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Shane

Release Date: 1953

Looked at a certain way, the entire story of "Shane" is simply a backdrop against which the hero can play out his own personal repression and remorse. The movie is conventionally seen as the story of farmers standing up to the brutal law of the gun in the Old West, with a lone rider helping a settler hold onto his land in the face of hired thugs.

Look a little more carefully and you find that the rider and the farmer's wife feel an attraction for one another. And that Shane is touched by the admiration of young Joey, the son of the farm couple. Bring Freud into the picture and you uncover all sorts of possibilities, as the newcomer dresses in sissy clothes and absorbs insults and punishment from the goons at the saloon, before strapping on his six-gun and proving himself the better man.

It's not that a greater truth lurks in the depths of George Stevens' "Shane" (1953). It's that all of these levels coexist, making the movie more complex than a simple morality play. Yes, on the surface, Shane is the gunfighter who wants to leave his past behind him, who yearns for the sort of domesticity he finds on Joe Starrett's place in the Grand Tetons. Yes, someone has to stand up to the brutal Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer), who wants to tear down the fences and allow his cattle to roam free. Yes, Shane is the man--even though he knows that if he succeeds he'll have to leave the valley. "There's no living with a killing," Shane tells Joey, after shooting three men dead in the saloon. "There's no going back from it. Right or wrong, it's a brand, a brand that sticks."

Yes, the picture works on that level, and on that level it was nominated as one of the best films of 1953. But if it only worked on that level, it would have grown dated, like "High Noon" and certain other classic Westerns. There are intriguing mysteries in "Shane," puzzles and challenges, not least in the title character and the way he is played by Alan Ladd.

Ladd was a movie star of below-average stature and strikingly good looks, and for much of his career he worked around both of those attributes in roles where he was photographed to look tough and taller. In "Shane," he is frankly seen as a neat, compact man, no physical match for the hired guns like Wilson (Jack Palance) and Calloway (Ben Johnson) who tower over him. He rides into town with a buckskin fringe on his jacket, looking a tad precious to my eyes, and goes to the store to buy a new kit--dress slacks and a blue shirt with an open collar that makes him look almost effeminate in contrast to the burly, whiskered gunmen who work for Ryker and live, apparently, in the saloon.

His first visit to the saloon sets up the undercurrent for the whole story. Dressed like a slicker, he orders a soda pop. The cowboys snicker. Calloway ambles over, calling him a "sodbuster" who smells like a pig--a reference to his plowing duties on the farm of Starrett (Van Heflin). Shane asks, "You speaking to me?" Calloway replies, "I don't see nobody else standing there." The confrontation ends with Calloway throwing a drink on Shane's new shirt, while we're wondering if Travis Bickle was a fan of this film.

On the farm, Jean Arthur plays Marion, Joe's wife and Joey's mother, and there's obvious chemistry between her and the handsome visitor who is now sleeping in the barn. She never acts on it, nor does Shane. They have too much respect for Joe, we sense. Little Joey is meanwhile so starry-eyed in admiration that Shane becomes a father figure, significantly teaching him how to fire a gun; during a fight scene, Joey watches happily while eating a candy cane. On the Fourth of July, Shane and Marion dance while Joe watches, his face showing not so much concern as recognition of the situation.

Like many Westerns before and since, "Shane" all comes down to a shootout in a barroom, although first there is an unusual amount of conversation. The people in the valley are not simple action figures, as they might be today, but struggle with ideas about their actions. Ryker twice tries to convince Joe to go to work for him, and once tries to hire Shane. Ryker and Wilson have a quiet and thoughtful conversation about the potential for violence of Torrey (Elisha Cook Jr.), another local farmer. Joe engages the settlers in debates about how to respond to Ryker's threats. The only character without much to say is Wilson (Palance), the famous hired gun from out of town. He has a dozen lines of dialogue, and exists primarily as a forboding presence. (He arrives in town on foot, leading his horse--an effective entrance, even if Hollywood lore says that Palance at the time was so awkward on horseback that Stevens put him on foot in desperation.)

Wilson embodies the older Western principle of might over right. There is a chilling sequence in which Torrey rides into town for a showdown with Wilson, and is shot dead. Stevens orchestrates it with hard-edged reserve, staying almost entirely in long shot, showing Torrey picking his way gingerly across the muddy wagon ruts in the road and then walking in the mud parallel to the saloon's wooden porch--a high ground where Wilson's strides match him. Torrey never even gets up onto the porch; he dies, outdrawn, in the mud. It is one of the saddest shooting deaths in any Western, comparable to Keith Carradine's death in Robert Altman's "McCabe and Mrs. Miller."

The whole movie builds to the inescapable fact that Shane must eventually face Wilson and the other gunmen. If Shane is still alive afterward, he will have to leave town. He can't stay, not simply because he has been "branded" by a killing, but because there is no acceptable resolution for his feelings for Marion.

Now why isn't there? Well, he could let Joe go into town and get killed, which is what Joe wants to do. That would leave Marion and Joey in need of a man. But Shane knocks Joe out to prevent that. He likes Joe too much, perhaps. Or does he? Shane is so quiet, so inward, so narcissistic in his silent withdrawing from ordinary exchanges, that he always seems to be playing a role. A role in which he withholds his violent abilities as long as he can, and then places himself in a situation where he is condemned to use them, after which he will ride on, lonely, to the next town. He has . . . issues.

A story depends on who is telling it. "Shane" is told from the point of view of the town and of the boy, who famously cries "Shane! Shane! Come back!" in the closing scene. If we were to follow Shane from town to town, I suspect we would find ritual reenactments of the pattern he's trapped in. Notice that after stopping for a drink of water at Joe's place, he's all set to leave when Ryker's men ride up. That's when he interests himself in another man's quarrel, introduces himself as "a friend," displays his six-gun and essentially chooses to get involved in a scenario that's none of his business and will lead to an ending we suspect he's seen many times before.

Why does he do this? There is a little of the samurai in him, and the medieval knight. He has a code. And yet--there's something else suggested by his behavior, his personality, his whole tone. Here is a man tough enough to handle any threat and handsome enough to win the heart of almost any woman. Why does he present himself as a weakling? Why is he without a woman? There must be a deep current of fear, enlivened by masochism. Is he afraid of women? Maybe. Does he deliberately lead men to think they can manhandle him, and then kill them? Manifestly. Does he do this out of bravery and courage, and because he believes in doing the right thing? That is the conventional answer. Does he also do it because it expresses some deep need or yearning? A real possibility. "Shane" never says, and maybe never knows. Shane wears a white hat and Palance wears a black hat, but the buried psychology of this movie is a mottled, uneasy, fascinating gray.

Mini-Screening Questions: (on separate paper please)

1. Describe, as fully as you can, the mise-en-scène of the movie (or clip) you are analyzing.

2. Does the movie’s designer appear to have followed a unified plan in designing it?

3. How would you describe the settings, both interior and exterior? From a design standpoint, do they have any relationship?



The Searchers

Release Date: 1956

John Ford's ''The Searchers'' contains scenes of magnificence, and one of John Wayne's best performances. There are shots that are astonishingly beautiful. A cover story in New York magazine called it the most influential movie in American history. And yet at its center is a difficult question, because the Wayne character is racist without apology--and so, in a less outspoken way, are the other white characters. Is the film intended to endorse their attitudes, or to dramatize and regret them? Today we see it through enlightened eyes, but in 1956 many audiences accepted its harsh view of Indians.

The film is about an obsessive quest. The niece of Ethan Edwards (Wayne) is kidnapped by Comanches who murder her family and burn their ranch house. Ethan spends five years on a lonely quest to hunt down the tribe that holds the girl Debbie (Natalie Wood)--not to rescue her, but to shoot her dead, because she has become ''the leavin's of a Comanche buck.'' Ford knew that his hero's hatred of Indians was wrong, but his glorification of Ethan's search invites admiration for a twisted man. Defenders of the film point to the famous scene where Ethan embraces his niece instead of killing her. Can one shot redeem a film?

Ethan's quest inspired a plot line in George Lucas' ''Star Wars.'' It's at the center of Martin Scorsese's ''Taxi Driver,'' written by Paul Schrader, who used it again in his own ''Hard Core.'' The hero in each of the Schrader screenplays is a loner driven to violence and madness by his mission to rescue a young white woman who has become the sexual prey of those seen as subhuman. Harry Dean Stanton's search for Nastassja Kinski in Wim Wenders' ''Paris, Texas'' is a reworking of the Ford story. Even Ethan's famous line ''That'll be the day'' inspired a song by Buddy Holly.

''The Searchers'' was made in the dying days of the classic Western, which faltered when Indians ceased to be typecast as savages. Revisionist Westerns, including Ford's own ''Cheyenne Autumn'' in 1964, took a more enlightened view of native Americans, but the Western audience didn't want moral complexity; like the audience for today's violent thrillers and urban warfare pictures, it wanted action with clear-cut bad guys.

The movie was based on a novel by Alan LeMay and a script by Ford's son-in-law Frank Nugent, the onetime film critic who wrote 10 Ford films, including ''She Wore a Yellow Ribbon'' and ''Wagon Master.'' It starred John Wayne, who worked with ''Pappy'' Ford in 14 major films, as a Confederate soldier who boasts that he never surrendered, who in postwar years becomes a wanderer, who arrives at the ranch of his brother Aaron (Walter Coyt) and his wife Martha (Dorothy Jordan) under a cloud: He carries golden coins that may be stolen, and Sheriff Sam Clayton (Ward Bond) says he ''fits a lot of descriptions.''

It is clear from the way Ethan's eyes follow Martha around the room that he secretly loves her. His hatred of Indians flares the moment he meets Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter): ''Hell, I could mistake you for a half-breed.'' Martin says he's ''one-eighth Comanche.'' Ethan rescued young Martin when his family was killed by Indians, and left him with Martha and Aaron to be raised, but it's clear he thinks one-eighth is too much. When Martin insists on joining Ethan's search for the captured Debbie, Ethan says ''I give the orders'' and treats the younger man with contempt. In a saloon, Ethan pours out drinks but snatches away Martin's glass, snarling ''Wait'll you grow up.'' Martin at this point has been a ranch hand, is engaged to be married, has been on the trail with Ethan for years. Does Ethan privately think it's dangerous for a ''half-breed'' to drink? One of the mysteries of ''The Searchers'' involves the relationship between Ethan and Martin on the trail. Living alone with each other for months at a time, sleeping under the stars, what did they talk about? How could they share a mission and not find common cause as men?

Martin's function on the trail is to argue for Debbie's life, since Ethan intends to find her and kill her. The younger man also figures in a romantic subplot awkwardly cobbled on to the main story. He is engaged to marry Laurie (Vera Miles), the daughter of friendly Swedish neighbors. Ford goes for cornball humor in scenes where Martin writes to Laurie only once in five years, and in that letter makes light of having mistakenly purchased a ''squaw bride.'' Martin returns on the very day when Laurie, who never expected to see him again, is scheduled to marry Charlie (Ken Curtis), a hayseed, and the men fight for the women in a sequence that would be more at home in ''Seven Brides for Seven Brothers'' than in an epic Western.

''The Searchers'' indeed seems to be two films. The Ethan Edwards story is stark and lonely, a portrait of obsession, and in it we can see Schrader's inspiration for Travis Bickle of ''Taxi Driver;'' the Comanche chief named Scar (Henry Brandon) is paralleled by Harvey Keitel's pimp named Sport, whose Western hat and long hair cause Travis to call him ''chief.'' Ethan doesn't like Indians, and says so plainly. When he reveals his intention to kill Debbie, Martin says ''She's alive and she's gonna stay alive!'' and Ethan growls: ''Livin' with Comanches ain't being alive.'' He slaughters buffalo in a shooting frenzy, saying, ''At least they won't feed any Comanche this winter.'' The film within this film involves the silly romantic subplot and characters hauled in for comic relief, including the Swedish neighbor Lars Jorgensen (John Qualen), who uses a vaudeville accent, and Mose Harper (Hank Worden), a half-wit treated like a mascot. There are even musical interludes. This second strand is without interest, and those who value ''The Searchers'' filter it out, patiently waiting for a return to the main story line.

Ethan Edwards, fierce, alone, a defeated soldier with no role in peacetime, is one of the most compelling characters Ford and Wayne ever created (they worked together on 14 films). Did they know how vile Ethan's attitudes were? I would argue that they did, because Wayne was in his personal life notably free of racial prejudice, and because Ford made films with more sympathetic views of Indians. This is not the instinctive, oblivious racism of Griffith's ''Birth of a Nation.'' Countless Westerns have had racism as the unspoken premise; this one consciously focuses on it. I think it took a certain amount of courage to cast Wayne as a character whose heroism was tainted. Ethan's redemption is intended to be shown in that dramatic shot of reunion with Debbie, where he takes her in his broad hands, lifts her up to the sky, drops her down into his arms, and says, ''Let's go home, Debbie.'' The shot is famous and beloved, but small counterbalance to his views throughout the film--and indeed, there is no indication be thinks any differently about Indians.

John Ford (1895-1973) was Hollywood's greatest chronicler of American history, and there was a period when his ''The Grapes of Wrath'' (1940) and not ''Citizen Kane'' was cited as the best American film. He worked on his first film in 1914, and was directing by 1917. He had an unrivaled eye for landscape, and famously used Monument Valley as the location for his Westerns, camping out with cast and crew, the company eating from a chuck wagon and sleeping in tents. Wayne told me that making a Ford Western was like living in a Western.

Ford's eye for composition was bold and sure. Consider the funeral early in the film, with a wagon at low right, a cluster of mourners in the middle left, then a diagonal up the hill to the grave, as they all sing Ford's favorite hymn, ''Shall We Gather at the River'' (he used it again in the wedding scene). Consider one of the most famous of all Ford shots, the search party in a valley as Indians ominously ride parallel to them, silhouetted against the sky. And the dramatic first sight of the adult Debbie, running down the side of a sand dune behind Ethan, who doesn't see her. The opening and closing shots, of Ethan arriving and leaving, framed in a doorway. The poignancy with which he stands alone at the door, one hand on the opposite elbow, forgotten for a moment after delivering Debbie home. These shots are among the treasures of the cinema.

In ''The Searchers'' I think Ford was trying, imperfectly, even nervously, to depict racism that justified genocide; the comic relief may be an unconscious attempt to soften the message. Many members of the original audience probably missed his purpose; Ethan's racism was invisible to them, because they bought into his view of Indians. Eight years later, in ''Cheyenne Autumn,'' his last film, Ford was more clear. But in the flawed vision of ''The Searchers'' we can see Ford, Wayne and the Western itself, awkwardly learning that a man who hates Indians can no longer be an uncomplicated hero.

Mini-Screening Questions: (on a separate paper please)

4. Is the framing of this film (or clip) open, or is it closed? Describe three examples of open/closed framing in this film.
5. Using specific examples, explain how this film’s design helps tell its story and create its meanings.

3:10 to Yuma
This train's got the disappearin' Western blues

James Mangold's "3:10 to Yuma" restores the wounded heart of the Western and rescues it from the morass of pointless violence. The Western in its glory days was often a morality play, a story about humanist values penetrating the lawless anarchy of the frontier. It still follows that tradition in films like Eastwood's "The Unforgiven," but the audience's appetite for morality plays and Westerns seems to be fading. Here the quality of the acting, and the thought behind the film, make it seem like a vanguard of something new, even though it's a remake of a good movie 50 years old.

The plot is so easily told that Elmore Leonard originally wrote it as a short story. A man named Dan Evans (Christian Bale), who lost a leg in the Civil War, has come to the Arizona territory to try his luck at ranching. It's going badly, made worse by a neighboring bully who wants to force him off his land. The territory still fears Indian raids, and just as much the lawless gang led by Ben Wade (Russell Crowe), which sticks up stagecoaches, robs banks, casually murders people and outguns any opposition. Through a series of developments that seem almost dictated by fate, Dan Evans finds himself as part of a posse sworn in to escort Wade, captured and handcuffed, to the nearby town of Contention, where the 3:10 p.m. train has a cell in its mail car that will transport Wade to the prison in Yuma and a certain death sentence.

Both Dan and Ben have elements in their characters that come under test in this adventure. Dan fears he has lost the confidence of wife Alice (Gretchen Mol) and teenage son Will (Logan Lerman), who doubt he can make the ranch work. Still less does Alice see why her transplanted Eastern husband should risk his life as a volunteer. The son Will, who has practically memorized dime novels about Ben Wade, idealizes he outlaw, and when Dan realizes the boy has followed the posse, he is not pleased. Wade intuits, however, that the boy is following him, and not his father.

That's an insight into Wade. He plays his persona like a performance. He draws, reads, philosophizes, is incomparably smarter than the scum in his gang. Having spent untold time living on the run with them, he may actually find it refreshing to spend time with Dan, even as his captive. Eventually the two men end up in a room in the Contention hotel, overlooking the street, in earshot of the train whistle, surrounded outside by armed men who want to rescue Ben or kill him.

These general outlines also describe the 1957 version of "3:10 to Yuma," directed by Delmer Daves, starring Glenn Ford and Van Heflin in the roles of the rancher and the outlaw. The movie, with its railroad timetable, followed the slowly advancing clock in "High Noon" (1952) and was compared to it; when I saw it in 35mm at Telluride in the 1980s, I thought it was better than "High Noon," not least because of the personality shifts it involves.

Mangold's version is better still than the 1957 original, because it has better actors with more thought behind their dialogue. Christian Bale plays not simply a noble hero, but a man who has avoided such risks as he now takes and is almost at a loss to explain why he is bringing a killer to justice, except that having been mistreated and feeling unable to provide for his family, he is fed up and here he takes his stand. Crowe, however, plays not merely a merciless killer, although he is that, too, but a man also capable of surprising himself. He is too intelligent to have only one standard behavior which must fit all situations, and is perhaps bored of having that expected of him.

Westerns used to be the showcases of great character actors, of whom I was lucky enough to meet Dub Taylor, Jack Elam, Chill Wills, Ben Johnson and, when she wasn't doing a million other things, Shelley Winters. "3:10 to Yuma" has two roles that need a special character flavor and fills them perfectly. Peter Fonda plays McElroy, a professional bounty hunter who would rather claim the price on Ben Wade's head than let the government execute him for free. And Ben Foster plays Charlie Prince, the second-in-command of Wade's gang, who seems half in love with Wade, or maybe Charlie's half-aware that's he's all in love. Wade would know which, and wouldn't care, except as material for his study of human nature.

Locked in the hotel room, surrounded by death for one or the other, the two men begin to talk. Without revealing anything of the plot, let me speculate that each senses he has found the first man he has met in years who is his equal in conversation. Crowe and Bale play this dialogue so precisely that it never reveals itself for what it really is, a testing of mutual insight. One trial of a great actor is the ability to let dialogue do its work invisibly, something you can also see in next week's "In the Valley of Elah" with Tommy Lee Jones and Charlize Theron. Too many actors are like the guy who laughs at his own joke and then tells it to you again.

James Mangold first came into view with an extraordinary movie named "Heavy" (1995). His "Walk the Line" (2005) won an Oscar for Reese Witherspoon. To remake "3:10 to Yuma" seems an odd choice after such other modern films as "Girl, Interrupted," but the movie itself proves he had a good reason for choosing it. In hard times, Americans have often turned to the Western to reset their compasses. In very hard times, it takes a very good Western. Attend well to Ben Wade's last words in this movie, and who he says them to, and why.



Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Release Date: 1969

"Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" must have looked like a natural on paper, but, alas, the completed film is slow and disappointing. This despite the fact that it contains several good laughs and three sound performances.

The problems are two. First, the investment in superstar Paul Newman apparently inspired a bloated production that destroys the pacing. Second, William Goldman's script is constantly too cute and never gets up the nerve, by God, to admit it's a Western.

The premise was promising. Butch (Newman) and Sundance (Robert Redford) were two Western outlaws (unsung until now) who led a gang of cutthroat train robbers. But when Harriman, the railroad tycoon, got up a special posse of experts to hunt them, they lit out for Bolivia and stuck up banks there. You can see, in "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," the bones of the good movie that could have been made about them.

But unfortunately, this good movie is buried beneath millions of dollars that were spent on "production values" that wreck the show. This is often the fate of movies with actors in the million-dollar class, like Newman. Having invested all that cash in the superstar, the studio gets nervous and decides to spend lots of money to protect its investment.

That's what happened here. The movie starts promisingly, with an amusing period-piece newsreel about the Cassidy gang. And then there is a scene in a tavern where Sundance faces down a tough gambler, and that's good. And then a scene where Butch puts down a rebellion in his gang, and that's one of the best things in the movie. And then an extended bout of train-robbing, climaxing in a dynamite explosion that'll have you rolling in the aisles. And then we meet Sundance's girlfriend, played by Katharine Ross, and the scenes with the three of them have you thinking you've wandered into a really first-rate film.

But the trouble starts after Harriman hires his posse. It's called the Super-posse because it includes all the best lawmen and trackers in the West. When it approaches, the ground rumbles and we get the feeling it's a supernatural force. Butch and the Kid try to hide in the badlands, but the Super-posse cannot be fooled. It's always on their track. Forever.

Director George Roy Hill apparently spent a lot of money to take his company on location for these scenes, and I guess when he got back to Hollywood he couldn't bear to edit them out of the final version. So the Super-posse chases our heroes unceasingly, until we've long since forgotten how well the movie started and are desperately wondering if they'll ever get finished riding up and down those endless hills. And once bogged down, the movie never recovers.

It does show moments of promise, however, after Butch, the Kid and his girl go to Bolivia. There are some funny difficulties with Spanish, for example. But here the script throws us off. Goldman has his heroes saying such quick, witty and contemporary things that we're distracted: it's as if, in 1910, they were consciously speaking for the benefit of us clever 1969 types.

This dialog is especially inappropriate in the final shoot-out, when it gets so bad we can't believe a word anyone says. And then the violent, bloody ending is also a mistake; apparently it was a misguided attempt to copy "Bonnie and Clyde." But the ending doesn't belong on "Butch Cassidy," and we don't believe it, and we walk out of the theater wondering what happened to that great movie we were seeing until an hour ago.



The Seven Samurai

Release Date: 1954

Akira Kurosawa's "The Seven Samurai" (1954) is not only a great film in its own right, but the source of a genre that would flow through the rest of the century. The critic Michael Jeck suggests that this was the first film in which a team is assembled to carry out a mission--an idea which gave birth to its direct Hollywood remake, "The Magnificent Seven," as well as "The Guns of Navarone," "The Dirty Dozen" and countless later war, heist and caper movies. Since Kurosawa's samurai adventure "Yojimbo" (1960) was remade as "A Fistful of Dollars" and essentially created the spaghetti Western, and since this movie and Kurosawa's "The Hidden Fortress" inspired George Lucas' "Star Wars" series, it could be argued that this greatest of filmmakers gave employment to action heroes for the next 50 years, just as a fallout from his primary purpose.

That purpose was to make a samurai movie that was anchored in ancient Japanese culture and yet argued for a flexible humanism in place of rigid traditions. One of the central truths of "The Seven Samurai" is that the samurai and the villagers who hire them are of different castes and must never mix. Indeed, we learn that these villagers had earlier been hostile to samurai--and one of them, even now, hysterically fears that a samurai will make off with his daughter. Yet the bandits represent a greater threat, and so the samurai are hired, valued and resented in about equal measure.

Why do they take the job? Why, for a handful of rice every day, do they risk their lives? Because that is the job and the nature of the samurai. Both sides are bound by the roles imposed on them by society, and in To the Distant Observer, his study of Japanese films, Noel Burch observes: "masochistic perseverance in the fulfillment of complex social obligations is a basic cultural trait of Japan." Not only do the samurai persevere, but so do the bandits, who continue their series of raids even though it is clear the village is well-defended, that they are sustaining heavy losses, and that there must be unprotected villages somewhere close around. Like characters in a Greek tragedy, they perform the roles they have been assigned.

Two of the movie's significant subplots deal with rebellion against social tradition. Kikuchiyo, the high-spirited samurai played by Toshiro Mifune as a rambunctious showoff, was not born a samurai but has jumped caste to become one. And there is a forbidden romance between the samurai Katsushiro (Isao Kimura) and a village girl (ironically, the very daughter whose father was so worried). They love each other, but a farmer's daughter cannot dream of marrying a ronin; when they are found together on the eve of the final battle, however, there are arguments in the village to "understand the young people,'' and an appeal to romance--an appeal designed for modern audiences and unlikely to have carried much weight in the 1600s when the movie is set.

Kurosawa was considered the most Western of great Japanese directors (too Western, some of his Japanese critics sniffed). "The Seven Samurai" represents a great divide in his work; most of his earlier films, Jeck observes, subscribe to the Japanese virtues of teamwork, fitting in, going along, conforming. All his later films are about misfits, noncomformists and rebels. The turning point can be seen in his greatest film, "Ikiru" (1952), in which a bureaucrat spends his days in the rote performance of meaningless duties but decides when he is dying to break loose and achieve at least one meaningful thing.

That bureaucrat was played by Takashi Shimura--who, incredibly, also plays Kambei, the leader of the seven samurai. He looks old and withered in the 1952 picture, tough and weathered in this one. Kurosawa was loyal to his longtime collaborators, and used either Shimura, Mifune, or often both of them, in every movie he made for 18 years.

In "The Seven Samurai," both actors are essential. Shimura's Kambei is the veteran warrior, who in an early scene shaves his head to disguise himself as a priest in order to enter a house where a hostage is being held. (Did this scene create the long action-movie tradition of opening sequences in which the hero wades into a dangerous situation unrelated to the later plot?) He spends the rest of the movie distractedly rubbing his bristling head during moments of puzzlement. He is a calm, wise leader and a good strategian, and we follow the battles partly because he (and Kurosawa) map them out for us, walk us through the village's defenses and keep count as the 40 bandits are whittled down one by one. Mifune's character, Kikuchiyo, is an overcompensator. He arrives equipped with a sword longer than anyone else's and swaggers around holding it over his shoulder like a rifleman. He is impulsive, brave, a showoff who quickly assembles a fan club of local kids who follow him around. Mifune was himself a superb athlete and does some difficult jumps and stunts in the movie, but his character is shown to be a hopeless horseman. (As a farmer's son, Kikuchiyo would not have had an opportunity as a youth to learn to ride.) One running gag involves Kikuchiyo's inability to master an unruly local horse; there is a delightful moment where horse and rider disappear behind a barrier together, and emerge separately. The movie is long (207 minutes), with an intermission, and yet it moves quickly because the storytelling is so clear, there are so many sharply defined characters, and the action scenes have a thrilling sweep. Nobody could photograph men in action better than Kurosawa. One of his particular trademarks is the use of human tides, sweeping down from higher places to lower ones, and he loves to devise shots in which the camera follows the rush and flow of an action, instead of cutting it up into separate shots. His use of closeups in some of the late battle scenes perhaps was noticed Orson Welles, who in "Falstaff'' conceals a shortage of extras by burying the camera in a Kurosawian tangle of horses, legs, and swords.

Repeated viewings of "The Seven Samurai" reveal visual patterns. Consider the irony, for example, in two sequences that bookend the first battle with the bandits. In the first, the villagers have heard the bandits are coming, and rush around in panic. Kambei orders his samurai to calm and contain them, and the ronin run from one group to the next (the villagers always run in groups, not individually) to herd them into cover. Later, after the bandits have been repulsed, a wounded bandit falls in the village square, and now the villagers rush forward with delayed bravery to kill him. This time, the samurai hurry about pushing them back. Mirrored scenes like that can be found throughout the movie.

There is also an instinctive feeling for composition. Kurosawa constantly uses deep focus to follow simultaneous actions in the foreground, middle and background. Often he delineates the distance with barriers. Consider a shot where the samurai, in the foreground, peer out through the slats of a building and across an empty ground to the sight of the bandits, peering in through the slats of a barrier erected against them. Kurosawa's moving camera often avoids cuts in order to make comparisons, as when he will begin on dialogue in a closeup, sweep through a room or a clearing, and end on a closeup of another character who is the point of the dialogue.

Many characters die in "The Seven Samurai," but violence and action are not the point of the movie. It is more about duty and social roles. The samurai at the end have lost four of their seven, yet there are no complaints, because that is the samurai's lot. The villagers do not much want the samurai around once the bandits are gone, because armed men are a threat to order. That is the nature of society. The samurai who fell in love with the local girl is used significantly in the composition of the final shots. First he is seen with his colleagues. Then with the girl. Then in an uncommitted place not with the samurai, but somehow of them. Here you can see two genres at war: The samurai movie and the Western with which Kurosawa was quite familiar. Should the hero get the girl? Japanese audiences in 1954 would have said no. Kurosawa spent the next 40 years arguing against the theory that the individual should be the instrument of society.

Mini Screening Questions: (on separate paper please)


6. What is the relationship between the narrative (including genre) and design of this film? Did the narrative require the art director to devote more than ordinary attention to the design?

8. Was achieving verisimilitude in the setting important to the design of the film?



Yojimbo
A fistful of samurai

Release Date: 1961

Almost the first thing the samurai sees when he arrives is a dog trotting down the main street with a human hand in its mouth. The town seems deserted until a nervous little busybody darts out and offers to act as an employment service: He'll get the samurai a job as a yojimbo -- a bodyguard. The samurai, a large, dusty man with indifference bordering on insolence, listens and does not commit. He wants sake and something to eat.

So opens "Yojimbo" (1961), Akira Kurosawa's most popular film in Japan. He was deliberately combining the samurai story with the Western, so that the wind-swept main street could be in any frontier town, the samurai (Toshiro Mifune) could be a gunslinger, and the local characters could have been lifted from John Ford's gallery of supporting actors.

Ironic, that having borrowed from the Western, Kurosawa inspired one: Sergio Leone's "A Fistful of Dollars" (1964), with Clint Eastwood, is so similar to "Yojimbo" that homage shades into plagiarism. Even Eastwood's Man With No Name is inspired, perhaps, by the samurai in "Yojimbo." Asked his name, the samurai looks out the window, sees a mulberry field, and replies, "Kuwabatake Sanjuro," which means "30-year-old mulberry field." He is 30, and that is a way of saying he has no name.

He also has no job. The opening titles inform us that in 1860, after the collapse of the Tokugawa Dynasty, samurai were left unemployed and wandered the countryside in search of work. We see Sanjuro at a crossroads, throwing a stick into the air and walking in the direction it points. That brings him to the town, to possible employment, and to a situation that differs from Hollywood convention in that the bad guys are not attacking the good guys because there are no good guys: "There is," the critic Donald Richie observes, "almost no one in the whole town who for any conceivable reason is worth saving." It's said Kurosawa's inspiration was Dashiell Hammett's novel Red Harvest, in which a private eye sets one gang against another.

Sanjuro's strategy is to create great interest about himself while keeping his motives obscure. He needs money and so presumably must hire himself out as a bodyguard to one of the two warring factions. There is the silk dealer and the sake merchant, both with private armies, who occupy headquarters at either end of the town. In between, the townspeople cower behind closed shutters and locked doors, and the film's visuals alternate between the emptiness of the windswept street, shots looking out through the slats of shutters and the chinks in walls, and shots from outdoors showing people peering through their shutters.

Richie, whose writings on Kurosawa are invaluable, notes that Kurosawa's shots are always at right angles to what they show; they either look straight up and down the street, or straight into or out of the buildings, and "there are very few diagonal shots." The purpose may be to emphasize the simplicity of the local situation: Two armies face each other, the locals observe the main street as if it's a stage, and the samurai himself embodies the diagonal -- the visitor who stands at an angle to everyone and upsets the balance of power. Indeed, in a crucial early scene, as the two sides face each other nervously from either end of the street and dart forward fearfully in gestures of attack, Sanjuro sits high above the action in the central bell tower, looks down and is vastly amused.

His strategy is to hire himself out as a yojimbo to first one side and then the other, and do no actual bodyguarding at all. His amorality is so complete that we are a little startled when he performs a good deed. A farmer and his wife, possibly the only two good people in the town, are kidnapped. Sanjuro, employed by the side that kidnapped them, kills their six guards, frees them, tears up a house to make it look like there was a fierce struggle, and blames it on the other side. Disloyal to his employer? Yes, but early in the film, he is offered 50 ryo by one of the leaders, only to overhear the man's wife telling him, "We'd save the whole 50 ryo if we killed him after he wins."

Sanjuro's strategy is an elaborate chess game in which he is playing for neither side but plans instead to upset the board. "In this town, I'll get paid for killing," he muses, "and this town would be better off if they were dead." His planning is upset by the unexpected appearance of Unosuke (Tatsuya Nakadai), the younger brother of one of the sake dealer's bodyguards. The samurai often walk about with their empty sleeves flapping at the sides, their arms folded inside their kimonos. (Eastwood, in the Leone movies, always keeps one hand under his poncho.) When Unosuke finally reveals one of his hands, it holds a pistol -- the first one seen in the village. This upsets the balance of power and tilts against Sanjuro's plans, which depend on his skill as a swordsman who can kill any number of the others without being wounded himself.

The gun provides Unosuke with a sneaky kind of self-confidence, and he produces the weapon gloatingly from time to time. Occasionally, he kills people in cold blood, just to prove that he can, in events leading up to a final bloodbath. One of the first people Sanjuro meets in the town is the coffin-maker, and there is a nice moment when he first goes out to do battle and advises him, "Two coffins. Noon, maybe three." By the end there is no business for the coffin-maker, because there is no one to pay for coffins.

That kind of dark humor is balanced in the film by other moments approaching slapstick, as when the injured Sanjuro is smuggled away in a large barrel; when his bearers pause in the middle of the street, the samurai tilts up the lid of the barrel to provide a droll commentary on the progress of the manhunt for him.

Richie believes "Yojimbo" is the best-photographed of Kurosawa's films (by Kazuo Miyagawa, who also shot "Rashomon" and such other Japanese classics as Ozu's "Floating Weeds" and Mizoguchi's "Ugetsu"). The wide screen is fully employed for dramatic compositions, as when the armies face each other across an empty space. And there is a dramatic sense of depth in scenes were Sanjuro holds the foreground while forces gather in the background. Shutters, sliding doors and foreground objects bring events into view and then obscure them, and we get a sense of the town as a collection of fearful eyes granted an uncertain view of certain danger.

"Yojimbo" was followed quickly by Kurosawa’s “Sanjuro” (1962), which also stars Mifune, the greatest modern Japanese actor, playing the same character or one so similar as makes no difference. He acts as the adviser for nine uncannily similar brothers who are remarkably inept samurai. The choreography in "Sanjuro" is one of its best jokes; the brothers do everything together: Nod, recoil, agree, laugh, gasp, and they follow Sanjuro in a kind of conga line, until he snaps, "We can't move around like a centipede."

The difference between the two films is that "Sanjuro" is a comedy in which ancient samurai traditions are exposed as ludicrous by the pragmatic hero, while "Yojimbo" is more subversive: The samurai were famed for their unyielding loyalty to their employers, but Sanjuro, finding himself unemployed because of the collapse of the feudal system, becomes a modern man and is able to manipulate both sides because they persist in thinking he will be faithful to those who pay him.

There is a moment at the end when old and new hang in the balance. The wounded Sanjuro no longer has his sword, but we have seen him practicing with a knife -- skewering a bit of paper as it flutters around a room. He faces Unosuke, the gunman. Without revealing precisely what happens between them, let me ask you to consider the moment when Unosuke aims his pistol at Sanjuro. It may be loaded, it may not be. Sanjuro cannot be absolutely sure. He is free to move away or to disarm Unosuke, but instead he sits perfectly motionless, prepared to accept whatever comes. This, it strikes me, is the act of a samurai aware that his time has passed and accepting with perfect equanimity whatever the new age has to offer.
Mini Screening Questions: (on a separate piece of paper please)

7. Are the two principal types of movement evident in this film? Does either take precedence over the other, or do they function together? Please include three (3) scene examples.

Looking at Movies: 3:10 to Yuma

Screening Worksheet

Chapter 1: What Is a Movie?

1. How would you describe the movie’s presentation of space and time? Are there recognizable patterns in this presentation? At this early stage in your study of film, you might limit your observations to the types of shots and editing that are used to tell the story. (For example, are there more long shots that show the vastness of the space, or more close-ups to concentrate our attention on the small space around and among the characters? Does the editing flow smoothly from scene to scene, or does it call attention to itself by manipulating time in an obvious way?)

2. How would you describe this movie’s use of light? At which points in the movie do qualities of light and dark become obvious?

3. How would you describe the movement in this movie? How much, and in what ways, does the camera move in this movie? Does the camera movement (or lack of camera movement) contribute to the movie overall? In what ways?

4. Imagine this movie existing as a play, a novel, a painting. How would each form differ from what you have seen on the screen?

5. How does the camera in this movie mediate between the exterior (the world) and the interior (your eyes and brain)?

6. Does this movie seem to be a “realistic” depiction of the world? If not, does it present a believable fantasy world of its own? Describe the ways in which it does or does not achieve verisimilitude.

7. What can you learn about the people who made this movie, how much it cost to produce, how long it took to make, and the collaborative efforts that were required to make it happen?

8. To which genre does this movie belong? How does it compare with, or differ from, other movies in that genre?

Looking at Movies: Butch Cassidy…



Screening Worksheet

Chapter 2: Form and Narrative
1. In the movie or clip you are analyzing, how are the three kinds of duration employed?
2. What is the genre of its story (see “Types of Movies” in chapter 1)? In your experience with this genre, does this story conform or not conform to its usual type or expected pattern?
3. Does the plot achieve form, coherence, and unity in telling the story?
4. Which, if any, elements of the plot appear with noticeable frequency? What is the nature of this frequency (e.g., similar repetition or juxtaposition)? Does this frequency suggest ways in which you might interpret the movie or clip?

5. Does the director use elements such as flashforwards or flashbacks to manipulate the plot order? If so, do they help create unity, or do they just call attention to themselves? Are they effective in helping you to understand the story?


6. Does the director of this movie deliberately use any of the following plot devices—order, duration, frequency—in creating meaning?
7. In this movie, are the characters more important than the plot? If so, explain how.

Looking at Movies: Once Upon a Time in the West



Screening Worksheet

Chapter 3: Mise-en-Scène and Design

1. Describe, as fully as you can, the mise-en-scène of the movie (or clip) you are analyzing.

2. Does the movie’s designer appear to have followed a unified plan in designing it?

3. How would you describe the settings, both interior and exterior? From a design standpoint, do they have any relationship?


4. Is the framing of this film open, or is it closed? Describe three examples of open/closed framing in this film.
5. Using specific examples, explain how this film’s design helps tell its story and create its meanings.

6. What is the relationship between the narrative (including genre) and design of this film? Did the narrative require the art director to devote more than ordinary attention to the design?



7. Are the two principal types of movement evident in this film? Does either take precedence over the other, or do they function together?
8. Was achieving verisimilitude in the setting important to the design of the film?


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