Favourite rock/metal concept albums – Part 5

After a gap of 2 months I’m back to this series covering my favourite concept albums. In Part 4, we were in the year 1992 looking at Extreme’s III Sides To Every Story. Now I’m rolling back to 1988, the same year that Queensrÿche released Operation: Mindcrime, which I covered in Part 3. A few weeks before the Queensrÿche release, British heavy metal giants Iron Maiden dropped their seventh studio album, appropriately titled Seventh Son of a Seventh Son.

Iron Maiden in 1988 (left to right): Adrian Smith (guitar/synthesizer), Dave Murray (guitar), Steve Harris (bass), Bruce Dickinson (vocals), Nicko McBrain (drums)

Band: Iron Maiden

Albums: Seventh Son of a Seventh Son (1988)

Genre: Magic-based folklore

Narrative theme/concept: Songs based on the folklore that the seventh son of a seventh son has special mystical powers

Best songs: Infinite Dreams, Can I Play with Madness, The Evil That Men Do, The Clairvoyant

What makes it special: After trying out guitar synthesizers on Somewhere in Time in 1986, the band took it a step further with the use of keyboard synthesizers (played by guitarist Adrian Smith) and a more melodic approach. However, they didn’t sacrifice any of the classic winning elements of their previous albums, i.e., Bruce Dickinson’s growling vocals, Steve Harris’ galloping bass play and the twin guitar attack from Smith and Dave Murray.

The idea for the album came to bassist Harris after he read fantasy writer Orson Scott Card’s novel Seventh Son in 1987, the first of his highly successful Tales of Alvin Maker series. Unlike many other concept albums, the songs in this album are not overtly connected as part of a narrative sequence. In fact, for the longest time, I wasn’t even aware that this album was a concept album. This absence of a narrative thread is something that Bruce Dickinson admitted to as well in later years.

When I think about my favourite tracks, I realize that they all have impactful or catchy intros…Infinite Dreams starts with a 25-second bluesy and relaxed riff before switching to a switch to a faster bass-driven cadence as the vocal track kicks in; Can I Play with Madness starts with a music-free yell of the song title before the instruments kick in; The Clairvoyant features a powerful bass line intro followed by the chugging guitars that signal a sense of urgency. And as always, the music syncs so well with and enhances Bruce Dickinson’s vocal delivery.

Two of the tracks have really great lyrics for singing along, for example, the verses from Infinite Dreams which are delivered at almost a speaking cadence:-

Suffocation waking in a sweat
Scared to fall asleep again
In case the dream begins again
Someone chasing I cannot move
Standing rigid nightmare’s statue
What a dream when will it end
And will I transcend?

And the much faster-paced chorus from Can I Play With Madness:-

Can I play with madness? The prophet stared at his crystal ball
Can I play with madness? There’s no vision there at all
Can I play with madness? The prophet looked and he laughed at me, ha, he said
Can I play with madness? He said, “you’re blind, too blind to see”
Oh, said, “you’re too blind to see”, mmm

Ironically, the only song I really don’t care that much for is the title track…the repetitive and rather unimaginative singing and chorus really killed the first few minutes of the song for me, to the extent that I rarely stay on for the greater variety that comes in the second half of this 9 minute epic. Ah well, you can’t have everything, I guess!

Great American Westerns – ace directors and star actors hunt in pairs, Part 5

In the final entry of this series, let’s look at a collaboration that brought a strikingly different stylistic approach to the Western and heralded the arrival of a new leading man, just in time to take over from ageing stars like John Wayne and James Stewart. Sergio Leone’s “Spaghetti Westerns” in the mid-60’s made Clint Eastwood the face of the Western for GenX just as John Wayne had been for Baby Boomers. Eastwood then parlayed the success of these Italian-made films to become a one-man global entertainment behemoth over the next half a century, which included some notable Westerns in which he excelled both in front of and behind the camera.

Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood

A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (1966).

After honing his skills for nearly two decades as an assistant director and scriptwriter for Italian “sword-and-sandal” epics such as Sign of the Gladiator, The Last Days of Pompeii and The Colossus of Rhodes (which he also directed), Sergio Leone was ready to try his hand at something new. After he and his filmmaker friends saw Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, he used the story template to write the screenplay for A Fistful of Dollars. At this point, the Italian film industry had just started experimenting with their own version of Hollywood westerns having released a few western comedies in the early 60’s. Leone and his producer friends felt that it would be interesting to take the genre into a grittier and edgier direction, and Kurosawa’s story of a morally ambiguous ronin playing two opposing village factions against each other for his own financial benefit, presented the perfect vehicle to bring this vision to life.

Failing to secure established Hollywood stars for an Italian production, the producers eventually approached Clint Eastwood who was coming off a highly successful run on the TV show Rawhide, but hadn’t had much success in films up to that point. Eastwood was eager to take on a screen persona that was the polar opposite of the his goody-two-shoes TV cowboy Rowdy Yates. The movie redefined everything that the public had come to expect from a Western; the title sequence (by Iginio Lardani), the soundtrack (by Ennio Morricone) and the camerawork (by Massimo Dallamano) were all highly stylized. Eastwood’s nameless lead had a distinctive look, with a permanent stubble, a poncho, a cigar in his mouth and a wide-brimmed, flatter hat (as opposed to the high crown, pinch-front diamond crease hats worn by John Wayne). The only weak link in the movies is the atrocious dubbing into English. Two more films in the series followed in quick succession repeating the winning template, launching Eastwood’s career and also creating the much-talked-about but short-lived “Spaghetti Western” sub-genre.

Clint Eastwood as “the man with no name” from Sergio Leone’s trilogy.

The final film in the trilogy was the most commercially successful. It benefited from the inclusion of American actors Eli Wallach and Lee Van Cleef (he was also in the second film), who along with Eastwood’s “man with no name” created a compelling on-screen dynamic.

The producers had failed to secure the rights from Toho Studios for Yojimbo and so the two parties got bogged down in a lengthy legal dispute before an out-of-court settlement finally paved the way for the release of all three films back-to-back in the US in 1967.

Sergio Leone only directed three more films in his career, which are loosely referred to as the “Once Upon a Time” trilogy. These were the highly acclaimed Western, Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), the unfortunately named, but visually arresting “Zapata Western” Duck You Sucker (1971) and the nearly 4-hour-long crime drama Once Upon a Time in America (1984). These films featured some of the most accomplished actors of their time, including Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, Claudia Cardinale, Rod Steiger, James Coburn, Robert De Niro, James Woods and Joe Pesci.

Clint Eastwood and Clint Eastwood

High Plains Drifter (1973), The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), Pale Rider (1985), Unforgiven (1992).

Armed with his earnings from The Man with No Name trilogy, the doors of Hollywood opened for Eastwood and he proceeded to take control of his cinematic future by setting up Malpaso Productions, and going on to produce and direct a number of his feature films. Studios loved his economical directing style; he would invariably bring his films in ahead of schedule and under budget. After an auspicious directing debut with the psycho-thriller Play Misty for Me, Eastwood returned to the Western genre again as a nameless stranger with High Plains Drifter in 1973, quickly followed by the highly acclaimed and financially successful The Outlaw Josey Wales in 1976.

After nearly a decade during which he directed himself in a wide range of action films, he returned to the Western with Pale Rider in 1985, one of my favourites. Again playing a man with no name, Eastwood dialled up the mythic aura of his character The Preacher, in a film dotted with religious symbolism. It was quite a risky venture for Warner Bros., given the decline of the Western as a genre and the costly failure of Heaven’s Gate in 1980. But Eastwood delivered as usual, with a $40 million domestic box office against a $7 million budget. The film received praise from critics and was even entered into Cannes that year.

And then, as he entered his sixth decade, Eastwood kicked off one of the most remarkably successful runs of any director in the modern era with his revisionist Western, Unforgiven. The film would be nominated for 9 Oscars, including 3 for Eastwood personally as producer, director and actor, of which he would win for Best Picture and Best Director. This extraordinary, engrossing tale attempts to subvert every aspect of the Eastwood’s on-screen cowboy persona. It is effectively the sequel to every one of his man-with-no-name films, answering the question – what happens to a gunslinger if he survives all his fights and settles down with a family and gets old. Is he able to walk away from his violent past forever, or will there always be a yearning for one last fight? And so, he plays Bill Munny, going from the man with no name to a man with a very ordinary, in fact almost laughable name. We are introduced to him many years after his violent past, now living as a (not very capable) hog farmer and single parent trying to raise two kids, a man who has forgotten how to shoot or even get on a horse. Somehow, through the most unlikely circumstances, he is drawn back to violence one last time. But instead of glorifying violence, the film deglamorizes it, not just for the audience but even for the characters. As Bill Munny says at the end, “Its a hell of a thing, killing a man. You take away everything he’s got and everything he’s ever gonna have.”

Filled with an all-star cast of character actors at the top of their game – Morgan Freeman, Gene Hackman, Richard Harris, Jaimz Woolvet (in his feature film debut), Frances Fisher, Saul Rubinek, Anthony James and others – this is as powerful a film as any Eastwood has made in his career, matched perhaps only by 2003’s Mystic River for its deep examination of the choices people make and the impact of those choices on the people around them.

Clint Eastwood as Bill Munny in Unforgiven (1992), directed by Clint Eastwood

And so, we come to the end of this series which I’ve really enjoyed reminiscing, researching and writing. What started out as a chance reading of a New York Times article about the films of Bud Boetticher and Randolph Scott led to a 2 month long discovery (and re-discovery) of some fantastic (and some pedestrian) Westerns from these extraordinary director-actor collaborations.

To close off, here are the other collaborations I covered in this series:

  • Part 1: Randolph Scott’s films with Henry Hathaway, Andre DeToth and Budd Boetticher
  • Part 2: James Stewart’s films with Anthony Mann, John Ford and Andrew V. McLaglen
  • Part 3: John Wayne’s films with George Sherman and John Ford
  • Part 4: John Wayne’s films with Howard Hawks, Henry Hathaway and Andrew V. McLaglen

Great American Westerns – ace directors and star actors hunt in pairs, Part 4

In part 3 of this series on successful director-actor pairings, we took a look at the two early collaborations which set John Wayne on his path to stardom. Now, let’s dive into John Wayne’s work with directors Howard Hawks, Henry Hathaway and Andrew V. McLaglen. These partnerships would yield some of the most financially successful and critically acclaimed films of John Wayne’s career.

Howard Hawks and John Wayne

Red River (1948), Rio Bravo (1959), El Dorado (1966), Rio Lobo (1970)

Howard Hawks was one of the greatest directors from the Golden Age of Hollywood. He directed hit movies for every big star over a 40-year period, including Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Gary Cooper, Lauren Bacall, Humphrey Bogart, Kirk Douglas, Marilyn Monroe and of course, John Wayne.

Wayne first worked with Hawks on the film Red River which was released in the busiest year of his career, 1948, in which he also starred in two films by John Ford (including Fort Apache, the first of the “Cavalry Trilogy”) and in the sea adventure The Wake of the Red Witch. Considered one of the greatest Westerns made, Red River tells the story of the conflict between a ranch owner (John Wayne) and his adopted son (Montgomery Clift) during a 1000 mile cattle drive they undertake along the famous Chisholm Trail from their ranch in southern Texas to the town of Abilene, Kansas. This was only Clift’s second film; the strikingly handsome actor with a brooding screen persona was the perfect foil for John Wayne’s overbearing, larger-than-life character Thomas Dunson. Clift’s debut film The Search had been released just a few months earlier, for which he would receive a Best Actor nomination, the first of 4 in a 26-year career that was impacted by a horrific auto accident in 1956 and tragically cut short by an early death ten years later.

Hawks and Wayne came together more than a decade later for Rio Bravo, in which sheriff John T. Chance (Wayne) must hold off a siege of his jailhouse, assisted by his drunken deputy (played by popular entertainer Dean Martin), a young gunfighter (played by teen heartthrob Ricky Nelson), a cripple (played by acclaimed character actor Walter Brennan) and a female gambler (Angie Dickinson, years before she became TV’s Police Woman). Howard Hawks was a critic of the portrayal of the sheriff in the acclaimed 1952 Western High Noon, and Rio Bravo was his and Wayne’s statement of how they felt a sheriff should act in the face of overwhelming odds.

The Hawks-Wayne collaboration yielded two more Westerns, both essentially remakes of Rio Bravo. El Dorado (1966) is a genuinely entertaining attempt, with Robert Mitchum and a young James Caan taking up the roles of John Wayne’s associates. Rio Lobo (1970), on the other hand is an embarrassment and was a commercial bomb. It was Hawks’ final film as director and frankly the only thing worth noting is that it features one of the earliest screen appearances of former math teacher and model Sherry Lansing, who would go on to become CEO of Paramount Pictures and release some of the studio’s greatest hits like Forrest Gump, Braveheart and James Cameron’s Titanic in the 90’s.

Although not a Western, Hawks and Wayne worked on one other film, one of my favorites, Hatari!. It was released in 1962 with an international cast, including Elsa Martinelli as Wayne’s romantic interest and featured Henry Mancini’s famous “Baby Elephant Walk” tune. In adjusted dollars, three of their films together, Red River, Rio Bravo and Hatari! each made about $250 million at the domestic box office and count as among the highest grossing Westerns of Wayne’s career.

John Wayne and Montgomery Clift in Red River (1948), directed by Howard Hawks

Henry Hathaway and John Wayne

North to Alaska (1960), How the West Was Won (1962), The Sons of Katie Elder (1965), True Grit (1969).

By the time John Wayne appeared in a Henry Hathaway film in 1960, the director was an old hand at Westerns having kick-started his career with actor Randolph Scott in the early 30’s.

Their first partnership North to Alaska, as the name indicates, was technically a “Northern” rather than a Western, but it featured all the standard Western tropes and settings, much as the Anthony Mann-James Stewart Canada-set film The Far Country had five years earlier. This was perhaps the first John Wayne Western to embrace so much broad comedy and it proved reasonably popular and profitable. Hathaway and Wayne worked together soon after in How the West Was Won, but as I mentioned in the James Stewart section of this series, this film had three directors and pretty much every big movie star of the day, so cannot be genuinely considered a one-to-one collaboration. It remains however, the biggest grossing movie of Wayne’s career in adjusted dollars. Their third effort The Sons of Katie Elder repeated the pairing of John Wayne and Dean Martin from Rio Bravo and was a profitable release. John Singleton’s 2005 film Four Brothers starring Mark Wahlberg is a loose remake.

And so in 1969, came the crowning glory of Wayne’s career with his Oscar winning performance as the one-eyed U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn in True Grit. Honestly, I didn’t see anything in his acting that I hadn’t seen before or since and it’s generally believed that the Oscar was effectively a “lifetime achievement award” for an amazing body of work and indeed, his longevity as a top box office draw. Even Wayne was self-effacing when receiving the award and commented “Wow! If I’d known I’d have put the patch on 35 years earlier…”. Wayne appeared in a poorly received and forgettable sequel titled Rooster Cogburn in 1975, but the original film’s legacy was restored by the highly acclaimed Coen Bros. remake in 2010, with Jeff Bridges playing Rooster Cogburn.

Kim Darby and John Wayne in True Grit (1969), directed by Henry Hathaway

Andrew V. McLaglen and John Wayne

McLintock! (1963), The Undefeated (1969), Chisum (1970), Cahill United States Marshal (1973).

Andrew V. McLaglen was the son of veteran actor Victor McLaglen, who had such a memorable Oscar-nominated role in John Ford’s The Quiet Man, starring alongside John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara. The younger McLaglen was primarily a TV director before graduating to the big screen with the Western action-comedy McLintock! in 1963, which reunited Wayne and O’Hara for the first time since The Quiet Man. The film was quite popular and led to three more McLaglen-Wayne partnerships, but with steadily diminishing box office returns. This was not for lack of resources, as all the films were big budget affairs, featuring ensemble casts, lots of extras, lavish outdoor locales and some impressive action set-pieces. The storylines are interesting too, but somehow they are missing that special something in the execution that could have elevated them into the realm of greatness.

All the films were shot in glorious widescreen Technicolor with the first three lensed by William H. Clothier, an expert in filming Westerns, having worked on several since the late 50’s and subsequently contracted by Wayne’s Batjac Productions. His cinematography on The Undefeated in particular is striking, with spectacular scenery shot in the Sierra de Órganos National Park in Mexico and some stirring scenes involving hundreds of horses. This Civil War era Western is the only film in which John Wayne shared the screen with acting legend Rock Hudson.

In the same way that character actor Ward Bond served as an on-screen foil for Wayne in the early part of his career, actor Ben Johnson did so in some of Wayne’s later films. The former stuntman played Wayne’s #2 in both The Undefeated and Chisum. I loved the recurring gag of Johnson’s character James Pepper muttering and complaining under his breath in Chisum, his own unique expression of affection and concern for his boss! A year later, Johnson would win theBest Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance as “Sam the Lion” in the small-town drama The Last Picture Show, highlighted by his poignant lake-side soliloquy which reflected the nostalgia and faded hopes of an entire generation.

By the time the McLaglen-Wayne partnership arrived at its final film in 1973, Cahill, United States Marshal, there was a distinct change in tone, perhaps influenced by Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 film The Wild Bunch. Gone was the characteristic light-hearted joviality of the typical John Wayne film and instead the film has a darker feel to it.

In addition to the four Westerns, the director and star also worked together on Hellfighters, loosely based on the life of American firefighting legend, Red Adair.

As I had mentioned in part 2, McLaglen also directed three Westerns starring James Stewart in the late 60’s, two of which were middling efforts. The director thus had the rare, but questionable privilege of working with two acting legends at the tail end of their careers, when perhaps the scripts didn’t go through the rigor that they should have been subject to, and quality was often equated to big budgets.

John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara in McLintock! (1963), directed by Andrew V. McLaglen

And so, I’ve now touched upon the most prolific and notable collaborations of Golden Age of Westerns involving stars Randolph Scott, James Stewart and John Wayne. Others like Gary Cooper and Glenn Ford were equally prolific in Westerns but didn’t have any long-lasting or memorable partnerships with specific directors. There is one big Hollywood star who emerged as these legends were fading away and is indelibly linked to Westerns through a game-changing collaboration with an Italian director. He will be the focus of my fifth and concluding entry in this series next week.

Great American Westerns – ace directors and star actors hunt in pairs, Part 3

Having covered the Western careers of Randolph Scott and James Stewart, specifically their significant partnerships with directors, it’s time to talk about the biggest cowboy of them all, John Wayne.  

During an acting career spanning half a century and more than 150 films, John Wayne’s personality and mannerisms (that distinctive walk!) came to define the American Western hero. Given his longevity and stature, it’s no surprise that Wayne worked with virtually every A-list director in Hollywood across Westerns, war films, comedies and dramas. His first role as a leading man came in Raoul Walsh’s epic western The Big Trail, which was shot on both 35mm and 70mm (one of the earliest widescreen films, decades before the format caught on), but it wasn’t until he teamed up with director John Ford in Stagecoach (1939) that he broke through. The films that these two giants made together until the early 60’s represent the high-water marks of both their careers. But of course, Wayne had equally rewarding, though less prolific partnerships with other celebrated directors. And in fact, in numerical terms he made more Westerns with directors R.N. Bradbury (13) and George Sherman (8) for Monogram and Republic Pictures in the 30’s then he did with anyone else.

George Sherman and John Wayne

Pals of the Saddle, Overland Stage Raiders, Santa Fe Stampede, Red River Range (all 1938), The Night Riders, Three Texas Steers, Wyoming Outlaw, New Frontier (all 1939), Big Jake (1971)

The Three Mesquiteers was a “Western Cinematic Universe” owned by Republic Pictures which encompassed 51 films produced between 1936 and 1943. These were B-movie “quickies”, usually 55 minutes long, and were very popular in their day. They were based on a series of Western novels by William Colt MacDonald, with stories set in the early to mid 20th century, in which the world of cowboys comes in contact with the contemporary world represented by modern technology (cars, phones, radios) and a growing bureaucracy. All the films featured a trio of good-natured cowboys as the heroes, played by a revolving door of actors. During the peak years of the series in 1938-39 when the films were directed by George Sherman, John Wayne played Stony Brooke, one of the three cowboys. The George Sherman movies are packed with light humor, drama, occasional romance and elaborately staged action scenes. The fresh-faced Wayne with his easy smile and lanky 6’4″ frame came across as a natural leader of the trio and had top billing. These films honed Wayne’s craft and set him up for greater things to come. A good example is Wyoming Outlaw, available on YouTube, which addresses the clash between the emerging laws of the land (coupled with corruption in the local government) and the traditional ways of frontier living. Raymond Hatton, who plays Rusty Joslin, another member of the trio, is a dead ringer for modern day character actor Tim Blake Nelson!

From left: Ray Corrigan (as Tucson Smith), John Wayne (as Stony Brooke) and Raymond Hatton (as Rusty Joslin) are the “Three Mesquiteers” in The Wyoming Outlaw (1939), directed by George Sherman

Sherman continued to direct films for the next three decades and was also the producer for one of John Wayne’s hit films The Comancheros in 1961. John Wayne reunited with George Sherman as director in 1971 for the final feature film of Sherman’s career, Big Jake. In the latter part his career when his name alone could get a movie into production, it was not uncommon for Wayne to ensure the inclusion of favoured cast and crew into his films on a recurring basis. And so, Big Jake featured beloved actress and Wayne’s close friend, Maureen O’Hara playing the title character’s estranged wife (a repeat of Rio Grande and McLintock!). Also on board was Wayne’s son Patrick and Christopher Mitchum (the son of star Robert Mitchum) playing Big Jake’s sons.

John Ford and John Wayne

Stagecoach (1939), Fort Apache (1948), 3 Godfathers (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), Rio Grande (1950), The Searchers (1956), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1961).

There’s not much to be said about this partnership that hasn’t already been written. In the late 1920’s, Wayne appeared as an un-credited extra in half a dozen silent films directed by Ford. Soon after, Ford recommended Wayne to director Raoul Walsh for his first starring role in The Big Trail. Ford eventually got to feature Wayne as a leading man in one of his own films, Stagecoach in 1939. His portrayal of the Ringo Kid captured the imagination of the paying public and Wayne never looked back. His on-screen entrance riding shotgun on a stagecoach as the camera zooms in (and briefly goes out of focus) is one of the all-time famous shots in the history of cinema.

In spite of that success, Ford and Wayne got back together again only about a decade later. They released four films in two years from 1948-50 including the “Cavalry Trilogy” – Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande. These films (along with the ones Wayne did with director Howard Hawks) created the legend of John Wayne and the stereotype of the Western hero. These three are very much my favourites from the Ford-Wayne oeuvre. In Fort Apache, Wayne shares the screen with acting legends Shirley Temple and Henry Fonda, both arguably bigger household names than him at that point. Shirley Temple was 20 years old at the time and this would be among her last big screen appearances. One of my favourite character actors Ward Bond, who appears repeatedly in John Wayne films, has a significant supporting role in this one. Rio Grande paired John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara together for the first time as estranged husband and wife; they would become lifelong friends working together in another four films together, usually repeating the same relationship dynamic on-screen (O’Hara referred to herself as Wayne’s “fighting partner” in an interview). Although not a Western, it’s worth mentioning that this dynamite combination of director Ford and actors Wayne, O’Hara and Bond delivered the charming and delightful Ireland-set film The Quiet Man…it won a Best Director Oscar for John Ford and is a must-see for any John Wayne fan.

The last two films of the Ford-Wayne partnership – The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance – then attempted to tear down the legend of the Western hero with a revisionist approach. After nearly 40 years of making largely formulaic Westerns, it’s understandable that Ford wanted to explore some shades of grey, perhaps even the dark underbelly of the Wild West. John Wayne plays tragic characters in both films. The Searchers is considered a seminal Western film, appearing on multiple lists of the greatest films ever made. Rather than the standard Cowboys vs. Indians narrative, the film attempted to address the issues of racial hatred and the systematic genocide of native Americans. Personally, I found this a difficult movie to watch. Teenage actress Natalie Wood, coming off her Oscar-nominated role in Rebel Without a Cause, plays the 15-year-old version of the little girl whose abduction by Comanches sets off a journey into the heart of darkness for her uncle Ethan Edwards (John Wayne). Also in a prominent role is Jeffrey Hunter, who sci-fi geeks will be familiar with as the actor who portrayed Capt. Christopher Pike in the abandoned pilot episode of Star Trek.

John Wayne in the iconic “doorway” shot from The Searchers (1956), directed by John Ford

In next part of this series, I will cover John Wayne’s collaborations with Howard Hawks, Henry Hathaway and Andrew V. McLaglen.

Great American Westerns – ace directors and star actors hunt in pairs, Part 2

In the first part of this series, I looked at three of the five significant collaborations that actor Randolph Scott had with directors during his 30-year career as a Western star.  

Now in Part 2, let’s look at three partnerships involving beloved actor James Stewart. After breaking through in 1939 with the political satire Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and the western Destry Rides Again, Stewart’s career took off in the 40’s with dramas and romantic comedies, including The Shop Around the Corner, The Philadelphia Story and of course, It’s a Wonderful Life all of which showcased a mild-mannered amiable persona. Then, at the peak of his career in the late 50’s, he played tougher on-screen characters in some of Alfred Hitchcock’s biggest thrillers – Rear Window, The Man Who Knew Too Much and Vertigo. It’s not so well-known that the transition to those tougher roles took place during 1950-55, when James Stewart starred in 5 highly regarded Westerns that formed part of a larger 8-film collaboration with director, Anthony Mann. He continued acting in Westerns later on in his career as well, teaming up with iconic filmmaker John Ford and with another prolific director, Andrew V. McLaglan.

Anthony Mann and James Stewart

Winchester ’73 (1950), Bend of the River (1952), The Naked Spur (1953), The Far Country (1954), The Man from Laramie (1955).

For Winchester ’73, James Stewart’s agent Lew Wasserman negotiated an innovative deal with Universal Pictures, foregoing Stewart’s acting fee in exchange for “points”, i.e. a percentage of the box office gross. This was the first instance of an arrangement that has since become standard practice for A-list movie stars and top directors. This lucrative contract also gave Stewart a say in some key decisions, including the choice of Anthony Mann as the director. The movie was a critical and commercial success, which set the stage for a busy 5-year partnership between the two men.

The plot for Winchester ’73 bears a conceptual similarity to that of Colt .45, a Western starring Randolph Scott that was released the same year – the central “character” in both films is the firearm, which is stolen from its owner and then used to commit criminal acts, while the rightful owner sets out to reclaim the weapon and serve justice upon the perpetrators. Of course, Winchester ’73 is a far superior film in terms of casting and acting performances. Two notable actors who featured in this film early in their careers are Rock Hudson, improbably cast as a Native American named Young Bull (he would get a larger part in Bend of the River two years later) and Tony Curtis with a bit part as a cavalry trooper. Playing the female lead is Shelly Winters, who would go on to win 2 acting Oscars some years later as part of an illustrious career playing complex characters, including the mother of the title character in Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita.

The most acclaimed entry in the series is The Naked Spur, which was nominated for a Best Screenplay Academy Award. There are just five speaking parts in the film and every one of them is a morally compromised character, driven by greed. James Stewart plays bounty hunter Howard Kemp who is on the trail of a bank robber (Robert Ryan) and his accomplice (Janet Leigh). Two strangers fall in with Kemp as his partners in the hunt, seeking a share in the bounty, much to Kemp’s vexation. Robert Ryan superbly portrays a criminal beyond redemption, a man who is completely self-aware of his “badness” and revels in it. He continually goads his pursuers and uses the prospect of his own reward money and the gender of his partner to drive a wedge between them. The director plays with unusual camera angles to heighten the feeling that the fate of these people is constantly on a knife edge. As was de riguer for films of that time operating under the Motion Picture Production Code (aka the Hays Code), Janet Leigh’s character slowly changes allegiance and becomes Kemp’s romantic interest. Likewise, Kemp eventually allows his inner goodness to govern his actions so that his happy ending can be justified. Nevertheless, the repugnance of every character through most of the narrative means this is a film that can be appreciated more than enjoyed.

B&W publicity pic (from left to right): Millard Mitchell, Robert Ryan, Janet Leigh, Ralph Meeker and James Stewart form a rogues gallery in The Naked Spur (1953), directed by Anthony Mann

In fact, most of the characters Stewart plays in these films are of similar nature – hard, angry, complex men (of course, with goodness deep inside) – and very different to his wholesome screen image from the 40’s. I think his success at portraying these characters with Anthony Mann led to roles with Alfred Hitchcock immediately after. Stewart’s strikingly clear blue eyes can be used for dramatic effect; we’ve seen it in the Hitchcock films, but you can also see it in The Naked Spur – close-up shots of his eyes that leave no doubt this is a dangerous man who will shoot to kill.

Winchester ’73 was shot in B&W, but all the rest were filmed in Technicolor. The mental image most of us have of the typical Western setting is of the arid and dusty locales in California, Arizona and Mexico. But these films present a very different terrain, in the heavily forested Midwest (Kansas and Colorado) or the wide plains of the Northwest (Oregon and Wyoming); The Far Country is in fact set in the Canadian territory of Yukon during the famous Klondike Gold Rush in 1896.

Besides, the five Westerns, the star and the director made a movie about oil rig workers (Thunder Bay), a biopic about bandleader Glenn Miller (The Glenn Miller Story) and a film about an Air Force veteran during the Cold War (Strategic Air Command), the latter two receiving Oscar nominations for Best Screenplay. Sadly, a disagreement after the release of The Man from Laramie meant that the two would never work again.

Anthony Mann would leverage the success of these films to land some high-profile assignments – the outstanding Man of the West with Gary Cooper in 1958 (one of the best Westerns ever made), the historical epic El Cid with Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren in 1961 and the multi-starrer The Fall of The Roman Empire in 1964 featuring Loren, James Mason, Alec Guinness and Omar Sharif. After Man of the West, I personally felt that he lost his magic touch once he got into the league of big budget films.

John Ford and James Stewart

Two Rode Together (1961), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), How the West Was Won (1962), Cheyenne Autumn (1964).

James Stewart returned to the Western genre several more times in the 60’s, but did not reach the artistic heights of the Anthony Mann films. The most high profile director Stewart worked with was John Ford, but at a time when the great director was arguably past his peak.

Of the 4 films they did together, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is noteworthy and in fact is frequently included in the list of great Western classics. Shot in B&W, which was unusual for a Western at that time, it is essentially a deconstruction of the cowboy myth and a meta-reference to co-star John Wayne’s role in building that myth through his roles in Westerns over the previous two decades. Lee Marvin plays the character Liberty Valance and Lee Van Cleef appears as one of the henchman, three years before he hit the big time in Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns.

James Stewart (left) and John Wayne (right) in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), directed by John Ford

MGM’s How the West Was Won was one of those all-star movies that was so popular in the 60’s and 70’s. It was an expensive production, shot using the curved screen, 3-panel Cinerama process and requiring the efforts of three directors – John Ford, Henry Hathaway and George Marshall. It’s a bit of a cheat to include this film in the list of Ford-Stewart collaborations, as John Ford was only a co-director of the film and Stewart was part of a huge ensemble cast that included the likes of Gregory Peck, Henry Fonda and John Wayne.

Similarly, Cheyenne Autumn was also a sprawling epic with a large cast, in which Stewart has a limited, though key role as the legendary Wyatt Earp. The film was released to mixed reviews and is seen as a flawed though commendable effort by director Ford to present the Wild West story from the perspective of Native Americans.

Andrew V. McLaglen and James Stewart

James Stewart continued to appear in Westerns, including three films during 1965-68 with director Andrew V. McLaglen, who had just entered the Western genre in 1963 with the entertaining John Wayne/Maureen O’Hara starrer, McLintock!. McLaglan was a prolific TV director, but also made some reasonably proficient feature films, including four with John Wayne (more about that in Part 3)

I think the Stewart-McLaglen films appealed to family audiences, especially the parents who grew up watching Westerns in the 40’s and were now indulging in nostalgia and looking for wholesome entertainment. But for young adults in the late 60’s, these movies were less appealing as they were being drawn towards edgier, more violent fare of the sort that Sam Peckinpah and Arthur Penn were making.

Nevertheless Shenandoah (1965), The Rare Breed (1966) and Bandolero! (1968) all are enjoyable and suitable for a relaxed afternoon. Shenandoah is a well regarded Civil War drama which eventually became a successful Broadway musical. The Rare Breed is a comedy-western co-starring the always entertaining Maureen O’Hara in one of her signature feisty roles. And Bandolero! was one of several formulaic action films featuring Raquel Welch that were released in the late 60’s (another one was 100 Rifles in 1969); not particularly memorable.

James Stewart is the patriarch of the Anderson family (John Wayne’s son Patrick is on the extreme left) in Shenandoah, directed by Andrew V. McLaglen

Towards the end of his career, Stewart played a small role in one final Western, The Shootist, which was also John Wayne’s final film. Directed by Don Siegel and released in 1976, it was an emotional send-off for the iconic Wayne and one of the best reviewed films of the latter part of his career. It was truly fitting that James Stewart who blazed his own trail in this genre, played a part in signalling the end of the Wayne era and effectively, the end of the heyday of Westerns.

Great American Westerns – ace directors and star actors hunt in pairs, Part 1

The Western is a uniquely American genre in the history of cinema. Through a significant part of the 20th century from the 1930’s to the 60’s, they dominated the output of Hollywood. Every well-known director including Cecile B. DeMille, John Ford, Howard Hawks and Sam Peckinpah counted Westerns among their most successful films. Likewise, in front of the camera, household names such as John Wayne, Gary Cooper, James Stewart, Kirk Douglas, Robert Mitchum and Clint Eastwood had some of the biggest hits of their careers starring in Westerns. As is usually the case in this industry, some directors and actors formed strong partnerships that yielded some of the most iconic films of this genre. Perhaps no creative pairing is as well-known as that of John Ford and John Wayne. Over nearly a quarter century, the two giants of Hollywood worked together 8 times to create arguably the most celebrated films of their respective careers, all except The Quiet Man being Westerns. But there were other notable director-actor collaborations in the category, some of which are not quite as well remembered today.

In the first part of this series, let’s look actor Randolph Scott and his most significant collaborations. Throughout his career, Mr. Scott had a tendency to build partnerships with directors, working with Henry Hathaway, Ray Enright, Edwin L. Marin, Andre DeToth and Budd Boetticher across multiple films.

Randolph Scott in Comanche Station (1960)

Henry Hathaway and Randolph Scott

Heritage of the Desert (1932), Wild Horse Mesa (1932), The Thundering Herd (1933), Sunset Pass (1933), Man of the Forest (1933), To the Last Man (1933), The Last Round-Up (1934).

Perhaps the earliest actor-director collaboration in the Western genre was between director Henry Hathaway and actor Randolph Scott. Heritage of the Desert in 1932 was Hathaway’s first film as a director and Scott’s first as a leading man.  The two paired up and churned out six more films for Paramount over just two years, all based on Zane Grey novels. Many of these films were remakes of earlier silent films from the 20’s, in some cases featuring the same supporting cast, but with the lead role now taken over by Randolph Scott. The fast rate of production was possible because the films were each only about an hour long, but they showcased impressive production quality for that time, including scenes involving mountain lions in Man of the Forest and an avalanche in To The Last Man. The absence of a musical score and some wooden dialogue delivery make the films difficult to appreciate when watched today. But Randolph Scott made for a very appealing leading man with his lantern jaw and chiseled looks. In 1933’s The Thundering Herd and Man of the Forest, he sports a moustache that makes him the spitting image of Errol Flynn, well before Flynn himself started wearing a moustache in his movies (probably in The Charge of the Light Brigade in 1936).

The films were a launchpad for a young Olympic swimmer named Buster Crabbe, who had supporting roles in three of them, just before he became a star in the late 30’s playing Flash Gordon and Tarzan. To the Last Man also included among its cast a 5-year-old Shirley Temple in a small uncredited role, just a year before her breakout performance in Little Miss Marker.

Verna Hillie and Randolph Scott in Man of the Forest (1933), directed by Henry Hathaway

Andre DeToth and Randolph Scott

Man in the Saddle (1951), Carson City (1952), The Stranger Wore a Gun (1953), Thunder Over the Plains (1953), Riding Shotgun (1954), The Bounty Hunter (1954).

After World War II, Randolph Scott was at his busiest, starring in over two dozen westerns during a 10 year period from 1946-56. He made multiple films with three directors – Edwin L. Marin, Ray Enright and Andre DeToth. These films wouldn’t feature in a list of most influential Western movies, instead they represent the Western genre ‘formula’ or ‘assembly line’ at its peak.

DeToth was one of the more colorful Hollywood directors, sporting an eye patch, having lost his eye at an early age. He is perhaps best known for having directed the first major studio 3D production, the horror film House of Wax in 1953. In the latter part of his career, he did uncredited second unit work on acclaimed films like Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Superman (1978). But during his heyday in the 50’s, he directed several Westerns, including six with Randolph Scott, and it’s believed he added elements of the thriller to the genre, helping to place these films a cut above the rest of Scott’s work during this period. The first of this series was Man in the Saddle in 1951 and it also started off Scott’s involvement in film production with producer Harry Joe Brown, which started off as Scott-Brown Productions and eventually became Ranown Pictures Corp.

Some of the films have Scott involved in extended and elaborately choreographed fistfight scenes (using stunt doubles, of course), most memorably in Man in the Saddle and Carson City (fo. The last of the films, The Bounty Hunter, was apparently the first Western to showcase a bounty hunter as its hero. In all these films, Scott’s character frequently dressed in black, a bold and distinctive choice for a leading man in Westerns in those days. Although he was past 50 by this time, he was very fit and cut quite a dashing figure.

Filmed in Technicolour, the movies feature some notable actors playing Scott’s adversaries, the likes of Raymond Massey as an evil mine owner in Carson City, Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin as henchmen in The Stranger Wore a Gun, and Borgnine again as a trouble-maker in The Bounty Hunter (a year later, Borgnine would win Best Actor for Marty). Watch Riding Shotgun to see a brief but intense Charles Bronson performance in one of his earliest big screen parts.

Budd Boetticher and Randolph Scott

7 Men From Now (1956), The Tall T (1957), Decision at Sundown (1957), Buchanan Rides Alone (1958), Ride Lonesome (1959), Westbound (1959), Comanche Station (1960).

At a time when one would have expected Randolph Scott to transition to supporting roles as he approached his 60s, he kicked off a career rebirth (like Liam Neeson did in 2008 with Taken) by teaming up with director Budd Boetticher to star in seven Westerns released over a 4-year period. Because they were produced by Scott and Harry Joe Brown’s Ranown Corp., the films are collectively referred to as the Ranown Cycle. Six of the films were set up at Columbia Pictures whereas Westbound was with Warner Bros. and technically is not part of the cycle, although it features the same team. Shot in Cinemascope on Eastman Color and dominated by the sparse vegetation and burnt sienna palette of California, the films are little known gems that should be seen by any fan of Westerns. Four of the films were scripted by Burt Kennedy, who was originally hired by John Wayne’s production company Batjac to write scripts for Wayne. In fact, the series kicked off because John Wayne was committed to shooting The Searchers for John Ford and therefore recommended Randolph Scott to take the lead role for the production of Kennedy’s 7 Men from Now script. All seven films are masterclasses of economical storytelling, coming in under 80 minutes running time, packed with exposition, character interactions and plenty of action. Scott’s characters are usually cast in the same mould – even-tempered loners, men of principle, riding “tall in the saddle”. Not unexpectedly the films are all very male-centric, although Karen Steele does play significant roles in Decision at Sundown, Ride Lonesome and Westbound.

Some famous actors made early screen appearances in these films. A lanky young James Coburn made his feature film debut in a supporting role in Ride Lonesome which also has Lee Van Cleef in a brief but impactful appearance as an outlaw. Actor L.Q. Jones who was such a staple of Sam Peckinpah’s films in the 60’s had one of his earliest significant speaking roles as the likeable Texan Pecos Hill working for a bunch of cutthroats in Buchanan Rides Alone. And Lee Marvin was again Scott’s nemesis in 7 Men From Now.

Karen Steele and Randolph Scott in Westbound (1959), directed by Budd Boetticher

Randolph Scott acted in just one more film after the Ranown cycle and it turned out to be perhaps the most highly regarded film of his career. Ride the High Country, released in 1962 was Sam Peckinpah’s second feature film and set the director on the path to greatness. Co-starring another acting veteran Joel McCrea, it was the best possible swan song for Randolph Scott, the ‘gentle giant’ of Westerns.

Favourite rock/metal concept albums – Part 4

After a gap of more than a month, I’m back with the fourth installment in this series about my favourite rock and metal concept albums. After covering the works of Coheed & Cambria, Rush and Queensrÿche, here’s a relatively less famous album titled III Sides to Every Story by the hard rock band Extreme. This intelligent and accomplished album was a follow-up to their highly successful 1990 release Pornograffiti, but it arrived in late 1992 when the grunge movement was in full swing and therefore didn’t benefit from the exposure it deserved.

Extreme in 1992 (left to right): Paul Geary (drums), Nuno Bettencourt (guitars, keyboards), Gary Cherone (vocals), Pat Badger (bass)

Band: Extreme

Album: III Sides to Every Story (1992)

Narrative genre: Politics, philosophy and faith

Best songs: Warheads, Rest in Peace, Seven Sundays, Our Father, Stop the World, Everything Under the Sun (Rise ‘N Shine, Am I Ever Gonna Change and Who Cares?)

What makes it special: The album has three sections, titled “Yours”, “Mine” and “The Truth”. Each one showcases different musical styles and themes.

The first section “Yours”, is straight up rock, with some elements of rock opera in the vocal delivery of a couple of songs. It takes a satirical look at the military-industrial complex, governance and racism. The section starts off strong with the outstanding Warheads and Rest in Peace before getting to two slightly weaker tracks that are generic hard rock without being exceptional. I would classify Cupid’s Dead also as generic, but it is saved by an extended instrumental passage that kicks in at the 3 minute mark and lasts for more than 2 minutes. The last song in the section, Peacemaker Die ends with an excerpt from Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous I Have a Dream speech.

The second section “Mine” is more introspective and has a distinctively different sound. The first track Seven Sundays, opens with a languid vocal and piano passage (the keyboards are played by guitarist Nuno Bettencourt). These songs cover a wide range of topics from love to relationships to individuality to religion. I really like the lyrics and music of Our Father which is about a child longing for his father’s presence and very much unlike the songs that macho rock bands typically compose.

The third section “The Truth” is an extended prog rock suite titled Everything Under the Sun that runs for about 20 minutes. This section is really why this album is in my list. The first part of the suite, titled Rise ‘N Shine uses orchestral arrangements, acoustic guitars and harmonizing vocals to create an evocative feel. The second part Am I Ever Gonna Change switches to a stronger guitar-driven sound, but enhanced at key points with a string section; while the guitar chords sound bright and optimistic, the monologue-style lyrics are introspective and self-critical; it’s a strange combination, but somehow it works. The final 7-minute part titled Who Cares? has a rock opera sound, switching from a bombastic horns-based intro to pensive keyboard chords to an extended guitar lead, while Gary Cherone’s vocals explore themes of faith and fate.

Overall, the album has a clean sound, not dense or layered like the other songs and albums in this series. It’s a real pity that this album came out at a time when the world was going crazy over Nirvana, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam; it never received the exposure and acclaim it deserved. But the band members often cite it as their best work and I think so too.

Nuri Bilge Ceylan puts Turkish cinema on the world map with his nuanced explorations of the human condition

A couple of weeks ago I stumbled upon a wonderful coming-of-age film The Wild Pear Tree, which was in a list of best films of 2018. I enjoyed it so much that I looked for other films by its director Nuri Bilge Ceylan and was amazed to discover that he has been Turkey’s most celebrated filmmaker for years and is also highly regarded by cineastes around the world. Over a 10-day period, I worked my way back in time through his other 7 films, ending with his debut effort Kasaba from 1997. It was an extraordinary experience and I felt even more guilty that after all these years of reading about and watching international films, I had never noticed his name. Now of course, when I do an internet search there are all sorts of glowing reviews and insightful articles about this remarkable filmmaker.

Film critics consider Nuri Bilge Ceylan to be one of the world’s leading contemporary humanist filmmakers, in the same league as Hirokazu Kore-eda, Todd Haynes, Asghar Farhadi and Pedro Almodovar, although he does not get the global press coverage that some of them do. He has been crafting slow-burn explorations of the human condition for more than two decades, with each of his last six films nominated for the Palm d’Or at Cannes (Winter Sleep won in 2014). His last four films have been co-written by his multi-faceted wife Ebru Ceylan, who is also a photographer, actress and art director. Their collaboration began with Climates (2008) in which they were the lead actors and she has also been the art director for three of his films. Cinematographer Gokhan Tiryaki completes the triumvirate, skillfully using both the beauty of the Turkish countryside and the tedium of its urban jungles to accentuate the moods and experiences of Ceylan’s protagonists.  

Capturing the eddies, swirls and vortices of everyday conversations is what Ceylan and his collaborators do best. Whether intimate or casual, conversations are the building blocks of Ceylan’s narratives; frequently they become verbal fencing matches, as protagonists thrust and parry at each other with words. Often, a character refuses to let go of a point of view or says something that he or she need not have said. As a viewer, it’s like watching an accident take place in slow motion…you can see it coming but feel powerless to stop it!

These discussions, debates and disagreements are what make Ceylan’s films so engrossing. The notion that a movie filled with conversations can be ‘fast moving’ seems counterintuitive, but indeed, the pace of Ceylan’s films never lags even though his recent efforts typically clock in at 150 to 200 minutes.

Ceylan’s films are all male-centric and I wonder if these men are ‘dark echoes’ of himself. In almost every film, his male leads are intelligent, self-centered men who are somewhat aloof and occasionally condescending. But for that matter, all Ceylan’s characters are flawed and this is what makes his films so unpredictable and engaging. There are no good or bad people and so it’s difficult for viewers to ‘take sides’ with any one character. Instead, it’s our own experiences and biases which colour our reactions to (and alignments with) the different characters in different situations.

His first film, Kasaba (1997) feels like a student film, shot in B&W with non-actors, several of them friends or family. Prominently featured are his father, M. Emin Ceylan and his cousin, M. Emin Toprak, both of whom have a natural screen presence. The film is a docu-drama about a typical winter’s day in a remote village. It starts off with some charming slice-of-life scenes at the local school, after which we follow two of the students – a brother and his elder sister – as they explore the nearby woods and culminates in a long third act with the kids and their family around a campfire…the grandfather reminisces (probably for the umpteenth time) about his wartime experiences, mild disagreements break out among family members, women cut vegetables and the kids laze in the grass. There is no plot, but somehow one is just mesmerized watching and listening to this average family pass time on a winter evening.   

Clouds of May (1999) showcases a significant jump in scope and production values. Muzaffer Özdemir plays an independent filmmaker who comes to his hometown to make a film, enlisting the help of his parents and cousin. This is a meta-narrative about the making of Ceylan’s first film Kasaba with some of the same actors – Ceylan’s relatives in real life, who are acting in this film playing the filmmaker’s relatives, who are acting in his film! In one scene, the director’s factory worker cousin, played by Emin Toprak, discusses the possibility of moving to Istanbul to find a better job…which pretty much sets up the plot of Ceylan’s next film Distant, starring the same two actors. I love the cinematography in Clouds of May; Ceylan operated the camera in his first three films and has a natural talent for framing and composition. It’s a fine second effort with some whimsical moments that any audience could relate to.  

I think of Ceylan’s next three films (Distant, Climates and Three Monkeys) as his ‘urban trilogy’, investigating the sense of isolation and alienation that people feel in a big city – never alone, but always lonely. In contrast, the last three (Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, Winter Sleep and The Wild Pear Tree) are his ‘rural trilogy’, using the serenity and beauty of the countryside to highlight the inner conflicts and ugliness of human behaviour.

Distant (2002) tells the story of a divorced photographer Mahmut, living in Istanbul who puts up his younger cousin Yusuf, who has come to the city seeking employment. The urbane Mahmut is mildly condescending to the unsophisticated Yusuf, explaining the rules of living in a city apartment, scolding him for not flushing the toilet, smoking in the living room and so on. Both men suffer different forms of isolation – Yusuf struggles to bridge the physical distance from his elderly parents in the village; and Mahmut seeks to fill his existential vacuum with home visits from a prostitute (he asks Yusuf to stay out late that evening) and by watching porn on his VCR after Yusuf has gone to bed. Eventually, Yusuf takes the hint and moves away, leaving Mahmut back to where he started, silently contemplating the wreckage of his life on a bench by the dockside. Tragically, M. Emin Toprak, who played Yusuf, died at the age of 28 in a car accident on his way back from the Ankara Film Festival. He was posthumously awarded Best Actor at Cannes a few months later, along with Muzaffer Özdemir, who played Mahmut.

Climates (2006) introduces a theme which is repeated in subsequent films – a younger wife feeling suffocated by the stuffiness of an older husband, who is caught up in his own (obscure) intellectual pursuits. The woman’s frustration soon mutates into resentment and contempt. Eventually, even well-meaning comments made by the husband are misinterpreted as condescension. The lead actors here are the director himself and his wife. Nuri Ceylan plays Professor Isa, a man who is outwardly sophisticated, but is to varying degrees selfish, uncaring and insincere in his dealings with other people. Ebru Ceylan produces an emotionally devastating performance as his wife Bahar, a woman in her prime who can sense her life going nowhere and is helpless to change her destiny. This is the film which brought Gokhan Tiryaki into the fold as Ceylan’s camera operator. I loved Tiryaki’s photography, especially in the film’s second half using the harsh winter weather in the remote eastern province of Ağrı, as the perfect setting for the denouement of the relationship.

Nuri Bilge Ceylan and Ebru Ceylan in Climates (2006)

Three Monkeys (2008) is a psychological thriller and the most conventionally plotted of all Ceylan’s films. A wealthy Istanbul businessman who is running for politics is involved in a hit-and-run crime. He asks his driver to take the fall in return for money, to be paid at the end of the jail sentence (a scenario which I know has played out several times in real life in India). This sets in motion a chain of events with tragic consequences for all concerned.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011) represents another big leap in Ceylan’s ambitions as a filmmaker. A larger budget is clearly visible on screen – multi-camera setups, a larger cast of characters and a wide range of outdoor locations. The verdant and undulating countryside of the Kırıkkale province in central Turkey is the setting for an intriguing (and sometimes farcical) night-time expedition involving a district prosecutor, a doctor, a group of local policemen and two suspects, as they try to locate the body of a man murdered during a drunken altercation. The suspects have confessed to the crime, but are now struggling to remember the exact location, as the hills, trees and aqueducts all look the same in the dark. This stop-and-start journey through the night becomes a cinematic device for a series of conversations among men of different hierarchies and social standing, covering topics both mundane and metaphysical. A simple scene where the men stop at a village for a late meal, becomes an exposition about bureaucracy, ethics and generational divides. This is as unique a story as one can ever expect to see on film.

Winter Sleep (2014) uses the strikingly beautiful Cappadocian cave dwellings as a backdrop for another exploration into the politics of marriage, echoing the dynamic of Climates. Aydin is a retired actor turned hotel owner, who thinks of himself as an important local personage but is essentially a big fish in a small pond. The film follows him through a series of interactions – with his poor tenants, with his recently widowed sister and with his significantly younger wife. As a viewer, I experienced my sympathies shifting from one to the other and back again as I was witness to class inequalities, unprovoked criticisms, brutal retaliations, condescension, contempt and colossal errors of judgement. This may sound like a very unpleasant way to spend more than three hours watching a movie, but in fact most of it played out in a civilized tone; there are no raised voices or unseemly melodrama. This is the highest order of filmmaking – minimalist acting in a visually stimulating setting – and deservedly won the Palm d’Or at Cannes.

Haluk Bilginer as Aydin and Demet Akbağ as his sister Necla in Winter Sleep (2014)

The Wild Pear Tree (2018) is set in the Çanakkale province in Western Turkey, which though geographically close to Istanbul, feels worlds away from the bustling capital. It’s a coming-of-age story of Sinan a young man who has just returned to his home town after graduating from college. He is at a loose end, considering multiple options for employment. He is frequently at odds with his school teacher father and during these exchanges, it’s easy to empathize with Sinan and share his contempt for his father’s eccentricities and gambling addiction. But as the story progresses, it’s Sinan’s own naïveté and callowness that comes through in his interactions with others. He gets into a series of unnecessarily combative conversations with ex-schoolmates, his mother and sister, a couple of Imams and even a local writer, who he approaches to review his manuscript. Eventually, by the end of the three-hour run time, he has completed his military service, some of those rough edges have been worn down and he seems more capable to seeing past his own needs and feelings.

An interesting aspect of Ceylan’s films is that they do not have a background music score. All sounds are ambient, and there are no music cues to manipulate the audience’s emotions.

These synopses probably make Ceylan’s films sound depressing and pessimistic. On the contrary, I found them to be fascinating, thought-provoking and for the most part, filled with natural beauty.

For those interested, the films are all available on Vimeo on demand, and most of them are also on Amazon Prime or iTunes. Amazon also sells a DVD Blu-ray box set containing all 8 of his films, (although the last 4 films are Region B discs).

Elizabeth Gilbert’s ‘The Signature of All Things’ chronicles a remarkable life filled with tragedy and discovery

In the past couple of years, I started making attempts to break away from my regular diet of sci-fi novels and biographies, take a few more ‘risks’ with my leisure reading options, specifically towards material with a bit more literary heft. I was trying to recreate the joy I experienced at the end of 2017 when I read Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow and Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End back to back. Another reason was that I just wasn’t coming across that many enjoyable scifi books any more. To help me broaden my intake, I started reading through the New York Times weekly recommendations, which has the additional benefit of having the reviews written by other writers, thereby giving me exposure to the reviewer’s body of work as well.

This concerted effort has yielded some success, but I haven’t felt like I’ve taken any big risks with my reading choices. For example, many of the books I’ve read in the past six months have been from tried and trusted sources – established classics such as Jack London’s The Call of the Wild & White Fang duology or Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, new releases from old favourites like Bill Bryson (The Body) or Philip Pullman (The Secret Commonwealth) and installments from established crime fiction series like Jack Reacher or Lady Hardcastle Mysteries.

And so, I’m very fortunate to have taken the plunge last week and read Elizabeth Gilbert’s extraordinary 2013 novel The Signature of All Things. Ms. Gilbert is best known for her 2003 memoir Eat, Pray, Love which was adapted into a commercially successful Julia Roberts vehicle in 2010 (which I hadn’t watched due to poor critic reviews). She released her latest novel City of Girls in June 2019 and it’s while reading this review that I became aware of her past work, including the memoir and the 2013 novel. Somehow the synopsis of The Signature of all Things intrigued me sufficiently enough that I put it into my reading list at that time. Ten months later, I finally got around to reading it and couldn’t put it down.

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of The Signature of All Things (2013)

The novel begins in the year 1800 with the birth of Alma Whittaker at her father’s White Acre estate on the west bank of the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia, backtracks a couple of decades to recount the travels and exploits of her British father Henry Whittaker eventually leading back to the time of Alma’s birth, and then follows her life from childhood to old age. Traversing most of the 19th century, it is simultaneously a history lesson, a treatise on botany, a travelogue, a multi-generational saga and an intimate chronicle of a woman’s journey of self-discovery. We are with Alma as she experiences the biggest inflection points of her life, plumbing the depths of anguish and scaling the sparkling peaks of elation and unadulterated joy. And in doing so, I think the story mirrors the random sine waves of each of our lives.

What I found most inspiring and uplifting was Alma’s fighting spirit; no matter how low she was laid by circumstances or how long she fell into a monotonous rut, she would eventually take stock and take action – big or small – to alter the course of her life. But it’s not just Alma Whittaker; the book is peppered with extraordinary characters – some deeply flawed and some impossibly noble – who together saturate this novel with color and texture.

This is not a fairy tale with a happy ending. It is also not a conventional family saga of empire building and mismatched siblings (although both of these elements do exist in the story). Instead, Elizabeth Gilbert presents us with a singular, non-formulaic narrative, full of twists and turns and rabbit holes. Although it is a ‘big’ novel in terms of the physical, commercial and emotional impact of actions taken by its protagonists, the key characters can be counted on the fingers of two hands; indeed, it could perhaps even be adapted into a stage play. But as much as this is a story of people, it is also a story of humankind’s relationship with nature and in that sense, reading it is akin to going on a deeply spiritual journey.

The Other Memorable Films of 2019: Part 8/Coda

Yes, I know this series was supposed to have ended with Part 7. But since there are very few new movies to watch in 2020, I decided to go back and finish off some more 2019 films that were on my watch list.

Late Night: I heard a lot about this film when it premiered at Sundance in January 2019 to strong reviews. Amazon Studios paid $13 mn just for the US distribution rights and spent more than double that for marketing and promotion, but sadly it flopped on release and lost them a lot of money. I was finally able to watch it on Netflix last month and really enjoyed it. Although it is essentially a formulaic dramedy, Mindy Kaling’s intelligent script also carries insights into gender politics at the workplace and by having women in both the boss and subordinate roles, is able to juxtapose the experiences of one versus the other. Very entertaining and some of the writers room scenes are good for multiple viewings! I really can’t understand why it didn’t do well in the theatres.

Doctor Sleep: Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation of Stephen King’s novel The Shining was one of the defining films of his career and also created one of Jack Nicholson’s signature roles. The sequel novel Doctor Sleep was published in 2013, nearly four decades after the original. The film adaptation finally came out last year, with great box office expectations for Warner Bros., given its pedigree and the megabucks the studio made with the release of another King property It, in 2017 and It Chapter Two in 2019. Although Doctor Sleep garnered decent reviews from critics, the film was a box office flop; it didn’t appeal to young horror movie-goers who were unfamiliar with the first film and may not have understood some characters or key scenes which recalled moments from The Shining. I found it reasonably entertaining, more of a thriller/road movie rather than a horror film. The casting is great – Ewan McGregor plays Danny Torrance, the emotionally scarred, grown-up son of Jack Nicholson’s character from The Shining; Rebecca Ferguson is very good as Rose the Hat, the charismatic leader of a group of ‘psychic vampires’ (the same concept as in Tobe Hooper’s 1985 cult film Lifeforce) who are hunting down young children, then torturing and killing them to consume their life essence; and Zahn McClarnon has a strong screen presence as Crow Daddy, the lover and right-hand-man of Rose the Hat. For those viewers who are familiar with the original, it’s a bit incongruous to see other actors play Jack Nicholson’s, Shelley Duvall’s and Scatman Crothers’ characters from The Shining, albeit in very brief scenes. Worth watching only if you’ve seen The Shining.

Rebecca Ferguson plays Rose the Hat, the leader of a group of psychic vampires in Doctor Sleep

Corpus Christi: This Polish film was one of the nominees for Best International picture at the 2020 Oscars, losing of course to South Korea’s Parasite. It’s a simple story of a young spiritually-inclined ex-con who is assigned to work at a sawmill in a small town, but is somehow mistaken for a priest when he arrives there and chooses to go with the flow and play the role. He quickly gets drawn into the social dynamics of the town – helping families deal with the death of their loved ones from an automobile accident, spending time with a group of youths who drink and bicker to get over their boredom, and sparring with the mayor, a local bigwig who runs the town. His unorthodox methods quickly gain him a following among the parishioners, while also alienating those who cannot deal with his divergence from accepted norms and the status quo. It’s a bit depressing, as are most films which deal with life in small towns in the West; one sees the same themes – a declining economy, disaffected youth and nepotism or graft hidden by the town elders beneath a calm veneer of gentrification. Ultimately, this movie is an acting showcase for the young actor Bartosz Bielenia, who has a magnetic screen presence, even in this grungy, de-glamorized role. You can feel the character’s love of humanity and strong sense of right and wrong shine through in Bielenia’s performance.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco: Speaking of disaffected youth, they are a key feature of this highly acclaimed drama which premiered at Sundance last year and won multiple awards there as well as at the Independent Spirit Awards (given out just before the Oscars). A young man and his friend set their sights on taking possession of a large house in an upmarket neighborhood, which he believes was designed and built by his grandfather in the 40s. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the magic in the movie; for me it was just meandering and pointless. The only reason I’ve chosen to write about it is because of the extraordinary cinematography for which director Joe Talbot and DP Adam Newport-Berra should receive credit. The lighting in some scenes, especially the interior of the house, has a magical glow the likes of which I haven’t seen since the days of Haskell Wexler shooting middle America in Bound for Glory (1976) and Days of Heaven (1978). The camera work on the skateboarding scenes have a sense of grace, fluidity and dynamism. I found myself thinking that with a good script, these guys would be able to make a genuinely high quality, entertaining movie. And that is a very real possibility; in the past few years, Disney and Warner Bros. have hired the likes Taika Waititi, Gareth Edwards, Cate Shortland, Cathy Yan and Chloe Zhao out of relative obscurity to helm their effects-heavy franchise movies. Maybe we’ll see Joe Talbot do likewise soon.

So that was Part 8, hopefully my coda for my series about the notable films of 2019! I think this is the most comprehensive effort I have ever made to watch as many highly regarded films of a particular year; it’s been an enriching experience and a lot of fun to capture my impressions of these movies in this series of posts.