Monday, April 25, 2011

The Great Alphabet of Films—U is For


      I could never forgive myself if I shied away from one of my favorite genres (the Western) and its greatest revisionist, Old morality tale (Unforgiven). Clint Eastwood made my day so many times before. It's only natural that I reciprocate the classic gesture. I love gangster movies—and Brian De Palma's The Untouchables is a breathtaking incarnation of Prohibition Era crime life—but your just not going to see The Usual Suspects represented in my Alphabetic Universe. Bryan Singer's noirish yarn about "a bunch of criminals who meet in a police line-up" provides one of the great cinematic twists, but it doesn't boast an ensemble of Eastwood, Freeman, and Hackman nor does it provide the luster of the mythic Old West (though Singer's cast is damn fine too). I've been Sucker Punched by crime films before. Eastwood's Westerns, however, never disappoint. Foolhardy proclamation or not, I made sure to save a seat for The Man With No Name.
      The iconic Clint Eastwood (playing William Munny), an accomplished remnant of the mythic Old West, has developed a scathing distaste for violence. A fierce woman named Strawberry Alice (Frances Fisher) wholeheartedly conforms to this moral rebuke. Disgusted by Sheriff "Little Bill" Daggett's (Gene Hackman) tepid reprimand of two drunken cowboys who savagely attack a woman named Delilah, a band of Big Whiskey prostitutes, led by Alice, decide to pursue their own proper form of justice. They quietly actuate a $1000 bounty on the lives of the two cutthroat culprits: "We may be whores,, but we aren't horses." Munny is as an aging widower trying to support his two young children on an unsuccessful hog farm, but he's sought out by neophyte gunslinger, the Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett) to go with him to Big Whiskey and collect the bounty. He may be a notorious outlaw, but Munny has some reservations about the plan. His foremost objection stems from a pledge he gave to his deceased wife, who he claim's "saved" him; he's trying to live down his notorious career as a gun-crazy outlaw and be true to his pledge to never to pick up a gun again. Munny insists, "I ain't like that no more." But he needs the bounty money for his children and the Schofield Kid knows this. 
      As the two depart for their journey, they recruit Munny's old partner Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman). Little Bill (Oscar-winner Gene Hackman), however, has no intention of letting any bounty hunters encroach on his land. He imposes a law stating no guns are permitted in the city. When vainglorious gunman English Bob (Richard Harris) arrives in Big Whiskey, with timid biographer W.W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek) in tow, Little Bill viciously beats him senseless. He also enlists Beauchamp's services in an effort to expose the true story about the bloodthirsty nature of frontier life and justice. But when Munny, the true unheralded legend, arrives in Big Whiskey, everyone soon learns a brutal lesson about the price of vengeful carnage and the pliancy of "justice." The final exchange between Little Bill and Munny is a poignant summary of Eastwood's take on western violence: "I don't deserve this," pleads Little Bill. "Deserve's got nothin' to do with it," says Munny. The glorious legacy of Eastwood's Man With No Name may be a direct result of the romanticism of Western violence, but Munny's also implying a justification or moral balance of sorts; good eventually trumps evil.

      It's the 1880's and the principal setting is Big Whiskey, a disconsolate hamlet in the vast American no-man's land; a barren landscape in the high plains bounded by a perpetual swath of mountains. It's a fitting environment for Eastwood's powerful elegy to the classic Western genre. And Eastwood, much like his iconic roles in the Dollars Trilogy, is the perfect man for the job. He is a furious force of nature and he disappears into the landscapes of the mythic West better than anyone. David Webb Peoples screenplay and Mr. Eastwood's direction paint Unforgiven as an enthralling, entertaining homage to the great tradition of Westerns. But their story of bloodthirsty vengeance is no harbinger of sentimentality. It is more poignantly, a stark, skeptical examination of Western violence. Eastwood has learned a lot from his mentors, Sergio Leone and Don Siegel, and their recent passing—before Eastwood conceived of this idea (1992)—is a fitting testament to their remarkable imprint on this great genre.
      The cast is splendid. Gene Hackman earned a Supporting Actor Oscar and Clint Eastwood was nominated for Lead Actor. One could argue that both Morgan Freeman and Richard Harris also deserved Supporting Actor consideration. No more Mr. Good Guy from Hackman who does a phenomenal job conveying the complexity of his character. He is, at times the nightmarish personification of a wretched, sadistic antagonist, but at other times, a sincere man of above-average means merely looking to build his dream home and keep his town's authority intact. Mr. Rubinek's performance as a city journalist out of his element is cleverly done, and Frances Fisher as Strawberry Alice, is a fine example of a woman who doesn't know when to shut up. Richard Harris gives a funny and restrained performance as English Bob and Mr. Freeman is an absolute delight as Munny's old comrade. But Mr. Eastwood is still the unequivocal center of attention. He gives a wonderfully rich, satisfying performance. He personifies the listlessness of a man of violence who's trying to fight against his nature. He is an utterly captivating force. The kind of man driven by honest motives, but stuck in a nebulous world of moral perplexity. 

      The set design and Jack Green's cinematography (both Oscar nominated) speak to a self-assured conviction. The film competently captures the glaze of immense chilly landscapes. The proliferation of back lighting adds a sense of bleakness and peril to even the most conventional moments. The tone seamlessly matches the grand scope of the everlasting Western landscape—an ambiance that hardly ever becomes stale—but it also alludes to the ambiguities of moralistic justification. The best indicator of this thematic design is evidenced by Eastwood's obvious reversal of conventions. Gene Hackman, who's blazed a storied career out of good guys roles, is now an indiscriminate sadist. And Eastwood himself, often a man of distinct bad guy traits (he alludes to this multiple times when referencing his despicable outlaw past), becomes the quintessential Western good guy, looking to right an inexcusable wrong. His journey to become that resolute protagonist is illustrated by an ingenious deconstructive mise en scène. The barren streets and rundown buildings—all familiar artifacts of the dying Western landscape—help conjure up the Old West milieu. But Eastwood overturns this familiarity by imparting a message of contrition, thus neglecting the "familiarity" of Western tropes. The most common of these tropes is the idea that vindictive bloodshed is a necessary evil. However, according to Eastwood, it is the lesser of two evils. Courageous forces of good will eventually conquer ominous forces of evil.
      Dedicated to his mentors Sergio Leone and Don Siegel, Unforgiven is a dark and somber deconstruction of the mythic violence of Westerns. On an even broader scale, it is a riveting study of human nature. It reminds me of Sam Mendes' beautiful examination of gangster life in Road to Perdition. Its wonderful examination of the nature of criminal malice speaks to the imperative need for principled human intervention. By dismantling the conventional veneer of Old West cinema, Clint Eastwood's 1992 Best Picture Oscar-winner delivers a compelling study of the harsh nature of violence—the sorrow and ignominy resulting from the role of the strong and courageous over the weak and cowardice. Ultimately, Unforgiven is an Old West morality tale, told with graceful precision. 
      One of the most telling, unforgettable images to arise from Eastwood's brisk direction occurs prior to the film's terrific dénouement. After Little Bill savagely beats Munny to near death (a grim fate that also befits English Bob), the tone of the story becomes increasingly darker. Munny is bleeding and barely conscious, but he manages to crawl out of the saloon and into a bespattered gutter. Eastwood, operating under a strict visual gaze, is conveying the inherent madness inside Munny that has been dormant for years. Much like Japanese Admiral Yamamoto proclaimed after Pearl Harbor, "I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant [the U.S.] and fill him with a terrible resolve." Well, quite viscerally, this is exactly what Little Bill accomplished. It is one of the film's scarier moments, but also, one of the most poignant incidents to emerge from Eastwood's brilliant study of human violence. Consequently, Unforgiven is a film that is as beautiful in visual construction as it is didactic in moral function.

*Official theatrical trailer for Unforgiven.

Source of Quotes: and


  1. I like this movie. I can't claim to be a huge western movie fan, but I enjoyed Unforgiven.

  2. I was gonna go for this too but changed my mind at the last minute because I didn't have enough time to do it justice, I had a review of Thor to post. Glad you done it justice.

  3. again one of the films I didn't get :) but it does go with your taste perfectly, Matty.

  4. @ Ruth

    Good to hear. This is sort of antithetical of the "conventional" Western, but it is a Western nonetheless.

    @ Ricky

    Ha, no problem man! I'll check out your review of Thor. I still have to see it.

    @ Dezmond

    It certainly fits within my eclectic tastes. As you know, Westerns represent one of my favorite genres.

  5. Okay. My love for this movie is Unending. The direction: Unerring. The acting: Unfailingly terrific. The script: Unbelievably well written. To not see it is an Unforgivable error. As much as I truly love this movie - I gotta tell you about the time I was watching another movie. It was before that movie started, the theater was pretty full - just the sparse spotty single seats every five or six people, you know - there was a preview - it was a new Western, not often seen in 1992. Gene Hackman starring, this could be good. Oh look, there's Richard Harris. Then the kid starts talking, and the real star of the picture settles his hat on his head as he turns to camera. As every person in the theater recognized Clint Eastwood, there was an audible ripple of immense pleasure that blossomed out - "Oooh!" - truly a moment I've only been privy to in a theater a handful of times, and I've been seeing movies in theaters for over 40 years now. A few weeks or a couple of months later, the movie premiered, and every bit matched that audience "ooh!" Pitch perfect pick, Matthew. That you might have picked a better movie is Unpossible.

  6. @ Craig

    What a cool story. I wish I could of been in the theater when the first trailer hit our consciousness. Eastwood has a certain iconic mysticism, particularly in the Western genre. I can understand the awe of seeing him don his characteristic Stetson Hat for one final time (20 years ago, no one probably knew about this film until they heard of the trailer, so the impact was rightfully one of euphoria). Simply realizing that he'd be entering the world he helped make so famous so long ago is cause for celebration.

    There's no way I would not include this movie. It's easily one of my Top 5 favorite Westerns, and that's a gigantic statement of admiration, as I've seen virtually all of them.

    I liked the "u" theme in your comment, which I must say was terrific. Thanks for the thoughtful sentiment!

  7. Eastwood is the quintessential gunslinger and Western tough guy. His performance here is simply breathtaking. I love your comparison of Munny's beat down to Yamamoto's speech concerning the US.

    This film boasts some of my favorite actors like Freeman, Hackman and Harris. I think the only bad casting choice in this film is Jaimz Woolvett. He was very much outclassed in my opinion.

    It's one of my favorite westerns because it has stayed with me. The treatment of the saloon girls is exactly what went on. Frances Fisher electrified me and her line about whores and horses hits home. Women were nothing more than animals to most men back then. Alice doesn't know when to shut up because that's exactly what she's been told her whole life. That time is over and Delilah is the watershed. These women are definitely not the romanticized Miss Kitty from Gunsmoke.

  8. Matty, it seems you're a true classic movie lover. I wish I was too, but I'm more of a contemporary stuff admirer. Not that I don't have some old classics as my favorites though. I've seen Unforgiven so long ago, I barely remember it. :)

  9. I am a movie lover and classics are great!I must say your"U" for this challenge rocks! I am a new follower.

    Stopping by from the A-Z challenge
    Murugi A Njehia
    Her World

  10. Unforgiven is a film that takes the old west and turns it upside-down :) I think this film is a more mature, psychological and darker version of the classic western tale. Possibly the greatest western movie ever made!

  11. Great movie. I'm a huge Clint Eastwood fan and I remember how excited I was to see Clint in a Western after all these years. Of course Morgan Freeman and Gene Hackman were brilliant as always. "Deserves's got nothin' to do with it." Awesome!

  12. @ Melissa

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment. Your analysis is crisp and right on the ball. Painting Alice as a woman who doesn't shut up was meant as an empowering thought, not a demeaning one. Because, as you articulate, women during that time had to remain reticent and submissive. As I indicated, it was her intolerance for male abuse that lead to the bounty and the ultimate revenge climax. I should have elaborated on that comment, but my review was already getting long.

    Anyway, excellent observation.

    @ Nebular

    Ehhhh, I'm a MOVIE LOVER, period.

    I have an affinity for the classics, but that doesn't mean I discount contemporary films. Quite the contrary as a matter of fact. But in constructing this Alphabet, my primary objective was to underscore and review films that I feel are absolute "required viewings." They are not always my favorites. In some cases, they are though. But thanks for the compliment.

  13. @ Murugi

    Hey, thanks for stopping by! I'm delighted to learn that I have another fellow classic movie lover acquaintance.

    @ Jaccstev

    Precisely! And I love your bold claim. Right on, amigo!

    @ Luana

    Thanks! With a trio of Freeman, Eastwood, and Hackman, how can you go wrong, especially with Clint at the helm. Quite honestly, you can't. A special cast that matches the brisk direction and powerful message.

  14. Oh boy another one I haven't seen. Boo, I know. I haven't seen too many Westerns overall not my favorite genre. However your review is actually quite convincing for me to give it a shot. Plus the cast is AMAZING. : )

  15. Hey, that was my hope for most of my picks, granted many of them are fairly stock. I was hoping I would draw movie lovers to "classics"-required viewings—so one can further appreciate the history of film.

    And the cast. Just WOW! Glad my review can help!

  16. AMEN!! And how about Pale Rider? "There's nothin' like a good piece of hickory." Quite possibly one of his best lines.
    Nice to meet you through A to Z.

  17. Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

    That is a kickass line. And it's my pleasure to meet you1