Monday, May 3, 2010
The question before us today is, given that a Western is, at its best, a pictorial and visceral medium, to what extent can you construct a compelling Western with almost nothing but pictures? The Appaloosa (1966), a workaday Western starring Marlon Brando in his pre-Godfather trough and directed by the journeyman Sidney J. Furie (who evidently is still working) is one of those pictures that crams 22 minutes worth of story into a slambang 98 minutes. (In case you're wondering, that's meant to be sarcasm. The film is nothing if not deliberately, some would say languidly, paced.)
Story: Brando goes to Mexico to recapture a horse stolen from him. That takes care of that. And along with that you have to accept sturdy character actor John Saxon as a Mexican, and Marlon putting some coffee grounds on his face and convincing Mexicans that he is one of them. (They proceed to speak to each other in English.)
But I kept being pulled back in by the quality of the compositions created by Furie and the legendary Russell Metty (most famous today for shooting Touch of Evil for Orson Welles). Metty and Furie really seem to enjoy the Cinemascope shape (see illustration above). Some writers have mocked them for the use of large foreground objects to mask more than half of the available picture area. But the result is a fascinating re-shaping of the frame over and over, much as was done in the silent era. I wish I could display more screen grabs--I would recommend that anyone with an interest in widescreen composition take a look.
One could hypothesize that the reason for this photographic technique was, by continually blocking and obscuring the audience's view of the action, to reinforce the theme of a man who is blocked at every turn from achieving his goal. Or it could be that they realized that the script, by otherwise reliable writers James Bridges (The Paper Chase) and Roland Kibbee (Vera Cruz and The Crimson Pirate) was paper-thin.
It is also interesting to look back to a day when it was acceptable for a Serious Important Actor like Marlon Brando, who had shook the acting community with A Streetcar Named Desire and On The Waterfront 15 years earlier to bide his time with a Western until something really good came along. (There was an 18 year gap between Waterfront and Godfather during which Brando did some good work, but did not appear in a certifiable classic.)