The latest ‘Matinee Classic’ at HOME in Manchester is the 1976 Western The Missouri Breaks. It has been programmed as part of a mini-season of offbeat Westerns to accompany the release of Slow West, the new film by John Maclean shot in New Zealand and Scotland and starring Michael Fassbender.
The ‘Missouri Breaks’ are the clefts in the landscape gouged out by the Missouri river in Montana close to the Canadian border. In the late 1880s this is the setting for a ‘twilight Western’ featuring Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson and directed by Arthur Penn. The film was both a commercial and critical flop in 1976 – partly because of the hype which surrounded the casting of two of the period’s major stars, each of whom earned a hefty fee and a cut of the gross once box office passed $10 million. Researching it now I see that Western film scholars such as Ed Buscombe and Phil Hardy rated the film highly and watching it again, nearly 40 years after I first saw it, I can see why.
The Missouri Breaks is both a ‘twilight film’ because the 1970s was the last decade of regular Western production and because its setting is the in the twilight of the ‘real’ Western frontier. The films of this period are all revisionist of the early certainties of the genre – more realist, more violent, more reflexive, more questioning. In this particular case the narrative also veers towards comedy, while maintaining the violence and sense of loss for the passing of an era. The overall ‘feel’ of the film comes from the novelist Thomas McGuane who wrote three screenplays in the 1970s as well as adapting one of his own novels and directing it himself. McGuane grew up in Michigan but moved to Montana in 1968 and his three Western screenplays all feature the same three characters locked in a deadly game – a rancher, a rustler and a detective or ‘regulator’. I loved Rancho Deluxe (1975) at the time with Jeff Bridges and Sam Waterston as the rustlers and Slim Pickens as the detective but was less taken by the biopic/drama Tom Horn (1981) with Steve McQueen as the regulator. The Missouri Breaks is arguably a more complex character study than either of those two films. Nicholson is the leader of a group of horse thieves and Brando (with a wandering accent) is Robert E. Lee Clayton, a notorious regulator brought in by rancher Braxton (John McLiam).
The film’s central theme is often seen in the twilight Western – the closing of the frontier and the pretensions of the cattle barons before Eastern capital comes in to take over. Montana was one of the last territories to be formally constituted as a state in 1889 when the ‘basic legal structure’ of the territory became more organised. Up until that point the newly powerful cattle barons like Braxton were able to dispense summary ‘justice’ (at least in the mythology of the Western). The Missouri Breaks thus begins with a hanging/lynching of a rustler carried out by Braxton’s men as a public event with picnicking women and children – some of them ‘sporting women’ according to the dialogue. Braxton justifies his action – an execution without trial – on the basis of the high percentage loss of cattle to rustling. He sits in his library surrounded by his works of ‘English literature’ like a country gentleman. Yet the northern trans-continental railway had already seen the final spike hammered in by President Grant in Montana in 1883. A train robbery features later in the film. The railway would both increase the efficiency of cattle transportation and bring in more aspects of East Coast culture. Braxton is already at the start of the film a ‘doomed man’ in terms of his business empire and his de facto judicial authority. This is the theme that is expanded in Heaven’s Gate (1980) perhaps the film that most clearly signalled the ‘end of the Western’ for Hollywood.
But The Missouri Breaks is arguably more interested in the personal stories of Braxton, his daughter, the horse thieves and the regulator. One of the elements in many twilight Westerns is the presence of two, usually male, characters who embody in some way the Western hero, the cowboy figure. It seems obvious to identify the film’s two stars as playing these characters from the twilight Western (though Harry Dean Stanton’s character is perhaps closer to the generic character). The point of these two characters is that they will have some kind of relationship and that through this they will define themselves in some way in relation to the ‘end of the West’. A classic example of this is in Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) in which Garrett has accepted his fate and sided with the cattle interests whereas Billy feels that he has to remain an outlaw. In The Missouri Breaks, Brando’s character is so attached to his ‘job’ as a regulator that eventually he will pursue the rustlers even though Braxton attempts to end his contract. By contrast, Nicholson’s character, Tom Logan, shows every sign of adaptability in developing new relationships and new interests. The regulator will soon be replaced not just by local sheriffs and courts but also by private agencies like the Pinkertons (Logan warns that robbing trains will bring in the Pinkertons, employed by the railroad). Another clue to this historical change is the sequence in which the horse thieves cross the border into Canada – and are pursued by the North West Mounted Police, in some ways a more ‘modern’ law enforcement agency than what was in operation in Montana.
For me the most enjoyable part of the film involves the romance between Logan and the rancher’s daughter, Jane, played by Kathleen Lloyd (mysteriously this was her first and last major cinema appearance). I think she is very good here and she seems to be a modern woman in many ways – resisting her father, taking something of a lead in seducing Nicholson (in a couple of enjoyably complex sequences) and ending the narrative confident and assertive. She quotes Samuel Johnson and utters the immortal line for a twilight Western: “Let’s just talk about the Wild West and how to get the hell out of it”. Jane is a recognisable McGuane woman, a character handled with skill by Arthur Penn. For me this is a good match between script and direction. I’m also impressed by Michael Butler’s cinematography (who had begun his career with Don Siegel’s Charley Varrick in 1973 and who had also lensed McGuane’s own 92 in the Shade, 1975). John Williams turns in a score that also worked for me. In fact, all the production credits are top notch. This is a production well worth re-visiting.
This sequel came out four years after the success of The French Connection. The only characters who carry over into the second film are the drug dealer Charnier (Fernando Rey) who escaped at the end of the first film and Jimmy ‘Popeye’ Doyle (Gene Hackman), the New York cop who first uncovered Charnier. The follow-up was written by Alexander Jacobs and Robert Dillon, both with crime thriller experience, and they invented what might have happened if Popeye went to Marseilles. The director too is changed. John Frankenheimer was an important filmmaker in the 1960s and into the 1970s. He lived (and worked) in France for a period and he spoke French. Apart from film editor Tom Rolf and composer Don Ellis (repeating his stint from the first film), the cast and crew are French with the distinguished cinematographer Claude Renoir and set designer Jacques Saulnier as the most notable figures.
Frankenheimer offers an audio commentary on the DVD telling us that he was a big fan of the first film and that he wanted to keep to the same documentary-style approach to shooting the film. But then, as he explains what happened, it becomes apparent that the film is slightly different in style – and very different in terms of the story. The story is simple. Charnier is still operating out of Marseilles and Doyle arrives in the city, on his own, with the intention of finding the dealer and closing the case. Of course, he expects to be working with the local police. But they don’t seem particularly willing to help him and he doesn’t speak French. Early on we learn that Doyle may be being set up but we are never introduced to his superiors in New York and we don’t know how ‘official’ his investigation is. (Also, we don’t know why he hasn’t got his partner with him.) With his porkpie hat, Doyle is very visible and is soon kidnapped by the villains. What follows is a tour de force by Gene Hackman – a character study of a man under great pressure. Doyle is a boorish lout but also a committed investigator. When the local police Inspector finally sets out to help him, Doyle will still be able to deliver the goods.
In his commentary Frankenheimer speaks of his huge admiration for Hackman’s acting. He explains that Hackman is often seen in longer shots (i.e. Medium Long Shot or Long Shot) because to frame him in closer shots would mean losing his expressive use of his body. Because of these long shots – emphasised sometimes by the visible use of zoom lenses – Marseilles plays a similar but differentiated role as an extra ‘player’ compared to the part played by Brooklyn in the first film. Frankenheimer is a master of large scale crowd scenes and the chase sequences here are more like those in vintage Hitchcock than the more tightly-focused chases in Friedkin’s film. We do get the chases through the streets (with an athletic Hackman doing his own stunts), but also we see tiny figures framed in wide vistas of the harbour and sea-front. Overall, the combination of cinematography, set design and choreography of action is excellent. The heart of the film, however, is the focus on Popeye when he is held by the drugs gang – reminding us that Frankenheimer was the great director of men under pressure in The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and Seconds (1966).
In the first third and the last third of French Connection II, this does feel like a possible sequel to the first film, but in between it becomes something else. This is emphasised by a key decision. Whereas in the first film, the French dialogue between members of the drugs gang was subtitled, here there are no subtitles – we experience the world as Popeye does. French conversations are not translated and Popeye flounders in his attempts to question suspects (the Poughkeepsie joke survives from the first film and becomes even more surreal). This works very well when Popeye is told by the Police Commissioner (in French) to pack his bags. “Do I need to translate?” says the Inspector. Popeye shakes his head – he isn’t so dumb that he can’t ‘read’ intonation and facial expressions.
As I’ve argued many times, French and American crime films are often in dialogue with one another. Here, Popeye abuses French police officers, the French language, French culture generally and causes mayhem with his violent methods. But his hosts do accept that his loutish behaviour is accompanied by persistence, bravery and single-mindedness as well some good investigative skills. Most of all, they admire his vitality – not a bad representation of American-French cultural relations, perhaps?
The 2014 French film The Connection (La French) offers quite a different take on the original ‘true story’ – and on representations of Marseilles – review to follow.
The ‘lobby card’ for this film reads,
Strange things are afoot in Bad City. The Iranian ghost town . . .
In fact the film was shot in the USA, with funding from Sundance, and the settings look as much like downtown Detroit as any urban area in Iran. The film has enjoyed good reviews from a number of quarters and has a catching trailer. However, ominously, it is also rather flashy. Which would be my single word summation for the film.
It runs for 101 minutes, though it seemed longer to me. The plusses are black and white cinematography, which, at time, is very good. And the pitch for the film is intriguing. Variety sums up as follows:
[This] debut feature spices its genre stew with elements of Lynchian neo-noir and even spaghetti Western.
This is true, though my sense of the film was that it relied heavily on borrowings from earlier films. Not just those suggested above but Jim Jarmusch’s recent Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) and the animated Persepolis (2007).
The plotting struck me as undynamic. And the style, whilst at times eye-catching, does not add to the brew. The techniques in the film appear to have been used rather haphazardly. To give one example, the use of deep focus. This technique depends on lenses, focal distances and lighting, but when well done can be very effective. In this film early on there is a scene with deep staging, but it is in shallow focus: not very helpful. Yet later in the film we get deep focus when the characters are in the foreground and there is an impressive palace in the back ground. The latter relies on CGI, which affects the technique. But I sense that the filmmakers did not really notice this discrepancy.
The Guardian review awards the film four stars. It also mentions another film directed by an Iranian-US citizen, Appropriate Behaviour (2014): a far superior offering. The review ends with
It’s a film with bite.
I reckon you can say that about all vampire movies, but some have sharper fangs.
The French Connection is the next ‘classic matinee’ screening at HOME in Manchester (next Sunday at 12.00 and Wednesday at 13.30). The logic behind this presentation (and French Connection II a fortnight later) derives from the upcoming UK release of The Connection (France-Belgium 2014) based on the same ‘true crime’ story of major drug dealing in 1960s Marseilles as part of the movement of heroin to North America from Turkey. This 1971 feature deals with the successful seizure led by two NY narcotics cops of a large consignment of drugs smuggled into New York by a French criminal gang. It is based on a non-fiction account of the true crime with names and characters changed in Ernest Tidyman’s script.
The Movie Brats
I would suggest that there are three reasons why the The French Connection is an important film, deserving its ‘classic status’. First it is one of the most successful films produced by the so-called ‘Movie Brats’ in the early 1970s – commercially popular with audiences and critically lauded, winning five of the most important Oscars in 1972. Friedkin wasn’t named in the core group of Movie Brats and he didn’t have the film school training but like many of the younger directors in the 1950s he had entered the business as a young man and worked his way up through TV before moving into cinema films in the late 1960s when he was in his early thirties. This made him one of the older Brats alongside Francis Ford Coppola and I think the only other film by him that I’ve seen was his British picture, an adaptation of Pinter’s The Birthday Party in 1969. He matched Coppola’s success with The Godfather films and The Conversation with this film and then The Exorcist in 1973. But, like Coppola, he suffered from the failure of his next couple of films, including Sorcerer, his remake of the classic Clouzot film The Wages of Fear. (Sorcerer came out in 1977 just after Star Wars and while Coppola was still working on Apocalypse Now.) The importance of the early films from the Movie Brats is that they formed part of the wider phenomenon of the ‘New Hollywood’ – the period between roughly 1965 and 1977 when the studios were losing power and new, younger directors were able to make more challenging films. In this sense two features of The French Connection stand out – its anti-hero, the thuggish but determined and focused narcotics cop ‘Popeye Doyle’, and the ‘street realism’ of the main setting in Brooklyn. These point to the second reason for the film’s importance.
There are several aspects of this move towards more realistic crime stories. It’s hard to imagine a character actor such as Gene Hackman playing the lead in a mainstream genre picture during the 1960s. When he won the Best Actor Oscar for this role Hackman was 42 years old. Yes, he’d twice been nominated as a Supporting Actor, (first in Bonnie and Clyde in 1967) but this was his first recognised ‘leading man’ success. What was also unusual about The French Connection‘s Oscar success was that it was classified as an ‘X’ in the UK (now ’18’). I’m not sure of the precise reasons for the classification in 1971 but watching the film now what is most shocking is the level of casual racism and sexism in the police force. I don’t think there are any significant speaking roles for women in the film. They are treated purely as appendages. Mainstream crime films had previously at least included girlfriends, wives, mothers – or the femme fatale – as speaking parts.
But if gender representations were skewed in this way, the streets of Brooklyn were shown in a style much closer to documentary authenticity. Not that this was necessarily the innovation that it has sometimes been claimed to be. In the late 1940s two producers in particular, Mark Hellinger and Louis de Rochemont began to make films ‘on the streets’. This seems to have independently of similar developments in Italy and the UK. One of the best films of this type was Jules Dassin’s The Naked City (1948) which in turn inspired a legendary UK TV series in the 1950s. To get a sense of how different these films are to the ‘staged’ use of locations in Hitchcock’s films of the 1950s. The highlight of Friedkin’s film is, of course, the car chase under the elevated metro train which seems all too real. The attempt by an assassin to escape by metro is used in several French films and it is the ‘French connection’ which offers the third reason for the importance of Friedkin’s film.
France and America – partners in organised crime
The close relationship between Hollywood and French crime films is something explored in several posts on this blog. Hollywood even sometimes uses the French terms noir and policier – though not the uniquely French term polar to describe crime films more generally. Sometimes it seems like one-way traffic. French directors adapt American pulp crime novels or like Jean-Pierre Melville they pay hommage to American culture in different ways. A more recent example was the French adaptation of Harlan Coblen’s Tell No One (France 2006) French directors have also gone to the US to make their films (see the recent Blood Ties (US-France 2013). The French Connection actually begins with a short sequence in Marseilles in which we meet Fernando Rey as the local gang boss setting up the shipment to the US. Friedkin chooses to allow the French characters to actually speak French which is refreshing (though Rey’s Spanish-accented French had to be dubbed). French Connection II takes the story back to France since some of the gang escape.
Here’s Friedkin discussing shooting the film in ‘induced documentary’ style: