Each Monday, I am sharing reviews of Westerns I studied to prepare for making 12 Westerns in 12 Months during 2020. I am watching these films not from an audience perspective but as a filmmaker, as a student of the genre.
Week Nine: Never Grow Old & Arizona
This week, I watched both a brand new Western and a classic entry in the genre.
Never Grow Old
This is probably one of the darkest Westerns ever made, not only in its visuals but its bleak representation of life in America at this time. I admire the filmmakers and cast for taking on such a grim interpretation of the genre and I respect this film though I don’t think it always works.
The best part is no doubt Cusack who does what my friend/mentor Gus Edwards always looks for in a movie: he “astonishes”. Cusack, who rarely gets credit for being a versatile actor, proves it in spades here with a frightening performance but the key is, he doesn’t chew the scenery. He doesn’t go over-the-top to get results. He is able to be dominate the film with his evil (and sometimes devilishly charming) character while remaining relatively subtle and that is impressive as hell.
Emile is a good counterpart but it’s in his character, not his performance, that the film runs into some issues. The idea that he would be outcast as a catholic and foreigner, then find some kind of kinship with Cusack’s sinful rebellion is fascinating. However, the filmmakers don’t fully develop this. They sort of get it going and then let it drop, settling in for a more traditional conclusion of violence and revenge. Thinking of the recent film I watched Posse (the one directed by Kirk Douglas), I longed for this film to play more with the idea of reversal and where Emile’s character might have realistically ended up if the filmmakers’ has followed his transformation more.
Nevertheless, this is an admirable attempt to do something different with the Western genre and more than anything, it features one of the best performance so far this year.
Seen on DVD.
What impresses me most about Arizona is Jean Arthur’s character. Once again, I do not understand why strong portrayals of women like this are not given more credit in today’s environment? Honestly, I think this is more progressive than any supposedly forward-thinking films about women released today. Let’s see… we first see her totally commanding a room full of dangerous men… her love interest tries to “protect” her and she turns him down, claiming she never took a favor because of her gender and she’s never shown to do so for the rest of the film… when hundreds of men are terrified by the outbreak of the Civil War, she is not only the only one to stand up and speak logical sense, but she influences the entire group in a different direction… even at her most feminine (in her white wedding dress), she holds firm, letting her husband do what he has to do, probably to prove he’s a man more to himself than to her.
I wish feminists would look at a film like this and others from the era because Jean Arthur’s character and performance represent true progressive portrayals.
On another note, I liked two more things about the film: 1. I love seeing the young Holden and how vulnerable he plays Peter. Notice his body language in several scenes and how he doesn’t stand up straight, teetering. Holden was one of the best actors we ever had and like the other greats, he had such interesting phases of his career. This young phase is fascinating to watch. 2. I love the texture of Tucson created in the first half of the picture. A lot of time is spent building this world and it’s done with an incredible, rich atmosphere.
Where I think the film falters is in its runtime and ambition to be bigger than it needed to be. This is a film that should have ended at 75 minutes or so, perhaps right after Ward is found guilty of lying to the army about Jean Arthur. That would have been a perfect place to have the wedding and the final duel. Instead, it goes on to almost epic scope with the cattle drive and more schemes. I found them unnecessary and that the film lost steam the longer it went. Still, this is a damn good Western.
Seen on DVD.
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