Cinephile’s Notebook: Way Out West 

Film Forum’s assertively canonical Essential Westerns series, focused on the finest Hollywood output, appears primarily concerned with defining the genre’s iconography; a useful public service, to be sure, but the cut-off date of 1962 pointedly leaves the story half-told (or maybe a little less, given the not entirely egalitarian de-emphasis of Westerns graded B through Z, but I digress). There’s a more splintered history on the nearer side of the Kennedy administration — that default cultural watermark — so, picking up where we were dropped off, here’s another anthology, presented in Film Forum fashion, as double features:

Ride in the Whirlwind (Monte Hellman, 1965) The Shooting (Monte Hellman, 1967)
The first wave of revisionism, consciously addressing the mythic elements of the Western; Hellman and Jack Nicholson co-produced both simultaneously with the backing of Roger Corman. The former, written by Nicholson, is a slight story elevated by Hellman’s spacious direction; the latter stars Warren Oates as a tracker on an increasingly existential chase.

The Left-Handed Gun (Arthur Penn, 1958) Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (Sam Peckinpah, 1973)
Depicting the same events in the life of Billy the Kid (Paul Newman and Kris Kristofferson, respectively), the two represent the contrast of both their eras and their directors — the guilt-ridden youth in Penn’s sympathetic psychological study versus the deeply conflicted elegiac nihilism of Peckinpah’s last Western.

Once Upon a Time in the West (Sergio Leone, 1970) Django (Sergio Corbucci, 1966)
The opus of the least typical, most famous director of spaghetti Westerns almost stumbles over its own hugeness; it plays like an American movie made by someone who had heard about American movies but never seen one. More representative is Django, which begins with its titular hero dragging a coffin through the mud; in the coffin is a machine gun (scenes of its deployment show up in The Harder They Come). Starring future Vanessa Redgrave baby daddy Franco Nero.

McCabe & Mrs. Miller (Robert Altman, 1971) The Claim (Michael Winterbottom, 2000)
The sublime, snowbound McCabe & Mrs.Miller is about people searching for warmth: Warren Beatty’s massive fur coat and the glow of Julie Christie’s opium pipe are stand-ins for intimacy. Its ultimate tragedy, played out in miniature throughout the film, is less death than a failure to communicate. Winterbottom borrows Altman’s cold blue exteriors and soft yellow interiors as he picks out fragments of Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge and lets the viewer shape the contours.


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