Firecreek (1968)

1968-firecreekIn a career spanning 6 decades, Henry Fonda became synonymous with heroic lead characters who always fought for what was right, fighting for the underdog, and often doing it at his own expense. And then he wasn’t! In 1968, he took 2 villain roles in westerns, one that’s a classic and pretty well-known, Once Upon a Time in the West, and the other a far lesser-known but still quality western, 1968’s Firecreek.

In the tiny, isolated town of Firecreek, farmer Johnny Cobb (James Stewart) lives with his wife and their 2 boys. His wife is also expecting their third child. Johnny doubles as the town sheriff, but the town doesn’t necessarily need him to do much as he quietly earns (sometimes) his $2 a month. The peaceful, even boring town is about to get some excitement though. A gunfighter, Bob Larkin (Fonda), and his gang of four fellow gunslingers have ridden into town. They don’t start off causing any trouble at first, but that quickly changes. Basically on his own, Cobb must decide what to do. Where’s his line? How far should he let these men push before he pushes back? Whatever his decision, the townspeople are scared to death of any possible repercussions, leaving Johnny seemingly on his own.

The obvious comparison for this 1968 western from director Vincent McEveety is the classic 1952 western High Noon. The basic connection is obvious, a small-town sheriff forced to defend his town on his own against a gang of bandits. The basic premise is there, but 16 years later, things had changed in the western genre. Stories were nastier, more adult, more violent and for lack of a better description…more uncomfortable. This is an excellent western, but it isn’t necessarily an enjoyable western. It’s not fun, it’s not exciting. Instead, it’s nerve-wracking, the tension building all the time to a tough but ultimately highly memorable finale.

It’s hard to beat a pairing of two Hollywood legends like Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda. They co-starred in 1962’s How the West Was Won but didn’t have any scenes together, so this was the first pairing for the iconic pair. They would co-star 2 years later in another solid western, The Cheyenne Social Club. Here in Firecreek, they don’t share a ton of screentime, but what’s there is prime.

Where ‘Firecreek’ succeeds so well is as a character study of Johnny Cobb and Bob Larkin. Neither man is truly content with his life. Cobb begins to realize as much as he loves his family, he made an unconscious decision years before to simply…settle and not challenge himself. He’s capable, strong-willed and patient, well-respected by the small population of the town. Fonda’s Larkin is a gunfighter, pure and simple, but not necessarily a bad one. He’s a self-proclaimed leader of men, always riding out front into the dirtiest, hairiest jobs. When things take a turn for the worse, Larkin wants to see how far he can push, even though he might not agree with his men’s actions. Rock and a hard place, but something has to give. Memorable performances from two Hollywood legends.

In creepy supporting parts look for Gary Lockwood, Jack Elam, James Best and Morgan Woodward as Larkin’s gang. Lockwood is especially memorable as a possibly unhinged gunslinger, Earl, with Elam and Best also making the most of supporting parts. Inger Stevens plays Evelyn, a widow who’s basically hiding in Firecreek, wasting her life away. Robert Porter plays Arthur, a simple-minded stable boy who idolizes Johnny, with Dean Jagger, Jay C. Flippen and John Qualen as some of the townspeople. Ed Begley is a fire-and-brimstone traveling preacher. Barbara Luna plays Meli, an Indian woman with a half-breed son (oh, scandalous backstory) with Brooke Bundy playing Leah, a teenage girl oblivious to the gang’s intentions and Jacqueline Scott as Cobb’s wife. Good supporting cast all-around.

Clocking in at 106 minutes, ‘Firecreek’ takes place in a little over a 24-hour period. The story is set almost entirely in the small town with a couple ventures out into the country, giving it an almost theatrical feel. The town – small, dusty and depressing – becomes a key character in itself. Even as the gang rides in, there’s a sense of doom hanging in the air. What’s gonna happen? Who’s gonna light the match of this powder keg? That’s where the uncomfortable qualities take off from. ‘High Noon’ was a nerve-wracking final product, but there’s an added, harsher edge here because we’ve gotten to see the depths the gang has gone to.

There’s little in the way of action for the first 90 minutes, but then with one shocking reveal in the third act, things take off like crazy. It’s not a huge gunfight, but instead a cat-and-mouse hunt through the town with some surprising touches of violence. An incredibly tense ending to a lesser-known but high quality western. Definitely should check this one out.

Firecreek (1968): ***/****

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Quigley Down Under (1990)

quigley_down_underWorking regularly since the 1970’s, Tom Selleck has had plenty of success on TV, including Magnum PI, Blue Bloods and the Jesse Stone movies, not to mention recurring roles on several other series. He’s been a staple in the western genre too, especially a handful of memorable TV movies. One of his best though was released theatrically in 1990 and has been a fan favorite ever since, Quigley Down Under.

An American marksman who’s gained a reputation with his modified Sharps rifle, Matthew Quigley (Selleck) is traveling to Australia in search of a job. An Australian rancher, Elliott Marston (Alan Rickman), has searched around the world for the best long-range marksmen for a job, and he thinks he’s found his man in Quigley. The job? It’s not as advertised. Marston is having a problem with the natives with the Aborigines in the area killing his cattle. They’ve learned to avoid his men and their rifles though. In steps Quigley hopefully, picking them off from long-range. Quigley isn’t having it though and is double-crossed by Marston and his men. Along with a crazy woman, Cora (Laura San Giacomo), Quigley is left for dead in the Australian outback. Can they survive? Can they exact revenge on Marston in the process?

I learned something while researching this movie. This 1990 flick from director Simon Wincer (Lonesome Dove) is known as a “neo-western.” It’s far from your typical western, obviously doesn’t take place in America, and is made with almost an entirely Australian cast. Whatever you wanna call it or classify it as, know this. It’s very good. It was filmed on-location in Australia and looks amazing. Wincer pairs again with composer Basil Poledouris again after their success with Lonesome Dove, and the result is a great, memorable score. It sounds part Lonesome Dove, part The Son of Katie Elder. Give it an extended listen HERE.

‘Quigley’ was in the works since the late 1970’s with Steve McQueen (can you imagine that?!?), Clint Eastwood and Harrison Ford all considered for the part. It ultimately went to Selleck, and that’s just fine! Selleck looks like a cowboy. He acts like one. He sounds like one. I love his Quigley character because it is so fish out of water, and you don’t often see that with the archetypal western hero. Usually those stories take place in…well, the American west. He’s got an imposing presence and brings a calming energy to the proceedings. No matter what gets thrown at him — a lot gets thrown at him — Quigley rolls with the punches. He’s a man of his word and expects others to do so too. A great character to lead the way.

Fresh off the immense success of Die Hard, Rickman is a scene-stealer as Marston. If anything, he’s underused. Marston is fascinated by the American west, making himself into a fast draw artist and is like an adoring fan when he meets Quigley. And let’s get right to it. That voice….that voice. I’d listen to the man read the phone book. San Giacomo is good as Crazy Cora, but the character is a little overdone at times. Her backstory is fascinating and her chemistry with Selleck is excellent, but it gets laid on a little thick at times. Some of Marston’s men include Tony Bonner, Jerome Ehlers and a very young Ben Mendelsohn. Chris Haywood plays Ashley-Pitt, a British officer hunting deserters who has a history with Marston.

At 119 minutes, ‘Quigley’ drags a little in the middle portions. It drifts at times, all with an eye of where it needs to get. More of a character study than an action movie, there is more action in the last hour as Quigley and his Sharps rifle go to work on Marston’s empire. With Poledouris’ music, the outback backdrop and Selleck’s star power, there are some moments of pure perfection. The final showdown? A perfect twist that’s delivered in a great fast draw shootout.

Just a good western. Unique but nothing crazy, it’s a must-watch for Selleck and western fans.

Quigley Down Under (1990): ***/****

The Train (1964)

the_train_posterIn the 1960’s, the war movie was king. More appropriately, the huge, epic, big-budget blockbuster with all-star casts. One of the best though? A film that’s equal parts art house and action-adventure with an immaculate style, impressive action sequences and two great lead performances. One of the best war films ever made, it’s 1964’s The Train.

It’s August 1944 and Allied forces are quickly advancing across France. With the liberation of Paris imminent, a German colonel, Von Waldheim (Paul Schofield), makes a drastic call, commandeering hundreds and thousands of historic paintings from countless famous artists/painters. He intends to transport the priceless art into Germany via a guarded train, potentially saving it from its destruction. The French Resistance is aware of Von Waldheim’s plan and intends to save the priceless art. The resistance leader, a railway supervisor named Labiche (Burt Lancaster), questions the value of saving the art, especially with so many lives on the line. He goes along with it though as the resistance all along the train line readies itself to help the cause. Should they though? Are lives worth art?

Despite growing up on a wave of western and war movies, I didn’t see this movie until I was probably 20 or so. Well, I loved it and I still do. It’s an all-timer. What I’ve found so impressive about this World War II film from director John Frankenheimer is that it balances in impeccable fashion an almost art-house style with an action-heavy story featuring some ridiculously cool stunt sequences that were far ahead of their time. As well, it deftly handles its anti-war message without being overbearing, questioning the value of art and culture compared to a person’s life, or sadly, many people’s lives. A classic that while is universally respected and well-reviewed, still doesn’t get its due. One of the best war movies ever.

The question that drives this WWII story is as simple as that…is it worth it to die for a universally renowned painting? Is it worth for many people, many of them innocent? Lancaster’s Labiche is the conscience of that movie in that sense. He’s seen his resistance group dwindle from 18 to just 3 (including himself) over the years. The seemingly never-ending death has worn him down. He sees no value in risking his life — or those around him — to save a painting(s), no matter how famous. Labiche simply wants to survive, to see his friends survive. It’s only when he’s fully pushed into the situation that he commits to helping the cause, to fully stopping the art-loaded train from reaching Germany.

Even though some of his most respected performances are a tad overdone, Burt Lancaster will always be a personal favorite. I like my Lancaster a little more subdued, like here, his Labiche one of his finest performances. It’s fascinating watching the transformation he makes from unwilling participant to ringleader putting his life on the line. It is a quieter performance, a weary man at wits’ end. Beyond the acting though, this is an incredible physical performance. Lancaster runs across the screen, climbing, leaping, sprinting and dominates the screen, handling most of his own stunts. In one scene, he slides down a ladder, lands, sprints, stops on a dime, reverses course and jumps onto a moving train. Oh, it’s all in one unedited, uncut shot. It’s incredible.

Schofield’s Von Waldheim is the counter, an educated, highly intelligent officer who becomes more and more obsessed with accomplishing his mission. Obsessed is the key word, Labiche his constant thorn in his side. He matches Lancaster scene for scene, constantly countering with every roadblock thrown in his way. Also look for Jeanne Moreau as Christine, a hotel owner wavering over whether to help Labiche, Suzanne Flon as the museum curator trying to get help from the resistance, Michel Simon as Papa Boule, a veteran train conductor who sees what’s on the line on the art train, Wolfgang Preiss as Von Waldheim’s very capable second-in-command, Albert Remy and Charles Millot as Labiche’s fellow resistance fighters, Jacques Marin as a station master along the rail line, and Donald O’Brien as a persistent German sergeant.

Filmed on-location in France, ‘Train’ is a joy to watch. Frankenheimer chose to film in black and white, giving his WWII story a stark look, a visual that gets right to the point. He was clearly impacted by the French New Wave movies of the 1950’s and 1960’s, filming ‘Train’ in an incredibly unique visual style. Scenes featuring quick cuts and off-center camera angles are balanced with long, uninterrupted shots from far-off angles. Case in point? A long shot as a train makes its way through a train yard being bombed by Allied bombers. A truly incredible sequence. That’s the whole movie, one impressive scene after another, building to an incredible ending, equal parts moving and uncomfortable. Add a memorable, underplayed score from composer Maurice Jarre, and you’ve got some great pieces for a puzzle.

War message aside (if you choose to ignore it…but DON’T), ‘Train’ is at its heart a cat-and-mouse action movie. Schofield’s Von Waldheim makes a move and Lancaster’s Labiche counters. Lather, rinse and repeat. Who will win in the end? I don’t want to give any spoilers away, but how Labiche and the resistance actually slow down the German effort is executed in a memorable sequence that features some great twists, all of it pointing to how huge the resistance effort is to stop the train. The last 30 minutes especially deliver, Labiche single-handedly trying to stop the train. In an extended sequence on a French hillside with a looping rail line below them, Labiche does anything he can to get the job done. Nerve-wracking is an understatement as these scenes develop. Just go for the ride and try not to get too nervous.

A classic movie, one of the best war films ever made, starting with Lancaster at the top and Frankeheimer delivering an amazing final product. The Train was ahead of its time upon its release and it more than holds up now over 50 years later.

The Train (1964): ****/****