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How to Read the Classics to Become a Better Writer

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How to Watch a Movie to Become a Better Writer

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Children watching Charlie Chaplin film, 1951 (from teara.govt.nz photograph:21963)

In case you’ve never visited my blog before, you may not realize what a big fan I am of movies. I love films almost as much as I do books. When I was young, the concept of premium movie channels didn’t even exist, and there were only three networks, with commercials, and with heavy editing of any films they did air. Sometimes, when my newly divorced mother was first dating, my siblings and I got dropped off at a local movie theatre on Saturday afternoons, where the theatre showed many different films all day long, not just the same one all day, so we got to see at least two or three movies without leaving our seats.

We didn’t even have color television for the first decade of my life, so books became more important to me than films if only because I had easier access to books. There was a library in the school, and the Bookmobile came around to our neighborhood once a week, enabling me to get as many books as I could read. Still, I watched as many films as I could.

When I first became a writer, I wrote poetry. I’d fallen in love with TS Eliot’s poems when I was 6, although I certainly didn’t understand them. I loved the music of his language, and I wanted to write words like that myself. Gradually, over the years of writing and publishing poems, my poems began to get longer and more complex. More of my poems became narratives, with distinct storylines. Some had multiple protagonists and different perspectives. Editors at journals where I submitted my work began to write notes on the rejection slips, asking, “Are you sure you’re not writing fiction?” I thought the editors were just being obtuse. Eventually, though, I began to wonder if I should write fiction instead of poetry, if only because my poems were getting too long and complex for most poetry journals.

But how to write a novel? I got as many books as I could on novel writing technique, but they said things so simplistic that I wondered what pre-school class they’d been written for. Have a plot, have characters, make something happen. I knew all that from years of reading books, getting degrees in literature, and from teaching literature. But I was at a loss about how to move from writing poetry to writing fiction. Then, one of my favorite movies aired on Turner Classic Movies, without commercials — Gone with the Wind — and I wondered if I could learn to write fiction by watching a classic film.

Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, Gone with the Wind ©

I hadn’t read Margaret Mitchell’s book at that point, but I was a huge fan of the film based on her book. I watched Gone with the Wind once again, but that time I tried to pay attention to what made the film a good story. In particular, I wondered how the film managed to tell its story – with the American Civil War and its Reconstruction period as its setting – without ever confusing its viewers. I first saw Gone with the Wind when I was 5 or 6, and though I’m certain I didn’t understand it all, I understood enough of the story to fall in love with the film.

Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, Gone with the Wind ©

As an adult, and as a writer who wanted to move from poetry to fiction, I watched Gone with the Wind over and over, paying special attention to the storytelling techniques, and I learned enough to feel confident enough afterward to write my first novel. All writers can learn good storytelling from great films, and camera angles and acting techniques can also teach something about writing fiction, but you have to know how to watch a film in order to become a better writer.

Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck, Roman Holiday ©

The Plot
To learn good writing and storytelling techniques from a movie, re-watch a movie that you’ve seen several times. If you’ve never seen the movie or if you’ve only seen it once or twice, you’ll probably be paying attention to the plot only, which includes all the story’s conflict. Obviously, it’s imperative to have a strong plot in your story, whether you’re writing a short story, novella, or novel, but there’s more to fiction than plot. All good writing has Urgency, which keeps the reader turning pages, but plot Urgency has solely to do with what happens in the story, and that means conflict.

Traditionally, conflict has been divided into four major categories, and you should be familiar with these if you’re writing fiction. For details, you should see my post on Urgency, especially conflict in plot. An author can have as many categories of conflict in fiction as he wishes, but the first time most of us read a book or watch a film, we are most interested in what happens so we are only reading or watching for plot. To learn fiction-writing technique from any book or a film, you should already know what happens in the plot, i.e., you should be intimately familiar with all the conflicts, so that you can concentrate on storytelling technique.

James Dean and Natalie Wood, Rebel without a Cause, 1955 ©

The Protagonist
Once you know the plot of the film, pay attention to the character who is the focus of film. Who is most often on camera? Who has the most lines? Who do all other characters in the story congregate around? That is the protagonist. Now imitate that technique in your own story & writing by making sure that you view the protagonist as if you were the camera. Make sure you focus on your protagonist consistently.

If the film has more than one protagonist, notice which is the major protagonist around whom the minor protagonists rotate. The minor protagonists are satellites or moons to the planet that is the major protagonist. Notice how the camera and all the other actors concentrate on the major protagonist all the time. That is how you want to tell your story: around the major protagonist. Use that technique when writing your own fiction. Keep your own camera focused on your protagonist so your readers should find it easy to follow your protagonist through the book.

Watch the film at least once without sound while paying attention to the protagonist and his relationship with the camera. Notice how the camera is directed toward and focused on the protagonist. Note camera focus on the protagonist in every scene: you want that kind of focus in your own story. No matter what’s happening in the film, notice where the camera is in relation to the protagonist. Even in action sequences, the camera often returns to the protagonist to show his reaction, however brief, to the events around him. Learn from that. Use that technique to improve your own writing.

Joan Fontaine and Dame Judith Anderson in Rebecca, 1940 ©

The Antagonist
All characters in fiction need to be fully developed, not just your protagonist. Watch the film once more, concentrating on every person or thing that causes conflict for the protagonist. This could include the protagonist’s own behavior, doubt, hesitation, etc. Anything that causes conflict with the protagonist becomes an antagonist in the story, and, obviously, there can be lots of antagonists. Watch the film at least once listing every single conflict that happens. Identify antagonist(s) that are the cause of each conflict. Group all the conflicts that go with each antagonist together. This helps you become hyper-conscious of conflict, which is important in good storytelling.

Just as there can be more than one protagonist in any story, there can be multiple antagonists, though one is usually dominant. After you have listed all the conflicts and all the various antagonists, determine which is the major antagonist. In Moby-Dick and Jaws, for example, the whale and the shark are the major antagonists respectively in each book, but the sea is also an important antagonist in both stories, as are fellow sailors. In the Harry Potter series, Voldemort is the major antagonist, whom Harry encounters even before he is conscious of doing so, but Harry also has conflicts with family members, teachers, supernatural creatures, and himself throughout.

Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, Gone with the Wind ©

The Dialogue
There’s more to writing effective dialogue than just the words characters say, and film can teach you what else to put in talking scenes. Take a few weeks or months off from watching the film because you need it to be fresh the next time you play it. Watch it again, but don’t look at the screen while the film is playing. Instead, listen to it closely, and try to recall what the actors are doing when they say their lines. Don’t worry if you can’t actually remember what each and every character is doing while you’re listening to the film: instead, try to imagine what each actor is doing if you can’t recall his actions. When you are writing your own story, you will have to imagine what your characters are doing without having any actors to provide the action that accompanies the dialogue, so this is good practice.

Next, watch the film against without looking at the screen. This time, pay attention to the inflections (stress or accent on words or their syllables) and intonations (rise and fall of the voice in speech) of everything the actors say. You will not be able to imitate this in a written story because they are attributes of spoken language, but you should still become aware of the role that inflection and intonation play in speech. Listen also to the pauses and to the silences. Think about these things in reference to your own writing. You may have to re-arrange sentences or choose your words more carefully to imitate inflection or intonation. You may have to insert dialogue tags to mimic pauses, like this: “Are you trying to tell me,” she said when her husband remained silent, “that you’re seeing someone else?”

But whatever you do in writing dialogue,

Do. Not. Do. Something. Like. This. In. An. Attempt. To. Imitate. What. Actors. Are. Doing. In. A. Film.

DON’T DO THIS.

Don’t do this either.

AND DEFINITELY. DO. NOT. DO THIS.

Those are just examples of really bad writing.

Find more imaginative ways to imitate in writing how a character is speaking. Use silence and action as well as direct speech. You are not writing a screenplay. Even if you were, actors do not have every single movement and facial expression written out for them. They interpret. They ACT. But if you’re writing fiction, you need to supply this information to your readers. Don’t overdo it with bad writing or grotesquely incorrect punctuation.

You are not trying to slavishly imitate film by trying to write down every single thing the actors are doing with their voices: that would be impossible. You are trying to learn from the film’s storytelling and from the actors’ acting. You are learning what a visual art form does to tell a good story. You will have to learn how to translate those techniques into a different art form: a written art.

James Cagney and Mae Clarke in The Public Enemy, 1931 (Cagney added the grapefruit in the face) ©

The NonVerbals
After you’ve identified the major protagonist, any minor protagonists, all the antagonists, and all the conflicts, and you know the story well, it’s time to watch the film again, without sound, paying very close attention to the actors’ facial expressions and body language. You may have to do this several times, concentrating on different characters each time. This is where you get ideas for description and behavior in your story. Notice what the actors do with their hands, eyes, lips, mouths, eyebrows, feet, etc. whether they’re talking or not. (In the photo above, James Cagney improvised the grapefruit-in-the-face action during an argument with Mae Clarke’s character, so her intense frown and raised hands were honest surprise and outraged shock at his actions: they were not in the script.)

Note the actors’ bodies when they’re walking, sitting, standing. Become aware of how you determine what the actor is feeling without hearing what he’s saying. Use that knowledge to describe your own characters and reveal what they are feeling by showing what they are doing instead of always having them tell the readers (or other characters) how they feel.

Joan Crawford (in fur) in Mildred Pierce, 1945 ©

The Setting
After you’ve watched the film about a trillion times and think you’ve got absolutely everything you can get out of it, you have more to learn if you want to become a better writer. Watch the film again, without sound, and notice all the costumes, hairstyles, makeup, furniture, buildings, night, day, weather…

Setting is more than just a place: it is the time period of the story, the society, the government, the religious background, the environment, the weather, etc. Notice all of that in the film.

Look at the characters’ fingernails (something often overlooked, as when a poor sharecropper has finely manicured nails), the soles of their shoes, how their clothes move when the actors walk, fall, run, embrace. This may all affect what characters do, and you can learn character behavior and description from closely observing how the actors move in their costumes.

Roscoe (Fatty) Arbuckle and Joseph (Buster) Keaton in The Bellboy, 1918 ©

Watch carefully and note every single time an actor interacts with something in his environment, whether he’s sitting on the edge of a desk, clutching a handkerchief, picking up a coffee cup, turning away from another actor, holding onto someone’s arm, or petting a cat. Look at how they move across carpet, bare floor, a sandy beach, around bodies lying on the ground, up a steep hill. Learn from every single thing in the film’s setting with which the actors interact. Learn from the setting and how it affects the actors’ behavior. Use it in your own story.

Gary Cooper (in white shirt) and Barbara Stanwyck in Ball of Fire, 1942 ©

Keep in mind that you can’t learn to write a book from only watching movies. You also need to read, all the time, in your genre and outside of it, and you should read short stories and novellas, stand-alone novels and series. After all, writing is a job, not a holiday jaunt, and all sorts of fiction can help you learn to write better.

When you watch films to become a better writer, you’re not copying everything the film does: you’re learning from the actors, who inhabit the characters; from the director, who determines scene and camera focus; from the setting, especially if setting is an antagonist; from the conflicts, which are plot. Most good films can teach you how to become a better writer, but you have to become conscious of film techniques, and then learn how to translate those visiual cues into written languae.

You don’t have to worry that this exercise will make you hate your favorite movie. If anything, it will give you a greater appreciation for all the artistry involved in making a good film. You can learn from that to make art in your own way, by telling a good story. Learn how to become a better storyteller and writer by noticing all the fine details of your favorite movie(s). Learn to translate actors’ actions and camera angles into written language. Then go out and tell a good story, and tell your story better than anyone else could do it.

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The Sweet Smell of Murder: The Noir Film Classic, Double Indemnity

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In 1925, Ruth Brown Snyder, of Queens NY, who was having an affair with a married salesman, Henry Gray, decided to kill her husband. With the assistance of an insurance agent, who was later fired and imprisoned for forgery, Snyder purchased an insurance policy in her husband’s name, a policy that paid extra — double indemnity — if her husband died in an act of “unexpected violence.” Snyder then attempted to kill her husband at least seven times, finally succeeding with her lover Henry Gray’s assistance, and subsequently staging the murder as a robbery gone bad.

Snyder’s inconsistent stories about the robbery-murder, along with the police discovery of the stolen items hidden in the house, caused detectives to investigate Snyder more thoroughly. When police located her lover, Gray, he confessed in great detail. Snyder was found guilty and imprisoned. In 1928, she became the first woman executed at Sing Sing since 1899. Tom Howard’s dramatic photograph of Snyder in the electric chair mid-execution was printed on the front page of the New York Daily News the next day.

Ruth Brown Snyder, photographed mid-execution by Tom Howard, © New York Daily News

Many celebrities and reporters covered Snyder’s trial, including crime reporter James M. Cain, who subsequently based two of his novels on Snyder’s story: The Postman Always Rings Twice, about a woman who murders her husband with the help of her ex-con lover; and Double Indemnity, which more closely follows Snyder’s story.

The novel is a crime fiction classic, and the 1944 film of the same name, co-written by director Billy Wilder and crime fiction author Raymond Chandler, has since become one of the defining classics of Noir Film, with all the genre’s requisite essentials: a morally dubious male protagonist, Voice-Over narration limiting the audience’s perspective to the male’s version of the tale, and the dangerously duplicitous but always beautiful and sexually alluring femme fatale.

Fred MacMurray as Walter Neff, Double Indemnity © Paramount

Double Indemnity opens with a gun-shot insurance salesman, Walter (Fred MacMurray), sneaking into his company offices at night to record a Dictaphone message for a colleague, Keyes, a brilliant claims adjuster noted for ferreting out insurance fraud. Walter’s confession becomes the characteristic Voice-Over for the remainder of the film.

Fred MacMurray as Walter, and Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis, Double Indemnity © Paramount

Wise-cracking, womanizing Walter relates his initial contact with Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck), with whom he flirts outrageously though she’s already married and, furthermore, seems to be seriously offended by his behavior. Phyllis is not only physically striking: she’s a damsel in distress. Lonely and anxious, she’s worried about her husband’s dangerous job but helpless to protect him. When she discusses accident insurance, Walter becomes wary, but it’s too late: he’s already obsessed with the “dame.”

Fred MacMurray as Walter, and Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis, Double Indemnity © Paramount

With Phyllis’ ostensibly reluctant help, Walter sets in motion a murderous plan to get the girl of his dreams and a huge pile of money from his own insurance company. To really reap the financial benefits, however, the husband’s “accident” needs to trigger the policy’s “double indemnity” clause, a provision for payment of double the face amount of the policy, payable only under certain specific and statistically rare conditions.

Fred MacMurray as Walter, and Edward G Robinson as Keyes, Double Indemnity © Paramount

Walter’s colleague, Insurance Investigator Keyes (Edward G. Robinson, playing against type as an honest man instead of as a criminal or gangster) is immediately suspicious about the husband’s accident. Keyes intentionally stalls payment on the insurance policy to aggravate Phyllis, complicating Walter’s relationship with her.

Jean Heather as Lola, Double Indemnity © Paramount

Further, the victim’s daughter Lola (Jean Heather) knows some secret about Phyllis’ past that makes Lola also suspect foul-play was involved in her father’s death. While simultaneously side-stepping his colleague’s ongoing fraud investigation, Walter spends more time with Lola to keep her from going to the police with her suspicions. Though still sexually involved with Phyllis, Walter begins to have feelings for Lola. When she tells him that she thinks her stepmother Phyllis is involved with Lola’s own boyfriend Nino, Walter’s guilt about the murder and his burgeoning fear of Phyllis make him anxious for his own life.

Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis, and Fred MacMurray as Walter, Double Indemnity © Paramount

With snappy dialogue and great acting, Double Indemnity is a “moody, pessimistic crime story with strong overtones of spiritual bankruptcy and moral cynicism” and is considered both a model and an archetype of the Noir Film genre.

Filmed in black-and-white, and

[b]rilliantly photographed by John F. Seitz, Double Indemnity’s use of ‘Venetian Blind’ lighting (creating a jail bars effect that foreshadows the likely, if not actual, fate of its protagonists) was to go on become a staple of the film noir look.

Nominated for seven Academy Awards, regarded as a “template” for Noir films, and considered by most critics and archivists to be one of the best American films of all time, Double Indemnity is available for rent for $2.99/3.99 SD/HD) from Amazon, iTunes, YouTube, GooglePlay, and Vudu.

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It’s Not How You’re Buried That’s Important: 3 Western Coming-of-Age Films

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Cowboy ©

Coming-of-age stories have an important place in art, religion, and philosophy. In Judeo-Christian and other Abrahamic religions, the Bible contains one of the quintessential coming-of-age story: Adam and Eve, innocent and child-like, live in the Garden of Eden until they disobey God by listening to the Serpent, who represents their own temptation, and eat the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. Of course, once this knowledge of good and evil is attained, it can never be forgotten, and those who have matured into from innocent childhood to adulthood are forever changed. Whether the protagonist mourns or welcomes this loss of innocence depends on each individual story, but no matter the tale, the passage from childhood to adulthood, from innocence to knowledge can never be undone.

Shane ©

Western films, usually set during the second half of the 19th century when encroaching civilization and expanding technology began to eliminate any previously idyllic vision of life in the American west, often feature the iconic loner cowboy or gunfighter as their protagonist. Since he himself represents the desolate environment and its harsh life, he has long since lost any innocence he might have had. Instead, it is the other characters who come into contact with the Loner who lose their innocence and “mature.” Sometimes the other characters suffer by loving the Loner since they are “abandoned” by him when he moves on (Will Penney). At other times, the Loner’s actions, violent or not, force other characters to face their own moral bankruptcy (High Plains Drifter) or compels them to abandon their idealized image of themselves (Unforgiven).

The Cowboys ©

In Coming-of-Age Westerns, where fistfights are as brutal as gunfights, violence is a primary antagonist, whether it appears in the form of the environment (deserts, mountains, drought, storms, fires), animals (unbroke broncs, stampeding cattle, rattlesnakes, bears), or fellow humans. The iconic Loner, whether cowboy or gunslinger, is never what he seems to be, though loyalty to him is expected if the character who loses his innocence is to retain his own honor. America’s violent past, whether dealing with environmental or human elements, forces the innocenti to evolve from childhood to adulthood.

Shane (1953), one of the classics of the Western film genre, portrays a woman and her son — concentrating mostly the young son — who mature suddenly and irrevocably because of the Loner-protagonist’s violence. Cowboy (1958) and The Cowboys (1972) both feature naïve protagonists who are themselves forced into a painful “adulthood” when confronted with the harshness of the American West. These three films are classic coming-of-age Westerns.

Cowboy
(1958)

You’re a dreamy idiot,
and that’s the worst kind.
Reece

In one of his best roles, Jack Lemmon stars as hotel clerk Frank Harris, who desperately wants to impress Mexican cattle baron Vidal, father of Maria (Anna Kashfi), the woman Harris loves. After rough-and-tumble, opera-loving Trail Boss Reece (Glenn Ford) appears at the hotel, Harris desperately wants to join the next cattle drive to prove himself worth of respect and to attain Maria’s hand in marriage.

Glenn Ford, Cowboy ©

After a somewhat slow start detailing every aspect of Reece’s character — spoiled, selfish, demanding, gambling, womanizing, hard-drinking, proud — the film picks up after Reece leaves the swank hotel and returns to the trail. Accompanied by Harris, who has now become a partner by investing his savings to purchase a herd after Reece lost his funds gambling, the trail boss treats everyone harshly, but especially the greenhorn Harris.

Jack Lemmon (2nd from L) and Glenn Ford (2nd from R), Cowboy ©

As the cattle drive continues, the uneasy relationship between Reece and Harris — “master” and “pupil” — becomes increasingly contentious and volatile, leading their comrades to worry about which man will survive.

Part coming-of-age story, part homage to the American West’s iconic cowboy, and part ironic morality tale, Cowboy explores a young man’s spiritual and emotional growth along with examining a mentor’s responsibility for his charges.

Based on Frank Harris’ semi-autobiographical novel My Reminiscences as a Cowboy, with the screenplay written by uncredited and blacklisted Dalton Trumbo, the film Cowboy is available for rent from $2.99-3.99 from Amazon and YouTube.

Shane
(1953)

Shane, come back.
Joey

Adapted from the novel of the same name by Jack Schaefer, which based its story on the 1892 Johnson County War between Wyoming ranchers and homesteaders, Shane analyzes that historic conflict by telling the story of one man, Joe Starrett (Van Helfin), his family, and his tiny group of neighbors.

Brandon de Wilde, Jean Arthur, Van Heflin, and Alan Ladd, Shane ©

Starrett works hard to support his wife Marion (Jean Arthur) and his young son Joey (Brandon de Wilde), but he’s in conflict with local cattlemen who want Starrett’s small homestead. When a mysterious stranger arrives and helps Starrett ward off violence, he and his family welcome the Loner, Shane (Alan Ladd). Little Joey, who’s entranced by all things related to guns and who’s desperate to learn to shoot, immediately falls in love with Shane, partly because of his gun and partly because of his gunslinger past, which Shane never openly discusses.

Jean Arthur & Alan Ladd, Shane ©

As Joe Starrett’s wife and Shane begin to fall in love, the conflict between the cattlemen and settlers increases, and the brutality escalates. After a hired gun (Jack Palance) arrives, Shane must make a difficult moral decision. In the final tumultuous confrontations, Joey reluctantly learns what violence really does to families, to love, and to boyhood heroes.

Jack Palance (credited as Walter Jack Palance), Shane ©

Ignore Ladd’s dorky fringed-deerskin “suit,” silver-conch holster, and ivory-handled pistols, along with the other anachronistic hairstyles and clothes: put them all down to Hollywood’s typical carelessness with historical fiction. What remains is a powerful story about a man’s inescapable past, and about the importance of love, honor, and loyalty. Shane is a moving tribute to America’s violent and frequently romanticized past.

Though playing a gunfighter, Ladd was uncomfortable with guns, while Palance, playing fellow gunslinger Wilson, was nervous around horses. Shane is available for rent from $2.99-3.99 from Amazon, iTunes, and YouTube.

The Cowboys
(1972)


It’s not how you’re buried [that’s important]:
it’s how you’re remembered.
Wil Anderson

After gold rush fever causes his hired hands to desert en masse, rancher and cattleman Wil Anderson (John Wayne) is desperate for help. After searching everywhere — even in the local one-room schoolhouse — for cowboys to help him take his herd to market, he begins to despair. The next morning, a group of boys, including Robert Carradine in his film debut, awaits him outside. Though very young, the boys want to be hired on, and are determined to prove themselves.

The Cowboys ©

Desperate, Anderson trains and hires the boys, even turning down some experienced paroled prisoners who request work. Anderson doesn’t mind that they’ve been in prison, but he doesn’t like liars. When Anderson and his boys leave to take the cattle on the two-month trip to market, the only adults on the drive are Anderson and his cook Nightlinger (Roscoe Lee Brown), who “doesn’t trust boys.”

Roscoe Lee Brown, The Cowboys ©

As if the cattle, harsh landscape, and constant exhaustion weren’t challenging enough for everyone involved, a group of outlaws, led by the parolee Long Hair (Bruce Dern), is tracking the group in order to steal the herd and get rich.

Bruce Dern, The Cowboys ©

Some reviewers were critical of what they termed the film’s “implication that boys become men through acts of violence and vengeance,” but The Cowboys delivers a stronger message concerning the importance of loyalty, commitment, and remembrance as the very young boys mature into young men.

Dern had difficulty finding work after The Cowboys was released, due to the final conflict between Dern’s Long Hair and Wayne’s protagonist Wil. Available for rent from $2.99-3.99 from Amazon, iTunes, and YouTube.

My original Top 10 Westerns post 
If You’re Going to Shoot,
Shoot: Don’t Talk

is now divided into two posts,
updated with official trailers and film availability:


We All Have It Coming:
Top 5 Westerns

and


I’m Your Huckleberry:
5 More Top Westerns

(originally films #6-10)

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We All Have It Coming: Top 5 Westerns

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No Spoilers

Unforgiven

When you hear the term “Western” for a film or mini-series, you might think lone cowboys riding the line, cattle treks, a lawman protecting his town, or even the classic rags-to-riches story of a cattleman trying to build an empire then pass it on to his family. But there are many sub-genres of “Western” films that are more interesting and exciting than the predictable cowboy movie.

Most of the Westerns I favor fall into what are usually considered the sub-genres, with some of them not even taking place in the American West, for example, but containing the iconic character motifs and themes present in Western films. Sometimes called “Spaghetti Westerns” and sometimes classified as “Action & Adventure,” all these films still resonate with elements that make the Western iconic in Hollywood, and imitated worldwide.

My top five Western films and mini-series are sometimes set in the American West; often they are not. But their characters, storylines, and themes make them powerful films that I watch over and over. They don’t always end happily, lest you think I’m some kind of HEA-girl, but even if they don’t end happily, they end honestly, with the finale of the movie developing out of the characters’ natures, their conflicts, and the decisions they’ve made previously — either in the film itself or in their lives before the events in the story take place.

And, yes, Deadwood — the series — is one of my favorite Westerns of all times, and can read about it in detail in No One Gets Out Alive, but it’s a series, and I’ve dealt with it in detail elsewhere. This group of five westerns originally appeared in a post about my top 10 Westerns, but I shortened that post to update it, including trailers and availability, and dividing it into two posts so that people might have a chance to explore the films without feeling overwhelmed. The original films #10-6 are now in I’m Your Huckleberry: 5 More Top Westerns. Here are my top Westerns.

The Wild Bunch
(1969)

images-7

Sam Pekinpah’s epic 1969 Western The Wild Bunch deals with an aging gang of gunfighters, on the Texas-Mexico border, trying to cope with the “modern” world (of 1913), in which they have become obsolete. The Wild Bunch has a stellar cast, including William Holden, Robert Ryan, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, and Ernest Borgnine, all giving outstanding performances.

Controversial because of its graphic violence and its morally dubious characters, the film has nevertheless secured its place among top Westerns, and is considered “culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant” by the National Film Registry and the American Film Institute. It was also nominated for many awards, winning several.

Its famous portrayal of obsolete icons attempting to survive, by any means possible, reflects all aspects of any culture that gets overtaken by progress and technology. Since many settlers in this country went West to escape the culture and “laws” of the East, The Wild Bunch is a brilliantly ironic commentary on when the West itself became overrun by “civilization.”

The Wild Bunch is available to rent for $3.99 from Amazon, and YouTube.


Lonesome Dove
(1989)

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Based on the best-selling Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name by Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove is not a film but a mini-series, and when it came out in 1989, it was considered an incredibly ambitious project. It garnered praise, high viewership, and was credited with “reviving” the mini-series genre.

Filled with big-name stars like Robert Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones, Danny Glover, Ricky Schroeder, Diane Lane, Anjelica Huston, Chris Cooper, Barry Corbin, Frederick Forrest, and Robert Urich, the story covers partners’ Gus (Duvall) and Call (Jones) cattle-drive from the virtually deserted Texas town of Lonesome Dove to an “Eden-like” Montana (where none of them has been), encountering many hardships and disasters along the way.

A coming-of-age story involving the younger characters, which contains the Archetypes of the Journey as well as the “Wise Old Man” passing on his knowledge to the worthy younger hero(es), this Western classic also has what few others have: strong female characters.

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Though the roles of Clara (Huston) and Lorie (Lane) are subordinate to those of most of the minor male characters, they’re still essential to the storyline. Their characters force the males to become more than cowboys, and add depth and richness to this powerful exploration of the American West and its familiar themes in Westerns.

Lonesome Dove is available for purchase from Amazon (4 part mini-series, $2.99 each episode or $9.99  for all 4 episodes) and for streaming with Hulu. Free for Starz subscribers. (Note: This trailer is for the 20th anniversary of the award-winning series.)


Son of the Morning Star
(1991)

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Based on the non-fiction book of the same name by Evan S. Connell, this is one of the best treatments (book & two-part mini-series) of the morally ambiguous George Armstrong Custer (Gary Cole) during the Plains Indian Wars, ending with the Battle of Little Big Horn.

Unique because it tells the story from two perspectives, that of the whites and of the Native Americans, it is narrated by Custer’s wife Libbie (Rosanna Arquette) as well as by Kate Bighead (voice of Buffy Saint-Marie), the mini-series also stars Rodney Grant as Crazy Horse, and Floyd Red Crow Westerman as Sitting Bull.

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Closely following the original book in one of the most balanced portrayals of the Indian Wars, the Fetterman Massacre, and the Battle of Little Big Horn, where Custer’s defeat increased the US government’s determination to eliminate all Indians who were not “imprisoned” on reservations, Son of the Morning Star — despite its title’s allusion to Lucifer and his rebellion against God — is an excellent example of Hollywood’s ability to honestly evaluate and portray its subjugation of America’s native peoples, its confiscation of their lands, and their justified outrage and retaliation.

(Apologies: There is no official trailer for Son of the Morning Star and, alas, it does not seem to be available for online viewing. The only copies for purchase at Amazon are VHS and one non-region-1, i.e., non-US, Spanish DVD.)


Duck, You Sucker
(1971)

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Directed by Sergio Leone, this is one of those Westerns that doesn’t have cowboys, horses, or cattle. And it takes place in Mexico during its Revolution rather than in the American West. But there are lots of guns, explosions, and battles; a bang-up score by Ennio Morricone, and stellar performances by James Coburn, as the outlaw Irish Revolutionary Seán (John) Mallory trying to “get it right” in Mexico, and by Rod Steiger as Mexican thief and father to a large family Juan Miranda, who doesn’t want anything to do with the Revolution because he just wants to fulfill his life’s dream of robbing the biggest bank he’s ever heard of: the Mesa Verde National Bank.

Despite the film’s constantly being edited (too politically sensitive, too violent, too much profanity), despite its being marketed variously as a comedy or a satire of westerns (it’s neither), despite its rather strange title, which is apparently a bad translation of the Italian Giù la Testa, and despite the film’s subsequent release under various titles such as A Fistful of Dynamite (Irish John is an explosives expert, and the alternate title is an allusion to Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars), and Once Upon a Time… the Revolution (since it is considered the second film of Leone’s trilogy which contains Once Upon a Time in the West and Once Upon a Time in America), this film — the last Western Leone directed — is one of his best.

Bear in mind that I’m saying that as a huge Clint Eastwood fan, one who grew up more familiar with Clint and Leone’s “Spaghetti Westerns” than with some of the Hollywood classic Westerns.

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What makes Duck, You Sucker one of the best  is the chemistry between Coburn and Steiger who, as “John and Juan” form a bond that forces each of their characters to change. The experienced intellectual John begins to see the human element in any revolution while the cynical and amoral Juan, who initially cannot be trusted by anyone, stops thinking of himself and his own selfish gain, learning to care about his family as individuals (he doesn’t even know how many sons he has in the beginning of the film),  his friend John, and his country.

Despite its setting, Leone claimed he never intended the film to be political, and despite its setting, Leone succeeded, due in large part to the chemistry between its stars. Coburn and Steiger make you believe in their evolving friendship and commitment to each other, not just as voluntary/involuntary revolutionaries, respectively, but as people. No longer physical or emotional loners, they become genuinely attached to each other.

The film’s original reception was lukewarm, but it has gained popularity in recent years. Justifiably so, since its excellent treatment of the themes of the individual vs. society, loyalty to personal codes of conduct and honor, private justice, wandering protagonists, and conquering the Wilderness are all prominent in the Western genre.

Duck, You Sucker is available from for $2.99  Amazon and for $3.99 (under the title A Fistful of Dynamite) from iTunes.


Unforgiven
(1992)

images-9One of the darkest Westerns ever made, dealing frankly with the uglier aspects of violence and how, when glamorized, violence makes “myths” and “legends” out of trigger-happy drunkards and bullies, Unforgiven, directed by and starring Clint Eastwood, as “retired gunfighter” William Munny, takes the prize for the best Western.

In Unforgiven, the simplistic myths of the Old West are revealed for the complex combination of lies, exaggeration, and terrible truths that they are. Archetypes abound, but in stunning new ways. The “Kid” (Jamz Woolvett) who wants to attain fame by killing some “cowboys who cut up some whore,” recruits master gunfighter William Munny (Eastwood) “who’s killed women and children” and who repeatedly claims that he “ain’t like that no more” to help him track down the “bad guys.” Munny brings along his partner Ned (Morgan Freeman) who, though surprised by the request, thinks the reward money might come in handy keeping his farm solvent.

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Nothing goes as expected, because this is a Western that shows the truth about the Old West. In the town of Big Whiskey, the trio meets iron-fisted Sherriff “Little Bill” Daggett (Gene Hackman, in an Oscar-winning performance), who has already beaten, humiliated, and banished one hired gunman, English Bob (Richard Harris, in a minor but memorable role) who came to claim the reward money for getting vengeance for the “cut-up whore.”

Honest about violence, humorous and satirical at times, Unforgiven displays the best that the Western can offer: it is a tribute to the genre even as it illuminates its flaws, a loving and respectful homage that never loses sight of the danger of a life without rules, as well as the moral vacuity of  a life ruled by killing others, sometimes for reward money, sometimes for dubious fame, sometimes for no reason at all. Or, as Eastwood’s Munny states, “not for any reason I could remember once I sobered up.”

Unforgivenis available from Amazon and YouTube, and for purchase only ($14.99) in iTunes. Free for subscribers of Sundance Channel.

My original Top 10 Westerns post 
If You’re Going to Shoot,
Shoot: Don’t Talk

is now divided into two posts,
updated with official trailers and film availability:


We All Have It Coming:
Top 5 Westerns

and


I’m Your Huckleberry:
5 More Top Westerns

(originally films #6-10)

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I Ain’t Never Been No Hero:
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Again! Still!

The Sutherlands’ Forsaken Is No Unforgiven,
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Filed under Actors, Classic Films, Classics, Film Videos, Films, Films/Movies, Historical Drama, Movies/Films, Movies/Television, Official Film Trailers, Official Movie Trailers, Official Trailers, Videos, Westerns

I’m Your Huckleberry: 5 More Top Westerns

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No Spoilers

The Magnificent Seven (original) ©

Most of the Westerns I favor fall into what are usually considered the sub-genres, with some of them not even taking place in the American West, for example, but containing the iconic character motifs and themes present in Western films. Sometimes called “Spaghetti Westerns” and sometimes classified as “Action & Adventure,” all these films still resonate with elements that make the Western iconic in Hollywood, and imitated worldwide.

My top Western films and mini-series are sometimes set in the American West; often they are not. But their characters, storylines, and themes make them powerful films that I watch over and over. They don’t always end happily, but they end honestly, with the finale of the movie developing out of the characters’ natures, their conflicts, and the decisions they’ve made previously.

And, yes, Deadwood — the series — is one of my favorite Westerns of all times, and can read about it in detail in No One Gets Out Alive, but it’s a series, and I’ve dealt with it in detail elsewhere. This group of five westerns originally appeared in a post about 10 films, but I shortened that post to update it, including trailers and availability, and so that people might have a chance to explore the films without feeling overwhelmed. The top five films are in I Ain’t Like That No More: Top 5 Westerns. Here are the remaining of my five top Western films.


Red River
(1948)

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John Wayne, Montgomery Clift, and Walter Brennan, Red River ©

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a big John Wayne fan. Whether Hollywood pushed him into “The Duke” mold or whether audiences simply preferred that role, many of Wayne’s films portray him playing basically the same character. (That kind of thing always leads the viewer to wonder if the actor is acting or just being himself.) But Wayne’s early work in Westerns was much more daring as well as varied. In fact, he should have received Oscar nominations for quite a few of his early Westerns, rather than the token one he received (and won) for playing Rooster Cogburn in True Grit.

One of Wayne’s finest roles and one of his best Westerns is 1948’s Red River, directed by Howard Hawks.

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John Wayne and Montgomery Clift, Red River ©

Starring Walter Brennan (Groot) and Montgomery Clift (Matt) along with John Wayne (Dunson), Red River is a fictional account of the first cattle drive from Texas to Kansas along the Chisholm Trail. As a boy, Matt — sole survivor of an Indian attack — joins Dunson’s group and is adopted by Dunson. Though Matt is his adopted adult son, Dunson is continually forcing Matt to prove himself, leading to many conflicts, as well as to a split in the group on the cattle-drive.

Dunson is tyrannical and angry; Matt, who is fair and stalwart, rebels, taking many men with him. Dunson sends a posse after the group, intending to force his authority on all of them, but especially on his adopted son. The final showdown is stunning and effective.

Red Riversome of the best acting that Wayne and Clift ever did, is available for rent, starting at $2.99, from Amazon, iTunes, and YouTube. Free for Starz subscribers.


Open Range

(2003)

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Kevin Costner and Robert Duvall, Open Range ©

Beginning as a relatively quiet film that deals with free-grazing, or individuals or small groups with small herds grazing on public lands, and who come into conflict with larger corporations or ranchers who want the land exclusively for themselves, Open Range (2003, directed by Costner) is a powerful statement on individual rights, expansion in the west, land ownership, and power.

Kevin Costner (Charley) and Robert Duvall (“Boss”) as the free-ranging partners are the principals, with an excellent supporting cast which includes Annette Benning as the town Doctor’s sister Sue, who becomes Charley’s love interest, and Michael Gambon as the ruthless and powerful Irish immigrant rancher Baxter who “don’t want no free-grazers” and uses violence and murder to terrorize them into leaving the area.

Though Boss, Charley, Sue, and other characters don’t seek violence, it becomes inevitable as they must defend their lives, property, freedom, and individual rights, which incorporates many of the themes of the most enduring Westerns.

Open Range, which was both a critical and box-office success, is available for rent ($2.99-3.99)  from Amazon, iTunes, and YouTube.


Tombstone
(1993)

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Bill Paxton, Kurt Russell, Sam Elliott, and Val Kilmer, Tombstone ©

Concentrating on the story of the Earp family — all three brothers and their wives — and Doc Holliday after their move to Tombstone AZ, this movie usually ranks high in any Western “Top Ten” list, not just because of the historical characters and events, but because of its fine acting and production values.

Wyatt Earp (Kurt Russell) convinces his brothers Virgil (Sam Elliott) and Morgan (Bill Paxton) to join him “for retirement” in Tombstone, where Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer, in his Oscar-winning, and most brilliant career performance) is already settled and winning outrageous amounts at gambling.

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Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer, Tombstone ©

The Earp brothers “acquire” interest in their own gambling establishment, and seem only to want to make money and live comfortably with their wives. Their gunslinger pasts, however, cause them to come into conflict with a red-sashed gang, The Cowboys, and with the Dalton Gang. Once the Earps become lawmen, they are bound for the historical confrontation at the OK Corral.

The film’s unique and interesting interpretation of historical characters and events, along with plenty of action and love interest, make it worth watching. But Kilmer’s Oscar-winning performance as Doc Holliday is mesmerizing. Tombstone is available for rent ($2.99-3.99) from Amazon, iTunes, and YouTube.


The Magnificent Seven
(1960)

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Cast of The Magnificent Seven, including from L to R, Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Robert Vaughn (4th), Charles Bronson (5th), and James Coburn (last) ©

Based on Japanese filmmaker’s Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 film Seven Samurai, these seven are transformed into gunslingers and hired to protect a small Mexican village from a notorious bandit who is extorting money, livestock, and grain from the villagers, leaving them to starve. Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, and Robert Vaughn are among the magnificent seven, each of whom has a past he’s running away from.

Though notorious or shady in their previous lives, they are convinced to help protect the villagers for virtually no pay whatsoever, reluctantly showing their moral side as the film progresses.

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Eli Wallach, The Magnificent Seven ©

As the seven teach the villagers to defend themselves against the bandit Calvera (Eli Wallach) and his gang, the 7 become emotionally attached to their charges. Some of the scenes with the young boys and Charles Bronson’s character are among the most amusing yet moving.

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The Magnificent Seven ©

Set to a rousing score by Elmer Bernstein, the film embodies the iconic Western theme of the strong protecting the weak, and landowners (or townspeople) defending themselves against villainous intruders (or outsiders).

McQueen was apparently envious of Brynner’s mega-stardom [from The King and I] and was constantly trying to upstage him, even standing on his tiptoes to be taller than Brynner [who was shorter than McQueen in any event]. Producers eventually supplied a box for Brynner to stand on when they were in set scenes together, to prevent McQueen’s antics. The Magnificent Seven is available for rent ($2.99-3.99) from Amazon and YouTube. Free for Starz subscribers.


The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

(1966)

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The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, top to bottom, Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach, and Lee Van Cleef ©

No list of great Western films would be complete without Sergio Leone’s classic “Spaghetti Western” (because shot by the Italian director) The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, supposedly represented by Blondie (Clint Eastwood), Tuco (Eli Wallach), and Angel Eyes (Lee van Cleef), respectively, as each searches for stolen and buried Confederate gold during the American Civil War. They need each other because none has the complete list of clues as to the gold’s burial place.

As you might guess, nobody trusts anyone in this film, least of all the three protagonists who, despite the title and the heavy-handed identification as “good,” “bad,” and “ugly,” are actually all comprised of those characteristics. This combination of good, bad, and ugly in each of the major protagonists makes them some of the most fascinating characters in any Western.

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Lee Van Cleef (back to camera), Eli Wallach (kneeling), and Clint Eastwood, The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly ©

Besides many memorable images and music, Eli Wallach supposedly improvised one of the film’s most famous lines. While bathing, his character is confronted by other gunslingers who argue with him about revealing the gold’s location, and explain repeatedly that they’re going to kill him if he doesn’t reveal it. Wallach’s Tuco raises his gun out of the murky bathwater and kills them all, stating afterward to their corpses: “If you’re going to shoot, shoot: don’t talk.” (In interviews, Wallach still expresses surprise that such a simple line garnered so much attention.)

The final showdown and gunfight in the cemetery, accompanied by an unforgettable score by the venerable Ennio Morricone, make The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly a classic. Available for rent ($2.99-3.99) from Amazon, iTunes, and YouTube.

My original Top 10 Westerns post 
If You’re Going to Shoot,
Shoot: Don’t Talk

is now divided into two posts,
updated with official trailers and film availability:


We All Have It Coming:
Top 5 Westerns

and


I’m Your Huckleberry:
5 More Top Westerns

(originally films #6-10)

Related Posts

It Ain’t How You’re Buried That’s Important:
3 Western Coming-of-Age Films

I Ain’t Never Been No Hero:
More Great Westerns

No One Gets Out Alive:
Why You Need to Watch HBO’s Deadwood

Deadwood Strikes Gold!
Again! Still!

The Sutherlands’ Forsaken Is No Unforgiven,
Though It Tries to Be

My Favorite Film & TV Villains

Share Button

Leave a Comment

Filed under Actors, Classic Films, Classics, Film Videos, Films, Films/Movies, Historical Drama, Movies/Films, Official Film Trailers, Official Movie Trailers, Official Trailers, Westerns

When Murder Smells Like Honeysuckle: 3 Noir Film Classics

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How could I have known that murder
could smell like honeysuckle?
James M. Cain
Double Indemnity

No Spoilers

Burt Lancaster & Ava Gardner, The Killers ©

American Film Noir was most prevalent in the 1940s and 1950s, though films emulating that classic era are still being made (sometimes called Neo-noir to differentiate them from the original classics). Popular with audiences and often made by renowned directors like Billy Wilder, Alfred Hitchcock, and Otto Preminger, the films were frequently based on hardboiled detective or crime fiction, such as Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely, and Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train.

Shot in black-and-white with stark lighting and dramatic shadowing, Film Noir explores morality in storylines where no character is completely good or evil. Usually, the male protagonist is more bad than good, although he mostly justifies his criminal or morally reprehensible behavior, or blames it on something (or someone) else. Film Noir features Voice-Over narration, mostly from the male protagonist’s perspective, keeping the viewers clearly on the side of that character since their worldview is usually limited to that of the doomed male.

Fred MacMurray & Barbara Stanwyck, Double Indemnity ©

The disillusioned and usually fatalistic male wears suits or neatly pressed clothes, and is virtually always clean-shaven (day-old stubble, at most). He may be more experienced with this fists than with weapons, but he acquits himself admirably with a knife or a gun if the situation arises. Whether he’s a private investigator (The Maltese Falcon), a criminal (Little Caesar), a drifter (The Postman Always Rings Twice), or an unscrupulous insurance salesman (Double Indemnity), the male protagonist of Film Noir is world-weary, gritty, and psychologically complex. He’s had some dubious dealings in the past that make him as morally ambiguous as the female protagonist: the femme fatale.

John Garfield & Lana Turner, The Postman Always Rings Twice ©

The femme fatale is a woman of questionable moral virtue. She’s often contrasted with the “good girl” or the “girl next door” who loses the male to the dangerous femme. Beautiful and duplicitous, with Hollywood-worthy costumes, impeccable coiffures, and glamorous make-up, the femme fatale ensnares the male, who is so drawn to her that he will do anything — even commit murder — in order to possess her love. Sexual passion goes along with her love, of course, but the doomed male protagonist wants the femme’s love even more than he wants her sexual fidelity. When the male is as morally dubious as the female, the femme fatale can usually out-think and outmaneuver her male counterpart.

The Film Noir classics Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice were based on crime fiction novels written by James M. Cain. The Killers used Ernest Hemingway’s story of the same name to start the film, then supplied a gritty original screenplay with the characters’ back-story. Screenwriters, directors, and actors worked hard to keep the films as close to their literary inspiration as possible, giving audiences some of the best films ever made.

Double Indemnity
(1944)

Double Indemnity opens with a gun-shot insurance salesman, Walter (Fred MacMurray), sneaking into his company offices at night to record a confession, which becomes the characteristic Voice-Over for the remainder of the film. Wise-cracking, womanizing Walter relates his initial contact with Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck), with whom he flirts outrageously though she’s already married and, furthermore, offended by his behavior. Phyllis is not only physically striking: she’s a damsel in distress. Lonely and anxious, she’s worried about her husband’s dangerous job but helpless to protect him. When she discusses accident insurance, Walter becomes wary, but it’s too late: he’s already obsessed with the “dame.”

Fred MacMurray & Barbara Stanwyck, Double Indemnity ©

With Phyllis’ reluctant help, Walter sets in motion a murderous plan to get the girl of his dreams and a huge pile of money from his own insurance company. To really reap the financial benefits, however, the husband’s “accident” needs to trigger the policy’s “double indemnity” clause, a provision for payment of double the face amount of the policy, payable only under certain specific and statistically rare conditions.

Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, & Edward G. Robinson, Double Indemnity ©

When Walter’s colleague, Insurance Investigator Keyes (Edward G. Robinson, playing against type as an honest man) and the victim’s daughter Lola get suspicious about the husband’s “accident,” Walter’s and Phyllis’ adulterous relationship and their forbidden love are severely tested.

With snappy dialogue and great acting, Double Indemnity has all the hallmarks of the Noir genre: atmospheric lighting, a morally dubious male protagonist, Voice-Over limiting the audience’s perspective to the male’s version of the tale, and the dangerously duplicitous femme fatale.

The film was closely adapted from James M. Cain’s novel of the same name, which is itself a classic of crime fiction, and which the author based on the true story of Ruth Snyder’s notorious 1920’s murder trial. Available for rent ($3.99 for 24-hour viewing period) from Amazon.

The Postman Always Rings Twice
(1946)

When the unemployed, homeless drifter Frank (John Garfield) stops at a roadside diner, he’s immediately attracted to the owner’s curvaceous, long-legged, young wife Cora (Lana Turner, in her most famous role).

Lana Turner, The Postman Always Rings Twice ©

Frank takes the job offered by diner-owner Nick (Cecil Kellaway) and begins pursuing Cora, who treats him with disdain. Soon, though, Cora, who married her older husband for security, begins to fall for Frank. The couple wants to be together for the rest of their lives, but Cora doesn’t want to run away and live a drifter’s life. She has ambitions “to be somebody.” Somebody who has an established home and income. Somebody who runs a successful diner. Somebody who is a widow rather than a penniless divorcée.

Lana Turner & John Garfield, The Postman Always Rings Twice ©

After an initial “accident” goes awry, the lovers realize that neither of them is the type who could commit murder. Their attempt at a “trial separation” and a platonic relationship prove frustrating, however, and the two decide that life without each other may not be worth living. When outside parties who suspect nefarious goings-on at the diner intentionally pit the lovers against each other, Cora’s and Frank’s love is strained and their trust in each other frays. What are they willing to do for love, and can that love survive murder and betrayal?

The title has nothing to do with the story itself, neither in the James M. Cain novel nor in the film, though the film unsuccessfully attempts to force the title to fit by pretending, at the conclusion, that the “postman” is God, who’s not present anywhere else in the film.

Cain himself claimed that he chose the non-sequitur title because he had always been nervous after submitting a manuscript for publication, and noticed that his postman always rang twice. The Postman Always Rings Twice is available for rent ($3.99/24-hour viewing period) from Amazon.

The Killers
(1946)

After the murder of quiet, industrious, unassuming gas station attendant “The Swede” (Burt Lancaster, in his first role) by contract killers, fellow townspeople are confused and frightened. Furthermore, they’re disconcerted by the fact that The Swede was apathetic and even nihilistic when warned of the killers’ presence and openly stated intention to murder him.

Burt Lancaster, The Killers ©

Intrigued by the reason behind the contract hit, insurance investigator Reardon (Edmund O’Brien) attempts to piece together Swede’s life story. For some bizarre reason never sufficiently explained in the film, Reardon turns “detective,” determined to unearth every aspect of Swede’s life.

Reardon discovers that Swede had plenty of secrets, including quite a few criminal missteps, any one of which could have, theoretically, gotten him killed.

Burt Lancaster & Ava Gardner, The Killers ©

After learning about Swede’s involvement with the gorgeous and seductive girlfriend of a gangster, Reardon is convinced that Kitty Conway (Ava Gardener, in the first role that brought her extensive attention) had something to do with Swede’s death.

The killers in The Killers ©

The deeper Reardon delves into Swede’s past, however, the more endangered Reardon’s own life becomes, especially after he learns that Swede knew his killers personally. Can Reardon discover who ordered the hit on Swede — and why — before someone silences Reardon himself?

The first twenty minutes of The Killers is adapted directly from Ernest Hemingway’s short story of the same name, complete with the author’s distinctive dialogue (which then disappears from the film). The remainder of the Oscar-nominated screenplay is original. The Killers was considered a somewhat radical film when first released because it departed from the then-traditional narrative format and used flashbacks to tell the bulk of the story. Available for rent ($3.99/24-hour viewing period) from Amazon.

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Filed under Actors, Books, Classic Films, Classics, Crime Drama, Film Noir, Film Videos, Films, Films/Movies, Movies/Films, No Spoilers Review, Noir, Noir / Neo-Noir, Official Film Trailers, Official Movie Trailers, Official Trailers, Violence

I Ain’t Never Been No Hero: More Great Westerns

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No Spoilers

I love Westerns, though most of the Westerns I favor fall into what are considered the sub-genres, with some of them not even taking place in the American West, for example, but containing iconic character motifs and themes present in Western films. My Top Ten Western films have characters, storylines, and themes make them powerful films that I watch over and over. They don’t always end happily, but they end honestly, with the finale of the movie developing out of the characters’ natures, their conflicts, and the decisions they’ve made previously — either in the film itself or in their lives before the events in the story take place. Here are more of my favorite Westerns, films I can always watch one more time.

 The Long Riders
(1980)

Starring sets of real-life brother actors as historical brother outlaws, The Long Riders explores America’s violent post-Civil War past in a unique way. The most factual of any film about the James-Younger Gang, it covers the activity of Frank and Jesse James (Stacey and James Keach); Ed and Clell Miller (Dennis and Randy Quaid); Cole, Jim, and Bob Younger (David, Keith, and Robert Carradine); and Bob and Charley Ford (Nicholas and Christopher Guest).

Jesse is the titular head of the Gang, but after he disapproves of Ed’s behavior during one of that raids/robberies, rifts begin to form among the Gang members. Pursued by posses and the Pinkertons, the Gang is nevertheless protected by family and neighbors, who consider them local heroes rather than criminals. When hiding out, the brothers court women, and are courted by them in turn, which causes added stress in the Gang. As the Gang’s crimes escalate, so does the Pinkertons’ determination to capture them. After innocent people begin to get hurt and killed, the Gang loses its local support and goes further afield to rob stages, trains, and banks, increasing the Gang’s notoriety and fame, but also increasing its risk.

Even if you know the story of the James-Younger Gang, this film is engaging and worth watching. The cinematography is very effective and powerful, especially as the Gang escalates its violence. The Long Riders is available for rent $3.99 from Amazon (free with a 7-day Starz trial) or free from Starz with a subscription.

The Professionals
(1966)

Four American “specialists,” i.e., mercenaries (Burt Lancaster, Lee Marvin, Robert Ryan, and Woody Strode), are hired for an extremely dangerous but potentially lucrative, once-in-a-lifetime mission: deliver a $100K-in-gold ransom and rescue the beautiful young wife (Claudia Cardinale) of an older, wealthy rancher (Ralph Bellamy). Because two of the professional soldiers fought in Pancho Villa’s Army during the Mexican Revolution, they’re willing yet wary, if only because they know the ostensible kidnapper Razza (Jack Palance) intimately, and “kidnapping doesn’t seem like his thing.”

Fighting the desert, weather, rogue bandits, self-doubt, and each other, the Professionals use their individual skills — with dynamite, knives, bow-and-arrow, guns — as they head for Razza’s presumed hide-out. When they come upon Razza derailing a train and executing soldiers, they realize their mission may be more dangerous than they’d originally than anticipated because “something’s dicey about this set-up.”

Lancaster as the woman-loving wit is especially entertaining. With surprising (and satisfying) plot-twists, The Professionals is an often-neglected gem of a Western. Available from Amazon available for rent $3.99 (free with a 7-day Starz trial) or free from Starz with a subscription.

The Shootist
(1976)

Opening with a montage of John Wayne’s film roles as the “history” of gunslinger J. B. Books (Wayne), narrated in Voice-Over by The Boy (Ron Howard) who idolizes him, The Shootist is my favorite role by both of these actors. Diagnosed with advanced cancer, with only about 6 weeks to live, Books settles in for a last stay in the lodging house of Widow Rogers (Lauren Bacall), mother of The Boy. Though Books wants anonymity and privacy, The Boy discovers his identity almost immediately and proudly trumpets that a famous Shootist is staying at his house. Books wants to keep him terminal illness secret, too, but he’s forced to tell people in order to stay quietly in the town till he dies.

When the stories of Books’ impending death begin to spread, other gunslingers who want to improve their own reputations by killing the famed Shootist arrive. Books’ instinct for survival and self-preservation combat with any desire he has to die quietly. Worse, he decides he doesn’t want to be alone, and the Widow Rogers and her son have caught his eye.

The chemistry between Wayne and the impressive line-up of guest stars —  James Stewart, Henry Morgan, Richard Boone, Scatman Crothers, John Carradine, Hugh O’Brien, Sheree North — is surpassed only by the chemistry between Wayne and Bacall, and by that between Wayne and Howard. This is the role that should have won Wayne the Oscar: he’s better by far as the fighting-fading Books than as True Grit‘s cantankerous Cogburn. The Shootist is available from Amazon ($3.99 to rent).

3:10 to Yuma
(2007)

Based on an Elmore Leonard short story, and a remake of the 1951 film of the same name, 3:10 to Yuma packs powerful Western icons with clever dialogue and strong performances. Civil War hero Dan (Christian Bale, in one of his best roles) is about to lose his ranch because he didn’t have enough money to pay the mortgage and to buy feed for his cattle, purchase water during the drought, and to obtain the drugs for his consumptive youngest son.

When attempting to retrieve some of his cattle scattered by ne’er-do-wells, Dan and his sons run into escaped Bad Guy Ben Wade (Russell Crowe, below R) and his Gang, who have just ambushed the Pinkertons to rescue one of their Gang members. After rescuing the wounded Pinkerton McElroy (Peter Fonda), Dan, who is determined to save his ranch, offers to help escort the proverb-quoting escaped convict Wade to Detention so he can be put on the 3:10 to Yuma Prison.

The treacherous journey turns into a contest of wills between idealistic Dan, whose oldest son idolizes the criminal, and the notorious Bed Wade. As Ben’s Gang attempts to rescue its leader, Dan tries to earn his own son’s respect by completing the job he was hired to do. 3:10 to Yuma is filled with excellent writing, rousing action, and memorable characters. The scenes between Bale and Crowe are exquisite. Available from Amazon ($9.99SD-$12.99HD to purchase, or free with a 7-day Showtime trial), or free with a subscription from Showtime or DirecTV.

Salvation
(sometimes translated as The Salvation)
(2014)

Salvation, sometimes translated as The Salvation, is the Danish tribute to Sergio Leone’s classic Spaghetti Westerns, exploring some of the genre’s classic icons: The Man with No Name, The Town Besieged, The Cowardly Townspeople, The Man Seeking Vengeance. Jon (Mads Mikkelsen, below R) has come the the American West, from Denmark, with his brother Peter (Mikael Persbrandt, below L) after the disastrous War of 1864.

Seven years later, Jon has enough money to bring over his wife and 10-year-old son. Though these two characters are not developed — existing only as a reason for Jon to seek revenge for the heinous crimes against them, the film doesn’t suffer from that weakness. Instead, it plunges into Jon’s story as he and his brother seek revenge against the Bad Guys, led by DeLaRue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan).

Terrorizing a town where no one is willing to stand up to the villains but where everyone wants a Saviour, DeLaRue and his Gang rule the populace with the aid of a corrupt Mayor (Jonathan Pryce) and a milque-toast Preacher-Sheriff (Douglas Henshaw). Eventually joined by “The Princess” (Eva Green), who appears to have been the captive “wife” of one of the rapists/murderers and who had her tongue cut out by Indians when she was kidnapped as a young girl, Jon fights for justice.

The addition of the mystery-suspense sub-plot makes this Revenge Tale one of the more interesting Westerns. Everyone in the film is more realistic than iconic, as they are in some of the classic Spaghetti Westerns: it usually takes Jon several shots to put down an assailant. Moody and atmospheric, with artistic cinematography, Salvation is available from Amazon ($4.99 to rent, or free with a 7-day trial from Showtime), is available for purchase for $14.99 from iTunes, or for $12.99 from GooglePlay, and YouTube, and is available free with a subscription from Showtime, IFC, or DirecTV.

If you know of any other classic Westerns that I might enjoy, please feel free to tell me about them in comments.

My original Top 10 Westerns post 
If You’re Going to Shoot,
Shoot: Don’t Talk

is now divided into two posts,
updated with official trailers and film availability:


We All Have It Coming:
Top 5 Westerns

and


I’m Your Huckleberry:
5 More Top Westerns

(originally films #6-10)

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Crime, Passion, Absurdity: More Darkly Twisted Comedies

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No Spoilers

In my first blog on Darkly Twisted Comedies, I listed some of my favorite comedies, acknowledging that the selected films are often too dark and twisted to be considered amusing by some audiences. That original post was so popular, and generated so much interaction on readers’ parts, that I’ve written a follow-up listing more films in that genre. To my surprise, it wasn’t difficult to find more brilliantly acted, well-written, sometimes award-winning films that are considered “dark comedy.” Sometimes the absurd premise in these films delivers laughs, sometimes the easily recognizable human scenarios are amusing, and sometimes the compassionate view of humanity against its occasionally blatant stupidity is what does the trick. Here’s my next list of darkly twisted comedies, presented in no particular order unless it’s from least to most “dark,” without any Spoilers, so you can enjoy them for yourselves.

The Last Supper
(1995)

After an accident, a group of five idealistic, liberal graduate students (Cameron Diaz, Annabeth Gish, Courtney B Vance, Ron Eldard, Jonathan Penner) decide to make a difference in the world through action, not talk. Each week, they find someone to invite to Sunday night “dinner and discussion,” where the group attempts to change the guest’s social views.

Guests include Ron Perlman, Bill Paxton,

Jason Alexander, and Charles Durning, among others.

Things quickly go awry, spinning out of the students’ control, forcing each member to re-evaluate his own ethics and morality.

Staged like a play, where most of the action takes place in the confined quarters of the grad students’ dining room and kitchen, The Last Supper is an intriguing exploration of the ever popular “What would you do if…” scenario where you ponder your own hypothetical behavior given a chance to change the world.

The Last Supper is available to rent for $2.99 on Amazon, and is free if you subscribe to Starz or to DirecTV.

 ♦

Death at a Funeral
(2007)

On the day of Daniel’s (Matthew MacFadyen, below R) father’s funeral, everything is supposed to be sedate and dignified. Instead, from the moment the coffin arrives, everything goes topsy-turvy. Daniel desperately strives to maintain order and to stay in control, but everyone else seems to be going mad. From his brother Robert (Rupert Graves, L),

to his wheelchair-bound Uncle Alfie (the late Peter Vaughan),

from his father’s friend Peter (Peter Dinklage),

to his cousins (Daisy Donovan and Kris Marshal),

who accidentally drug the fiancé (Alan Tudyk, below, R),

they all try Daniel’s patience. Despite Daniel’s best attempts, chaos erupts, threatening to expose family rivalries and skeletons.

Witty and farcical, with nudity and a few instances of scatalogical humor, Death at a Funeral encapsulates some of the weirdest and most notorious moments possible at a dysfunctional family’s gathering. Death at a Funeral is available for rent for $3.99 (free if you’re a Prime Member) from Amazon.

The 2010 remake of Death at a Funeral, starring Zoë Saldana, Chris Rock, Kevin Hart, James Marsden, and Peter Dinklage, is available free to DirecTV subscribers, but it’s not the version of the film I saw, so I cannot yet recommend it.

The Lobster
(2015)

In an unnamed place, in an unspecified future, humans — who are known mostly by their “defining characteristics,”  such as a limp, a lisp, or being short-sighted — are not permitted to be alone. If they are widowed or divorced, they must check into The Hotel, where they have 45 days to find another life partner. Unfortunately, it is not as easy as it seems to find someone to love in this dystopian world since partners are required to be physically alike as well as emotionally compatible. If a Guest cannot find a partner within the time limit, s/he is transformed permanently into an animal released into the woods. Newly divorced David (Colin Farrell) wants to be a lobster if he fails, and is accompanied by his brother, who is now a dog.

In order to prolong their stay at The Hotel, Guests may earn additional days by going on a Hunt and killing Loners: people who refuse to find a mate and who hide in the Woods, vowing to forever remain single, isolated, and hidden from society.

David doesn’t know which life is worse: that of the Guests or the Loners, but he knows he’s lonely and doesn’t want to turn into a dog.

Narrated in VoiceOver by the Short-Sighted Woman (Rachel Weiss), The Lobster  begins with a startling and absurd premise but manages to carry it successfully to its absurdly logical conclusion.

In this new twist on dystopian literature or films, the actors do a wonderful job behaving as if they have no emotions, sexual drives, or otherwise subversive feelings. The Lobster is available for rent for $4.99 (free if you’re a Prime Member) from Amazon and is free for DirecTV subscribers.

Fargo
(1996)

One of the Coen Brothers’ classic films, Fargo explores the world of crime when the criminals are inept, incompetent, and extremely dangerous. Car salesman Jerry Lundergaard (William H. Macy)

hires two bumblers (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife.

Jerry is über-confident that his wealthy father-in-law will pay the enormous ransom, which Jerry needs for an unspecified reason. It’s a lot of money, but despite his father-in-law’s devotion to his daughter, he isn’t about to let Jerry handle that much money. In any event, the kidnapping immediately goes wrong,

which gets a hugely pregnant local police-chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) involved. She’s desperately seeking criminals in an attempt to save the kidnapping victim’s life.

Buscemi shines as the violent, impulsive kidnapper. The Oscar-winning screenplay garnered an Academy Award for McDormand as the quirky but diligent law officer, and an Oscar nomination for Macy as the dull-witted and desperate Jerry. Fargo is available for rent for $3.99 from Amazon, and is free if you subscribe to Showtime or DirecTV.

Fight Club
(1999)

When a dissatisfied, support-group-hopping, insomniac (Edward Norton), who’s the unnamed Narrator,

meets a charismatic, renegade soap-maker (Brad Pitt), the two form an unlikely bond. In their desperation to live a fully experienced life, they form an underground Fight Club, where the “first rule of Fight Club is that you do not talk about Fight Club.”

The fights bond the two men until Marla (Helena Bonham Carter) — another support-group Crasher — resurfaces in the Narrator’s life.

In fact, Marla creates at least as much havoc as the ever expanding club, which begins to spread its exponentially increasing violence outside the metaphorical ring.

Based on the novel by Chuck Palahniuk, this is one of the few films that surpasses its source material in quality, if only because the (book) Narrator’s lines are spread out around the film’s principals. Brilliant and dangerously quirky, Fight Club is worth watching multiple times to get all the important details. Fight Club is available for rent for $3.99 from Amazon or free if you subscribe to DirecTV.

American Beauty
(1999)

One of the darkest comedies ever made, Oscar-winning American Beauty explores the rot and ugliness beneath the seemingly perfect exteriors of an upper middle-class family and of everyone who comes into contact with its seriously flawed members. Head of household Lester (Kevin Spacey, in an Oscar-winning performance) is about to lose his job to down-sizing,

and is despised by his wife Carolyn (Annette Bening, in her best role ever).

Both of them repulse their daughter Jane (Thora Birch),

especially after Lester gets a blatant crush on Jane’s friend Angela (Mena Suvari, on bed).

When the new neighbor, boy-next-door drug-dealer Ricky (Wes Bentley), falls for Jane and makes her feel special for the first time in her life, her life becomes intolerable.

To make things worse, Lolita-like nymphet Angela begins to fall for Jane’s sexually frustrated father Lester, and is openly hostile to Jane’s quirky boyfriend Ricky, whom Angela considers a “psycho.” Yes, everything falls apart.

Stunning performances by all actors combined with an Oscar-winning screenplay by Alan Ball take this dark comedy from its amusing beginnings to a much deeper exploration of beauty, happiness, and the meaning of life itself. American Beauty is available for rent for $3.99 (free if you’re a Prime Member) from Amazon, for rent for $3.99 for DirecTV  subscribers, or free if you’re a subscriber to SundanceTV.

Though some of the films contain violence or explicit language, I don’t find graphic or sexual violence humorous, so none contains that. All of the films should be considered for mature audiences, however.

And, as always, if you have any films you’d like to suggest for future lists, I’d love to hear from you (and to see the films).

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This is The End, My Only Friend, The End: Penny Dreadful Series Finale, Episodes 8-9, “Perpetual Night” and “Blessed Dark,” Review & Recap

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Spoilers,
Most Dreadfully Dreadful

Josh Hartnett as Ethan and Eva Green as Vanessa Ives in Penny Dreadful (season 3, episode 9). - Photo: Patrick Redmond/SHOWTIME - Photo ID: PennyDreadful_309_1596
We knew it would end some time, that deliciously dark and dreadful exploration into faith, into good and evil, and into mankind’s choice to do moral or immoral acts. The end came last night when Penny Dreadful completed its three-season run with a two-part finale, including episodes 8 and 9: “Perpetual Night” and “Blessed Dark.”  John Logan’s thrilling horror story Penny Dreadful did not end because of low ratings, series cancellation, or unavailability of the actors. Instead, like Soderbergh’s and Cinemax’s 2-year series The Knick,  the series Penny Dreadful ended because its creator and writer ended it, because he had always intended ending it at the conclusion of the third season, because it was the logical and reasonable end to the stories of its characters.

There is much grief among viewers over the loss of Vanessa (Eva Green), one of the belovèd characters of fictional drama. There is grief and mourning over the fact that the star-crossed lovers, Ethan (Josh Hartnett) and Vanessa did not, in fact, end up together, despite their great love for each other. There is some disbelief, and outrage, about Vanessa’s choosing the darkness, in the form of Dracula (Christian Camargo), because she is such a good person.

Those “outraged” viewers are ignoring or forgetting the evil in Vanessa herself. They’re also forgetting Vanessa’s previous choices to consciously do evil. Vanessa seduced her best friend’s fiancé on the eve of their wedding, knowing full well that the infidelity would betray her friend Mina and pollute the marriage, even if the act itself were never discovered. When Vanessa confronted the fetish of herself in the basement of Night-Walker Evelyn Poole’s mansion, she told it to “meet [its] Master” just before she destroyed it, proving pretty well that she could take care of herself when confronted with evil. When Vanessa intentionally said the Verbis Diablo in a spell that set Sir Geoffrey’s hounds on him,  she embraced the evil within her, knowing that she could never go back from that act. It was, fact, this evil act that turned Ethan away from her morally. Vanessa has consistently proven that she can consciously choose to do evil, especially when it benefits her. Even if those benefits are short-term.

Of course, the Apocalypse is not supposed to be short-term: it’s supposed to be the End of everything. Once again, in “Blessed Dark,” Vanessa displayed her moral ambivalence about the evil inside her by using her own death to subvert her previously conscious choices.

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Like all the characters in Logan’s Penny Dreadful, Vanessa is both good and evil, and she made a choice, earlier, to abandon her faith, to abandon God, and to embrace her dark destiny as well as her evil nature. For three seasons, we have seen Vanessa struggle against the two Dark Masters who have been hunting her as their Bride. The “fallen angel brothers,” Dracula and Lucifer have been sparring over her soul and her body for the entire run of Penny Dreadful.

It wasn’t really such a surprise that she eventually gave in to Dracula, who promised her eternal love, devotion, and companionship. However heart-wrenching it was for viewers who knew that Vanessa’s surrender to Dracula meant the End of Days for everyone else, it seemed a logical emotional choice for Vanessa.

How long can one person be expected to hold out against the eternal forces of Darkness, especially when said forced are continually presented as physically and emotionally attractive, as unwavering and articulate lovers, as devoted companions, as eternal and never-ending love?

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Vanessa tried to bind her destiny to that of Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett), but at the conclusion of season 2, Ethan left her and turned himself in for his crimes, ostensibly because he expected to be executed immediately, not extradited back to America to face his crimes there, or to face his father. It doesn’t matter to Vanessa why Ethan left her: only that he left her, and that she felt abandoned. That is one of the things that clearly shaped her decision to give in to her fate, her destiny, her tragic and ominous union with the Dark Master.

Dracula knew all about the Lupus Dei, the Hound of God who protects Vanessa and who threatens Dracula himself. He knew that Ethan is the Hound of God, though he often called him the “Wolf of God” instead. Dracula knew, furthermore, that Ethan was no longer there to protect Vanessa. When Dracula asked her about her former love, she said he had abandoned her. Dracula knew exactly what to say to the damaged and vulnerable Vanessa.

Dracula won the Vanessa-prize because everyone else abandoned Vanessa: Ethan, Sir Malcolm, Lyle. There was no one to whom she could turn except Dr. Seward (Patti LuPone), who unwittingly advised her to seek out Dr. Alexander Sweet, who was Dracula in his human form.

That doesn’t mean Vanessa was entirely happy with Dracula. After all, she embraced him saying that she was “accepting herself,” rather than “accepting him,” as he’d asked. I suppose he took her words to mean what he wanted them to mean, not a surprising thing given the Victorian setting of the drama, and the way men often treated women they desire. The Dark Master got what Vanessa gave him: it may have been only her body, it may have been the Apocalypse, it may have been her soul, albeit briefly (he claimed in The White Room that he had no need for her soul, and that, furthermore, his brother Lucifer was “welcome to it”).

We got a brief glimpse of something less than accord between Vanessa and Dracula when one of the Lost Boys reported on the Wolf-induced carnage outside the abandoned slaughterhouse. With her hand on his shoulder, Vanessa told Dracula that she could smell “the fear” on him. When he moved his hand to take hers, she moved away, while he looked vaguely surprised and distressed. It seems that all was not well in Apocalypto-Land, despite Dracula’s having the woman he’d searched for since the beginning of time.

Despite Vanessa’s being the Mother of all Evil, despite her being worshiped by all Dracula’s minions and Lost Boys, despite her being with the companion of her choice, Vanessa is not entirely happy.

This is one of the common themes in literature of the Victorian era, no matter the country of the author’s origin, and no matter the gender of the author. No matter what a fictional Victorian woman chooses, she will not be completely happy. No matter what a woman does, she will be “punished.” No matter a woman’s choices, her life is, in fact, severely constricted by her society. A woman must pay for whatever freedom and happiness she manages to attain.

Consider Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, where Emma’s adulterous affairs and self-indulgent debt lead to her husband’s ruin financial ruin. None of Emma’s lovers care for anything but their own self-satisfaction. Once they have Emma sexually, she loses attraction for them. Eventually, in despair, she commits suicide.

In Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Anna’s adulterous affair with the love of her life, Vronsky, leads to Anna’s loss of her son as well as to the loss of her status in Russian society. Eventually, it leads to her drug use, jealous rages that alienate her lover, and to her eventual suicide.

In Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urdervilles, the young and naïve Tess falls in love with her “cousin,” gives in to him sexually, and bears a child that dies shortly after; later, after marrying and revealing to her husband her initial sexual relationship, she is abandoned by her husband because of her “immorality;” Tess kills her first lover in the hopes that it will bring her husband back to her. Instead, she is executed for her crimes.

In Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, Jane must first “pay penance” for loving a married man, despite the fact that she did not know he was married when she fell in love with and agreed to marry him herself. She “punishes” herself for her “sins” by leaving him and by being unhappy. Even after she returns to Mr. Rochester, he is blind, and needs her as much as a caregiver as a companion. Jane’s ultimate “happiness” is purchased at a great price.

In Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, Catherine and Heathcliff never do find happiness; instead, Catherine dies giving birth to (their?) child, cursing Heathcliff for having abandoned her, though he insists that it was Catherine who initially abandoned him by claiming she could never marry Heathcliff. She haunts Heathcliff after her death: the two are never together in life.

Even in American literature, women of the literary era are punished for sexual alliances and for love. Hawthorne’s heroine Hester, in The Scarlet Letter, bears her lover’s child after the older husband of her arranged marriage is pronounced dead. Because Hester will not reveal the name of her illicit lover, and because he never comes forward to claim her and the child, Hester is forced to endure the public scorn and repudiation of her society. Her lover dies without ever claiming the two of them. Hester’s “reward” for her loyalty and her love is a lifetime alone.

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One could argue that, in making Vanessa Ives choose death as the logical conclusion of her moral choices, creator-writer Logan was merely creating yet another doomed Victorian heroine. Furthermore, by  having Vanessa request that the love-of-her-life Ethan kill her, to release her from her own moral choices, Logan is showing that Vanessa must have a man help her “atone” for her life choices and actions, as though she is unable to do so on her own.

I realize that death seemed the sole, logical conclusion for Vanessa’s moral choices, according to Penny Dreadful’s male creator. I realize that having the Apocalypse and the death of all mankind on one’s conscience would be an extremely heavy burden. But what happened to the Vanessa who “accepted [herself]”? Where was the woman who consciously embraced her dark side?

She defined herself, again, by a man, and by a man’s actions.

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Ethan may be considered her “saviour,” but, in the end of Vanessa’s story, he was simply the man who decided her fate: it was Ethan who ultimately pulled the trigger and killed her. One could argue that Vanessa decided her own fate by asking Ethan to kill her, but other Victorian heroines have chosen to end their own lives, and not asked that a man do it for them.

What was Vanessa but another Victorian heroine who had to suffer for being different? A Victorian heroine who could not fit in to society’s definition of a “proper woman.” A heroine of Victorian-era literature who was not “allowed” to be happy, who was not permitted to be either sexually or emotionally content.

Ah, well… we could wonder all we want at what Logan was attempting to do. I would argue that Logan, while re-inventing some of the characters from the literature of the Victorian era, fell into the same constricted societal judgements of all persons, but especially of women, who are different from that which society expects.

A woman without a man is incomplete.

A woman who chooses sexual independence is morally repugnant.

A woman who chooses sexual or moral freedom must be punished.

Logan and Penny Dreadful gave us yet another doomed Victorian woman who must die, or otherwise by “punished,” for her sexual and moral choices.

That doesn’t mean I don’t love Vanessa Ives and Penny Dreadful. I think she is one of the finest characters ever created, and the series is one of the best ever written. I’m devastated to see it end. It simply means that, as a woman, I’m saddened to see yet another fictional heroine forced to “choose” death as the “punishment” or as the ultimate end of her moral and sexual choices.

Still, Vanessa’s fate was, no doubt, decided long beforehand, and with her constant pleas to others, and especially to Ethan, to end her “suffering,” her death shouldn’t have been a surprise to any viewers.

Vanessa died. By Ethan’s hand. At her request.

Then, to appease anyone who was too tremendously upset about Vanessa’s having chosen Dracula and the Darkness instead of waiting for Ethan to return (though mating with him would have also been a morally dubious choice, given that he’s a WolfMan), Vanessa began to pray again, half-way through Ethan’s recitation of The Lord’s Prayer, while he remained silent, just before he shot her.

As if her being able to pray again weren’t clear enough for viewers, Vanessa claimed to see “our Lord” as she was dying.

In case anyone thought that Lucifer might scoop her up as she attempted to avoid the consequences of her having chosen, in life, his earthly brother of Darkness, Dracula.

It was sad to lose her.

But, somehow, it was not a surprise.

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Meanwhile…
The Remaining Stories

Dorian (Reeve Carney), having given Lily to the love-lorn Victor Frankenstein so that Victor and his colleague Henry Jekyll could “make her into a proper woman,” returned to his mansion, threw out all the whores, and killed Justine (Jessica Barden), who didn’t want to live in a world without Lily. When Lily returned, she viewed Justine as another “dead child,” having related earlier, to Victor, her loss of her natural born child, Sarah. Despite Dorian’s assurance that life without emotional engagement was the only way to survive immortality, and that he was the only partner suited for her, Lily left Dorian alone.

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Dorian’s story has never been as integrally woven with the story of Vanessa and the others, and this end was no different. Despite Dorian’s being sexually involved with Vanessa in season one, Dorian is ultimately alone. An outsider in the world of Penny Dreadful.

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Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway, above L) gave up trying to mold Lily (Billie Piper) into a “perfect woman,” by which he meant a woman who loved him but had no independent thoughts, life, or impulses. After Lily begged him not to take away the memory of her dead child Sarah, Victor finally saw her as a human being with desires and a life separate from his own.

Despite Jekyll’s (Shazad Latif, above R) insistence that Lily could have been changed, and Jekyll’s lament that he never should have left Victor alone with Lily, Victor won the moral high ground in this “battle” over good and evil. Though Jekyll gloated that he, at last, had inherited his father’s estate and title, and would thereby achieve societal acceptance as “Lord Hyde,” viewers probably guessed that Jekyll-Hyde would never be part of the society as he wished, even if they’ve never read the book on which his character was based.

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Frankenstein’s first Creature (Rory Kinnear, above, center), also sometimes known as John Clare, was reunited with his family only to be confronted with the death of his young son. After his wife insisted that he take the boy’s body to Dr. Frankenstein so that the boy could be re-animated as was the Creature himself, Clare was faced with a moral decision. He had to choose life with the woman who claimed to love him and accept him totally, but who insisted that he have their son “re-animated” so that she could love him again, “better this time,” or Clare had to choose life alone. He chose to “bury” his son in the ocean rather than to have him re-animated and to suffer as the Creature himself had.

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Dr. Seward (Patti LuPone) was not revealed as the re-incarnated Joan Clayton, which LuPone played in Season 2, but she did come to Vanessa’s aid. She acquitted herself admirably alongside Sir Malcolm (Timothy Dalton), Ethan, Catriona (Perdita Weeks, below), Frankenstein, and Kaetenay as they fought Dracula’s minions, the Lost Boys.

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After Vanessa’s death, Sir Malcolm, who was wounded by a vampire but had his wound cauterized by thanatologist Cat, bonded with Ethan. Each affirmed that they had to find a new life now that Vanessa was no longer alive, but that they considered each other family. Malcolm and Ethan have become the ideal father and son that neither had in reality.

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After finding a dead wolf hanging in Vanessa’s room at Sir Malcolm’s mansion, but before finding Vanessa herself, Ethan learned that it was his spiritual father Kaetenay (Wes Studi) who turned Ethan into a WolfMan. Though Ethan’s hostility toward Kaetaney has been present from the beginning of the season, if only in visions, Ethan did not know that Kaetenay intentionally turned (and cursed) him until last night.

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(I’m actually not sure what happened to Kaetenay, which could mean I was too absorbed in the group’s search for Vanessa to notice. On the other hand, it could mean that Kaetanay’s fate was not remarkable enough for me to notice. I’ll update the post after I watch the episode again.)

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Dracula (Christian Camargo) vanished tout de suite after Ethan appeared, bearing Vanessa’s body. Everyone else seemed to be paying too much attention to Ethan to notice that Dracula had escaped. He was never mentioned again.

Rory Kinnear as The Creature in Penny Dreadful (season 3, episode 9). - Photo: Jonathan Hession/SHOWTIME - Photo ID: PennyDreadful_309_3197

The Creature appeared at the cemetery during Vanessa’s funeral, and his poignant Voice-Over of Wordsworth’s famous “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” was a lovely tribute to the entire show.

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Were there loose ends? Unfortunately. We never got to see how Amunet or Amun-ra were related to either Dracula, Vanessa, or Lucifer, the other Prince of Darkness. As I wrote earlier in this post, Dorian’s story was never as integrally tied into the remaining tales, but we know that he’s alone. We don’t know what happened to Lily, but if she’s like Frankenstein’s other Creature, she’s going to be roaming the world an an immortal being, always alone. Frankenstein himself, after pining after and plotting over Lily all season, seemed relatively quickly resigned to life without her. Jekyll’s story didn’t have near the moral consequences that it does in the novel, when its protagonist tries to separate his evil impulses from the good ones, failing when the evil side cannot be conquered unless the physical body is destroyed. Renfield ended up in a cell in Bedlam. What happened to Dr. Seward and Catriona, the other two strong women in the show? They helped save Vanessa. That seems to be their sole purpose. What happened to Dracula? We’ll never know.

It’s over, my fellow Dreadfuls.

It’s been quite a tumultuous ride.

Related Posts

May the Lost Souls Be Found:
Penny Dreadful, Season 3 Episode 7,
“Ebb Tide” Review & Recap

Loving the Darkness:
Penny Dreadful, Season 3, Episodes 5-6,
Review and Recap

Embracing the Darkness:
Penny Dreadful, Season 3, Episode 4,
Review and Recap of “A Blade of Grass”

No Mercy Anywhere:
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“Good and Evil Braided Be,”
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Behind the Masks:
Penny Dreadful, Season 3, Episode 2,
“Predators Far and Near,”
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All the Unloved Ones:
Penny Dreadful, Season 3 Premiere,
“The Day Tennyson Died,”
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When Lucifer Fell:
My Penny Dreadful Blogs,
Seasons 1-2, Review and Recap

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