Friday, August 19, 2011

Horizon West: Sort of Silent Cinema

Horizons West. Ever hear of this film? Neither had I but I was looking forward to a rare Film Forum (the one in the N.Y., not J.C.) screening of this obscure movie because it featured my new favorite actor, Robert Ryan and my new favorite director of westerns, dangerousBudd Boetticher.

I’m far from the first to notice the immense acting talent of Ryan. He usually plays the bad guy, but he has such a level of realism that he is never less than convincing and his characters always have what appears to be an honest argument with their own humanity. He reminds me of Mickey Rourke, that is, an artist working the highest levels of his craft yet are usually stuck in grade b (and lower) films. Not only do they have to act to the best of their ability, they have to elevate the entire movie, which they do. Ryan performances worth seeing include The Naked Spur, Wild Bunch, Crossfire, The Racket, and Day of the Outlaw.

I’ve been studying westerns for several years now. The 50s were the hey-day of the genre and Boetticher was one of the best, psychological, taut, action-centric drama, existential morality tales. He’s most famous for a series of films with Randolph Scott, the best of which is 7 Men From Now. Tarintino has declared this film his favorite western and praised Boetticher as an influence, instantly increasing the attention given, urging the work back into the public eye. The other classics with Scott include: Decision at Sundown, The Tall T, Buchanan Rides Alone, Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station. All are not just great Western, but great American films all with universal themes. Among aficionados of the Western, they were and are revered.

Ed Harris, director and star of Appaloosa, as well as Robert Spencer, on whose novel this film was based, likewise have cited Boetticher as an inspiration for this recent western. The characters are more complex than typical westerns and he’s intensely interested in ritual. Rules and protocols must be followed. For example, in one film, Richard Boone, a bad guy will not turn around because he knows that Randolph Scott will break his moral code and shoot him in the back. Is the code absolute or existential in nature? The question is explored if unresolved in Boietticher’s Westerns, which are allegories of the human subconscious. The rituals that appear in the filmmaking directly relate to the subconscious. I love his work.

So what little I know about this director is that prior to the Scott films, he made a few B-pictures where he did not have creative control. One of them is Horizon West, a western starring Ryan, made in 1952, and Film Forum was showing the movie one day only, part of a double bill with City Beneath the Sea, another Boetticher lensed film starring Ryan. One day only. Rarely screened gems? Well, the gem part remains to be seen but the rarely qualifier is beyond doubt.

The audience took up about half the theater, senior citizens were the majority. They get that discount and populate many a matinee, my preferred time to experience cinema. Seemed to be hard core New Yorkers, film buffs who can think of no better way to spend a summer afternoon than at a matinee. The rest were young film nerd types.

We were all fellow travelers promoting the Boeticher revival.

Ryan, with Rock Hudson and James Arness, all wearing Confederate Gray ride along a dirt rode, passing a herd of sheep and into the camera range where they exchange dialog.

The picture is blurred and scratchy. It’s not a quality print, rare for this cinematique, known for their revival series and almost always obtaining “restored & re-mastered” prints from a studio’s preservation department.

The words are unclear, barely audible and so muffled you cannot make them out.

There’s no sound audience members cry.

Several scenes are screened. There is a crackle

The screen goes dark, the lights go up, a Film Forum representative apologizes. People murmur and minutes pass, when the lights go dim and the screen is filled with the projection and the three lost cause soldiers again ride up to the camera. The sound remains muffled. If it is better, the improvement is at the best slight and even that in the most generous definition of slight as possible.

The FF rep returns. It is the print, there is nothing we can do. Usually we screen the films but this slipped through the cracks. We will be showing Naked Spur at 3:00 PM for the next showing of Horizons West, and all your tickets will be good.

Can you still run this, asks one of the young film geeks, which gets a smattering of applause.

Yes we can do that.

But as he leaves, one of the older audience members says, I want to watch Naked Spur, we don’t all agree with this loud mouth. (rude, confrontational, inconsiderate, the senior citizens in abundance here are classic New Yorkers).

The rep explains, you can still come back for the 3:00 Naked Spur even if you watch Horizons West now. We cannot show Naked Spur now.

Loud mouth? Everybody but this elderly New Yawk crank understood seeing Naked Spur at 1:25 was not an option.

On the other hand, how many times do we get to hear somebody insist, I want to watch Naked Spur. (a great western by the way)

Only a few people left the theater, maybe 10 percent. A very mild dwindling of the crown. Everyone else watched Horizon West sans sound. Well, that’s accurate. The sound wavered, in and out, a smattering of dialog here and there. You would hear some things like Foley Board horse hooves and punches. It was a Western so there were Bar Room brawls but you only heard the fake punches, all obviously recorded after the shooting, but no other crashes or voices and no musical score whatsoever. The only sound persisting throughout was the static crackle.

What a weird experience. The movie looked cheesy, and it co starred Raymond Burr and Rock Hudson, who are not just terrible actors but the baggage of being in the closet gay men forever clouds their consistently dull and crappy performances in their mostly worthless movies and TV shows in which they appear. That’s a bit harsh, I grant you, and they are part of some iconic pop culture films but for the most part, these two are no better than goofy pleasures or what they are in succeeds in spite of their performance, not because of it. How much of that is due to their in the closet baggage is debatable, but I can’t see how a culture more tolerant of different sexual orientations would have given these two hacks artistic integrity.

This looked like a sort of cheesy picture, although I could see glimmers of what makes Boetticher’s masterpieces in a few scenes. But I’m just guessing here. There is no way to judge a sound film without sound. This was probably an adequately entertaining B-Western of its era. Apparently, Arness, Hudson and Ryan are brothers who return to Texas. Arness and Hudson are good boys, I think they become sheriffs. Ryan, as he oft does, follows a different drummers. He joins up with bushwhackers and rustles cattle that belong to Perry Mason. There’s some nonsense with a girl both Burr and Ryan are in love with, and without sound, there’s a scene of Burr kissing the woman and the look of nausea on his soundless face inspired laughter among the audience.

Day Of the Outlaw, Ryan’s best cowboy performance, this was not.

I hope to see this movie with sound some day, but I can say the priority is pressing. It was only a glimmer of the actual film, but it was a Boetticher and a glimmer is better than nothing.

The other film, City Beneath the Sea, had sound and was enjoyable. Ryan and Anthony Quinn are deep sea divers looking for sunken treasure in Jamaica. It was all filmed on sound stages with really out of date looking special effects, even so, it was a cheesy effect with very little Boeticher apparent. I also had this strange feeling that I saw this movie as a small child, on television. It was dimly familiar. I had an aquarium and I had one of those deep sea diver air filter guys bubbling on the gravel.

All in all, a unique cinema experience, if rather lackluster in terms of pure film.

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