The Wild Bunch (1969)

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By Scott Ross

When I first saw Sam Peckinpaw’s brutal, elegiac western a few years back — mercifully in the reconstructed edition — it took me about a week to get over it. Only one other American movie (Close Encounters of the Third Kind) has affected me in a similar way, and for completely different reasons. Was it the opening sequence, in which a gun battle between the outlaws and an over-excited, inexperienced posse takes out more by-standers than criminals? The slow motion fall of the horses when the bridge is blown up? The almost epochal final walk of the Bunch down a Mexican street? The excruciating battle between the survivors and the Mexican Army that perfectly reflects the opening image of a quartet of scorpions beset by a colony of ants? The agonizing regret on Robert Ryan’s face, or William Holden’s heartbreakingly life-eaten countenance?

The answer, of course, is that it was all of these. Taken together, these elements — and so many more — were mixed by a master filmmaker who was obstinately misunderstood by his critics and who seldom had the success he deserved.

The cast includes Edmund O’Brien, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, Jaime Sanchez (as the doomed Ángel), Strother Martin, L.Q. Jones, and a surprisingly fine Ernest Borgnine.

The trim, incisive screenplay was written by Peckinpaw and Walon Green, the stunning cinematography is by Lucien Ballard, and the superb score is by Jerry Fielding.


Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

Sunset Blvd. (1950)

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By Scott Ross

Billy Wilder’s savage, yet deeply felt, black mass on the Hollywood he both loved and — on the basis of this one — must have loathed a bit as well.

Few talking pictures crammed in so many quotable lines, but John Seitz’s visuals are equally striking: William Holden, face-down in Gloria Swanson’s swimming pool; the celebrated monkey funeral*; Swanson standing up amid swirling cigarette smoke and a projector’s beam like some demented harpy direct from Hell; and that long descent down her mansion’s rococo staircase at the finale.

Holden’s performance as the doomed, tawdry screenwriter was his breakout, and 55 years later it’s still riveting. This was the movie that put an end to Wilder’s fertile but embattled partnership with co-scenarist Charles Brackett. D.M. Marshman Jr. shares a screenwriting credit, largely on the basis of having helped Wilder over a narrative hurdle by observing, “What if the old dame shoots the boy?”


*Wilder to Seitz on the set: “Just your standard monkey funeral shot, Johnny.”


Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross