Wednesday, March 12, 2014

And Then There Were None

By sheer coincidence I watched two westerns recently that, while being very different from one another in many important ways, both happened to turn on the age-old plot strategy of establishing a group of characters in a dire situation, and then systematically whittling this group down to a lone scrappy party, whose survival functions both to crystallise a key thematic as well as to taper the narrative off with some degree of triumph. The history of this general premise in literature and genre cinema - my mind associates it most strongly with mystery in the former and horror in the latter - seems almost tied to the hip with the effect of suspense produced, but in the two westerns I watched, this wasn't really the case - events in both play out more as the logical outcome of dubious choices and suboptimal means. But it occurred to me in all of this that the western is a particularly apt canvas to play with this sort of approach: a more classically hermetic setting such as a mysterious old mansion or isolated island will inevitably plunge into a hotbed of hysteria and paranoia, whereas the expanse of the western landscape, loaded with eternal connotations, would seem to provide ample room for experimentation with throwing these dynamics into all sorts of relief.

The first western I watched was Posse from Hell (1961), a late Universal-International production directed by Hitchcock collaborator Herbert Coleman. It's almost proto-Peckinpah in the forcefulness of its violence and in the grim complexities flirted with in Audie Murphy's loner posse leader, and this is one of those darker roles that makes good use of Murphy's troubled intensity and low boil menace, one of those roles that Universal unfortunately only began throwing at Audie in the latter half of his career. Coleman seems to be a curious case, having only two directed features to his name, the other also starring Audie and also made in 1961, a war film for Fox called Battle at Bloody Beach. The second western I watched was Thomas Arslan's latest, Gold (2013). It seems that a lot of critics don't know quite what to do with this one, and that's not surprising considering that, like his previous film In the Shadows (2010) it is a deeply serious piece of genre filmmaking beholden to a deeply alien sensibility. Speaking strictly of those two, the only ones I've seen from him, Arslan is like Siegel mixed with Dumont: a terse, dynamic formal craftsman on one layer, and on the other a neo-Bressonian that uses his flat affect to play with audience expectation and build inexorable moods with swift, discomforting actions. Perhaps the crime film, by its very nature (socially "on the fringes") absorbs eccentricity more easily than the western (historically "on the front lines"), and that this may partly explain why Gold hasn't quite stuck its landing the way Shadows did. But I sense a deep regard invested by Arslan in both films, and the occasional awkwardness of Gold feels productive to me, as though its confronting us with the challenge of reconciling its earnestness with the various lines of tradition that pass through it. (Contrary to some of the fine pieces written, I'm not sure how much interest Arslan has in turning anything "inside out".) In any case, both westerns are recommended, and In the Shadows is recommended twice - a stunning, extremely great film.