When was the last time you saw a Western on the big screen? I mean a real Western — not some hokey supernatural mashup like 2010’s “Jonah Hex” or one of those “the elevator pitch sounded great” sci-fi hybrids like 2011’s “Cowboys & Aliens.”
Maybe it was Quentin Tarantino’s 2012 revisionist spaghetti-Western-cum-slave-drama-revenge-flick “Django Unchained,” or his second trip to that particular well, 2015’s spaghetti-mystery-Western, “The Hateful Eight?”
Well, just to be clear, neither of those last two count. Too many hyphens can cloud the genre, which is why even the starkly minimalistic (and somewhat feminist-leaning) 2011 Kelly Reichardt feature “Meek’s Cutoff” can squeak by as a straight-up traditional Western, whereas Seth MacFarlane’s tongue-in-cheek 2014 parody “A Million Ways to Die in the West” leans way too far in the humor direction to fit the bill.
The last two “traditional Westerns” to really make significant inroads into mainstream U.S. cinemas would likely be 2015’s brutal survival tale “The Revenant” and 2016’s rather pointless remake of 1960’s “The Magnificent Seven.” However, if you want to see how Westerns are truly done properly, many film fans and critics would insist you have to look back several decades, to the heyday of the genre. While it’s true that older Westerns from the 1940s through the 1970s are often slower-paced and more folksy than their more recent brethren, there’s a certain intangible sense of authenticity that shines through the sometimes flimsy-looking sets and cornpone musical soundtracks.
One might chalk this up to the simple fact that those earlier Westerns were made in a time period that was significantly closer to the era being dramatized and romanticized. There were scores of cast and crew members on those motion pictures who had direct, recent family connections to the Wild West, and that familiarity resonates in a myriad of ways that simply cannot be summoned up in this new millennium.
Two of the heaviest hitters of classic Western films are surely the towering lead actor John Wayne and director John Ford. Both are considered examples of the very finest their respective professions have ever had to offer, and their several creative collaborations in that genre (including 1939’s “Stagecoach,” 1948’s “Fort Apache,” 1949’s “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,” 1950’s “Rio Grande” and 1956’s “The Searchers”) remain standout motion pictures to this day.
Another of their most beloved pairings is 1962’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” which also stars Jimmy Stewart (“Rear Window”), Vera Miles (“Psycho”), Lee Marvin (“The Dirty Dozen”), Woody Strode (“Spartacus”) and Lee Van Cleef (TV’s “The Master”). On Jan. 9, the historic, single-screen Mars Theatre in the small, nearby town of Springfield will screen “Liberty Valance” for one show only as part of its ongoing effort to host revivals of classic, older Hollywood movies.
A box-office success when first released, this beautifully shot black and white motion picture — Ford once remarked of his surprising choice to do without color for this particular movie, “You might say I’m old-fashioned, but black and white is real photography” — finds Stewart playing a state Senator who returns to his hometown for the funeral of one of his oldest friends (played by Wayne), and winds up recounting his memories of a notorious shootout years before between himself and Liberty Valance (Marvin), a loathsome criminal who once terrorized the townsfolk.
The film is told mostly in flashback, and includes solid performances from the entire cast. Anyone interested in approximating the feel of witnessing such a classic Western as it was originally intended over a half-century ago should consider attending this rare public screening. Showtime is 7 p.m., with $7 admission.
A couple of nights later, on Jan. 11, the Psychotronic Film Society’s ongoing series of overlooked or underappreciated cinematic treasures from around the world continues at The Sentient Bean, as it has most every Wednesday for the last decade. The exact title of this week’s feature is a closely guarded secret, but this much can be revealed: It’s the second annual Memorial Tribute to the late, great actor and musician David Bowie, whom we lost to cancer in January 2016. I can say that it’s not a concert film of any kind. Rather, it’s a criminally unknown (and completely charming) feature motion picture showcasing Bowie’s dramatic and comedic talents.
The supporting cast includes many instantly recognizable names and faces, but for a myriad of legal reasons, this lovely little American independent film has been completely unavailable in this country for decades. If you’re a Bowie enthusiast, or merely someone who enjoys vaguely screwball-ish romantic-comedies, this one’s worth a look. Showtime is 8 p.m., with $8 admission.
And finally, the next night, Jan. 12, the Tybee Post Theater follows up its recent screening of Lawrence Kasdan’s 1981 neo-noir gem “Body Heat” with another critically adored slice of steamy crime and intrigue: Roman Polanski’s award-winning 1974 period-piece mystery “Chinatown,” starring Jack Nicholson (“As Good as it Gets”), Faye Dunaway (“Network”), John Hillerman (TV’s “Magnum, P.I.”), Burt Young (“Rocky”) and John Huston (“The Cardinal”).
Set in 1937 Southern California, the labyrinthine plot concerns the greed and corruption that surrounded the monetization of public resources (namely water) in the city of L.A. — which was booming at that time, due in no small part to the immensely successful motion picture industry. Filled with all manner of double (and triple) crosses, and enough sleaze to fill the Los Angeles Aqueduct, “Chinatown” was based on facts and real individuals (most notably architect William Mulholland), but heavily fictionalized. However, it drew plenty of public attention to the so-called California Water Wars of the early 1900s, shining an ugly light on the behind-the-scenes chicanery and illegal behavior that helped L.A. grow into the mega-city it is today.
As with any mystery movie, if you have never seen “Chinatown” and are planning on attending this show, then by all means do not research its plot in any detail. Such synopses are invariably filled with numerous spoilers that will ruin your appreciation of the masterful way in which Robert Towne’s screenplay and Polanski’s (mis)direction move the story forward to its inevitable, ugly conclusion.
I can’t think offhand of a traditional neo-noir I’d rank higher than “Chinatown,” for whatever that may be worth. Frankly, I would love to be able to travel back in time and see it again for the very first time. It’s that intriguing a picture, from start to finish. Showtime for this “Date Night Noir” is 7 p.m., with $10 admission. That price includes a glass of wine (for those of drinking age), as well as a “kiss,” which we assume is made of chocolate.
Until next week, see you at the movies, be kind to those around you and don’t forget to turn off that cell phone.
Jim Reed directs Psychotronic Film Society of Savannah. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
IF YOU GO
What: “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”
When: 7 p.m. Jan. 9
Where: Mars Theatre, 109 S. Laurel St., Springfield
What: David Bowie Memorial Tribute
When: 8 p.m. Jan. 11
Where: The Sentient Bean, 13 E. Park Ave.
When: 7 p.m. Jan. 12
Where: Tybee Post Theater, 10 Van Horne Ave.
Cost: $10, includes glass of wine and a “kiss”
Though John Ford (who was known for the majestic sweep of his color motion pictures) insisted in interviews that shooting “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” in monochrome was an artistic choice that rested with him, other, later reports suggest that using cheaper black and white stock was a cost-cutting measure forced upon the director by the studio against his wishes.
David Bowie actually studied avant-garde theater and pantomime before he attempted to make his way as a popular musician. His first major cinematic role was as the title character in Nicholas Roeg’s 1976 sci-fi allegory “The Man Who Fell to Earth” (which, coincidentally, will be shown by the SCAD Cinema Circle at Trustees Theater on Jan. 13), and he would go on to play both starring and supporting roles in big-budget features such as “Labyrinth,” “The Hunger” and “The Last Temptation of Christ,” as well as in smaller indie movies such as “Just a Gigolo” and “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.”
Chinatown swept the 1974 Golden Globes, winning the awards for Best Motion Picture — Drama, Best Actor in a Motion Picture — Drama (this went to Jack Nicholson), Best Director and Best Screenplay. It was also nominated for a stunning 11 Academy Awards, but took home only one Oscar — for Robert Towne’s Best Original Screenplay.