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Thursday, 26 May 2016

On DVD - Appaloosa - Ed Harris's personal project is a very smart western

Appaloosa takes most of the same title as Sidney J Furie's The Appaloosa (USA, 1966) starring Marlon Brando as a cowboy who has his horse stolen. Directed by Ed Harris, who also plays the lead,  the film was made in 2008. My memory tells me nothing as to whether it even had a theatre release here.

The actor/director previously had an impact with his debut effort as director, the biopic Pollock (USA, 2000). My initial inclination to see this as a vanity project for Ed Harris wasn't fair. There's too much love for the classical western and too much effort in the assembly of the team for that to be the case. Eight years on Harris got together a rather fine team of actors and technicians for Appaloosa, here the name of a town where mercenary Virgil Cole (Harris) and his sidekick shotgun toting Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen) arrive in response to a call by the town's business people, including one played by Brit Timothy Spall, to come in a and establish a lot of law and order. Its got echoes of a lot of movies, most notably those that tell the story of Wyatt Earp and his brothers who specialised in this form of employment.

So, the main task for Virgil and Everett is to take on cattle baron Bragg played with a funny drawl by Jeremy Irons. This must have been a fun shoot with all these great actors hanging round somewhere in the American South West, a place of seemingly untouched beauty and wonderful rolling yellow desert abruptly turning into slippery mountains that hide Indians who have jumped the reservation as an extra complicating factor. Photographed by Dean Semler in the manner employing widescreen scope which won him an Oscar for Dances with Wolves it is fabulous to look at and has the twists and turns (the floating poker games) that resemble Boetticher.

Viggo Mortensen (Everett), Renee Zellweger (Allie) & Ed Harris (Virgil)
But back to the actors for I've yet to mention Renee Zellweger, a talent who can always make her puffy cheeks look attractive. Her sly smile is something to savour. The moment when she's spotted by Virgil cavorting buck naked in a river with her kidnappers is also something to savour. Oh wow, because suddenly you realise that she can be a bit fickle with her attentions and it makes you accept quite easily she could take up with rancher Bragg when he opens a hotel and casino and installs her as the resident piano player.

There are also a lot of echoes of Ford  and Hawks as well, something that you think might have been helped by the source material, a 2005 novel by crime writer Robert B Parker who wrote all those Spenser stories but also wrote, or delegated the writing of, some eight novels featuring Everett and Virgil. Both would seem to be channelling Randolph Scott with a touch of Henry Fonda in My Darling Clementine  plus there is a leavening of both Mitchum and Wayne from those final two Hawks pictures, honest toilers philosophically facing the slowing down of their physical prowess  but still fearing no man.

The DVD watched was bought in Canada from a big Rogers rental shop getting rid of excess stock- $5.99 though then as always you get slugged all those Canadian state and federal GST taxes that add about 21% to any purchase. There are is an audio commentary track with Harris and screenwriter/producer Robert Knott plus four separate 'featurettes' including one on DOP Dean Semler on his 'return' to the western. From that little snippet of an extra you get to know that the film was shot on a ranch near Santa Fe on widescreen Panavision, on 35mm film among a few other bits and pieces.

Ed Harris & Jeff Beal
Finally a note about the remarkable score by Jeff Beal - a small scale effort on a limited number of instruments but brilliantly effective in setting the mood and emphasising eccentricity. For those who follow these things Beal, also did Harris's earlier Pollock and is also the composer for House of Cards where his work is equally sizzling in assisting us to form our views of the machinations of the Underwoods.


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