Burt Lancaster: A Pair of Westerns

Burt, Claudia, Lee, Robert Ryan, Woody Stole

As I grazed on a bowl of chocolate-dipped pretzels last night, it occurred to me that the movie I watched had much the same texture and flavor. The Professionals (1966) was directed by Richard Brooks. Filmed in technicolor against the crunchy backdrop of Death Valley, California, Lee Marvin, and Jack Palance were the salty bits while Burt Lancaster and Claudia Cardinale were the sweet chocolate glaze. Who doesn’t like salty-sweet combinations? I think Brooks knew his audience and gave them what they wanted. I know I enjoyed watching Burt Lancaster scale up the side of a cliff with a rope and no stuntman and snappy one-liners like this one:

Rico (Lee Marvin): So what else is on your mind besides hundred-proof women, ‘n’ ninety-proof whiskey, ‘n’ fourteen-carat gold?

Bill Dolworth (Burt Lancaster) Amigo, you just wrote my epitaph!

The film received Academy attention for Best Direction and Screenplay (Richard Brooks), and Best Cinematography (Conrad L. Hall). The story is about a rich Texan who hires three talented mercenary misfits to rescue his beautiful wife from the Mexican bandit Jesus Raz (Jack Palance). The problem arises when the rescuers realize Mrs. Grant (Claudia Cardinale) wasn’t kidnapped by Razu, but running away from her Texan husband (Ralph Bellamy). 4/5
An easy-breezy film that triggered a memory from my youth when male relatives watched and chuckled on late Sunday morning while waiting for the football game to start.

Ulzana’s Raid (1972) is a serious tale starring an older Burt Lancaster, Richard Jaeckel, Bruce Davison and Joaquin Martinez. It is set in the late 1800s and filmed at the Arizona/Mexico border. The terrain is hard and unforgiving but there’s no sweet glaze this time to balance out the harshness of Apache savageries like gang rape, brutal killing, and torture. Burt keeps his feet on the ground and isn’t supplying witty one-liners. Instead, he’s the mentor to a young Lieutenant who grapples with preconceptions of Apache way-of-life, hatred for them, and aspiring to be an effective commander. Ulzana (Joaquín Martínez) and his men escape from the reservation station and Lt. Garnett DeBuin (Bruce Davison) is assigned to bring them in. Director Robert Aldrich takes Alan Sharp‘s script and creates a memorable film. The character Ke-ni-tay (Jorge Luke) is stuck in the middle as the soldier scout who tries to explain to Lt. DeBuin the Apache man needs the power, the essence of a man to be strong. Living on the reservation makes men weak and goes against what Apache stands for. Ke-ni-tay was the most interesting character in the story. I would have preferred to see the plot pan-out through his perspective and know his backstory. However, the film is interesting enough except for the distracting, ill-matched score by Frank De Vol. For instance, after each horrific encounter between white settlers and the Apache, the music resumed with a happy, bouncing Magnificient Seven-ish theme. If you like your westerns with bite, you would enjoy Ulzana’s Raid. 4/5 Sorry, Burt, in this film you seemed tired and uninterested.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

 

After watching a few burps (The Sandpiper, The VIPs, Dr. Faustus), Richard Burton’s acting was never finer than in Albert Albee‘s vicious play set to the screen. It was Mike Nichol‘s directorial debut. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) received 13 Academy nominations. Although Richard Burton lost to Paul Scofield in A Man for All Seasons, Elizabeth Taylor won her second Best Actress award (BUtterfield 8 was her first)  and Sandy Dennis won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Other winners included Haskell Wexler‘s cinematography, Irene Sharaff’s costumes, and Richard Sylbert and George James Hopkins‘ art direction. Richard Burton did receive the British Academy Award for his performance of George, the emasculated history professor who rises to the surface to sting his brass and bawdy wife, Martha.

From the sing-song chant of the title, one understands this is a play about games. An all-night party turns carnal as the young academic couple, Nick and Honey (George Segal and Sandy Dennis) fall prey to the daughter of the college president, Martha (Elizabeth Taylor) and her husband George (Richard Burton). The hosts have a lustful appetite for ripping and shredding the mental and emotional selves of their guests and themselves.

The young couple could very well be the future George and Martha. They watch with morbid curiosity. Illusions mask reality. Invention and the dubbing force of alcohol is the playground where George and Martha escape from their trapped lives. George’s dreams of creative authorship are denied by “Daddy”, the president of the college. Martha’s dream of livin’ la vida loca outside the boundaries of the conservative college and her boring husband is denied. Unable to conceive, she punishes herself and her countenance is as sour as her soul. So used to playing corrosive games to spice up their lives, they become dependent upon them and disintegrate.

When George speaks Latin like a priest presiding over the death of their invented son, Martha wails. Under the harsh light of dawn and stripped of their games, will Martha and George survive? The audience is left to speculate without much hope that they will.  “Martha and George,” she chants earlier in the play. “Sad, sad, sad.” Burton and Taylor are a tour de force. It’s exhausting. 4.5/5. 

This is one of my favorite scenes. Burton shows the complexity of frustration and rage.

Winter Project: Richard Burton, Spy

richard burton

My choice for this winter’s project to educate myself on the films and story behind an actor whose filmography I know little about is Richard Burton. I am reading Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger’s novel Furious Love and watching a lot of Richard Burton films based on recommendations from my great blogging buddies.

I chose to group them by genre than by chronological order. Here’s the first pair to talk about.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965)

Directed by Martin Ritt

Starring Claire Bloom, Oskar Werner, Cyril Cusack

Won the BAFTA for Best British Film

Synopsis:

At the height of the Cold War, British spy Alec Leamas (Richard Burton) is nearly ready to retire, but first, he has to take on one last dangerous assignment. Going deep undercover, he poses as a drunken, disgraced former MI5 agent in East Germany to gain information about colleagues who have been captured. When he is thrown in jail and interrogated, Leamas finds himself caught in a sinister labyrinth of plots and counter-plots unlike anything in his long career.

Image result for the spy who came in from the cold images of burton

The picture starts slowly but gains rapid momentum after the love interest and job assignment is established. When Leamas decides to infiltrate behind enemy lines to retrieve information, the movie became interesting. What did I like best about the film? The plot twists, the trial, the overall setting, and cinematography. I predicted Claire Bloom‘s character Nan Perry would show up at the fortress. When Nan entered the trial room, I felt her bewilderment.  The subtle emotion from Leamas as he realizes her life is in his hands was moving. It’s the ending that got to me. I was surprised at how sad and right his final decision was.  It was the perfect way to end the movie. 4/5

Where Eagles Dare (1968)

Directed by Brian G. Hutton

Screenplay by Alistair MacLean

Starring Clint Eastwood and Mary Ure 

Synopsis:

A crack team of Allied soldiers stages a daring rescue during World War II. A U.S. general is being held captive in an imposing castle fort, high in the Bavarian Alps. The plan calls for Lt. Schaffer (Clint Eastwood), Maj. Smith (Richard Burton) and other operatives to parachute down wearing Nazi disguises. They’ll penetrate the mountain outpost while undercover operatives aid them from within. But their mission changes when they discover that there’s a traitor in their midst.

There’s a lot to like and laugh about with this film. The best part is the commendable cinematography set in the winter landscape in Bavaria. I enjoyed Eastwood and Burton marching around the snow and the filming location in Werfen, Austria was breathtaking. I thought it unlikely that their secret plan was to invade Hohenwerfen Castle, and their special ops team march right into the hornet’s nest as the only soldiers in the entire town wearing white parkas. Can’t say I approved of the decision for all actors to speak English, as well as the other German officers, but then the low ranking soldiers speak German when they were on their smoke breaks and talking among themselves seemed like a mistake to me.

Burton and Eastwood steal a ride on top of a cable car as it ascends the castle. That was clever. No one notices them. This happens throughout the film. I thought Burton was miscast in the film. He looked dazed and puffy standing next to Clint Eastwood. Clint looked out of place with his angry stare. Burton lacked chemistry with his sex kitten partner in crime, Mary (Mary Ure) who lay down every time he barked at her to spread her legs. She had an interesting spot in the film as a female special forces soldier. She parachutes down from the plane. She shoots the gun and saves the dynamic duo with a rope strategically place for them to climb up a vertical wall. But her character lacked any personality. Too bad.

The escape scene was impractical and staged. There’s enough dynamite to blow up the Alps, so for those who like action and machine gun fights, there’s a lot here to like. I enjoyed the plot twist in the great chamber when Burton’s character changes it up and confuses the Gestapo and the German officers before Clint blows them away.  The film has a long running time of almost two and a half hours. I think director Hutton should have cut out a few scenes to keep it the narrative tighter. Despite the holes, I enjoyed the action overall. 3.5/5.

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