El Dorado is probably the last true western we will be watching for SVU. As a representative of the last of a dying breed, it stands up pretty well. The reason is it’s a pretty obvious remake of Rio Bravo, which in my opinion is the best western ever made. In Zach’s opinion, Rio bravo is pretty much one of the best movie ever made. That would explain why it got such a high rating. El Dorado pales in comparison to the original, but it’s still got most of the elements that made Rio Bravo such a good movie.

Probably the best way to describe this movie is that it is the exact same characters from Rio Bravo in a slightly different situation played by different actors (with the exception of John Wayne, of course). Essentially, El Dorado is Rio Bravo redux. This doesn’t mean if you’re a fan of Rio Bravo, El Dorado will be ruined for you, but rather the opposite. If you’re the sort that liked Rio Bravo, then ride, boldly ride…to pick up a copy of El Dorado.

Farenheit 451 is an odd movie. Set in a future where books are outlawed, firefighters no longer prevent fires but cause them. Believing that books are dangerous, these noble firefighters seek out the troublemakers who want to learn to read and seek out the contents of (gasp) books. Firefighters then continue to arrest the violater and burn his house with all his possessions and books in it.

The main storyline is interesting enough, but this film is infested with wild symbolism. A prominent actor near the start of the movie might show up later on in the movie dressed in drag as seemingly a different female character who only shows up for a split second. Bus passengers kiss their own reflections in the window. Even certain key plotpoints aren’t openly shown or stated, but are subtly implied. I enjoyed what I understood of the movie, but most of it was lost on me, and most of it I’m pretty sure I don’t want to understand anyway. If you can ignore the random, unexplained events, it’s an interesting experience.

Batman is an odd movie in a very different way. Let’s call it unique. The original Batman tv show which started airing in 1966 was basically a downsized version of the movie. It had the exact same feel, humor, and cast, just with a longer story and a bigger budget. The great thing about Batman is it’s based pretty faithfully on the Batman comics around the same time, which were totally and utterly ridiculous. The comics were meant to be serious and failed, but the creators of the show saw the true potential in batman: comedy. They didn’t have to change much from the comics, just hire actors who could raise the comedy with their purposefully cheesy acting. Batman is not cleverly written. Its visual effects are not well done. It is not well acted. It is not well choreographed. Most people would think these very good reasons not to watch a movie, but it is these very elements that make Batman the masterpiece of comedy that it is. It has a unique moral subtlely implanted within its story as well: somedays, you just can’t get rid of a bomb.

Flight of the Phoenix seems inappropriately named. It should be called Crash of the Phoenix, because that’s what the plane does. At the very beginning of the movie. It stays crashed until the end of the movie. The creators of LOST cited Castaway as their primary influence for the show, but Flight of the Phoenix seems to fit the bill much better, because it’s pretty much the exact same premise: The passengers of an airplane crash in a harsh environment with no hope of rescue. The surviving passengers and crew make a primitive living for themselves until conditions improve. Select survivors war for leadership of the group. Different people take different approaches and lines are drawn. A lot of people go crazy and/or die. Flight of the Phoenix is an expertly acted movie by well-cast actors a bit a group of diverse people who learn that their very survival relies on cooperation.

A blackout occurs. Many people in a fancy hotel are pulled out of their rooms to figure out what in the world just happened. Among them is our protagonist, as portrayed by Gregory Peck. He is heading out of the building. On his way, he meets up with a mysterious woman who claims to know him. Our hero tries to correct her, claiming he’s never met her at all. The woman takes offense, refusing to believe the story. She quickly leaves the scene, and the power comes back on, once he leaves the building. He notices people crowding around a dead man who has evidently just jumped from the building he’s left. He enters a bar for unknown reasons. A nearby conversation triggers a flash in the man’s disoriented head. At this point in the story, you’re just as in the dark as the audience of the movie is, but all will be answered in due time.

This supenseful thriller, appropriately dubbed Mirage, is truly a masterpiece of mystery. Our hero weaves his way through seemingly unrelated events, but becomes more and more aware throughout these events of the trouble he’s in, and the lie he’s been living. As the movie progresses, questions are brought up and answered in their due time, all cleverly plotted until everything falls into place at the end of the film. I was astounded by this movie, but not everyone in SVU agreed. The very fact that everything falls perfectly into place at the end gave ground to some debate which followed the viewing of Mirage. Some people were disappointed by the way the plot fell together, thinking that everything fell into place too perfectly. It left no mystery to the end of the movie. Everything was clear-cut. Some people didn’t want a perfect, detailed answer. In the end, this just depends on the kind of person you are: scientific, or philosophical. If you’re scientifically minded, you’ll like Mirage, because it leaves no stone unturned.

by Zach

The British Invasion hit SVU this week, and we were only mildly impressed. The two most iconic British imports of the 1960’s, James Bond and the Beatles, suffered most, I suspect, from a phenomenon we have seen previously in SVU: too much success. The formulae that Goldfinger and A Hard Day’s Night either established or played off of have become so well known because of their respective movies’ successes that whatever freshness they may have had to begin with is gone. A Hard Day’s Night’s signature blend of music videos and absurdist comedy is de rigueur by now for any young, hot musical act, so much so that it has been co-opted by the Disney Channel’s tween star-making machine, just as the TV experiment that was The Monkees used the formula just a few years after A Hard Day’s Night’s debut. And I’m not sure how many original viewers—even this early in the series and coming just a few years after Psycho made it thinkable for a leading character to be offed like this—actually expected James Bond to die, as Auric Goldfinger so famously predicted midway through the movie, but I certainly didn’t. The only surprise I had coming, despite this being my first viewing of a Bond film, was that the main Bond girl didn’t die at the end—although the rest of the movie was riddled with at least two Bond girl corpses that I remember.

One of the most peculiar aspects of Goldfinger—and perhaps the James Bond mythos’s unique genius—is that it resets the criteria for winning the war of espionage. James Bond does not win because he is morally superior to Auric Goldfinger—whether the country/organization he works for is morally superior or not is beside the point, and fodder for a more thoughtful move than this one—nor does he win because he is more cunning or ruthless or cruel, all traits one might expect to be useful in the espionage game, and all traits that both Bond and Goldfinger possess in spades.

No, James Bond wins because he can out-seduce Goldfinger.

From the beginning, when Bond catches Goldfinger cheating with the aid of a voluptuous Shirley Eaton and promptly foils his plans and steals her away from him (setting up the inciting incident for whatever small emotional impetus the story might have when Goldfinger has her laminated in gold paint) to the ending, when (in a very uncomfortable scene) Bond forces his attentions on an equally voluptuous Honor Blackman and she proves to be the key figure in foiling the Fort Knox caper, James Bond consistently one-ups Goldfinger primarily through his ability to succeed romantically where Goldfinger cannot.

It is, on the surface of it, a completely ridiculous and extremely Darwinian way to frame the struggle of power, but it works in the context of the film. Similarly, Goldfinger’s plan to ruin the American monetary system and increase the value of his own stockpile of gold is also completely ridiculous (since when has any modernized monetary system operated on anything but faith?) and extremely Malthusian. Indeed, the campiness of the entire picture should be unbearable given its sheer absurdity and instability, but somehow it manages to get a viewer to meet it halfway on its own terms. I did not watch it with the same tongue-in-cheek amusement that I would have while watching, say, SVU’s entry for 1966, the Adam West Batman motion picture. And part of that, I think comes from the tremendous amount of time and money put into the picture, no matter how ridiculous it is. Just as Goldfinger seems to have, with complete self-seriousness, gone to tremendous expense of time and resources (when will he ever again have a practical opportunity to use that game room/Fort Knox shrine/gas chamber?) in service to his completely ridiculous heist plot, Broccoli and Saltzman seem to have, with complete self-seriousness, gone to tremendous expense of time and resources in service to Ian Fleming’s absurd spy plot.

The primary theory I have heard proposed for the Bond series’ success is wish fulfillment: men live vicariously through Bond. If this is the case, it does not speak well for the males of our species. James Bond is a morally repugnant character. This is one of the more profound if not original observations of the mythos that Fleming set up, and it’s one that’s consistently reiterated in almost any examination of espionage: spying (fictional or real) is a dirty business built on deceit. Bond, as the arrogant, self-conceited, cruel man that he is, is well-suited for it. Sean Connery’s personal charisma (and don’t sell that short—the Bond franchise has carefully selected its Bond portrayers for good reason) helps to conceal the gaping flaws in Bond’s character, or make them more palatable, or something, but the fact remains that at times any viewer with a modern western moral basis has to condemn Bond’s actions, if not outright hate the guy.

I mentioned earlier the scene in the stable where Connery’s character forces his attentions on Blackman’s character. It’s something I find greatly disturbing, particularly in light of the cavalier attitude and seeming approval (given its results) that the film seems to take toward the action. It seems to be the movie’s apotheosis of Bond’s promiscuity and casual violence.

I realize that questioning the sex and violence in Bond films is hardly an original stance to take, and an emphasis on cartoonish sex and violence is something that is ubiquitous in mass media (Tex Avery comes to mind), but Goldfinger shifts the game a little bit, and I’m not sure I can place my finger on how with much surety. The closest I can come to it is what I have already touched on obliquely: Goldfinger reframes the playing field of life so that violence is the way that the game is played and sex is the way to keep score (again, a very Darwinian way to look at things). Whether or how this is better, worse, or different than other fictional worlds I cannot say, but the Bond films have been imitated enough, both by other movies and by their future incarnations within the franchise, that the early ones that set the formula deserve careful examination as to what exactly they were doing.

As for A Hard Day’s Night, it’s surprisingly mild given the cultural upheaval that was the Beatles. There may be some mean-spiritedness to the way that the movie mocks anything and everything, especially the establishment, but what satire there is doesn’t nearly have the teeth or the directionless acerbity of much modern comedy. The rapid-fire pace and cutting techniques that this movie popularized are so widespread now that they do not come across as worth comment at all, despite their not having appeared in any previous SVU entries. Wilfrid Brambell (Not to be confused with Wilford Brimley) very nearly steals the show as Paul’s impish other grandfather – although I was disappointed to learn that the recurring “clean old man” description was a cultural reference rather than the amusing non sequitur I thought it was. It’s an easy-to-take, entertaining ninety minutes of Beatles music and (mostly) nonsense. A Marxian (Groucho, not Karl) touch can be seen in the workings of the film, which makes sense given the revival that the Marx Brothers’ oeuvre was seeing in the 1960s.

By Zach

In The Nutty Professor, Jerry Lewis is at his most Jerry Lewis-ian and also at his least Jerry Lewis-ian. I’m not sure, but I think this may account for its relative notoriety.

First of all, the character that Lewis is most identified with—the flamboyant, squeaky-voiced lunatic of the Martin and Lewis vehicles, The Patsy, The Errand Boy, and most of the Tashlin movies—is nowhere to be seen in this movie. Also distinctly un-Jerry Lewis is the fact that this movie has a somewhat linear plot. While the aforementioned Tashlin movies (some of the best stuff Lewis did) all had plots—or rather cartoon scenarios, because Tashlin, being a former Warner Brothers animator, did nothing more than place Jerry Lewis in a live-action Tex Avery cartoon (complete, unfortunately with sexist representations of buxom females)(another aside: I contend that Tashlin’s Who’s Minding The Store is a variation on the Twelve Labors of Hercules—so it’s educational for you!)—Lewis as a writer-director tended to write plot openings and then forget that he intended to do something with them… if, indeed, he ever did intend to. The Bellboy is an example of this sort of thing at its best, because Lewis comes right out at the start and admits he’s not telling a story. He’s just playing with what sort of gags can be done on film and with his sort of characters. Other movies (The Ladies’ Man, The Patsy, etc…) tend to open with set-ups that don’t really go anywhere until the very end, if they ever go anywhere at all. Somehow that unresolved tension, rather than improving the movie, distracts from it, making it worse.

Jerry Lewis was a master technician. I mean that as a backhanded compliment. Unfortunately, that was all he was: a master technician. Jerry Lewis knew about the technical aspects of filmmaking (he invented video assist), and he was a master craftsman of the sort of gags he did—which are admittedly an acquired taste. That may have been Lewis’s problem. He was so fascinated with the gag as an entity to itself that he completely disregarded its place in the narrative. When it came to servicing gags to a story, Jerry Lewis either had no ability or no interest. This is what makes The Nutty Professor so abnormal for Lewis. Whether it’s the source material or the setting or the era or the psychological conflict, Jerry Lewis got as close as he ever came to actually plotting out one of the movies he wrote and directed. Of course, there are significant detours—the Kelp at the gym sequence, for example—but even they are more significant to the plot than the completely irrelevant detours Lewis takes in other movies. In other Lewis movies, plots and characters don’t feel real. They’re artificial constructs placed in a setting so Lewis can play with the limits of how far he can take a joke. In The Nutty Professor, you still get the feeling that Lewis is stretching his narrative and characters to accommodate his jokes, but you also get the feeling that both entities exist.

But that fascination with gag construction and repetition and variation—that comes across full force in The Nutty Professor. And that is very typical Jerry Lewis. The recitation scene with Del Moore, where he plays the scene and lets it drag on and on, drawing comedic momentum from the duration of the bit, is very typical of Jerry Lewis. The emphasis on combining the wild visual and verbal gags—hitting you over the head with the jokes—that’s very Jerry Lewis too.

The big band soundtrack is also typical Jerry Lewis, as is the awkwardly down key, heartfelt moralizing scene (the confession scene near the end). Only in other Jerry Lewis films, the philosophizing was difficult to relate to the plot. It was a rapid change in pace, which made it hard to take, but it was also like the other bits in the movies—it was only temporally linked on film to the other things that happened, despite Lewis’s attempts to marry it to a plot. In The Nutty Professor, the self-exploration is married to the plot. Lewis’s fascination with how we treat other people and how we want to be treated and how we view ourselves and how we view those around us (oddly enough, a set of interests he shared with Fred Rogers) finally finds a narrative where these topics can be explored through events and characters rather than just through speech.

Lewis’s characters always have an underlying yearning to be liked. Most people do, and hence most movie characters do, but Lewis really exaggerated this quality. With Buddy Love he took it to its negative extreme. Buddy Love demands to be liked. He wants you to like him so much that he’s gone round the cycle back to where he doesn’t really care one way or another if you like him. The poseur, the “I’m-too-cool-to-care” attitude that is such prevalent episodic fodder for preteen and high school dramas (The “cool” guy is actually trying very hard to be liked—does Fonzie apply to this stereotype? I don’t know…), is played for keeps here. Buddy Love wants so hard for people to like him that he made a face like he didn’t really care and it stuck that way. And he understands this about himself. That whole “nothing gives us more pleasure than to be enjoyed” speech is downright creepy. It’s the closest (other than the transformation scene) that this movie gets to its horror story roots, in the same way that most horror stories do it: it takes something that’s true and twists it just enough that it means something else, something terrible.

The Julius Kelp-Stella Purdy romance is made almost as uncomfortable as the Buddy Love-Stella Purdy pairing when you consider their teacher-student relationship.

Oh, and Kathleen Freeman’s in this movie. Hoo-rah!

Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne are perhaps the greatest icons in the history of westerns. Since The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance is the only movie in which they both appear, this movie is quite a rarity.

This film has some of the greatest characters I’ve seen in a motion picture. Masterfully acted out by its well-cast actors, The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance follows a naive lawyer who comes west to try to make his mark on the uncivilized culture. As he meets colorful people with extreme personalities, this young man, portrayed by Stewart, begins to understand the how things work in the old west, and tries in vain to educate the natives. These attempts meet with mixed success. As the town ages with him, he makes a considerable impact, and helps bring it into happier and better times, but soon realizes he is living a lie. He becomes an example of the fact that no man is completely innocent, nor is he completely corrupt, and everyone has something to hide. It took me a second viewing to fully understand all of the emotions and intentions of each character throughout the movie.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance is beautifully orchestrated in its direction. The Music Man is beautifully orchestrated in a different way. As with most musicals, it doesn’t have a very complex plot. It’s just supposed to be a good time. This movie is full of comedy, with no lessons or hidden meanings whatsoever. It’s about a conman who falls in love with a music teacher, and somehow magically turns a ragtag group of kids into a full orchestral parade, and I mean this quite literally. He tries to con everyone out of their money, he lies to everyone, and he sings a happy tune the whole time. Does he get his comeuppance? No, he becomes the town’s hero, and he gets the girl in the end. This movie is for people who want to hear catchy music, want to see big, flashy dance numbers, want to see Hermonie Gingold get blown up, or who want to see ice cream parlors where big, poofy hats are a reqirement.

by Zach

For West Side Story, three more or less unconnected paragraphs:

1. West Side Story has astounding visuals, an iconic score, great performances, a classic melodramatic plot, and cardboard characters. The movie makes a Faustian deal: it makes extremely effective use of dramatic staging, pushing it just about as far as it can go. In return, predictably, it feels staged. The characters feel more like political philosophies personified than actual characters, and the dialogue sounds more like extremely well thought-out words recited off of a written page than actual thoughts spoken by actual characters. It all comes off as very rehearsed, very planned-out, with all the advantages and disadvantages attendant therein.

2. I realize that I’m buying into false gender stereotypes here, but even if they get into knife fights and come perilously close to doing horrible things to Rita Moreno, I still can’t see anyone who dances down the street the way these gang members do as being tough. Real gang members must have seen this movie and couldn’t wait to get to the West Side so they could steal these people’s milk money.

3. West Side Story won ten Academy Awards. As a side note, Rita Moreno—who won best supporting actress for this—is one of ten people (thirteen if you count non-competitive awards) to win all four major entertainment awards (Tony, Oscar, Emmy, and Grammy). Name three others without consulting Google for bragging rights (according to Wikipedia, familiarity with the sitcom 30 Rock may help you here, as apparently this accomplishment was used as a plot device several times).

By Zach

Disney has done such a good job of branding itself to little girls that when I think of the classic Disney animated film, I think of the three fairy tale movies: Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, and Snow White. This week we watched three Disney pieces: the aforementioned Sleeping Beauty (1959), the Donald Duck educational short Donald in Mathmagic Land (1959), and the live-action Absent-Minded Professor (1961).

Sleeping Beauty’s greatest strength is its look. It is a visually stunning movie, an accolade that seems to owe a great deal to Eyvind Earle, who also worked on Disney’s UPA-style shorts in the 1950s. The one visual misstep so far as I was concerned was when this experimental background showed itself too much in some of the sequences involving Maleficent’s minions, who seem a little too abstract and colorless—in short, out-of-place in the lush storybook setting of the movie.

The plot for the film, and much of the music, is derived from Tchaikovsky’s ballet of the same name. While indicative of its time, I found the music appropriate to the mood of the film. I only wish that the visuals and score were used in service of a better story.

Sleeping Beauty is not an emotionally enthralling experience. One problem with the story is that the titular character has very little agency. She is a pawn in the central struggle between the Flora/Fauna/Meriwether triad and Maleficent. Likewise, while Prince Philip takes action, he is goaded into it and enabled to do it by the three fairies. In fact, the story revolves around this one conflict, and while Maleficent is certainly a strong enough villain to carry a seventy-five minute film, the good fairies are cast in the mold of the Disney comic sidekick, a la the seven dwarfs, the mice in Cinderella, or the Lost Boys in Peter Pan. They simply do not carry enough weight to make this a compelling story, which is a shame because hiding behind the basic structure of the plot are multiple philosophical and emotional buttons that do not get pushed. I realize that this is movie is supposed to be fast-paced and intelligible enough to appeal to children, but the best Disney movies manage that without sacrificing entertainment value story-wise.

Entertainment value is one thing The Absent-Minded Professor does not skimp on. It’s a silly, slapstick-filled romp done on the only-slightly-above-normal-TV-value Walt Disney Presents budget. An hour-and-a-half long sitcom that thrives on sight gags, it features two stars of SVU noir offerings from the past—Nancy Olson from Sunset Boulevard and Fred MacMurray from Double Indemnity—as the central couple, who are driven apart by Nancy Olson’s frustration with Fred MacMurray’s titular absent-mindedness. He misses his own wedding for the third time, but this time for a good reason—he has discovered a substance that may or may not defy the laws of nature. He chooses to call the substance flubber, “flying rubber,” and for the purposes of the movie that’s all you need to know about the stuff, although the explanation given is a little more convoluted than that.

Ironically, the movie is at its funniest when MacMurray is at his nastiest: gleefully terrorizing Elliott Reid, remorselessly causing a puny basketball team to cheat without their knowledge, or inducing a couple of thugs to repeatedly ram their heads into a locked door. The movie, like all of Disney’s Medfield college movies, is basically an underdog revenge fantasy with some gentle (and obvious) satire on American institutions thrown in for good measure. This one works best for several reasons: it was released at the beginning of the Kennedy administration, when America was still optimistic enough to enjoy comedy without irony, it features Keenan Wynn as the villain (Joe Flynn could grate after more than two minutes or so), it has some of the best sight gags of the series (as mentioned, sight gags are this movie’s bread and butter), and it features Fred MacMurray, whose likable white bread presence anchors the whole thing in a way that a more skilled comedian’s touch might have ruined.

The sequel, Son of Flubber, also delivers on the sight gags, but basically recycles the same premise and spends its extra fifteen minutes trying to un-resolve the points that were resolved at the end of its predecessor. The extra length shows, and the gimmicks used to keep the couple apart and keep MacMurray at the mercy of Keenan Wynn are even more hackneyed than before, the sort of thing I Dream of Jeannie was doing every other week.

As for Donald in Mathmagic Land, if having Paul Frees explain some of the more entertaining and less complex aspects of geometry to you for half an hour is your idea of a good time, this is for you. It certainly was my idea of a good time.

by Zach

Two important insights were made about Ocean’s Eleven in the post-movie discussion, and neither were made by me. Both of them helped pinpoint why the Rat Pack version of Ocean’s Eleven does not succeed on an emotional level as well as the Clooney/Soderbergh version—making this one of the few movies whose remake was better than the original.

Of course, the Rat Pack Ocean’s Eleven has its own breezy charm, and it trades heavily on it. This is the best, and first, of a series of Rat Pack comedy/action movies with numbers in their titles made throughout the early sixties. The main draw of any of them was the charisma, and depth, of the stable of stars featured in the films, both of which were difficult to match. After all, this was the group with charisma enough to market a Hefner Lite lifestyle to the American public, mainstreaming the Playboy creed of women, booze, and consumerism, and paving the way for the enormous popularity of the Bond movies.

The amorality of these movies is Ocean’s Eleven’s first drawback. It’s about a group of guys who plan to rip off a bunch of Vegas casinos. As another SVU-er pointed out, recent Ocean movies went to great lengths to demonize the victims, and for good reason. The modern movies play out more like an episode of Mission: Impossible, making the characters much easier to care about, even if they are still unjustifiable. The motivating factor in the Rat Pack version, barring Richard Conte’s character, is greed. It’s easy to like these characters, but it’s nigh onto impossible to care about them or whether they get away with the loot. And for at least one moment—the moment when the would-be burglars actually pull the heist and force the guys in the backroom to sing along with the revelers out front—I got a creepy Joker-ish feeling about these people, and really, really wanted to see them taken down. The fact that Cesar Romero (TV’s Joker from the Adam West incarnation of Batman) is the hood who tries to do it is an added level of irony.

A modern viewing of the movie may have dulled some of the original edge—perhaps originally it was much more obvious that the Vegas casino owners had mob connections, and maybe back then that went a long way toward justifying the eleven. There are other in-jokes—for example, in the pool scene, Lawford’s character’s political ambitions and Sammy Davis Jr. name-dropping Little Rock—that would be easy for a modern viewer to miss. All I caught, as a modern viewer, was the history of Vegas with the mob, the fact that the casino owners welcome Romero’s shady character so quickly, and George Raft (an actor notorious for playing mobsters) as the leader of the group.

While the best-scripted of the Rat Pack movies, the Ocean’s Eleven screenplay is basically a creative fifties B-movie which would be of little note to anybody nowadays except Martin Scorcese and Richard Schickel were it not for Sinatra’s involvement. It’s a mash-up of two popular fifties B-noir staples: the caper movie and the platoon movie. As such, it does little to capitalize on one of the hallmarks of both types of movies: the feeling of esprit de corps, dramatized by the specialization of skill of each member of the team. Again, with Richard Conte’s character as an exception, none of the eleven seemed to have a job that only he could do. The demolitions aspect seemed pretty simple, and other than that the two-man teams did the same things. Yet another SVU-er pointed out that the Soderbergh version of Eleven individualized the characters much better, providing each one with a task that he was specially suited for.

However, the plot twist at the end works better because of these seeming shortcomings. I won’t go into detail to avoid spoiling the ending, but it’s really the two plot twists that begin and end the third act of the movie that elevate this above the other Rat Pack forays, which either had too many (and too predictable) or too few plot twists.

by Zach

Field trip! We skipped a year to 1960 and went to see The Magnificent Seven at the Florida Theater in downtown Jacksonville. Movie theater-effect may partially explain the high score, as The Magnificent Seven tied for highest-rated movie we’ve watched yet.

It’s quintessential John Sturges, which means that it’s an action movie with an ensemble cast of mostly men. It’s a formula that Sturges used with varying success, from the brilliant The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape to the very watchable Bad Day at Black Rock and Ice Station Zebra (the movie Howard Hughes purportedly had on continuous loop when he cloistered himself in a hotel room near the end of his life) to the downright campy Marooned and Sergeants 3. Sergeants 3, which Sturges directed a few years after The Magnificent Seven, is a misfire that bears more than a few similarities to the latter.

Besides the numbers in the titles, there’s the Sturges formula set up above: large, male-dominated cast in an action movie. More importantly, both movies rework previous film classics set in Asia—SVU-approved Gunga Din for Sergeants 3 and Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai for The Magnificent Seven—onto a western setting.

The fatal flaw of Sergeants 3 is that it casts the Rat Pack in the leading roles. My old nemesis, Frank Sinatra, ruins yet another potentially good movie. Sinatra starred in another mediocre Sturges potboiler, Never So Few, with The Magnificent Seven co-star Steve McQueen. Being known as they are for their cool, it’s still a bit of a puzzle why the Rat Pack’s style did not mesh with Sturges’, but it didn’t. Sturges shared with Howard Hawks the very specific interest in coolness as professional self-confidence and apathy—the idea of a person being so good at what he or she does that he or she does not have to prove it. The Asiatic connection also seems apropos, as it’s an idea connected to the notion that ancient Asian masters did not advertise their skills, that they had to be sought out—the Yoda effect.

This notion of cool is one that may have reached its apotheosis in The Magnificent Seven. If there’s one thing that Seven does well, it’s that it achieves that Robin Hood/Knights of the Round Table feeling that an elite team is being assembled. From the moment Brynner and McQueen ride up boot hill on the hearse, you know that these are some seriously bad dudes. They’re like white, nineteenth-century versions of Shaft. Recast The Seven Samurai today, and the main Samurai ought to be played by Morgan Freeman. Recast The Magnificent Seven today, and it’s a crime if Samuel L. Jackson’s doesn’t get the part of Brynner’s cool and confident, shiny-headed Chris. And the team is chock full of bad dudes, not least among them being James Coburn’s sleepy knife-slinger.

Sturges’ two best movies, The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape, were heist capers disguised in other genres. They both reveled in the assemblage of a talented team united in a single goal. Perhaps the talent of the characters is matched only by the charisma of the actors plating them. If there was one directorial skill that set John Sturges apart, it was casting. Even his not-so-good movies, like McQ or Marooned, have cast lists that make you curious to see more. He could spot an up-and-coming actor a mile away. Bad Day at Black Rock features Lee Marvin before he did practically anything, Ernest Borgnine before his Academy Award, and Anne Francis before Forbidden Planet. The Magnificent Seven has Charles Bronson and James Coburn before they reached semi-stardom in exploitation fodder of the 1960s and 1970s, Robert Vaughn before The Man from Uncle, Eli Wallach before he was the Ugly in Leone’s western saga, Yul Brynner in a western before the idea made sense, and Steve McQueen after he was a television star but before he was an icon.

Having watched The Blob the previous week for 1958, McQueen’s growth as an actor is obvious. Granted, the script for The Blob did not give McQueen a great deal to work with, but his acting style resembled nothing so much as Hayden Christiansen in Attack of the Clones. In The Magnificent Seven, he’s still not the stalwart rebel against any and all authority he would become by The Great Escape, but he’s nowhere near playing the likable young WASP who tries to make time with Andy Taylor’s girl in The Blob. Vin is detached from the action, and he and Calvera form opposing sides of a Greek chorus commenting on the action.

Calvera is a very vocal philosopher who thinks that his superior understanding of the Seven makes for a complete understanding of them and finds out to his ultimate chagrin that he is wrong. It might be argued that Calvera is doomed partly because he is not cool in a Hawksian sense. He aggressively cares about the reactions of those around him where the Seven put on an air of apathy until the time comes for action. He questions everything where Vin uses his folksy aphorisms to avoid answering questions. Vin usually recasts the situation in a new light, as if that act got at some profound truth behind it (which reminds me: when does it ever seem like a good time to take of all your clothes and jump in a mess of cactus? Who in his right mind would ever think this was a good idea, no matter what time it was?)… or, more often, silently comments on the action through McQueen’s scene-stealing gestures. Calvera tries to use his questions and self-provided answers to win over those around him, and to some extent he genuinely wants an outside answer to even his most rhetorical questions. Vin just doesn’t care. Even within the group, he stands apart as Chris’s confidante, if not his equal.

Sturges’ movies, being, as I’ve said, usually male-oriented with sprawling casts, were interested in group dynamics. How guys establish or don’t establish hierarchical structure within their communities, and how they collectively come to decisions. This doesn’t come out so much in The Magnificent Seven, but it can be seen in the collective mentoring of Horst Bucholz’s character Chico by the other six, by the way the villagers stand around and discuss how to tackle their bandito problem, and by the way the best gunfighters—Vin excepted—all know Chris without an introduction.
All this being said, there is really one element that sets The Magnificent Seven apart. Without Elmer Bernstein’s score, The Magnificent Seven is enjoyable, even re-watchable, but not particularly captivating. Where The Seven Samurai is stygian, The Magnificent Seven is merely Sturgian. As much lip service as the movie pays to the ideas of a passing way of life and the irony of having a way of life based upon death, this is first and foremost an action picture. A very good one, but nothing remarkable. Bernstein wrote what is perhaps the most memorable score for a western ever, Marlboro man or no Marlboro man. The only score more iconic than this one is Morricone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly soundtrack.

Of course, the only natural reaction to a film like this is to recast the principle actors/characters as the seven dwarfs. So what follows is a list of SVU’s humbly-presented-yet-brilliant choices.

This, of course, makes Eli Wallach the evil queen.

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