Anne Thompson opened up the top westerns debate on her blog "Thompson for Hollywood" (Variety). Needless to say, her post and the comments offer some much better films.
The Western Writers voted like so:
(view the top 100 westerns list)
Here is Anne's list:
and my list of the best westerns:
My second 10 would include "Cat Ballou" and "North to Alaska," the last two a vote for fun in westerns. Many comedies were made, but they're scarce on these lists. I'd also go with "The Long Riders," "Open Range," "Once Upon a Time in the West," "Unforgiven," "True Grit," "The Iron Horse," "The Alamo" and "A Fistful of Dollars."
These lists are silly but fun. Never knew I was such a John Wayne fan!
The late director's "El Cid" and "The Fall of the Roman Empire" received the regal treatment from The Weinstein Co. as it debuted its new Miriam DVD collection. Despite some quibbling, these are considered two of the year's best home video titles.
Now comes "The Furies," Mann's emotionally deep and improbably entertaining western from 1950. Coming from the Criterion Collection, Mann again provides us with another of the year's most welcome releases -- especially considering that "The Furies" hasn't been seen all that much in the past half-century.
The movie belongs to Barbara Stanwyck, as usual, but she gets a mighty headwind from Walter Huston, who died shortly after this western premiered. Then there's the offbeat work of Wendell Corey, whose unusual looks and ambiguous characterization further to the movie's great distance from the era's typical westerns.
Criterion's commentator, Jim Kitses, says "The Furies" is "a hybrid genre" film -- part western, part film noir, part romance, part family melodrama. The case may be overstated; to me it's a smart western, clearly ahead of its time, more in tune with Orson Welles than John Ford. YMMV.
T.C. Jeffords (Huston) lords over a gigantic cattle ranch in new Mexico, aptly titled "The Furies." He's getting up there in years, but doesn't mind wading into some deep muck to rescue a calf. T.C. has his enemies, among them a saloon owner (Corey) whose father saw the family land sucked up by the Furies. Then there are the people of the land, the Mexican "squatters," tolerated by T.C. until the bank wants them gone.
T.C.'s dandified son proves a washout, so he sees the ranch's future in his thirtyish daughter Vance (Stanwyck). The beautiful wiseass seems to be sleeping with the enemy, however. Vance loves the saloon owner who hates her father, and has an undefined physical relationship with a squatter hombre with whom she grew up.
Then there's the strange sexual tension between father and daughter, never really resolved but front and center as the film opens. The Shakespearean end game commences when, in a fit of anger, she throws some scissors and cuts open her would-be stepmother.
The Criterion DVD comes with a 267-page paperback of the novel by Niven Busch.
Commentator Kitses brings his own odd vibe to the DVD set, with a stiff talk that's clearly been written out as if for a lecture. Here he is on the "Furies" mashup of styles:
"It's a post-modern blend before its time, one that indulges its mood swings by invoking different genre conventions and settings to fit the moment."
Thing is, once you get used to the lecture-hall tone, Kitses proves a first-rate commentator, one who's clearly burrowed deep into this deep movie and can extend your experience. Well done, sir.
The other extras feel a bit light, at least for Criterion. Director Mann is interviewed by British TV in 1967, a so-so session. A new interview features his daughter, Nina, who's getting a lot of camera time these days. She talks about how, as a kid, she looked to her absentee father's films for clues to how he felt about his children.
A fun short has a barrel-chested Huston interviewed by a newsreel beauty at his Hollywood home, years before this fine movie was made.
* * * * *
Writer-co-director Marjane Satrapi says the animated black-and-white film isn't really her biography, but it loosely covers her childhood years in Iran during the Shah's reign, the Islamic revolution and then the harsh new era of the religious fundamentalists.
Doesn't sound like much fun, but our heroine Marjane manages to find some good times -- scoring black market Iron Maiden tapes on a street corner, goofing on the revolutionary guards, flirting from behind her black scarf, hanging out with her cynical but loving grandmother.
As a teen, her spirit proves too dangerous for Tehran, so she's shipped off to Vienna, where her adventures continue, for a while. Alienation and unsupervised freedom send her into a downward spiral and a plane rise back to Iran.
The movie has the spirit and inspirational rush of classic children's animated movies, but also works the darkest parts of its subject matter. "Persepolis" would be confusing and perhaps quite scary for kids under, say, eight. At times, the movie is a real hoot, perfect for "Juno" hipsters.
Sony's Blu-ray of "Persepolis" is further proof that in high def, black-and-white movies benefit every bit as much as those in color. Gorgeous images across a challenging gray scale. The French dialogue and subtitles are clear, and the TrueHD 5.1 audio has sufficient pop for the big surprises.
There is also a made-for-America dubbed track, featuring Iggy Pop, Sean Penn, Gena Rowlands and Catherine Deneuve (who appears as the mom in the original French as well). The movie should be heard in French.
My Samsung Blu-ray player had some issues with this Blu-ray's (also) awkward menu; if you own one of the problem players look for a firmware update ... if we're lucky.
Extras include a pair of featurettes with Satrapi and her collaborator Vincent Paronnaud. Satrapi talks about how the decision to go with b&w was partially aesthetic and partially financial. Some of the movie has color highlights, though, denoting a time shift.
Also circling the DVD blog's players this week is "Before the Rain," an import from the Balkans, another tale of ethnic and tribal warfare and misery (from Criterion).
New and notable:
Before the Rain (The Criterion Collection)
The Big Easy: The Complete First Season (MPI Home Video)
Charlie Bartlett (MGM/Fox)
Definitely, Maybe (Universal)
Don't Call Me Bugsy (MPI)
The Furies (Criterion)
Futurama: Beast With a Billion Backs (Fox)
The Hammer (The Weinstein Co./Genius Products)
In Bruges (Universal)
My Boys (Sony)
The Spiderwick Chronicles (Paramount)
Wide Sargasso Sea (Acorn Media)
The Wig (Genius Products)
Warner Home Video plans two-disc "ultimate," "special" and high-definition editions of the restored epic, which has suffered so far in the DVD format. (Update 6/28: The release has been delayed several weeks, from the original Aug. 26 to Sept. 9.)
Being a child of the '60s, I remember turning out for a screening of "West Was Won" at the trusty Wometco in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. They rolled out two additional (side) screens for the Cinerama presentation, which had everyone buzzing before the film even began, but it all seemed kind of disjointed once the movie started.
Warner has an explanation: "After its initial theatrical engagements in theaters equipped with three synchronized projectors for Cinerama presentation, the film was subsequently presented on traditional theater screens with the three separate Cinerama panels being optically joined to form a standard 35mm 2.35:1 widescreen image, leaving most subsequent viewers puzzled by the annoying 'join lines.' "
The join lines are gone, of course, with the new DVD and Blu-Ray images at 2.89 widescreen.
"How the West Was Won," clocking in at 165 minutes, tells the tale of two families who head west for fortune and adventure in 1839. The saga continues over 50 years. The film won a couple of Oscars but didn't take the best picture nod. The film has its fans but I'm not one of them. It's just OK.
The movie was made about the time that Hollywood figured that if one or two stars could sell a movies, how about a dozen or more. And so we have a cast that includes John Wayne, Henry Fonda, James Stewart, Debbie Reynolds, Richard Widmark, Gregory Peck, Lee J. Cobb, Carroll Baker, Robert Preston, Karl Malden, Carolyn Jones, Eli Wallach. ... Some of them just passing through, like the Duke -- and a few, like Reynolds, going the distance.
There were multiple directors as well: Henry Hathaway, John Ford and George Marshall. Hathaway did the heavy lifting.
There are three DVD versions already out there, all of them essentially the same and to be avoided for quality reasons. The latest (2007) is tagged as part of Warner's "John Wayne Collection," oddly.
Warner's brand-new Blu-ray version of the film also contains a "SmileBox" presentation "with a unique curvature that virtually recreates the true Cinerama experience in a home theater." (Good luck with that.) The ultimate set adds printed materials such as a press book and postcards.
Warner lists "How the West Was Won" extras as:
A quartet of Errol Flynn westerns also are getting the Warner box set treatment, with vintage newsreels, cartoons and a couple of commentaries:
Warner also said it was debuting six other westerns on DVD, two of them apparently home video premieres*:
Charlton Heston's work has been appreciated on this DVD blog recently, with a review of "El Cid" and a nod to "The Omega Man." These are some of my favorite Heston movies, representing two of his most successful onscreen personas: as a historical man of action and as a sci-fi adventurer.
But upon hearing news of the actor's death, I immediately thought of another film.
One of Heston's finest moments came in 1965, when he starred in Sam Peckinpah's "Major Dundee." This was a a mess of a movie that the studio took away from the highly flammable director -- and then hacked it up.
Sony restored and extended "Dundee" a few years back, attempting to return the western to Peckinpah's original vision.
"Dundee" stars Heston in what critics of the time called his best performance (despite the Oscar for 1959's "Ben-Hur"). Heston plays Dundee, a disgraced and disgruntled Union officer running a New Mexico stockade filled with Confederate soldiers and miscellaneous lowlifes.
Heston, known for his love of weaponry, was fed up with Peckinpah's antics as well. On location, the actor went after the infuriating director with a saber. But when Columbia first tried to fire Peckinpah, Heston offered to surrender his salary to pay for overages, a bluff the studio called.
Sony's Major Dundee: The Extended Version remains the only version of the film in market.
Here's my DVD review in full, from September 2005:
The history of Sam Peckinpah's "Major Dundee" remains every bit as messy as the film itself. Sony's "Extended Version" of the renegade director's 1965 cavalry western aims to make things as right as they can be, but it's clear that whatever Peckinpah had in mind will never be seen.
The restored "Dundee" -- which had a brief pre-DVD theatrical run last spring -- delivers no miracle such as the resurrection of Sam Fuller's "The Big Red One." Forget the marketing: This is no "authentic American classic, at last presented as its legendary director intended." Not even the Peckinpah hardcore consider this is a case of a missing masterpiece.
Only 12 minutes have been returned to the movie. The rediscovered footage certainly helps, but can't cure the wheezy plot. We'll never see a director's cut -- it only existed only briefly, if at all, in the version Peckinpah turned in to Columbia. A good half hour of that cut remains at large.
So why watch? "It's a flawed film, but an extraordinary flawed film," says David Weddle, one of three Peckinpah biographers who partner up for the DVD commentary.
Without "Dundee," the commentators say, there would have been no "The Wild Bunch": Peckinpah learned from his many mistakes on his first big Hollywood film and delivered the goods when he returned from industry exile in the late '60s. Plus, they say, the cautionary tale about military adventurism is eerily relevant again with the war in Iraq.