best film:  The Wild Bunch from Sam Peckinpah

  • doggedly nihilistic, crisply photographed (Lucien Ballard as DP) and flawlessly performed by the talented ensemble of veteran actors

The transcendent trait though, and what makes it a top 100 all-time film, is the editing—yes- the freeze frame washed out titles in the opening (gorgeous)—but the slow-motion action editing sequences are Peckinpah’s grand achievement

  • Peckinpah adores Kurosawa – both content and style. Peckinpah copies Kurosawa’s band of outlaws/warriors here, we have the dog eat dog pessimism – literally here we have a swarm of ants attacking scorpions. This has such thematic and formal implications. It’s foreshadowing the final massacre (the scorpions are the wild bunch outlaws) and it tells you about Peckinpah’s worldview—it is bleak— he even involves women and children in the murders here and the kids yelling “bang bang” at the dead people – there are no good guys in this messed up world
  • The opening and closing massacres—tremendous bookend set pieces and scenes—Peckinpah’s an editor like Eisenstein— Average Shot Length here very low

Like Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid after it, The Getaway, I appreciate the love and art Peckinpah puts in his opening sequences and credits—freeze-frame washed out titles here

  • The film as tragic as Shakespeare–  or Kurosawa who adapted Shakespeare often
  • It’s a colossal achievement for William Holden—and to a slightly lesser extent Robert Ryan and Ernest Borgnine—Warren Oates and Ben Johnson and the unrecognizable Edmond O’Brien with the laugh (there’s a little Walter Huston in Sierra Madre there) and black bean teeth—four Oscar winners and Ryan (the one who isn’t) is a great actor with 20 archiveable films
  • The slow-motion isn’t just the opening and closing massacres—we get the horses falling off the dune—the sequence where Mapache is trying to learn the machine gun and accidentally fires at his own people
  • the Borgnine casting here is important- he can look Holden in the eye and not back down and he’s probably one of the few in 1969 in Hollywood who could. They have a great argument about giving your word to something
  • this isn’t about picturesque beauty throughout—the masterpiece is the editing—the formal/motif elements with the scorpions, “The Walk”
  • The railroad owner here is Harrigan—in Butch Cassidy it’s E.H. Harriman—
  • Idyllic village in Mexico as a surrogate for Vietnam—Eden, pond, greens, hammock, music, dancing, kids playing
  • Advent of the airplane, car—bicycle is big in Butch Cassidy
  • Zoom-heavy—really well used
  • Dialogue like “$10,000 cuts an awful lot of family ties” delivered by Holden (I have this as Holden’s single best role and have him as the #15 actor of all-time) another one delivered by Ryan this time is “We’re after men… and I wish to God I was with them”
  • It’s extremely well edited throughout. We have the sauna scene intercut with the two brothers with the whores—a great sequence.  We also have the intercutting of the train set piece and the soldiers struggling to get off the train
  • Another big bridge explosion set piece featuring William Holden (The Bridge On the River Kwai)
  • There’s a great mini-montage (with zooms) with the Mapache soldiers as one fires upon the wild bunch from the cliff and the wild bunch break out the machine gun
  • It’s about aging, being defeated, the sense of obligation to a fellow brother—both Mapache (drunk here) and the wild bunch have the same weary look to them just before they die

“The Walk” is a justifiably iconic scene. “Let’s Go” and no dialogue after that. It’s the cinema art form—same with the montage battle. You can’t write it down on paper or watch it in a theater. There’s acting involved (these are four stoic figures), music, drums, the Mexican singers and the telephoto lens (just like The Graduate in 1967) as they’re essentially walking in place. An ode to these warriors

  • And the final montage ballet of bullets— 132-136 minutes into the movie—it’s four minutes long roughly and it ranks up there with Eisenstein’s Odessa Steps

 

most underrated:   Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid from George Roy Hill. By and large the TSPDT consensus gets it right in 1969. I’m sort of splitting hairs by picking Butch Cassidy– they have it at #418 and I currently have it #154. #418 is probably borderline masterpiece so we’re only talking a half-grade maybe.

  • It is a collaborative masterpiece. Roy Hill is a solid director (The Sting) but here he’s aided by an Oscar- winning (and sharp as hell) screenplay by William Goldman, Oscar-winning photography by Conrad Hall (one of the best of all-time), costumes by Edith Head ( 8 Oscar wins 35 total noms), and of course arguably the best work from both Paul Newman and Robert Redford

That washed out color opening is masterful. First, we have the scenes of Newman looking at banks and then the close-up of Redford playing poker. The film’s visual style is based on the black and white flash photographs and film reel opening. Roy Hill/Hall goes slowly into the film several times after these interludes before going into color- a great formal touch.

  • Newman is affable as hell—gregarious—Redford is the strong silent—they’re both so damn impressive
  • As entertaining a screenplay and film as you’ll see– filled with sarcasm, repetition of “who are those guys?” and “they fall alone will kill us”—countless lines like this
  • 5-6 zooms—feels like the universal minimum in 1969

I actually love the Bolivian travel montage- I love how Hall/Conrad wash out the photography of the bicycle prior to leaving

  • Called by many the first significant buddy cop movie and I see that- from 48 Hours to Lethal Weapon and the like- it’s influential as a story genre, a box office smash and the two (already) stars went into the stratosphere—such great rapport- these two characters clearly love each other
  • Slow motion fall of the local gang like The Wild Bunch – same year

The final freeze frame is a stylistically transcendent moment—the audio carries over, the photography…

…washes out. – it’s a watershed moment—400 Blows, Goodfellas, Jules and Jim and Butch Cassidy when it comes to freeze frame

 

most overrated:  The Color of Pomegranate would be my choice here. The TSPDT consensus has it #3 of 1969 and in a year with The Wild Bunch, Army of Shadows and Butch Cassidy I just don’t see how that’s possible. Pomegranate spills just out of my top 10 of the year.

  • 2 of the 14 reviews on rotten tomatoes say “impossible to describe” and I’m not half the writer most of these critics are- so wish me luck here
  • It is a unique visual experience and exercise—like Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors from Parajanov in 1964 it’s almost as if there’s no precedent for this and Parajanov is not influenced by anything—perhaps something outside the world of cinema- the work of Dali
  • No camera movement (very different form Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors)
  • Symbolism and allegories—stirring images and surrealism
  • Books spread out amongst rocks, then blankets, then sheep spread out
  • Strange very uninvisible hard cuts
  • Gold colors, pomegranate red color
  • Clearly an influence on Peter Greenaway—Prospero’s Books may be the closest film relative—tableaus

It’s inferior to Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors and clearly Greenaway passed it by—unlike Shadows I think this is largely art displayed in front of the camera—not because of the camera

 

gems I want to spotlight:  If you want me to go off the beaten path a little (and off my top 10) I’d single out Alice’s Restaurant from Arthur Penn. Penn has really done nothing but captivating work (even if some of it, like this, is uneven)—and to pick this film about the counterculture starring Arlo Guthrie (son of folksinger Woody Guthrie) as his follow-up to Bonnie and Clyde is fascinating. If you’re ok with sticking to the top 10—then go with Army of Shadows from Jean-Pierre Melville.

Army of Shadows – a masterful war/spy film told with intelligence and a distinct tone (through Melville’s mature style)— and draped in a jaw-droppingly beautiful and consistent mise-en-scene of muted blues, grays, and midnight indigo day-for-night shots

  • Opens with an impressive prologue—German soldiers goose-stepping past the Arc de Triomphe—Melville fills the entire frame

Meticulous in the visual design from the color palette chosen by Melville, to the rain and night sequences

  • The score sounds a little like a precursor to John Carpenter’s Halloween
  • Greys, blues, very bleak to match the mood— from the sweaters and scarfs to the wood in the furniture and clearly fussed over background dilapidated buildings

Melville’s trademark masculine stoicism—war games

  • We get three separate voice-over narrators—first the Vichy prison warden (which sort of sets up that it’s going to move around a little because he’s out of the film quickly) to the main protagonist Lino Ventura and then later to Jean-Pierre Cassel

Ebert “As one of his films after another is rediscovered, Melville is moving into the ranks of the greatest directors. He was not much honored in his lifetime.” https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-army-of-shadows-1969

  • Certainly, would make a good pairing with Spielberg’s Munich though Melville’s work is superior
  • Patient in the storytelling—again—atmospheric—but the whole time you’re just mesmerized by the detail in the visual design
  • A great shot framing the doors as Ventura is waiting to be tortured—there’s a German at the very back of the frame so we have three depths of field
  • There’s more time spent on the anxiety of whether the barber is going to rat him out (he ends up handing him a trench coach which is a Melville signature) than the murder that just took place
  • Even the drapes at the house for the excruciating execution of the turncoat are clearly hand-picked by Melville and his production design team

Steely cold sapphire day for night sequences – stunning — the night scenes are all paintings—the cove sequence in particular

  • and the brief scene with actor portraying de Gaulle (reported a big reason why the film was rarely seen at all in 1969 upon release)
  • The framing of the body slumped over the chair handcuffed—it’s repeated again with Jean-Pierre Cassel
  • James Sanford  –Kalamazoo Gazette “Although it has several suspenseful sequences, “Shadows” is not a spy thriller, precisely. It’s much more along the lines of a melancholy mood piece”
  • The visual design is consistent with Le Samourai –primary colors would look incredibly out of place- Very Eastwood 2000’s decade Million Dollar Baby-ish
  • The screenplay in spots—perfection “What a strange carousel”—I found this to be devastating
  • In many ways a war film with no battles—plenty of trench coats—which is perfect for Melville
  • A stunner of a shot of a hallway in the prison—reminded me of the hotel in WKW’s In the Mood For Love shot
  • the gut-punch epilogue with how they all died. Cyanide, torture, decapitated…
  • the formal ending- bookends Arc de Triomphe—

 

trends and notables:

  • After being shutout for so long in the 1960’s it is worth noting an American filmmaker at the top of 1969—here it is Sam Peckinpah

Male buddy films or two-handers seem to dominate 1969- Easy Rider, Midnight Cowboy and Butch Cassidy

These three films are three out of the four biggest box office films of 1969. Two of the three (not Butch and Sundance) have crazy psychedelic, drug-infused montages– the 1960’s have finally arrived to Hollywood at the tail-end of the decade

  • 1969 is the big change with the MMPA rating system. Content has been pushing the boundaries really since the beginning of cinema, but the Hays Code ran from 1934-1968. Midnight Cowboy wins the Best Picture Oscar being rated “X” but don’t get caught in the X-rating, they were still working out the kinks – “X” is really “R” but either way this is really the first year you could have this modern day level of violence, nudity, drug use—and yes—in saw cases realism and rawness. There were more explicitly sordid/mature (depending on your viewpoint) films before 1934—but again nothing as modern as the 1969 change.
  • I think it is fitting that some of 1969’s best films took advantage of the change. Obviously, Midnight Cowboy and Easy Rider are two. I mention the counterculture with Alice’s Restaurant above but you also have something as taboo as partner-swapping or wife-swapping in Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. Fellini is another- Satyricon comes out in 1969. It is a work worth talking about both as a more scandalous film, and– more expressionistic. It is crazy to think that the auteur who directed Satyricon and Juliet of the Spirits got his start in Neorealism. Almost every film has become more and more fantastical. I often bring up Wes Anderson as a similar artist- not that Wes was ever a realist—but if you look at Bottle Rocket and Rushmore in comparison with say Grand Budapest and Isle of Dogs—quite a change.

Fellini wasted no time with the shift in censorship with Satyricon. It is a work worth talking about both as a more scandalous film, and– more expressionistic than his previous efforts. It is crazy to think that the auteur who directed Satyricon and Juliet of the Spirits got his start in Neorealism. Almost every film has become more and more fantastical

a great shot from Easy Rider— again The New Hollywood at this point was more about Warren Beatty and Dennis Hopper than Scorsese or certainly Spielberg

the tragic finale in Midnight Cowboy– a film that would borrow from the jump-cut flashback style first used by Resnais a nearly a decade earlier in Hiroshima Mon Amour– Schlesinger was influenced heavily by the New Wave, while say Peckinpah and Leone were more Kurosawa

Ken Loach’s Kes is an important film in the history of realism. Every five years or so there is an important film or auteur (or both) in this mode. Satyajit Ray’s best work is behind him (late 1950’s and early 1960’s) so Loach is here to carry the torch

  • We have many first archiveable moments for big time directors and actors in 1969. We have the first archiveable film from Woody Allen (both director and actor in his case) with Take the Money and Run. Bob Fosse transitions from choreographer to director (and burgeoning auteur) with Sweet Charity. As I mentioned above, 1969 would give us the first archiveable film from Ken Loach with Kes. He actually came from a background directing television (which we’d see a lot of in the 60’s). Sidney Pollock was never a transcendent actor (solid work in Tootsie, Michael Clayton and Eyes Wide Shut withstanding) but he would become a great director and 1969 was his first archiveable work with They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? Elliot Gould would give us his first archiveable film in Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice.

 

best performance male   John Wayne won the Oscar in 1969 for True Grit but with all due respect to the Duke there were many superior male acting performances this year.  William Holden probably deserves to go first for The Wild Bunch– his work dwarves the work of Wayne. He’s in the best film, and unlike some of the two-hander films that follow here (Midnight Cowboy, Butch Cassidy) with deserving actors- Holden has more of a central hold on The Wild Bunch. Next would certainly be the likes of Jon Voight, Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford and Paul Newman. I could talk about all four of these here but how about Hoffman’s disappearing act into his character. His method acting is to credit for how he famously improvised and improved the film with his “I’m walking here” scene in New York City. Hoffman would represent a counterpoint to the traditional Hollywood handsome tall leading man. What a year this is for this category. Joe Buck is still Voight’s career-defining performance. Jean-Louis Trintignant is here for My Night at Maud’s and Jack Nicholson steals the show in Easy Rider. Easy Rider is one-third soundtrack/travelogue, one-third trippy editing montage finale, and one-third Nicholson. It is the beginning of an astonishing run for Jack. There is still much more here for this category in 1969. Lino Ventura needs to be recognized for the trademark Melville stoicism in Army of Shadows as does David Bradley for his work as a child actor in Kes. We’re already at eight mentions but I think a mention needs to be divided among the extended cast in The Wild Bunch. Ernest Borgnine and Robert Ryan are probably first- both veteran actors with phenomenal scenes to chew on. Warren Oates and Ben Johnson are also excellent (how many actors get a scene like the four of them do during the walk?) – as is Edmond O’Brien and Strother Martin. Martin is a great character actor who stole scenes in everything from Liberty Valance to Cool Hand Luke but 1969 would be his banner year appearing in Butch Cassidy, The Wild Bunch and True Grit.

the telephoto lens here as Voight walks in place among a sea of people in New York City in Midnight Cowboy— one of the indelible images of 1969

Hoffman’s famous ad lib

David Bradley in Kes– realism and neorealism have such a rich history of strong child performances– Enzo Staiola in Bicycle Thieves and Subir Banerjee in Pather Panchali

 

best performance female: It is a much quieter year in this category. With The Wild Bunch, Kes, even Army of Shadows – all male dominated- and then three male, two-handers as the best six films of the year- there’s not much room. The year is clearly dominated by men. However, I think a case is to be made that Simone Signoret gives the best performance in Army of Shadows– so she takes lead here. And decades before Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy we get Rohmer’s My Night at Maud’s with Françoise Fabian deserving a mention here as the title character.

 

 

top 10

  1. The Wild Bunch
  2. Army of Shadows
  3. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
  4. Midnight Cowboy
  5. Kes
  6. Easy Rider
  7. My Night at Maud’s
  8. Fellini Satyricon
  9. Z
  10. A Gentle Woman

 

a gorgeous frame in Costa-Gavras’s Z

 

Archives, Directors, and Grades

A Gentle Woman- Bresson HR
Alice’s Restaurant- Penn R
Anne of A Thousand Days- Jarrott R
Army of Shadows – Melville MP
Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice- Mazursky R
Burn!- Pontecorvo R
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – Roy Hill MP
Downhill Racer- Ritchie R
Easy Rider- Hopper MS
Fellini Satyricon- Fellini HR
Hello, Dolly! – Kelly R
Kes – Loach MS
L’amour fou – Rivette
Medea – Pasolini R
Midnight Cowboy- Schlesinger MP
Mississippi Mermaid- Truffaut R
My Night and Maud’s- Rohmer MS
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service – Hunt R
Sabata – Parolini R
Sweet Charity- Fosse R
Take the Money and Run- Allen R
The Color of Pomegranates – Parajanov HR
The Damned- Visconti
The Passion of Anna – Bergman R
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie- Neame R
The Unfaithful Wife- Chabrol
The Wild Bunch – Peckinpah MP
They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?- Pollack R
This Man Must Die- Charbol
True Grit- Hathaway HR
Z- Costa-Gavras HR

 

 

*MP is Masterpiece- top 1-3 quality of the year film

MS is Must-See- top 5-6 quality of the year film

HR is Highly Recommend- top 10 quality of the year film

R is Recommend- outside the top 10 of the year quality film but still in the archives