Thursday, December 31, 2009

Directed by Sam Peckinpah

One last go-around

25 Years Gone: A Tribute to Sam Peckinpah, my month-long appreciation of one of American cinema's greatest and most distinctive directors, draws to a close.

I started researching and sketching out articles in early November. The last pieces were pretty much written and posted same day. It's been a long haul and I've lived, breathed, ate and slept Peckinpah for nearly two months. But I've loved every minute of it and I hope that what I've achieved on The Agitation of the Mind this month will stand as a worthy tribute to Sam Peckinpah.

There's just one more (purely visual) article left, but before I post it some thanks are due:

To Paul Seydor for the kind and encouraging comments he left on the "Peckinpah in Print" article.

To Mike Siegel for contacting me and sharing the behind-the-scenes story on the making of his excellent documentary 'Passion & Poetry: The Ballad of Sam Peckinpah', and providing me with illustrative material for the article.

To these guys for contributing stellar articles:

Evil Dead Junkie at Things That Don't Suck ('Ride the High Country', 'Major Dundee', 'Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid')

Michael Parent at Le Mot du Cinephiliaque ('The Wild Bunch')

J.D. at Radiator Heaven ('Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia')

Tommy Salami at Pluck You, Too! ('The Killer Elite')

Bill at The Kind of Face You Hate ('Straw Dogs')

To everyone who carried the banner on their blogs, supported the project, and/or left comments. And to everyone who continues to watch, appreciate and write about the films of Sam Peckinpah.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Sam Peckinpah in his own words

"I wasn't trying to make an epic. I was trying to tell a simple story about bad men in changing times. 'The Wild Bunch' is simply about what happens when killers go to Mexico. The strange thing is that you feel a great sense of loss when these killers reach the end of the line."

"I detest machines. The problem started when they discovered the wheel. You're not going to tell me the camera is a machine; it is the most marvellous piece of divinity ever created."

"The end of a picture is always the end of a life."

"I created 'The Westerner' because of anger - anger at never-miss sheriffs, always-right marshalls, whitewashed gunfighters ... anger at TV's quick-draw tin gods who stand behind a tin star or ten cents' worth of righteous anger and justify their skill and slaughter with a self-conscious grin or a minute's worth of bad philosophy."

"The point of the film ['The Wild Bunch'] is to take this facade of movie violence and open it up, get people involved in it so they are starting to go in the Hollywood, television, predictable reaction syndrome and then twist it so that it's not fun anymore, just a wave of sickness in the gut ... It's ugly, brutalizing and bloody fucking awful. It's not fun and games and cowboys and Indians. It's a terrible, ugly thing. And yet there's a certain response that you get from it, an excitement because we're all violent people."

"The whole underside of our society has always been violence and still is. Churches, laws - everybody seems to think that man is a noble savage. But he's only an animal. A meat-eating, talking animal. Recognize it. He also has grace and love and beauty. But don't say to me we're not violent."

"The western is a universal frame within which it's possible to comment on today."

"A writer has his pencil and paper and goes hungry only for time to use them. A director must start with this driving need to make his picture."

"Don't let anyone kid you, it's bloody murder learning how to direct."

"Despair is the only unforgivable sin, and it is always reaching for us."

"I regard everything with irony, including the face I see in the mirror when I wake up in the morning."

Peckinpah month: links & resources #5

Thanks to Bill at The Kind of Face You Hate for contributing a sterling article on 'Straw Dogs', unearthing some fascinating background information on Gordon M. Williams, author of source novel 'The Siege of Trencher's Farm', and extrapolating the crucial differences between book and film. There's more on 'Straw Dogs' in a review by Mike Lorefice at

IGN has a tribute to Peckinpah, published in 2005 on what would have been the maestro's 80th birthday.

Maximiliian le Cain's article 'Drifting Out of the Territory' at Nonstop Design is an excellent analysis of 'Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid', which identifies the film's transitional qualities and atmosphere of poetic despair.

Equally recommended is Nick Pinkerton's thoughtful piece on 'Cross of Iron' over at Reverse Shot. 'Cross of Iron' is the only Peckinpah film thus far to have notched up a sequel, 'Breakthrough' (reviewed here on Angelfire); Richard Burton and Helmut Griem replace James Coburn and Maximillian Schell respectively as Steiner and Stransky. On the remake front, former Peckinpah collaborator Roger Donaldson helmed an okayish retread of 'The Getaway' in 1994 (Alec Baldwin wasn't a patch on Steve McQueen, Kim Basinger was a whole lot better than Ali MacGraw and Michael Madsen and Jennifer Tilly channeled Al Lettieri and Sally Struthers perfectly). A new version of 'The Killer Elite' was being talked up a few years ago, with John Woo slated to produce. Most recently, Jason Statham has been confirmed to star in a film called 'The Killer Elite' but based on Sir Ranulph Fiennes' book 'The Feather Men' (published 1991) so the title seems to be coincidental. Rod Lurie's take on 'Straw Dogs' is suffering release date schizophrenia, as reported by Brad Brevet at Rope Of Silicon - his pullquote 'Straw Dogs' remake is unfortunately still happening pretty much sums up my thoughts on the prospect.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Osterman Weekend

"Just another episode of this whole snuff soap opera we're all in."

After 'Convoy', Peckinpah spent five years in the wilderness. It had been the same with 'Major Dundee'. Then, Daniel Melnick's offer of 'Noon Wine' for TV proved the life-raft that led to an initially productive relationship with Phil Feldman and Peckinpah's masterpiece, 'The Wild Bunch'. This time, though, the comeback wouldn't be quite as spectacular.

Don Siegel had given Peckinpah his first gig on a movie set back in 1954. Now at the end of his own career, the director of 'Dirty Harry' and 'Escape from Alcatraz' - the man who had done arguably as much as Sergio Leone in making Clint Eastwood an icon - was reduced to calling the shots on a half-assed Bette Midler vehicle called 'Jinxed'. Hollywood might have written Peckinpah off, but Siegel had no hesitation in hiring him as second unit director to shoot an elaborate action sequence. Peckinpah got his drinking and predilection for thin white lines under control, turned up on set and demonstrated rigid professionalism.

It was his ticket back to directing. Sadly, he'd only get a shot at one last film. Most of the offers that came in were uber-low budget and held no interest. Still, it was important to get back behind the camera so he picked the best of a bad lot and accepted producers Peter Davies and William Panzer's offer to direct 'The Osterman Weekend'.

CIA bigwig Maxwell Danforth (Burt Lancaster) encourages zealous agent Lawrence Fassett (John Hurt) to pursue Russian spy ring Omega. Fassett is traumatised from his wife's murder, but throws himself into the assignment. He identifies TV writer Bernard Osterman (Craig T. Nelson), financier Joseph Cardone (Chris Sarandon) and plastic surgeon Richard Tremayne (Dennis Hopper) as members of Omega who might be "turned". He posits to Danforth that their friendship, dating back to college, with political pundit John Tanner (Rutger Hauer) could provide the wedge to get at them. Danforth gives him the go ahead. Fassett presents Tanner with evidence against his friends. Tanner is distraught, but sees an opportunity he can exploit: long critical of Danforth's machiavellian counter-intelligence techniques, Tanner agrees to assist Fassett on the condition that Danforth consent to be interviewed on Tanner's high-rating and controversial current affairs TV show 'Face to Face'. Danforth assents. Fassett kits out Tanner's home with a panoply of surveillance equipment in advance of Osterman, Cardone and Tremayne arriving at Tanner's home for their annual reunion (events known as "Osterman weekends" in honour of Bernard Osterman, who instigated the tradition). Before the guests have even arrived, Tanner gets cold feet at his wife Ali (Meg Foster) and son Steve's involvement and against Fassett's wishes, drives them to the airport. A kidnap attempt en route is foiled by Fassett's men at the last moment and Tanner reluctantly decides to do things Fassett's way. The guests arrive, but it isn't long before tensions run high. Fassett's supposedly "invisible" presence is belied by a series of manipulations, and when Tanner finally discovers the truth about his friends' conspiratorial behaviour he realises things aren't as Fassett would have had him believe. The agent has a quite different agenda ...

Having come that far with the synopsis, allow me to tip things into PLOT SPOILER territory and let the cat out of the bag. 'The Osterman Weekend' - once you've got the first 80 minutes (which are pure misdirection) out of the way - is about how Fassett, who has discovered that Danforth ordered his wife's murder, coerces Tanner into staging the promised TV interview with Danforth as a j'accuse, Fassett using the medium to publically charge Danforth with her murder. A quixotic exchange between Danforth and one of his aides casts doubt on whether Omega even exists ("Omega is as real as we need it to be," Danforth declares).Because 'The Osterman Weekend' is so ludicrously overplotted (it borders on narrative incoherence), and because it's easy to just give up on trying to follow the plot and just kick back and wait for the action scenes instead, the twist almost convinces on first viewing. Subsequent viewings throw up a raft of inconsistencies. Put bluntly, this movie's got more holes than a lump of Swiss cheese. For example:

Why does Danforth order the hit on Fassett's wife? (A throwaway line makes reference to her being employed at the Polish Embassy. Not even the Russian Embassy, for fuck's sake! And if Danforth, as Fassett's boss, was worried about his employee possibly being compromised, wouldn't it be less troublesome to bump Fassett's security clearance down a few notches rather than having his missus whacked?)

How does Fassett find out that Danforth ordered the hit? And if he's convincingly created a non-existent spy ring and manipulated evidence to implicate Osterman, Cardone and Tremayne, why doesn't he just implicate Danforth and destroy his career that way?

If Omega doesn't exist and Osterman, Cardone and Tremayne aren't members of a Russian spy ring (all they're conspiring in is a tax dodge), why do they freak out when Fassett flashes up the Omega symbol while they're watching a home video at Tanner's house? (Granted, the implication exists that Omega is the Swiss bank in which they're squirreling away their retirement fund.)

Who's behind the kidnap attempt on Ali and Steve? Can't be Omega since they either don't exist or they're a bank. It's suggested that Fassett masterminds it, the better to get Ali and Steve back to the house (their absence would be suspicious), but Tanner tells Fassett of his plans literally seconds before he bundles Ali and Steve into the car and drives off. The staged kidnapping is flamboyantly elaborate, utilising cars, helicopters, industrial machinery, a dozen or so men and the apparent gunning down of an "enemy" agent - surely something that even a man of Fassett's calibre would be hard pressed to organise at a moment's notice.

Why, during a shoot-out at Tanner's pool house between Tanner (now aided by Osterman) and Fassett's men, does Fassett give the order to take them both out? The object of the exercise is to secure Tanner's co-operation in using 'Face to Face' as a platform against Danforth. With Tanner dead he'd be back to square one.

There are more narrative problems than these - many more - but why dwell on the aspects of the film that don't work? Blame can easily be apportioned and none of it is Peckinpah's. Robert Ludlum's novel - though the mechanics of structure and narrative are worked out differently - doesn't make a whole lot of sense, either. The screenplay - by Alan Sharp (from a separately credited adaptation by Ian Masters) - fails to establish a clear narrative through-line and only succeeds in confusing things.

So what does work about 'The Osterman Weekend'? Peckinpah himself certainly didn't claim credit for very much. He notoriously remarked, having finished work on it, that he'd just made his first exploitation movie. You can see his point. The violence is apropos of nothing. The expression of that violence - hand-to-hand, whatever's-to-hand, artillery, crossbows - comes across as the product of a checklist rather than the organic development and visceral resolution of psychologically established conflicts a la much of Peckinpah's other work. The nudity is half-hearted, curious sexless and seems to be fulfilling a quota. In many respects, 'The Osterman Weekend' is determinedly formulaic.

But, while it's budgetary restrictions are as painfully evident as the fact that the espionage genre was singularly not its director's metier, 'The Osterman Weekend' boasts some sneakily subversive moments where Peckinpah dodges the shortcomings of the material (and even arguably exploits them) to create something that is clearly his own. Peckinpah's key theme - alongside considerations of honour and loyalty and a keenly observed depiction of how men interact - was always the intrusion of technology. Technology as a destructive force. When 'The Osterman Weekend' was made, home video was presenting cinema with its greatest threat since the television set became omnipresent in American homes in the 1950s. There were now greater opportunities for producers to make low-budget fare, usually bracketed firmly in the exploitation category, and release them direct to video. Indeed, 'The Osterman Weekend' found its audience on VHS. Ironic, since the film functions best as a deconstruction of audience addiction to the small screen and the manipulation of the moving image.

The opening sequence shows Fassett and his wife making love (she is murdered shortly afterwards); the footage is revealed as a surveillance tape Danforth and his aide are reviewing. And yet the multiplicity of camera angles and sophistication of editing far remove it from CCTV or security footage; it has, instead, the feeling of a "mini-movie". Thus Peckinpah sets out his stall: he is concerned less with Ludlum's tricksy, convoluted plotting than the nature of perception and the audience's complicity in the images they view. Tanner has made his living from TV. His house and lifestyle are testament to the financial rewards he has gleaned from his TV show; a show in which he puts his guests on the spot, his editors cutting to unflattering close-ups while these unfortunates squirm under difficult questions, while presenting Tanner himself as righteous and unflappable. There's a small pleasure to be had - one laced with schadenfreude - in watching Fassett turn the medium against Tanner. In this respect, there's a slender case to be made for 'The Osterman Weekend' as a 'Peeping Tom' for the VCR generation. "Just another episode of this whole snuff soap opera we're all in," is how Fassett puts it. Tanner, although ostensibly triumphant, is nonetheless forced to re-evaluate his life and work in the closing frames, "Television programmes are just a filler between attempts to steal your life," he muses. "So if you want to save some, switch off. It's simple. It's done with the hand and what's left of your own free will."

The last shot is of two cameras pointing at an empty chair. There's something desperately valedictory about that image.

Monday, December 28, 2009

25 Years Gone

Sam Peckinpah
21 February 1925 - 28 December 1984

Sunday, December 27, 2009


"I hate somebody else paying my dues."

With 'Cross of Iron' roundly ignored at the box office and Peckinpah out of pocket to the tune of the $90,000 he put into the ailing production, it was imperative that he direct something commercial. That something was 'Convoy'. Its source material was a novelty song by one-hit-wonder C.W. McCall. Its target audience were the undiscerning cinema-goers who had made 'Smokey and the Bandit' such a hit and would go on to embrace 'The Cannonball Run' and its unholy trinity of car crashes, dumbass sheriffs and low-brow humour a few years later.

Peckinpah spent most of the shoot incapacitated. Various people pitched in to direct scenes, including James Coburn who had taken a position as second unit director in order to garner some behind-the-camera experience and Katy Haber, Peckinpah's partner at the time. When he did call the shots, he disregarded the script and had his cast ad-lib. As Weddle puts it in his biography, "simple, straightforward scenes ... turned into amorphous, convoluted and often incomprehensible improvisations". This technique, coupled with Peckinpah's frequent absences from the set, resulted in 'Convoy' wrapping almost a fortnight overschedule and a whopping $5 million overbudget - almost twice what it had been budgeted at. Peckinpah had shot nearly twice the amount of footage as on 'The Wild Bunch'. By the time he got to the editing room, he gave up. For the first time in his career, Peckinpah didn't find himself locked in a battle with producers over final cut and reductions to running time. He simply, without even completing a preview cut, turned the whole thing over to the studio and walked away.

None of this boded well for future projects, but all sins would doubtless have been forgiven after it took more than $46 million worldwide ... except for the stories that had filtered back to Tinseltown: stories of Peckinpah fucked up on booze and the Columbian marching powder, slumped in his director's chair or holed up in his trailer, the production at a standstill and the budget spiralling. It would be five years before he directed again.

Bunch of truckers. Poor little rich girl. Corrupt cop. Truck-stop fight. Convoy to the state line. Media coverage. Interstate police response. Political shenanigans. National Guard. River bridge. Truck vs tank. That's it, really.

There's a diminishing aspect to Peckinpah's approach to commercial/director-for-hire projects:

'The Getaway' - demonstrates solid, professional craftsmanship.

'The Killer Elite' - stages entire film as satirical comment on the emptiness of the material.

'Convoy' - thinks "fuck it" and gets wasted.

It's an easy film to knock, is 'Convoy'. There's no depth to it. The narrative is thinner than rice paper and strictly by-the-numbers. The characters are cardboard cut-outs. The truckers are two-fisted, hard-ass types who go by ridiculous 'handles' (CB identities) like Rubber Duck, Pig Pen and Black Widow, and spout borderline incoherent dialogue such as "what's your twenty" and "back 'em down, we got a bear in a plain brown wrapper". (The latter, according to my Gibberish-to-English Dictionary, translates as "slow down, there's a police officer in an unmarked car.") The action consists of big rigs ploughing through buildings and roadblocks and police cars getting trashed. The soundtrack is an endless variation on McCall's jangly, drawly hit single. What works quite well as a three-minute slice of vinyl rapidly becomes the aural equivalent of bastinado when expanded to fill huge tranches of narrative-free footage of trucks rolling through desolate landscapes.

There's some small pleasure in ticking off some of the Peckinpah Irregulars: Kris Kristofferson notches up his third appearance for Sam as Rubber Duck, the bearded, muscle-rippling truck driver who leads the convoy; Rubber Duck has a healthy disrespect for authority and a disinclination to wearing a shirt. This must be what appeals to poor little rich girl Melissa (Ali MacGraw, making it a second Peckinpah role after 'The Getaway') - she certainly wastes no time checking out his sleeper cab. Elsewhere, Ernest Borgnine and Burt Young also notch up their second go-around for Peckinpah. The performances, though, range from hammy (Borgnine) to comatose (Kristofferson) to just plain bad (MacGraw).

All things considered, it would be easy to call 'Convoy' Sam Peckinpah's worst film, end the review here and slouch off for a drink. But there's still something about the film that fixes it thematically in Peckinpah's ouevre. Maybe it's the whole truckers as modern day cowboys thing. Get behind that and you can go off on a spurious tangent that allows you to compare the corrupt synergy of law (Borgnine's bribe-taking cop 'Dirty' Lyle) and politics (Seymour Cassel's showboating governor) with the conspiracy behind the Kid's death in 'Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid'; that allows you to connect Rubber Duck's suicidal attempt to ram a tank with his truck to Billy's decision to return to Fort Sumner in defiance of Chisum and Governor Wallace; that allows you to liken the truckers' rescue of Spider Mike from a racist attack by the cops to the vengeful beating the Reverend Dahlstrom administers after one of the volunteers is racially harrassed in 'Major Dundee'; that allows you to bracket Rubber Duck and his leadership of the convoy with Pike Bishop and the Bunch and Sergeant Steiner and his platoon.

But as soon as you've categorised 'Convoy' as essentially (though definitely not quintessentially) a Peckinpah movie, the thorny question arises: how much of 'Convoy' can Peckinpah actually be credited with?

'Convoy' is the least of Peckinpah's movies, the project he brought the least involvement and least enthusiasm to, and yet there is so much about it - even if these things are trace elements rather than leitmotifs - that makes it indubitably a Sam Peckinpah film. And you know what the crazy thing is? A 105-minute, C&W-scored, truck-porn movie aimed squarely at the hick shitkicker market shouldn't be as troublesome as this to get a handle on.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Cross of Iron

"I will show you how a Prussian officer can fight."
"And I will show you where the Iron Crosses grow."

Prior to sending Peckinpah a copy of Willi Heinrich's novel 'The Willing Flesh' with a view to collaborating with the maverick director on an adaptation, Wolf C. Hartwig's experience as a producer was limited to such masterpieces of world cinema as 'Mit Eva fing die Sunde an' ('Sin Began With Eve') and 'Schulmadchen-Report' (you'll get that one without the subtitles) parts 1 to 10. What this purveyor of pornography with a penchant for schoolgirl uniforms thought he was getting into is a matter for speculation.

Shooting took place in Yugoslavia, when production costs were cheap. Nonetheless, by the time shooting began, Hartwig had secured considerably less than the $4 million the film was budgeted at. His failings as a producer also extended to securing locations, ensuring costumes were ready and sets built by the appropriate time in the shooting schedule, and arranging the hire of military vehicles and hardware. In particular, Peckinpah had depended on the provision of a fleet of tanks and several aircraft. The aircraft never materialised and only three rusting, barely mobile tanks were made available. It's one of Peckinpah's great achievements on 'Cross of Iron' that he manages to make said tanks look like an entire approaching army.

Peckinpah's drinking was pronounced. Days were lost due to blackouts or confusion over scenes already shot. Weddle's biography has Peckinpah, after the picture has wrapped, discussing with his DoP the logistics of a huge battle scene that would never be shot. With money not just running out but unavailable to begin with, Peckinpah sunk $90,000 of his own savings into the production. Then Hartwig and co-producer Alex Winitsky arrived on set with the news that the scripted denouement was not to be filmed and a new, audience-friendly and (crucially) cheap to film ending was to replace it. Peckinpah was so distraught that star James Coburn took it upon himself to inform Hartwig and Winitsky in vehemently unambiguous terms that the film was going to end the way Peckinpah intended it; he also threw their asses off the set.

'Cross of Iron' finished filming as per the original ending and to Peckinpah's dictates. Sadly, it made little impression at the box office and, desperate to recoup his investment in it, Peckinpah accepted another director-for-hire assignment: the execrable 'Convoy'.

The Russian Front, 1943. Sergeant Steiner (James Coburn) leads his tight-knit troop back from an incursion behind enemy lines to discover that a new officer has been transferred in. Captain Stransy (Maximillian Schell) is Prussian, rigidly bound by the hierarchy of rank and has one objective: to win the Iron Cross. To put it mildly, Steiner and Stransky don't get on. A Russian attack on their position results in heavy losses and Steiner is badly injured. While recuperating in a field hospital, Steiner enters into a brief relationship with a nurse, Eva (Senta Berger). Rather than spin out his convalescence, however, he rejoins several of his men who have been deemed fit enough to be returned to active duty. Back at the front line, Stransky attempts to solicit Steiner as a witness to a report that paints the German counter-attack as successful (actually it was a shambles) and his part in it heroic (actually he proved himself a coward). Steiner refuses. Another sortie behind enemy lines sees Steiner and his men faced with a dangerous crossing through no-man's-land. Stransky seizes the opportunity to take Steiner out ...

David Weddle quotes James Coburn recalling pre-production on 'Cross of Iron'. The actor accompanied Peckinpah to the German film archives in Koblenz. They viewed German newsreel footage and Third Reich documentaries. In London they accessed similar archives. "We'd see this German newsreel film ... of some battle. Then when we got to London we saw the same footage edited completely differently for a propaganda film for the Russians. It's like there was this independent film unit out there shooting the war and selling the footage to both sides! Two totally different ideologies were editing it for their own purposes. So what we realised - and this really hit Sam - was that they were both liars."

This revelation clearly informs the opening credits sequence. A masterclass in montage and juxtaposition - right down to the soundtrack, which alternates between the innocent and plaintive strains of a child singing a folk song and a bombastically militaristic orchestral score - Peckinpah crafts a panoply of archive material into a provocative and brilliantly realised four minute mini-movie.

The opening credits already establish themselves as one of the film's great set-pieces. Others include the Russian onslaught and disastrous counter-attack, which segues into the sequence dealing with Steiner's experiences in the field hospital. Peckinpah's use of montage and editing are again unparalleled. In a purely imagistic fashion, he takes us from the visceral reality of the battlefield into a landscape that is bleaker, more disturbing and infinitely more difficult to conjure on film: that of his protagonist's psychological state, Steiner's mind fragmented by trauma. The cut from muzzle flash to the pencil beam of a nurse's torch strobing across Steiner's eyes is joltingly effective.

As the agitation of Steiner's mind subsides during his spell at the hospital, Peckinpah uses his relationship with Eva and a supposedly morale-boosting visit from a high-ranking office to make an almost Nietzschean comment on the effects on humanitarian behaviour by protracted conditions of war. "Do you love the war so much?" Eva demands at one point."Is that what's wrong with you, Steiner? Are you afraid of what you will do without it?" Steiner departs wordlessly and returns to the front. The scene is in stark contrast to an earlier moment during the bigwig's visit: the officer inspects the injured men, shaking hands and wishing them a quick recovery (naturlich: he wants them returned to active duty ASAP). Offering his hand to a heavily bandaged soldier in a wheelchair, a stump is thrust out at him in return. The officer hesitates then proffers his left hand. Another stump. The officer looks almost affronted and withdraws his hand. The soldier brings his leg sharply up in what can be taken as both a brutal parody of the Nazi salute and how much he'd like to kick the officer in the balls.

The blunt absence of sentimentality evidenced in these scenes is characteristic of 'Cross of Iron' at its most successful. Steiner's pragmatism is as unsparingly and minimalistically expressed as Pike Bishop's. His pre-reconnaisance instructions to the platoon: "Just bring what you need to kill with." On being questioned as to why some of his men died: "Bullets, mortar fire, artillery salvoes, bad luck, syphillis, the usual things." On religion: "I believe God is a sadist but probably doesn't even know it." The film's aesthetic demonstrates how Steiner's character has been formed: his antagonism towards his superiors is a natural by-product of his tight, "by example" leadership of his men. Steiner's only loyalty is to his men. There is no loyalty to country, to cause, to politics. As with Wolfgang Petersen's 'Das Boot', you quickly forget the characters are German; they simply become men, their souls brutalised by the horrors of war, their survival a day-to-day business. Uniforms look identical when plastered with mud or riddled with bullets. A photograph of Hitler is jarred from its position by mortar fire in an early scene and never rehung. Stransky's obsession with winning the Iron Cross is punctured when Colonel Brandt (James Mason) blithely says "Oh, we can give you one of mine" and unclips it from his tunic. The Iron Cross is thus devalued; worth no more than the "tin bill" that Will mocks Pat Garrett for wearing or the one that Sheriff Baker keeps in a kitchen drawer. The point is rammed home by Steiner (who, like Brandt, has been awarded the medal) in one of his frequent disagreements with Stransky:

Steiner: Why do you want it so badly? It's just a worthless piece of metal. Look.
Stransky: It's not worthless to me.
Steiner: Why is it so important to you? Tell me, Captain, why?
Stransky: Sergeant, if I go back without the Iron Cross, I couldn't face my family.

For all that the opening credits explicitly establish time, place and nationality, such specificity swiftly drains away as scene after scene plays out against the constant falling of shells in the background, In an early scene, a photograph of Hitler is jarred from its position when a shell lands nearby and is never rehung. The only other time Hitler is mentioned is during this telling exchange:

Steiner: Didn't your Fuhrer say that all class distinctions were to be abolished?
Stransky: I am an officer of the Wehrmacht! I have never been a Party member. I am a Prussian aristocrat and I don't want to be put into the same category.
Steiner: We agree for once.

'Cross of Iron' isn't about nationality; it's about class. It's about what smidgin of humanity can survive under continual bombardment, the omnipresence of death and the futility of war itself. It's about debunking the myth, present in cinema throughout the history of the medium, that conflict is iconic, heroic and glorious. It's about stealing the war movie back from propagandists. Sam Fuller's 'The Big Red One' posits that "the only glory in war is to survive". 'Cross of Iron' questions even this dictum. Peckinpah closes 'Cross of Iron' - his last great movie - with a quote from Berthold Brecht: "Don't rejoice in his defeat, you mean. For though the world stood up and stopped the bastard, the bitch that bore him is in heat again."

In 'Cross of Iron' there is no glory. None whatsoever.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Killer Elite

"Lay me seven to five, I’ll take the little guy."

In what was starting to become a pattern, Peckinpah responded to the box office failure of a small, personal picture (‘Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia’) by latching onto a commercial assignment. He had conjured massive returns and a storming comeback for Steve McQueen with ‘The Getaway’ after ‘Junior Bonner’ flopped, and still made what was obviously a Peckinpah film. ‘The Killer Elite’ was different beast to ‘The Getaway’, though.

Adapted by Marc Norman and Sterling Silliphant from Robert Rostand’s novel ‘Monkey in the Middle’ (thank God they changed the title!), this overplotted tale of CIA shenanigans and internal power struggles had a high profile cast – headlined by James Caan and Robert Duvall – and box office potential written all over it. Unfortunately, nothing in the material interested Peckinpah and his approach to the project was the antithesis of his dedicated professionalism on ‘The Getaway’. It didn’t help that Peckinpah developed a cocaine habit on set. The drug superseded alcohol as his addiction of choice.

‘The Killer Elite’ enjoyed a successful opening weekend before audience interest dropped off in the wake appalling reviews. Nonetheless, it did enough business that Peckinpah was offered two big-budget studio productions, both anticipated to be blockbusters: ‘Superman’ (which was) and the Dino de Laurentis produced ‘King Kong’ remake (which wasn’t). Peckinpah passed on both of them to make ‘Cross of Iron’.

ComTeg is a shadowy covert-ops outfit, that may or may not be CIA-approved, run by Arthur Hill (Cap Collis) and Lawrence Weyburn (Gig Young). Agents Mike Locken (James Caan) and George Hansen (Robert Duvall) are assigned to babysit Russian diplomat Vorodny (Helmut Dantine) at a remote safehouse. It’s here that Hansen goes renegade, killing Vorodny and disabling Locken by shooting him in the leg. Hansen then goes underground. Locken’s recovery is slow and painful. ComTeg earmark him for a desk job, which adds insult to his quite literal injuries. Then Weyburn, apparently operating independently of Collis, offers Locken a field assignment protecting Yuen Chung (Mako), a Japanese statesman who is openly opposed to San Francisco based Triad boss Negato Toku, with the caveat that the operation could well bring him back into conflict with Hansen. Weyburn encourages Locken to put his own team together. Eager for a chance to settle the score with Hansen, Locken agrees. But is he being manipulated? Is there a bigger picture here than the Chung/Toku and Locken/Hansen antagonism?

I’ve just wasted five minutes and 180 words on the above synopsis. If Peckinpah’s nakedly evident contempt for ‘The Killer Elite’ – which almost seems to permeate the very celluloid – is anything to go by, he had even less time for it. The opening credits sequence is a case in point. Against an uncontextualised soundtrack of children singing (the concept of children as witnesses to the very worst the adult world has to offer is the only signature Peckinpah trope that makes an appearance in ‘The Killer Elite’), Peckinpah assembles a montage so risibly cliched in its imagery and po-faced in execution that in can only be an exercise in parody. The camerawork is shadowy, the editing urgent, the children's voices swiftly replaced by an overly melodramatic score. A masonry drill burrows into brickwork, fetching up plaster and brick dust. Plastic explosive is tamped into the hole. A cable drum spools detonating cord. Sticks of dynamite are affixed to some pipework. Someone sets a timer. Someone else pours gasoline over a concrete floor. Replacing Jerry Fielding's score with the ‘Pink Panther’ theme is all it would take to make the joke explicit rather than implicit.

Throughout the montage, the credits appear in notably small lettering. Even on the big screen it must have had audiences squinting; on DVD it’s barely legible. It’s as if Peckinpah is seeking to spare the blushes of everyone involved in the making of such a soulless and formulaic movie. And that goes doubly for Peckinpah himself. Apart from having his name removed entirely, it’s hard to see how he could have distanced himself any further. Consider his "directed by" credit:

Yep, that’s right. The words "directed by", all on their ownsome, then seven cuts - seven fucking cuts - then his name, again on its ownsome, as if Peckinpah were saying "Who? Me? Direct this?"* And before you there’s any risk of the cinema-goers of 1975 putting two and two together and realising that, yes, actually this was directed by the man who made ‘The Wild Bunch’, he cuts from those tiny letters lost on a dark screen to a completely gratuitous display of pyrotechnics (why do Locken and co. blow up the building exactly? fucked if I know). Is he trying to burn away his association with the film? Quite probably. For most of the remainder of the running time he simply rubbishes the very movie he’s calling the shots on. The astounding thing is that everyone else seems to be in on it.

Caan and Burt Young (playing Locken’s wheelman) share as many embarrassed glances as they do facetious asides. Arthur Hill and Gig Young mumble their way through supposedly intense scenes as if they’re just killing time waiting for the pubs to open (which, in all likelihood, their director probably was). Duvall punctures an early scene by braying with manic laughter, as if he’d set eyes on the script for the first time. The kung-fu, ninja and swordplay scenes are staged almost comedically. The gunplay and slo-mo are incorporated so deliberately and inelegantly you’d think you were watching a send-up of a Peckinpah movie that just happened to be directed by Peckinpah himself. Then there’s the dialogue. Denied rewrite duties on the script, Peckinpah encouraged his cast to ad-lib sarcastic dialogue which accounts for James Caan and Burt Young’s tension-deflating banter during the climatic swordfight between Chung and Toku ("lay me seven to five," Caan grunts as the oriental antagonists lock swords, "I’ll take the little guy").

If this makes ‘The Killer Elite’ sound like it’s as funny as canister of laughing gas, to a certain degree it is. The very fact that Peckinpah elected to take the piss out of the material is what makes ‘The Killer Elite’ highly watchable. The action scenes, though bordering on parodic, are effective. Excellent use is made of locations, particularly Locken’s recruitment of Miller (Bo Hopkins) while the latter is clay pigeon shooting over the Golden Gate Bridge! Likewise, the climatic scene at a maritime "graveyard" for decomissioned naval vessels is atmospheric and memorable. Philip Lathrop’s cinematography makes good use of ’Scope and his compositions are good. The film as a whole is never less than entertaining.

And yet, for me, ‘The Killer Elite’ is a dispiriting. It heralds the last decade of Peckinpah’s life as a filmmaker - a decade in which he made, with the exception of ‘Cross of Iron’, the least interesting, least personal and most generic films of his career. It offers precious few of the Peckinpah Irregulars in keynote roles (Bo Hopkins returns from ‘The Wild Bunch’ and ‘The Getaway’ and Gig Young from ‘Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia’ and that’s your lot. It links into none of the themes and concerns that define him as at artist (even ‘Convoy’ can be viewed as a contemporary western, truckers replacing cowboys, while there’s a small case to be made for ‘The Osterman Weekend’ as a critique on the intrusive/destructive influence of technology and the small screen as the bastardisation of cinema). True, it’s not the sprawling, incoherent, narratively pointless mess that ‘Convoy’ is. At the very least, it tells a story - albeit an overplotted and not particularly engaging one. But that’s not the point. The point is that ‘The Killer Elite’ was the first time Sam Peckinpah directed a film and didn’t give a shit. That’s what’s so depressing.

*I’ve wracked my brains, conferred with other cineastes and interrogated the internet and I can’t come up with any other film where the director cuts himself loose from his own credit.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Peckinpah month: links & resources #4

Evil Dead Junkie at Things That Don’t Suck makes it a hat-trick, following his excellent reviews on ‘Ride the High Country’ and ‘Major Dundee’ with an equally recommended piece on ‘Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid’ – essential reading for anyone enamoured of or intrigued by this episodic and elegiac western.

Tommy Salami at Pluck You, Too! (great name for a blog!) writes about ‘The Killer Elite’ with gusto. (I’ve only just picked up your comment, Tommy; thanks for the contribution and apologies for not linking to you earlier.)

The Director’s Chair has an interview with Peckinpah, originally published in Rocky Mountain Magazine in 1982, entitled ‘Last of the Desperadoes: Duelling with Sam Peckinpah’. Writer E. Jean Carroll meets the director towards the end of his career, but still finds him full of fire and brimstone.

‘Eyes Opening Up’ by Michael Sragow (on looks at the intertwined controversies surrounding ‘Straw Dogs’ and ‘A Clockwork Orange’ as well as making a broader comparison of Peckinpah and Kubrick’s careers. Written in 1999 and occasioned by the death of Kubrick shortly after completing ‘Eyes Wide Shut’, Sragow advocates his readers to “flip Sam Peckinpah’s ‘Straw Dogs’ into the VCR after dozing through Stanley Kubrick’s valedictory and it registers like the shock pads on failed hearts in medical shows - suddenly, you can feel again.”

A couple of longer pieces for Peckinpah fans with a bit of time on their hands: either you’ve already finished work for the holidays or, like me, you’re kicking your feet at the office and waiting for them to start. Shooting Down Pictures has an epic piece on ‘The Getaway’, part review, part making-of article, including quotes from cast, crew, critics and anyone in any way qualified to pass comment on this classic ’70s thriller, while John Sanchez’s article ‘Sam Peckinpah – Hollywood’s Last Rebel Director’ (on Associated Content) celebrates Peckinpah’s maverick approach to filmmaking and provides an overview of all the films.

Meanwhile, back at this blog, I’ll be reviewing ‘The Killer Elite’ tomorrow, taking a break on Christmas Day, then storming back on Boxing Day to look at the last few films in the run up to the New Year.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia

"Nobody loses all the time."

The basic idea for 'Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia' was Frank Kowalski's: a crime boss puts a bounty one someone's head, but with the twist that said individual is already dead. Peckinpah worked with Gordon Dawson (who had done some uncredited script work on 'The Ballad of Cable Hogue' and was associate producer of that film and 'The Getaway') on the screenplay. Producer Martin Baum was looking for a project for his newly formed company Optimus Productions. He had a deal with United Artists and, on the basis of a palimpsest of Peckinpah and Dawson's script (just 25 pages), he green-lighted the production. Peckinpah was hot from 'The Getaway' and 'Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid' was about to go before the cameras.

'Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid' turned into a war between Peckinpah and MGM head honcho James Aubrey. David Weddle, in his biography, portrays a weary and defeated Peckinpah at the helm of 'Alfredo Garcia': "the production proceeded smoothly, but a blanket of melancholy settled over the company. It wasn't like the old days. Something had happened to Sam; the flame in those hazel eyes had flickered out." Maybe, maybe not. I find it difficult to watch 'Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia' and entertain the notion of a lifeless and unmotivated Peckinpah calling the shots. An exhausted Peckinpah, yes; a Peckinpah retreating to Mexico like Pike Bishop or Doc McCoy; a Peckinpah going a little crazy, losing it a bit. But not a defeated Peckinpah. Peckinpah was a true maverick and 'Alfredo Garcia' is the single most maverick film on his CV. It's also unique in being the only thing he made that wasn't fucked with at some stage of production. "I did 'Alfredo Garcia'," he said later, "and I did exactly what I wanted to, good or bad, like it or not. That was my film."

Amen to that.

Mexican crimelord El Jefe (Emilio Fernandez) has his daughter tortured until she gives up the name of the non-Jefe-approved individual who made her pregnant. His name? Well, the clue's in the title. Jefe's heavies start combing Mexico, among their number Sappensly (Robert Webber) and Quill (Gig Young). Flashing around Alfredo's photograph in a seedy bar, they come across Bennie (Warren Oates), a down-at-heel American making a meagre living pounding out 'Guantanamera' for the tourists on a tinny old piano. Bennie says he'll ask around. Bennie has an inkling that his on-off girlfriend Elita (Isela Vega) - a sometime hooker, sometime lounge singer - might know Alfredo's whereabouts, having recently had a fling with him. Bennie discovers where Alfredo is and that he's not going anywhere. A car accident has rendered him recently deceased. Bennie and Elita take off for Alfredo's final resting place, with Sappensley and Quill making it clear they'll come looking for him in four days. A couple of bounty hunters tail them. En route, a couple of bikers harrass them. Then they arrive at the graveyard and things just get worse ...

There are two common misconceptions about 'Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia':

1) It's about a man who commits grave robbery and becomes a killer for a million dollar bounty. (Actually, it's not until the last scene at El Jefe's hacienda that Bennie realises the true value of Alfredo's head; up till then he's done what he's done for a mere couple of thousand.)

2) It's a nihilistic film.

'Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia' is many things, including bleak and cynical, but it's certainly not nihilistic. And for every bleak or cynical aspect of the film, there are plenty of moments that are tender, romantic, poetic and surprisingly funny. The first time I saw 'Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia' was at Nottingham's Broadway Cinema as part of their now sadly defunct Shots in the Dark Festival back in the early '90s. It was a straight-down-the-middle divisive viewing experience. Half the audience found it uproariously funny, the other half sat there in stony silence. I loved it immediately and knew that I'd just seen something unique; a true one-off.

One of the most gratifying discoveries I've made in scouring the internet for information and resources on Peckinpah as part of this project is just how much love there is for 'Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia'. I've long been of the opinion that it's a film more heard of than seen. And not always appreciated by those who have seen it. Paul Seydor, quoted in Weddle's biography, remarks "Fifty or a hundred years from now people will be looking back on that film the way we look back on Faulkner today. Professors used to get fired or denied tenure for arguing that Faulkner was a great writer; today he's recognised as one of the greatest American writers. People will look back on us and wonder why we failed to understand 'Alfredo Garcia'."

From what I've come across on the net, I'd hazard a guess that, thirty five years down the line, the rennaissance Seydor anticipated is already under way.

I've linked to all of these posts previously, but it's worth doing so again. An article at Technicolor Dreams identifies the film as "Peckinpah's crippled swan song to Hollywood". JD at Radiator Heaven delves behind the scenes and finds how attuned Peckinpah was to the "dirt-poor parts of Mexico that you will not find in a tourist brochure any time soon". For JB at The Phantom Country it's a study of male virility, while Kim Morgan at Sunset Gun tunes into the film's romanticism. All of these writers love 'Alfredo Garcia' wholeheartedly and all of them find something specific to love about it, something personal to them. Between their various posts, they find so many facets that there's probably no need for me to write any of this. But in the spirit of flying the flag for Peckinpah's most misunderstood film, here's my 1,500 words anyway.

'Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia' unfolds like a waking dream equally suffused with melancholy and inspired gallows humour. It establishes narrative perameters and motivations coterminous to plot-driven crime cinema, then disinterestedly shucks off all narrative considerations and meanders off into the realms of ... well, pick your own description: mood piece, tone poem, art film, head fuck, all of the above. It's a film so rich in ambiguity and so entirely its own that it defies conventional analysis. Which is why I'm going to abandon the approach I've taken in the previous articles in this month's blog-a-thon; why, instead, I'm just going to list, at random, a handful of the reasons 'Alfredo Garcia' occupies the place it does in my cinematic affections.

I love how tenderly, grubbily and believably the relationship between Bennie and Elita is brought to life. How Elita's previous life still riles him ("You're a lyin', cheatin', no-good, two-bit bitch," he grunts at one point, the turn of phrase leaving little room for ambiguity), yet how protective he is of her, how righteously indignant he gets at the motel owner who remembers Elita as a hooker and refuses her a room - Bennie sets the man straight in no uncertain terms and secures "the best room in the house". Bennie and Elita, as a couple, are fiery, passionate, argumentative, tender, rock solid together and totally vulnerable. Peckinpah threw himself headfirst into relationships and often saw them self-destruct. He knew the territory.

I love how the story essentially steals back from Charles B. FitzSimons the basic set-up of 'The Deadly Companions' (odyssey with corpse), taking what is little more than a gimmick in that early and severely compromised film and here demonstrating in unflinching and fly-blown detail the logistics of hauling a decomposing body part long distance. (Great scene: Bennie stops at a cantina to buy ice for an ad hoc head/refrigeration procedure. A kid notices the putrid burlap sack in Bennie's passenger seat, flies swarming around it, and asks about the contents. "Cat," Bennie replies. "Dead cat. Belonged to a friend of mine.")

I love how the set-up offers a very strong, identifiably genre-based hook, how the melding of imagery redolent of the western films and 'The Getaway' seem to point in a certain direction, only for any semblance of a traditional/generic narrative to devolve, fragment and segue into something weird, hallucinogenic and indefinable the further into his (and Peckinpah's and the audience's) heart of darkness Bennie journeys.

I love Bennie's monologues with Alfredo's head and how they develop out of his conversations with Elita earlier in the film. "The church cuts off the feet, fingers, any other goddamn thing from the saints, don't they?" Bennie postulates, evoking the sacred object as fetish in order to justify a spot of grave-robbing: "Well, what the hell? Alfredo's a saint. He's the saint of our money." Later, Elita gone and the money of no use to Bennie, he berates and abuses Alfredo: "You've got jewels in your ears, diamonds up your nose ... You son of bitch, I'll be damned if she's not keeping the best part of you company."

I love Bennie's shabby white suit and indifferent attitude to his musicianship. He makes me think of a bizarre filmic parallel universe where Dirk Bogarde's Von Aschenbach in 'Death in Venice' gets down with his more earthy side, ends up in some Mexican backwater and gets over the whole Tadzio thing with the help of a flame-headed and voluptuous siren.

I love that the film simultaneously plays to and flies in the face of the tired old criticisms of misogyny and violence levelled at Peckinpah.

Yes, the women in the film are ill-treated, but they are proud, strong and defiant and so much more knowing than the men ("I've been here before," Elita tells Bennie at one point, in a line which kicks that much harder once you know the context, "and you don't know the way." El Jefe's daughter, too; she withstands her father's power games for as long as she can before confessing Alfredo's name; in the final minutes of the film, however, she's the one in control who gives Bennie leave to do what he's been fixing to do since that awful moment in the graveyard. Yes, there is gunplay and blood squibs explode: Peckinpah's doing it deliberately, taking the piss out of the people who see nothing in his films beyond the corpuscle content. Bennie blows an antagonist away, then pumps a superfluous bullet in his dead body. "Why?" he asks himself. "Because it feels so goddamn good." Note to everyone who hated the film back in 1974: this was a joke ... at your expense. So's that bravura final shot (Peckinpah's way of shrugging his shoulders and saying "okay then, if that's all you'll give me credit for, then here it fucking is"): freeze frame - close-up - the barrel of a smoking gun - "directed by Sam Peckinpah" stamped across it.