Saturday, September 30, 2017

Just Passing Through

The world is what the world is. Mostly people are no damn good and that’s the future we’re living in. So it’s important to remember that your own redemption, if you choose to go down that path, needs to come from yourself and no one else. It would be nice to blank out the past, and in some cases that’s exactly what I’ve tried to do, but it’s not always so easy. You just have to carve out your own place in the world no matter how much it’s tried to beat you down and look for the few good ones out there who want to come along. Sam Peckinpah’s THE BALLAD OF CABLE HOGUE might be the least well-known from the golden ’69-’74 period of his films but it’s a lovely piece of work, beautiful and sloppy, emotional and erratic. Released in 1970 and his immediate follow-up to THE WILD BUNCH, it’s nowhere close to perfect but it’s a downright gentle film, presenting a world that’s always fighting the memory of the past while wrestling with the inevitability of the future but is still sadly decent down to its core. Recently made available by Warner Archive in a gorgeous new Blu-ray it’s likely better looking here than it has ever been before, including how the 35mm prints no doubt looked at the time of release. It’s a flawed film about a flawed man and both deserve to be loved anyway in the end. There’s nothing wrong with dreaming that maybe someday things will be better. Sometimes that’s all we have.

When Cable Hogue (Jason Robards) is left for dead out in the desert by his two partners (Strother Martin and L.Q. Jones), he wanders for several days in search of water, occasionally asking God for help and saying he’ll repent. After several days and in the middle of a nasty wind storm he suddenly discovers mud on his boot and when he digs to investigate finds an underground spring filled with, as he puts it, “water where it wasn’t”. Realizing that he’s made this seemingly impossible discovery right along a stagecoach route midway between the towns of Dead Dog and Lizard, Hogue sees an opportunity to capitalize on the need for water there so he acquires a deed for the small amount of land, a mere two acres, builds himself a house and opens for business. He soon befriends the wandering minister Reverend Joshua Duncan Sloane (David Warner) and upon visiting the nearby town of Dead Dog encounters Hildy (Stella Stevens), the local prostitute. When he finally gets the homestead which Joshua names Cable Springs up and running Hildy comes to stay with him for a spell on her way to San Francisco after she’s been kicked out of the town but instead of going with her Hogue is determined to wait where he is for the former partners who abandoned him to turn up so he can finally get his revenge.

Unlike the carnage of THE WILD BUNCH and the increasingly cynical outlook of all existence found in his later films, THE BALLAD OF CABLE HOGUE is a downright benign feature length musing about the very nature of existence out there in the vastness of the desert. Like a few other Peckinpah films there’s a killing of a small animal at the very start but in this case it’s just about the most brutal act committed by anyone through the entire running time. That includes the few human deaths which feel downright justified in comparison since this is a world where those things are sometimes justified and can be forgiven, a west where Slim Pickens rides up on a stagecoach and he couldn’t be more willing to help you out. It feels like the directorial credit is held back a few moments past the title sequence, as if Peckinpah doesn’t want to officially sign his name to this story until Hogue makes his discovery, essentially learning that he’s not going to die just yet, underlining how much this particular west is a benign flipside to the brutally ugly universe of THE WILD BUNCH even if it is about some of the same early twentieth century end-of-the-west themes. There’s even the return of Strother Martin and L.Q. Jones teamed up again as if that film never even ended and once again a tent revival with the expected chorus of “Shall We Gather at the River” turns up only instead of carnage it merely results in a slapstick sequence that takes the tent down, mere gentle mockery instead of bodies violently blown away.

The undercurrent of revenge that Cable has his mind set on is one reason the plot keeps going in the script by John Crawford and Edmund Penney; that pays off but it’s more about how he takes advantage of his good fortune since finding water out there is almost as good as finding gold. “I’m worth something, ain’t I?” he angrily barks out while trying to get seed money for his new spread, with an anger that indicates no one has ever thought that before. When Hogue is presented with an American flag to officially coronate Cable Springs the moment has a sudden extra meaning in 2017 just as I imagine it did back in 1970, a reminder of how to really, finally be part of this country is something to be proud of, and he’s done it on his own terms. Watching the moment right now it’s hard not to wish this version of America really existed somewhere out there.

The best moments have an offhand loveliness and a true sense of calm, gently adding to the tall tale aspect, as if there’s no end to the amount of reflecting Cable Hogue can bring himself to do out there. The film takes its time, particularly during the first half with a long stretch of Hogue setting up the paperwork for his land, always more interested in the people and colorful dialogue than the plot which by a certain point has more to do with Cable determined to stick around mainly because he’s certain his former partners will eventually show up. Running a sliver over two hours the pacing is raggedy at times with a few beats going on a little too long and a few pieces that feel like they needed a little more finessing in the cutting room but there’s also continued inventiveness of the editing both within scenes and during transitions. It’s not the most visually aggressive Peckinpah film, photographed by Lucien Ballard, with the camera placement sometimes a little too random and it lacks the primal fever always felt when his films are in Scope, even if the 1.85 framing here goes better with the more relaxed vibe. But the lack of urgency and immediacy makes sense even more than usual since his films are so often about desperately trying to hold onto a world that is dying so what’s a few extra minutes anyway; it doesn’t want this way of life to end any more than the characters do even if it’s something that can’t be prevented.

That lyricism is also felt in the beautiful Jerry Goldsmith score which instead of playing up the majesty of the old west fuels Hogue’s own determination to not see his end just yet then aims for the simple acceptance of finding some kind of peace out there. In addition there are the prominent Richard Gillis songs, fitting for the post-BUTCH CASSIDY-Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head era but here turn out to play more of a part to bring out the true soul of the film, including a full-on duet between Robards and Stevens when their romance blossoms—an upbeat musical number in a Sam Peckinpah film is one of the more surprising things imaginable in all of cinema—but even better are the quieter grace notes that turn up particularly when David Warner is found singing a few bars of one of the songs by himself, totally unexplained where he might have heard them before, the sadness of the words hanging in the air which gives more power to the piece when it’s heard again later on. The songs go perfectly with the ramshackle rhythms of the film and these characters, each on their own road and determined to keep things that way; as Cable puts it, to join the normal people of the growing west in civilization would make them ‘nothin’’ and that’s something to put off for as long as possible.

Whatever miracle has led to Cable’s discovery he never questions it. He just accepts what happened and makes the place his home, calling out his own name to the horizon, willing the sound of it, willing himself to matter. The film is somewhat contemptuous of organized religion—even the local banker is suspicious of them and gladly chortles when the tent comes down—and Hogue, as Joshua puts it, makes the entire desert his cathedral which is the best way to stay true to himself. Just as Joshua is also a loner, his self-named parish “The Church of the Wayfaring Stranger” being of his own revelation (“Wherever I go, it goes with me.”) and even Hildy seems to proudly be the one prostitute in her town, perhaps a sign that civilization is encroaching even in a place called Dead Dog. The message seems to be, stay true to yourself and accept what comes. Don’t overthink it. Do something with what little time you have here. That’s what sticks in the brain from the film, a feeling of beauty and simplicity and isolation from the world, whether it’s Robards sitting there lost in his memories or Warner walking through the town at night in a west where he is all alone. And along with the running time are stretches where the mood doesn’t quite hold particularly during some moments of heavy-handed slapstick, complete with shots that are speeded-up in search of laughs that aren’t really there. Definitely not aging well are some of the skeezier elements, particularly how Stella Stevens is sometimes photographed and treated by the film, which in some ways recalls how Jerry Lewis had the camera linger over her in THE NUTTY PROFESSOR (it’s pretty clear she brought something out in her directors) but here going even further, zooming into her breasts and other body parts while lingering all over her, undoubtedly representing Hogue’s own view of Hildy but clearly the director as well, the Peckinpah Gaze made pure.

This isn’t the only one of his films that seem problematic today in that sense, of course, and it also spends a few minutes longer than it should with David Warner—phenomenal in this role, it needs to be said—taking physical advantage of both Stevens and what he believes to be a distraught widow played by Susan O’Connell (her husband, played by Gene Evans of Peckinpah’s PAT GARRETT and multiple Sam Fuller films soon turns up) which are clearly made to have him seem like a charming rapscallion when it comes to the ladies but the scenes play way too crass. Even if Hildy is essentially a whore with a heart of gold it’s still one of the best roles that Stevens ever had; the relationship between Hogue and Hildy gets more complex the longer she stays with him and a big fight over dinner between the two is stunningly good in how almost nothing is said, they know all the hurtful stuff already. By a certain point they’re on equal footing in Peckinpah’s eyes, Hogue even returns the favor of her giving him a bath by doing the same, but the intensity remains along with the feeling that another explosion between them isn’t too far off if she sticks around. Neither one can totally forget the past of the other person during their present.

“Just passing through,” Joshua drunkenly says after falling down some stairs, just as Cable builds a home out of a waystation for people making their way through the desert. Just like we all are, ultimately. Even this way of life is coming to an end when the credits roll although no one seems to want to admit it. There’s a sense of sobriety to THE BALLAD OF CABLE HOGUE that I can’t quite shake, even with its most unfortunate indulgences, even with its ramshackle nature. To compare it to other Peckinpah films, THE WILD BUNCH is a fun and determined drunk, THE GETAWAY is a dinner party drunk, JUNIOR BONNER is a family reunion drunk, PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID is a sad drunk and BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA is an angry drunk. HOGUE, only drinking water although maybe a little woozy from all that sun in the desert, looks for a sense of peace through clarity that none of these others do as if continually asking what kind of revenge do you really need to keep going. It was by various accounts not an easy shoot due to weather problems and other issues so it stands to reason that there actually was a fair amount of drinking by Peckinpah, and presumably others, going on. But what the film presents in its depiction of hope of trying to accomplish something along with the feel of sober that is trying to stay that way, aware of how temporary all this is, inspirational in its own cockeyed notion. Nothing lasts forever but if you can prove something in spite of whatever the past is then maybe that matters in some way. The final moments are almost borderline perfunctory in its lack of total reverence towards what has just happened, racing to the inevitable close, as if a reminder that the things which get remembered are what happens when you’re alive. You don’t stop being who you really are. And just a moment can matter.

For once the actors in a Peckinpah seem cast not because of any particular iconic status but because of how much they fit these roles, the physicality of Jason Robards bouncing back and forth between his innate decency and a certain degree of bitterness that still lingers along with the power of his presence. Thanks to Robards you can never entirely pin down Cable Hogue only he is every bit the man that he deserves to be remembered as. Up against him, the abrasive charm of Stella Stevens has more of an effect than ever going right back and forth from the comedy to the darker moments; the way she plays it you just know how much she’s revealing to Hogue that she’s never shown to anyone else. The rogue quality of the awesome David Warner is like a revelation (as I’d imagine Joshua would put it) for anyone who only knows him from his bad guy roles and it’s a joy to see him as he enters scenes as if in a daze from wandering through the desert appearing truly happy to sit down and talk with someone like Cable, dropping as many biblical quotations he can into a single conversation. Plus the various Peckinapah players, the worminess of Strother Martin, the conniving of L.Q. Jones, the joy of seeing Slim Pickens turn up again, the disarming assistance coming from the banker played by Peter Whitney or the cagey by-the-book nature of R. G. Armstrong, each of them one with this particular western universe.

You never get rid of the pain of what you lose. You never get rid of the dreams that they’ll come back. The film itself dreams of a country, of a myth, of an idea of this land that maybe never was. Of decency, of goodness, of meeting that lady, the ladiest damn lady that you would ever want to meet, of finding water where it wasn’t, and having it all work for just a little while and all you want is for it to never end. It’s all a dream, of course, nothing more than a myth, a dream that no one ever notices because of course you’re not going to share it with anyone and you’re never completely certain just how much you’ll be able to forgive. THE BALLAD OF CABLE HOGUE was mostly ignored upon release but has admirers even if they can’t quite be called a cult—no Bob Dylan soundtrack with this one, no Steve McQueen star power and it’s not the dive into total insanity that BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA is. It’s just messy sweetness and has been appreciated more recently if only because of how it plays into the Peckinpah mythos. When I tweeted out the main title song “Tomorrow Is The Song I Sing” not long ago someone replied, “I think about this movie every day.” It’s that kind of film that gets into you, cuts right in. Hopefully the new Warner Archive Blu which ports over the special features from the earlier DVD will play into that and making the film look this good is about as heroic as anything Cable Hogue did to survive out there in the desert. If you love Peckinpah, if you even have an interest in Peckinpah, I can’t recommend this disc more. It even restores the correct Kinney National-era Warner logo to the opening. A minor point but, well, sometimes the past really does matter, just like when you remember why you stopped doing certain things—right now I’m closing in on eighteen months but I still make no promises. I know why I stopped but the way things are these days you sometimes wonder if that’s a good enough reason anymore. It’s one more reason to try to keep on figuring out things for yourself. People don’t change, even if you want them to. As Joshua says to Cable when they muse over what it is about certain women, maybe when you die you get over it. Right now, I’m not so sure. But there’s always a chance.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

To Win Without War

There is no humanity without the awareness of cruelty. As much as we want to believe in reason, in goodness, we have to remember otherwise and understand that it may not get any better. That’s just the way some people are. John Frankenheimer’s SEVEN DAYS IN MAY was released in early 1964 and is meant to take place in the near future although it’s barely evident from watching the film. A date seen on a map possibly sets it in 1970 but there’s very little that would actually qualify it for some form of science fiction aside from the usage of video monitors for tele-conference purposes. The very concept of television and how it relates to people is something of a recurring image throughout Frankenheimer’s career and though SEVEN DAYS IN MAY, recently released on Blu-ray by Warner Archive in a stunning new transfer, is only a film about The Future in the loosest sense beyond an “all this could happen tomorrow…” feel the basic idea of how much would eventually play out on television wasn’t too far off. Frankenheimer was an extremely cultured, intelligent man, almost intimidatingly so but in spite of how much the film believes in a certain degree of justifiable paranoia he clearly also subscribes to the notion that the human brain is something which can eventually be won out by rationality. So he got some things wrong. On this particular point, if only for the optimism that he possessed, maybe he shouldn’t be faulted.

After a disarmament treaty with the Russians is ratified, the poll numbers for U.S. President Jordan Lyman (Frederic March) are at a record low. Almost by accident, Director of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colonel Martin “Jiggs” Casey (Kirk Douglas) stumbles onto a few seemingly random pieces of information—a betting pool among high-ranking generals of the upcoming Preakness Stakes, the existence of a military base he was unaware of, which leads him to consider that there may very well be a secret plot led by the popular General James Scott (Burt Lancaster), the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, to stage a coup which will remove Lyman from office. With enough evidence and anecdotal information to at least convince the President of the possibility, Lyman sends various close allies off on secret missions to investigate and use what they know about Scott, including whatever may have happened with his former mistress Eleanor Holbrook (Ava Gardner), to discover the truth behind the plot and do whatever they can to stop what’s happening before it’s too late.

Based on the novel by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II with a screenplay by Rod Serling, SEVEN DAYS IN MAY is pure paranoid reportage, in some ways an extension of the hysteria portrayed in Frankenheimer’s previous film THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE but more grounded, more aware of the flaws within people that could lead to such potential calamities. The possibilities of what the end result might be are potentially far worse on a global scale, any satirical exaggeration in the earlier film is buried in favor of deadly seriousness with him taking one of the best scripts he ever had to work with and presenting it cleanly, briskly, tautly, always aware of what is at stake. There’s very little in the way of scale other than a small riot filmed in front of the actual White House and the closeness gives a feel of immediacy to every scene which hides how much is staged on sets, hinting at gigantic developments but only showing the briefest of glimpses. It’s a film set in a grown up world, a foreign concept right now, made by grown-ups, the premiere just days before Frankenheimer’s thirty-fourth birthday in ’64 and his total sense of focus is evident, throughout, each scene directed in a way that allows for total clarity as if it really is his own eye peering at every shot, waiting for what the characters are going to do next, every cut displaying a sign of his passion for the world to remind us how important it is to know what may possibly happen.

It’s essentially a thriller that mostly involves people conferring in rooms and the few traditional suspense beats are relatively low key but always compelling, its visual style consistent with other Frankenheimer films in how characters are often framed in relation to each other making every dialogue exchange even more intense. The overall feel is a little nightmarish at times, partly because of the Serling dialogue but also because of the claustrophobia felt by this insular world with certain elements offering a feel of ellipsis possibly for budget reasons but also possibly because the movie knows that it’s not really about the escape from the secret base in the middle of the desert. The plotting also keeps things close to the vest at times as to exactly what sort of plans are in motion with characters kept offscreen for stretches to add to their intrigue and if there’s more to a key plane crash than just an accident we never hear about it. Ava Gardner, the one prominent woman in the cast, is in for a few scenes as Scott’s ex-mistress with information that may be used against him which in one sense feels like an excuse to stick a semi-love interest into the picture and it’s a little soapish in how it plays but the subplot also becomes a reminder of the real world out there beyond the corridors of power, something that’s been discarded in favor of the job that never ends.

The heroes are conflicted, believing so strongly in the rules of their world that they can’t accept that something might come along to upend all of that until they have no other choice. Kirk Douglas’ Jiggs might not even be a ‘hero’ at all, ambivalent at best about the treaty and the information he’s passing along, while March’s President Lyman isn’t as torn about what he believes but he’s just uncertain enough about what he needs to do that it’s believable he won’t be strong enough in the end, firmly aware that even if he’s done the right thing it could still be his downfall. So it makes sense that the only person totally assured in what he’s doing is Lancaster’s General Scott, a few shots framed directly behind him that place us literally in his headspace as if a reminder that to him, his head is where the wisdom flows from, his decisions are what should be obeyed. The paranoia always in the air brings an otherworldly quality to the narrative helped by the rich, weighty intelligence of the Serling dialogue, every utterance with all the significance imaginable bringing a certain big budget TWILIGHT ZONE vibe to it. It’s made almost made more unsettling by how there’s nothing supernatural going on, events that can be explained if only they can be understood. As grounded as it is there are still a few elements that feel part of the ZONE/MANCHURIAN DNA to keep us uneasy and even Scott’s overcooked proclamations goes perfectly with his point of view as well as odd touches that skirt that vibe, particularly Andrew Duggan as one of the unknowing colonels at the secret base playing part of his role as if he’s in a slight daze, slowly waking up to the realization that there’s something off about it all.

It’s a version of the MANCHURIAN kaleidoscope that’s a little closer to the real world, the suggestion that Raymond Shaw play a game of solitaire turned into continued attempts here to have Edmund O’Brien’s alcoholic Senator Clark investigating the secret base to have a drink instead, to forget about all those things he’s being told are happening. When all else fails here the conspirators resort to simple gaslighting (“I’m afraid your memory fails you, Mr. President.”) which certainly helps to tie the film in to the world of 2017 even more. The crumpled piece of paper that might be a clue reveals more than any possible futuristic technology and all these TV monitors meant to show us what’s going on only make the true allegiances that much murkier although the thematic conclusions the film reaches courtesy of President Lyman, stating that the enemy isn’t Scott and his supporters but instead the paranoia of the nuclear age may seem na├»ve today, not when we have a major political party seemingly intent on stripping away all rights of a large amount of the populace. But this President, and the film as well, correctly labels it a sickness, the product of minds filled with desperation and impotence. There is the dream buried in the aspirations of the people who made this film that someday this can all be fixed, maybe someday this hatred can be wiped away, maybe someday Jiggs will redeem that raincheck Eleanor Holbrook keeps alluding to. There’s no point in waiting after all. We have to fight for the future, not stand around assuming it’s going to happen. Because that’s when the end comes.

Right now we live in a world beyond satire but this film is from another time, an extension of the live TV plays where Frankenheimer got his start, as well as films from long ago which aspired to people who might, just might, display the potential to be better, of what you’re tempted to do, and the good you might actually be capable of, when you’re down at the bottom of the barrel. The overall message is essentially pacifist but while still aware that the military is a reality it's purely, simply hopeful that one day we may be able to move past certain things. It’s also from another time when not only might certain love letters possibly incriminate somebody the people who have them actually have to think about it. What they have is dignity, something the traitorous Scott doesn’t possess nor does he care about, freely shutting somebody out the instant they start talking about ‘the Democratic way’ and the conservative commentator played by Hugh Marlowe of course folds under pressure instantly. Jiggs is human enough that he needs to take a gulp of that scotch before putting his suspicions into words and he agonizes over the choice he has to make, a reminder that it’s usually the good ones who argue over the morality of how to achieve their goals.

Very much a product of the Kennedy years, made pre-Dallas but released after and the specifics of the future don’t matter since Frankenheimer had no idea what was coming, no idea what would happen to JFK, no clue that in just a few years he would be accompanying RFK to the Ambassador. He couldn’t have known that one day there would be someone in power basing his decisions on what the TV ratings would be just as much of General Scott’s plan depends on being seen by the nation on television, the best way imaginable for a God (or a monster) to be anointed, at least until Facebook and Twitter came along. You shouldn’t have to wait for the future to happen before something is done but sometimes we’re forced to live with the consequences of those who didn’t act when they could have. The final words heard in the film immediately after a speech that sums everything up and states exactly what we want to hear (and, goddamnit, watching it now almost brings tears to my eyes) are of an announcer stating, “Ladies and gentlemen, that was the President of the United States.” With the final crash of Jerry Goldsmith’s brief score we are assured. It would be a nice feeling to have right now in the version of the future we’re living in, but I suppose we really do need to think of this as science fiction.

It’s a phenomenal cast. Burt Lancaster brings all his power and cagey intellect, spitting out the ferocity of his speeches without a care what the answer will be, the smugness of Scott daring the other person to even try to disagree. Frederic March is total dignity, coming off as someone you could imagine as weak but what he does he’s the strongest of them all, willing to keep from blinking and the power in his eyes and the uncertainty as well. It’s Lancaster and March who get the big confrontation of the entire film with each of them simply brilliant in how they come at each other. It was Kirk Douglas who reportedly realized as they were making the film that he had the lesser part so it could be argued that he visibly transfers that frustration to his performance of a man straitjacketed by what he’s compelled to do and the immense guilt he feels even though he knows what’s right, his silences left hanging there as he becomes more anguished over which side he’s on. As the woman who Scott won’t even say a word about when her name comes up, Ava Gardner plays her role a little like Ava Gardner as Ava Gardner Movie Star, waiting at a party with a drink in her hand to film her Special Guest Appearance. On the audio commentary Frankenheimer refers to difficulties with Gardner and she doesn’t always seem as confident as her co-stars; you can feel the director forced into coverage during a few of her scenes to help them play out. The great Edmond O’Brien received the one acting nomination for this at the Oscars and he’s electrifying, in some ways playing the audience surrogate, the one person in the film who appears to feel mortal, trying to keep his flaws in check for a little while to get the job done. Plus there’s also Martin Balsam, Whit Bissell, Richard Anderson (RIP), George Macready (also in PATHS OF GLORY and TWO WEEKS IN ANOTHER TOWN with Douglas), Colette Jackson as a girl in an El Paso bar wondering about the nearby secret military base (she pops so instantly that on the audio commentary Frankenheimer wonders what happened to her; sadly, she died in ‘69 with only a few other credits) and an unbilled John Houseman, pitch perfect in his first film as an Admiral holding back the truth of what he knows about the plot.

People are who they are. And that’s what they want to be. Sometimes I wish it wasn’t true, but it is. The new Warner Archive Blu lives up to the importance of SEVEN DAYS IN MAY, with a transfer that is a huge improvement over the old DVD playing like a crisp new 35mm print after watching a muddy TV broadcast. Plus it contains the illuminating audio commentary that Frankenheimer recorded several years before his passing (he was one of the best at this—he remembers f-stops on certain shots, for crying out loud) and I wish he was still around to tell us more stories about this film to maybe shed more light on the path that led us to where we are right now with people who want nothing more than to be in command, just like the general working under Scott who we’re told subscribes to “out and out fascism”. At the very least, the people in this film seem more intelligent than certain people in the real world these days; certainly the film has better dialogue. So maybe that means there’s hope. Because right now we’re forced to deal with the madness while the intelligence that people like John Frankenheimer and Rod Serling delivered to the world gets left behind. Which is where we are right now. In the future.