« December 2020 | Main

January 12, 2021

Up Country

up country.jpg

Lucas McNelly - 2021
DPress Productions

Before discussing the film, I need to mention that Lucas McNelly and I are acquainted with each other from our blogging activities over the past decade and a half.

In McNelly's film, three men who appear to be in their late twenties are first seen as passengers in a gray sports utility vehicle. An older man has driven them to an unmarked location near some woods. The four walk through what may be a restricted area, through the woods, past some rail tracks, to a stream. The three men awkwardly make their way while carrying their fishing rods. The guide easily walks through his path easily. When the three get to the stream, they are absorbed in joking with each other that they do not notice the guide silently walking away.

The three men can not really be described as friends. John, who organized the trip has invited Mark, his brother-in-law, and Paul, a tax attorney whom John hopes will provide him with some professional help. They know each other in that one might describe as a business acquaintance. John, Mark and Paul have gone fishing, but with the guide gone, they have become the proverbial fish out of water, trying to find their way back. Even before they find themselves lost, their situation is anticipated by their unease in navigating their way following the guide and the walk to the stream which seems to take an unusually long time.

The film carries with it some similarities to Deliverance, albeit more intimate and stripped down. There are a couple of moments that are uncanny. Parts of the narrative includes ellipses which add to the discomforting conclusion, and ending that may frustrate those who demand full explanations for what has been seen or even not seen.

Certainly I would encourage would-be filmmakers to take a look at Up Country. This is a micro budget film, reportedly $4000.00, almost completely shot in the woods of Maine with the exception of an interior shot in a cabin and some shots inside the gray SUV. The film neither looks nor sounds cheap. There are some nice nature shots of the environment, including shots of a caterpillar and a small frog. McNelly is comfortable with filming an extended static shot of John walking away from the camera, on the bumpy and jagged path, the camera impassively observing him as he walks further away from view. Sometimes the most interesting way to be cinematic is also the simplest.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:06 AM

January 05, 2021

Rough Night in Jericho

rought night in jericho.jpg

Arnold Laven - 1967
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

Like The Rare Breed, which I reviewed back in March, Rough Night in Jericho is a medium budget western from Universal. Mostly traditional in its narrative and visual style, the level of violence is indicative of the studio's response to the changes affecting the genre. Otherwise, as a studio product, the western town is dust free, the saloon is overpopulated with extras, and most of the characters are well dressed with the men generally clean shaven. There is a certainty that the bad guys will come to their deserved end. For myself, the predictability is part of the charm.

Also part of the charm is seeing Dean Martin as the villain. As Alex Flood, he is the former sheriff who brought law and order to the town of Jericho, only to find it more profitable to buy fifty-one percent of every business. The one business he has yet to take over is the single coach stage line owned by the youngish widow, Molly Lang. The coach is damaged on its way to Jericho, with Lang's partner Hickman, a former lawman, and his former deputy turned investor, Dolan, debating whether to fight Flood or take the easy way and sell out. Again in keeping with some of the genre changes of the times, Dolan, as played by George Peppard is not quite an anti-hero, but has his moments of pure self-interest. Jean Simmons is put in awkward position where her character of Molly Lang wants to be taken more seriously but is limited in her actions by the men, perhaps an acknowledgment of a mostly socially conservative audience.

Martin's role as Flood might also be seen as continuation of his on screen persona at its most negative. Consider how in the films made with Jerry Lewis, the Martin character often takes advantage of Lewis only to redeem himself and reaffirm the partnership at the conclusion. In Rough Night in Jericho, it is Martin speaking softly, letting others do most of his dirty work, showing no remorse for any misdeeds. Most of the physical threat is carried by an unshaven Slim Pickens, introduced wielding a bullwhip used to disarm Jean Simmons and later disable George Peppard.

Director Arnold Laven is probably best known for being part of the team that created and produced the television series, The Rifleman. This is the one western of the four features directed in the 1960s which was a work for hire. A craftsman rather than a stylist or auteur, Laven's films are all with some interest, with high points being Slaughter on 10th Avenue and Anna Lucas. There is also a certain amount of visual economy in knowing how to frame his shots, either by moving the camera to indicate his characters within a given space, or even composing a shot of two or three characters within a static frame conversing with each other. The final chase between Dolan and Flood makes use of lateral traveling shots plus just enough long shots to indicate the distance between the two men and expanse of the country. Compare to the recently released News of the World in which Paul Greengrass visually underlines much of his narrative with an overabundance of aerial shots of the countryside and multiple tracking and dolly shots that misapply the tools at his disposal.

The one weak spot is the music score by Don Costa. Mostly known for his arrangements for Paul Anka, Frank Sinatra and other popular singers of the late 1950s and 60s, most of the music here is undistinguished. Costa lapses in the worst of Max Steiner by accompanying a scene of Simmons and Peppard getting drunk with the sound of sad trombones. There is also a syrupy song at the end, "Hold Me, Now and Forever" performed by a choral group, The Kids Next Door. Further research indicated that Costa along with producer Martin Rackin also composed another song for the film, "The Devil Rides in Jericho" that appeared on the B-side of the 45 rpm single. If that record did get any airplay, it was not on any radio station I listened to.

Samm Deighan provides the commentary track, discussing the careers of screenwriters Sidney Boehm and Marvin Albert, who also wrote the source novel. Cinematographer Russell Metty and editor Ted Kent also get mentioned. Most of the discussion is devoted to the three stars. What I would add here is that the film does have some "stunt casting" with two of the better known Hollywood correspondents of the time, Army Archerd and Vernon Scott appearing as part of the casino crew, as well as Arnold Laven's wife in a small role. The couple of contemporary reviews I read offered back-handed praise for the film living up to its advertisement as a traditional western. At the time of release, Hollywood and most American film critics were unprepared for the surprising popularity of an Italian western, A Fistful of Dollars, which seemed to ignore the established genre rules. For the most part, Rough Night in Jericho is that film, almost thoroughly predictable. At the same time, there are hints, for those who want to take a closer look, with small tweaks to a genre that was undergoing major changes.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:27 AM