Riveting Western HOSTILES (2017) Earns Its Title

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Rosamund Pike and Christian Bale share the danger in HOSTILES (2017).

HOSTILES (2017), the new western adventure by writer/director Scott Cooper, is anchored by a solid performance by Christian Bale as a hardened cavalry officer ordered to escort an aged and ill Cheyenne chief on a dangerous trek from New Mexico to Montana, a chief who was once responsible for the deaths of many of the officer’s men.

HOSTILES opens with a brutal attack on a family by a group of Comanches that leaves a father and three children dead.  The mother, Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike) manages to escape but not before seeing  her entire family, including her infant, slain.  The action switches to Captain Joseph J. Blocker (Christian Bale) receiving orders that he must provide safe passage for an ailing Cheyenne chief, Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his family from New Mexico to his home land in Montana.  Blocker wants no part of this mission because he knows firsthand the merciless carnage which Chief Yellow Hawk once caused, but as his superior officer Colonel Abraham Biggs (Stephen Lang) reminds him, Blocker is no saint himself.

A career soldier and months away from retirement and a pension, Blocker reluctantly agrees to follow his orders.  Soon after Blocker, his men, and Chief Yellow Hawk embark on their journey, they come across and rescue Rosalie Quaid but realize the deadly Comanches are still on the prowl, putting everyone, including Chief Yellow Hawk and his family, in danger.  And the murderous Comanches are only one of the threats which Captain Blocker and his party must face on their increasingly treacherous trek to Montana, all of which provide for a very dark and thrilling western adventure.

If you like westerns, you definitely want to see HOSTILES.  Writer/director Scott Cooper, whose previous films include BLACK MASS (2015) and OUT OF THE FURNACE (2013), the latter also starring Christian Bale and one of my favorite movies that year, has made a tense, compelling drama that hooks you from the get-go with its savage opening scene and then pretty much never lets go. Sure, not everything works— Blocker’s story arc is a bit too neat and tidy at times— but enough of it does to make this movie a must-see trip to the theater.

Christian Bale is rock solid as Captain Blocker, a weathered military officer who has seen his share of deplorable acts of horror and has committed them as well, which he justifies because it’s his job to kill.  Bale brings the necessary intensity to the role, as well as the scars and pains which are apparent in his eyes throughout.  It’s a very satisfying performance, and I enjoyed Bale more here than in the previous two films I saw him in, THE BIG SHORT (2015) and AMERICAN HUSTLE (2013).

Bale is phenomenal, and he’s not alone.  HOSTILES boast a very strong cast.  Rosamund Pike is nearly as good as Bale here as the bereaved yet strong spirited Rosalie Quaid.  She is every bit as locked into her performance as Bale, and the two share an uneasy chemistry, brought together by tragedies in their past and their present.

Veteran actor Wes Studi, who I most remember for his powerful performance as Magua in THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS (1992) is sufficiently noble as Chief Yellow Hawk.  Jesse Plemons, who seems to be showing up everywhere these days and who stood out as Todd in the final season of BREAKING BAD (2012-2013), plays Lt. Rudy Kidder, a soldier on Blocker’s team with a solid resume but little experience in the field. And we just saw Plemons in THE POST (2017).

Rory Cochrane delivers a strong performance as well as Sgt. Thomas Metz, Blocker’s longtime military buddy and right hand man.  Stephen Lang, most recently seen as the blind man in the thriller DON’T BREATHE (2016) has a small role as Col. Abraham Biggs, the man who gives Blocker his controversial orders.  And Bill Camp, who also had a memorable small role in MOLLY’S GAME (2017) as a doomed poker player, is memorable once again in another small bit, this time as an annoying newspaper reporter.

Timothee Chalamet has a brief role as a young private.  Chalamet was impressive as one of Lady Bird’s boyfriends in LADY BIRD (2017), and he’s also receiving praise for his role in CALL ME BY YOUR NAME (2017).

Fans of THE WALKING DEAD will be happy to see Scott Wilson ride in as an angry land owner.  Wilson played Hershel on THE WALKING DEAD for a few seasons.  Of course, Wilson is known for much more than THE WALKING DEAD, as his career goes all the way back to IN COLD BLOOD (1967).

And Ben Foster even shows up as a military prisoner on death row who claims he’s no more dangerous than Blocker and that he’s seen Blocker do far worse things than he ever did. Foster is fine here, but he’s played this type of role before.  A lot.

Foster and Bale previously starred together in another western, 3:10 TO YUMA (2007), another hard-hitting action tale where Bale played the hero and Foster a loose cannon bad guy.

Scott Cooper’s screenplay, based on an unpublished manuscript by Donald E. Stewart, is a good one.  It tells a riveting story that held my interest throughout and it features characters even those in minor roles who are fleshed out adequately.

And Cooper is just as successful behind the camera.  The picturesque shots of New Mexico and Montana are reminiscent of the great western vistas captured by legendary directors like John Ford and Howard Hawks.  The action scenes are intense and suspenseful and provide some edge of your seat moments.

The first half of the movie admittedly plays better than the second half, when Blocker and company are dealing with the Comanches.  What follows, while interesting, never captures the same intensity as these early scenes, although the ending is powerfully tragic.

And the very ending, the final shot of the film, is as cinematic as they come, and could easily be destined as one of those closing shots that people long remember.

I loved HOSTILES.  It easily hearkens back to the classic westerns of yesteryear, films like STAGECOACH (1939), THE SEARCHERS (1956),  and Clint Eastwood’s UNFORGIVEN (1992). Yet it also possesses a dark edge that makes it every bit as gripping as a contemporary thriller.

You’ll easily understand why this one is called HOSTILES, an understanding that won’t stop you from enjoying this extremely satisfying film.

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THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (2016) Not So Magnificent

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A bully takes over a town, and the frustrated townspeople hire gunslingers to protect them.  It’s the story told in the classic western THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960), itself a remake of an even better movie, Akira Kurosawa’s THE SEVEN SAMURAI (1954).

So, you’d hope that the folks behind this latest remake would offer audiences something new.  After all, if you’re going to remake a movie, wouldn’t you want to put your own stamp on it, to make it stand out as your own?  And that’s the biggest problem I had with this new version of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (2016):  it doesn’t give us anything new or stand on its own.

The biggest culprit?  A screenplay that never really gets to the heart of the matter.  In spite of the solid acting and crisp clear directing, the story never really moves beyond the superficial.

THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN opens with a baddie named Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) terrorizing a small town in the old west.  He’s buying off the people’s land at ridiculously low prices, and if they won’t sell, well, his army of bandits will simply kill them.  And when some of the townsfolk object, that’s exactly what they do.

One of the men killed is the husband of Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett), a feisty woman who then sets out to hire gunslingers to free their town from Bogue’s clutches.  She meets a hired gun named Chisolm (Denzel Washington) and he turns her down until he hears the name of the man she wants stopped, Bogue, and then he changes his mind.  Chisolm and Bogue obviously share some history, which we learn about later in the story.

Chisolm rounds up a team of men to join him, with the total number eventually reaching seven.  They then spend the rest of the movie preparing to defend the town, setting things up for the obligatory climactic confrontation.

As you can see, THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN tells a very simple story, and for a movie like this to work, it needs to be carried by strong characters and a lively script, neither of which are in this movie.

The characters are okay and the actors are all solid in their roles,  but they’re all very plain and straightforward.  None of them are particularly memorable. Only Vincent D’Onofrio stands out as the high-pitched soft spoken trapper Jack Horne.  D’Onofrio gives Horne something the other characters all lack:  a personality.  He’s the one memorable character in the whole lot.

I’m a big Denzel Washington fan, going back to his early years with films like CRY FREEDOM (1987) all the way through to today, although some of his recent films have been lukewarm.  Washington is fine here, but there’s just not a lot to Chisolm.  He’s a cool customer, not saying a whole lot, but unlike Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name, we don’t really see Chisolm back up his persona with action, and what little he has to say is flat out dull.

Chris Pratt plays the lively gambler Josh Faraday, and it looks like Pratt is having a good time, but the problem with Faraday is nearly every line he spews is a cliche.  It’s the type of role James Garner would have played, but Garner would have anchored the charm with some realism, and Pratt doesn’t give Faraday anything that is even resembling real.

Ethan Hawke is Goodnight Robicheaux, and the most memorable thing about him is his name.  Hawke is another actor I usually enjoy, but the role he’s playing here is shallow and underdeveloped.  The same can be said for Robicheaux’s buddy Billy Rocks, played by Byung-hun Lee.

As I said, Vincent D’Onofrio is the one guy who stands out from the rest here, as the burly trapper Jack Horne.  He also gives Chris Pratt’s Faraday one of the better lines in the movie when he says of Jack, “I do believe that bear was wearing people clothes.”

And the seven are rounded out by a Mexican gunman named Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) and a Native American named Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier).  Both of these characters are like the other five:  solid but unremarkable.

I also wasn’t overly impressed by Haley Bennett as Emma Cullen.  She sure looks feisty with her heated stares at the camera, but again I’ll blame the script.  We know very little about Emma, and she remains largely in the background while the seven do their thing, rather than being in the middle of the action.

The one other actor who does make an impression is Peter Sarsgaard as the dastardly villain Bartholomew Bogue, but that all happens in the opening sequence of the movie. Sarsgaard struts his stuff in the opening scene, making for a very dark character, giving the film a rather chilling start.  But then he disappears for the remainder of the movie, and when he returns for the climactic battle, he remains in the background,reduced to reaction shots as his army goes toe to toe with the seven.  So, unfortunately, Sarsgaard is hardly a major factor in this movie, since his best scene is the first one.

Director Antoine Fuqua , who also directed Denzel Washington in THE EQUALIZER (2014) and the film which won Washington as Oscar, TRAINING DAY (2001), does a serviceable job here.  I mean, the action scenes are clear and crisp, but they don’t wow.  The cinematography is adequate, but it didn’t blow me away.  This wild west is nowhere near as grand or picturesque as the west captured by the likes of John Ford and Howard Hawks.

Fuqua also glosses over one of the more interesting parts of the story:  the training of the townspeople to defend themselves.  There are a few fleeting scenes of our magnificent seven teaching these folks the art of self-defense, but there was so much more that could have been done.  It’s a missed opportunity in a movie that was begging for some captivating sequences.

And while the shoot-outs and fights are professionally shot— heh heh— they are way too sanitizied and neat.  First off, the film is rated PG-13, and so for the countless unfortunates who are shot, stabbed, blown up, what have you, there’s not a drop of blood anywhere.  Not that I want to see a gory bloodbath, but when things are as neat and tidy as they are in this movie, it takes away from the strength of the story.

The bigger drawback with the action scenes is that they are all so orderly.  There’s no sense of panic or pandemonium.  Take the climactic battle between the seven and the townsfolk and the army of villains.  There are people running everywhere, and yet everyone knows exactly who to shoot, without question.  It’s so precise you’d think they were wearing sports jerseys with their names on them, like having “Team Bogue” printed on their backs.  This is an all out war, people are being shot and blown up, and yet there’s no horror whatsoever associated with it, which really limits the story.

The best action sequence is when Chisolm and company first arrive in the town and put a big hurt on the thugs stationed there.  This dramatic sequence works well.  By contrast, the movie’s ending is nowhere near as riveting.

Again, the biggest culprit to this one being mediocre is its screenplay by Richard Wenk and Nic Pizzolatto, which surprised me because Wenk has written screenplays for films I’ve really enjoyed, movies like the remake of THE MECHANIC (2011) with Jason Statham, and the Sylvester Stallone all-star actioner THE EXPENDABLES 2 (2012), which I thought was the best of that series.

The screenplay to THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN tells a straightforward story without many surprises.  There are the occasional witty lines, but I’d hardly call it a lively script.  Plus it’s all so predictable, with the ending to this one never being in doubt.

THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN is a by the numbers western that never rises above its material or puts a distinctive stamp on the genre.

It’s not bad, but for a movie called THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, there’s nothing all that magnficent about it. Perhaps it should have been called THE STRAIGHTFORWARD SEVEN.

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Marilyn Monroe Shines in RIVER OF NO RETURN (1954)

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River of No Return - posterStreaming Video Review:  RIVER OF NO RETURN (1954)

by

Michael Arruda

I recently reviewed MY WEEK WITH MARILYN (2011), the Oscar nominated flick about Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams) filming THE PRINCE AND THE SHOWGIRL (1957) with Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh.)  Watching that movie and enjoying Michelle Williams’ performance as Marilyn Monroe, got me in the mood to watch a Marilyn Monroe film.

I decided to choose one I hadn’t seen before, and so I went with RIVER OF NO RETURN (1954), now available on Streaming Video.  In RIVER OF NO RETURN, Monroe co-stars with Robert Mitchum, and I have to say, it’s one of the finest performances by Marilyn Monroe that I’ve seen, mostly because it was so refreshing.  Monroe is not cast as a ditzy blonde but as a strong-willed feisty frontier woman, and she pulls it off nicely.

In RIVER OF NO RETURN, Matt Calder (Robert Mitchum), recently released from jail after serving time for murder, is reunited with his young son Mark (Tommy Rettig) at a gold rush town.  Before returning home together, Mark asks to say goodbye to the woman who’d been looking out for him, a saloon hall singer named Kay Weston (Marilyn Monroe).

Later, at their farm, Matt and Mark are approached by Kay and her gambler husband Harry (Rory Calhoun).  The couple is traveling by raft to the next town to register a mining claim Harry won in a poker game.  When Matt refuses to give Harry his only horse and rifle, Harry steals them and leaves his wife Kay behind.  Something tells me Harry isn’t winning any Husband of the Year Awards!

When Indians attack the farm, Matt, Mark, and Kay have no choice but to escape onto the river using Harry’s abandoned raft, and thus begins the excitement in this old-fashioned adventure yarn which pits Mitchum and Monroe against the natural elements of a raging river, a hungry mountain lion, vicious Indians, and ultimately, the weasel of a husband, Harry Weston.

RIVER OF NO RETURN is a fairly entertaining movie, standard western fare from the 1950s.  The script by Frank Fenton, based on a story by Louis Lantz, isn’t anything special.  The story of three people against a raging river is a good one, but compared to some of the classic westerns of the decade, it doesn’t measure up.

We don’t know a lot about Matt or Kay for one thing.  We know that Matt seems to be a good guy, but he served time for shooting a man in the back, and his character is darkened by a jarring rape scene in which he attacks Kay.  Thankfully for her, a hungry mountain lion comes along and Matt has to rush off to protect his son.  After a scene like this, one has to ask, how good a guy can he be?

Yet, Monroe’s Kay falls for him anyway, setting the stage for a happy ending that comes as no surprise.  This is 1950s cinema, after all.

Kay isn’t clearly defined either.  She keeps telling Matt that if he only knew the truth about her husband Harry, he wouldn’t hate him so much for stealing his horse and rifle.  But the only truth we continually see about Harry is that he’s a jerk and a weasel.  I’m not sure what Kay is talking about.  Is she a poor judge of character?  All her other actions imply that she’s a pretty smart person.

RIVER OF NO RETURN showcases some colorful cinematography by Joseph LaShelle, with some breathtaking background shots of the mountains of the northwest.  But the river scenes with Monroe and Mitchum on the raft were obviously shot in studio, and they look it.

The film was directed by Otto Preminger, a first-rate director, but RIVER OF NO RETURN is simply not on par with the classic westerns of the decade, films like THE SEARCHERS (1956) and HIGH NOON (1952).

But Marilyn Monroe is impressive, and by far, she’s the best part of the movie.  She has such a screen presence.  It’s difficult to take your eyes off her, and not just for the obvious reasons. She has a charisma here that is exhilarating.

While I certainly enjoyed Monroe in such films as SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959) and THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH (1955), in those movies she’s playing the role she will be forever identified with:  the ditzy blonde.  Here in RIVER OF NO RETURN, she’s not ditzy at all.  I had a lot of fun watching Monroe act, realizing just how good she was, and really just sitting back and enjoying her performance.  It’s easy to see based upon her performance in this movie that Monroe had a range that was rarely exploited.  It makes her untimely death all the more tragic.

Robert Mitchum is also very good, understated as usual.  I can’t say that this was one of his better roles however.  Matt Calder is a weird character, unsavory at times, heroic at others.  I found him kind of creepy, which I’m sure wasn’t the intention of the filmmakers.

And for you classic TV buffs, young Tommy Rettig who played the son, Mark, would go on to entertain TV audiences that same year as Jeff Miller on the LASSIE TV show.  Rettig would play Jeff for three years, before being replaced by Jon Provost as Timmy Martin for the show’s next seven years.

RIVER OF NO RETURN is nothing spectacular.  We’re not talking four star classic here.  However, it’s a phenomenal showcase for Marilyn Monroe’s acting abilities, and for that, I enjoyed it immensely.

So, if you’re in the mood for a river trip, take a ride on that raft with Monroe and Mitchum on the RIVER OF NO RETURN.  It’s an entertaining, colorful excursion, and hey, Monroe even sings.

Better yet, she acts.

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SHANE (1953) Classic Western Still Has A Lot to Say

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SHANE posterStreaming Video Review:  SHANE (1953)

by

Michael Arruda

They sure don’t make them like they used to.

SHANE (1953), the classic western from director George Stevens, has “four star” movie written all over it, from its exquisite Oscar-winning cinematography to its larger than life performances, it’s a movie with a grand vision that has as much to say today as it did over 50 years ago, perhaps more so.

It’s the wild west, Wyoming to be exact, in the years following the American Civil War, after the Homestead Act, when a man named Shane (Alan Ladd) arrives at the farm of Joe Starrett (Van Heflin), his wife Marian (Jean Arthur) and their young son Joey (Brandon De Wilde).  The family immediately warms up to Shane and invites him to remain on their farm as a worker, and he agrees.  Shane is a gunslinger running from his past, and so he welcomes the opportunity to join the Starrett farm and enjoy a new lifestyle.  Young Joey quickly idolizes the former gunslinger.

But all is not right in their little world.  A rather brazen bully of a man Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer) wants to buy Joe’s land, as well as the farms of Joe’s fellow homesteaders. When they all refuse to sell, and Rufus’ bully tactics continue to fail, he hires notorious gunman Jack Wilson (Jack Palance) to take his fight to the next level.

Joe is a stubborn man and a proven leader, and in spite of the presence of a murderer like Jack Wilson, remains steadfast in his determination to keep his farm, and he pleads with his neighbors to remain firm with him as well.  But when blood begins to flow, all bets are off, and it’s at this point that Shane realizes he can’t run from his past any longer, because it’s up to him to protect his friends.

Sure, this plot is nothing we haven’t seen before, but SHANE isn’t only about plot.  It’s also about presentation.

The cinematography by Loyal Griggs, which won an Oscar in 1954, is epic.  The colors, the landscape, the characters, are all captured as larger than life.

SHANE was directed by George Stevens, one of the all-time great movie directors, and many consider SHANE to be his masterpiece.  It’s hard to disagree with this assessment.

The thing that stands out the most for me about SHANE, which I recently caught up with on streaming video the other day, is how strongly this film makes its case for violence as a last resort.  Now, I prefer my westerns dark, and I enjoy violent action movies as much as the next guy, but there was something exceedingly refreshing about this movie’s approach to violence.  Screenwriter A.B. Guthrie Jr. hammers the point home that fighting is one thing, but bringing a gun into the mix is quite another.

Early on, bully Rufus Ryker makes it a point to say in his defense that he uses fists to settle his disagreements, and will not resort to guns.  He wants no trouble with the law.  Later, when he finally breaks down and hires gunslinger Jack Wilson, he makes sure that witnesses see that it is Wilson who is doing the shooting, and not him.  Also, Wilson baits his victims so they draw first, allowing him to claim he was shooting in self-defense.

When Shane teaches young Joey how to handle a gun, Marian scolds Shane and tells him her son will not grow up in a world of guns.  Shane tells Marian that a gun is a tool, to be used like other tools, and that a gun is no better or worse than the person using it.

SHANE is not an anti-violence movie.  There are plenty of fistfights, and eventually when the guns come out, there is bloodshed.  SHANE simply adds some thinking to the mix, and as such, its approach towards gun violence is a breath of fresh air compared to what we see in the movies today.  Imagine, actually thinking about and realizing that a bullet will end a man’s life forever.  Imagine Sylvester Stallone, or even Clint Eastwood for that matter, preferring not to kill his adversary.  That being said, Shane is not a pacifist.  He’s a murderer, and he’s just as deadly as the next guy, except he’d rather not kill if he could help it.  Trouble is, he lives in a world where turning the other cheek isn’t really an option.

Alan Ladd is perfectly cast as the gunslinger who’d rather be a farmer, and his laid back persona is charming as he provides a steady helping hand for the Starrett family.  While Ladd turns in a decent performance, he doesn’t provide the best performance in the movie.

I actually prefer Van Heflin as Joe Starrett.  The man is a rock, and even when the bullets start to fly, he refuses to back down.  One of my favorite scenes in the movie is when Starrett decides he’s had enough and he’s going to face Jack Wilson.  Shane tries to convince him that he’s no match for Wilson, but Starrett has too much pride and refuses to give in.  In order to stop Starrett from facing Wilson, Shane has to fight the man, and the two friends literally kick the living daylights out of each other in one of the film’s most rousing moments, a hand to hand battle for the right to go up against Jack Wilson.

During this scuffle, director Stevens includes shots of the farm animals going ballistic and freaking out as the two men beat the stuffing out of each other.  There is a general sense that all is wrong with the world at this moment.

Jean Arthur is fine as Marian in her final movie role, and it’s hardly noticeable that at 50, she was considerably older than either Van Heflin or Alan Ladd.

My personal favorite performance in SHANE belongs to Jack Palance as Jack Wilson.  As the gunslinger who wears black, Palance is oh so creepy.  He has very few lines of dialogue, and everything is understated about him, but he has such a commanding deadly presence, he gets under your skin.  And when he does speak, his words cut like a knife slitting a throat.  It’s a deliciously evil performance.

But the actor who steals the movie is young Brandon De Wilde as Joey.  I simply can’t imagine SHANE without De Wilde with his ever so wide eyes crying out “Shane!  Shane!”  Seriously, the kid steals every scene he’s in, and he’s in a lot of scenes.  Tragically, De Wilde was killed in car accident in 1972.  He was 30.

Emile Meyer makes a sufficiently villainous Rufus Ryker.  You just want to kick this guy in the butt.

Also in the cast is Ben Johnson as one of Ryker’s heavies Chris Calloway, who eventually grows weary of his boss’s heavy-handed ways and provides Shane with some valuable information later in the movie.  Johnson made a ton of movies, but I always remember him from one of his early roles as the gorilla-lassoing cowboy Gregg in MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1949).

John Dierkes plays Rufus’ equally cold-hearted brother Morgan.  Dierkes you might remember had a small but noticeable bit as Dr. Chapman in Howard Hawks’ THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (1951).

There is a strong sense of sincerity in SHANE that is refreshing. It’s why all the characters work so well, and why the story, just an average one, soars, because everyone in the film is solid and true, and nearly everything they do is believable.

It’s also not predictable.  By the time the film reaches its explosive climax, the fate of its characters remains uncertain.  When Shane rides into town to face Jack Wilson, the movie has done such an admirable job building up character and tension, you really don’t know who is going to come out on top.  Will Shane be gunned down in front of little Joey’s eyes?  Or does he have enough left in him to be that much faster than the swift and deadly Jack Wilson?  For a film that plays it light with the violence, it lays it on heavy with the suspense.  I wish more films today would follow this formula.

While SHANE won the Oscar for best Cinematography in 1954, it was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor in a Supporting Role for Jack Palance, and Best Actor in a Supporting Role for young Brandon De Wilde.  Either one of these actors could easily have won.  Who did win Best Supporting Actor that year?  The nod went to Frank Sinatra for his work in FROM HERE TO ETERNITY (1953) which also won Best Picture and Best Director (Fred Zinnemann) that year.

SHANE is a classic western that entertains from start to finish, and what it has to say about guns and violence is more apropos today than ever before.

Yup, they just don’t make them like they used to.

—Michael