Thursday, September 24, 2009

Wagon Master, The Friends of Eddie Coyle

I hit the gold jackpot in movie watching recently, catching two titles in a row that are the best movies I’ve seen in ages. They both deal with community – one celebrating different groups of outcasts banding together in a temporary truce, while the other is a grim, depressing affair about a beaten man trying to escape a community of criminals.

The films are John Ford’s “Wagon Master” (1950) and Peter Yates’ “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” (1973). Two films that could not be more different, yet both make for thrilling and engaging movie watching.

Wagon Master
“Wagon Master” was supposedly John Ford’s favorite movie. It has an easy rhythm to it; like its wagon train traveling across Utah - it’s not in a hurry to get anywhere. There’s no story per se, but it’s packed with incident. There’s no opening or closing studio logo; the movie just begins. It’s like we’re witnesses to history, a story we just happen to arrive right in the middle of.

No marquee actor like John Wayne, James Stewart or Henry Fonda here, which is likely why it’s not more known. Hopefully the new DVD (a stunning transfer by the way) will go a long way in making the film better known.

Ben Johnson and Harry Carey, Jr. are two horse traders grudgingly convinced by a Mormon elder (Ward Bond) to lead a wagon train to a new settlement. The Mormons are being run out of town, so have no choice but to head across uncharted territory to a new settlement. Johnson and Carey know the way so agree to lead them.

The picture opens by placing us right in the middle of a bank robbery by the Cleggs. Uncle Shiloh (Charles Kemper) is the leader of his four sons (two of which are played by a young James Arness and Ford stock player favorite Hank Worden) who, after shooting an unarmed bank teller in the back, hijack the wagon train and use it to as a cover to hide from a pursuing posse.

Kemper is a revelation as the physically imposing Uncle Shiloh. He’s one of the most memorable bad guys in western film history. I think he has a grudging admiration for the Mormons and their manners, yet won’t hesitate to kill anyone who stands in his way. I was not familiar with Kemper and wondered why he wasn’t better known. It turns out he was killed in a car crash in 1950. His final film, “On Dangerous Ground” (1952) was released posthumously.

In addition to the Cleggs, the wagon train’s community grows with the addition of a medicine show troupe (Alan Mowbray, Joanne Dru and Ruth Clifford). They were also run out of town, so the two outcast groups temporarily join together.

There’s also a very memorable sequence where the Mormons are asked to join the Navajos at a dance. The Navajos like the Mormons, saying they are less corrupt than other white men.

That’s not the only dance in the film. There are several wonderfully staged square dance sequences with accompanying songs performed by the Sons of the Pioneers, a well-known vocal group also utilized by Ford in his other 1950 western “Rio Grande.”

Ford never directed a musical but this is the closest he ever came. Ford had an innate sense of where to place the camera to get the best shot possible at all time. He likely would have been bored by all the rehearsing necessary to film a musical, but watching “Wagon Master” you regret that he never did.

The Sons of the Pioneers also perform several songs throughout the movie written by Stan Jones. Wonderful songs they are too. If the movie was better known, the songs would be too.

The beauties of Monument Valley, Ford’s favorite local, are stunningly captured by Bert Glennon’s camera in beautiful black and white. There’s hardly any action until the end, but it’s as quick and violent a shootout as a 1950 western would allow.

The movie ends with a wonderful montage of wagon crossing, dancing and romantic stories tied up. We do get a title card that reads “The End’, but it really doesn’t. The film continues for another 15 seconds or so after “The End” title card disappears, as we see the wagon train a herd of horses cross a river, with a new young foal in the lead. Life goes on, and the community presses onward. There’s no end cast list and no end studio logo. The picture ends like it began – an ongoing story that will continue on long after the audience leaves.

“Wagon Master” only runs 85 minutes but each minute is a jewel. I enjoyed every minute of it and look forward to sharing it with others.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle

Much of the praise lavished on Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” mentions the brilliant opening dialogue sequence at a French farmhouse between a French farmer harboring Jewish neighbors and self-proclaimed Nazi killer Col. Hans Landa. Tarantino shows how intense well-written and delivered dialogue sequences can be, as thrilling as any large-scale action set piece. Viewers who thrilled to Tarantino’s movie would also likely enjoy “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” which is a whole series of beautifully written and performed meetings between criminals, undercover cops, informers and suppliers. It’s riveting from beginning to end.

Sporting a dead-on Boston accent, Robert Mitchum is Eddie Coyle, a beaten, low-level hood who is looking at jail time after being busted for smuggling illegal booze over the Canadian border. He’s willing to do anything to stay out of jail so his wife and kids won’t have to go on welfare. He’s even willing to turn informer, albeit reluctantly. His cop contact (Richard Jordan) wants more dirt than Eddie is willing to deliver. His friend (Alex Rocco) heads a bank robbery gang who look to Eddie to supply their guns. Eddie’s gun supplier (Steven Keats) also has a deal with some rebel Army kids to steal machine guns from the local Army base. His best friend (Peter Boyle) is a bartender who is also a stoolie for the cops. There’s no criminal code of honor on display here. Everyone is out to get whatever they can from each other.

All this is played out in a series of meetings in parking lots, cafeterias and all night restaurants in late autumn in Boston. The air of regret, lost hopes and dead avenues permeates every frame of this movie.

Eddie Coyle is one of Mitchum’s very best performances and that’s saying something, as he has delivered many seriously great performances. (Admittedly, Mitchum slept walk through just as many films if the project or role didn’t interest him. Have you ever seen him in the TV miniseries “The Winds of War” (1983)? He’s positively catatonic in that).

I’m sure Quentin Tarantino is a huge fan of this film. The gun runner’s name is Jackie Brown. When Tarantino adapted Elmore Leonard’s novel “Rum Punch” he changed the name of the character from Jackie Burke to Jackie Brown. It can’t be a coincidence.

Here’s sample of the dialogue, beautifully delivered by Mitchum when Jackie Brown tells Eddie he can’t make good on a gun delivery Eddie wants.

Coyle: All you got to know is I told the man that he could depend on me because you told me I could depend on you. Now one of us is gonna have a bit fat problem. Another thing I learned. If anybody’s gonna have a problem, you’re gonna be the one.

Brown: You finished?

Coyle: No, I am not finished. Look. I’m gettin’ old, you hear? I spent most of my life hanging around crummy joints with a buncha punks drinkin’ the beer, eatin’ the hash and the hot dogs and watching the other people go off to Florida while I’m sweatin’ out how I’m gonna pay the plumber. I done time and I stood up but I can’t take no more chances. Next time, it’s gonna be me goin’ to Florida.

This is 1970s cinema in the very best way, eschewing Hollywood glamour and stereotypes. It will stick with me for a long time.


Classicfilmboy said...

I've never seen The Wagon Master. It just went on my Tivo wish list. And it's been at least 20 years since I've seen Eddie Coyle. I had a coworker who constantly talked about how great that film was. I need to check it out again.

Kevin Deany said...

Brian: I hope you like "Wagon Master" when you see it. From a purely visual standpoint, it's one of the most beautifully photographed films I've ever seen.

Bill said...

Nice write up. Higgins' dialogue almost certainly influenced Tarantino, and David Mamet, and others. I think he invented the comic tangents over tension or violence that Tarantino took to new place.

If readers are going to be in Boston in December, The Friends of Eddie Coyle is about to become a stage play.