Saturday, 17 December 2011

'For A Few Dollars More' - A stylish and influential western!

The 1965 western classic For a Few Dollars More (Original Italian Title: Per Qualche Dollaro in Piu) is the second film of Sergio Leone's famous Dollars trilogy starring Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Gian Maria Volonte.

Born in Rome, Sergio Leone had built his reputation as an assistant to the legendary Italian film director Vittorio DeSica and as an assistant director for films shot at the famous Italian Cinecitta studios, such as Quo Vadis (1951) and Ben-Hur (1959). It was not until the 1960s when Leone shifted his attention to the subgenre called Spaghetti Westerns, Italian films styled on the American western.

Leone's westerns may have been influenced by the Hollywood western especially the films of John Ford but differed significantly from them in terms of plot, characterisation and mood. Leone's vision of the American West is shown as more violent and morally complex than what was conveyed in the traditional American Western. Leone wanted to show the protagonists in his film as less moral than the conventional western character.

After the success in Italy of A Fistful of Dollars (1964), director Sergio Leone wanted to make a sequel but he knew that he required the lead star Clint Eastwood to agree to star in it. Eastwood had not yet seen the final print of A Fistful of Dollars and he had a few concerns about participating in the sequel. The US version had yet to be released and Eastwood was still relatively unknown, remembered only for playing the character of Rowdy Yates in the successful US western series Rawhide in the late 1950s. Eastwood was persuaded to make the sequel. The Dollars trilogy was to become hugely successful at the box office which built Sergio Leone's reputation and made Clint Eastwood a huge international star.

Television westerns were very popular in the 1960s especially in Italy and having Eastwood play the lead meant that Leone had a recognised face of an American TV cowboy even though Eastwood was not his first choice. Leone had Henry Fonda in mind.  Leone managed to have all of his dreams realised because after Eastwood starred in the hugely successful final part of the Dollars trilogy The Good, The Bad and The Ugly in 1966, he was able to hire Henry Fonda to play a memorable villain in his classic western spaghetti epic Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). 

Clint Eastwood as the iconic "Man with No Name"
For a Few Dollars More is my favourite Leone western. I could have chosen any of his Dollar films or Once Upon a Time in the West but for some reason the sequel does it for me. A Fistful of Dollars may be the first of the trilogy but it is a stylish remake of the Japanese classic Yojimbo. The higly regarded Japanese director Akira Kurasawa won a lawsuit against Leone for breach of copyright so it is in my opinion that this sequel develops Leone's cinematic style without standing on the shoulders of any other classic.

A typical scene shot in Techniscope, an Italian invention that retains both foreground and background focus

In For a Few Dollars More, Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef play bounty hunters who reluctantly join forces to take on the psychotic bandit El Indio (a brilliant sinister performance by Italian actor Gian Maria Volonte) and his gang (which includes Klaus Kinski as a hunchback). As in the previous film,  For a Few Dollars More was filmed using Techniscope, an Italian invention that retains both foreground and background focus.This technque gives the actor less to do and so the film could become about something else which enhances the visual style.

Sergio Leone directing Clint
This film boasts another memorable score from the now-legendary Ennio Morricone who was to write the scores to all of Leone's great films. in 2007, Morricone received a special Academy Award to honour his contribution to the art of film music (presented to him by Clint Eastwood). For a Few Dollars More is the first Leone film that contains a musical theme embodied within the film itself where the music is often diegetic and non-diegetic especially in those scenes when the pocket watch is used. The overall effect is original, haunting and memorable.

After his great films of the sixties, Sergio Leone made a only few interesting films of note and interestingly turned down the chance to direct The Godfather. It was not until 1984 when the classic gangster epic Once Upon a Time in America was released but had been re-cut before release. The restored director's cut has since been hailed as a masterpiece. Sergio Leone died of a heart attack in 1989 at the age of 60.

Despite the fact that it is not spoken about in the same regard as the other Leone films, For a Few Dollars More is a remarkably stylish and violent western. It is as hugely influential as the other films from the trilogy and more importantly, it is very entertaining.
RATING *****
Compilation of segments from the scores of 'A Fistful of Dollars' (1964) and 'For a Few Dollars More' (1965) by Ennio Morricone. 

'A Hard Days Night' - a massively influential band starring in a massively influential film.

The Beatles has to be regarded as artistically and culturally the most most amazing rock band in history. Their influence on popular music is beyond question and along with Elvis, were the biggest music force in the world. 1964 was the first year of their global domination but many people had thought that The Beatles were nothing more than a fad that would disappear quickly. So it was inevitable that they would make a major film before the end of the year. There is nothing unique about pop stars starring in films or musicals to cash on their success but nobody quite knew just how wonderful the fab four's debut film would be.
Written by Alun Owen and directed by Richard Lester, 'A Hard Day's Night' was made in the style of a documentary, describing a couple of days of the band as they travel to London to appear on a television show. It is a witty semi-fictional film with surprisingly fresh performances from John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr. It also stars memorable British stars from the period such as John Junkin, Norman Rossington, Victor Spinelli and Irish actor Wilfred Brambell as Paul's grandfather who is always described in the film as "very clean", obvious punning with his "dirty old man" character in the famous BBC sitcom 'Steptoe and Son'. 

'A Hard Day's Night' was a massive critical and financial success which influenced many films during the 1960s. The photography and editing style had been acknowledged by many pop video directors as a major influence and it was rated by 'Time Magazine as one of the all-time great 100 films. The film can also be regarded as an historical document of the British show business scene of the day. Most importantly though, ' A Hard Day's Night' is a delight to watch and as you can expect from The Beatles, the music is great too. A British cinematic masterpiece.
RATING *****

Friday, 16 December 2011

Maureen O'Hara - A quick tribute to Ireland's greatest leading lady!

Maureen O'Hara is Ireland's most successful leading lady and one of the surviving stars from Hollywood's Golden Age. She was recently a guest on RTE's 'The Late Late Show' in Dublin and there were special recorded tributes to her from many famous luminaries such as Steven Spielberg, Robert Redford, Liam Neeson and Martin Scorsese.  Here is a selection of moments from Maureen O'Hara's cinema performances, assembled for an Irish Film and Television Lifetime Achievement Award she received in 2004.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

The trailer (and a short features review) for the Blu Ray version of 'Ben-Hur'

I watched the classic 1959 William Wyler version of 'Ben-Hur' on Blu Ray last night and I must say that I was very impressed with the quality of the restoration. The high definition picture and sound just made the whole experience exciting! This DVD contains plenty of extra features including the 1925 classic silent version with Roman Novarro and Francis X Bushman. This Blu Ray contains so much and is most definitely value for money!
A few members of the cast and crew of 'Ben-Hur': William Wyler (director), Charlton Heston (actor), Joseph Vogel (MGM President), Stephen Boyd (actor), Sam Zimbalist (producer) and Haya Harareet (actress).

Sunday, 11 December 2011

The 'Adventures of Don Juan' - the last hurrah is a resounding success!

‘Adventures of Don Juan’ is a romantic adventure made in colour by Warner Bros in 1948. The film stars Errol Flynn as the great lover Don Juan and Viveca Lindfors as the Queen with Robert Douglas, Alan Hale, Ann Rutherford, Robert Warwick acting as support.

The film begins during the reign of Elizabeth I of England when Spanish nobleman Don Juan is sent back from London to Madrid after a scandal caused by his affair with the British fiancée of a Spanish duke. The Spanish ambassador in London, Count de Polan (Robert Warwick) sends a letter of recommendation to his friend Queen Margaret (Viveca Lindfors), asking her to provide an opportunity at the court to reform Don Juan after the rumours about his love affairs. Don Juan is hired as a fencing instructor at the Spanish Academy. But Don Juan discovers a plot by the Duke de Lorca (Robert Douglas) to overthrow Queen Margaret and usurp power in Spain so that he can declare war on England.

Ably directed by Vincent Sherman and written by George Oppenheimer, ‘Adventures of Don Juan’ is the last quality Errol Flynn swashbuckling adventure. Flynn is well cast as the famous lover but he is now looking much older despite being only 39 when the film was released. Flynn would star in various films for another decade but the years of alcohol abuse was beginning to take its toll. However, Flynn does produce a great star turn in this film. The other performances are also worthy of the production especially from Robert Douglas as the villainous Duke de Lorca.
The film was originally to be scored by the legendary Erich Wolfgang Korngold who had composed the scores for 'Captain Blood', 'The Adventures of Robin Hood' and 'The Sea Hawk' but he had retired at the time of production. Max Steiner’s score works wonderfully and uplifts this very enjoyable adventure.
RATING *****

Thursday, 8 December 2011


It was really great to watch the 1938 film version of Arthur Conan Doyle's story 'The Hound of the Baskervilles' again. A new Holmes film is about to hit the cinemas but it is worth checking out the best ever Sherlock Holmes on film.

'The Hound of the Baskervilles' begins with Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone) and Dr. John Watson receiving a visit from Dr. James Mortimer (Lionel Atwill). Mortimer wishes to express his uneasiness about the arrival of Sir Henry Baskerville (Richard Greene), the heir of the Baskerville estate and the last of the Baskervilles because of a family curse. Dr. Mortimer tells Holmes and Watson about the legend of the Hound of the Baskervilles, a demonic dog that first killed Sir Hugo Baskerville and then to to kill all the Baskervilles in the region. Reluctant at first, Holmes agrees to look into the case but sends Watson ahead with Sir Henry.

Pacing may be suspect at times but this is a genuinely atmospheric film and very enjoyable. Effective direction (Sidney Lanfield) and good production values are just part of what makes this vintage film so special. Basil Rathbone is quite simply the best cinematic Holmes and Nigel Bruce provides a lovable, more fumbling older Dr. Watson (even although he was only three years younger than Rathbone in real life!). Greene received top billing as Sir Henry because Fox studios did not think that the film would be such a massive hit and so the studio promoted Greene because of his youthful looks. Forget the horrible recent attempts directed by the inadequate Guy Ritchie containing the rather peculiar interpretation of Holmes by Robert Downey Jnr., the 1938 version of the 'The Hounds of the Baskervilles', followed by the 1939 classic 'The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes' are the definite film versions of Arthur Conan Doyle's legendary character.

Saturday, 3 December 2011

'The Best Years of Our Lives' is no masterpiece!

'The Best Years of Our Lives' was released in 1946 to universal acclaim. Produced by Samuel Goldwyn, written by Robert Sherwood and directed by William Wyler, the film tells the story of three US soldiers trying to adjust to their home town after the war. Starring Fredric March, Myrna Loy, Dana Andrews, Harold Russell, Teresa Wright and Hoagy Carmichael, the film was praised for the honest depictions of the lives of these three men. 'The Best Years of Our Lives' was a massive box office success and won heavily at the Oscars, collecting seven Academy Awards including one for best picture. It is considered a classic by many film historians.

I think the film is extremely over-rated. With the exception of the wonderful deep focus photography by Gregg Toland and a few of the performances, I think the film struggles to be above-average at best. Some moments may be interesting but once you get around the commendable fact that Hollywood dared to make a film showing a different view of the ex-servicemen, then you have to judge the film on its own artistic merits. All I can take from this picture is that it is an interesting but over-long melodrama with a rather obvious plot.

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