Tuesday, November 27, 2018

The Big Steal (1949)




This post is sponsored by DVD Netflix.

In 1949 RKO found themselves in a bit of a bind. Their latest project, The Big Steal, was already in the works when their star, Robert Mitchum, found himself in the clink for possession of narcotics. A couple of years earlier RKO had purchased Richard Worsmer’s short story from Columbia Pictures. They had planned to make the film with their star Chester Morris. When RKO bought the rights they turned to Daniel Mainwaring (aka Geoffrey Homes) to adapt the screenplay. They needed a leading lady and RKO made a deal with Hal Wallis for him to loan out Lizabeth Scott. But with Mitchum’s headline making scandal Scott and Wallis wanted nothing more to do with the project. No one knew exactly what effect Mitchum’s incarceration would have on his career. RKO chief Howard Hughes wasn’t about to his star Jane Russell be associated with Mitchum. At least not for a few more years when Mitchum and Russell made His Kind of Woman (1951) and Macao (1952). Hughes and his team needed what The Washington Post called “a bankable last-minute casting replacement.” And that replacement was Jane Greer.



Mitchum and Greer had starred together in the film noir Out of the Past (1947). It was a natural fit to reunite them for The Big Steal. “The woman with the Mona Lisa smile” had fond memories of working for RKO and would tell stories of the family atmosphere of the studio. They groomed their stars and had an active role in training them and building their careers from the ground up. In the early days of her career she auditioned for several studios and moguls but it was independent producer Howard Hughes who signed her up for a contract. Hughes was obsessed with Greer and would deny her work when she didn’t return his affection. She managed to get out of that contract and sign up with RKO. However Hughes bought RKO a few years later and was back in control of Greer’s acting career. In an interview with journalist James Bawden, Greer said,

“He had bought RKO and I figured I was through. But he was still fixated with me. When I was well enough to work, he simply stopped sending scripts. Had to pay me or the contract would have blown up. But just to get at me, he sent the checks and no work offers. Refused to loan me out. He was going to punish me for marrying someone else. He was going to make me suffer.”

It’s sad that we can’t discuss Jane Greer’s work without talking about all the times Hughes tried to sabotage it. In the case of The Big Steal, Hughes placed in a precarious position of starring alongside an actor with a potentially tarnished reputation. But little did Hughes know that Mitchum’s arrest would have the opposite affect on his career and that audiences would embrace seeing Greer and Mitchum on screen once again.

“Never mind where you’ve been just worry where you’re going.”

The Big Steal stars Robert Mitchum as Duke Halliday, an army lieutenant on the run from his captain Vincent Blake (William Bendix) who thinks Duke stole $300,000 cash from the Army. Blake follows Halliday to Mexico where Halliday is on the chase for the person who actually stole the money, Jim Fiske (Patric Knowles). Along the way Halliday meets Joan Graham (Jane Greer), Fiske’s girlfriend and another victim of Fiske’s double-crossing schemes. Halliday and Graham do not get along. It’s a battle of wits between these two. Just as Halliday has Fiske in his grasp, he’s thwarted by police inspector General Ortega (Ramon Novarro). Halliday hitches a ride with Graham, much to her dismay, and the two set off on a wild goose chase through the Mexican countryside in search of Fiske. With Blake on their tail and a lot of obstacles in their way, this unlikely pair are about to find out that not everything is as it seems.

Film historian James Ursini refers to The Big Steal as “screwball comedy meets film noir.” You may watch this film and wonder what’s so noir about it. It’s truly a hybrid film, much lighter fare than Mitchum and Greer’s Out of the Past (1947). This was an opportunity for the two to tap into their comedic talents. Greer’s lost a bit of her youthful glow and not as soft and deceptively innocent looking as she was in the role of Kathie Moffat. Greer’s Joan Graham is wise and world-weary. She has the ingenuity to keep things moving along especially when Duke stalls. Their scenes together are playful. Halliday calls her “Chiquita”, Spanish for small. He makes fun of Graham’s driving only to discover that his sexist remark is completely unfounded: she’s a more than competent driver and can tackle the winding roads at great speed. She's the sidekick he needed. They don’t trust each other at first but soon develop a sweet affection for each other that blossoms into a romance but also makes them protective of each other. Theirs is a hate-love relationship whereas in Out of the Past it was very much love-hate.

Shot on location in Mexico, relative newcomer, director Don Siegel, had to keep production going while Mitchum served his time in the LA County jail. In an interview, Greer remembers, “We all sat around for two months getting paid and waiting for our leading man to reappear.” Any scene that could be shot without Mitchum or with a stand-in was filmed. Mitchum was released from jail in March 1949 and it was full speed ahead for production. There was another time crunch to deal with. Greer was pregnant with her second child and starting to show. What resulted was a taut little 71 minute movie, a non-stop chase movie with some continuity errors but no room for needless lingering. One notable aspect of the film is the depiction of Mexicans in the film. They are wary of tourists, especially American ones. Graham chastises Halliday for treating various Mexican characters in an abrupt manner. It’s clear that Graham and Halliday have to work with the locals rather than have the locals work for them. As a Latina, I look for the representation of Latino characters in film and I found these scenes kind of refreshing.

For fans of Out of the Past (1947), seeing Mitchum and Greer together again, albeit in a very different type of movie, is a treat. It’s not a great film but it’s enjoyable viewing for Noirvember. Stay tuned because I have an in-depth article on Jane Greer and Robert Mitchum coming up in the annual "giant" issue of The Dark Pages newsletter.



Disclaimer: As a DVD Nation director, I earn rewards from DVD Netflix. You can rent The Big Steal on DVD.com.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

The Female Gaze by Alicia Malone


The Female Gaze
Essential Movies Made by Women
by Alicia Malone
Various Contributors
Hardcover ISBN: 9781633538375
Mango
November 2018

AmazonBarnes and NoblePowell's

“I think there is still a misconception that all directors are Cecil B. De Mille types with a loud voice and a whip. Perhaps maybe that’s why there’s always been some puzzlement about a woman in the director’s role.” – Gillian Armstrong

TCM host and film expert Alicia Malone's follow-up to her book Backwards and in Heels, is a comprehensive guide to the history of female directors in Hollywood and beyond. The Female Gaze: Essential Movies Made By Women catalogs over 50 films, directed by women, in chronological order from 1906 to present day. The book is a mix of articles written by Malone as well as a variety of female film critics and experts.

Malone's articles in particular are in-depth studies of particular films with an examination of the plot, behind the scenes information and biographical details on the woman director. Malone also focuses on the director's career, especially before, during and after making the discussed film. A common thread in her research, something Malone will tell you herself, is that the success of a movie made by a woman director does not necessarily open doors to other work. Looking at the chronological order of the book we see far more female directed films in this century than in the previous one. However, even today, women directors still face an uphill battle to get their movies made.


“With conversations about women’s experiences in Hollywood currently at fever pitch, I am often asked how to best support women in film. The answer? Watch movies made by women.” - Alicia Malone

Why does this matter? If you're a woman on film Twitter, you've had a man try to explain to you (i.e. mansplain) that there is no difference between a male and female director in terms of the end product. But the truth is that there is a difference. A big one. Representation matters and having a diverse group of voices helps us avoid the reinforcement of stereotypes and caricatures and gives us new perspectives that both enlighten and inform. Malone's book is invaluable not only in that it spotlights the female filmmakers but it also explains how their visions made their film unique. Reading each essay, especially about the films I hadn't seen, felt like uncovering a new treasure.

In addition to Malone's articles are a variety of short form pieces by other female film critics. I was happy to see familiar names including friends Marya Gates, Farran Smith Nehme, Danielle Solzman and so on. In a few cases one movie is discussed twice and because the pieces are by two different writers it gives a nice balance of perspectives. And for those of you worried that the book is too one-sided, there are quotes from male voices too including Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Robert Osborne, Roger Ebert, Barry Jenkins, etc.

The Female Gaze is more skewed to 21st century films but there are some fine articles about early movies that classic film fans will enjoy. Pieces on Alice Guy-Blache's The Consequences of Feminism (1906), Germaine Dulac's La Souriante Madame Beudet (1922), Dorothy Arzner's Dance, Girl, Dance (1940), Maya Deren's Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), Ida Lupino's The Hitch-Hiker (1953). I wish there were a few more articles about classic female film directors. Maybe one on my favorite early female director Nell Shipman would have been a nice addition. If you picked up Kino Lorber's Pioneers First Women Filmmakers boxed set (review coming soon!), a collection of silent films made by female film directors, Malone's book would make for a nice companion.

Alicia Malone’s The Female Gaze shines a much needed spotlight on female filmmakers and their movies. This is an indispensable resource for film historians and feminists alike.

Thank you to Mango for sending me an electronic copy of The Female Gaze for review. 

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Sterling Hayden's Wars by Lee Mandel

Sterling Hayden's Wars
by Lee Mandel
University Press of Mississippi
May 2018
Hardcover ISBN: 9781496816979
368 pages

Amazon Barnes and Noble Powell's


“Sterling Hayden, the individualist who could never quite belong or find contentment.”

This is not a biography about the actor Sterling Hayden. This a biography about a man and the struggles that plagued him for his 70 years on earth. There’s very little information in this book about Hayden’s acting career. Probably because Hayden himself was so indifferent about his movie roles. His acting was just a means to an end. To get the money he needed to finance his true passion: sailing.

Sterling Walter was born March 26, 1916 in New Jersey. His father died when he was only 9 years old and his mother remarried James Hayden, a shifty businessman who eventually gave Sterling his new surname. They moved around quite a bit, always staying fairly close to the sea. In fact the Hayden family lived for several years in my home state of Massachusetts. He even worked for a short stint at the legendary (and now demolished) Filene’s Basement in Boston.

As Hayden biographer Lee Mandel describes it, Hayden was “enchanted by the ocean” and dreamed of going out on adventures. He went on his first voyage at the age of 17. As a sailor he was a natural fit. He was eager to learn, becoming an expert in no time, and could handle long and grueling voyages. Each new trip just fueled the flames and he’d spend the rest of his life always trying to get back to sea.


Photo Source: University Press of Mississipi/Catherine Hayden

Being a full-time sailor didn’t pay well and his seafaring friends encouraged him to find another job that would help fund his interests. Two of his drinking buddies thought the tall, handsome and brawny Hayden had the looks and charisma to become a movie star. One buddy had the connections and the other helped him get an audition with Paramount executive Edward H. Griffith. Hayden had absolutely no acting experience and had never entertained the idea of becoming an actor. It might have seemed like a gamble but Griffith saw a lot of potential in Hayden. Paramount's publicity campaign to launch Hayden into the stratosphere involved proclaiming him “the most beautiful man in Hollywood” and giving him the second male lead in Virginia (1941) alongside stars Madeleine Carroll and Fred MacMurray.

As soon as Hayden’s acting career started it was put on hold when the U.S. entered WWII. Hayden had recently married his co-star Carroll but the two would spend the war years apart and their marriage never got the foundation it needed. They eventually divorced. Hayden enlisted in the Marine Corps but quickly discovered that his newfound fame was a burden. Not wanting any special treatment, he legally changed his name to John Hamilton to separate himself from his public persona (he changed it back to Sterling Hayden in 1958). Mandel’s book goes into painstaking detail about Hayden’s years as a Marine. Readers learn about Operation AUDREY, the HACIENDA mission, his work for the Office of Strategic Service and his time in Yugoslavia. He rose in ranks to Lieutenant and then Captain and received medals for his service.

Hayden’s time overseas heavily influenced his politics and when he came back to the states he joined the Communist party. He quickly grew disillusioned and after 6 months. When the HUAC (House of Un-American Activities Committee) began their Communist witch hunt, Hayden at first hid his former political ties. He even joined the Hollywood delegation that fought back against the HUAC. When things took a turn, he followed his lawyer’s advice to contact the FBI and voluntarily testify at a HUAC hearing. Naming names was “the price of forgiveness” and while he was able to bounce back into his acting career his decision adversely affected the careers of others. He regretted the decision for the rest of his life.


The Asphalt Jungle was a turning point in his acting career and according to Mandel, Dr. Strangelove “proved to be a sort of renaissance for Hayden, who seemed to have recreated himself as a character actor." Mandel briefly touches upon Hayden’s films such as Blaze of Noon, Journey into Light, The Star, Johnny Guitar, Suddenly, The Killing, Hard Contract, The Godfather and The Long Goodbye. When he wasn’t acting, he regularly attended therapy sessions and sought financing for ocean voyages. Hayden’s post-HUAC life included a contentious marriage with his second wife Betty which lead to their divorce and bitter custody battle for their four kids. Hayden won custody and worked hard at being a good father (a rarity among Hollywood actors). He married his third wife Kitty and they remained together until his death in 1986 at the age of 70. It wasn’t a perfect marriage but they stuck with it. Mandel paints a glowing portrait of Kitty as a long-suffering wife who was a veritable saint to stick by Hayden through the many problems that plagued him in his later years.

Lee Mandel’s Sterling Hayden’s Wars is not a typical biography. Especially not one about an actor. Instead of the traditional biography, this book focuses closely on Hayden’s battles which can be broken down into the following list:

WWII
HUAC
Finances
Self-doubt
Second marriage
Custody of his children
4 month trip on his schooner The Wanderer
Alcoholism
Depression
Cancer

"We are brainwashed by our economic system until we end up in a tomb beneath a pyramid of time payments, mortgages, preposterous gadgetry, playthings that divert our attention from the sheer idocy of the charade... The years thunder by. The dreams of our youth grow dim where they lie caked in dust on the shelves of patience. Before we know it, the tomb is sealed.” – Sterling Hayden

I’d be lying if I said I was okay with there not being much information about Hayden’s acting career. With that being said, in Hayden’s story I found someone who was real and relatable. I could empathize with his disconnect between the career that paid and the passion that didn’t. I shared some of his social ideals and his fervent desire for travel and adventure. I admired his natural ability to write and his deep, brooding thoughts. However, he could also be a very frustrating figure to understand. Self-doubt and a need to be taken seriously constantly got in the way of rational decision making. I was interested to learn that Dalton Trumbo, a victim of the HUAC and Hollywood Blacklist, approached Hayden to play Joe’s father in the film adaptation of Johnny Got His Gun. Hayden turned down the role because it hit too close to home. I wish he had gone through with it.

If it wasn’t such a damn interesting story I would say skip this book because of the lack of content of Hayden’s acting career. But the truth is Lee Mandel’s Sterling Hayden’s Wars is more than worthy of your time. If you've read Hayden's memoir Wanderer and wanted to keep that voyage going, make sure you give Mandel's book a shot.


Thank you to University press of Mississippi for sending me a copy of Sterling Hayden's Wars to review.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Mr. Capra Goes to War: Frank Capra's World War II Documentaries



You may be familiar with Frank Capra's Hollywood films but how much do you know about the propaganda documentaries he made during WWII? The Sicilian born Frank Capra emigrated to the US in 1903. Here he developed a fervent patriotism that helped chart the course of his life and career. After failed attempts at becoming a chemical engineer and later a screenwriter, he found his talents for directing film suited him best. In Hollywood he made hits such as It Happened One Night (1934), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), and Meet John Doe (1941). Before re-enlisting in the Army in 1941, he made Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) hoping that its release would secure finances for his family while he was away. When the war ended and Capra came back to Hollywood, much had changed not only in the industry but with Capra himself. He made the independent film It's a Wonderful Life (1946) which wouldn't become the beloved classic that we know today until much later. Capra would make 5 more films over the next decade and a half but couldn't recapture the magic of his pre-war career.

While Capra was in the Army, his contribution to the war effort was primarily propaganda filmmaking. He served as executive producer and co-director on several different documentaries. Seven of these films made up his Why We Fight series.

New from Olive Films is Mr. Capra Goes to War: Frank Capra's World War II Documentaries and Blu-Ray (and DVD) that features five of these films, 2 of which are from the Why We Fight series. In addition, Joseph McBride, Frank Capra biographer (Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success) is featured in an original documentary about Capra's life and career with a particular focus on his work during WWII. He also makes a 4 minute introduction to each of the 5 films.

This new one disc set contains the following:

Frank Capra: Why We Fight
31 minutes

Capra biographer Joseph McBride covers the scope of Frank Capra's life and his filmmaking career. Capra served in the Army for both WWI and WWII. We learn about his patriotism, conservative politics and personal conflicts. Confused with the changing ideologies of America during the war, Capra tried his best to make sense of this to make documentaries that would serve to help with the war effort. Capra received the Distinguished Service Medal for his contributions but was very ambivalent about the films he made during this time with the exception of The Battle of Russia. McBride speaks throughout this doc and unfortunately has a very monotone and dry delivery. The subject matter is interesting enough to make it worth your while. I was particularly fascinated by Capra's post-war career and his struggle to transition back into the industry.


Prelude to War (1942)
dir. by Frank Capra, Anatole Litvak
52 min

This is the first of Capra's Why We Fight films and it starts off with the following:

"This film, the first of a series, has been prepared by the War Department to acquaint members of the Army with factual information as to the causes, the events lead up to our entry into the war and the principles for which we are fighting."

The film drives home its message of freedom and equality by comparing and contrasting the United States with the fascist regimes of Germany and Japan. These are presented as two separate earths and begs the question: which one would you want to live on? I was particularly fascinated by the propaganda messaging against the suppression of religious freedom and exploring the dangers of not taking the war seriously.


The Battle of Russia Part 1 (1943)
36 min
The Battle of Russia Part 2 (1943)
47 min
dir. by Frank Capra and Anatole Litvak

Russian born director Anatole Litvak joined forces with Frank Capra to direct this two part documentary, another entry into Capra's Why We Fight series. This propaganda film was pro-Russia and served to support our ally in the fight against the Nazis. Along with the pro-Soviet sentiment is quite a bit of anti-Nazi messaging. The first part focuses on Russia's military battles leading up to the WWII and the second part follows their battles against German invasion. It also clearly depicts Russia's successes in either defending or recapturing their borders. A hit upon its release in the US, the film didn't age well in the post-war McCarthy era.


The Negro Soldier (1944)
dir. by Stuart Heisler
produced by
40 min

After reading Mark Harris' book Five Came Back, I was most interested in seeing Heisler and Capra's film The Negro Soldier. This propaganda film had two purposes: 1) as a means to convince white people that it was crucial to have black people fight in the war and 2) as a means to recruit said black people. Carlton Moss wrote the script and also appears in the film as the black priest delivering a message to his parish about the importance of service. The film depicts the history of African-Americans in battle but also explores their contributions to American culture and their potential to contribute to the war effort.


Tunisian Victory (1944)
dir. by Frank Capra, John Huston and Hugh Stewart
76 min

During the war, American and British forces banded together to free Tunisia from the Nazis.  Although united in the battle, the Americans and Brits didn't see eye to eye and their union was fraught with tension. This spilled over to the documentary. The Brits had real footage which they used in their film Desert Victory. The American filmmaking team had their own footage as well but due to an unfortunate accident it was forever lost at sea. The British weren't about to give up their footage so Capra, Stewart and Huston joined forces to recreate the scenes with actors. Because of the reenactments, this one has the most cinematic feel of all the films in the set. It also feels the most contrived.


Your Job in Germany (1945)
dir. by Frank Capra
13 min

"The problem now is future peace — that is your job in Germany."

Made specifically for the American occupation troops in Germany to teach them how to treat the German people and what to be wary of, Your Job in Germany was written by Theodore Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss. This documentary short stands out in the set because it served to educate G.I.s rather than inform the public. Warner Bros. repackaged the film the following year and released it as Hitler Lives. McBride points out in his introduction that all of these war films were in the public domain because they were made with taxpayer money and not for profit.



Mr. Capra Goes to War: Frank Capra's World War II Documentaries is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Olive Films. The disc includes English subtitles and the option to play McBride's introduction before each film. This is a fantastic one disc set and is a must for WWII buffs and film history enthusiasts alike. 


Thank you to Olive Films for sending me a copy of the Blu-Ray for review. 
When you use my buy links you hep support this site.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Fritz Lang's Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956)



On the surface Tom Garrett (Dana Andrews) has everything going for him. He's a successful novelist and engaged to the beautiful and wealthy Susan Spencer (Joan Fontaine). But the restless Tom keeps postponing their marriage. When Susan's father, newspaper publisher Austin Spencer (Sidney Blackmer), and Tom witness an execution, the two concoct a plan to prove that circumstantial evidence can send an innocent man to the electric chair. They want to prove to District Attorney Roy Thompson (Philip Bourneuf) that the justice system is inherently flawed in this way. The unsolved case of the murdered nightclub performer Patty Gray seems to be the perfect case for them to tackle. The two work together building up fake evidence to make it seem like Tom killed Patty. When Tom is inevitably arrested and brought to court, the end of their game is in sight. But when Austin Spencer dies in a fiery car crash on the way to the court house with the documents that will absolve Tom, now he's on his own. That is unless his fiancee Susan, who hadn't been privy to Austin and Tom's plan, can save him. But when Susan finds out something shocking about Tom, and why he wouldn't commit to a wedding date, she has to face some harsh truths and make one of the biggest decisions of her life.


Dana Andrews and Joan Fontaine in a publicity photo for Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

Sidney Blackmer and Dana Andrews in Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956) has one of the best plot twists of all time. I've watched it on several occasions and even though I know the ending the film gets under my skin with every viewing. I don't want to spoil it for anyone who hasn't seen it because the twist is what makes this movie so good. And beyond the plot device, the movie's exploration of capital punishment, double jeopardy and the justice system overall is thought-provoking.

This novel concept came from the mind of writer Douglas Morrow. Not only was Morrow an Academy Award winning screenwriter (The Stratton Story), he was also at one time an opera singer, a law student at Columbia, a movie producer and eventually went on to serve on an advisory council for NASA. The Space Foundation even has a public outreach award named in his honor. The original plan was for Morrow to create his own independent production company and develop his story idea into a screenplay with Ida Lupino. They both had Joseph Cotten in mind to star in the role of Tom Garrett. However, that plan fell through and another independent producer, Bert Friedlob, bought the rights to Morrow's story. Lupino and Cotten were eventually dropped from the project. I can only surmise that if Lupino had indeed contributed to the screenplay, the female characters wouldn't be so one-dimensional as they were in the final product.

This is one of two films Friedlob worked on with director Fritz Lang. The two had a contentious relationship (you can read more about this in my article on While the City Sleeps, their first film together). They worked on both While the City Sleeps and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt simultaneously with the latter shot in Chicago over 20 days. The atmosphere on the set was rife with tension. Lang and Friedlob butted heads on many aspects of the production and couldn't come to an agreement about the ending. Eventually Lang got the ending he wanted but he wasn't satisfied in the least bit with the final picture. According to Lang biographer Patrick McGillligan, Lang said the following about Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, "I hate it but it was a great success. I don't know why." While it failed at the box office, the film would go on to receive critical praise over the years. In 2009, director Peter Hyams remade the film in a drama starring Michael Douglas, Amber Tamblyn and Jesse Metcalfe.

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt proved to be its own sort of death knell. Frustrated by the lack of control he had over his film projects, Fritz Lang left Hollywood for good. He made three films in Europe before retiring. Producer Bert Friedlob, once married to actress Eleanor Parker and renowned as a lothario and businessman, died of cancer in 1956 at the age of 49 just a month after the release of Beyond a Reasonable Doubt. His cancer came on suddenly and developed rapidly despite several surgeries performed to save him. RKO distributed Friedlob's final film but their demise was just around the corner. In January 1957, RKO ceased operations. Actress Joan Fontaine was nearing the end of her movie career. She made only 6 more films after this one and went on to work in TV.




Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956) is available on Blu-Ray from the Warner Archive Collection.
When you use my buy link to make a purchase at the WB Shop you help support this site. Thanks! The Blu-Ray features a brand new 1080p HD remaster as well as the original trailer and closed captions.

George, D.W. and Matt discuss the film on the Warner Archive Podcast episode The Darkness of Noir. For those of you participating in #Noirvember make sure you add Beyond a Reasonable Doubt to your to-be-watched list!

Warner Archive Wednesday - On (random) Wednesdays, I review one title from the Warner Archive Collection. Thank you to Warner Archive for sending me a copy of Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956) on Blu-Ray for review!

Monday, November 5, 2018

A Fistful of Dynamite (1971)




Shon, Shon... Shon, Shon

Juan Miranda (Rod Steiger) didn't set out to become the hero of the Mexican Revolution. He just wanted to rob a bank. After a successful heist in which Juan and his extended family take over a coach transporting members of the wealthy elite, Juan sets his sights on something bigger: the Mesa Verde National Bank. He gets the idea when he meets John Mallory (James Coburn), a dynamite expert, I.R.A terrorist and fugitive on the run. Juan meets John, John meets Juan... it's destiny. Juan wants John on his team but John likes being a lone outlaw just fine. John finds a way to work Juan's bank heist idea into this own plans only to have Juan discover that the bank has no money. Instead it was a makeshift political prison. Juan just freed hundreds of prisoners and has been declared a national hero. But Juan's troubles are just beginning. The Mexican army wants to rid the country of the revolutionaries. When a major tragedy befalls Juan and when one of John's allies turns traitor, this reluctant duo must come face-to-face with the oppressive regime. It's a battle that culminates into one explosive finale.

I only learned one thing from you. - Juan
Oh what's that? - John
How to get fucked. - Juan

Director Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dynamite (1971) is a Zapata Western, a sub-genre of the Spaghetti Western in which the stories are set in Mexico, often during the Mexican Revolution of the 1910s. This sub-sub-genre sets out to take a look at the revolution that is vastly different from the Hollywood stories that came before. Leone's film has a long and complicated history. The story is based on an original idea by Sergio Donati. Leone and Donati fleshed out the story and worked with writer Luciano Vincenzoni on the screenplay. Leone didn't intend to direct the film. Both Sam Peckinpah and Peter Bogdanovich were considered but neither worked out for different reasons. For the two leads Clint Eastwood, Jason Robards, Eli Wallach, Malcolm McDowell and George Lazenby were all considered. In fact Wallach, who was initially reluctant to take the part, dropped his current project upon Leone's encouragement. However, United Artists had already hired Steiger for the role of Juan Miranda and wouldn't budge. As a result, Wallach sued.

There are so many versions of this film that it's hard to keep track. First off there's the title. In Italy it was released as Giu la Testa which translates to Keep Your Head Down. Leone historian Sir Christopher Frayling has said that Keep Your Head Down would have been an excellent title for the movie and I agree. Instead the English-language title was Duck, You Sucker, a line often repeated by James Coburn's character John Mallory. However that title wasn't going to jive with American audiences so it was changed to A Fistful of Dynamite, a reference Leone's landmark Spaghetti Western A Fistful of Dollars (1964). And in Europe the film was also referred to as C'era una volta la rivoluzione or Once Upon a Time.. a Revolution. The different releases worldwide came with different cuts. Several scenes were deleted or shortened depending on the market. For example, in one version the extended slow-motion flashback scene at the very end when John is remembering a menage trois with his girlfriend Coleen (Vivienne Chandler) and his best friend Nolan (David Warbeck) is shortened to 30 seconds essentially removing a bit of storyline essential to understanding John's relationship with Nolan.

A Fistful of Dynamite was shot in Spain and Ireland. While its set during the Mexican Revolution, the film serves as a general commentary of war, imperialism and is even influenced by the Italian political climate of the time. Several scenes were inspired by works of art depicting important moments in history. Leone's film has great depth that really can't be fully explored in just one viewing. I'm not well-versed in Leone's Spaghetti Westerns and I came to this mostly to watch Rod Steiger and James Coburn, two of my favorite actors. I was particularly fascinated with Coburn's John Mallory and the film's slow-motion flashbacks to his life back in Ireland. And the possible suggestion that John and Nolan had a romantic relationship. The movie meanders, takes its time with its characters and even with that explosive finale. There was no rush to tell the story and it allows viewers to settle into this world.  The true hero of the film though is Ennio Morricone's music. The various themes and the chants (Shon, Shon... Shon, Shon) are entrancing.




A Fistful of Dynamite (1971) is dark, gritty Leone classic ready to be rediscovered. It's available on Blu-Ray from Kino Lorber. When you use my buy links you help support this site. Thanks!'

The Blu-Ray contains two separate audio commentaries by filmmaker Alex Cox and film history Sir Christopher Frayling, 6 featurettes ranging from 7-22 minutes each, 2 animated galleries, 6 radio spots and several Sergio Leone movie trailers. The case comes with a reversible jacket.



Thank you to  Kino Lorber for sending me a copy of A Fistful of Dynamite (1971) on Blu-Ray to review.

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