Convoy (1978)

Convoy (1978) movie poster

director Sam Peckinpah
viewed: 05/27/2017

When you think about all the movies being made from video games or adapted from old, bad television shows, or even emojis, and you think this phenomenon of bad bases for movies is totally new, you might remind yourself of ConvoyConvoy was an adaptation of a hit “novelty song” and is evidence of the popularity of trucking and CB radios briefly in the mid-1970’s.

Convoy would hold a lot less weight and interest if it wasn’t that this is a Sam Peckinpah picture. Even though Peckinpah was reportedly totally wasted during the production and had a lot of help delivering this movie, it’s still a Peckinpah flick, though a weird and pretty bad one.

The poster is pretty awesome though. Almost as awesome as Ali McGraw’s hair is atrocious. Some things are indeed universal.

It seems that Convoy is sort of the anti-Smokey and the Bandit (1977). Serious where the other is silly and a failure where the other is a success. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen Smokey and now it seems I need to revisit it as well.

It does get credit for featuring Ernest Borgnine as a character listed as “Dirty Lyle”.

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973)

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) movie poster

director Sam Peckinpah
viewed: 03/22/2014

Much like the populist Old West outlaw Jesse James, Billy the Kid’s short life became the thing of legend, popular folklore, with many, many versions of his story told and retold and told yet again.  Director Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid from 1973 would certainly fall into the revisionist category.  It’s a fascinating assessment of the Old West, quite particular to Peckinpah’s interpretation, gritty, bloody and cynical.

James Coburn plays Pat Garrett, the outlaw turned lawman, who goes after the bounty on his old pal Billy the Kid (Kris Kristofferson) when hired by the land barons of Arizona to put an end to the Kid and his gang.  Again, like Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country (1962) and also his classic The Wild Bunch (1969), these are Westerns interested with the end of the Old West.  The film opens with Garrett’s death in 1908, shot down at the hands of men who had paid him to track Billy the Kid.  Though most of the story takes place in the 1880’s.

Bob Dylan appears as a quirky character called “Alias,” a clerk turned outlaw when he sees how cool Billy the Kid is escaping the law.  More effective than his performance is his great soundtrack for the film.  I’m by no means a particular Dylan fan, but the soundtrack is excellent, an interesting stylistic choice for Peckinpah, something of the old-style “folk music” and guitar and the modern, the unique Dylan interpretation of the style that was very much of the time of the film.

It seems that the film is about the outlaw lifestyle, embodied in the ennobled Kid.  He’s never seen doing anything truly nefarious.  He’s fighting against the law and the rich who run everything.  We’re not given some hardscrabble backstory of how the rich men ruined the poor but these characters certainly had analogues in the early 1970’s, of which Dylan and Kristofferson no doubt embodied modern archetypes, if not Peckinpah himself.

It’s Garrett who is the ambivalent villain.  He doesn’t really want to kill Billy.  He’d rather Billy ran off to “Old” Mexico where he’d be out of his jurisdiction, but he is also quite resigned that he must kill his old compadre.  And he knows that he is doing it for his own wealth and entitlement.  He has no illusions about right and wrong.

I’d last seen this film in England about 20 years ago, around the time that I was first getting interested in the Western as a genre.  I think I’m appreciating it much more today than I did then, though I recall liking it.  I’d just watched  Ride the High Country a couple of nights before and had also recently watched Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974) and frankly, I am currently totally digging Peckinpah of late.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again.  The Western is one of the great genres of cinema.  One who doesn’t appreciate the genre is missing out on some of the best films ever made.

Ride the High Country (1962)

Ride the High Country (1962) movie poster

director Sam Peckinpah
viewed: 03/19/2014

Sam Peckinpah’s 1962 Western, Ride the High Country, is a fascinating transition of the traditional and the old encountering the first wave of the modern or revisionist Western.  The film features two old faces from classic Hollywood, Randolph Scott (in his final big screen performance) and Joel McCrea, playing aging Old West gunmen in a fading Old West.  Scott is seeking redemption in one last job to reestablish his integrity, protecting a shipment of gold from the mountains to the town for a small town bank.  He enlists McCrea, who has been making his way in cheap gun tricks in “Old West” shows and carnivals, to help him out, though McCrea has other, less idealistic notions.

While it’s not entirely clear what year it’s supposed to be, this is the Old West in its last vestiges, turning toward the modern world.  And though the film begins much like a traditional Western, the film verges into territory much grittier and grimier than the clean and noble West of the first half of the 20th Century.

It’s interesting that the character that pushes the film into this sleazier territory is Warren Oates, who would come to be one of Peckinpah’s main actors.  And it’s interesting how the movie gets there.

The cowboys encounter an obsessively Christian man and his lovely daughter (Mariette Hartley) who is tired of being repressed.  She’s an interesting figure all throughout, first appearing to be a boy, dressed for work on the farm, then transposed into fancy dress as she tries to express her femininity against her father’s wishes.  But she decides to venture up to the gold mining outpost with the gunmen, to seek to marry one would-be suitor of hers that lives up there.

Only, that would-be suitor has three inbred brothers, including Oates, who share and share alike of family goods and fully expect the pretty young Hartley to be theirs in every way as much as their brothers.  The brother doesn’t disagree.

The wedding takes place in a whorehouse, with leering eyes, saucy girls, horny cowboys, and a big, buxom, flouncy madam.  The local judge, who is not the least sober as one, presides over the affair, making it legit.  But with the lustful brothers and all the others, there is an explicitness to the suggestions of rape and prostitution that the girl has somewhat unwittingly set herself up for that are much more coarse and certain than one would expect in the far more dainty 1950’s.  In fact, it’s pure Peckinpah.

The film becomes a chase back to the town, with McCrea and his sidekick thinking to steal the gold and the brothers seeking to get Hartley back after Scott rescues her.  It ends with a semi-traditional shoot-out with Scott’s character dying and McCrea’s regaining his integrity, a commentary no doubt on the position of those old weathered heroes of yore.

The “Revisionist Western” has come to interest me more and more of late.  And Peckinpah in particular has been interesting me, his particular slant on the genre.  Ride the High Country is considered Peckinpah’s first great or important film and it’s well worth watching.

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974)

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974) movie poster

director Sam Peckinpah
  viewed: 01/06/2014

This is one movie that I’ve been wanting to see again since I first saw it about 20 years ago.  Recommended at the time by a friend with a prescient sense of the most perverse films, it’s probably the first film that I ever saw by “Bloody” Sam Peckinpah.  It’s a doozy.

Starring the amazing Warren Oates, who I was just discovering at the time, it’s the grittiest, guttiest, hard-drinkingest, crazy fest of a movie.   It all begins in Mexico (in fact it was entirely shot in Mexico so it begins, is and ends there too), where the patriarch of a wealthy family wants to know who has impregnated his young daughter.  When the answer is tortured out, he speaks the words that are the film’s title, “Bring me the head of Alfredo Garcia.”  And it does not need to be attached to a body.

An array of sleazy folks set out to find this ne’er-do-well Lothario, stumbling upon Warren Oates as the piano player in a wonderfully sleazy Mexico City bar.  Via his prostitute/singer girlfriend, Oates learns that Garcia met his own end (after sleeping with the girlfriend for three straight days) in a random car crash and is buried somewhere in a small village cemetery.  Oates takes off with her and a ton of booze and careens romantically to dig up his cash cow.  Only, he’s hardly alone in his search, and it only gets bloodier from moment to moment.

The thing I remembered the most about the film was Oates rolling through rural Mexico with a bundle on the seat beside him, flies buzzing all over it, with him conversing with the detached head.  I vaguely recalled a rape scene that was disturbing, but I think I got it a little mixed up with the really nasty one in Straw Dogs (1971) in which the girl being raped enjoys the act.  The thing in this film is that the would-be rapist is Kris Kristofferson and he doesn’t end up raping the girl (though she wants to make love to him).  It’s a little more ambiguous and ambivalent.  Peckinpah has his creepy flaws.  In the case of the film, this horrible attitude towards women sort of fits the despicable world that is everyone and everywhere.

It’s still very funny when Oates tells the rapists abducting his woman, “You guys are definitely on my shit list.”

The film is over the top in concept, grimy and sleazy, sweaty, and insane.  Genius.  Totally fucking genius.  And perverse.  An apex of perversity.

The Getaway

The Getaway (1972) movie poster

(1972) dir. Sam Peckinpah
viewed: 09/07/09

Legendary director Sam Peckinpah’s adaptation of the brilliant novel by the amazing Jim Thompson, starring Steve McQueen,…well, you’d think it would have turned out better.

I recently re-read Thompson’s The Getaway on a plane flight back from Australia.  Thompson has been a favorite author of mine for nearly two decades now, and though I have read most of his work, it’s been some time since I had read him at all.  The Getaway is, narratively, one of his most straight-forward crime novels, but its power, darkness, and commentary on life, love, and marriage, is a bleak, horrific, endlessly impossible one.  It’s about the ability to trust, and the harshest of challenges to know and love another person.  And it doesn’t turn out well.

The story starts out in action, in the robbing of a bank, through to the ensuing “getaway”, and twists and turns down into various corners of hell.

The movie, unfortunately, takes great liberty with the novel, not simply allowing a “happy ending”, but cheapening the danger and uncertainty of the relationship between “Doc” McCoy (McQueen) and his wife Carol (played by Ally MacGraw).  While the film still plays with their uncertainty and doubts, it absolutely squaders the potentcy of Thompson’s bleak and terrifying story.

The best sequence in the film is the one that follows the book the most closely.  That is the scene in the train station in which Carol has the bag of loot stolen from her by a shifty grifter and the hunt to find him on the train and get the money back.  Again, in the book, Carol is not so sophisticated as MacGraw’s character is supposed to be (not that she comes off that way exactly).  And the thing is, that it’s a shame.  There are great elements there, but the alchemy and probably lots of Hollywood bullshit, including star egos as well as studio interference ruined it.  Apparently, Thompson was originally the scriptwriter eventually replaced by Walter Hill.

The film is at its strongest where is adheres to Thompson’s novel.  The theft of the moneybag in the train station and the catching up with the crook on the train (though “Doc” doesn’t kill him in the movie) is great.  The sequence in the garbage truck is pretty good, but pales starkly in comparison to the elided sequence in which “Doc” and Carol are “entombed” in an underwater cave.  The paranoia and outright terror are nowhere matched.  Al Lettieri does a good turn as the co-robber who tries to doublecross them, though he’s much different from the character in the book.  His kidnapping of the vetrinarian and his flousy wife (played by a young and perfectly apt Sally Struthers) works very well, too.

But instead of psychological strain between two people who need to trust one another but cannot, the visceral nightmarish hell through which they move together, the compromises and bleakness…well, I guess you can’t have all that and have a happy ending.

The thing is that the film is really not bad on the whole.  Watching it right after reading the book, it seems a sadly squandered opportunity to make a great film from a great book.  Peckinpah certainly has his masterpieces, though not in this film.  A shame, really.

The bottom line: Read Jim Thompson.

The Wild Bunch

The Wild Bunch (1969) movie poster

(1969) dir. Sam Peckinpah
viewed: 06/15/2005

One of the great movies of all time. I’d never seen it, holding out for a chance to see it on the big screen than on a little television screen, but finally I broke down and decided to watch it. And guess what? It’s a great movie.

Something that is interesting about film, literature, maybe life in general, is the context in which one is first exposed to things influences one’s perception of them. For this film, nothing so profound struck me, but having just watched Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), a Western set in a similar era and released in the same year, a number of points of comparison arose.

Please note that I am basing my observations on overall historical knowledge, not on research.

The late 1960’s and the 1970’s were an interesting time for the Western. The century and popular media had grown up with the Western genre, one that was based in history but even more so in legend. Legend and American history are almost inseparable in the case of the genre, as is often acknowledged in historical knowledge of the period. As a genre form, legend seems to speak louder, creating mythoogies about how America was built, the character of the heroes of this period, and of the land itself. Of course, from any period, such recollection or story-telling is often influenced by the social commentary of the time that a film was made or a book was written.

Both Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Wild Bunch focus on the late period of the Wild West, some 30 years after the Transcontinental Railroad was created and the America crossed threshhold of the 20th Century. It was a period of change for the West, the period that spawned the legends which the Western would expand upon. 1969 was also a period of change for the Western, as many of the standards of the genre were turned around and the legends were beginning to be seen as seperate from history. Perhaps there was some deliberate choice in developing stories around this reflexive transition.

Again, I haven’t done any research here to know whether or not the two films were in any way paralleled at the point of production, but they do seem to developed their narratives from similar seats of legend. Along their narrative paths, there are many points to note: both films focus on renegade gangs of bank and train robbers, both films have a significant scene each depicting a train robbery and a bank heist, and both films end in a bloody shootout in which all gang members are killed.

Whereas Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is lighthearted action on the verge of comedy, The Wild Bunch is bloody and manly, serious adventure, with anti-heroes ultimately more heroic. This film is widely considered director Sam Peckinpah’s masterpiece and probably with good reason. In some ways, it’s more accessible because the protagonists, while ruthless killers and outlawas, bear a strong sense of dignity ultimately, going back on a suicide mission to try to rescue their companion than taking off with their gold from the train heist. Though this could also be argued as their escapist option, heading in for doom because their way of life was on the verge of ending, ultimately, there is a manly bond to which they are adhering that ennobles them. As opposed to some other Peckinpah films, in which protagonists are often even more suspect in the typical qualities of heroes, here the gang is more understandable than not.

It’s an iconic film, even if the icons are new to a viewer. The film has many powerful sequences and excellent performances, particularly by William Holden, who is totally amazing. It’s one of those classic films that earns its reputation, that is easy to appreciate, that would seemingly get more and more interesting with further analysis and multiple viewings.