Peckinpah’s teleplay sets the scene of a precursor to Richard Burton’s little book, A Christmas Story, about a toy train that doesn’t run on time, there’s a baby girl instead.
The direction pivots on the charm of the infant (John Dehner is the Jezebel-hating father).
The coda settles who and what is a child in this story, to be clothed and schooled.
The Deadly Companions
Gila City (The Ballad of Cable Hogue), the boy harmonica-player (Cross of Iron), a tale of North and South.
Let the dead bury the dead.
Sergio Leone went all the way in his critical analysis of this film with The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West, he understood it completely, whereas the New York Times pronounced it “tasteless”.
Close to the theme are such films as Burt Kennedy’s The Train Robbers, Arnold Laven’s Sam Whiskey, and Andrew V. McLaglen’s The Shadow Riders.
Little has been achieved in the critical understanding elsewhere, though Peckinpah’s telling images as aperçus have been glancingly noted (but not his Titian nude of Maureen O’Hara discreetly portrayed, nor her singing), and his fine sculpting of characters, and the acting (Brian Keith, Chill Wills, Steve Cochran, and O’Hara in advance of McLintock!).
Ride the High Country
The original of The Wild Bunch, from Brando’s One-Eyed Jacks.
The idea is that temptation comes to a lawman (Randolph Scott) the way a young girl (Mariette Hartley) longs to leave her stern father (R.G. Armstrong) for a bridegroom (James Drury) who isn’t suited for her. Against this, as a scientist’s “control” in technical parlance, is another lawman (Joel McCrea) unaffected.
Peckinpah has a good trick under the credits of a montage taken from various locations seen later, to give a sense of déjà vu to those unfamiliar with the California landscape, and thus a sense of ease (Godard uses this in another variation for Notre Musique, with Sarajevo). The olive trees and rough farm buildings, mountain passes scattered with snow, desert, mountains and scrub meadow, give a picture of California uncannily accurate. After the scene at the stream, he cranes up out of yellow autumn trees in a shot derived from Dmytryk’s Raintree County.
The mining camp anticipates Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller with Kate’s Place, advertising “men taken in and done for”, and this is where Elsa is married, not quite a saloon, as Bosley Crowther had it. The whores dress up for the nonce as flower girls.
All the banker Luther Sampson (Percy Helton) has to do is say the past is dead, “the day of the steady businessman has arrived,” to set a ball in motion. The trek to the camp with the girl and a young partner (Ron Starr) is a close likeness of Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai (“be happy in your work!”), and from his first scene entering town to cheers not meant for him, McCrea resembles William Holden strikingly, though he drops this by and by. Scott first appears in Cody wig and whiskers as The Oregon Kid, bilking locals at a traveling fair. The two worked Tombstone as Federal marshals once upon a time, and other towns, now sign up to carry gold down from the camp.
The verses quoted by Armstrong read more fully, “into the land of trouble and anguish, from whence come the young and old lion, the viper and fiery flying serpent, they will carry their riches upon the shoulders of young asses, and their treasures upon the bunches of camels, to a people that shall not profit them. For the Egyptians shall help in vain, and to no purpose: therefore have I cried concerning this, Their strength is to sit still.”
Peckinpah hasn’t seen Aldrich’s Vera Cruz at this time, or else the report is true that the editing was taken out of his hands, essentially. He omits the scene of a miner stooping to help a bird and shot dead on the spot (page one of the script), but pans on a handful of chickens and up to Armstrong’s face with a bullet hole in it, which announces the great shootout with Warren Oates fending off chickens in a barn and later taking potshots at them in vexation, and Scott charging on horseback like a Rough Rider.
George Roy Hill pays homage to the pair in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, coming down a mountain with sacks of gold. Elsa and her father and the partner make a Scottish trio in Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps, whereas Scott and McCrea bunking down in a barn are Borgnine and Holden in The Wild Bunch.
“The Phantom of the Desert takes on all comers,” reads the banner over Main Street at the opening where McCrea stumbles into a fixed camel race against horses (he’s wise to it). Oates’ rifle has a peculiar characteristic pa-chungk sound as he relentlessly fires off long rounds after the marriage is abrogated. He and his brothers are so mean, vile and uneducated they’d be picking up brides on television today (Crowther says they’re overdone).
Edgar Buchanan is touching and humorous as the “old soak” judge (his beating is curiously reflected by Ford in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance). The abstract colors of the fistfight in a Chinese restaurant are a concentrated achievement, visually rendering the sort of complexity developed in the later films by editing. The last scene is remembered by Siegel in The Shootist (and by Brook in King Lear).
A brutal picture of 1864-1865 viewed as the end of the Civil War.
An Apache war party faced by both sides necessitates a sojourn over the border, the French army must be fought to return.
This is a succinct, surreal language for a problem of the epoch substantially dealt with in The Birth of a Nation (dir. D.W. Griffith) and Bandolero! or The Undefeated (dir. Andrew V. McLaglen).
The final battle achieves a very beautiful rhythm in the editing, highly influential or characteristic of later productions.
The death of a hired man, out of Katherine Anne Porter by Peckinpah.
Several startling revelations precede and include the finale. It all takes place somewhere else than North Dakota or Georgia or Pennsylvania, a long time ago.
Peckinpah received rare nominations for this, from both the Writers Guild and the Directors Guild.
The Wild Bunch
Washers from the railroad, guns for General Mapache, the end of all things.
Aldrich is the main contributor in Vera Cruz, to this is added à la Shakespeare the pure counterpoint of Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, this is the grand formal experiment carried forth in later films, here on the monumental scale associated with period films of the American west, to which (concurrent with Hathaway’s True Grit) special attention is paid in the opening scenes. Hitchcock’s favorite device of interpolations as mental images finds expression here, also Mankiewicz’ view of Mexico at the river (There Was a Crooked Man...).
Fernandez’ Soy puro mexicano with its German agents has the director himself in service to them as Mapache (Fernandez is a great student of painters, the girls in the wine vat are from Gauguin). David Lean’s horses in Lawrence of Arabia are made to set up a gag from John Frankenheimer’s The Train.
The editing of the battle sequences is Peckinpah’s great discovery from Aldrich (and Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde). Outside of this, he has another of his own that puts champ contre champ on a temporal plane, fitting the shots together appositely.
On the other hand... as the train is being stolen, Robert Ryan in the soldiers’ car takes stock of the situation. You see his face, and then what he’s looking at (the sleeping officer, a grinning enlisted man, a staring one). This is Wilbur, awaking from his punch, taking stock of his situation in The Maltese Falcon, and Michael Powell’s vicar (The Spy in Black), Hitchcock adapted it for The Birds.
The Ballad of Cable Hogue
40 mile o’ desert between Dead Dog and Gila City, familiarly known as Lizard.
This was the original idea of Ride the High Country (Gila monster shot to pieces), it goes nowhere but Cable Springs, a hole in the desert floor that brings up water in answer to a a prayer from a dying man (cf. Henry King’s The Song of Bernadette or Ingmar Bergman’s Virgin Spring).
He charges money for it, which is his sin, and kills to collect if necessary.
Everything that happens to him goes into John Huston’s The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (a close analysis) and Werner Herzog’s Fata Morgana (even closer), but that’s asymptotic compared to Peckinpah’s original sinner out West “where it wasn’t”.
Peckinpah on the war, his most complicated film.
The editing plan is now equipped to handle the complex array of allusions presented thematically in terrific crosscurrents like counterpoint or traffic, this primary function suggested in The Wild Bunch now includes action rather than supplying from Aldrich a basic component as battle sequences.
This is most significant, if we are to consider only one such construction that admits Kenton’s The Ghost of Frankenstein and Milestone’s Of Mice and Men and Hitchcock’s The Birds all at once, together and separate, without any difficulty.
The whole conception of cinema favored by Peckinpah is constantly in a sea of perspectives that flicker and don’t change but are subjoined to an absolute frequency generated by these waves, all the while critics on dry land are squabbling over the anecdote.
Frankenstein’s castle stormed by villagers is also and at the same time the Brenner farmhouse beset by inhuman attackers, and so forth. Editing all this together gives Peckinpah the small glints of character that slowly build up into really accurate dramatic compositions abetted by actors capable of them, and to unveil this great discovery nothing more is needed than a house, a pub and a church hall “in the west of England”.
The major irony of all this form is set up by Jerry Fielding’s persistent harping on L’Histoire du soldat throughout.
You either ride the bull or shoot it.
Well, there’s such a thing as riding the bull, and then there’s selling the ground from under your own feet, what you might call the third dimension is America.
Variety’s review is a plain dead giveaway (“somewhat biased... caricature conformity... Peckinpah’s reputation for violence is herein exorcised... others may perceive a bit more”).
The dilemma is borrowed from Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (dir. Richard Brooks) and suitably modified for a rodeo picture.
Vincent Canby of the New York Times felt a relief from “gross, intellectualized mayhem”.
Peckinpah’s definitive statement on Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, proceeding from Dassin’s Brute Force in a model Texas prison.
From the rockpile to the river, from the “manure pile” to Mexico. The rockpile at Huntsville is actually a brushpile, Starbuck in South Texas is deprecated at the opening of The Wild Bunch, Beacon City is the same sort of place.
The “break” defined by Samuel Beckett is resolved according to the terms presented by Thornton Wilder, reader to writer. This makes for a paradisal existence.
The key shot is very brief, Doc & Mrs. McCoy leveling pistols at each other in the upper left background, Beynon’s dead body in the lower right foreground. It is repeated exactly, without the pistols, when the couple quarrel in the train station, the position of the body is taken by empty waiting-room benches like pews.
The further problem raised in Beckett’s “Recent Irish Poetry”, a turning away from the center, is resolved by the manner of construction in “l’onde toi devenue” (Mallarmé).
Critics have held it means “nothing”, for better or worse, not even a critique. The alternative reading is provided by Rudy and the Clintons (Mr. Clinton is a veterinarian). Hitchcock has been cited by some reviewers as a notable influence, Bonnie and Clyde is a constant reference point.
Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid
If there were two films Peckinpah never forgot, they were Aldrich’s Vera Cruz and Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, Brando’s One-Eyed Jacks is another (cp. Ride the High Country). Almost certainly Peckinpah’s greatest masterpiece.
The absence of an authorial print has needlessly left the issue much in doubt among those who can’t believe their eyes. The main basis of reflection is John Ford (also John Sturges and Marlon Brando), but the lambent montage is capable of Chuck Jones and Arthur Penn as well, and Frederic Remington to boot.
The great divide is a theme in Frost, Nabokov and Borges. “Postmodern” signifies here as elsewhere the significant lack of vocabulary to address the problem of technique. If Peckinpah is Postmodern, so is John Ford, and the critic is left in a position corresponding to that of the classical music radio station manager who, seeking to avoid what he calls “turn-off music,” absconds with the heritage by abstracting dissonance from the airwaves, leaving only Tartini and Fasch. “A good dissonance is like a man,” says Charles Ives.
Peckinpah has multiplied his effects tenfold, the quincunx of The Ballad of Cable Hogue and the master editing plan of The Wild Bunch are both here and raised in an enveloping ambiance of structural formality that gives the useful impression of a split screen with manifold views. The mysteriousness of this masks nothing, never was Jason Robards more mercurial, Jack Elam more rabbinical, or James Coburn more serious. Kris Kristofferson’s performance has been idly dispraised.
No acting goes astray here, validated as it all is by very precise weights. Observe the technique, exceptionally. Garrett corrals Sheriff Baker (Slim Pickens) for a raid on an outlaw hideout. A unique handheld POV gives the former’s view of the latter’s half-finished boat. Sheriff Baker is killed in the raid.
The camera typically doesn’t move but stilly records simple movements in quick editing. Intercutting is not sought so much as a general acceleration, so that the components of a scene cohere by a persistence of vision extending the art.
Of this, Roger Ebert said “the less said the better,” Vincent Canby “the film is mostly a bloody mess”, Stanley Kauffmann “shows what Peckinpah can do when he doesn’t put his mind to it,” Variety dispraised it at 106 minutes.
“Restored and reassembled”, Time Out Film Guide had good words. Halliwell’s Film Guide cites “poor direction” and Pauline Kael of The New Yorker, “peculiarly unrealized.”
Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia
He is dead, to be sure, an extinguished Lothario, wanted dead, ordered dead, drunk at the wheel, in Peckinpah’s telling of it.
Straight forward to The Killer Elite and Cross of Iron (by which time he is dissolved into his matter’s energy), this bit of magnificence, a remake of The Wild Bunch.
It enables a further thrust, the countertheme is Fernandez’ Una Cita de Amor.
That is enough, in the most sparing and prototypically classical Peckinpah setups, to give the furious declensions of meaning to every scene, after the general manner of Straw Dogs, the baroque style of which is mocked in the assassins’ itinerary, EL HERMANO LOBO, BARBARELLA, etc.
The squalid torpor of Mexico is contrasted with the subtle hieratic magnificence of the don’s hacienda behind gates guarded by machine guns.
The Killer Elite
Peckinpah on the war in the Pacific.
The overall form is suggested by the invention of ComTeg (Communications Integrity), a special agency said to eliminate defectors and the like. The structure is in two parts, separated by a convalescence like the one in Cross of Iron.
The first part prefigures the collapse of the Soviet Union and a reaction by those interested in maintaining the arms race, say. The second turns to China in a much lengthier elaboration beginning at San Francisco International and thence to Chinatown, the docks at night, and the Mothball Fleet.
The main structural pillars are Furie’s The Ipcress File and Huston’s The Mackintosh Man (the standoff at the end of Huston’s film is reproduced exactly, but with a difference, in the penultimate scene of The Killer Elite).
The Ipcress File figures in the “housecleaning” operation run by the head of the agency (in the end, the relationship of the CIA to ComTeg is a formal ploy). The essence of a formal problem is developed in this way, the relationship of Lawrence Weyburn (Gig Young) and Cap Collis (Arthur Hill), the two top men at ComTeg, is precisely that of their operatives Mike Locken (James Caan) and George Hansen (Robert Duvall)—that is, one of them is a traitor—and also, that of Mike Locken and his colleague Mac (Burt Young) in the end and beyond the film.
This is exceptionally subtle, and not only justifies Ebert’s confessed incomprehension without excusing it, but makes glorious the assertion by some that the work is a “muddle” because of alcohol and drugs, an insane charge leveled at Poe by his literary executor.
He briefly resumes the analytically time-conscious intercutting of The Wild Bunch during the shower scene, adding a third element to champ contre champ (Locken in the shower while Vorodny is liquidated), and obviating the need for split-screen.
The arrival of Yuen Chung (Mako) at the airport begins with an anticipation of The Osterman Weekend in a flurry of editing (the plane landing, shots of computers, etc.), then settles into kung fu fighting.
The final sequence, in which the samurai swordfight is purely symbolic, is said to have been pared down for release, but is characterized by Harry Callahan (the photographer) perspectives of a ninja falling in slow-motion between two ships, and is a modulation from the battle scenes of The Wild Bunch by way of the earlier kung fu sequence.
It remains to be said that Peckinpah clarifies somewhat the dénouement of The Mackintosh Man, adding an analysis through The Ipcress File and Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter to Joyce’s Shem and Shaun, probably, and incidentally anticipating Bertolucci’s 1900.
Cross of Iron
The basis is Riefenstahl’s Tag der Freiheit—Unsere Wehrmacht, the ending is that of Frankenheimer’s The Train, with a coda.
The secondary anecdote from Kubrick’s Paths of Glory provides the legend. Peckinpah is the sort of director who wins no prizes because they are superfluous and his “technique is barbed-wire to keep out the uninitiated”, substitute Biarritz for Cannes, Paris for New York or Hollywood, and you have a very pretty analysis.
The elegist observed by early critics proved them wrong again and again, well before Cross of Iron he was essentially discarded as a serious filmmaker. Thus the typical misfortune endured by directors often during their careers befell him, a misunderstanding that all his work dispels.
The essential themes are in Cross of Iron, with an open ending that satirically recalls Carol Reed’s The Way Ahead (Immortal Battalion), and if it is fooling to call Peckinpah’s film a spoof of prizewinners, the comedy is there in Maximilian Schell’s performance and the strangely feminine Russian tanks that storm the Germans’ Eastern Front in one of the mightiest hellish depictions of mechanized warfare ever, amid a general view of the horrors and heroics of war constantly portrayed around Kubrick’s trench bunkers, where all of Peckinpah’s resources go into the making of images in a very tight conjunction of facets (“truth is one,” says Schoenberg, “but it has many facets”).
Peckinpah on Capra, the stylistic turn is out of Needham’s Smokey and the Bandit and Hulette’s Breaker! Breaker! on a sheer basis of the Tarzan films, those 18-wheelers that charge the Alvarez jail are elephants stampeded by the Ape Man.
Peckinpah’s perfect calm in the vortex is presented to the camera with a bit part on a flatbed truck filming a series of highway interviews along the convoy as it progresses.
A more amusing film and more accomplished can’t be found, still there’s Capra’s Meet John Doe for another version of the ending, which makes the King of the Jungle the King of Kings.
But the greatest laugh next to any in the film is Vincent Canby’s and Variety’s hopping-mad rage and insolence like a bear not all there.
The Osterman Weekend
A memory of the McCarthy era, Edward R. Murrow, the blacklist and all that.
1984 (dir. Rudolph Cartier or Michael Anderson or Michael Radford) comes into play with the installation of cameras and monitors and speakers and microphones everywhere. The film has many red herrings and traps, it says so on more than one occasion.
The scheme is to blacken the reputation of three citizens as traitors, the personal design is to discredit the CIA Director, who carries out a political design by announcing his intention to authenticate the nonexistent spy ring before Congress, he wants to be President.
Specifically, the combination of personal and political ends is decried as antithetical to public office.
The plot befuddled and mystified Ebert, who nonetheless honestly wrote, “I do not understand this movie.”
A CIA agent’s wife has been killed on orders from the Director, it was a swap with the Russians. The agent concocts his plan in revenge, the Director doesn’t care if it’s true or false, it will sway Congress.
Canby wasn’t sure if the facts mattered, so it’s another case of nodding in the popcorn (the trio have Swiss bank accounts, their dealings are made to appear sinister in the extreme).