Monday, October 28, 2013
EASTWOOD’S ‘HIGH PLAINS’ DRIFTS INTO BLURAY, PLUS MY DAY AS A WESTERN EXTRA
HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER – A BluRay Movie Review
Billy Curtis gives the Stranger a bath
Clint Eastwood is the sort of person who gives everyone who feels they’re getting too old to achieve their heart’s desire an encouraging kick in the pants. He was already a tremendously successful leading man before he started directing. He won Best Picture and Best Director Oscars first for UNFORGIVEN, then for MILLION DOLLAR BABY, and he even received the Irving Thalberg Memorial Award. And at 83 he’s directing his first musical, JERSEY BOYS.
It’s hard to put your finger on what he does as a director that makes you care about his characters, but he’s done it since the beginning. I well remember seeing his directorial debut, PLAY MISTY FOR ME (1971) when I was in high school. Days later, I’d find myself daydreaming about the characters in the movie, hoping they were alright. That had never happened to me before, and has rarely happened since.
Clint directed his second feature in 1973, and it was his first time helming a Western: HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER. So far he’s directed four or six Westerns, depending on whether you count BRONCO BILLY (1980) and SPACE COWBOYS (2006), and because of the tremendous popularity of his trilogy with Sergio Leone – FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE, THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY, and the iconic status of OUTLAW JOSIE WALES (the most slavishly imitated of his films) and UNFORGIVEN, his other fine work sometimes is overlooked.
Happily, HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER, so ripe for re-evaluation, is back, from Universal, in a breathtakingly beautiful BluRay 40th Anniversary edition, digitally remastered and restored from the original 35MM film elements. So to start, let me say that the clarity of the image is breathtaking. So often today, digitizing of movies does them far more harm than good. The ability to make everything in vision be in sharp focus robs the director and cinematographer of the ability to point you in a specific direction – the viewer’s eye roams the frame aimlessly. At worst, digitizing of THE WIZARD OF OZ has shown us where the seemingly real open spaces end and the painted walls begin. In PSYCHO, it has returned three large zits to the face of Janet Leigh, which make-up artists had successfully hidden.
In HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER, the image is immaculately clean, without losing the ‘film’ look. The grain is not obvious, but it is there. Shot by the great Bruce Surtees, who had previously shot Clint in several Don Siegal films, the actor/writer and cinematographer would eventually collaborate on fifteen movies together. Eastwood famously works with the same crew whenever he can, and reuses actors he likes.
The story takes place in the town of Lago, shot at the edge of Mono Lake, and after so many dry and dusty western towns, seeing all of that blue water just beyond the town is startlingly lovely. But the people of the town are not nearly that appealing. Clint simply moseys into town for a drink, and is quickly set upon by a trio of thugs that at length get spectacularly dispatched by ‘The Stranger’ – again, Clint is a man with no name.
It’s a town with secrets; a town without a man possessing, “…a complete set of balls,” as one character puts it, and since he’s eliminated the men they’d hired to protect them, they’re now eager to hire Clint to defend them against a pack of enemies about to be let out of jail. When he finally agrees, the town learns they’re not getting what they bargained for.
The script by Ernest Tidyman, who created SHAFT, and whose adapted screenplay for THE FRENCH CONNECTION won him an Oscar, has crafted the sort of plot that, while containing familiar western elements, goes to wholly unfamiliar territory. The town has a past they’d like to keep buried; the stranger has flashes of dreams or memories; a man being beaten with bullwhips. While the story follows logically along, you’re not always sure if what you’re seeing is a shaggy dog story or a supernatural tale.
Eastwood with Verna Bloom
Another Eastwood trademark was just beginning to emerge, the casting of actresses that usually didn’t do his kind of film, a pattern that may have started with the almost all female cast in Don Siegal’s THE BEGUILED. While Marianna Hill plays just the sort of tart you’d expect in this sort of story, Verna Bloom, as the only townsperson with a conscience, couldn’t be more unexpected.
Also notable in the cast are Walter Barnes if the exceedingly likeable if gutless sheriff; Geoffrey Lewis as a creepy villain, in the first of seven films with Eastwood; Billy Curtis, a Munchkin from THE WIZARD OF OZ, who becomes the Stranger’s right hand; and most delightful of all Paul Brinegar, RAWHIDE’s Wishbone, and Clint’s co-star for years, as the town bartender.
The Stranger gets the town a makeover
Clint Eastwood has always credited Don Siegal and Sergio Leone for teaching him about directing, and the Leone influence can clearly be seen in the opening sequence, when The Stranger comes to town. There is no dialog for seven and a half minutes, but there’s audio aplenty as the hoofsteps and wheezing of Clint’s horse becomes music, in the same way that squeaking windmills and dripping water and buzzing flies were music for the opening of ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST.
This new BluRay edition of HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER comes with a digital copy and an ultraviolet copy, but surprisingly, the only special feature is the theatrical trailer. Personally, I would prefer something different rather than the same movie in three different formats. But after all, you buy a movie for the movie, not for the extras, and this beautiful edition of DRIFTER is a worthy addition to your cinema library.
MY DAY AS A WESTERN ‘EXTRA’
Yesterday, Saturday, October 26th, 2013, I had my first experience as an ‘extra’ on the set of a Western. The film is entitled WESTERN RELIGION (#WesternReligion) , and it was day six of a nineteen day shoot.
For the uninitiated, an ‘extra’, a.k.a. a spear carrier; atmosphere; or among the self-aggrandizing, a supernumerary, is defined as “…a minor actor in a crowd scene.” They are the people who, without drawing attention to themselves, make a scene look normal, making a street, or restaurant, or theatre not seem deserted aside from the lead actors. They are the human visual equivalent of elevator music.
I’ve been on sets with costumer Nikki Pelley any number of times, and the last couple of occasions she’d been daring me to be dressed and put on-camera. I would have visited the set, to report on the shoot, anyway – and will cover the film and the filmmakers extensively next week. But the offer to appear in costume, made it irresistible.
The tent city.
The film, set in 1879, concerns the town of Religion, Arizona, whose town fathers want to draw attention to, and investment in their community by promoting a high stakes poker tournament. The shoot was at Peter Sherayko’s Caravan West Ranch in Agua Dulce, a huge, wild and mountainous place, frequently seen in movies, dramatic TV shows and reality shows, that I’d previously visited for the filming of WYATT EARP’S REVENGE, among other projects. WESTERN RELIGION had originally been scheduled to shoot on the Western street at the Paramount Ranch in Agoura. But the recent federal government shutdown closed National Parks, including the Ranch, and the filmmakers needed to find another location, and fast.
A tent city has been erected at Caravan West Ranch which, considering the premise, is actually more logical and historically accurate for the setting than a well-established Western town would be. I saw the tent city when I arrived at 8:30 a.m., and I thought it looked wonderfully unfinished, in transition.
I’d supplied my hat, shirt and pant sizes ahead of time, so clothes could be pulled with me in mind. I was told to bring my own boots if I had a good pair, and I did. I brought a hat as well, a black ‘Stallion’ by Stetson, much like James Garner’s MAVERICK hat. It would have been fine for a 1960s TV Western, but it wasn’t historically authentic, and Peter Sherayko, who helped revolutionize the demand for historical accuracy with TOMBSTONE (read my reviews of his books HERE ), was in charge of props and costumes. Likewise, my trousers would have been acceptable if they didn’t have cuffs. I was fitted in period pants, shirt, vest, and hat – with a much smaller brim than we think of for Westerners, but historical photos show that it’s correct.
Me, in costume.
There is a wonderful story in Bob Thomas’s excellent biography, THALBERG: LIFE AND LEGEND, about the first movie the Barrymores made together, RASPUTIN AND THE EMPRESS (MGM 1932). John and Lionel had both been active on film since the silent days, but it was sister Ethel’s first film, and she took much persuading. The brothers flanked her at the premiere, and when they lights came up, they were eager to get her reaction. She was stunned: “When did we do all that acting? All I remember was waiting between takes.” And for actors, especially extras, waiting is what you mostly do on a set.
Director O'Brien, center, setting the scene.
I was fortunate that, being there in the capacity of journalist as well as extra, I had pictures to take and people to interview, because it was twelve full hours before they started to shoot my scene. Inside one of the larger tent buildings was a saloon set – actually two saloon sets divided down the middle of the room, representing watering holes in two different towns. On the right as you enter, as a pianist plays, and a comely saloon-girl looks on, a pair of tough drunks bully the bartender, until a stranger comes in for a drink. The two make the mistake of picking on him. He quickly shoots them both, as well as two lawmen at another table, when they try to interfere.
Peter Sherayko (r) hands gun to Claude Duhamel, while
DP Morgan Schmidt frames shot.
Ass't Cameraman, having done slate, and knowing
what's coming, braces for Duhamel's gunfire.
Writer/director James O’Brien directs sometimes from the set, sometimes from outside, watching the video feed from the RED camera. Although the scene will be brief on-screen, it’s very complex, involving a lot of cutting in the editing room, and a lot of gunfire on the set. We all wear earplugs. Stuntman Frankie Ray, gun half-drawn, is shot out of his chair, and crashes to the ground, at least nine times. One chair is destroyed and another is damaged – I don’t know about Frankie’s back. Every time Claude Duhamel as the stranger needs to fire his gun, it needs to be loaded and unloaded by armorer Sherayko. This is not my scene – I’ll be in the saloon at the other side of the set. But I watch for hours, and I never even see the lawmen that Claude kills – their shots are done later, while I’m doing interviews, all of it to be assembled like a jigsaw puzzle.
Outside the saloon, wrangler Kevin McNiven walks horse back
and forth in front of doorway, to give 'life' to street as seen from
inside. Dust seen in the air is being kicked up by a P.A. for
the same reason.
It’s sometime after 8 p.m. when those of us in the next saloon scene are told we’ll soon be needed. I don’t the exact time because I don’t have my watch – I took it off when I dressed, knowing what a faux pas it would be if that 20th century item slipped from my sleeve and appeared on-camera (even though mine features Roy Rogers and Trigger). I also had to remember to remove my glasses before they started filming. Most lenses today, mine included, are largely rectangular. Lenses of the period were circular. One of the other extras is Howard Coleman, who will be armorer for several days on the film. He can wear his own glasses: they were 1952 Government Issue when he was drafted for the Korean War. They could easily have been issued for the Civil War.
Our scene, in another saloon, though shot in the opposite end of the same room, involves a pair of card games. At the main table, four men play poker. One of them, Salt Peter, played by producer Louis Sabatasso, bickers over a pot with a much bigger man, known as Goliath. Goliath pulls a gun, but Salt Peter stabs him to death. As Salt Peter gathers his winnings, the dealer, played by Jeffrey Hendrick, shows him a handbill about the poker tournament in Religion, Arizona. He decides to go.
There is a second poker game going on, and that’s where I am, along with Howard, and a young man who has been building sets all day; they were short one man for the scene, so his hammer and saw have been taken away, and he’s been put in costume. The camera is shooting through our game to the other game. The camera is low, DP Morgan Schmidt doing his own camera operating, with Howard on the left of frame, me and the other guy on the right. It should be an interesting shot.
At the other table, they’re playing with authentic period cards. At ours, the backs are good, but the faces are modern. We have to avoid showing the faces to camera. We each have a shotglass of liquor on the table. We have stacks of coins to play with. Some are silver-dollar- sized Mexican pesos and smaller centavos. Others are carnival tokens, and gold-colored Elvis Presley and presidential tokens. They all look good if they’re not in close-up. As the rehearsals begin, we’re told to just play poker naturally. We do, although we all forget at the end of the hand, and put our cards down face up.
As they start doing takes, we are re-directed to not actually talk, but mouthe how many cards we want. We decide how many on advance, regardless of what we’re dealt – after all, the camera can’t see it. More takes. They like our action, but not our noise. Howard can’t very well riffle-shuffle the cards silently, so he switches to an overhand shuffle, which is much quieter. Unfortunately, to keep the card faces from being visible to camera, he must shuffle from his left hand to his right – try this some time if you’re a right hander; it ain’t easy. We can drop our cards on the table, but we can’t toss coins into the pot as we bet, because they ‘clink’ together. When you win a hand of poker, try raking in your coins without them ‘clinking.’ It takes practice; but we got good at it as the night progressed. I sipped my drink whenever I thought of it – it was a quiet, but natural movement, and the sips of watered-down Coke were surprisingly refreshing.
Depending on the angle, sometimes we had to lean back unnaturally so we weren’t blocking the main action. The last couple of takes, closer (I think) on the action, we couldn’t bet or put down cards, as our hands would have filled the screen. So we held our cards, shifting them, re-ordering them. I switched them from one hand to another while I picked up my drink. Anything to make the card-hands not look unnaturally motionless, but not moving them enough to distract.
When the camera moved in even closer on the main table, we were done for the night, and outside of the saloon, In-And-Out burgers and fries were waiting for us. It was a long, long day, but a fun and interesting experience, and I’d do it again. Only now I’ll try and get a line of dialog! And next time ride a horse! And next time get shot!
Next week I’ll have full coverage on WESTERN RELIGION, and the people who are making it, on both sides of the camera.
COSTUME DRAMA TRAUMA
By Henry C. Parke
(Note: This article was originally written for my other blog, STALLING TACTICS, and I think it’s a natural follow-up to MY DAY AS A WESTERN EXTRA. If you enjoy it, please check out STALLING TACTICS HERE. )
September 3rd, 2013
I love being on movie sets, especially Western movie sets, where the boardwalks and wooden store-fronts, horses, costumed actors, and guns make you feel like you’re time-traveling. The last time I had the privilege, writing for the Round-up, the wardrobe mistress said, “Next time, I’ll dress you, and you can be an extra.” It sounded like fun. I’d been an extra here and there in friends’ movies. I was one, or actually did a small ‘bit’, in a picture I co-wrote the original story for, SPEEDTRAP (1977). When detective Joe Don Baker is dodging gangster Timothy Carey in the sleazy block of Phoenix (which we had to manufacture), he zips by me and a hooker, and if you strain your ears, you can hear me say, “Gee, a hundred dollars is a lot of money,” and her responding, “Well I’m a lot of woman.”
I got a call from my wardrobe lady friend that she was dressing a Western at Paramount Ranch, and I was invited! I was all psyched at my return to the screen, so you can imagine my disappointment when I got a call back that they couldn’t use me: only S.A.G. extras. Oh, well.
Then I recalled that I actually had played a small, costumed role in a period picture. It was back when I attended NYU Film School in the 1970s, and in addition to making your own films, you were crew, and sometimes cast, in other people’s films. A friend was directing a comedy, a faux documentary about a fake poverty row movie studio of Hollywood’s golden age. He needed clips from nonexistent films, and I acted in a few. One was a World War II ‘Battle of the Bulge’ epic. The gag was that, being a poverty row studio making a war movie during the war, all the big studios had rented the proper uniforms for their war movies. So we had to make do: the Nazis dressed in Confederate uniforms, and the U.S. Army in Salvation Army uniforms.
I was delighted to find myself, at dawn, in Morningside Park, dressed in a well-tailored Confederate Captain’s uniform, complete with hat and sword. We were going to start with a big battle scene, involving both armies. But just as the camera was about to roll, it couldn’t. The director of photography had forgotten to charge the power-pack that ran the camera. He hurried off to plug it in. We would have at least a two-hour delay before we could begin. As this shoot was destined to run late, and I had made plans for the afternoon, I needed to find a payphone. It was awfully early, but if I didn’t call then, I might not have a chance for hours.
There were no payphones in the park, so I walked out of the park, onto the streets. Did I mention that Morningside Park is in the middle of Harlem? Harlem, the home of the Apollo Theatre, the Black Panthers, and in those days, zero white people? So I started walking along the streets of Harlem, at dawn, wearing a Confederate Captain’s uniform, complete with hat and sword.
There was not a soul on the street. The first phone booth I came to had a phone, but no receiver. The second had no phone at all, and the booth had been converted into a make-shift urinal. The third one had a complete phone, and I made my call. As I talked, I noticed an older sedan parked across the street from me. There were about a dozen Miller High Life bottles lined up on the sidewalk beside it. The engine was off, but the headlights were on, dim, like they’d been on all night. A few figures lounged around inside.
I finished my call, and left the booth, starting my long walk back to the park. The sword slapped against my left leg with each step.
From behind me, from the direction of the lone car, I heard a voice. “Hey!” I kept walking. “Hey you!” I kept walking. “Hey you! Soldier boy! Come ‘ere!” The voice was accompanied by laughter.
“Yeah!” another voice joined in. “Johnny Reb! We want to talk to you!”
I heard the engine cough. I thought maybe the headlights had drained the battery. I hoped so. Then I heard the engine start up strong. I reached a corner. A right turn would bring me closer to the park, but a left would be the wrong way on a one-way street for the car I could hear gaining on me. I turned left.
They turned left anyway. I thought it was time to start running. Try running while wearing a sword – no wonder the officers rode horses.
I heard a shattering smash as a Miller bottle hit the sidewalk a distance behind me. The next one was closer. I changed direction at every corner, but of course I didn’t lose them, not in their car. I heard a lot of laughter and hooting and hostile comments. Even as I was ducking bottles, I couldn’t help admiring the ‘Johnny Reb’ reference – I don’t think I could have come up with anything that good that quickly. The next catcall truly amazed me – someone in the sedan was calling him and his friends Buffalo Soldiers!
Finally I reached the street with the entrance to Morningside Park. As I bolted for the winding downward path, I saw three iron posts jutting up from the ground, across the entrance, perhaps to prevent carloads of Buffalo Soldiers from driving down.
As the car screeched to a halt across the street, and young men began to pile out, I faced them, drew my sword, and shouted, “F#ck you and Abe Lincoln!” Then I turned and ran like Hell down into the park.
I ran into camp, screaming for help, and as the Buffalo Soldiers appeared at the bottom of the path, they faced twenty armed, uniformed Confederate soldiers, and a cannon was being swung into position. I don’t know what they thought, but was grateful that they ran back up and drove away, perhaps never to drink Miller High Life again.
THAT'S A WRAP!
That's all for tonight. Next week I'll have, among other things, news about a renewed western series, and a new western feature or two in the planning stages.
All Original Contents Copyright October 2013 by Henry C. Parke -- All Rights Reserved