Saturday, November 30, 2019

Some Men Have Strange Desires

If we had more time right now I’d get into it. Things have just been a little crazy lately. What’s good seems to remain just out of reach and I can’t tell which way things are going or what may be coming. That’s the sort of year it’s been, maybe the sort of future it’s going to be. So for now, it’s time for a western. Those usually help. And even when the New Hollywood emerged as the 60s turned into the following decade the western still wasn’t gone just yet. John Wayne, freshly an Oscar winner for one of those, still had a few years to go at that point and his final film for the great Howard Hawks, RIO LOBO, came out in December of 1970. LITTLE BIG MAN, even if it qualifies as a revisionist western, was one of the top grossing films of that year. The genre of course also helped turn Clint Eastwood into a star and at this point no one knew DIRTY HARRY was going to overtake all that so the run of starring vehicles which landed between his Leone films and the introduction of Inspector Callahan is an intriguing batch, as if they’re all part of a top spinning to determine exactly which way his stardom was going to go. HANG ‘EM HIGH turns up on TV more than it probably deserves and PAINT YOUR WAGON is infamous as a prime example of Hollywood waste but there’s also his directorial debut PLAY MISTY FOR ME as well as the pre-Harry films he made with that film’s director Don Siegel: COOGAN’S BLUFF, THE BEGUILED and TWO MULES FOR SISTER SARA, the last of which is also a western and, released in June 1970, in some ways it’s not anything but a western but pairing him with someone like Shirley MacLaine takes the film to a different place in the genre which helps it stand out. It may not be the sort of classic HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER would later become and it definitely isn’t Leone but the enjoyable TWO MULES FOR SISTER SARA is just unique enough to make it a fun discovery. If anything, it’s a reminder to keep an open mind towards the next thing that might be coming which is pretty much what I need right now.

Riding through Mexico, a former Civil War solider named Hogan (Clint Eastwood) comes across a woman being terrorized by several bandits ready to kill her. Hogan dispatches them quickly enough but is soon surprised to learn that the woman is in fact a nun named Sara (Shirley MacLaine) who has been helping Mexican revolutionaries in fighting the French that she claims are after her. Since Hogan has already made a deal to help out the revolutionaries in exchange for half the French’s treasury if they are successful, he agrees to escort Sister Sara to them. But her unexpected behavior reveals her to be a somewhat unusual nun and it soon becomes clear that their journey will not be as easy as Hogan first anticipated.

TWO MULES FOR SISTER SARA is the sort of star vehicle where by a certain point you realize you’re paying more attention to what the leads are doing than the plot which I honestly always glaze over on. Eastwood and MacLaine are definitely fun to watch together even if the two of them feel like they’re bouncing off each other during their scenes more than developing any real chemistry, the banter keeping things going until whatever’s being argued over is dropped and they just move on to the next scene. But even if no real fireworks develop between them it always feels assured as a film and photographed by Gabriel Figueroa (credits include THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL as well as KELLY’S HEROES, also with Clint, which came out the same year) it contains some of the most elegant camerawork found in anything ever directed by Don Siegel, giving the two stars some wonderful close-ups and making full use of the Mexican locations. There’s always a complexity to the shots which visually takes it far beyond some of the director’s other films from the period which can have too much of a ‘Filmed in Universal City’ feel even when they’re shot on location—these are likely distant memories of MADIGAN poking around in my head. DIRTY HARRY would be shot by Bruce Surtees (camera operator on TWO MULES) and in some ways it’s deliberately one of the ugliest looking films ever but in the case of TWO MULES FOR SISTER SARA there’s a beauty to the way it places its two leads against the landscape, offering its own assistance to the growing relationship between them, as if the film itself is looking for ways to keep them in the frame together.

The visual beauty of the Mexican landscape glimpsed in the opening credits is combined with the pure heavenliness that is the Ennio Morricone score which of course is a slight extension of what that composer did for the spaghetti westerns a few years earlier. With a few cues utilized by Tarantino later on for DJANGO UNCHAINED, it provides the expected arch commentary but also takes the threadbare story to a different level, allowing us to accept the heavenly intervention at work even if no one onscreen can, providing this film with its own tapestry of searching for deliverance, however that may come. If I’m being totally honest the power of that music makes me want to like TWO MULES FOR SISTER SARA even more than I already do but from the very first notes heard during the Universal logo that’s where much of the serenity comes from. The film seems willing a surprising number of times to just sit back and let some cues play out during transitions, looking beyond the fairly simple plot towards something else. It’s just what you want from Morricone, the right amount of quirk and beauty combined into something totally unique which makes the film more than it would have been otherwise.

Maybe it’s best described as the sort of movie where the sounds and images are among the best things about it so as a result the most notable aspects of the film may be what it might have been. The screenplay was by Albert Maltz, one of the Hollywood Ten and also a writer on films like THIS GUN FOR HIRE and THE NAKED CITY, from a story by the great Budd Boetticher who had hoped to direct for himself (and reportedly no fan of the film that was eventually made). Elizabeth Taylor was also intended to co-star with Clint but the deal apparently fell apart when she insisted on the film being shot in Spain where Richard Burton was working so Universal cast Shirley MacLaine who unlike Taylor wouldn’t pass as a Mexican (hey, it was a different time) but she was the star the studio wanted. It certainly changes whatever the film was originally going to be but MacLaine’s off-center screen presence finds the balance between the comic grouchiness of Clint and the more serious revolutionary elements the film really only has passing interest in. She brings needed gravity to what is otherwise a lark while playing off of the film’s wry amusement towards the increasingly perplexing way this nun acts and how much sense it makes when revealed why. “The lord grants dispensations in such circumstances” is what she says a number of times to allow for their transgressions while the phrase “Everybody’s got a right to be a sucker once” also gets repeated and the film is ultimately about finding the middle ground between the two to keep going, to give into the fear of losing yourself while with another person, which sort of makes sense for a movie where the two stars don’t totally click in a romantic sense.

It’s a sort of western AFRICAN QUEEN in a way but for long stretches the plot barely seems to matter much at all, veering between the two of them bickering and the genuinely serious glimpse at the revolution in Mexico against the French that it brushes past, putting off actual movement in the main plot until after the hour mark. Even the title barely matters since Sister Sara trades her mule for a burro fairly early, making nonsense of the phrase unless Hogan himself is supposed to be the second mule being dragged along. All this maybe makes it more of a buddy movie than a love story in the closeness that develops even though roughly half of the film is just Eastwood and MacLaine, no one else to share the screen with. But it rarely drags, with the most drive coming during a prolonged sequence in the middle section involving Hogan being hit with an arrow by an Indian attack that Sister Sara has to remove followed by the matter of blowing up a bridge to keep a train with supplies from getting through. It all culminates in some very impressive miniature work and putting aside that it’s hard for me to dislike any film with a spectacular train crash done this way the film still always remembers to be about the two of them so it becomes maybe even something deeper than just a love story, but about two people who respect each other in spite of everything and, ultimately, need each other no matter what plans they otherwise made. But spending so much time with just the two leads still doesn’t allow for very much variety; one expects them to run into an old friend of Hogan’s played by some familiar character actor to liven things up which wouldn’t have been a bad idea and, as it is, there are barely any significant supporting characters at all, with most of the other actors in and out in one scene, either adversaries to be gunned down or cohorts ready with information. The third billed actor in the entire film is Manolo Fabregas playing the Colonel in charge of the Mexican revolutionaries that Hogan is looking to rendezvous with and he has a fair amount of screen time in the second half but even his character is entirely in service to the two leads, everyone else pretty much forgotten by the end.

Which still makes sense since Clint’s Hogan is a loner, sort of a Bogart in CASABLANCA-type more interested in the profit than the cause and surprisingly the film, set in Mexico with two white leads that apparently matter more than anyone who actually lives in the country, never asks him to change his mind. Hogan’s dream is to go to San Francisco, where UNFORGIVEN’s William Munny supposedly wound up after the end of that film, but his desire to stay on his own is upended by Sister Sara and a few of the most unexpected moments in the film gives us a rare look at a Clint Eastwood character who’s at a genuine loss for words thanks to her. In comparison, Shirley MacLaine is, well, the Shirley MacLaine-type much of the time but when she finally takes action the actress finds the needed gravity to the moments which help remind us that there actually is a plot going on and they’re some of the best moments in the entire film. TWO MULES FOR SISTER SARA is a good popcorn movie and I’m not sure it’s anything more than that but there’s nothing wrong with being that either. Even when Hogan and Sara hatch a plan near the end against the French to break into their fortress, the climax has a little too much of a second unit feel when the battle breaks out, losing the stars in the mayhem for much of it except for when Clint gets in some Gatling gun action but at least some of the explosions are pretty cool. TWO MULES FOR SISTER SARA has that but also remembers to find the grace notes to pause among the landscape and the music with a final shot that serves as a reminder of what it means to stay with another person against your better judgement while still never entirely losing yourself and who you really are.

Because of all this it comes down to the two leads and how they work off each other to make them evenly matched so instead of sparks that come it’s an easygoing camaraderie which pays off whatever’s been growing between them throughout the film. Clint Eastwood combines the coolness of his spaghetti western persona with the patience of having to deal with this nun he can’t quite understand and considering it would be several decades before he would again co-star with an actress of equal stature (all respect to the likes of Jessica Walter, Tyne Daly, Sondra Locke and Patricia Clarkson) he seems totally comfortable sharing the screen, always aware that just his presence in the frame can be what’s needed. Meanwhile, Shirley MacLaine and her physicality are always engaged with the setting, displaying expert comic timing when needed and holding back her true self until just the right moment so when the façade is ripped away she plays the scenes as barely moving a muscle to underline the gravity of the moment and how there will be no arguing with her.

In his autobiography “A Siegel Film” the director seems pleased with how TWO MULES FOR SISTER SARA turned out even though producer Martin Rackin took control for the final edit but mentions with some confidence that he had shot the film to be cut a certain way regardless. Shirley MacLaine, meanwhile, later on said that she loved Clint even though he was a republican and, yes, this is a struggle many of us have had through the years. But maybe this film is really about looking beyond that surface to what can develop in spite of everything, the way Hogan and Sister Sara discuss whether certain things that happened were in fact miracles or just simple accidents. Which is often a good question to ask as you move through life, to understand what led to those domino effects that changed things for you irrevocably, with no way to turn back. Maybe there was a reason. Or maybe there is no answer and the decision of whether you’re going to be alone through all this is up to you. Even westerns can ask these questions, even if that turns out to be only a minor element of the film in the end. Maybe I respond to the beauty of music by Ennio Morricone so much because it sounds like fate, the sounds of what you can potentially discover as you ride through life, trying to find the answers to the life you really desire and if it’s really possible to ever find that without giving up your greatest dreams.

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