Thursday, December 31, 2009
Directed by Sam Peckinpah
One last go-around
Wednesday, December 30, 2009
Sam Peckinpah in his own words
Peckinpah month: links & resources #5
Tuesday, December 29, 2009
The Osterman Weekend
After 'Convoy', Peckinpah spent five years in the wilderness. It had been the same with 'Major Dundee'. Then, Daniel Melnick's offer of 'Noon Wine' for TV proved the life-raft that led to an initially productive relationship with Phil Feldman and Peckinpah's masterpiece, 'The Wild Bunch'. This time, though, the comeback wouldn't be quite as spectacular.
Don Siegel had given Peckinpah his first gig on a movie set back in 1954. Now at the end of his own career, the director of 'Dirty Harry' and 'Escape from Alcatraz' - the man who had done arguably as much as Sergio Leone in making Clint Eastwood an icon - was reduced to calling the shots on a half-assed Bette Midler vehicle called 'Jinxed'. Hollywood might have written Peckinpah off, but Siegel had no hesitation in hiring him as second unit director to shoot an elaborate action sequence. Peckinpah got his drinking and predilection for thin white lines under control, turned up on set and demonstrated rigid professionalism.
It was his ticket back to directing. Sadly, he'd only get a shot at one last film. Most of the offers that came in were uber-low budget and held no interest. Still, it was important to get back behind the camera so he picked the best of a bad lot and accepted producers Peter Davies and William Panzer's offer to direct 'The Osterman Weekend'.
CIA bigwig Maxwell Danforth (Burt Lancaster) encourages zealous agent Lawrence Fassett (John Hurt) to pursue Russian spy ring Omega. Fassett is traumatised from his wife's murder, but throws himself into the assignment. He identifies TV writer Bernard Osterman (Craig T. Nelson), financier Joseph Cardone (Chris Sarandon) and plastic surgeon Richard Tremayne (Dennis Hopper) as members of Omega who might be "turned". He posits to Danforth that their friendship, dating back to college, with political pundit John Tanner (Rutger Hauer) could provide the wedge to get at them. Danforth gives him the go ahead. Fassett presents Tanner with evidence against his friends. Tanner is distraught, but sees an opportunity he can exploit: long critical of Danforth's machiavellian counter-intelligence techniques, Tanner agrees to assist Fassett on the condition that Danforth consent to be interviewed on Tanner's high-rating and controversial current affairs TV show 'Face to Face'. Danforth assents. Fassett kits out Tanner's home with a panoply of surveillance equipment in advance of Osterman, Cardone and Tremayne arriving at Tanner's home for their annual reunion (events known as "Osterman weekends" in honour of Bernard Osterman, who instigated the tradition). Before the guests have even arrived, Tanner gets cold feet at his wife Ali (Meg Foster) and son Steve's involvement and against Fassett's wishes, drives them to the airport. A kidnap attempt en route is foiled by Fassett's men at the last moment and Tanner reluctantly decides to do things Fassett's way. The guests arrive, but it isn't long before tensions run high. Fassett's supposedly "invisible" presence is belied by a series of manipulations, and when Tanner finally discovers the truth about his friends' conspiratorial behaviour he realises things aren't as Fassett would have had him believe. The agent has a quite different agenda ...
Monday, December 28, 2009
25 Years Gone
Sunday, December 27, 2009
With 'Cross of Iron' roundly ignored at the box office and Peckinpah out of pocket to the tune of the $90,000 he put into the ailing production, it was imperative that he direct something commercial. That something was 'Convoy'. Its source material was a novelty song by one-hit-wonder C.W. McCall. Its target audience were the undiscerning cinema-goers who had made 'Smokey and the Bandit' such a hit and would go on to embrace 'The Cannonball Run' and its unholy trinity of car crashes, dumbass sheriffs and low-brow humour a few years later.
Peckinpah spent most of the shoot incapacitated. Various people pitched in to direct scenes, including James Coburn who had taken a position as second unit director in order to garner some behind-the-camera experience and Katy Haber, Peckinpah's partner at the time. When he did call the shots, he disregarded the script and had his cast ad-lib. As Weddle puts it in his biography, "simple, straightforward scenes ... turned into amorphous, convoluted and often incomprehensible improvisations". This technique, coupled with Peckinpah's frequent absences from the set, resulted in 'Convoy' wrapping almost a fortnight overschedule and a whopping $5 million overbudget - almost twice what it had been budgeted at. Peckinpah had shot nearly twice the amount of footage as on 'The Wild Bunch'. By the time he got to the editing room, he gave up. For the first time in his career, Peckinpah didn't find himself locked in a battle with producers over final cut and reductions to running time. He simply, without even completing a preview cut, turned the whole thing over to the studio and walked away.
None of this boded well for future projects, but all sins would doubtless have been forgiven after it took more than $46 million worldwide ... except for the stories that had filtered back to Tinseltown: stories of Peckinpah fucked up on booze and the Columbian marching powder, slumped in his director's chair or holed up in his trailer, the production at a standstill and the budget spiralling. It would be five years before he directed again.
Bunch of truckers. Poor little rich girl. Corrupt cop. Truck-stop fight. Convoy to the state line. Media coverage. Interstate police response. Political shenanigans. National Guard. River bridge. Truck vs tank. That's it, really.
There's a diminishing aspect to Peckinpah's approach to commercial/director-for-hire projects:
There's some small pleasure in ticking off some of the Peckinpah Irregulars: Kris Kristofferson notches up his third appearance for Sam as Rubber Duck, the bearded, muscle-rippling truck driver who leads the convoy; Rubber Duck has a healthy disrespect for authority and a disinclination to wearing a shirt. This must be what appeals to poor little rich girl Melissa (Ali MacGraw, making it a second Peckinpah role after 'The Getaway') - she certainly wastes no time checking out his sleeper cab. Elsewhere, Ernest Borgnine and Burt Young also notch up their second go-around for Peckinpah. The performances, though, range from hammy (Borgnine) to comatose (Kristofferson) to just plain bad (MacGraw).
Saturday, December 26, 2009
Cross of Iron
"And I will show you where the Iron Crosses grow."
Prior to sending Peckinpah a copy of Willi Heinrich's novel 'The Willing Flesh' with a view to collaborating with the maverick director on an adaptation, Wolf C. Hartwig's experience as a producer was limited to such masterpieces of world cinema as 'Mit Eva fing die Sunde an' ('Sin Began With Eve') and 'Schulmadchen-Report' (you'll get that one without the subtitles) parts 1 to 10. What this purveyor of pornography with a penchant for schoolgirl uniforms thought he was getting into is a matter for speculation.
Shooting took place in Yugoslavia, when production costs were cheap. Nonetheless, by the time shooting began, Hartwig had secured considerably less than the $4 million the film was budgeted at. His failings as a producer also extended to securing locations, ensuring costumes were ready and sets built by the appropriate time in the shooting schedule, and arranging the hire of military vehicles and hardware. In particular, Peckinpah had depended on the provision of a fleet of tanks and several aircraft. The aircraft never materialised and only three rusting, barely mobile tanks were made available. It's one of Peckinpah's great achievements on 'Cross of Iron' that he manages to make said tanks look like an entire approaching army.
Peckinpah's drinking was pronounced. Days were lost due to blackouts or confusion over scenes already shot. Weddle's biography has Peckinpah, after the picture has wrapped, discussing with his DoP the logistics of a huge battle scene that would never be shot. With money not just running out but unavailable to begin with, Peckinpah sunk $90,000 of his own savings into the production. Then Hartwig and co-producer Alex Winitsky arrived on set with the news that the scripted denouement was not to be filmed and a new, audience-friendly and (crucially) cheap to film ending was to replace it. Peckinpah was so distraught that star James Coburn took it upon himself to inform Hartwig and Winitsky in vehemently unambiguous terms that the film was going to end the way Peckinpah intended it; he also threw their asses off the set.
'Cross of Iron' finished filming as per the original ending and to Peckinpah's dictates. Sadly, it made little impression at the box office and, desperate to recoup his investment in it, Peckinpah accepted another director-for-hire assignment: the execrable 'Convoy'.
The Russian Front, 1943. Sergeant Steiner (James Coburn) leads his tight-knit troop back from an incursion behind enemy lines to discover that a new officer has been transferred in. Captain Stransy (Maximillian Schell) is Prussian, rigidly bound by the hierarchy of rank and has one objective: to win the Iron Cross. To put it mildly, Steiner and Stransky don't get on. A Russian attack on their position results in heavy losses and Steiner is badly injured. While recuperating in a field hospital, Steiner enters into a brief relationship with a nurse, Eva (Senta Berger). Rather than spin out his convalescence, however, he rejoins several of his men who have been deemed fit enough to be returned to active duty. Back at the front line, Stransky attempts to solicit Steiner as a witness to a report that paints the German counter-attack as successful (actually it was a shambles) and his part in it heroic (actually he proved himself a coward). Steiner refuses. Another sortie behind enemy lines sees Steiner and his men faced with a dangerous crossing through no-man's-land. Stransky seizes the opportunity to take Steiner out ...
David Weddle quotes James Coburn recalling pre-production on 'Cross of Iron'. The actor accompanied Peckinpah to the German film archives in Koblenz. They viewed German newsreel footage and Third Reich documentaries. In London they accessed similar archives. "We'd see this German newsreel film ... of some battle. Then when we got to London we saw the same footage edited completely differently for a propaganda film for the Russians. It's like there was this independent film unit out there shooting the war and selling the footage to both sides! Two totally different ideologies were editing it for their own purposes. So what we realised - and this really hit Sam - was that they were both liars."
The blunt absence of sentimentality evidenced in these scenes is characteristic of 'Cross of Iron' at its most successful. Steiner's pragmatism is as unsparingly and minimalistically expressed as Pike Bishop's. His pre-reconnaisance instructions to the platoon: "Just bring what you need to kill with." On being questioned as to why some of his men died: "Bullets, mortar fire, artillery salvoes, bad luck, syphillis, the usual things." On religion: "I believe God is a sadist but probably doesn't even know it." The film's aesthetic demonstrates how Steiner's character has been formed: his antagonism towards his superiors is a natural by-product of his tight, "by example" leadership of his men. Steiner's only loyalty is to his men. There is no loyalty to country, to cause, to politics. As with Wolfgang Petersen's 'Das Boot', you quickly forget the characters are German; they simply become men, their souls brutalised by the horrors of war, their survival a day-to-day business. Uniforms look identical when plastered with mud or riddled with bullets. A photograph of Hitler is jarred from its position by mortar fire in an early scene and never rehung. Stransky's obsession with winning the Iron Cross is punctured when Colonel Brandt (James Mason) blithely says "Oh, we can give you one of mine" and unclips it from his tunic. The Iron Cross is thus devalued; worth no more than the "tin bill" that Will mocks Pat Garrett for wearing or the one that Sheriff Baker keeps in a kitchen drawer. The point is rammed home by Steiner (who, like Brandt, has been awarded the medal) in one of his frequent disagreements with Stransky:
Stransky: It's not worthless to me.
Steiner: Why is it so important to you? Tell me, Captain, why?
Stransky: Sergeant, if I go back without the Iron Cross, I couldn't face my family.
Stransky: I am an officer of the Wehrmacht! I have never been a Party member. I am a Prussian aristocrat and I don't want to be put into the same category.
Steiner: We agree for once.
Thursday, December 24, 2009
The Killer Elite
In what was starting to become a pattern, Peckinpah responded to the box office failure of a small, personal picture (‘Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia’) by latching onto a commercial assignment. He had conjured massive returns and a storming comeback for Steve McQueen with ‘The Getaway’ after ‘Junior Bonner’ flopped, and still made what was obviously a Peckinpah film. ‘The Killer Elite’ was different beast to ‘The Getaway’, though.
Adapted by Marc Norman and Sterling Silliphant from Robert Rostand’s novel ‘Monkey in the Middle’ (thank God they changed the title!), this overplotted tale of CIA shenanigans and internal power struggles had a high profile cast – headlined by James Caan and Robert Duvall – and box office potential written all over it. Unfortunately, nothing in the material interested Peckinpah and his approach to the project was the antithesis of his dedicated professionalism on ‘The Getaway’. It didn’t help that Peckinpah developed a cocaine habit on set. The drug superseded alcohol as his addiction of choice.
‘The Killer Elite’ enjoyed a successful opening weekend before audience interest dropped off in the wake appalling reviews. Nonetheless, it did enough business that Peckinpah was offered two big-budget studio productions, both anticipated to be blockbusters: ‘Superman’ (which was) and the Dino de Laurentis produced ‘King Kong’ remake (which wasn’t). Peckinpah passed on both of them to make ‘Cross of Iron’.
ComTeg is a shadowy covert-ops outfit, that may or may not be CIA-approved, run by Arthur Hill (Cap Collis) and Lawrence Weyburn (Gig Young). Agents Mike Locken (James Caan) and George Hansen (Robert Duvall) are assigned to babysit Russian diplomat Vorodny (Helmut Dantine) at a remote safehouse. It’s here that Hansen goes renegade, killing Vorodny and disabling Locken by shooting him in the leg. Hansen then goes underground. Locken’s recovery is slow and painful. ComTeg earmark him for a desk job, which adds insult to his quite literal injuries. Then Weyburn, apparently operating independently of Collis, offers Locken a field assignment protecting Yuen Chung (Mako), a Japanese statesman who is openly opposed to San Francisco based Triad boss Negato Toku, with the caveat that the operation could well bring him back into conflict with Hansen. Weyburn encourages Locken to put his own team together. Eager for a chance to settle the score with Hansen, Locken agrees. But is he being manipulated? Is there a bigger picture here than the Chung/Toku and Locken/Hansen antagonism?
I’ve just wasted five minutes and 180 words on the above synopsis. If Peckinpah’s nakedly evident contempt for ‘The Killer Elite’ – which almost seems to permeate the very celluloid – is anything to go by, he had even less time for it. The opening credits sequence is a case in point. Against an uncontextualised soundtrack of children singing (the concept of children as witnesses to the very worst the adult world has to offer is the only signature Peckinpah trope that makes an appearance in ‘The Killer Elite’), Peckinpah assembles a montage so risibly cliched in its imagery and po-faced in execution that in can only be an exercise in parody. The camerawork is shadowy, the editing urgent, the children's voices swiftly replaced by an overly melodramatic score. A masonry drill burrows into brickwork, fetching up plaster and brick dust. Plastic explosive is tamped into the hole. A cable drum spools detonating cord. Sticks of dynamite are affixed to some pipework. Someone sets a timer. Someone else pours gasoline over a concrete floor. Replacing Jerry Fielding's score with the ‘Pink Panther’ theme is all it would take to make the joke explicit rather than implicit.
Yep, that’s right. The words "directed by", all on their ownsome, then seven cuts - seven fucking cuts - then his name, again on its ownsome, as if Peckinpah were saying "Who? Me? Direct this?"* And before you there’s any risk of the cinema-goers of 1975 putting two and two together and realising that, yes, actually this was directed by the man who made ‘The Wild Bunch’, he cuts from those tiny letters lost on a dark screen to a completely gratuitous display of pyrotechnics (why do Locken and co. blow up the building exactly? fucked if I know). Is he trying to burn away his association with the film? Quite probably. For most of the remainder of the running time he simply rubbishes the very movie he’s calling the shots on. The astounding thing is that everyone else seems to be in on it.
*I’ve wracked my brains, conferred with other cineastes and interrogated the internet and I can’t come up with any other film where the director cuts himself loose from his own credit.
Wednesday, December 23, 2009
Peckinpah month: links & resources #4
Tommy Salami at Pluck You, Too! (great name for a blog!) writes about ‘The Killer Elite’ with gusto. (I’ve only just picked up your comment, Tommy; thanks for the contribution and apologies for not linking to you earlier.)
The Director’s Chair has an interview with Peckinpah, originally published in Rocky Mountain Magazine in 1982, entitled ‘Last of the Desperadoes: Duelling with Sam Peckinpah’. Writer E. Jean Carroll meets the director towards the end of his career, but still finds him full of fire and brimstone.
‘Eyes Opening Up’ by Michael Sragow (on Salon.com) looks at the intertwined controversies surrounding ‘Straw Dogs’ and ‘A Clockwork Orange’ as well as making a broader comparison of Peckinpah and Kubrick’s careers. Written in 1999 and occasioned by the death of Kubrick shortly after completing ‘Eyes Wide Shut’, Sragow advocates his readers to “flip Sam Peckinpah’s ‘Straw Dogs’ into the VCR after dozing through Stanley Kubrick’s valedictory and it registers like the shock pads on failed hearts in medical shows - suddenly, you can feel again.”
A couple of longer pieces for Peckinpah fans with a bit of time on their hands: either you’ve already finished work for the holidays or, like me, you’re kicking your feet at the office and waiting for them to start. Shooting Down Pictures has an epic piece on ‘The Getaway’, part review, part making-of article, including quotes from cast, crew, critics and anyone in any way qualified to pass comment on this classic ’70s thriller, while John Sanchez’s article ‘Sam Peckinpah – Hollywood’s Last Rebel Director’ (on Associated Content) celebrates Peckinpah’s maverick approach to filmmaking and provides an overview of all the films.
Meanwhile, back at this blog, I’ll be reviewing ‘The Killer Elite’ tomorrow, taking a break on Christmas Day, then storming back on Boxing Day to look at the last few films in the run up to the New Year.
Tuesday, December 22, 2009
Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia
The basic idea for 'Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia' was Frank Kowalski's: a crime boss puts a bounty one someone's head, but with the twist that said individual is already dead. Peckinpah worked with Gordon Dawson (who had done some uncredited script work on 'The Ballad of Cable Hogue' and was associate producer of that film and 'The Getaway') on the screenplay. Producer Martin Baum was looking for a project for his newly formed company Optimus Productions. He had a deal with United Artists and, on the basis of a palimpsest of Peckinpah and Dawson's script (just 25 pages), he green-lighted the production. Peckinpah was hot from 'The Getaway' and 'Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid' was about to go before the cameras.
'Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid' turned into a war between Peckinpah and MGM head honcho James Aubrey. David Weddle, in his biography, portrays a weary and defeated Peckinpah at the helm of 'Alfredo Garcia': "the production proceeded smoothly, but a blanket of melancholy settled over the company. It wasn't like the old days. Something had happened to Sam; the flame in those hazel eyes had flickered out." Maybe, maybe not. I find it difficult to watch 'Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia' and entertain the notion of a lifeless and unmotivated Peckinpah calling the shots. An exhausted Peckinpah, yes; a Peckinpah retreating to Mexico like Pike Bishop or Doc McCoy; a Peckinpah going a little crazy, losing it a bit. But not a defeated Peckinpah. Peckinpah was a true maverick and 'Alfredo Garcia' is the single most maverick film on his CV. It's also unique in being the only thing he made that wasn't fucked with at some stage of production. "I did 'Alfredo Garcia'," he said later, "and I did exactly what I wanted to, good or bad, like it or not. That was my film."
Amen to that.
Mexican crimelord El Jefe (Emilio Fernandez) has his daughter tortured until she gives up the name of the non-Jefe-approved individual who made her pregnant. His name? Well, the clue's in the title. Jefe's heavies start combing Mexico, among their number Sappensly (Robert Webber) and Quill (Gig Young). Flashing around Alfredo's photograph in a seedy bar, they come across Bennie (Warren Oates), a down-at-heel American making a meagre living pounding out 'Guantanamera' for the tourists on a tinny old piano. Bennie says he'll ask around. Bennie has an inkling that his on-off girlfriend Elita (Isela Vega) - a sometime hooker, sometime lounge singer - might know Alfredo's whereabouts, having recently had a fling with him. Bennie discovers where Alfredo is and that he's not going anywhere. A car accident has rendered him recently deceased. Bennie and Elita take off for Alfredo's final resting place, with Sappensley and Quill making it clear they'll come looking for him in four days. A couple of bounty hunters tail them. En route, a couple of bikers harrass them. Then they arrive at the graveyard and things just get worse ...
There are two common misconceptions about 'Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia':
1) It's about a man who commits grave robbery and becomes a killer for a million dollar bounty. (Actually, it's not until the last scene at El Jefe's hacienda that Bennie realises the true value of Alfredo's head; up till then he's done what he's done for a mere couple of thousand.)
2) It's a nihilistic film.
'Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia' is many things, including bleak and cynical, but it's certainly not nihilistic. And for every bleak or cynical aspect of the film, there are plenty of moments that are tender, romantic, poetic and surprisingly funny. The first time I saw 'Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia' was at Nottingham's Broadway Cinema as part of their now sadly defunct Shots in the Dark Festival back in the early '90s. It was a straight-down-the-middle divisive viewing experience. Half the audience found it uproariously funny, the other half sat there in stony silence. I loved it immediately and knew that I'd just seen something unique; a true one-off.
One of the most gratifying discoveries I've made in scouring the internet for information and resources on Peckinpah as part of this project is just how much love there is for 'Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia'. I've long been of the opinion that it's a film more heard of than seen. And not always appreciated by those who have seen it. Paul Seydor, quoted in Weddle's biography, remarks "Fifty or a hundred years from now people will be looking back on that film the way we look back on Faulkner today. Professors used to get fired or denied tenure for arguing that Faulkner was a great writer; today he's recognised as one of the greatest American writers. People will look back on us and wonder why we failed to understand 'Alfredo Garcia'."
From what I've come across on the net, I'd hazard a guess that, thirty five years down the line, the rennaissance Seydor anticipated is already under way.
I've linked to all of these posts previously, but it's worth doing so again. An article at Technicolor Dreams identifies the film as "Peckinpah's crippled swan song to Hollywood". JD at Radiator Heaven delves behind the scenes and finds how attuned Peckinpah was to the "dirt-poor parts of Mexico that you will not find in a tourist brochure any time soon". For JB at The Phantom Country it's a study of male virility, while Kim Morgan at Sunset Gun tunes into the film's romanticism. All of these writers love 'Alfredo Garcia' wholeheartedly and all of them find something specific to love about it, something personal to them. Between their various posts, they find so many facets that there's probably no need for me to write any of this. But in the spirit of flying the flag for Peckinpah's most misunderstood film, here's my 1,500 words anyway.
I love how tenderly, grubbily and believably the relationship between Bennie and Elita is brought to life. How Elita's previous life still riles him ("You're a lyin', cheatin', no-good, two-bit bitch," he grunts at one point, the turn of phrase leaving little room for ambiguity), yet how protective he is of her, how righteously indignant he gets at the motel owner who remembers Elita as a hooker and refuses her a room - Bennie sets the man straight in no uncertain terms and secures "the best room in the house". Bennie and Elita, as a couple, are fiery, passionate, argumentative, tender, rock solid together and totally vulnerable. Peckinpah threw himself headfirst into relationships and often saw them self-destruct. He knew the territory.
I love Bennie's shabby white suit and indifferent attitude to his musicianship. He makes me think of a bizarre filmic parallel universe where Dirk Bogarde's Von Aschenbach in 'Death in Venice' gets down with his more earthy side, ends up in some Mexican backwater and gets over the whole Tadzio thing with the help of a flame-headed and voluptuous siren.