Showing posts with label Sam Peckinpah. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Sam Peckinpah. Show all posts

10 April 2024

Speculative Cinemas

“We were just leaving the movies - Casablanca, with Ronald Reagan and Ann Sheridan…”  I had the idea one time to use this as the opening of a story, to signal it was alternate history.  This casting was supposedly floated, at some point, but it was a public relations stunt; Hal Wallis, the producer, later said he never wanted anybody but Bogart. 

Quentin Tarantino published a book, year before last, called Cinema Speculation, and my first thought was that he’d speculate.  For example, Howard Hawks once claimed that he was set to direct Casablanca, and Michael Curtiz was assigned to Sergeant York, but Curtiz wanted to get out of doing a picture about “hillbillies” and he, Hawks, was uncomfortable making a “musical,” (I’m not sure what he means by that, La Marseillaise, As Time Goes By?) and they switched movies.  I don’t know whether to credit this.  Hawks is clearly the right guy for Gary Cooper, and Curtiz is just as clearly the right director for Casablanca.  In 
fact, Warners kept two crews working simultaneously, so Curtiz could prep his next picture while he shot the current one: he was that efficient – or ruthless, some would say.  All the same, Tarantino is nothing if not a fanboy, you knew that, and you can imagine how entertaining he might be with What Ifs. 

Sam Peckinpah was fired from The Cincinatti Kid about a week in.  Ostensibly, because he was making a dirty movie; he did a scene with Rip Torn and a naked girl in a fur coat.  (“Oh,” Peckinpah says, “and I was shooting in black-and-white.”)  Not to mention, Sharon Tate got the boot in favor of Tuesday Weld, and Spencer Tracy was signed to play Lancey Howard, but Edward G. Robinson came off the bench when Tracy had health issues.  Norman Jewison gets the director credit, and Cincinnati Kid is a halfway decent picture – Robinson is terrific, too, he steals the movie – but you can’t help wondering.  In the aftermath of the Major Dundee disaster, The Cincinnati Kid could have put Peckinpah back on the map, Steve McQueen a brand name already, even if shooting a major release in widescreen color is the better box-office call.  McQueen and Peckinpah of course did Junior Bonner and The Getaway later on. 

Here’s a story Quint does tell.  McQueen passed on Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, after Paul Newman had been signed.  They offered Sundance to Warren Beatty, but Beatty wanted to play Butch, and he wanted Elvis as Sundance. 

A lot of people probably know that Dirty Harry started out as a Frank Sinatra vehicle - the original pitch for Columbo had Bing Crosby to star, too – but after they settled on Clint Eastwood, he brought Don Siegel over from Universal, to direct.  Siegel, at one point, wanted to cast Audie Murphy as Scorpio, the serial killer, because Audie Murphy had a baby face and didn’t look the part (although he’s credited with killing 241 enemy combatants in WWII).  Siegel had made two pictures with Audie, one, The Gun Runners, a remake of To Have and Have Not.  Also, if you think Audie can’t act, you should check out The Unforgivenhis second picture with John Huston.

*As a footnote, Andy Robinson, who
did play Scorpio, has a good hundred credits under his belt, but it took him twenty years to shake his association with the part (he’s really  that good in Dirty Harry), and even then, it was because he wore heavy prosthetics in Deep Space Nine.

Nobody but Gable was ever going to play Rhett Butler, but there are dozens of surviving screen tests for Scarlett.  Everybody wanted the part.  1400 interviews, 400 callbacks.  Katherine Hepburn.  Paulette Goddard had a good shot, but she was shacked up with Chaplin, and not married to him, which gave Selznick the jitters.  Tallulah Bankhead.  Susan Hayward, Frances Dee, Jean Arthur, Lucille Ball, Miriam Hopkins, Claudette Colbert, Joan Crawford, Loretta Young, Carole Lombard, Norma Shearer, Barbara Stanwyck, Lana Turner, Joan Bennett.  Bette Davis was an early favorite, but Warners wouldn’t lend her out.  She was chafing against studio discipline, and Jack Warner wanted to teach her a lesson.  She did Jezebel at Warners, which is basically the same story as GWTW, and the better picture, for my money.  The question is whether you can see her as Scarlett.  Or if you can see anybody else as Scarlett, once Vivien Leigh is in the room.  She takes up all the air.  You may or may not actually like the movie, but she surely makes it hers.

Cutting back to Quentin, he does get up to some mischief, not so much in
Cinema Speculation, but in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, you have Leo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton playing the Steve McQueen part in The Great Escape, and Damian Lewis, as McQueen, bemoaning the fact that he’s not getting into Sharon Tate’s pants. 

The question isn’t whether it’s real, but whether it’s convincing.  I personally can’t conjure up Brando or Albert Finney in Lawrence of Arabia, but they were both offered the part.  Lee Marvin walked away from The Wild Bunch to do Paint Your Wagon.  You just never know.  Somewhere out there are these ghost pictures, that never got made, or got made with the wrong talent, or somehow went off the rails. 

We’ll never get to see those movies, running in the private drive-in of our mind’s eye.  But maybe we’ve been spared. 

13 July 2022

Cross of Iron

Sam Peckinpah went to Yugoslavia to shoot Cross of Iron in 1976.  The picture was financed through some complicated cross-collateralization, and production shut down without warning when the money ran out.  The movie was put together from footage shot up to that point – with the final scene staged on the fly, improvised by Peckinpah and his two leads, James Coburn and Maximilian Schell: “I will show you where the iron crosses grow.”

Be that as it may, the picture feels pretty complete, and you don’t get the sense of gaping holes, but there’s still a nagging suspicion (the same thing you have with Major Dundee) that something fuller is eluding you.  On the other hand, the movie doesn’t seem characteristically Peckinpah, either.  There’s the Russian kid, the innocent, the sacrificial lamb, who might conjure up Angel in The Wild Bunch, or Elsa in Ride the High Country, but the larger canvas, the history, the broken faith, Steve Judd and Gil Westrum, Dundee and Tyreen, Pike and Deke Thornton, Garrett and the Kid, even Bennie and Elita in Alfredo Garcia, is noticeably absent.  In an odd way, Cross of Iron is maybe a prologue, thematically.  The defining moment, beforehand.

Of course, I’m talking about this as if you know the storyline and characters in Cross of Iron, or as if you know all of Peckinpah’s movies back to front, and not everybody is as obsessed as I am.  Let’s be honest, one Quentin Tarantino is one too many.  So, briefly, Cross of Iron takes place in 1943, in the Crimea; the Germans are being pushed back relentlessly by the Russians, and the Wehrmacht is fighting a rearguard action.  The story’s told from the German POV.  Steiner, the platoon sergeant (the James Coburn character), realizes it’s a losing battle, but fights on anyway.

“Do you believe in God, Sergeant?”

“I believe God is a sadist, but doesn’t know it.”

Stransky, the Junker from the officer class (Max Schell) is desperate to win the Iron Cross, and ready to lie for it.

“I tell you a man’s true destiny is not all this childbirth and chocolate, but to rule and to fight.”

Steiner is a warrior; Stransky is a blowhard.


Stransky puts together a false report, taking credit from a dead man to get the Iron Cross.  Steiner refuses to sign off on it.  Stransky abandons Steiner and his men, when the Wehrmacht retreats, leaving the platoon to fight their way back from behind Russian lines, and then – when they’ve almost made it, spoiler alert - tries to gun them down with friendly fire.  Basically, that’s it.

Being as it’s a Peckinpah, however, you get a lot of sidebar.  Somebody throws a shoe at a rat, for example, and Max Schell reprimands him: “Be gentle with my Gigi.”

James Mason, the colonel, orders his captain, David Warner, to the rear.

“I’m prepared to disobey that order, Sir.”

“You’ve been around Steiner too long.”

Steiner reports.

“Two killed, one missing.”

“Two killed, how?”

“Bullets.  Mortar fire, artillery, heavy salvos.  Bad luck, terminal syphilis.  The usual things.”

The actual war stuff is frightening, and incoherent.  Action is very hard to do, both on the page, and in the movies.  We see way too many movies where you can’t tell who’s who, or what’s going on.  Way of the Gun is an exception, because the guy channels The Wild Bunch.  Cross of Iron is intentionally confusing.  Everything is loud, and your kinesthetic sense shuts down.  It’s all adrenaline and endorphins. 

Peckinpah bent the rules of physical cinema, and invented new ones.  Steiner says it best, in a reflective moment. “A man is generally who he feels himself to be.”  Peckinpah tempted Fate, and lost.  God damn, but I miss him.