guns down enough assholes to establish credentials as the fastest pistol man around. Then he plays one gang against the other and tricks each into paying him a lot of money. Everything goes well until Clint decides to free a woman held as a sex slave by one gang leader, a sociopath named Ramon. Ramon's cackling goons beat Clint to within an inch of his life, but Clint escapes and gets his revenge in the final scene.

It is difficult today to grasp how much loathing this movie created among snobs and wanna-be intellectuals. They called the film coarse and violent and said it appealed to lower instincts of the audience. They said Clint played a money-hungry killer with no sense of justice and no interest in anyone but himself.

Snobs can be amazingly stupid.

Clint's character did fine tricking the town's bosses out of money but he was nearly killed because he freed Ramon's woman for no selfish reason. He has a moral code, all right. But it is his own code instead of the usual crap required of movie heroes.

As she escaped, the woman spoke for the audience by asking Clint why he did it. "Why?" Clint answered in just about his longest speech of the movie. "Because I knew someone like you once and there was no one there to help." Mysterious, yes, but it was good enough for her and for us.

In other words, the snobs were so dumb they missed the very first and most fundamental lesson of The Clint Eastwood Guide to Being a Real Man.

Lesson One: Trying to get rich is a fine idea, but some things are always more important than money to a real man.

Thanks, Clint.

Next up: "For a Few Dollars More."