DT Moviehouse Review: Bad Company

Time once more for my blog feature, DT Moviehouse Reviews, in which I make my way alphabetically through my 200+ DVD/Blu-Ray collection (you can see the list right here) and decide if each one was worth the money. Appropriately enough for the first movie review of the new year, I take a look at the first western of the list, Bad Company.

(1972) Directed By Robert Benton

Screenply by Robert Benton and David Newman

Tagline: They’re young, desperate, dangerous….a long way from home, but a short way from hell.

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What It’s About:
During the American Civil War, young Drew Dixon (Barry Brown) flees home with a hundred dollars and heads to the western frontier to avoid conscription in the Union Army. He winds up falling in with a group of like minded orphans led by charming and swift talking young con man Jake Rumsey (Jeff Bridges). Drew cons the ‘gang’ into thinking he robbed a hardware store and dips into his money to outfit them all with horses and supplies for their joint excursion. Times are hard, and after being robbed by a band of outlaws, the boys turn to crime themselves to survive, schooling each other on honesty and loyalty along the trail.

Why I Bought It:
I’m a big fan of Jeff Bridges and the so-called revisionist or acid westerns of the 1960’s and 70’s (like Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid, The Hired Hand, and Dirty Little Billy), and actually bought this movie sight unseen after seeing a couple stills and reading a synopsis. This gambit almost never plays out for me, but this time it did.

Bad_Company-1972-084The movie is very minimalist, with an almost cinema verite approach (in the same vein as The Culpepper Cattle Company and The Ballad Of Gregorio Cortez – see my post The Reel Real West – Seven Gritty Westerns You’ve Never Seen). It’s very diffuse, almost sepia toned like an old photograph, and everything, the acting, the admittedly meandering plot, and the sudden and extreme violence, is very realistic.

There is a scene I love where the boys surprise a rabbit on the prairie and all open fire on it. After running through a virtual firing squad of misses, one of the bullets finally blows the rabbit open, and when Jake commands the youngest of their number to skin the animal, he quickly finds out to his vociferous exasperation that none of them knows how to clean a carcass. He proceeds to show them, and from his readily apparent disgust, it seems he hasn’t ever done it either. Although the skinning of the rabbit is just offscreen, I can’t believe by Bridges’ reactions that he’s not actually cleaning the kill. He’s too young an actor at that point to be able to portray honest revulsion so well.

Bad_Company-1972-058The interactions between Brown and Bridges are the highpoint of the movie, with Brown a pampered, well educated, cowardly hypocrite, espousing high virtues at every turn (refusing to actually rob a store, refusing to avail himself of the services of a prostitute etc) and yet every bit the con man Bridges’ character is, and plainly less honest (maybe even, for all Jake’s worldly bluster, a little less naive) and loyal. Bad_Company-1972-061The movie is a morality tale of sorts, about going bad and yet also about retaining personal honor. Brown’s character allows the rest of the gang to go hungry even though he has nearly a hundred dollars hidden in his shoe the entire time. At one point this actually costs one of the boys’ their lives when they try to snatch a cooling pie off the sill of an open window and the resident shoots them dead.

P1030135 (Medium)Young Joshua Hill Lewis does a good job as Boog, the aforementioned boy. There’s a scene where Brown is reading Jane Eyre to the gang and Boog interrupts with a breathless story about his murdered father that plays very nicely.

The movie has a host of familiar faces in great ‘character’ roles. David Huddleston is excellent as outlaw chief Big Joe as are Geoffrey Lewis and John Quade as raggedy gunmen. John Savage plays one of the gang, and Jim Davis (a Republic western veteran who appears in my all time favorite Kung Fu episode, The Soul Is The Warrior) is a severe, authoritarian marshal.

Bad_Company-1972-109As a western nerd, there are some anachronisms I feel the need to point out. If it’s the 1860’s during the Civil War, it’s maybe eight or ten years before cartridge ammunition and revolvers, but they’re prevalently used here. In a great scene after the capture of Big Joe, the lawmen ask him to demonstrate the ‘Curly Bill Spin,’ a gun trick which he claims to have taught to Curly Bill personally. The Curly Bill Spin (variations of it are shown in Tombstone, Wyatt Earp, Young Guns, and The Outlaw Josey Wales) was when you passed your gun to a man butt first but kept your finger in the trigger guard so as the man reached for it, you flipped it up (or spun it up) into your palm, cocking the hammer and gaining a surprise advantage. It was once known as the Road Agent Spin or Border Roll, but Curly Bill’s name got attached to it because he supposedly employed it to gun down Tombstone Town Marshal Fred White in 1880. Again, nearly two decades after Bad Company would’ve taken place.

Bad_Company-1972-048Paul Rodgers of the band Bad Company did not take its name from this movie as I had always heard, but their hit song does (“rebel souls, deserters we are called, chose a gun, and threw away the sun”), and actually shares the introductory three chords with the movie’s score.

The movie ends somewhat abruptly, but it’s a great character piece and a fine study on the harsh realities of the outlaw trail and making a living as a scavenger and badman.

Best bit of Dialogue: (Drew, writing home to his family) I shot and ate a skunk today. Taste didn’t enter much into it.

Best Scene:
Bad_Company-1972-047The wild and clumsy shootout and the character revelations concerning Drew’s watch are pretty great, but the scene that sticks out in my mind is when the boys encounter a broken down farmer and his wife headed back east with a wagonload of possessions. The farmer tries to warn the boys that there’s nothing but trials and tribulations on the frontier, and winds up offering to let them have sex with his wife for ten dollars. Jake readily accepts and helps the woman down, walking off with her arm in arm into the grass as the husband rolls a cigarette and the other boys argue about what order they will follow Jake in. Not ten seconds pass when Jake lets out a boisterous crowing and a yahoo and comes stiff-walking quickly back, a huge grin on his face, fastening his belt.

He climbs into the saddle of his horse and declares –

P1030136 (Medium)JAKE: THAT was a deal!
The bewildered farmer, who hasn’t even lit his cigarette yet, stares open mouthed as Jake mounts.
FARMER: Are you done already?
JAKE: I do not waste my time, mister. After that ride I gave her, I expect she’ll be too tuckered out for the rest of you boys.

The goofy expression of pride and self satisfaction on Bridges’ face is just priceless. Funny, and at the same time, in the context of the scene with the farmer’s initial warnings, heartbreakingly naive and portentious.

Would I Buy It Again: Yes. Great movie.

Up Next In The Queue: The Beast Must Die

DT Moviehouse Reviews: Alien

Continuing my infrequent blog feature, DT Moviehouse Reviews, in which I slog my way alphabetically through my 200+ DVD/Blu-Ray collection (you can see the list right here) and decide if each one was worth the money, here’s my take on the movie that kicked off the Aliens franchise, Alien (coincidentally just in time for the release of this movie’s supposed prequel, the much-anticipated Prometheus).

(1979) Directed by Ridley Scott, Screenplay by Dan O’Bannon, Story by Ronald Shusett

Tagline: In space, no one can hear you scream.

What it’s about:

Sometime in the far future the crew of the Nostromo, a deep space commercial towing vessel, awakens from their months long sleep to respond to a signal beacon on a nearby uncharted planet. Three of the crew members, Captain Dallas (Tom Skerrit), Lambert (Veronica Cartwright), and Kane (John Hurt) explore the source of the mechanical beacon, an alien spacecraft with a dead extra terrestrial pilot (the mysterious space jockey purported to be the basis of the new movie Prometheus) and a payload of eggs. A creature hatches from one of the eggs and attaches itself to Kane’s face, impregnating him with a savage predatory organism which gestates and then bursts from his chest, stalking the crew among the labrynthine corridors of the monolothic starship.

Why I bought it:

This is a seminal work of science fiction horror. I only saw stills and commercials of this movie as a kid in the seventies and it haunted me into young adulthood. How can a green glowing hen’s egg conjure such dread in a kid? Maybe it was the eerie music by Jerry Goldsmith in the commercials. I actually saw the sequel, James Cameron’s Aliens before I finally saw Alien, and for years I preferred it. I actually only saw Alien to enrich my ribald love of Aliens (and I read the Alan Dean Foster novelization before I even saw it). Now….well, I’m not sure. That’s a question to ask in answer in the next review, which is of that movie.

If there is such a thing as science fiction cinema verite, it’s Alien. The bizarre, unsavory subject matter is right out of an EC horror comic, but the movie works because it’s somehow entirely realistic and believable. The characters (played by an ensemble of extremely naturalistic and talented actors, all in their prime, all deserving a mention – Sigourney Weaver -in a star making debut- Harry Dean Stanton, Yaphet Koto, Veronica Cartwright and Ian Holm) mumble and engage in crosstalk, bitch about un-cinematic things like finder’s fees and payroll shares, and so look genuinely hysterical when one of their own suddenly keels over at dinner and expels a slithering toothy horror from his broken, bloody chest cavity (There’s an oft-repeated rumor that Veronica Cartwright had no idea the creature was gonna pop out – this isn’t entirely true. Obviously John Hurt is not actually laying on the table at the time of the burst, so you know there was a lot of FX set up – but the actors apparently weren’t warned about blood squibs going off and when Cartwright gets sprayed with fake blood, she apparently really did have a conniption).  This is the only sci-fi movie I can think of where I’m drawn into a secure lull. Except for a few interjections of Goldsmith’s superb score (I can’t think of a good way to describe it – somehow ‘non-orchestral’), it’s actually like The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez in that I don’t remember I’m watching a movie in the first half.

The FX and set design are made to compliment the performances, not perform themselves. Everything, though insanely complex (the coolant room in which Harry Dean Stanton’s character is killed looks like some kind of mechanical alien cathedral, or a room in Harlan Ellison’s ‘Martian Pyramid’), looks entirely lived in and functional, and no set piece ever really intrudes on the action.

Brilliant acting and set design (and music) aside, the central piece of Alien is the xenomorph itself, designed by H.R. Geiger. The thing is indescribable. Part carpenter ant, part beetle, part lizard, part sexualized human skeleton. And it changes in subtle ways every time we see it. It’s horrific reproductive cycle speaks directly to the innate male discomfort with the human reproductive process itself (or at least, to mine anyway), and then perverts it to the extreme, rendering an instantly unforgettable image in the mind.

The scenes where the crew alternately hunts and flees from the growing creature in the dark bowels of this immense ship are methodical and claustrophobic, slowly building the tension to deliver maximum fright when something does happen. Perfectly directed. This may be the last hurrah of seventies cinema.

Also of note is the performance by Sigourney Weaver as of one of moviedom’s most believable action heroines, Ellen Ripley. She’s not quite the ass kicker she is in Aliens here, but by the end of the movie she’s well on the road. She’s already a bit of a ball cracker, and it’s cool that the script has the daring to make her not entirely likable. Stanton and Kotto’s affable engineers don’t much care for her, and at first audience sympathy naturally sways against her. She’s the one who wants to play by the book and keep the infected Kane off the ship, despite it coming off as inhumane. Ian Holm’s Science Officer Ash instead lets him in, but it becomes obvious that he wasn’t motivated by his humanity…in a shocking later scene in which Ripley discovers he’s endangered them all on orders from the shadowy ‘company,’ we find he doesn’t have any to speak of.

As a matter of fact, it’s at that point that sympathies really start to swing toward Ripley as a character and as the heroine of the movie. Her percieved cold bitch facade drops tearfully in the face of Ash’s uncrupulous android. I love Holm’s detached creepiness. He comes across as out of touch with everybody else, possibly due to the nature of his job, or perhaps due to some social or scholarly standing (noticeably, he’s the only Brit aboard). There’s a great aside right after the alien kills Kane where Ash refers to it as ‘Kane’s son.’

Then at last there’s the famous fakeout ending, which supposedly duped a lot of overeager-to-beat-the-parking-lot-traffic movie watchers into missing the real climax. It’s possible Alien singlehandedly created a generation of moveigoers who sit through the end credits….just to be sure.

I’ve seen both the theatrical version and the director’s cut of this movie. Scott prefers the original. I guess I do too, but it’s interesting to see Ripley’s discovery of the cocooned Dallas, and I don’t know who Veronica Cartwright pissed off, but every single scene that gives her mainly shrill and panicky character depth wound up on the cutting room floor, so it’s worth watching to see Lambert shine.

Best bit of dialogue:

This is a tough one. As I said, the dialogue is so natural it’s hard to pick out any real Hollywood lines. I guess the closest is in the scene immediately after the decapitation of the company android Ash.  Parker wires up his paste and lubricant covered head on the table top, and the reanimate but harmless Ash answers a few questions about the nature of their mission and what he knows about the alien. He admits to deliberately seeking to impregnate the crew and deliver the specimen to the company, and even allows that he ‘admires it’s purity.’

He winds up the revelations with –

‘I can’t lie to you about your chances…but you have my sympathies.’

‘He’s a robot! Ash is a goddamn robot!’

And then a ghoulishly patronizing grin spreads across his face and Parker knocks loose his power source and torches the synthetic flesh off his artificial skull.

Best scene:

‘Nuff said.`

Would I buy it again? Yes

Next up in the queue: Aliens

The Real Reel West – Seven Gritty Westerns You’ve Probably Never Seen

I am an immense western fan. I remember watching The Lone Ranger and The Cisco Kid as a kid on Sundays, but moved away from the genre for a long time. Like most people do nowadays, I just thought it was a dead end, with nothing to offer me, just white hats/black hats and Indian stomping. When I was in high school I got on a Dirty Harry kick, and that led me to The Good The Bad and The Ugly, which changed the way I saw westerns forever, and in turn led me to re-evaluating John Wayne, and even Roy Rogers. I finally found Louis L’Amour, Larry McMurtry, and Cormac McCarthy.

I can safely say that now I’m an avowed fan of all things western. I rabidly absorb any movies I haven’t seen, usually thanks to the wonders of Netflix Instant.

In recent years I’ve come across a bevvy of pictures I had never even heard of.  I believe they’re a part of the cinema verite movement that hit in the 70’s, in which you see a lot of naturalistic lighting and set ups, meant to evoke a more realistic experience in movie watching. I’ve heard them called ‘acid westerns,’ intended to subvert the sort of top shelf Randolph Scott/John Wayne kind of vehicle, but I don’t entirely agree with that appellation – at least not for all of these.

I thought seven was a nice ”magnificent’ number to list the best I’ve seen of this particular style. I’m sure I’m leaving some out (Buck And The Preacher comes to mind, late in the game). While not always historically accurate, they ‘feel’ pretty dang real. So if you’re interested at all in The Old West, and you’re looking for a movie that does a pretty decent job capturing what it must’ve been like without the Hollywood gloss (and I’m talking hardcore here – ‘Unforgiven’ seems like a Busby Berkely musical compared to the movies on this list), you could do a lot worse than these pictures…

1. Bad Company (1972) – Supposedly Paul Rodgers took the name of his band from this movie, which is my favorite of this bunch. Starring Jeff Bridges and Barry Brown (and including some familiar faces – Geoffrey Lewis, John Savage, David Huddleston) as a pair of teens dodging the Civil War draft and heading out West with a gang of orphans who wind up outlaws. The movie’s pretty stark and realistic, almost without musical accompaniment. It’s basically about the loss of innocence or the attainment of maturity (which is pretty much the same thing). It’s got a couple of anachronisms (cartridge revolvers and mention of the Curly Bill spin in the 1860’s), but it’s quite authentic. I would swear Jeff Bridges skins a real rabbit just offscreen (otherwise he’s an even better actor than I thought). Bridges is brilliant as Jake, the b.s.’er who is out-b.s.’ed by Barry Brown’s Drew, who provides the movie’s infrequent narration in the form of letters home to his mother (which I think are never sent). The cast is winsome, the story engaging, the violence (some of it involving children) at times soberingly brutal. A great western, readily available on DVD. Check it out.

The ubiqitous Geoffrey Lewis (here, in High Plains Drifter) – you know the face, if not the name.

2. The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez (1982) – Edward James Olmos stars as the titular character, who is embroiled in a revenge killing and becomes the fugitive in a massive manhunt in 1901 Texas, all due to a mistranslation of Spanish. An engrossing tragedy. You’ll forget you’re watching a narrative.

3. The Culpepper Cattle Company (1972) – Gary Grimes leaves the family farm and his could-care-less mother to sign on with a cattle drive bossed by Billy Green Bush, and quickly finds the life of a cowboy is a lot of hard work and drudgery, even though he’s nothing more than the cook’s assistant. When Grimes’ frequent screw ups result in the loss of some horses to rustlers, Mr. Culpepper enlists the aide of some old friends of questionable morality (including again, the great unsung Geoffrey Lewis) to help out. When they come across a religious sect being bullied off their ‘chosen land’ by a local land baron, a bloody climax is in the works. Bo Hopkins is particularly good as one of Lewis’ gunfighter cronies.

4. Dirty Little Billy (1972) –

I particularly like this poster.

Michael J. Pollard stars as Billy Bonney in this realistic (and amazingly muddy) picture loosely based around the early years of Billy The Kid, prior to his departure for the Southwest. Pollard plays Billy as a bit of a bumbler, who leaves an abusive stepfather to basically live in the back room of a ratty saloon with a gunfighter and his prostitute. Slow paced, but enthralling. When Billy finally picks up a gun, it’s like seeing ‘Wart’ draw the sword from the stone.

5. Harry Tracy (1982) – I just watched this one last night, and it got me thinking about others of its ilk. Bruce Dern (who, if you remember, famously killed the Duke in ‘The Cowboys’) gives a great performance as real-life Pacific Northwest bank robber and former Hole-In-The-Wall-er who in the opening sequence literally collides with Helen Shaver while on the run from Gordon Lightfoot (yes, the singer)’s posse of US Marshals. The two hit it off in the brief moments they’re together, and he promises to visit her later (in Seattle, I believe). Numerous robberies and escapes later, he and his partner arrive at last in town to seek her out, but are double and triple crossed by a conniving lawyer with political aspirations and wind up incarcerated. But then they escape…fairly slow, but engaging and nice to look at. Dern made the movie for me, and it had a good ending.

6. The Spikes Gang (1974) – Ron Howard, Gary Grimes (again), and Charles Martin Smith (who, amusingly, appears in Culpepper Cattle Company as a friend of Grimes who does not leave home) leave the boredom of their respective farms with a mind to make themselves notorious after they hide a wounded outlaw named Harry Spikes (the incomparable Lee Marvin) in Howard’s barn.

Lee Marvin gives The Spikes Gang a vital lesson.

They seek out and find trouble pretty quickly, and run into Spikes again, who agrees to take them under his wing.  Gunplay and ultimately betrayal ensues. Great flick.

7. The Hired Hand (1971) – I guesss if there really is an ‘acid western’ on this list, this is probably it. Peter Fonda’s follow-up to ‘Easy Rider’ stars himself and the always entertaining Warren Oates as a pair of saddle tramp cowboys who along with a third, stop off in a nowhere town to plan their next outing. When their friend is brutally murdered by a bunch of outlaws led by the settlement’s boss, Fonda and Oates shoot the boss’ legs up and depart, heading to the ranch of Fonda’s long estranged wife, Verna Bloom. Basically a romance, The Hired Hand depicts Fonda and Oates working the ranch, while Fonda and Bloom gradually become more comfortable with each other again. Of course, by that time, the boss of the town and his gang show up and kidnap Oates….this is a beautiful piece of art and a good western to boot. Amazing cinematography.

Warren Oates and Peter Fonda in ‘The Hired Hand.’

Michael J. Pollard as Billy Bonney in ‘Dirty Little Billy’

Edward James Olmos in ‘The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez’