Wednesday, June 19, 2024

If a young man came to me today with similar credentials there's no way I'd hire him


Directed by Roger Corman
Written by R. Wright Campbell

Spoilers: moderate

In 1926, Roger William Corman was born, and over the course of about sixty years in the movie business, he directed at least fifty-one films with his name on them (and up to four more uncredited), and had his hand in literally hundreds more, having founded at least four low-budget production companies between 1959 and 1985, including The Filmgroup, Palo Alto, and Millennium (I'm somewhat unclear on whether Millennium was legally distinct from Corman's distribution company, Concorde), though Corman's most famous and most successful companyand perhaps longest-lived, as it only ceased to exist after he sold itwas New World Pictures, est. 1970.  In the May of this year, the great practitioner of exploitation cinema died, not quite hitting a century, and in the month that's followed I've found myself getting aggravatedoffended, reallyby the shape that way too much of the mourning of his passing took, with far too many of those offering their tribute, from writers at actual publications down to lowly Letterboxd nerds, having decided that the only really important thing about a prolific director and an industry-redefining businessman was that, in his gregarious generosity, he nurtured, to some degree or another, a bunch of other, more presently-famous people.  I don't know if it's simple disrespect born out of the disreputable corner of Hollywood that Corman reigned over as its king, or if it's a certain condescension towards an assumed reader who isn't familiar with film history beyond a few giant names, or what, but I find it gauche, or rude, or pandering, or something that I don't like, when I see a list of Corman's achievements that weights "the existence of Ron Howard" as perhaps his single most crucial accomplishment.  And look, I like Ron Howard just fine, and the breadth of Corman's continuing legacy is worth mentioning on the basis of how there are a lot of living people who'll legitimately grieve him as a friend; but I would categorically reject the implication that this seems to intend, that all of these more-famous graduates of "the Corman Film School" must be better or more interesting filmmakers than Corman was, or at least I would deny that in any but a few cases is this beyond any argument.*  So it seems to me that talking about all the good (sometimes even great!) films that Corman did during his hardest-working years would be a vastly better way to honor him.

Unfortunately, what we've chosen for today is his directorial debut, Five Guns West, and that leaves us stuck, for the moment, in ur-Corman territory, and that territory is not at all pretty.  To continue with the housekeeping a little more: it's a lovely thought that, at some point, we'll have gotten to Corman's whole filmography here (that is to say, his directorial filmographyI'm not nuts), yet despite the above biographical capsule and objectless bitching, I don't have any intent of doing so systematically, so just because we're doing his first film, it doesn't mean our next Corman will be his second.  (In fact, we'll shortly be skipping ahead eleven years and forty-one filmsdude, I told you, he was prolificto do his avowed counterculture movies, starting with The Wild Angels.  But with those forty-one films in mind, perhaps it's worth mentioning that we didn't just arrive on Corman in the wake of his passing: we looked at his entire Edgar Allan Poe cycle, widely and correctly considered the highlight of his career, back when he was still with us.)

Anyway, Five Guns West: by 1955, Corman had already gotten a toehold in the film industry.  However, he'd started out, following his post-war discharge from the U.S. Navy and completion of his degree at Stanford, as an engineer; that career only lasted four days before he quit and made a go at movies.  In 1948, he got a job at 20th Century Fox, literally starting in the mail room, and graduated to story reader, which he found thankless, so he quit that, too.  He sold a screenplay, which became Nathan Juran's 1954 noir, Highway Dragnet, and he parleyed his paycheck into his first film production, the same year's Monster From the Ocean Floor.  After another independent production1955's Fast and the Furious, upon which he served as a second-unit director**he realized, or at least got it into his head, that he could do just as good a job as his hired directors.  If Five Guns West demonstrates that, Monster From the Ocean Floor's Wyott Ordung and Fast and the Furious's John Ireland and Edward Sampson must've been some pretty shitty directors.

It's within my power to cut Corman some slack, and offer that his direction isn't the fatal problem, but his budget (the high estimate is $75,000) and his movie's screenplay, by R. Wright Campbell, who would in fairly short order wind up with an Oscar nomination, but not for this trifling Western programmer.  The story is reasonably cleverI might say innovative, but I don't know nearly enough about Westerns to make that claimessentially The Dirty Dozen a decade ahead of schedule and set during the American Civil War.  (Indeed, it's enough like The Dirty Dozen that Corman and Campbell remade it in actual World War II dress in 1964 with The Secret Invasionthough that was three years before The Dirty Dozen came out.)  So: as a title card explains, in the waning days of the War of the Rebellion, the Confederacy took to desperate measures, namely giving convicts a choice between serving the CSA and serving out their sentences.  For our five guns, that's barely a choice at all, since four of them have been sentenced to hang from the neck until deadthey're all murderersand while the fifth one has been given but twenty years hard labor, because all he did was cause a stampede and only semi-intentionally kill some people, he's also about sixty years old, so his is a death sentence in all but name, too.   Thus do they in turn take their oaths of allegiance: Govern Sturges (John Lund), by an enormous margin the most level-headed in the group, therefore defaulting to being their leader; Hale Clinton (Touch Connors), a devil-may-care playboy with some superficial charm; J.C. Haggard (John Birch), the old man; and, finally, the brothers John and Billy Candy (Jonathan Haze andohoR. Wright Campbell), a pair of out-and-out psychos discernable mainly by virtue that John is of modest intelligence and Billy is a childish moron.  (So I've gotta give Campbell credit for that.)

Their mission, which I may slightly misunderstand because its complicated details are not presented with great clarity, is, in fairness, simple enough in its essence: there is a spymaster (Jack Ingram) who has defected to the Union; he's being escorted by Union cavalry back into Confederate-held territory (or, possibly, being escorted out of Confederate-held territory, but if that's the case I have no idea how they could possibly catch up to him); and our dirty quintet's job is to either capture him, or assassinate him.  All they have to do is wait at the ghost town that serves only as a lonely stagecoach stop these days, and effect an ambush.  Unfortunately, the last two inhabitants of this empty standing set, I mean village, brash young woman Shalee (Dorothy Malone) and her enfeebled, drunkard uncle (James Stone), will complicate things, especially the former.

So it's not the biggest problem, but it is a constant distraction how this scenario almost makes sense but just doesn't quite: the thing about The Dirty Dozen was that Lee Marvin was around to at least try to keep a leash on those junkyard dogs, but you will notice that at no point did I mention the Confederate officer serving that function here; that function is served, hypothetically, by Govern, who manifests enough stolidity to get the other men to resentfully, temporarily conform to his plans, but I suppose Campbell must've believed that the avarice factorfor the turncoat spymaster is also leaving (or returning) with $30,000 in goldcould serve just as well as the glue that holds our fivesome together long enough for it to be dramatically interesting when they rattle apart.  (Rather than, for example, simply... riding away.  The Dirty Dozen also had the benefit of sending its untrustworthy scumbags into Nazi-held France, separated from their home country by an entire ocean, rather than into a half-empty frontier.)  In any event, it's kind of stupid, and this apparently actually occurred to Campbell halfway through writing his script, or it at least must have occurred to Corman, but when Campbell asked him if that meant they should just rewrite the whole thing so it wasn't stupid, my supposition is that Corman said "no, that'll take at least twelve hours, and I already lost that many to rain!", which, you must remember, is a pretty big deal when twelve hours constitutes at least 10% of your shooting schedule.  (I do feel bad for Corman that on his very first day on his very first film, which is basically exterior photography from start to finish, God struck him down with a long rainstorm.)  So eventually, they do slap a bandaid on that gaping plot hole, but it turns out to be fairly pointless and the movie would operate entirely the same if it weren't trying to be cute.

But, anyway, we could live with that if the film were more fun, and it just isn't much fun.  There's one decent narrative hook, which gets sandbagged pretty thoroughly because the characters and hence their dynamics aren't especially enjoyableCampbell has decided, as many a Western and crime movie scribe before and after him, that "antiheroes," perforce, must equate to "obnoxious yammering," and that yammering comes from largely-underqualified actors, such as R. Wright Campbellbut that hook is Govern's constant need to psychologically manage his comrades so they all keep facing in the same direction instead of killing him or each other, and with his gaze fixed on the mission and the prize, he pursues this almost without scruple.  Early on, he makes a deal with each of the nascent factions in his group to murder the other one, which is basically how he gets to be the leader; a little later, the single fraughtest scene is also the best, when he makes absolutely certain, with unmistakably incipient violence, that one of his garbage humans gets "his turn" dancing with Shalee during one of her several awkward attempts to flirt information out of them.  It would all be more interesting if Lund had any other trick besides a scowl (Malone is fairly readily identifiable as giving the only fully-capable performance of the entire cast, though Connors does middlingly okay as the burgeoning main antagonist and Birch's "old cuss" stereotype is mostly-serviceable); but it would also be more interesting if the psychology Govern had to manage wasn't that of a bunch of characters who come off like thirteen year olds and, honestly, three versions of the same thirteen year old plus one grizzled prospector.  I realize movies need their story engines, but I'm not sure the way they play the "FIVE MEN! ONE WOMAN!" set-upeffectively as if we were working with a post-apocalyptic wasteland or a shipwreck on an uncharted islandreally checks out, even for this crew of sociopaths, except to the extent it helps explain why these men were all unsuccessful criminals, since that big pile of gold appears to have failed to concentrate their minds.  And then, just muddling things all up, an actual romance gets thrown in between Shalee and Govern, which sucks on its merits, and can only wind up diluting his hardassed single-mindedness, which was the only good thing the movie had going.

I don't like to kick an underdog, but it's just impossible to overlook how cheap Five Guns West is.  I possibly could, if the script overcame it with tight thrillmaking, but it doesn't; it's an actioner that Corman still went overbudget on (perhaps for the last time!), because he was making it with quarters he picked up off the street and with funds basically stolen out of the budget of another one of his productions, The Beast With a Million Eyes.  It suggests something of the nature of the film that, according to the first and most important block of dialogue in the entire movie, one of the convicts got his conviction in the year 1867, and nobody fixed this; later, a guitar will get played and the soundtrack takes about ten seconds to catch up to that.  But the fundamental thing, which is transparently a function of that budget, is that this mission isn't even dangerous: there's some Native American action padding on the way there, but nothing else ever actually asserts that it was a job fit only for the most desperate and most expendable.  A cavalry squadron would've done fine, and as a bonus, you could have a semi-reasonable expectation of them bringing the gold back and/or not colluding with the enemy.  (Campbell doesn't even bother raising this as a prospect, which is part of the calculated apoliticism of the entire affair, and it grates a little because it doesn't even thread that needle correctly: I don't have an absolute need for my B-Western to be overtly anti-Confederate, but I obviously prefer them to not be more-or-less-overtly pro, which is where this eventually winds up.)  It is, anyhow, a pretty simple ambush, accomplished pretty simply, with barely ten participants on both sides.

Likewise, the first two-fifths are wandering around the wilderness, and what feels like the same half-mile stretch of it (the best part of it is that Corman found or placed some nice evil-looking trees in some of his shots, a seed that would grow to maturity in his Poe movies, but they feel accidental enough that no real mood attaches), and the rest is entirely pinned down to Shalee's town and, really, its one house and its front yard.  This could be fine; Corman's best work is in full-on single locations.  But Corman is untested, and arguably not even living up to this weak screenplay: in the available full-frame presentation, I tried to squint to see how this would be composed for its correct, 2:1 fake 'Scope ratio, but this isn't an especially good-looking movie, and the blocking in particular is usually either extremely stiff (owing to half the cast having little apparent acting talent), or otherwise pretty random.  Even the shoeleather/filler shots that virtually any Western should be able to effortlessly integrate, simply thanks to the visual appeal of Western landscapes and men on horseback, mostly wind up boring.  The only really good thing about this movie's visual construction, ultimately, is that it introduced Corman to DP Floyd Crosby (and the rest, of course, is history).  In the end, the five badmen's greed and fractiousness finally erupts into fully-formed enmity, and there are some smart action ideas gestured at here, ideas that feel tailored to the nothing budget, even.  In a more seasoned director's hands, the climactic shootout that takes place principally through the floorboards of a home would probably be very cool and tense.  I can discern only that it's supposed to be; Corman rushes it pretty badly.

Altogether lousy, then, and though I'll give it the very weak praise of "watchable," even that's just thanks to it being 78 minutes long.  But it worked out, as such things still could when there was a theatrical ecosystem for total junkburgers made for pennies on the dollar of a real movie.  It established Corman's combative but extremely productive relationship with a certain American Releasing Corporationnot yet calling itself American International Pictures, but still the house that James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff builtand he didn't let up for a long time, not going a year without directing at least three movies (often many more!) until 1965.  I was neither very edified nor entertained to watch it, but I can say, honestly, I'm glad it exists.

Score: 3/10

*Possibly only the one, with James Cameron, though Joe Dante and Francis Ford Coppola peak higher.
**So I should've done that, probably.  Oh well.

No comments:

Post a Comment