Saturday, July 31, 2010

"Thunderbolt and Lightfoot:" No pigeon holes here

Title: Thunderbolt and Lightfoot
Released: 1974
Genre: Offbeat crime caper
Notable for: Oscar nomination for best supporting actor
Coolest thing Clint does: Blows into bank vault with 20 mm cannon

Ten minutes into the film, Andrew's friend Preston looked up from his tacos and uttered four words that must have been spoken many times by Clint Eastwood fans.

"I don't get it," the kid said.

Just when Clint seemed securely pigeon-holed as the quiet but deadly cowboy/cop, he put out a movie that is completely different. It worked because "Thunderbolt and Lightfoot" is very entertaining and maybe even very good.

Here are some ways this is no regular Clint Eastwood movie: Everyone around Clint dies but he kills no one; people shoot at him repeatedly but runs instead of shooting back; as far as we know, he doesn't even have a gun; he is likable and smiles several times; by his standards, Clint has character growth and dialogue; and for maybe the first time ever, Clint plays a character who is supposed to be his real age, a Korean War veteran slightly past his prime.

Told you it was different.

It is difficult to describe the movie in any way that gives it justice. Clint basically leads a gang of robbers in an elaborate caper, but the story is punctuated by enough weird interludes that the overall flavor resembles a "Road Runner" cartoon.

At the start of the film, Clint is a soft-spoken preacher, for Christ's sake, delivering a sermon in slick-backed hair. Only a few moments are required to determine things are not as they appear. A dude walks into the church and starts shooting at the preacher. Clint runs away and flags down a passing car. It's a freshly-stolen vehicle driven by Jeff Bridges, who plays Lightfoot.

Lightfoot is, to put it mildly, a free spirit. He has a silly laugh, an abundance of self-confidence, mad driving skills and an engaging smile. A friendship and man-to-man affection develop, and Clint and Jeff become road buddies.

Clint is pursued by former colleagues who think he double-crossed them on an earlier robbery. They broke into a bank vault with a cannon, a crime famous enough that newspapers nicknamed Clint "The Thunderbolt." Loot from the robbery was hidden in a one-room schoolhouse but surviving gang members mistakenly believe Clint took it. They tracked him down when he was laying low by pretending to be a preacher.

Clint and Bridges go to the schoolhouse to get the money but discover the building is gone. It has been replaced by a new school. "Progress, I guess," Clint says.

Two surviving members of the old gang, led by a brutal mug played by George Kennedy, eventually track down Clint and Bridges. They are ready to execute them when instead the four decide to try the old robbery a second time.

An elaborate caper ensues, featuring an extended scene with Bridges in drag. The robbery appears to be a success, but it unravels quickly. One robber is shot by cops. Kennedy decides to take the money himself, but first he knocks Clint unconscious and gives Bridges a savage beating. Kennedy ends up being eaten by a dog, which seems fair.

Luck turns better for Clint and Bridges when they happen upon the old schoolhouse and find it still contains money from the first robbery. The school was not torn down, as they assumed, but moved to become a historical museum.

A happy ending is not in the cards.

Bridges is still messed up from the beating given by George Kennedy. Trying to smoke a victory cigar in the front seat of a Cadillac convertible, Bridges starts speaking to Clint with half of his face, like a stroke victim. He dies right there in the Caddy. Clint throws away the cigar and drives on.

"That was incredibly sad," Andrew said.

Clint brought the star-power to the billing but it is impossible to watch the film and think of him as the main man. Other actors, including two previous and future Oscar winners, were more compelling. Kennedy was great playing the dangerous guy. Bridges received an Oscar nomination as best supporting actor for his kick-ass portrayal of Lightfoot. He lost out to Robert DeNiro in "Godfather II," so we won't argue with the academy on that call. Brief and quirky appearances by character actors like Dub Tayor and the guy who played the "Squeal Like a Pig" rapist in "Deliverance" make a big impression.

If Clint consciously allowed other actors to outshine him, he deserves credit. That's something few mega-stars do.

A real man does not allow himself to be pigeon-holed. Clint, in his later films, made that obvious. Now we get it.

Next up: "The Eiger Sanction."

Saturday, July 24, 2010

"Magnum Force" and meeting the burdens of manly obligations

Title: Magnum Force
Released: 1973
Genre: Cop versus cop
Notable for: First of one too many "Dirty Harry" sequels
Coolest thing Clint does: Girl: "What does a girl have to do to go to bed with you?" Clint: "Try knocking on the door."

Right in the middle of watching the return of Dirty Harry Callahan in "Magnum Force," we were struck by a crisis of masculine obligations.

Candace, Brad's wife and Andrew's mother, came home, walked in the door and said, "Help."

The manly code says we are obligated to assist a woman who asks for help. But, for God's sake, Dirty Harry was on a rampage. Brad looked up from the screen. "Did you say help?" he asked. "Yes," she said, "there's something wrong with my car!"

Damn. Car trouble. The final holdover of what used to be called man stuff. Brad ran to the garage but Andrew kept watching "Magnum Force." He did not even hit the pause button out of courtesy. He knows the code well. You have to assist a woman in need, but not if someone else does first.

Less than two minutes passed before Brad returned, having fulfilled the age-old obligation of opening the hood and peering inside. "Your serpentine belt came off," he told Candace. "Did I miss any killings or boobs?" he asked Andrew.

Thus all laws of gender relations were fulfilled. Sometimes it's hard to be a man.

"Magnum Force" features the return of Dirty Harry without bothering to mention how Harry is a cop again. Clint threw his badge into a pond at the end of the first movie, before anyone realized a spree of sequels was coming.

Oh, well. Clint's fans didn't care and we don't either. "Magnum Force" is, again, a fast-paced series of unlikely action sequences but with a higher body count and more gratuitous nudity than the original. One walk-on homicide victim is a bimbo who takes off her bikini top at a pool party moments before she is blown away by the bad guys. Nice screenwriting there.

The story is pretty simple. A bunch of gangsters and lowlifes are blown away by motorcycle cops, and Clint uncovers a death squad of young hot-shots operating within the San Francisco Police Department. The only real surprise is his that Hal Holbrook, Clint's by-the-book superior officer, turns out to be the ring-leader.

The cast is full of future semi-stars including Robert Urich (Spenser: For Hire), David Soul (Hutch), and Tim Matheson. No matter how well Matheson played a killer cop, we could not look at him without seeing Otter from "Animal House," a movie made five years later. Toga!

Early in the original "Dirty Harry," Clint thwarts a bank robbery while eating a hot dog. In "Magnum Force," he thwarts an airplane hijacking while eating a hamburger. Both movies climax with a chase-slash-showdown in some sort of mining facility. "Magnum Force" also appears to try giving Clint a cool catch phrase. "A man's got to know his limitations" lacks the charm of "Do you feel lucky? Well, do you, punk?"

Despite that, "Magnum Force" clearly was intended to be different than the original. It tried, somewhat awkwardly, to put to rest the criticism that "Dirty Harry" was a fascist.

A death squad within the police department, as any fool can see, now those are some real fascists. And Harry fought them to the death. He turns down an invitation to join the death squad. "I am afraid you've misjudged me," Clint says to the bad guy on screen and to movie critics in the audience.

This stuff eventually produces what may be the longest and most ham-handed line Dirty Harry ever utters.

"I hate the goddam system," Clint tells Hal Holbrook. "But until someone comes along with some changes that make sense, I'll stick with it."

It seems silly that Clint felt the need to make sure everyone knows Dirty Harry is a true-blue American. But we guess he had his own manly obligations. When people call a guy a fascist, he must to do something to shut them up.

Next up: "Thunderbolt and Lightfoot."

Saturday, July 17, 2010

"High Plains Drifter:" Sometimes weird is good, Duke

Title: High Plains Drifter
Released: 1973
Genre: Western ghost story
Notable for: Clint's first time directing a western
Coolest thing Clint does: Blasts three assholes from a barber chair

John Wayne was so disturbed by "High Plains Drifter" he sent a letter to Clint Eastwood complaining that the real west was nothing like the eerie and cruel place depicted in this movie. The real west was full of good people who pulled together to tame a wilderness, Wayne said. They were not cutthroats and cowards with no sense of decency.

To which we say: Who the hell cares?

"High Plains Drifter" was released when Brad was the same age Andrew is now. It immediately became his favorite Clint Eastwood movie and he is not sure that has ever changed. Andrew, for once, does not argue with his father on this point. "It's damn good," he says.

For starters, Clint's distinguished career of threatening grimaces, squints and low growls may have peaked in this film. He speaks every line in a menacing, hoarse half-whisper. No one messes with him without paying dearly. He humiliates, kills and rapes.

If we didn't like that stuff, this blog might be called "The Julie Andrews Project."

The thing John Wayne evidently could not appreciate is that Clint, who directed, did not try to make a story about the real West.

Our Netflix envelope credits "High Plains Drifter" for "existentialism." We're not exactly sure what that means, and we're too lazy to look it up. But we know Clint did a masterful job of using bleak visual images and eerie music to enhance a nightmarish and other-worldly story.

The film begins with Clint riding into a dreary town called Lago. He needs only a few minutes to kill three men who deserve it and rape a woman who likes it. We're pretty sure the rape scene -- or at least the part about the woman enjoying it -- would be too offensive to use in a movie today. But what are you going to do? This was made in 1973, not today.

Weird stuff begins right away. Clint, the ultimate mysterious stranger who will not tell anyone his name, has a dream about a man being whipped in a dusty street. It turns out the whole town has a dirty secret. Everyone stood by and watched as a former sheriff was whipped to death by goons hired by the local mining company.

The sheriff, in flashbacks, looks up through his dying eye at townspeople who do not lift a finger to help and says, "Damn you to hell." That's foreshadowing!

Town residents hire Clint to protect them from three desperadoes about to be released from territorial prison. These are the same three guys who whipped the sheriff to death. For some reason never made plain, the town framed all three on a robbery charge and now the killers want revenge.

Clint accepts the job on the condition that the town must give him anything he wants. He plunders the wares of merchants and makes a midget sheriff and mayor. He orders residents to paint every building bright red and renames the town Hell. He installs a banner welcoming the killers home and sets up a big table as if throwing a party.

At the end, Clint kills all three bad guys as the town burns down. Hell, indeed. As the last scumbag dies, he yells at Clint, "Who are you?"

That question is still treated with remarkable uncertainty. Richard Schickel, who has written extensively about Clint, contends his character's identity in "High Plains Drifter" remains a mystery. The New York Times overview (brace yourself, liberals) starts off by misquoting the ending of the film in a way that makes it more ambiguous.

Come on experts, this is no mystery.

In one scene, a woman says the murdered sheriff was buried in an unmarked grave. "They say the dead don't rest without a marker of some kind," she says.

In the final scene, the midget carves a grave marker.

"I never did know your name," he tells Clint. "Yes, you do," Clint says.

Then the camera focuses on the name on the grave marker. It's the name of the murdered sheriff. Clint rides away and literally disappears in the haze.

Those clues are obvious, not subtle. Clint is the ghost of the dead sheriff, come to bring justice to both the men who killed him and the town that let it happen.

It is a great film with the ultimate manly message that no bad deed goes unpunished. If John Wayne did not like it, that was his loss.

Next up: "Magnum Force."

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

"Joe Kidd:" The power of Clint Eastwood moments

Title: Joe Kidd
Released: 1972
Genre: Bloody-justice western
Notable for: Clint versus Robert Duvall in death struggle
Coolest thing Clint does: Too many to choose just one

Any male who enjoyed Clint Eastwood back in the days when his films were still more likely to feature apes than win Oscars must be a male who likes "Joe Kidd."

We imagine that during the creative process everyone got together and said, "Hey! Screw Elmore Leonard's script! Why don't we make a Clint Eastwood movie with lots of Clint Eastwood stuff that all Clint Eastwood fans will love!"

The result is a western with a loathsome villain played marvelously by Robert Duvall and Clint as a hero who knows how to do everything and is afraid of nothing.

The story is secondary to a string of what people now call "Clint Eastwood moments." Clint bashes a pan into a guy's face, he shoots a scumbag with a shotgun without looking up from his beer, he make an immediate move for Duvall's pet whore, he opens the door of a mission tower just at the right moment to make a bad guy fall to his death, he bashes another bad guy by swinging a clay pot from the tower, he single-handedly stops the execution of five innocent people, he plugs a guy with one shot from a long-range sniper rifle, he drives a train into a bar and opens fire, he blows Duvall away with a slight trace of a smile and he belts the town marshall in the jaw.

Reviewers were not impressed but we are incapable of disliking a film like that.

The film starts with Clint, dressed in funny-looking city dude clothes, in jail for small stuff -- poaching, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. Taken to court, he chooses 10 days in jail over a $10 fine.

Quickly it is revealed that Clint is no city dude. He is a man with (as usual) a dangerous and somewhat mysterious past.

Duvall, a rich cattle baron, rides into town with a gang of homicidal psychopaths to hunt down and murder Luis Chama, rabble-rouser for Mexican property rights. Duvall knows Clint was once an expert man-hunter, whatever that means. He bails Clint out of jail and hires him to help track down Chama.

Clint first refuses, saying, "I haven't got anything against Luis Chama." He changes his mind when Chama's men mess with Clint's own ranch.

Quickly it becomes clear that Duvall is the real villain, not Chama. Duvall is a prick who orders everyone around, including hotel keepers and the town marshall. One great touch is the way Duvall consistently mispronounces Chama's name. Either intentionally or ignorantly, he's so arrogant he fails to know his enemy.

Duvall's role in "Joe Kidd" is not the most famous in his career, or even the year 1972. But he is an actor who always plays one great cowboy.

Once he believes he has the upper hand on Chama, Duvall double-crosses Clint and takes him captive. This is a major mistake.

Clint eventually kills all the bad guys and convinces Chama to give himself up, trusting the courts to settle his land grievances.

Leaving aside some highly unlikely action sequences -- like the train that just happens to be all warmed up and empty, sitting in a spot where the tracks just happen to end outside a bar where the bad guys hang out, and Clint just happens to know how to drive a train -- the plot takes some dumb twists to make Clint a supporter of Mexican land rights.

Duvall inexplicably "fires" Clint and takes him captive even though he knows he is a dangerous man. We can imagine Duvall might try to screw him on money later, but his character is arrogant, not stupid. He would not make Clint an active enemy before the killing is finished.

It makes even less sense when Clint urges Chama to give himself up and fight his case in court. Clint was in jail at the start of the movie for attempting to piss on the courthouse. He does not seem to be a man with great faith in the justice system.

Oh well. The Clint Eastwood moments are what make the film.

Note to Clint's people: Eastwood has made several sequels in his career, but never a sequel to one of his westerns. It's not too late, dudes.

Josey Wales would make a good sequel but Joe Kidd would be better. That character is less defined, thus more flexible. Joe Kidd's time had mostly passed when the original film was made. His man-hunting days were over and he was trying, with mixed success, to fit into a more civilized society. Today Clint could play Joe Kidd in about 1930, trying to cope with a completely changed world. The possibilities are rich.

Just a thought.

The manly appeal of "Joe Kidd" is obvious. Clint can take charge of any situation without fear and with certain success. No one is like that in real life, but it is fun to imagine. This the distilled essence of Clint's appeal to male audiences. No one ever needs to tell him to man up.

Next up: "High Plains Drifter."