Thursday, July 31, 2014

Happy 100th Birthday to the Maestro of the Macabre!

Mario Bava
July 31, 1914 - July 31, 2014

To celebrate, whether you've already seen it or not, why don't you give this one a spin as soon as possible. (I, for one, think its his masterpiece.) You're in for a real treat. No trick. Honest. 

Video courtesy of Yours Truly.

Blood and Black Lace (1964) Emmepi Cinematografica :: Les Productions Georges de Beauregard :: Monachia Film :: Allied Artists / P: Alfredo Mirabile, Massimo Patrizi / D: Mario Bava / W: Marcello Fondato / C: Ubaldo Terzano / E: Mario Serandrei / M: Carlo Rustichelli / S: Cameron Mitchell, Eva Bartok, Thomas Reiner, Ariana Gorini, Mary Arden, Luciano Pigozzi

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Sincerest Form of Fraudulence :: Dying Hard While The Dudikoff Abides in Robert Lee's Cyberjack (1995)

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“After tonight, God will be lucky if I return his calls!”
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In the not to distant future, Nick James is circling the drain. Several years removed from an incident where a bad decision during a stand-off got himself nearly (and his partner definitely) killed in the line of duty, James (Dudikoff) is now a barely functioning alcoholic, who lost his job as a policemen, is currently in hock to his bookie for an exorbitant sum of cash, money he lost betting on the hometown baseball team, money he doesn't have, which finds him striking a bargain with a friendly security guard to hide out for the night at Quantum Industries, where he works as a janitor -- sorry, as a custodial engineer, in an effort to save his kneecaps from being broken. 

James is fairly friendly with most of the staff at Quantum, recently budding a bond with one of their chief research scientists, Dr. Alex Royce (Kaiser), over a dead car battery and their mutual love and diehard loyalty to the Neptunes, that aforementioned shitty baseball team (OF THE FUTURE!). Royce works in tandem with her father (Fraser) as they try to perfect an "organic computer virus," which is your garden variety bits and bytes contagion they have merged with some *ahem* 'neurological protoplasm' because of SCIENCE!. Well, actually, it was designed to be a Super Anti-Virus but my eyes kinda glazed over during the expository sci-babble, here, so, yeah, moving on... 

Despite pressure from an over-eager CEO, the younger Royce is leery over the project's effectiveness and feels more RnD testing is needed. Dad, however, feels it's almost ready to launch. (Three guesses on whose side the CEO will be on?) Well, turns out someone else thinks it's ready to roll, too; a criminal mastermind named Nassim (James), who, coincidentally enough, was the perp' who killed James' partner; and he plans to steal the virus for his own nefarious purposes. (Purposes you won't believe even when I reveal them later.) Which brings all our characters together and the audience up to speed when Nassim and his band of Class of Nuke 'Em High rejects clandestinely infiltrate the Quantum building, eliminate all the security personnel, and that CEO, with ruthless efficiency, before rounding up all the remaining staff into the Royce's lab, where he makes his demands known. 

Ah, but remember, and unknown to Nassim and his goon squad, there's an extra player lurking in the building. Someone looking for a little redemption, a little revenge, and the score of the Neptune's game. Someone who is handy with a monkey-wrench, and knows just how to use it... 

It's not often a direct to video knock-off opens with a preamble credited to Dr. Stephen Hawking, but here ya go. The 1990s truly were a glorious time of conjecture on where computers would take us. Some place bad or some place good depended on who was doing the screenplay. By 1995 the internet was just starting to stretch its legs, 'virtual reality', 'cyber-crimes' and 'hacking' were new buzzwords, and yet, even some ten years after TRON (1982), no one in the movie-making business seemed to understand how computers actually worked. Still more fiction than science, then, 90% of this kind of cinematic conjecturing was total horseshit; but it was ah-mazing to behold and revel in its horsehittiness. Here, the notion is to merge man and machine. E'yup. Nassim wants to inject the Royce virus into a chip implanted inside his head, which, in theory, will either kill him or turn him into an ersatz Brainiac / MCP program that will allow him to infect everything to satiate his lust to rule the world! [Insert maniacal laughter here.] Like I said: horseshit.

Thus, when The Celluloid Zeroes decided to do Knock-Offs, Rip-Offs and Frommage Homages for this latest roundtable, I immediately knew I wanted to do a Michael Dudikoff movie. The problem was narrowing it down to one choice. I mean, there's his gang-banger version of The Dirty Dozen, Soldier Boyz (1995); or his Platoon clone, Platoon Leader (1988); The Hitcher begat Midnight Ride (1990), with Mark Hamill taking over for Rutger Hauer (-- don't laugh, it's better than you'd think); he's The Most Dangerous Game in Avenging Force (1986); and The Hunter becomes the hunted in Moving Target (1996). However, in the end, the choice was fairly easy: Cyberjack a/k/a Virtual Assassin (1995), which not only apes Die Hard (1988) with a vengeance, and is set in the dystopian future of Paul Verhoeven's Robocop (1987), it also steals several terrible ideas from Johnny Mnemonic (1995) and The Lawnmower Man (1992). Noodle that line of code for a bit, fellow programs. 

Don't get me wrong. I love this movie, and The Dudikoff something fierce. As the legend goes, it was being spotted while working at a restaurant by a fashion editor that launched Dudikoff's career; first as a model, then as an actor. Dudikoff always had the looks of a leading man, and the moves to be an action hero. (He's well-versed in Jiu-Jitsu). Acting wise, he's somewhere on the scale between Lorenzo Llamas and Jan-Michael Vincent, meaning he's just fine when he's cast in his comfort zone as the quiet loner who is called upon to bust some heads. His first big break came playing one of Tom Hank's bosom buddies in the raunch-com, Bachelor Party (1984). This was followed by Radioactive Dreams (1985), Albert Pyun's most-Pyunical hard-boiled post-apocalyptic musical. (Again, not as bad as you'd think.) After that, Dudikoff started working steadily for the Go-Go boys at Cannon Films, teaming up with Steven James in the American Ninja series and plugged into countless other Cannon fodder. Thus, from 1985 thru 1994, the actor took the lead in nearly a dozen films before Golan and Globus called it quits. 

Cast adrift, Cyberjack was Dudikoff's first feature after Cannon went tits up. And I think it's one of his best efforts. Sure, Dudikoff is no Bruce Willis, but then Nick James is no John McClane either. Hiding out in the holographic lab and thoroughly distracted by a hologram set on "Bump 'n' Grind," James is blissfully unaware of Nassim's hostile takeover. And once he does find out, his first notion is to flee the premises as quickly as possible. However, the terrorists and the building's compromised automated defense systems prevents this. 

Thus, once our reluctant and barely sober hero is pressed into service, Cyberjack doesn't stray too far from McTiernan's template; but lets give due credit on some of the tweaking the production and FX team managed to pull-off, rather deftly, to stir up the sediment to obscure the obvious, including several nifty scenes involving more of those holograms and a well-executed go-motion robot drone the (eventually) alerted police send in, who first mistakes James as one of the bad guys, meaning Nassim, the building, and now the cops are all out to get our hero. What's a guy to do? 

I'll tell you what he does: flexing those old cop muscles, mixed with his janitorial know-how, our boy systematically eliminates Nassim's rainbow coalition of goons; highlighted by an outstanding full-body burn when the first goon gets the hell Molotov'd out of him, and surviving two brutal encounters with Meghan (Hasfal-Schou), Nassim's Nubian gladiatrix, decked out in leather shorts and a metal breast-plate. (Grace Jones-lite, my ass. She was awesome and then some.) Meanwhile, after her father sacrifices himself trying to destroy the virus with a self-destruct protocol, Alex has one hour to abort these fail-safe measures and save the virus or Nassim will keep killing off all the other hostages. 

With the clock ticking, as his men are slowly whittled away, Nassim realizes the fly in his ointment is no ordinary janitor and who he really is. James does the same, realizing this is the same man who tried to kill him and ruined his life. But before he can reach the lab, Nassim manages to inject himself with the virus, which, one, doesn't kill him, and two, gives him the ability to shoot green laser-beams out of his eyes, and three, allows him to use his new skills to hack into the cybernetically linked-up S.W.A.T. team that just broke into the building, turning them all into a brand new batch of heavily armed witless minions. But Nassim has no intentions of stopping there. Nope. He's still bent on infecting the world -- and all he needs is a proper uplink with only one half-dead, beaten-to-a-pulp man and a plucky scientist left to stop him. 

Now, as much as I love The Dudikoff, I think I might love Brion James even more. The veteran character actor was always a welcome sight on my screen and was one of those guys who was seemingly in everything before we lost him in 1999. (Just scroll through his IMDB credits and boggle.) Every good hero needs a great villain, and here, with his ever-evolving accent, hilarious asides, and maniacal relish, James is clearly having a ball as the ruthless Nassim. 

The financial success of Die Hard spawned a whole new genre: Die Hard on a [fill in the blank]. You had Die Hard on a boat; Die Hard in an amusement park; Die Hard on a train. Here, we have Die Hard OF THE FUTURE! Still, no matter how hard you try to hide it with all the lasers, holograms and drones, the central premise of Cyberjack has been rock stupid. Then, this plot granite gets even harder for the whackadoodle climax, which ends just like you know it will. But, again, the film manages to go the extra mile to overcompensate for its own predictability. And for that, props to all involved for trying a little harder and squeezing just a little more out of every dollar in the budget. Or, in this case, every loonie. 

Filmed in Canada and financed with Canadian money, this was another film shot expressly for home video. (Admittedly, most of Dudikoff's output for Cannon followed the same pipeline.) However, without the crutch of crappy CGI, DTVs of this era don't quite carry the same stigma of the Asylum or Swhy-Fwhy originals of today. Prism Entertainment was another home video enterprise that briefly got into the production business, netting genre fans not only Cyberjack, but Galaxis, Sleepstalker, and Project: Metalbeast

First time director Robert Lee does an admirable job of managing the film's momentum, which never lags once it gets going. And checking out his credits found him moving up, sort of, as an AD on the likes of Freddy vs. Jason and Shoot 'Em Up. Most of the film's producers broke in providing vehicles for Shannon Tweed and fuel for Cinemax's steamy late night line-ups, which would explain the origin of that stripper-hologram and the prerequisite T'n'A shot. Credit also to production designers Linda Del Rosario and Richard Paris for making something out of nothing and the F/X team of Gitte Axen, Andy Stevens, and Gary Paller for turning nothing into something not only passable but fairly effective. 

On top of all of their endearing efforts, however, it is The Dudikoff and James (and Kaiser and Hasfal-Schou) who push this particular knock-off into the win column for me. (And I cling to a hope that The Dudikoff will find his way into The Expendables franchise.) Will it do the same for you? Maaaaaybe. To find out, Cyberjack is currently out of print on DVD but is dirt cheap used. Last check, there were also couple of versions streaming on YouTube. As always, your bit-rate may vary. 

This post was part of The Celluloid Zeroes' The Sincerest Form of Fraudulence: The Great Rip-Off Roundtable, where the collective head o' knuckle delves into the often hilarious world of cashing in, cinematically speaking. Please follow the linkage below and read on, won't you? Thank you.

Cyberjack (1995) Everest Pictures Inc. :: Prism Entertainment Corporation / EP: Masao Takiyama, Barry L. Collier / P: John A. Curtis, Robert H. Straight / AP: Christian Bruyère, James Thom / D: Robert Lee / W: Eric Poppen / C: Alan M. Trow / E: Derek A Whelan / M: George Blondheim / S: Michael Dudikoff, Suki Kaiser, Brion James, Topaz Hasfal-Schou, Duncan Fraser, Alvin Sanders

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Favorites :: Inks and Paints :: Crime-Busting with the Cat and the Canary.

Artist: Jeff Moy
Image courtesy of Deviant Art.

Harvey Comics' The Black Cat and DC's The Black Canary.
Somebody clear the legal hurdles and make this happen.
No. Now.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

YouTube Finds :: "Broadening Traditions and Exploring New Concepts in Television" :: Extended Promo for ABC's Movies of the Week (1976)

The great Ernie Anderson Guides Us through ABC's Movies of the Week for the Fall of 1976:

Video courtesy of robatsea2009.

Which also includes these great promotional title card art for their original productions, whose mind-boggling plots are only matched by the mind-boggling casts: 

We are now several generations removed from this particular cultural phenomenon, so most of you reading will not realize just how big a deal it was gathering around the old Zenith in your family rooms for these broadcast premieres. And while I don't necessarily miss those days, I do get the warm-fuzzies whenever I stumble upon things like this while plumbing the depths of YouTube. 

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Recommendations :: We Rec'em, You Wreck'em :: Another Batch of Flicks that Might Be Worth Your Time to Avoid at All Costs! Or Maybe Not. Then Again...

The film that John Wayne backed out of and turned over to Randolph Scott so he could make The Searchers, 7 Men From Now (1956) sparked a fantastic seven movie odyssey with director Budd Boetticher and netted a career redefining arc for Scott. Here, our hero plays a former sheriff tracking down the seven men who killed his wife during a hold-up. Things get complicated when his search is side-tracked by a couple of stranded pioneers, circling Chiricahua, and gunslinger Lee Marvin. To say much more would give away too many twists the film righteously earned; and so, you'll just have to take my word that this thing is amazing. Trust me. And that final shoot-out? Wow. 

I had the perfect tagline for this film when it was first announced: "See it B-4 it's too -- Wait. B-4? @%#* You just sunk my Battleship!" Anyhoo, kinda embarrassed for how long it took me to realize the alien invaders' missiles / depth charges were a simulacrum for the pegs from the Milton Bradley board game. Actually, it's kind of hilarious how relevant the game is to the action in Battleship (2012). What's even more amazing, is it actually kinda works. The chicken burrito bit at the beginning was pretty hilarious, but then I was grinding teeth for the following 40 minutes or so until the alien invasion got up to speed. Wasn't sure if they were trying to poke holes into Michael Bay and his Bayisms or going for a flagrant copy. Either way, it was kind of a lets heave everything at the wall and who cares if it sticks. And hows come all the old Fudds from Taylor Kitsch's Wackiest Ship in the Navy not rate any medals at the ending ceremony? *pfeh* 

Just a quick note on a matinee screening of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014), which was pretty great but the most poignant moment came at the end of the movie, where, like good conditioned little monkeys, we stuck around for any stingers and all we got was monkey chatter and the sound of a monkey urinating (I think). Well played, 20th Century Fox. Well played. 

Finally managed to catch up with I Woke Up Early the Day I Died (1998). Based on an unused script by Edward D. Wood Jr., overly-maligned as the worst filmmaker of all time, Billy Zane is quite amazing as a thug who escapes from a sanitarium in a stolen nurses uniform, robs a bank, loses the money in a cemetery, and spends the rest of the film tracking down and killing a group of funeral attendees, thinking one of them must have taken his loot. Basically a silent movie in desperate need of a shot of Thorazine, choc-a-bloc with stock footage and celebrity cameos, the film is quite the trip as our character shimmies and shakes his way through the seedy underbelly of LA-LA Land; and trying to describe something that is experimental or avant-garde at best and Tim Burtonesque -- minus the sentimentality for the subject matter, replaced with the delirium of a bourbon-soaked fever dream -- at the worst, the end result is kind of a mess. An interesting mess, to be sure, but still a mess. 

For those of you unaware, Scandinavia has carved itself out a nice little genre niche with a series of frozen slasher movies -- movies that put their American counterparts to shame, mostly, if I'm being honest. And with Blood Runs Cold (2010) we have another supernatural slasher / 'spam i en stuga' flick, where a group of friends fall prey to a ski-mask wearing zombie/cannibal and his trusty axe. First, I dug how a GPS error sits the whole thing in motion. Also, very well executed as far as the murder set-pieces are concerned. And my only real beef is that instead of a dub or subs, the filmmakers, targeting an American release, had their Swedish actors speaking English and the obvious second language thing is too easy to detect and a distraction both in delivery and in the script -- which doesn't help with its f-bomb carpet bombing to make the dialogue sound more 'Murican is egregiously ridiculous. Totally paint by numbers, but strays outside the lines enough that the ending picture still satisfied. 

As for The Killing of Jacob Marr (2010), now THIS is how you do a throwback 'Spam in a Cabin' movie, people, where, for once, seeing too many of these damned things is actually counter-productive. For, I ask you, What would happen if you had a stalk 'n' slash movie where the characters aren't complete douche-nozzles, and therefore, you don't want to see any of them die, where calmer heads prevail despite the mounting evidence and ratcheting tension, where they do everything as right as possible, and yet everything still goes wrong? Something you'd like to see? Well, here's the movie you've been waiting for. It's been a long time since a movie from this genre out-foxing me this badly, in a good way, where it kept pulling the rug out from under all expected plot twists and situations -- situational 'rules' set in cinematic stone. It had me from the beginning, and I rooted for it 'til the end, where it kinda fumbled and reverted to form right before the credits rolled, but! It's not necessarily a bad ending, and by then, I was too giddy over what had come before to let it slide. Highly recommended for those inclined to these kinds of things. 

Back on mother Earth, The Bletchley Circle: Cracking the Killer's Code (2012) is a crackerjack British mini-series about a quartet of mustered out code-breakers reuniting ten years after World War II's end to track down and stop a serial killer. Using the same scientific and mathematical principles and geographic profiling used to sniff out Nazi troop movements, they soon have the killer's pattern and modus operandi sussed out. Some interesting melodrama leavened into this ersatz police procedural/historical drama and, in a refreshing twist, the authorities actually give credence to their theories; but, profiling isn't an exact science; and when a couple of tips don't pan out it's up to these ladies to stop the killer. A killer whose elusive shrewdness has them looking for someone else who signed the official secrets act at war's end. A fantastic combination of The Snoop Sisters and The Profiler, this was just great and I was all kinds of happy to discover there are two more story arcs of mysteries out there for these smart, tough-as-nails ladies to solve. 

Also from Britain, we have Invasion (1966); an extremely interesting sci-fi exercise that, basically, boils down to a 'Country Cottage' alien invasion flick. We begin with a mysterious blackout at a rural hospital, followed by the arrival of a 'John Doe'; the comatose victim of a pedestrian vs. auto encounter. And as the hospital staff (Edward Judd, Valerie Gearon) try to treat him, it slowly but surely becomes apparent that they're not dealing with anything human. From there, we discover why the patient is on Earth, and who is after him, with the hospital staff caught in the middle -- literally stuck inside a force bubble that is slowly roasting them alive. Slow and deliciously deliberate (I dug how everyone took everything the aliens say at face value), admittedly, the film works a lot better during the unraveling of what the patient is before it reaches a fairly wonky climax. Still, the end result is worth an appreciative look. 

Meanwhile, Samuel Fuller gives us some fabulous, two-fisted melodrama concerning a 'Circulation War' between two rival newspapers; one an idealistic upstart, the other a well-established edition that's drenched in yellow ink, who both publish from New York's fabled Park Row (1952). The whole conflict is personified by their respective publishers and the screen just crackles when Gene Evans and Mary Welch rip each other to shreds, betraying the mutual attraction between them. And the harder these two push each other apart, the more the violence escalates. Fuller, a former reporter, struggles a bit while trying to find the balance between this important history lesson and the schmaltz, but it all evens out in the end. 

More miss than hit, Cracking Up (1977) is a sketch comedy showcase using a massive California earthquake as a framing device for the vignettes. 1970s tastelessness abounds, with plenty of soon to be familiar faces (Fred Willard, Michael McKean, David Landers, Harry Shearer, Edie McClurg) littering the landscape. Nearly worth it for an Abbott 'n' Costello riff on a concert booking skit involving The Who, Guess Who and Yes but no, not quite.

Kind of an odd mash-up of Herk Harvey's Carnival of Souls (1962) and Michael Crichton's Westworld (1973), this exercise in guerrilla film-making, shot on the sly at DisneyWorld, is quite the surreal trip. Kinda amazing how the innocuous can become insidious with only the slightest of shifts in perspective as a family vacation, well, goes off the monorail a bit. Is the dad going crazy? Or is he just one big old pervert as he becomes obsessed with two French touristas. Or is something far more sinister going on? Well, it all depends on how you interpret the ending of Escape from Tomorrow (2012). I, for one, appreciated the ambiguity of the climax, leaving me with several theories and an itch to watch it again. Your mileage may vary on the tolerance of such things.

Also watched Varan the Unbelievable (1961) for the first time since buying it some *gack* thirty years ago on VHS tape. Better than I'd remembered but still not very good. Wildly disjointed due to the clumsy additional inserts to westernize it. From a design standpoint, the monster, what little we actually get to see, again, thanks to some shoddy editing, looks pretty cool -- especially when he's on all fours with his tale whipping around. (And I really dug those Creature from the Black Lagoon front paws.) And the destruction he causes is top notch. If nothing else, it rekindled a desire to track down the original Japanese version. 

And finally ... *ahem*  Sing us a Space Shanty, Cap'n Elba?! "Okay. Are you ready kids?" Aye-aye, Cap'n! "I can't hear you..." AYE-AYE, CAP'N! "Oooooooh-ohhhhh, Whose bald in the noggin' and made the lethal Black Goo?" En-gin-EEeers! "All genocidal and the color of blue!" En-gin-EEeers! "If expensive prequels be somethin' you wish?!" En-gin-EEeers! "Then hop on aboard the Prometheus!" ... GAH! *eyegitty*eyegitty*eyegitty* Yes, well, outstanding F/X saddled with barely sketched out caricatures, with loathsome people doing idiotic things, getting themselves killed in moronic ways, and saddled with designated heroes we're supposed to root for solely because they ARE the designated heroes in the script ... I could go on ranting, but, eh, it just isn't worth the effort. If nothing else, Prometheus (2012) is a haunting reminder of how far sci-fi and fantasy films have improved since the 1990s and the forlorn genre days of Godzilla (1998), The Haunting (1999) and The Wild, Wild West (1999). 

Thursday, July 10, 2014

The John Ford Blogathon :: A Rescue Or A Reckoning? That is the Question in John Ford's The Searchers (1956)

"The camera frames and moves with a lone horseman. He is Ethan Edwards; a man as hard as the country he is crossing. Ethan is in his forties with a three-day stubble of beard. Dust is caked in the lines of his face and powders his clothing. His saddle is Mexican and across it he carries a folded serape in place of the Texas poncho. Strapped onto his saddle roll is a sabre and scabbard with a gray silk sash wrapped around it. Rider and horse have come a long way..."

Thus, we have the opening preamble of Frank Nugent's script for The Searchers, John Ford's seminal western -- make that, seminal film. This, of course, is not the end of Ethan Edward's journey but merely the beginning. And speaking honestly, I'm not sure what I can add to what's already been written about the history and making of this film, or its cultural and cinematic impact. What I can tell you is my first encounter with it was a disaster. I thought it sure looked pretty and its central premise was intriguing enough, but the middle dragged, the romantic subplot bogged it down even more, and the outright corn-pone buffonery of some of its characters kinda soured me on the whole enterprise. That, and the ending just didn't jive. I was also eight years old at the time, watching it on 19-inch black 'n' white Zenith. Now, some *gack* 40 years later, everything I used to hate about the film I now cherish. And with each viewing, I fall in love with it even more.

A story occurs, says screenwriter Nugent, when the status quo is upset. This disturbance is the story, he continues, and this story ends when another status quo is attained. And while that certainly can be ascribed to his script, it also could be describing John Ford's entire film career. I mean, take that opening scene, scratch out Ethan Edwards and embellish him with a floppy cloth hat, an eye-patch, and a slightly gnawed handkerchief instead of a sabre and that's John Ford we're talking about here. 

Though best known for his westerns, and they certainly helped establish his career back in the silent era, they only accounted for about a third of Ford's output. As the silents gave way to the talkies, the genre was all but dead or relegated to the serials or singing cowboys by the late 1930s. Couple that with his drinking and cantankerous relationship with the studio system found Ford adrift and nearly forgotten until one man came to his rescue and got him making westerns again not once, nor twice, but three times. 

For just bringing King Kong (1933) to the screen, Merian C. Cooper is both a bona fide genius and Hollywood legend. What people tend to forget, however, is that he also championed technical innovations like Technicolor, VistaVision and Cinerama. He was also instrumental in throwing a floundering Ford a lifeline at RKO, which netted him and his boss, David O. Selznick, The Lost Patrol (1934) and The Informer (1935), earning Ford his first Academy Award, among other hits. It was also around this time that Ford's son, Pat, showed his dad an Ernest Haycox story he'd read in Collier's called The Stage to Lordsburg, telling the old man it would make a great movie. Both Ford and Cooper agreed, and when they failed to get Selznick on board, they decided to produce it independently, securing financing from Walter Wanger. Here, it should be noted that one of the main sticking points for Selznick, and Wanger, too, to be honest, was neither of them felt John Wayne had the presence or heft to carry a film. 

After Stagecoach (1939) proved Selznick wrong, launched Wayne's meteoric rise, and re-established the western as a viable A-picture commodity, Ford and Cooper formed Argosy Pictures, which only managed one film, The Long Voyage Home (1940), before the enterprise went on hiatus while both men served in the military during World War II. After the war ended, it was Cooper who conspired with Ford, who walked away from a lucrative contract offer from 20th Century Fox, to head back to Monument Valley for the Cavalry Trilogy: Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) and Rio Grande (1950).

Geographically speaking, Monument Valley isn't all that big. Part of a Navajo Indian reservation, it straddles the border of Utah and Arizona. Harry Goulding, a sheep herder from Colorado, stumbled upon the valley in the early 1920s while rounding up a few strays, fell in love with the surroundings, and immediately moved there with his wife, Leone (affectionately known as Mike), where they finagled a land purchase and eked out a living trading with the natives. The first film shot there was George B. Seitz's The Vanishing American (1925), and when the Depression hit, coupled with a severe, decimating drought, Goulding felt the only hope for survival was to coax Hollywood back to make another picture there.

As the legend goes, Goulding nursed his ramshackle truck all the way to California and camped out in Ford's office until he got a meeting with his location manager and showed him several photos taken by a noted German photographer, who passed them along to Ford, who was immediately smitten and chose Goulding's scenic panoramas as a backdrop for Stagecoach. The director loved it there, and Ford found its rejuvenating environs perfect for his physical well being and cinematic needs despite the impracticality of its isolated location. It also put some distance between Ford and the studio men, whom he detested. Here, he was king, his loyal stock company his serfs, and the locals worshiped him because he treated the Navajos well and paid them union wages. 

Combine all that scenery with some rousing stories helped make the Cavalry Trilogy box office hits for Ford; as was The Quiet Man (1952), which he financed by making Rio Grande for Republic Studios, and his African safari adventure, Mogambo (1953). But the 1950s were kinda hit and miss for Ford. For every triumphant success there was a resounding dud. Then, things really fell apart during the filming of Mister Roberts (1955). It was a sour shoot from the beginning and eventually got so bad Ford punched his star and frequent collaborator, Henry Fonda, in the face for questioning his tactics and changes made to the story. Ford, who had been drinking a little on the set and a whole lot off, offered a tearful apology, but the pair, whose record includes Drums Along the Mohawk (1939), The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and My Darling Clementine (1946), was damaged beyond repair and they never worked together again 

Combining this incident with a medical emergency, Ford found himself off the picture and replaced with Mervyn Leroy. Humiliated and desperately needing a rebound, Cooper once more stepped in to help his friend re-establish the status quo. (See what I did there?) Seems it was time for Ford to experience a spiritual cleansing in Monument Valley again and make another western; and just like with Stagecoach, this one would be based on another rip-snorting, serialized adventure culled from The Saturday Evening Post called The Avenging Texans -- later published as novel under the title, The Searchers

Loosely based on a true incident that occurred in 1836, where a young Texican girl named Cynthia Ann Parker was abducted by Comanches, who slaughtered most of her family, and the seemingly endless, decades-long pursuit by her uncle, James Parker, to find his niece and bring her home, Alan LeMay's novel was a tight, intense, no-nonsense read from beginning to end. It seemed a perfect fit for Ford's sensibilities as a filmmaker; and so, he and Nugent didn't change a whole lot. Well, they didn't and the did. For, while the basic thrust of the story remains the same, the perspective has shifted from young Martin Pauley and his journey to manhood to Ethan Edward's rancorous bloodlust. This was a John Wayne movie after all. And while Selznick was right to worry about Wayne's box-office draw in 1939, the Duke was now the star attraction -- not Ford, which I'm sure kinda rubbed his director and mentor a bit raw. 

And with this shift in perspective, I think there's another drastic paradigm shift, too, that a lot of people overlook or don't give enough credence to. See, to me, the film version of The Searchers is less to do with searching for Debbie and more to do with avenging Martha Edwards. In the novel, the attraction between Amos (changed to Ethan for the film) appears to be one-sided in that no one can figure out why he keeps coming back to his brother's homestead. The answer is an obsession that borders on stalking, in a biblical coveting sense. In the film, however, these feelings are definitely mutual between Ethan and Martha and it goes way beyond clandestine wistful looks at an old coat. 

It's no accident that Ford had composer Max Steiner use the Civil War ballad, Lorena, as Martha's theme; a woeful lament of separation, forbidden love, and the passing of time which refuses to heal two wounded hearts. ("We loved each other then, Lorena, Far more than we ever dared to tell; And what we might have been, Lorena, Had but our loving prospered well..." ) And so, this is less of a search and more of a reckoning, which is why I think this is the most powerful series of images from a film full of powerful images. 

"Injun'll chase a thing till he thinks he's chased it enough. Then he quits," says Ethan. "Same way when he runs. Seems like he never learns there's such a thing as a critter that'll just keep comin' on. So we'll find 'em in the end, I promise you. We'll find 'em, just as sure as the turnin' of the Earth." Notice how Ethan never refers to Debbie but 'them.' Debbie is nothing but a signpost, a means to an end, to lead Ethan to Scar and his brood. And once found, Ethan will wipe out everything, including his niece. Another interesting point from the novel, as the Comanches gather to wipe out his family, Aaron Edwards laments how he is only one man short from successfully defending his home, built like a fort to withstand just such an attack. Normally, Martin Pauley would've been there only they've been suckered out. I'm sure both Martin and Ethan are acutely aware of this fact as well, which adds a whole 'nother layer of survivor's guilt to these proceedings. 

One should also note another subtle clue Ford dangles briefly before us. When Debbie hides in the family plot, notice the tombstone she crouches beside: Mary Jane Edwards, Ethan and Aaron's mother, killed by Comanches on May 12, 1852. We also see half of another tombstone. Was this their father? Also killed by Comanches? Others have noted that perhaps Debbie is Ethan's illegitimate child. I don't think the math quite works for that and, I mean, holy crap, as if things weren't emotionally charged enough. 

Martin has all these clues but can't quite make the connection between Ethan and his aunt Martha. He cannot understand Ethan's seething pathological hatred for the Comanche. In the novel, he collects scalps and stomps them into the dirt; in the film he defiles graves, fires on the wounded, and even goes so far as to destroy their food source. Martin can't quite comprehend this, but he is terrified of it. And as the years drag on, and Debbie comes of age, Martin also knows he is the only thing standing between Ethan and his, well, 'compromised' half-sister when they do find her. 

This overt racism has drawn ire from some circles. And rightly so. Even Martin crosses the line with his accidental wife, Look, maliciously kicking her down the hill -- though I honestly think in this instance it has less to do with her race and more to do with her girth. Either way, this is a comical misfire on Ford's part. But is that pure hatred and disgust we see in Ethan's eyes as the camera dollies in while he surveys the irrevocably damaged captives, who've been tortured and brutalized, where liberation only equals ostracization and to be branded forever as damaged goods? 

Or is that fear? Tainted with the weight of remorse for what he's lost, his failure to protect it, and for what he feels he must do to make up for it. What he feels is the right thing to do. A mercy killing. One cannot condone this kind of blanket hatred, but when narrowed down to the perpetrators, one can almost understand it. 

This same wary and weary look is repeated later on, after they've finally found Debbie and old Mose reveals where Scar's encampment is located. Time is running out, and Ethan will have his vengeance but in doing so he will also have to wipe the last traces of his beloved Martha off the face of the turnin' Earth. 

Is it any wonder, then, that when the final battle is over, and Ethan is robbed of his revenge by Martin, who killed Scar while trying to secret Debbie out of his teepee, when he runs the girl down, seizes her, takes a hard look, and then hesitates.

Has it been long enough? Has Debbie aged enough? Is that Martha he sees now? In Nugents shooting script, Ethan comments that she sure favors her mother, which kind of gives credence to my whole theory. Ford, however, thought this was all too obvious and re-shot the whole climatic sequence in Bronson Canyon, utilizing one of the most familiar caves in screen history, where he echoes back to the beginning of the film and Ethan's scorched earth policy is aborted. 

In the novel, Amos/Ethan hesitates before he realizes he's grabbed the wrong girl and is killed. In the film, Ethan hesitates and everyone lives. 

Achievement unlocked, move to next level of status quo.

It's often argued that Ethan and Scar are two sides of the same coin. Again, I don't think this goes far enough and the whole movie is two sides of the same coin. If you find the center of The Searchers and essentially fold the film in half, it's kind of amazing how much one side mirrors the other:

I believe it was Orson Welles who said Howard Hawks was like reading great prose while Ford was pure poetry. And here, his verses even rhyme! 

I've always felt you could take John Ford out of silent films but you can't take the silent film out of John Ford. The director had little patience for exposition and liked to distill all the dialogue down to the barest of necessities. He was using a whole different cinematic language, where nuance, staging, and simple gestures told the story. This 'show don't tell' approach is deceptively simple but it isn't easy. For if it was, everyone would be doing it. Some tried, and still try, few succeed. 

Ford and his cinematographer, Winton Hoch, were definitely on top of their game in The Searchers; with Ford's usual minimal cinematic strokes resulting in something so organically complex in its simplicity. (The sequence of Martin's letter to Laurie to compress the story is nothing short of brilliant.) All of his personal quirks and eccentricities are present and accounted for, too, amped up to about an 11. (A strong sense of family or communal spirit, blunt comedy relief, and a rousing hootenanny.) The oft neglected art major in me loves how the horizon line is seldom even and hardly ever splits the screen in two. And how he enhances the vanishing point in his compositions. And I love the deliberate and minimal moves by the camera, which gives those dollies and zooms on Lucy and Ethan such impact. Hell, one could go on and on about each frame or set-up individually if you wanted to take the time. I mean, just look: 

And I, for one, really dug the reoccurring motif of the doorway to frame the shot, giving us a keyhole view of the west. 

And when a doorway wasn't present, Ford made do with whatever was available. 

And on top of all these visual triumphs, it really is quite amazing what we DON'T get to see in The Searchers. (Finding Lucy's body, Brad's death.) The implication is bad enough. Still, the film is not completely flawless. One cannot help but notice the Indian found in the grave is still breathing. And the physics of Ethan taking his horse inside Scar's teepee don't quite compute. And then there's the infamous shot of the cavalry crossing the frozen river and the car visibly puttering along in the background. 

It could have even been worse than that, folks. Again, Ford had little patience for a producer's dickering. And despite Cooper's best efforts to run interference, C.V. Whitney kept showing up on location and butting in, insisting Ford make the film more patriotic, or expand it into part one of a planned three part historical documentary about the conquest of the west. And most hilariously of all, Whitney wanted a musical number added for one of his *ahem* 'discoveries', eye-balling the role of the dancer in the Mexican cantina. Luckily, all of these mandated additions were summarily ignored. And though they didn't change a lot Ford and Nugent did stray from LeMay's novel on a couple of points. As already mentioned, Ethan is killed during the climax; Laurie finally gives up on Martin and winds up marrying Charlie McCorry; and Martin winds up with Debbie and they take over the old Edwards homestead together as the tale ends. 

In front of the camera, enhancing all of Ford's signature touches, Wayne has seldom been better as he smolders along. I don't think Ford had any intention of killing Ethan like in the novel, again, this was a John Wayne movie after all, but I find it interesting that some of Wayne's best performances are when he did die (Sands of Iwo Jima, The Cowboys) or probably should have (In Harm's Way, and Red River, which is nearly undone by that rock-stupid ending). Matching Wayne scene for scene is Jeffrey Hunter as the slowly maturing Martin, who, after years of abuse, finally stands up to Ethan and has earned enough respect that Ethan backs down and allows him to sneak into Scar's encampment. (Ford had wanted Fess Parker for the role but Walt Disney wouldn't loan him out.) Also special shout-outs to Ford regulars Ward Bond as the boisterous frontier prophet, and especially, to Hank Worden as the goofy-as-hell and rocking chair obsessed Mose, who nearly steals the whole movie. I'm even beginning to soften up on Ken Curtis' hick accent and Henry Brandon has slowly evolved from a liability to menacingly convincing as Scar. And then there's the women, the backbone of all of Ford's productions: Dorothy Jordan, Olive Carey, Vera Miles and the Wood sisters all shine.  

As I wrap this up, I must also point out that Ford and Monument Valley were tailor made for VistaVision; a new film process that allowed an incredible depth of focus that never quite caught on and got buried by CinemaScope. And as good as the BluRay transfer looks, one can only boggle as to what The Searchers must have looked like on the big screen when it first came out in 1956. Wow.

A lot of films sacrifice substance for style or vice versa. With The Searchers, the audience gets to have some cake and eat it, too. Somewhat stupefyingly, even though it did modestly well at the box-office, The Searchers caused nary a ripple at the Academy Awards, garnering not one single nomination. But the years since have been kind to the film and it has been recognized as one of the greatest examples of cinematic art. It's far from perfect, but these cracks enhance more than detract. But don't take my word for it -- or Speilberg's, or Scorcese's, or Welles', or Truffaut's, or Lean's, or Bergman's, or Kurosawa's -- the preponderance of evidence Ford presents on the screen pretty much speaks for itself. 

Sources: The Searchers: The Making of American Legend (Glenn Frankel). John Wayne: American (Randy Roberts, James Olson). Print the Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford (Scott Eyman). 

This post is part of Krell Labs and Bemused and Nonplussed's John Ford Blogathon: a week long tribute to the legendary filmmaker. Thanks to our gracious hosts for providing this forum and for casting out such a wide net for participants. Now, if you'd be so kind, follow the linkage provided and check out all the other great entries, please and thank you!

The Searchers (1956) C.V. Whitney Pictures :: Warner Bros. / EP: Merian C. Cooper / AP: Patrick Ford / D: John Ford / W: Frank S. Nugent, Alan Le May / C: Winton C. Hoch / E: Jack Murray / S: John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles, Ward Bond, Natalie Wood, Ken Curtis, Harry Carey Jr., Hank Worden, Henry Brandon
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