Invictus (2009)

When it’s on: Saturday, 19 August (10.45 pm)
Channel: ITV1
IMDb Link

The Rugby World Cup is here, and to celebrate ITV are screening perhaps the only appropriate film they could (I can only think of This Sporting Life otherwise, but suggesting that they put on a movie about League is pretty much heretical). It’s a good one. Invictus concerns itself with South Africa’s famous victory in the tournament when it was played there in 1995, an unlikely one also as the host nation was largely unfancied, especially with New Zealand’s Jonah Lomu casting a looming shadow over all competition. But really it’s about much more than that. The contest was symbolic of ‘the Rainbow Nation’s attempts to unite its racially diverse population after decades of Apartheid and oppression. President Nelson Mandela recognised the importance of sport as a unifying principle, and allied himself with Springboks captain, Franois Pienaar, in emphasising the team’s success as key to the country’s well-being.

It’s only twenty years ago since the events depicted in Invictus took place, so it’s relatively fresh in our minds, indeed as a teenager I remember doing some work on South Africa as part of my History GCSE. Back then, Apartheid was still in full swing under the auspices of President Botha. The country faced sanctions from the world’s community. Mandela remained a political prisoner, the subject of a popular song from The Specials whilst the refectories we frequented later at university were invariably named after him. His release in 1990 was one of those world events you needed to see. Watching the stooped figure of this little old man walk to freedom was important; his rise to the presidency mattered, but in South Africa things were naturally more complicated as the country remained divided along racial lines and was sinking into financial ruin.

The pressure on Mandela must have been enormous, and it’s his attempts to overcome the massive issues he faced as President that form the film’s focus. ‘Madiba’ (as he’s affectionately called by the people, referencing an 18th century chief) is played by Morgan Freeman, the sort of casting decision that seems a ridiculously obvious ‘Hollywood’ thing to do before you forget it’s a world famous actor you’re watching and that he completely submerges himself into the part. The old joke goes that after taking on roles of the American President (Deep Impact) and God (Bruce Almighty), Nelson Mandela was the only way up, and Freeman puts in a note perfect study, mimicking the man’s posture uncannily well along with taking on the clipped accent. Another A-lister, Matt Damon, plays Pienaar, the embodiment of healthy white South African masculinity who crucially comes to believe in the President’s cause as the mens’ relationship develops.

Early in the film, there are perceived death threats against Mandela that never materialise, highlighting both the tensions within the country and latent paranoia of the security staff who surround him. A sub-plot has black and white bodyguards mixing, at first very uneasily and then bonding over the growing interest in the home nation’s successes at the World Cup. It’s a little cloying, but it still works well enough, the emerging friendship between the security staff serving as a microcosm of South Africa’s enhanced sense of unity. ‘Invictus’ is the title of a poem Mandela held close to his heart whilst serving out his lengthy prison service on Robben Island. In one of the film’s best scenes, Pienaar and his fellow Springboks visit the jail, the captain clearly affected by the harsh conditions faced by his leader and friend.

I’ve never been a huge fan of sports films, thinking they struggle as a rule to replicate the unscripted drama, twists and turns of an actual sporting event. This one does well, though, and who would imagine that rugby union would provide the ideal game for some brilliantly mounted footage? Invictus was directed by Clint Eastwood, who uses the camera to invade the middle of scrums and team huddles, shooting in places you would never get to see in a real-life match to focus on the human struggle and emotion. The final is especially good, emphasising the grunts of big men clashing on the pitch, the crunch of bodies colliding, the way crowd noises are enhanced and then reduced as audience participation becomes a critical part of the spectacle and then nothing as the players concentrate fully on what they’re trying to do.

I really like Invictus, partly because Eastwood is probably the perfect man to have made it. A great deal of the film’s content is emotionally driven, Mandela its clear hero and core as he battles age-old prejudices, his own failing health and the broken relationships with his family that can never be healed. A lesser director might have made these moments cloying, writing those struggles large, over-egging the frustration of patrician whites as they fail to come to terms with South Africa’s new reality. All these elements are present in Invictus, but Eastwood at his best makes the sort of films where they’re just shown as part of the action, shooting scenes and leaving viewers to join the dots, which is just how it should be. There are moments when the sense of manipulation seeps through – the team’s visit to an impoverished slum to teach street kids about the basics of rugby, a black kid who winds up as obsessed with the radio commentary of the final as a pair of cops – but that doesn’t happen very often, and instead Eastwood lets the events speak for themselves. One of my favourite things about the film is that the story is good enough for dramatic cinema and scenes that feel scripted actually happened. The bit where a Boeing 747 flew low over Ellis Park, which was about to host the final, bearing a message of good luck to the Springboks, was real and is recaptured nicely. YouTube footage of the moment shows just how well Invictus depicts it.

Invictus: ****

PS. An apology for the lateness of this entry (it would normally appear at midnight). It’s been a heavy, heavy week at work and the prospect of coming home to spend more time sat at a computer was something I couldn’t quite manage physically, hence the delayed posting.

Advertisements

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997)

When it’s on: Wednesday, 4 February (11.45 pm)
Channel: BBC1
IMDb Link

Clint sure knows how to pick ’em. I remember reading John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil a couple of years after it was published and loving its part travelogue, part murder story structure, as did many people judging from the number of weeks it spent on the New York Times Bestseller List. As a fan of true crime, ‘factional’ books at the time (In Cold Blood by Truman Capote was another title I adored), it was an instant classic and also came across as resolutely impossible to adapt for the screen – the highest number of eccentric characters this side of Twin Peaks, so many pages dwelling on the sun-soaked delights of Savannah, Georgia, clearly a world removed from the author’s city living in the Big Apple.

And so it’s to Mr Eastwood’s credit that he took it on, retained much of the book’s essence and stuck with the eyewitness perspective of telling it from the the point of view of John Cusack’s visiting journalist, John Kelso. Bits were changed, characters excised or amended, the book’s four murder trials were reduced to a decisive one, a romantic subplot was shoehorned in. Fans of Berendt’s work were horrified by some of the elements that had been lost in translation and the film was a box office bomb, but on its own merits that doesn’t make it a stinker.

The plot follows Kelso, a New York journalist for the socialite magazine Town and Country, who travels to Savannah in order to write about one of the famous Christmas parties hosted by colourful millionaire Jim Williams (Kevin Spacey). Kelso is instantly struck by the otherworldliness of the city, the old world manners, its unique set of idiosyncratic denizens, for instance the man who walks an invisible dog because he’s paid $15 for doing so even after the mutt has long since passed away. He’s also impressed with Williams, a self-made charming man, though the assignment he’s in town to complete changes to something else entirely when a young man, Billy Hanson (Jude Law), is shot dead by Williams in his home. It emerges the two were lovers and an argument between them turned to violence and then death, so Kelso sticks around, covering Williams’s trial as the material for a book and, in the meantime, meeting more local eccentrics and soaking up the architecture and southern charms of Georgia’s oldest city (it dates back to 1733, when it was founded by the British General, James Oglethorpe).

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is a long film, running for over two and a half hours, though the length is a necessity in order to take in the range of characters and get the ‘feel’ of the place. Cusack, through whose eyes we see everything, is a fine ‘fish out of water’, his mouth often hanging agape at the cavalcade of strange sights he witnesses in and around Savannah. Being in the Deep South, there’s still an intangible dabbling in the practice of voodoo magic. Williams takes Kelso with him on a visit to meet Minerva (Irma P Hall), a local spiritualist, the hard-bitten, big city writer scarcely comprehending what’s going on as she starts writhing on Billy’s grave in her attempts to commune with his spirit. The title of the film is derived from something she tells Kelso – either side of midnight is the dead hour, she advises him; the half hour before being for good deeds, evil thereafter.

There’s a nice attempt by the film to capture some of the book’s authenticity, various people from Berendt’s text popping up on the screen. Most prominent amongst these is Lady Chablis (Chablis Deveaux), a drag queen and local stand-up comic who also happened to live with Billy and who Kelso befriends in an attempt to find out more about the young man. Chablis is effectively playing herself, a bawdy presence who has somehow been accepted within a place that seems to thrive on old style manners and still appears to have regrets over the outcome of the American Civil War.

Where it’s less certain is in the attempt to find a love interest for Kelso. Whereas Berendt remained essentially an observer, Kelso is involved prominently in Williams’s trial from the start, actively advising  and helping him whilst falling for Michelle Nicholls (Alison Eastwood), who owns a flower shop. She’s Clint’s daughter, no doubt a lovely presence, but the subplot feels completely superfluous, adding nothing to either the story or the character, and making Kelso look just awkward in his faltering attempts at courtship.

On the surer ground of exploring the intricacies of the trial (it pivots on whether Williams shot Billy in cold blood, or if he was fired at first), Kelso clearly admires the older man and wants him to be acquitted. Spacey is excellent, charming and charismatic, wearing contact lenses throughout to fit Berendt’s description of him as having ‘eyes so black they were like the tinted windows of a sleek limousine – he could see out, but you couldn’t see in.’ 1997 was a good year for Spacey. With L.A. Confidential also showcasing his talents, he was making leaps and bounds from the oddball characters he had become renowned for in the likes of Se7en and The Usual Suspects, creating in Williams a man so instantly likeable that Kelso refuses to believe he could simply have murdered Billy.

It’s a strange concoction of a film, on the one hand trying to cosy up to book lovers by possessing much of its spirit whilst adding mainstream elements for cinema audiences. Perhaps, as has been suggested elsewhere, adapting the book as a straightforward documentary might have made it more of a success. Then again, the film contains such a strange assortment of characters that it’s impossible not on some level to be charmed and intrigued by it. The sight of veteran actor and occasional Eastwood collaborator, Geoffrey Lewis, playing a man who attaches flies to strings and lets them buzz around his shirt whilst carrying a bottle that, legend has it, he could use at any moment to poison the city’s water supply, needs to be seen to be believed.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: ***

Firefox (1982)

Firefox

When it’s on: Saturday, 9 February (11.30 pm)
Channel: ITV4
IMDb Link

Firefox is 30 this year. I don’t suppose this will provoke any kind of celebration, though back in its day the film prompted a minor flurry of interest for the effects work of John Dykstra, filling the screen with shots of the world’s quickest military plane in action. Certainly, it was the promise of Firefox itself that dominated the picture’s publicity, and led to playground disappointment in my school when it emerged you got two-thirds Cold War thriller to one-third aerial dogfights. The view from those who’d seen it was that Firefox was boring. It’s probably for this reason that I didn’t catch it myself until years later. Perhaps it was this opinion, writ large in contemporary reviews, that ensured Firefox scraped into the top twenty in 1982’s American box office returns.

For me, one word that most certainly doesn’t sum Firefox up is boring. And indeed, watched many, many years after its initial release, the more interesting element of the film turns out to be the story building up to the eponymous plane’s appearance. Firefox, once its star and director, Clint Eastwood, mounts the cockpit, becomes another reference to the influence of Star Wars, with its effects heavy, niftily edited sequences of the craft shooting along at impossibly fast speeds; in fact much of the work put into these moments now looks rather dated – these things really did work out better when they had the inky vacuum of space as a background.

Fortunately, the espionage yarn that dominates Firefox is pretty effective stuff, even if it’s skewed by the paranoid politics of the era. Perestroika was some years away. Ronald Reagan was in the White House, his administration ushering in a new freezing of East-West relations as the USSR was once again perceived as the implacable foe, not just an opponent of colossal size and unguessable resources  but one with unknown developments in weapons technology, all designed of course to gain the upper hand in some upcoming World War Three. One of the best known books to arise from this perception was The Hunt for Red October, by Tom Clancy, which postulated an advanced Russian nuclear submarine that had the ability to ‘vanish’ from radars. Craig Thomas’s Firefox, published in 1977, did the same for fighter aircraft, though his wasn’t a tale about defection but rather American efforts to infiltrate the Soviet Union and physically steal the plane.

In the adaptation, Eastwood directs himself as Mitchell Gant, a former pilot involved in Vietnam. He’s handpicked for the job of nicking Firefox because of his Russian mother, which makes him not only fluent in the language but, crucially, able to think in Russian. This is important because Firefox is a plane controlled by thought, a development that makes reactions instantaneous and giving it a split second’s advantage in any aerial fight. Gant might be considered ‘the best of the best’ as a pilot, but he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, at moments of distress returning helplessly in his mind to flashbacks of a young Vietnamese girl being incinerated in a napalm strike.

After an ominous pep talk from military adviser Freddie Jones, who cheerfully advises him of the steps he must take to avoid certain death, Gant, disguised as a businessman with legitimate reasons for visiting the Soviet Union, finds himself in Moscow. Here, he’s helped to the base where Firefox is stationed by a string of sympathisers, in reality British actors (Warren Clarke, Nigel Hawthorne, etc) with thick accents, whilst a similar cabal of Brits, led by Kenneth Colley, play the KGB officials slowly get wind of the theft plot. Criticism has been made of Eastwood’s rather austere performance as Gant, with the word ‘wooden’ used rather unfairly, but it’s made clear he’s no spy and is being swept along for much of the film by people trying to help him to reach his goal. As he’s trafficked towards Firefox, Gant is little more than a bystander, watching his new ‘friends’ get killed routinely by the authorities while he remains just out of reach. In fact, Eastwood captures the sense of paranoia his character undergoes rather well, the mounting dread he experiences as the enormity of his mission and the price being paid is hammered home. This is Russia as a dangerous place, where everyone is a potential informer and every glance is filled with suspicion and mistrust. The claustrophobic atmosphere is utterly palpable, even during a throwaway scene where Gant’s papers are checked by a policeman.

Vienna filled in for Moscow, back when a film like Firefox naturally couldn’t be shot on location in the USSR, which leads to several moments of unintentional comedy (Eastwood walks before an obvious projection of Red Square; he’s staying in Moscow Hotel, Moscow, etc) but never looks terrible, allowing for a certain suspension of disbelief. The introduction of Firefox itself is a rather fine money shot, all smooth lines, painted in black and clearly built for aerodynamic advantage. It’s only when Gant takes to the air in his new toy that the film loses some of its interest. The tone changes from thriller to action, Eastwood having to audibly describe what he’s doing to keep bewildered viewers informed of his progress. He’s being pursued by the second prototype, one that can be refueled in the air whilst he has to stop in the Arctic Circle and get topped up by a US submarine, which means it will catch up and they’ll have it out in the film’s climactic dogfight. It’s decent enough, but with big machines taking over from the plight of a single, vulnerable human being among millions of potential enemies, the stakes drop.

Firefox: ***

The Enforcer (1976)

When it’s on: Wednesday, 20 June (10.35 pm)
Channel: ITV1
IMDb Link

The third instalment in the saga of Harry Callahan finds our man at his lowest ebb – dropped from Homicide following his ‘dirty’ methods at foiling a liquor store hold-up, and sidelined into Personnel. Whilst there, he takes part in a series of interviews for promotion within the San Francisco Police Force, learning to his horror that women are being actively considered for Inspector’s badges in order to tick some ‘equal rights’ box. One such female is Kate Moore (Tyne Daly), feisty and spirited yet lacking in experience. Callahan knows she won’t last a minute on the mean streets and makes his point to the interview panel with typical tact and subtlety. When his Homicide partner is killed by a terrorist group made up of angry Vietnam veterans, Harry goes after them, bent on bringing his own brand of justice to bear, only to find – shock, horror – that his new buddy is none other than Ms Moore…

After the not too shabby Magnum Force, The Enforcer is a real step down in terms of quality. The nuances of a plot involving police officers turning into vigilantes – and dispensing the violent ends to bad people that Harry should approve of – are nowhere to be seen. Instead, it’s by the numbers fare, made with the bottom line in mind and seeking naught but to entertain. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but the constant feeling of deja vu one gets when watching The Enforcer, the sense of having seen it all before, and done better, can’t be avoided, and that is a worry. The film goes for easy laughs, pairing the misogynist’s misogynist with a young female Inspector for nothing more than the craic, for the humour value of Clint’s punchline ‘Marvellous,’ which is whispered through gritted teeth. And when Kate turns out to be more than a heel, saving Harry’s life, it isn’t even a bit surprising.

If the film has a saving grace, it’s in the performance of Tyne Daly, who provides a welcome, fresh counterpoint to Eastwood’s weary copper. Viewers used to seeing her in endless Cagney and Lacey re-runs may be surprised by her winning turn, not to mention the fact she was clearly a bit of a cutie.

Otherwise, it’s like a cardboard cut-out of a Dirty Harry flick. James Fargo was in for his first directorial assignment, no doubt under heavy supervision from Eastwood, and he turns in a rather flat piece of work that goes ever for the obvious shots, dead even pacing and a curious absence of suspense. Where the story’s going is never in much doubt. There are no real surprises to be found, just the same actor going through the usual motions, looking a bit tired and potentially wondering why he’s been wheeled out for it at all. It’s the classic second sequel; all the things that made it great in the first place have been distilled to their base elements, with little of the style or wit that underpinned those earlier instalments.

The Enforcer: **

Pale Rider (1985)

When it’s on: Monday, 11 June (9.00 pm)
Channel: ITV4
IMDb Link

The first thing I noticed about Pale Rider is the absolute masterly editing of its opening scenes. As the peaceful north Californian gold mining camp goes about its daily business, the action cuts to a bunch of riders. The quiet and harmony of the village clashes with the horsemen’s noise, and as the latter approach the cutting quickens, signalling them getting closer and closer. Eventually they arrive and, as the editing suggests, they’re here for no good, shooting animals and causing mayhem, the camera jerking about as it tries to keep up with the action and almost picking out the shootists’ prey by focusing on a cow or a dog before it’s gunned down. It’s a thrilling opening, nearly bettered when Megan (Sydney Penny) buries the dog they’ve murdered, saying a prayer but breaking up the verses by pleading for a saviour.

That saviour is, of course, Clint Eastwood. He’s like Shane, only more mysterious, dressing like a preacher – indeed known only as ‘Preacher’ throughout the film – but clearly more than a simple man of god. Clues to his identity are offered, but Eastwood never makes it explicit. He may be a good man in a bad world, who just happens to show up at the right time to save the little community from Coy LaHood’s (Richard Dysart) roughs. But then there’s the bullet wounds in his back, the fact Marshall Stockburn (John Russell) has an inkling of who he really is. The implication is that Preacher is some kind of avenging angel, perhaps that Stockburn killed him some time in the past and now he’s returned to exact his bloody revenge.

This sense of mystery elevates what might otherwise be a reasonably straightforward Western. It’s a tale that’s been told various times, though never perhaps with the sense of style shown here. Pale Rider is set in a place on the edge – of the New World, of civilisation, of modernity. The prospectors’ dwelling is nobody’s idea of paradise. Only the sense of community and friendship links them, though the pickings are thin – the gold emerging with Preacher’s arrival (make of that what you will) – and their little houses are dark and spartan. The town of LaHood is little better, a one-street set-up that has all the welcome of a morgue. Even LaHood’s own prospecting concern, running on a larger scale and making use of industrial jets of water, has no sense of invitation. It’s a bleak world, with snow and hooded mountains closing in that makes it grimmer still. Preacher seems utterly at home, though it’s prospector Hull Barrett (Michael Moriarty) who wants to settle, hopefully taking with him Sarah Wheeler (Cathie Snodgress) and her daughter Megan.

It’s only at the end, as Preacher rides off and Megan shouts after him (shades of Shane’s Joey) that we realise how little time Eastwood has featured in the film. The focus is on Hull and the prospectors, and it’s they who shift the emphasis onto their saviour. Crucially, Preacher never asks for any reward – is vengeance all he wants, or is it enough for him to help those in need? Bits of the film – a woman reading from the Book of Revelations as he rides past… his ability to vanish from a scene where he was sitting just one moment before… his attempts to negotiate a deal with LaHood before the violence begins – muddy the waters, and whilst I’ve watched Pale Rider several times beforehand I am no closer to finding the rub.

Eastwood’s previous entry to the genre was The Outlaw Josey Wales, made almost a decade earlier, and it would be a further seven years before he returned with Unforgiven. Clearly someone who picked his Western projects with care, Clint also lavished attention when making them. The detail in Pale Rider is incredible, the photography magnificent. Its release came at a time when the Western was considered to have long since had its day in the sun, and there’s a sense of the world in Pale Rider on its last legs, the slow, steady encroachment of LaHood’s mining empire on to the more traditional set-up belonging to the prospectors. In helping the little people, it’s impossible to shake off the feeling that Preacher was putting off the inevitable.

Pale Rider: ****

Heartbreak Ridge (1986)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 5 June (9.00 pm)
Channel: 5USA
IMDb Link

I’m mean, nasty and tired. I eat concertina wire and piss napalm and I can put a round in a flea’s ass at 200 meters. So why don’t you go hump somebody else’s leg, mutt face, before I push yours in.

In December 1986, an American film was released that completely rewrote the book on movie-making with a war theme. Humanistic and unsparing, it called an end to the blindly triumphal, chest-beating tone of war-related films that dominated the first half of the decade. That film was, of course, Platoon.

Released in the same month, Heartbreak Ridge was like a last throw of the old method, more channelling Top Gun (the year’s biggest success) than Oliver Stone’s opus and looking now like a bit of a relic. Even more strangely, it was directed by Clint Eastwood, an auteur clearly capable of better than this. And yet, at some point in the process Eastwood appears to have carefully detached certain nodes of his brain in order to revert to type, once again playing a character inspired by Harry Callaghan and making a film that’s been seen millions of times before.

James Carabotsis’s script was based on a real-life incident from the USA’s invasion of Grenada in 1983. At one point during the attack, a paratrooper used a pay-phone to call for extra support and was forced to use his credit card as the command unit wouldn’t accept the charges. This and a scene where the soldiers commandeer a bulldozer to charge an enemy position are the only two moments from the actual invasion to make the final cut. Eastwood wanted the Army’s support to make his film, but this was turned down as the hardline, hard-drinking hard as nails character he was playing didn’t chime with the image it wanted to promote. Instead, he turned to the US Marines, which duly backed Heartbreak Ridge and in turn swapped an army invasion of the Caribbean island into one undertaken by the Marines. Incidentally, the Marines also withdrew their support once the film was viewed.

What they objected to was one of the film’s more interesting themes. There are a couple of elements to Heartbreak Ridge that, had they been given more emphasis, could have led to a much more absorbing picture. The training camp to which Eastwood is assigned is portrayed as divisive and self-serving. His character, veteran soldier Tom ‘Gunny’ Highway, uses brute force and an iron will to get the best from his corps. They’re a dissolute bunch, completely resentful of his hardcore efforts to turn them into soldiers, but over the course of the film they come to respect his approach and his service record. The camp’s commanding officer, played by Everett McGill, is disdainful of Gunny and views his ‘recon’ corps as little more than cannon fodder. This turns into active dislike as the unlikely Marines start getting the better of his own, supposedly elite men. Whilst this picture of a Marine corps riven by jealousy and distrust was a big factor in the pulling of the forces’ backing, it’s no doubt actually happened before and makes for a fascinating image of soldiers trained to work as a single machine yet undermined by human nature. Also good are Gunny’s ham-fisted attempts to reconciliate with his ex-wife (Martha Mason), which he does by reading women’s magazines to get a better understanding of what makes her tick.

Unfortunately, these aspects are sunk in a by-the-numbers tale of the unlikeliest group of squaddies imaginable being bullied into a fighting force by Gunny, who the DVD box describes brilliantly as ‘dog-faced’. Of the trainees, endless focus is placed on Mario Van Peebles’s part-time rap star and his weak tunes (more a poor man’s Prince than Public Enemy). Sure enough, Mario’s feelings for his Sergeant change when he learns the meaning of ‘Heartbreak Bridge’, a position Gunny won great honour at during the Korean War. The moment’s telegraphed, like much of the rest of the picture as its cliches fall neatly in line. Gunny has to impose himself on his men by beating up the massive Swede? Check. Gunny’s fractured relationship with his commanding officer will manifest itself in a fist fight? You got it. His troop will become the pivotal fighting force in Grenada? Why sure.

Heartbreak Ridge has its admirers because it delivers on the things that fans of the likes of Top Gun crave after – where there are obvious gaps, the script throws in bad language on an industrial scale and some incredible dialogue (see the above quote). But it’s an empty, lunk-headed experience, when other people were busy doing Eastwood’s job for him by reinventing the war genre.

Heartbreak Ridge: **

Every Which Way but Loose (1978)

When it’s on: Thursday, 24 May (7.45 pm)
Channel: ITV2
IMDb Link

Working through the massive Clint boxset, I get the impression there was a point in the 1970s when Mr Eastwood more or less stopped trying. Secure as a box office draw and satisfied with giving the public what they wanted, his films started getting complacent and unadventurous. Perhaps the malaise started with The Gauntlet, which I quite liked in a sheer dumb way, though its biggest service was to the bullet-production industry. But then you come across something like Every Which Way but Loose, a sort of comedy road movie action adventure and it feels like the bottom of the barrel was within touching distance.

Ill advisedly eschewing his tough guy films for something altogether lighter, Clint (who played essentially the same character as usual) and Every Which Way but Loose enjoyed enormous success at the box office, ensuring a sequel – the tired Any Which Way you Can – and a potential foray into the kind of niche cinema dominated by Burt Reynolds. The story, a rambling affair if ever there was one, involves trucker and bare-knuckle boxer, Philo Beddoe (Eastwood) journeying from California to Denver in pursuit of the woman he loves (Sondra Locke). With him goes his friend, Orville (Geoffrey Lewis) and orang-utan, Clyde, who he once won in a wager. After him travel a raft of people he’s pissed off – a bunch of Nazi Hell’s Angels bikers, a pair of cops – who are all bent on vengeance.

The film’s dated quite severely, partly because bits of it have been copied over and over, also due to the number of impossible things that happen simply to move the action along. Philo quickly emerges as unbeatable, and I guess we are supposed to be on the side of this easy-going man with simple desires. But then how do you empathise with anyone who starts a bar-fight over a bowl of peanuts, especially when it’s clear he’ll win, which suggests a less than salacious hint of bullying? Then there’s the Locke character. Clint’s real-life squeeze plays a Country and Western singer (the film’s soundtrack is basically a compilation of C&W *shudder*) who first beds Philo and then runs away. This prompts the bulk of the story, but there’s so little about her that’s likeable and worth chasing that you wonder why he bothers. Talking of bothering, why people take the time to pursue Philo across the States is anyone’s guess.

That said, there are places where it’s a lot of fun. The film’s main charms are Lewis, who riffs off Eastwood to splendid effect, and Ruth Gordon as his foul-tempered mother. And then there’s Clyde, who Clint claimed was one of the most natural actors he ever worked with. The mutual affection between the trio is quite winning and Clyde emerges as a star. He’s especially good value in this rather than the sequel, where his role was expanded in line with audience appreciation and led to some scenes that pushed the boundaries of taste. Manis, the orang-utan who played Clyde, had a natural gift for comic timing, dutifully collapsing to the floor when Philo finger-shot him.

It’s either great screwball fare that takes itself decidedly non-seriously, or a bit of a bloated mess that carries thirty minutes of excess baggage. Perhaps somewhere in between. James Fargo, who directed Eastwood previously on The Enforcer, did a fine job of suggesting that, at some point, Jeremy Joe Kronsberg’s script was thrown out of the window and the plot simply freewheeled it to the pass. This sometimes works. The random picking up of Echo (Beverley D’Angelo) along the way adds a cute character to the team, a love interest for Orville and an all round better egg than Locke’s rather nasty piece of work. In too many places it doesn’t, most pointedly in the bikers’ scenes; the ‘Black Widows’ are in the film for comic relief and almost elicit sympathy as an obvious bunch of losers who can’t even defeat Philo when they’re massed against him.

Every Which Way but Loose: **

Dirty Harry (1971)

When it’s on: Saturday, 28 April 2012 (10.45 pm)
Channel: ITV1
IMDb Link

Time for something really seminal here – along The French Connection, Dirty Harry was a late 1971 release that changed the cop movie forever, to such emphatic extent that one can draw a line in the course of police thrillers from before and after Inspector Callahan’s first outing.

Harry and Rita Fink’s story, Don Siegel’s direction and Clint Eastwood’s hard as nails turn combined to absolutely devastating effect. It remains one of Clint’s finest performances, one consistent with many he’d put in previously, only instead of a rootless west from some distant past he was now putting modern San Francisco to rights, albeit ‘rights’ on his own terms. As Harry, he’s just brilliant. Inscrutable enough to ensure his motivations are never explicit. Fused with a sense of right and wrong, yet tired with procedural justice and jaded to the point it’s often something he takes into his own hands. And what hands they are. The famous ‘Do you feel lucky?’ scene happens early, and it’s a killer. The bank robber declares he has to know if Callahan fired six shots or just five, so Harry pulls the trigger. There’s no bullet, but did he shoot because he knew he’d emptied the clip? Or didn’t he care either way? It’s a moment that tells us everything we need to know about Eastwood’s cop. To him, criminals are scum. They deserve the same sort of treatment they dish out and he’s the man to deal it.

The plot was based around the real-life case of the Zodiac Killer, a North California serial murderer who notoriously taunted the police via a series of letters. In the film, Callahan is assigned to the ‘Scorpio’ case early and, after several killings, is informed by the mayor that they’re giving in to his ransom demands and he has to deliver the money. Scorpio (Andrew Robinson) leads him on a merry dance across the city, forcing him to visit a number of payphones at certain times, before the exchange ends brutally and Harry is left with vengeance as well as justice on his mind.

Dirty Harry marked a hard and less compromising direction in the genre. Its main character was appreciated for his tough approach, yet criticised by some for being bigoted and at times downright nasty, as evidenced in the film’s infamous Kezar Stadium scene, one so controversial that even the camera pulls discretely away as Callahan goes about his grisly business. Otherwise, its unflinching attitude to shooting blood and nudity gave the production a gritty and real edge that was so effective the genre has never really taken a step back since. Eastwood wasn’t the first choice to star (Frank Sinatra was offered the part initially, followed by John Wayne) yet it’s difficult to imagine anyone else filling Harry’s shoes quite as well. Certain scenes – the one that sticks in my mind features Scorpio on the school bus, his mood turning to panic as he spots Harry watching him whilst stood, alone and indomitable, on a bridge – are absolutely iconic.

Siegel, one of those perennially underrated directors whose tidy CV included Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Killers, brought more than 25 years in the ‘chair’ to bear when making Dirty Harry and turned it into his best work. Eastwood certainly copied his directing style, which is tribute enough. As for Harry Callahan, he would return in four sequels, whilst a number of Eastwood’s other roles riffed on the character template. I have a great deal of time for Magnum Force, which continued to explore Dirty Harry’s theme of the failing justice system, but by The Enforcer he was already turning into a Harry-shaped object, albeit an entertaining one.

Dirty Harry: *****

The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)

When it’s on: Friday, 20 April 2012 (9.00 pm)
Channel: Five US
IMDb Link

I think I’ll try to tell him the war is over.

I think that of all Clint Eastwood’s directorial efforts, the westerns he helmed may be his greatest achievement. It just seems to me that he got the genre, perhaps as a result of having worked so long in and owing much of his career to westerns. Starting in the latter part of the ‘classical age’ and indeed playing a role in ending it by starring in over 200 episodes of TV’s Rawhide, Clint got to be a major player in early efforts to stretch and subvert it with his Leone gigs and it’s in this spirit that he appears to have approached his own projects.

The Outlaw Josey Wales was his second directed western, following High Plains Drifter, which turned Clint’s now traditional ‘Stranger with no Name’ into a ghostlike, supernatural figure. There’s nothing mysterious about Josey Wales (Eastwood), the southern farmer who swears vengeance against the US soldiers who murder his wife and child, and for good measure burn his house down. Joining a band of Confederate vigilantes, Wales’s spirit of hot revenge remains when his compatriots surrender and that turns out to be a good thing as they’re gunned down after being forced to swear their allegiance by reciting a bastardised Union oath. Betrayed by the band’s former leader, Fletcher (John Vernon), and pursued by the nasty piece of work that killed his family and friends (Bill McKinney), Wales becomes a hunted outlaw.

The scene is set for a chase/revenge thriller, but the film then does an interesting thing. As Wales moves south, he starts picking up a ragtag collection of settlers who see him as someone capable to protecting them. These include Lone Watie (Chief Dan George), an elderly Comanche who puts in an extraordinary, eccentric performance, and sets the tone for all those who follow Wales in being broken, dispossessed and in search of redemption. Ultimately, it’s the eponymous lead character himself who finds peace of a kind, being touched by the gratitude of those he’s helped and their simple wish to settle down and make new lives for themselves. Things aren’t that easy and there’s still unfinished business with the Union pursuers to resolve, but the film ends on a note – albeit an uncertain one – of hope and resolution.

There’s loads to enjoy in Josey Wales, from the ferryman who whistles Union or Confederate tunes depending on who’s paying him, to the main character’s ‘summit meeting’ with Indian chief Ten Bears, where both men appreciate a mutual sense of damage. War overshadows the entire proceeding in a way that’s real and affecting,  and the film’s redemptive note comes across as welcome and slightly profound.

The Outlaw Josey Wales: ****