Category Archives: Films

When Legend Becomes Fact: John Ford’s Classic Western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

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Westerns are an “indigenous American art form,” romanticizing and nostalgically eulogizing the geographical territory west of the Mississippi before it was “tamed.” Set in eras when the West was wild, rough, and wooly, the major protagonists in Westerns are typically divided into easy-to-identify categories of Good Guy and Bad Guy, complete with white and black hats, respectively, and these protagonists often fall into the most dreadful stereotypes. Law and order, or the lack thereof, is a typical theme, and these films are often set at isolated forts or homesteads, or in small towns that are just beyond the reaches of Eastern “civilization,” towns that have not yet been dramatically changed by the arrival of the railroad. Most Westerns feature “romantic, sweeping frontier landscapes or rugged rural terrain,” all filmed in gorgeous technicolor.

When famed director John Ford decided to make The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), a Western adapted from a short story written by Dorothy M. Johnson, and starring John Wayne and James Stewart, Ford chose to shoot the film in black-and-white, and he did so on a Paramount stage-set. Critic David Courson believes that these artistic decisions about location and film choice stemmed from Ford’s fundamentally “re-imagined” vision of the mythic West; a vision that was now “pensive and thoughtful,” according to film critic (Roger Ebert); a vision which, according to fellow Westerns director Sergio Leone, who was influenced by the film, revealed that Ford had “learned about something called pessimism.

James Stewart as Ranse, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance © Paramount

Whatever the reason for Ford’s newly imagined, more pessimistic vision of the West, his artistic changes were a critical and financial success. The film’s budget was $3.2M, and it earned $8M when it was released. Edith Head’s surprisingly understated costumes were nominated for an Academy Award for Best Costume Design (black-and-white), one of the few Westerns ever nominated for this category. With a cast of great stars and loads of marvelous character actors, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a one of the best classic Westerns. Despite its almost claustrophobic setting, the film examines the more expansive issues of frontier independence vs. civilization; social equality of men vs. that of women, children, and non-whites; and legal vs. moral justice vs. common sense, all while doggedly examining the role of myth in both culture and art.

James Stewart as Ranse, and Vera Miles as his wife, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance © Paramount

The film opens with a Senator Ransom (Ranse) Stoddard (James Stewart) returning, unannounced, to the frontier town of Shinbone for a funeral. While he’s there, the local reporters doggedly question the “famous man’s” return to the wilderness, which they believe must have some other purpose than his attending a mere funeral. Senator Stoddard agrees to tell them the story of his past, taking viewers into the flashback that will form the bulk of the film.

Lee Marvin (center) as Liberty Valance, with his gang members, played by Lee Van Cleef (L) and Strother Martin (R ), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance © Paramount

Ranse, a young attorney who goes West as a young man, hopes to bring civilization as well as law and order to whatever town he settles in and sets up his legal practice. He’s a greenhorn and a dude with an education, and when the stagecoach is robbed by Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin, above center) and his gang (Lee Van Cleef (L) and Strother Martin(R), above), the idealistic and naïve Ransom Stoddard is beaten and whipped, almost to death.

John Wayne as Tom Doniphon (Donovan), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance © Paramount

A local rancher, Tom Doniphon (pronounced “Donovan”) (John Wayne) finds the badly injured Ranse and takes him to town for help.

Vera Miles as Hallie, and Woody Strode as Pompey (foreground), Jeanette Nolan as Nora and John Qualen as Peter (background), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance © Paramount

While his injuries are being tended by Hallie (Vera Miles) and her Swedish-immigrant employers Nora (Jeanette Nolan) and Peter (John Qualen), Ranse urges them to send for the local Marshal (Andy Devine, below L) so that Valance can be arrested.

Andy Devine as the Marshal, and Woody Strode as Pompey, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance © Paramount

Everyone present, but most notably Tom, tells Ranse that Liberty Valance has no respect for the law, understanding only violence, brute force, and retaliation, but Ranse refuses to listen, insisting that he can get justice for his injuries and the stagecoach attack.

James Stewart as Ranse, and Vera Miles as Hallie, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance © Paramount

Without any money, Ranse is forced to accept the hospitality of the restauranterus Nora and Peter, so he does kitchen chores to repay them for lodging and meals. When Ranse learns that waitress Hallie can neither read nor write, he offers to teach her — and anyone else who wishes to learn.

Lee Van Cleef, Strother Martin, and Lee Marvin (L-R) as Liberty and his gang The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance © Paramount

Then Liberty Valance and his gang come into the restaurant, mocking the apron-wearing “dude” Ranse, and setting up a violent confrontation among Ranse, Liberty, Tom, and the newspaper editor Peabody (Edmond O’Brien).

James Stewart as Ranse, Edmond O’Brien as Peabody, and John Wayne as Tom, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance © Paramount

As a sort of unofficial protector of the townspeople due to his own shooting skills, which are at least equal to those of Liberty Valance, Tom teaches Ranse to shoot, expecting that Ranse will be able to defend himself against the notorious Valance.

John Wayne as Tom, and James Stewart as Ranse, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance © Paramount

Meanwhile, Hallie, who is being courted by Tom, begins to have feelings for Ranse as well as for Tom, setting up yet another arena for disaster and tragedy in Shinbone. To make matters even worse, the Territory in which Shinbone is located wants to be granted Statehood, to help protect itself against the cattle barons, who have apparently hired the notorious Liberty Valance to sabotage the town’s efforts.

James Stewart as Ranse, Lee Marvin as Liberty, and John Wayne as Tom, (with Lee Van Cleef and Strother Martin as Liberty’s gang, background), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance © Paramount

The initial conflict among Ranse, Liberty, and Tom intensifies and becomes political, endangering not only Ranse’s life but the physical safety and the lives of everyone who has befriended him in the town. Liberty Valance is not going to step aside without a gunfight, and Ranse, who’s not much of a shootist, is the man in Liberty’s sights.

Star-studded entertainment, with just enough humor to keep the film a drama without turning it into a tragedy, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is available for rent ($2.99-3.99) or purchase from Amazon (free with a 7-day Starz subscription), iTunes, YouTube, GooglePlay, and Vudu, and is always free for Starz subscribers.

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If You Dance with the Devil: 8MM (Eight Millimeter), the Film

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Crime films, frequently inspired by crime fiction, concentrates on criminals, their crimes, and (sometimes) on the detection of those crimes. The famed Noir films of the 1940s and 1950s, such as The Killers and Double Indemnity, feature psychologically complex, morally dubious, and world-weary male protagonists who are unable to escape their pasts, even if they did not actually commit any crimes. Contemporary crime films, whether drama like The Usual Suspects and The Godfather, or a dark comedy like In Bruges — all of which were Oscar-winners — often feature protagonists who are hardened criminals themselves. Viewers are sometimes outraged by such sympathetic portrayals of criminals, as some audience members were when they saw Abel Ferrara’s King of New York, in which the protagonist Frank White, played by Christopher Walken, insists to the detectives pursuing him that he is “just a businessman.”

The 1999 crime film 8MM (Eight Millimeter), directed by Joel Schumacher from a screenplay by Andrew Kevin Walker (Seven), doesn’t present viewers with an already world-weary protagonist who is unable to escape his morally dubious past, nor with morally ambiguous criminals. In 8MM, the protagonist is initially a nice guy just trying to make a good living for him and his family, and the bad guys are really terribly bad bad guys, although they have some great lines. This crime film concentrates instead on its male protagonist, a private investigator searching for a missing teenage girl, as he descends into the dark world of underground, illegal pornography, only to dissolve into violence and criminal acts himself.

Nicholas Cage as Tom Welles, 8MM © Columbia Pictures

Tom Welles (Nicholas Cage, in his best dramatic role) lives with his wife Amy (Catherine Keener) and their baby daughter in a totally suburban, midwest neighborhood, from where he runs his home-based “surveillance” business, i.e., private investigations.

Catherine Keener, 8MM © Columbia Pictures

For some reason never clearly explained, the Welles family is having a difficult time financially, despite his steady employment taking photos of adulterous spouses and other misbehaving family members.

Enter wealthy, wheelchair-bound Mrs. Christian (Myra Carter), who has discovered something horrific in her late husband’s safe: an 8mm film that seems to portray a young girl being murdered. Though Welles reassures Widow Christian that “snuff films” — illegal pornographic films where someone is actually killed for the express purpose of the viewers’ sexual titillation — are more an “urban legend” and are usually faked, she offers unlimited funds to prove that the film is fake and the girl still alive. Welles explains that if he treats the girl as a “missing person,” he could gain more access to her identity, family, and whereabouts.

Though the family lawyer Longdale (Anthony Heald) is present at this initial meeting and has already seen the film in question, Welles tells Widow Christian that he will deal directly with her, and only with her. Welles believes that the money he earns proving this horrific “snuff film” is fake will enable him and his family to live comfortably and “happily ever after.”

Mother, Janet (Amy Morton) and Welles (Nicholas Cage) in runaway daughter’s room, 8MM © Columbia Pictures

Unfortunately, this is not a fairy tale, and the illegal porn film leads Welles into the desolate and horrifying world of runaway and abducted children. Once he identifies the girl in the film as Mary Anne Mathews (Jenny Powell), who left home after a fight with her still-grieving mother Janet (Amy Morton), he is able to track Mary Anne’s movements. When he finds her abandoned suitcase in a shelter, Tom begins to suspect that Mary Anne, who wanted to be a film star, may have ended up a victim of the porn industry.

Not the legitimate porn industry, however: the illegal one, where people in the films are actually raped, severely assaulted against their will, and sometimes, apparently, killed.

Joaquin Phoenix as Max, 8MM © Columbia Pictures

In an adult film rental / bookstore, complete with “battery-operated vaginas,” Tom meets the wise-cracking cashier Max (Joaquin Phoenix), who once aspired to be a musician but lost his band, and who reads Capote’s In Cold Blood at work by disguising the book with the cover of another, sleazier work. Max is quick-witted and intelligent, and because Tom looks so much like a law enforcement officer, he quickly learns that it would be impossible for him to learn anything about the darker side of the porn industry without Max’s help.

Nicholas Cage as Welles, and Joaquin Phoenix as Max, 8MM © Columbia Pictures

Even with Max at his side, however, Welles begins to learn just how dangerous the illegal porn industry is: the two are constantly assaulted and threatened with death themselves as they attempt to find “snuff films.”

James Gandolfini as Eddie, 8MM © Columbia Pictures

When Welles finds a sleazy talent scout, Eddie (James Gandolfini), who seems to recognize the missing Mary Anne from a photograph but who denies knowing her, Welles goes after Eddie by insinuating that he knows what Eddie and his pals did to the girl.

Peter Stormare as Dino Velvet, 8MM © Columbia Pictures

Eddie leads Welles and Max, now going by the code-name “Max California,” to New York and to an infamous illegal pornographer Dino Velvet (Peter Stormare). Velvet makes unique films for private viewing for healthy commissions, and his films always include the hooded man known as “Machine” (Chris Bauer), who appears in the 8mm film found in Mr. Christian’s safe and who seems to have killed the missing girl.

Chris Bauer as Machine, and Peter Stormare as Dino Velvet, 8MM © Columbia Pictures

In increasingly dark, sordid, and haunting environs, Welles pursues the missing girl and the men who made the purported “snuff film.” Plunging ever deeper into the dark world of illegal pornography, drifting away from his wife, daughter, and the mundane security of his former life, Welles is changed in ways he could not have imagined. The closer he gets to discovering the truth about the missing girl and disturbing film, the more endangered he is himself, as is everyone connected with him, including his “partner” Max, as well as Welles’ wife and baby daughter.

Many critics felt Cage was “miscast” as Welles, and most professional reviewers disliked 8MM intensely, accusing it of being “nearly as creepy, sleazy, and manipulative as the pornographic films it… condemns” or of being “a relentlessly murky odyssey… [emerging] as a secondhand Seven” (the same screenwriter wrote both films). Janet Maslin of the New York Times found Cage’s character “unrelievedly drab,” but added that “[though the film] includes profanity, partial nudity and ugly violence, its depictions of pornography are “relatively discreet.

Roger Ebert was one of the few professional reviewers who actually admired 8MM, writing that it “raises moral questions that the audience has to deal with, one way or another,” making 8MM a “real film

that deals with the materials of violent exploitation films, but in a non-pornographic way; it would rather horrify than thrill… It is a real film. Not a slick exploitation exercise with all the trappings of depravity but none of the consequences. Not a film where moral issues are forgotten in the excitement of an action climax.

Intense and edgy, 8 MM, is not a film for the faint-hearted. Though the film never graphically portrays the pornographic aspects of its subject matter, the disintegration of its protagonist from quiet and respected family man into desperate and violent avenger is disturbing: it may be uncomfortable for some viewers. Available for rent ($2.99-3.99) from Amazon, iTunes, YouTube, GooglePlay, and Vudu.

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All the Great, Grand, Glorious Heroes of the Revolution: Sergio Leone’s Duck, You Sucker

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Director Sergio Leone is credited with re-inventing the western film genre by presenting a more graphically violent and morally complex vision of the American Old West. Despite his never having visited the United States and not being able to speak English, Leone created western heroes, villains, and films that changed the genre forever. Paying tribute to Hollywood’s westerns while, at the same time, significantly humanizing them, Leone’s characters, heroic or villainous, are dirty, sweaty, and unshaven. It is often difficult to determine which are the heroes and which the villains in Leone’s films since all his characters are “morally ambiguous… [either] generously compassionate, or nakedly and brutally self-serving, as the situation [demands].” The relationships of Leone’s characters “[revolve] around power” and are emotionally, rather than politically, driven.

In Leone’s second major trilogy of thematically connected films, sometimes called the Once Upon a Time trilogy — Once Up a Time in the West; Duck, You Sucker (also titled, Once Upon a Time… the Revolution, or A Fistful of Dynamite); and Once Upon a Time in America, the setting is not always the American Old West, and Leone concentrates more on the “rituals preceding violence than on the violence itself.” In Leone’s first trilogy of Westerns, the Dollars Trilogy, the protagonist doesn’t change, although those around him often do, if only because of his violent acts. In the Once Upon a Time trilogy, instead of there being a single protagonist, who is most often considered the “hero” of the story though he is neither moral nor “good,” there are at least two protagonists, and they do change during the course of each individual film’s story, which is “unusual” for Leone characters.

Though they might initially oppose each other, these protagonists are even less clearly defined along the traditional lines of good/evil or hero/villain or even protagonist/antagonist. The female, who was intimately connected with the two protagonists’ battle in Once Upon a Time in the West, has completley disappeared in Duck, You Sucker (1971): the story focuses only on its male protagonists.

The moral journey of the emotionally complex protagonists in Duck, You Sucker occurs despite — or perhaps because of — all the guns, explosions, and battles during a revolution, but Leone’s protagonists are not even conscious of their changing behavior or natures.  These two men are trying to survive outside the political situation around them. For them, and for the film’s viewers, the Mexican Revolution is mere backdrop. Duck, You Sucker is, instead, a biting examination of racism, class differences, imperialism, and the violence that is sometimes used in an futile attempt to achieve permanent social and moral equality.

Rod Steiger and James Coburn, as Juan and John, respectively, in Duck, You Sucker ©

Despite the film’s constantly being edited to remove scenes considered too politically sensitive, too violent, or filled with too much profanity; despite its being marketed variously as a comedy or a satire of westerns rather than as a drama; and despite its rather strange original title, which is apparently a bad translation of the Italian Giù la Testa (Duck your Head), and its subsequent release under various other titles such as A Fistful of Dynamite and Once Upon a Time… the Revolution, this film is one of Leone’s best. Its exploration of the individual vs. society, loyalty to personal codes of conduct and honor vs. obligation to fellow man, and private vs. political justice is moving and powerful.

Rod Steiger as Juan Miranda, Duck, You Sucker ©

In a rural desert, a dirty, barefoot, obviously poor Mexican peasant waits at an isolated stop for the stage. Though the driver is intially reluctant to allow the peasant to board, despite his offering to pay for this passage, the driver decides it would be a good joke to put the dirty man aboard with the wealthy patrons. Inside, the others immediately insult and criticize the peasant, talking about him as if he were unable to hear or understand what they are saying. Along the road, the stage is ambushed by armed bandits, and the peasant is revealed as their leader, Juan Miranda (Rod Steiger), who immediately takes revenge against the wealthy, upper-class patrons.

Rod Steiger (forefront) as Juan, Duck, You Sucker ©

Before Miranda and his gang have left the scene with the stolen stagecoach, they are distracted by explosions and the subsequent arrival of a motorcyle-riding stranger. Miranda disables the motorcycle and attempts to rob its driver, but is confronted by a man more cool-headed and cold-blooded than himself: Irish political terrorist turned mercenary, Seán (John) Mallory (James Coburn).

James Coburn as Seán (John) Mallory, Duck, You Sucker ©

In the violent struggle that ensues, the two men vainly attempt to outwit and physically master each other. When it’s clear that Irish John cannot be intimidated or emotionally manipulated, Juan decides he can use John’s skills to fulfill his own life’s dream of succesfully robbing the biggest bank Juan’s ever heard of, the Mesa Verde National Bank.

Romolo Valli as Dr. Villega, Duck, You Sucker ©

In Mesa Verde, the two begin working together, although unbeknownst to Juan, John’s motives are quite different from his own. In a secret meeting, Juan is introduced to one of the revolutionary leaders, Dr. Villega (Romolo Valli, above), who wants to overthrow the corrupt and tyrannical local governor, Don Jaime (Franco Graziosi, below), and change Mexico’s entire social structure.

Poster of Franco Graziosi as Governor Don Jaime, Duck, You Sucker ©

Enter, stage-right: an even more powerful and dangerous opponent, Colonel Günther Reza —Gutierez Ruiz in English versions — (Antoine Saint-John), the ruthless German leader of a detachment of Mexican Federales.

Antoine Saint-John Colonel Günther/Gutierez Reza/Ruiz, Duck, You Sucker ©

Though sometimes considered the film’s antagonist, Reza/Ruiz’s character is completely undeveloped, which makes it clear that he is not important enough to be the antagonist. Reza/Ruiz functions merely as a catalyst for the evolution and moral development of Juan, John, and, in a minor capacity, Dr. Villega. Even Villega, though his character is important enough to be slightly developed, is really only vital to the story because of his treachery toward the major protagonists, Juan and John, and how his betrayal changes them.

James Coburn as John, and Rod Steiger as Juan, Duck, You Sucker ©

The story of this brief moment in the Mexican Revolution is interwoven with flashbacks revealing John’s time in Ireland fighting the British government. Featuring a former comrade and the women whom both men loved, these flashbacks have no dialogue: only a musical soundtrack.

John’s former comrade Nolan (David Warbeck); Colleen (Vivienne Chandler), the woman they both loved; and Seán/John (James Coburn, in Ireland, in flashbacks only, Duck, You Sucker ©

 

Apparently, this time, in Mexico, John wants to get the revolution right. Meanwhile, Juan only wants revenge against everyone for his own poverty and illiteracy. The story’s violence increases, but begets nothing except more horrific violence, more betrayal, more death.

Rod Steiger as Juan, and James Coburn as John, Duck, You Sucker ©

When finally offered a chance to take hold of his dreams, “Chicken-Thief” Juan and “Firecracker” John each realizes that he no longer wants what he once most desired. Each discovers that he is not the man he once was, and that he must now make different moral and political choices, difficult and surprising as those choices may be.

The chemistry between Coburn and Steiger, as “John and Juan,” who eventually form a bond that forces each of their characters to evolve, is one of the things that makes Duck, You Sucker one of the best films ever made. The intellectual political terrorist John (Coburn) begins to see the human element in any revolution while the cynical and amoral Juan (Steiger) stops thinking only of himself and his own selfish gain, learning to care more about his family members as individuals, his relationship with his fellow man, and his country. From a relationship built on fear, intimidation, and coercion rises a relationship built on love, respect, and empathy.

Sergio Leone, Rod Steiger, and James Coburn, taking a break on set, Duck, You Sucker ©

Duck, You Sucker is available for rent ($2.99-$3.99 SD/HD) or purchase from Amazon,  iTunes, and Vudu.

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The Good, the Bad, and the Morally Complex: Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West

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If you know films, you know the work of director Sergio Leone, who is credited with re-inventing the western film genre with his “Spaghetti Westerns,” a sub-genre of Westerns directed by Italians and usually featuring a more graphically violent and morally complex vision of the American Old West. Old West (“Frontier”) stories typically “[exaggerate] the romance, anarchy, and chaotic violence of the [latter half of the 19th century in the American West] for greater dramatic effect.” Without ever having visited the United States or even being able to speak English, Leone, who often co-wrote his films, created western heroes, villains, and films that would change the genre forever. Beginning with his classic A Fistful of Dollars, the first of the Dollars (or Man with No Name) Trilogy starring Clint Eastwood, Leone paid tribute to Hollywood’s westerns while, at the same time, significantly humanizing them.

In Leone westerns, the heroes do not wear white hats, nor the villains, black, as was the Hollywood tradition. Leone’s characters do not wear designer outfits, and, whether heroic or villainous, his characters look dirty, sweat profusely, and rarely shave. Leone’s characters are more well-rounded human beings, with both “good” and “evil” traits, making them more complex and interesting. In fact, it is often difficult to determine which characters are the heroes and which the villains in Leone’s films since all characters are “morally ambiguous… appearing generously compassionate, or nakedly and brutally self-serving, as the situation [demands].” Further, the relationships of all Leone’s characters “[revolve] around power” — not around familial or romantic love — and “retributions [are] emotion-driven rather than conscience-driven.”

In Leone’s Dollars Trilogy — A Fistful of Dollars, A Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly — the protagonist, played in each by Clint Eastwood, doesn’t change, although his violent acts often alter the natures of those around him, making them either more dangerous and desperate, or more reflective and compassionate. In Leone’s second major trilogy of thematically connected films, sometimes called the Once Upon a Time Trilogy — Once Up a Time in the West, Duck, You Sucker (originally titled, Once Upon a Time… the Revolution), a western set in Mexico during its revolution, and Once Upon a Time in America, a crime drama about organized crime in New York — the same actor does not play the major protagonist in every film and the setting is not always the American Old West. Instead of the films’ being somewhat quirky and upbeat, the films in this second trilogy are slower paced and thematically darker.

In this second trilogy, Leone concentrates more on the “rituals preceding violence” than on the violence itself, which may have been why some critics and viewers called “slow” scenes in which not much happens. Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) marked a new phase in the style of Leone’s films as well as a new phase in his character development. The protagonists in these films, who are even less clearly defined along the traditional lines of good/evil or hero/villain, actually do change during the course of each individual film’s story, which is “unusual” for Leone characters. Because of its protagonists’ attempts to become different though not necessarily better people, Once Up a Time in the West is one of Leone’s best films and one of the greatest westerns. Its characters are so morally complex that critics and viewers often list it as one of the “greatest films of all time,” not just one of the greatest westerns.

The story of Once Up a Time in the West may seem predictable, with its Old West tropes of wealthy, land-grabbing villain going after the defenseless, newly widowed homesteader, but it is the shootists on opposite sides of this battle that are the film’s triumph. These shootists (sometimes called “gunslingers” or “gunfighters”) are so fascinating and disturbing that they justifiably become the story’s focal point. Instead of viewers’ caring about who wins the land-battle, they become more interested in the shootists and how their characters change.

opening gunfight in Once Upon a Time in the West ©

The film opens with a stunning scene: three men (Jack Elam, Woody Strode, and Al Mulock) terrorize people at a train station and then wait to ambush a traveller. Their target (Charles Bronson), who has no name throughout the film but who is called “Harmonica” because he often plays one.

Charles Bronson as Harmonica, Once Upon a Time in the West ©

Harmonica has arrived to keep an appointment with someone named “Frank” who is not at the train station. The resulting shoot-out between Harmonica and the three shootists is the first indication that this film is different from Leone’s previous westerns. Harmonica is wounded during the shoot-out: he is not invincible.

Henry Fonda as Frank, Once Upon a Time in the West ©

Meanwhile, at an isolated homestead, a widower and his family are massacred. In one of the most startling Reveals in film history, viewers are introduced to Frank (Henry Fonda), a shootist and one of the most heinous villains ever. Frank has been ordered to scare Landowner McBain and his children into leaving so his boss can acquire the land. Instead, Frank kills them all.

Claudia Cardinale as Jill, Once Upon a Time in the West ©

That is, Frank kills all the family except Jill (Claudia Cardinale), who has just arrived via train from New Orleans and who has become the landowner by default due to her recent secret marriage with the now-deceased McBain.

Jason Robards as Cheyenne, Once Upon a Time in the West ©

Meanwhile, at a roadhouse where Jill is awaiting transportation to her new home, Harmonica, who is pursuing Frank without knowing what he looks like, informs an escaped prisoner Cheyenne (Jason Robards) about the ambush at the railroad-station. The killers dressed like members of Cheyenne’s gang. Because Cheyenne himself has been accused of the McBain massacre, where the killers also wore the his gang’s characteristic dusters, Cheyenne must find out what happened.

Claudia Cardinale as Jill, and Henry Fonda as Frank, Once Upon a Time in the West ©

The film’s violence increases as the lives and interests of Widow Jill, Shootist Frank, No-Name Harmonica, and Prisoner Cheyenne now all converge on the McBain homestead. Cruelty, betrayal, (implied) sexual violence, and murder become so commonplace that the violence itself becomes less interesting than the natures of the protagonists themselves. For the film’s characters and its viewers, the initial McBain massacre — as well as the reason behind it — becomes merely a metaphorical footnote in the “real story” of Once Upon a Time in the West: how these characters themselves will change because of their interactions with each other.

Fonda was originally hesitant about taking the role of the murderous Frank — of the the wittiest and most caustic villains ever created — and did not accept Leone’s initial offer. After talking to his best friend Eli Wallach, who had worked with Leone in his classic The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and who told Fonda he’d have the time of his life working with Leone on a film, Fonda accepted the part.

Henry Fonda as his blue eyes as Frank, Once Upon a Time in the West ©

He showed up for filming with facial hair and brown contacts, believing that his fans would more easily accept him as the bad guy if he looked different than he did in his other films. Leone insisted that Fonda shave and that, furthermore, his piercing blue eyes were necessary to symbolize the “cold, icy nature of the killer.” Fonda, cast against type, became one of the first lead actors to play a villain in a western.

Hugely popular in Europe on its release, though performing poorly in US markets — perhaps due to editorial cuts which were later restored to American versions in directors’ cuts — Once Upon a Time in the West is now considered to be a masterpiece and one the “greatest films ever made,” often ranked in the Top 100 lists of Best Westerns, Best Action, or Best Films.

Available for rent ($2.99-3.99 SD/HD) or purchase from Amazon (free with 7-day Starz trial), iTunes, YouTube, GooglePlay, and Vudu.

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When All Your Dreams Come True, But Your Heart Is Still Broken: Dearest, the Film

#NoSpoilers

Child trafficking is a huge problem in China: 20,000 to 200,000 children are sold every year. Sometimes, the biological parents sell their own children because they are unable to pay the fines for having 2 or more children. “Families ill equipped to pay penalties on top of the costs of raising a child—food, school tuition, etc.— sometimes opt to sell their offspring.” More often, however, children are stolen — snatched off the streets — and sold to orphanages or to wealthy childless families for adoption, sometimes for international adoption. The US State Department named China one of the world’s worst in child trafficking in 2017, and while the Chinese government acknowledges the problem, it refuses to release any statistics about its high abduction rates.

When children go missing, government officials often avoid investigating, or, worse, are complicit in aiding kidnappers by giving wealthy families who buy kidnapped children the appropriate legal documentation to explain the presence of multiple children in a country where the government has regulated births since 1980, and though the one-child-per-family law is now defunct, its legacy continues in high child trafficking rates. Worse, parents of kidnapped children are often persecuted as a “nuisance” and a “threat to social stability” for continuing to search for their children and for accusing the government of inaction and complicity in the kidnappings.

You wouldn’t imagine that a film about China’s child trafficking problem would be anything but grim, but director Peter Chan’s Dearest (Qin ai de, 2014), based on a true story of parents who are reunited with their kidnapped child several years later, turns the tables on viewers’ expectations by putting an ostensibly happy ending in the middle of the film. After the parents are reunited with their abducted child, the film becomes more gripping and powerful  as it explores the pain and heartbreak of everyone involved in child trafficking, from the grieving parents and the presumably guilty adoptive parents to the kidnapped children themselves. Though some of its subplot are irrelevant,  Dearest is one of the most scathing and brilliant stories of a painful and horrifying topic.

Huang Bo as Tian, Dearest ©

The first half of the film concentrates its story on the divorced parents. Father Tian (Huang Bo) runs a small internet cafe in Shenzhen and has many arguments with his ex-wife Lu (Hao Lei) over the best way to raise their three-year-old son Pengpeng (played by multiple child actors).

Hao Lei as Lu, Dearest ©

When Tian is distracted by a group of teen boys fighing in this store, he sends his son Pengpeng off to play with some neighboring children. The little boy gets distracted and tries to follow a car he thinks is his mother’s, and he gets snatched off the street (which is apparently a common way for kidnappers to abduct children in China).

Huang Bo as Tian, and Hao Lei as ex-wife Lu, Dearest ©

Somewhat reunited by their guilt and despair, parents Tian and Lu begin an initially fruitless search for their son. Since police and other officials are downright obstructive, the couple joins a support group for parents of missing children. Some of the most frightening scenes in the entire film deal with the way the group handles members’ grief, the violence that erupts in these grieving parents when they confront suspected kidnappers, and the terrifying “group-think” when these hopeless parents follow a truck they believe may carry kidnapped children wrapped in burlap bags in the back.

Zhao Wei as “adoptive” mother Li (kneeling), Dearest ©

About halfway through the film, Tian and Lu are told that their son has been located, and despite the fact that this seems as if it should be a happily-ever-after moment, Tian and Lu literally kidnap the boy, who not only does not recognize them, but who fights to remain with his “mother,” Li (played by renowned Chinese actor Zhao Wei).

Zhao Wei as Li, Dearest ©

From that moment, the film becomes a more morally complex and painful examination of good and evil as it focuses more on the disingenuously naïve adoptive mother Li, who insists to officials that her now-deceased husband only brought home “abandoned children” whom he found, and as the film focuses on the children Li “adopted” and raised as her own.

Zhoa Wei as Li, Dearest ©

Even without my being fluent in Mandarin, it was obvious to me that the most powerful actor in the film was playing the mother who was accused of raising kidnapped children. After Li loses her son (who is, indeed, Tian and Lu’s son Pengpeng) and her daughter, whose parents cannot be identified, Li begins a legal battle to adopt the daughter rather than leave her to be raised in an orphanage with hundreds of other children.

two of the actors playing the kidnapped children in Dearest ©

The few sub-plots, such as that with the lawyer and his dementia-afflicted mother, distract slightly from overall narrative, but the film as a whole is gripping and intense. Knowing that the parents find and “rescue” their kidnapped son does not detract from the power of the film. Instead, the film becomes more gripping the instant it flips its protagonists and antagonists: when biological parents Tian and Lu literally kidnap the boy Pengpeng themselves and run from villagers who are trying to rescue him for his screaming “mother,” Li.

Some of the film’s most heart-wrenching scenes involve not the parents but the two young children: neither remembers any mother but their “adoptive” one and neither can understand why they are no longer allowed to live together even though they are “brother” and “sister.”

Compelling and morally disturbing because it deals with both the victims and the offenders of child trafficking, Dearest won awards for Director Peter Chen and for Best Actress Zhao Wei. In Mandarin with English subtitles, Dearest is available to rent ($1.99-2.99 SD/HD, free for Prime members) from Amazon.

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