Last Train from Gun Hill (1959) Review

Director: John Sturges

Genre(s): Drama, Western

Runtime: 95 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

One of the movies that director John Sturges brought to the world before his two masterpieces – The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Great Escape (1963) – was 1959’s Last Train from Gun Hill. In the Old West, Marshal Matt Morgan (Kirk Douglas) sets out to the town of Gun Hill to arrest the two men who raped and murdered his Native American wife, Catherine (Ziva Rodann). However, that town is now completely under the domination of his former best friend Craig Belden (Anthony Quinn), now a mob-boss-like cattle baron. To complicate matters, Belden’s son, Rick (Earl Holliman), is one of the killers.

The film’s plot may sound a bit unwieldy in text, but the relatively straightforward storytelling keeps things understandable. The only aspect slowing down the action is a subplot involving the character of Linda (Carolyn Jones), which probably could’ve been reduced to tighten up the picture. Still, physical action is fairly common in Last Train from Gun Hill, although these moments are pretty short. For a while, the film feels like Die Hard (1988) set in a Wild West hotel.

The feature’s musical score is average, despite being provided by the great Dimitri Tiomkin. Although the primary draw of this western is to see Kirk Douglas and Anthony Quinn face off against each other, I feel the need to point out a couple of members of the supporting cast. Brad Dexter, who would play Harry Luck in The Magnificent Seven, shows up as Beero (nice name), Quinn’s character’s head henchman. Also, the guy who plays Lee Smithers, the member of the raping duo who’s not Earl Holliman’s Rick, is Brian G. Hutton, who would go on to direct Where Eagles Dare (1968) and Kelly’s Heroes (1970).

Fans of John Sturges will probably enjoy this no-frills, pro-law-and-order western film. It’s no life-changing experience, but it is a rock-solid movie with a respectable amount of action and an intriguing plot. If you’ve seen it and liked it, I’d highly recommend the other two classics directed by Sturges that I mentioned at the beginning of this review.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Little Caesar (1931) Review

Director: Mervyn LeRoy

Genre(s): Crime, Drama

Runtime: 79 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Little Caesar is famous for being one of the first major gangster movies of the sound era. It may be a bit creaky by today’s eye, but it holds up pretty well. The plot, which may sound familiar, is about small-time hoodlum Rico Bandello (Edward G. Robinson) joining the mob to make a name for himself. Made during Hollywood’s Pre-Code period (before the enforcement of the Production Code), this picture raised concerns that it was celebrating the outlaw lifestyle.

The standout element of Little Caesar is Edward G. Robinson’s performance as the titular character. He’s really a natural, making most of the rest of the cast look like they’re made out of wood. Check out the flophouse scene for some of Robinson’s best acting in the feature. While we’re on the subject of acting, take a gander at Thomas E. Jackson’s turn as police officer Sergeant Flaherty. I can’t tell if it’s the most brilliant performance I’ve ever seen…or the worst. Not every character registers, but enough do to make it coherent.

Little Caesar has fair-enough pacing. Sometimes things move pretty quickly (the first shot of the movie, after the opening credits, is a stickup, after all), and sometimes there’s just a hair too much talking. Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating, because it’s never boring and the runtime is only 79 minutes. The whole flick is a little primitive-feeling at times, but that’s pretty much expected for a 1931 release.

It’s Robinson that breathes life into this entertaining crime-drama (it’s the role that made him a star). It’s not an action movie, so don’t expect a bunch of explosions and you might have a good time. There are better Pre-Code gangster films out there – namely Scarface (1932) and The Public Enemy (1931) – but this one beat them all to the punch.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Kongo (1932) Review

Director: William J. Cowen

Genre(s): Adventure, Drama

Runtime: 86 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Four years after the silent West of Zanzibar (1928) was released, a sound remake, titled Kongo, was sent to theaters. This forgotten gem ups the macabre and salacious content of the original, making it one of the more boundary-pushing films of the Pre-Code era of Hollywood (the time period in the early 1930s before the Production Code started being enforced). This twisted tale is about a magician living in Africa named “Deadlegs” Flint Rutledge (Walter Huston) plotting his vengeance on Gregg Whitehall (C. Henry Gordon), the man who paralyzed him from the waist down in a brawl and ran away with his wife. This one’s so nasty (for its time) it sometimes gets classified (incorrectly, in my opinion) as a member of the horror genre.

Like the original movie, West of Zanzibar, Kongo is all about its depraved, slimy atmosphere. Like fellow Pre-Code adventure film Island of Lost Souls (1932), it has the stench of sweat and cruelty all over it. One notable aspect of this one is Walter Huston’s sleazy performance. Check out that scar on his cheek that resembles one of the facial markings that the Joker from The Dark Knight (2008) would have.

Kongo is based on a 1926 play of the same name, and, yeah, it sometimes shows. The action rarely leaves Huston’s character’s African compound or its immediate surroundings. When it does leave this setting, it’s sometimes footage reused from West of Zanzibar. Still, it’s a pulpy movie that doesn’t really feel as claustrophobic as this might lead you to believe.

As with the silent original, I can’t exactly recommend this one to everyone, as the depiction of native Africans is problematic and bound to offend many. However, those who can overlook that aspect will be rewarded with one of the best motion pictures of the Pre-Code period. It’s not quite as taut as the shorter West of Zanzibar, but it is more lurid, so I guess I prefer this version by a hair.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

West of Zanzibar (1928) Review

Director: Tod Browning

Genre(s): Adventure, Drama

Runtime: 65 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

This seedy adventure-melodrama predominately set in Africa is one of the more entertaining movies of the silent era. A magician named Phroso (Lon Chaney) seeks revenge on Crane (Lionel Barrymore), the man who paralyzed him from the waist down in a fight and stole his wife, Anna (Jacqueline Gadsdon). Even if you don’t think that you’d like a silent movie, this engaging picture runs only 65 minutes long, so, if you ever come across it, I’d recommend watching it.

West of Zanzibar thrives on its sweaty, grimy atmosphere. It’s an old Hollywood movie, but it’s certainly not nice and clean. Lon Chaney is in firm control of the film, expertly playing a vengeance-driven man who has no command of his legs. He’s both pathetic and evil. The competent musical score from an uncredited William Axt keeps things moving along smoothly and may make you forget that what you’re watching is silent.

This drama is based on the 1926 play Kongo, so it occasionally has a stagey nature to it, but it’s forgivable considering how dynamic and fast-paced the storytelling is. The story itself is superb, both capturing the imagination and repelling the audience with its drunkenness, ritualistic sacrifice, implied prostitution, murder, paralyzed villain, etc. If you think silent films were all about silly, Charlie Chaplin-esque antics, you need to watch West of Zanzibar.

This one comes highly recommended, being an excellent example of sharp, economical storytelling. Would I recommend it to everyone? Not quite. The picture’s depiction of native Africans is bound to offend many viewers, so consider yourself warned. If you can excuse that, I’d say “check it out,” along with its sound-era remake, Kongo (1932), where Walter Huston plays the Chaney role.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Big Wednesday (1978) Review

Director: John Milius

Genre(s): Drama, Sport

Runtime: 120 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

The surfing drama Big Wednesday is the only feature-length non-action film that John Milius directed. However, he still has his fingerprints all over it. Three best friends, Matt Johnson (Jan-Michael Vincent), Jack Barlow (William Katt), and Leroy Smith (Gary Busey), find themselves immersed in West Coast surfing culture in the 1960s and 1970s. It’s a sweeping, nostalgic treat that even people who’ve never surfed before, like myself, can enjoy.

This motion picture perhaps works best as a passage-of-time drama. It’s very emotionally engaging to see these characters move in and out of each other’s lives, through the highs and the lows. Gary Busey, as crazy as ever, is a standout here, playing a proudly masochistic madman. Unusually for a John Milius movie, the supporting characters are frequently pretty weakly-drawn, but the main ones make an impression.

The cinematography during the surfing scenes is exquisite. There are a few how-did-they-do-that? moments. Speaking of physical action, there are also a couple of well-choreographed fist fights on land (I mean, what would a Milius film be without a brawl or two?). Perhaps the remarkable component of Big Wednesday is its phenomenal musical score from Basil Poledouris. It really amplifies the experience.

This flick has become a bit of a cult classic among surfers, but you don’t have to be a rider of the waves to see the magic in it. Yes, the behavior of the characters is often too rowdy and irresponsible for my tastes, but this is still a largely forgotten classic. It works very well both on land and on the water. Check it out.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Hell or High Water (2016) Review

Director: David Mackenzie

Genre(s): Crime, Drama, Thriller, Western

Runtime: 102 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Hell or High Water is a very good modern-day western that was nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Set around the time of the Great Recession, this film taps into the populist sentiment that was all the rage at the time of its release. The plot follows a pair of bank-robbing brothers, Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster), and the pursuit of them by lawmen Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham).

Generally well-paced (thanks to the lack of a substantial romantic subplot), this one has smart, colorful dialogue and well-drawn characters, thanks to its screenplay, written by Taylor Sheridan (who shows up as a cowboy here), who also penned other quasi-westerns, like Sicario (2015) and Wind River (2017). Hell or High Water, while mostly serious, has more comedic touches than those pictures, making it lighter viewing. It’s an interesting dive into Texan culture.

I would not describe this movie as an actioner, but it does have some crisp action scenes that largely kick in during the third act. The body count is quite low, but the amount of gunfire and speeding cars that the flick has feels appropriate and satisfying. The violence isn’t too graphic, being just bloody enough to cross the line into R-rated territory.

Hell or High Water isn’t my favorite modern-day western movie…that would be Extreme Prejudice (1987) (I’m not including Westworld [1973] here, as that’s more futuristic than anything else). However, it will definitely scratch that itch for viewers who want to see tough guys in the American Southwest performing or trying to prevent criminal activities in a time period that’s familiar to them. If you’re getting tired of watching westerns set in the 1800s or early 1900s, this is a welcome change of pace.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Joker (2019) Review

Director: Todd Phillips

Genre(s): Crime, Drama, Thriller

Runtime: 122 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Joker is not your typical comic book movie. Instead of people in capes flying around, we get a dark psychological drama about a broken man and the society that may be responsible for creating him. Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a deeply mentally-ill clown-for-hire and aspiring comedian who finds himself on the road to becoming a psychotic killer. This backstory to Batman’s greatest foe is one that you may not be able to tear your eyes off of the screen for.

Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as the titular character is overwhelming. This is a different Joker than what we’ve seen in previous films. Other Jokers were demented criminal masterminds, but the guy we have here couldn’t run a lemonade stand. This is a disturbingly real character…one that we could see existing in our world with frightening ease. He’s probably my favorite version of the Joker that audiences have seen yet, although, as I mentioned earlier, he bares little resemblance to other incarnations.

This is not an action movie. There are some scenes of chaos towards the end, but, for the most part, it’s the central, grotesque performance that keeps viewers in rapt attention. Tension and pacing are ace here. Many critics have taken issue with Joker‘s lack of subtlety, but I don’t go into a picture about a murderous clown who will eventually fight a guy dressed up as a bat expecting understated filmmaking.

“Intense” is a good word to use to describe Joker. It’s simply riveting from beginning to end. Provocative and taut, viewers who don’t expect an action scene-oriented explosionfest will probably be left reeling. I’d recommend watching this thriller for Phoenix’s performance alone, but the rest of the movie around him is just as compelling.

My rating is 9 outta 10.