Tag Archives: Sam Peckinpah

Junior Bonner (1972)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: An aging bull rider.

Junior (Steve McQueen) is a rodeo star whose better days are behind him. As he enters his 40’s, he needs to find other ways to make a living and returns to his boyhood home of Prescott, Arizona where the rest of his family including his father Ace (Robert Preston), his mother Elvira (Ida Lupino), and brother Curly (Joe Don Baker) reside. When he gets there he finds that his father’s home is being bulldozed by his brother’s company in order to make way for a track of newer homes. Junior decides that the only way to make ends meet for both himself and his father is to win the prize money by riding the ornery bull Sunshine during the rodeo competition. He had attempted to ride Sunshine at another rodeo, but was quickly bucked-off and injured, but this time he feels it will be different and convinces the rodeo owner Buck Roan (Ben Johnson) to give him one last shot.

This film is different from any other Sam Peckinpah movie you’ll see and many viewers/critics at the time didn’t know what to make of it. Peckinpah was known and even stigmatized for his violent movies including The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs, which were deemed, especially the latter one, quite controversial and to an extent even glorifying violence. To help find a balance he decided to do something opposite from those by making a movie that was laid-back and didn’t feature any fighting except for one moment during a bar fight, which is done with a delightfully comic flair where everyone in the place gets punched except for Junior who goes off to a corner to makes-out with Charmagne (Barbara Leigh) even though he was the catalyst for why it began in the first place.

Unfortunately audiences and critics could not adjust to the extreme change in tone. They came to the theater expecting, based on Peckinpah’s reputation, bloody shoot-outs and got none and the end result is it doing quite poorly at the box recouping only $2.8 million from the original $3.2 million budget, which poisoned Peckinpah’s career as he was now deemed a financial risk and seriously affected the choice of projects he could do afterwards and how much control he’d have over them. Even normally friendly critics like Roger Ebert, who had been a fan of the director’s earlier works, bailed on this one calling it a “flat-out disappointment” and describing the material as being “terribly thin”. Another critic, Gary Arnold, described it as a film that “drifts across the screen and fades from your mind an instant later” and that there was “no compelling reason to see or remember it.”

I’ll admit the way it starts out had me a baffled. The story doesn’t go anywhere even after 30-minutes in and McQueen, normally this energetic, rugged action hero, looks like he’s in his 60’s and appearing perpetually tired. I started wondering whether this was just footage caught from a closed circuit camera that examined the slow way of life of small towns.

Things though do improve by the second act. The rodeo riding is captured in a vivid way making you feel like you’re riding the bull itself. Peckinpah’s uses his patented slow motion, but this time in a humorous vein like when Junior and Ace go riding away from a 4th of July parade and through the backyards of some houses where they inadvertently get caught up in some clothes lines. There’s even a couple of touching moments like Junior’s conversation with his father at a train station as well as Ace’s reconciliation with his wife. I was impressed with Joe Don Baker’s performance as well. I know some film-goers have mocked his acting in other movies, but I believe if given the right material he can be quite good though he wasn’t the director’s first choice as it was originally intended for Gene Hackman, but when his salary demands proved too high it was given to Baker much to Peckinpah’s regret as the two had many arguments during the production, which almost came to blows and only prevented when McQueen would get in the middle and calm both sides down.

For a modern day western this is one of the better ones and precipitated a boon of rodeo style movies  during the early 70’s. While its initial reception was not kind its been viewed in a better light today and even revered as being one of Peckinpah’s better works.

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My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: June 20, 1972

Runtime: 1 Hour 40 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Sam Peckinpah

Studio: Cinerama Releasing Corporation

Available: DVD, Blu-ray

The Killer Elite (1975)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Betrayed by a friend.

Mike Locken (James Caan) and George Hansen (Robert Duvall) are two longtime friends and hit men working for a private agency affiliated with the CIA to carry-out covert missions. During their latest assignment Mike is shocked to see George turn on him by shooting him in the knee and elbow. While Mike is able to survive the incident he is forced to go through a long and painful rehabilitation and due to the injuries is no longer considered employable as a hit man. Mike though refuses to concede and goes through martial arts training were he learns to use a cane both for protection and offensive action. He assembles his old team while vowing to get revenge on George, but fails to realize that there’s someone else behind the scenes who’s pulling-the-strings and far more dangerous.

By the mid-70’s director Sam Peckinpah had achieved a strong following of admirers with his ground breaking action films that took violence and the way it was portrayed in films to a whole new level. While he had his share of critics his movies did well at the box office, which should’ve been enough to get him any assignment he wanted, but his notoriously cantankerous behavior on the set and alcoholism made him virtually unemployable. Mike Medavoy, the head of United Artists, decided to give him a reprieve by hiring him on to direct his next project, but it was under strict conditions that allowed the studio to have final say over all aspects, which in turn made Peckinpah’s presence virtually null and void. The film lacks the edginess of his other more well known pictures. The action really never gets going and much of it was intentionally toned down in order to get a PG-rating. The tension is also lacking and great majority of it is quite boring. There’s even brief moments of humor, which only undermines the story and makes it even more of a misfire.

I liked the casting of Caan, who has disowned the film, which he gives a 0 out of 10, and Duvall, this marked their 5th film together, but the script doesn’t play-up their relationship enough. I was hoping for more of a psychological angle like why would a loyal friend suddenly turn on his partner, which doesn’t really get examined. Duvall has much less screen time and there’s no ultimate confrontation between the two, which with a story like this should’ve been a must. The drama also shifts in the third act to Caan taking on Arthur Hill, who plays a undercover double-agent, which isn’t as interesting or impactful.

Caan’s shooting gets badly botched. I will give Peckinpah credit as the surgery scenes including the removal of the bullet is quite graphic, but how Caan is able to find help after he is shot is never shown. The assault occurs in a remote location, so technically he could’ve died without anyone knowing, so how he was able to find his way out and get the attention of a medical staff needed to be played-out and not just glossed-over like it is.

The introduction of Ninja warriors was another mistake. This was courtesy of Stirling Silliphant who had been hired to rewrite the script and wanted this element put-in since he and his girlfriend Tiana Alexander had studied martial arts under Bruce Lee and felt this would offer some excitement. The result is campy though a one critic, Pauline Kael, like it as she considered it a ‘self-aware satire’ though I was groaning more than laughing.

Some felt that Peckinpah had sold-out and this movie really made it seem like he had. Nothing gels or is inspired though I will at least credit him with the building explosion at the beginning, which was an actual implosion of an old fire house that he became aware was going to happen and quickly revised the shooting schedule, so he’d be able to capture it from across the street and then use it in the film, which does help though everything after it falls flat.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: December 17, 1975

Runtime: 2 Hours 3 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Sam Peckinpah

Studio: United Artists

Available: DVD, Blu-ray (Region B/2), Tubi, Amazon Video, YouTube

The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970)

ballad of cable hogue

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Desperate man finds water.

After he is betrayed by his two friends (L.Q. Jones, Strother Martin) and forced to survive in the middle of the desert without the benefit of food, water, a gun or even a horse Cable Hogue (Jason Robards) goes on a mad search for an oasis. After four days in the heat he collapses and just as he is ready to die he suddenly finds water in the most unlikely place. He uses this untapped spring to create a way station for the stagecoaches that travel through the area and becomes quite rich, but deep down he harbors the dark desire to get revenge on the two who wronged him and one day he finally gets his chance.

Theoretically a person can survive up to 4 ½ days, or 100 hours, without water if they are in a climate with a temperature of 72, but in much hotter conditions such as the one shown here it would be far less, so having the character survive like he does seems to be a an extreme stretch, but if you can get past that then the film is quite enjoyable at least at the beginning. The script was written by John Crawford and Edmund Penney who spent the majority of their careers working as character actors in B-movies and this was their one and only foray as writers. The story’s biggest asset is the main character that is expertly portrayed by the gifted Robards. His determination to beat long odds and find success even as he starts from rock bottom should resonate with most viewers and the character’s grit meshes well with director Sam Peckinpah’s perennial theme of rugged individualism.

The addition of David Warner as a dubious minister who helps Cable build his station is excellent and the film could’ve been an engaging buddy movie had it remained at this level. Unfortunately it felt the need to add in a love interest in the form of Stella Stevens, sans make-up, who portrays a whore that takes a liking to Cable. Stevens is not as strong of an actor as Warner and doesn’t know how to carry a scene like he does, so her time in front of the camera is boring and does nothing but bog down the pace while pushing Warner’s character out, which severely hurts the film’s rugged but whimsical chemistry.

Spoiler Alert!

Strother Martin’s character becomes yet another issue. He again gets straddled with the creepy, cowardly bad guy role of which is plays to perfection, but eventually made it seem almost like typecasting. To some extent I was happy to see him become humanized as it went along, but I didn’t like how Cable decides to leave his way station to him instead of the Warner character as he was the one who helped build it. Maybe Cable realized that with the invention of the automobile his station would no longer be prosperous and he would then be sticking Martin with a stinker instead of the goldmine that he thought, which is okay, but then he saves Martin’s life just a few minutes after he was ready to kill him, which became too much of a contradiction.

End of Spoiler Alert!

The film has some funny moments, but I didn’t like the fast motion running as it made it seem too cartoon-like. The numerous potshots at religion and those that expound on it are hilarious and I enjoyed how Peckinpah looks at capitalism from both sides where it is shown to greatly benefit an individual who is able to take advantage of a market demand, but also how it can coldly abandoned that same person the second that demand goes away.  The first 40 minutes are great, but then the story loses steam with comical moments that become too drawn out and have little to do with the main story as well as a protracted ending that really fizzles.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: March 8, 1970

Runtime: 2Hours 1Minute

Rated R

Director: Sam Peckinpah

Studio: Warner Brothers

Available: DVD, Amazon Instant Video, YouTube

The Visitor (1979)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Her daughter is evil.

Dark forces from another dimension conspire to use an 8-year-old girl named Katy (Paige Conner) as their centerpiece in creating an evil empire on earth. Dr. Walker (Mel Ferrer), while working under the cover of being a noted surgeon, heads the secret organization. He instructs local millionaire Raymond Armstead (Lance Henriksen) who made a pact with the group years earlier in order to receive his fortune, that he must impregnate his girlfriend Barbara (Joanne Nail) again, so that she can give birth to an evil son to complement their already wicked daughter Katy and allow the two to eventually reproduce a new offspring. Barbara though, who does not know of Raymond’s secret pact and feels leery of her child already, is unwilling to have another one, which forces him to use unethical ways to get her to change her mind.

This Italian production, which was filmed in Atlanta, Georgia, has gotten a bad rap from the critics and there have been several different cuts issued with some making more sense than others. For the most part it’s a mixed bag with lots of story loopholes and an ill-advised music score that seems better suited for an NFL highlight reel. The movie also defies any genre and jumps between several, but ultimate fails at all of them.

However, if taken as a cheesy over-the-top production then it’s not half-bad. The camera work, editing, special effects and sets are to a degree impressive. The scene where Glenn Ford’s character is driving down a busy highway only to have his eyes pecked out by an evil hawk, which creates a major road accident that culminates with the car tumbling onto a softball field is quite exciting. Katy’s cat-and-mouse foot chase with the John Huston character through the Atlanta streets and some abandoned buildings is also well done as is her ice skating foray in which she single-handedly takes out a group of much older and bigger boys by sending them flying through the windows of some nearby shops and restaurants.

Conner’s bad girl performance with her angelic face making a perfect contrast to her otherwise dark personality is great. Nail as her mother is equally beautiful and creates enough sympathy from the viewer to make the torment that she goes through unsettling to watch. Shelley Winters, in a rare turn playing a normal, likable character, is also excellent as the family’s housekeeper

The male cast though is wasted including Franco Nero who appears briefly only at the beginning and very end. John Huston and Glenn Ford were too old for their respective parts and casting younger actors in their roles would’ve made more sense, but seeing director Sam Peckinpah in a brief acting bit is fun.

The ending can’t quite equal the audaciousness of the rest of it, but there is enough weird, wacky, one-of-a-kind shit here to keep anyone especially those with an affinity for the bizarre entertained and amused.

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My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: March 22, 1979

Runtime: 1Hour 48Minutes

Rated R

Director: Giulio Paradisi

Studio: American International Pictures

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Instant Video

The Getaway (1972)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Bank robbery goes bad.

Based on pulp writer Jim Thompson’s novel the story centers on Doc McCoy (Steve McQueen) who is stuck in the Texas State Prison and itching to get out. He gets his wife Carol (Ali MacGraw) who is on the outside to strike a deal with Sheriff Jack Benyon (Ben Johnson) where he will get a release as long as he agrees to rob a bank using Benyon’s men. Doc is somewhat reluctant, but agrees to go along with it only to find that after the robbery he has been double-crossed and now along with his wife must make a dash for Mexico while being chased by the cops and going through a wide assortment of unexpected obstacles.

Action director guru Sam Peckinpah has done many classic films most notably The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs, but this one has always been my favorite as it’s a nice mix of action, character study and comedy. In fact it’s the subtle humor that I like best. I get a kick out of the shot showing Benyon’s brother’s henchman riding in a convertible down a highway while having their hands on their cowboy hats in order to keep them from blowing off. I also chuckled at the book actor Dub Taylor has in his back pocket while cowering under a table during a shootout or what actor Al Lettieri immediately does after finding a dead man hanging in a bathroom.

Peckinpah also makes great use of sound particularly at the beginning where during the opening credits we hear no music, but instead the monotonous sounds of the machines inside the prison workshop, which helps convey Doc’s increasing frustration and this sound doesn’t stop until the exact second that the prison doors open up and allows him out. When there is music it’s effective and distinct particularly the harmonica solos by Toots Thielemans.

Of course Peckinpah’s trademark action sequences are excellent and maybe even superior to his other films because the situations are more unique including an exciting segment showing the couple trapped inside a garbage truck as well as an impromptu shootout along the main street of Fabens, Texas. The only complaint is the scene where Doc’s car goes crashing through someone’s front porch and yet the car shows no visible damage; one shot does show a crack in the corner of the windshield, but then in the next shot it has magically disappeared.

McQueen’s ability to show effortless cool and make an edgy character likable proves what a legendary actor he is and it’s a shame that he doesn’t get placed with the best of them amongst casual movie fans because he really should. MacGraw is at the peak of her beauty here and her moments of vulnerability are great. Struthers gives the best performance of her career as an unfaithful wife of a kindly veterinarian (Jack Dodson) and Lettieri, who unfortunately died at the young age of 47 just 3 years after this film’s release by a heart attack brought on by severe alcoholism, which was already painfully apparent to the cast and crew during the filming of this adds great tension as Doc’s double-crossing partner.

The film also makes great use of its Texas locations bringing out the ruggedness of the region without overdoing it. I particularly liked the scenes in the junkyard as well as footage shot on-location inside the Huntsville prison using actual prisoners and the longshot showing the flat, barren landscape that Doc first sees when he gets out.

I’ve watched this movie many times and never cease to grow tired of it. In fact it seems even more original after multiple viewings. It was unwisely remade in 1994 that starred Alec Baldwin, who doesn’t come close to McQueen’s stature. This version is by far the better one and the other should be avoided.

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My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: December 13, 1972

Runtime: 2Hours 2Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Sam Peckinpah

Studio: National General Pictures

Available: VHS, DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Instant Video, YouTube