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t3knomanser's Fustian Deposits

Westerns: Win Some, Lose Some

How Random Babbling Becomes Corporate Policy

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Mad science gone horribly, horribly wrong(or right).

Westerns: Win Some, Lose Some

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Rainbow Me
For Christmas, Minna got me the boxed set of the "Man with No Name" trilogy; the famous Clint Eastwood spaghetti westerns filmed by Sergio Leone. I'm a sucker for these kinds of movies, and we've been enjoying the brooding anti-hero.

I was discussing this recent Clint Eastwood kick with a co-worker, and she said, "I never got into Eastwood. He's a bit of a one trick pony."

"Yeah," I replied, "but it's a good trick."

Leone had a similar comment. He was reputed to say that he loved working with Eastwood, and that he had two expressions: one with a hat on, and one with it off.

I didn't develop an interest in Westerns until college. One of my professors assigned High Noon as extra credit. He absolutely raved about the film, and I respected his opinion, even if a black and white Western from the 50s didn't seem like my cup of tea. And one can always use extra credit.

I was pleasantly surprised to find my preconceptions about the genre subverted. High Noon was a film that didn't trot out the idea that, a manly enough hero could thwart any obstacle. It had emotional depth. A 1950s movie where the male lead cries is somewhat landmark. Especially a Western.

In my recent research, I learned that High Noon marks one of the early "revisionist Westerns". An offshoot of the genre that broke a lot of the traditional conventions. It's a good way to identify the sorts of Westerns I like versus the ones I wouldn't care for. I find it interesting that John Wayne only ended up doing revisionist Westerns when he didn't know he was doing it- films that were subtle sendups of the traditional John Wayne character.

I'm drifting off topic; I didn't mean to turn this into an analysis of the Western genre. In fact, I have a specific and interesting anecdote to relate.

In 1929, Dashiel Hammet, in a novel called Red Harvest, introduced the character of the "Continental Op" to Personville (often called "Poisonville" by the characters). The Continental Operative is a nameless, hardboiled investigator working for (and occasionally against) the Continental Detective Agency. Personville is a lawless town ruled by warring crime gangs. The Continental Op plays both sides against the middle, and ends up bringing peace to the town (by getting the gangs to kill each other), and profiting a bit in the process. It's one of the quintessential noir novels, and it's quite a good read (the better of the two "Continental Op" novels, I can't speak to the short stories).

In 1961, Akira Kurosawa directed Yojimbo. A nameless Ronin comes into a town ruled by warring criminal gangs. He convinces each gang to use him as protection against the others. He brings peace to the town by getting the two gangs to kill each other. Sound familiar?

Not a novel story, perhaps. But Kurosawa freely admitted the influence of Red Harvest on his work.

Sergio Leone was a big fan of Kurosawa's work; it influenced a great deal of his directing style. When he made, A Fistful of Dollars (a story about a nameless gunslinger who cleans up Western town ruled by competing crime families by getting the two gangs to kill each other off), he leaned heavily on Kurosawa for the look and style of the film.

Intended as a tribute to Yojimbo, Leone found himself in a copyright dispute. Kurosawa's production company claimed that A Fistful of Dollars was an unlicensed remake of Yojimbo. The courts agreed and a chunk of the gross went to Kurosawa's company, along with exclusive distribution rights in the Asian markets.

I would argue that Leone got screwed on that one. It was hardly a unique story idea, and it's at least as distant from Yojimbo as Yojimbo is from Red Harvest. I guess that's why I'm a programmer and not a judge. But the interesting turn comes next.

Leone had a falling out with his production company, and when he went to make the sequel to Fistful, named, For a Few Dollars More he got someone else to produce. His old production company sued, claiming they owned the rights to the characters from Fistful, including the character Eastwood had played (called "Joe" in the script, although only the gravedigger ever used that name).

This time, the court (presumably a different court), found that the archetype of the Western gunslinger wasn't unique enough to copyright. Never mind the fact that Eastwood's character in A Few Dollars more was not only the same character (although called "Monco" a few times in this film), he wore the same poncho. Not a similar poncho- the same poncho. For all three films (the third being The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly) Eastwood wore the same poncho (and it was never washed during that time). Then, of course, was the similarity between the two titles, the style of the film, and everything else.

This time, Leone's old production company got screwed. In sports, we would call something like that a "make up call"- a decision so obviously flawed that it could only be taken as an attempt to balance the previous bad decision. I sincerely doubt that this was the case, but I find it fascinating that Leone lost one case on pretty dubious grounds and won another on similarly dubious grounds. Maybe his new production company understood how to hire good lawyers. I dunno.

One last thing: in all of Leone's movies, he used Ennio Morricone for the music. The soundtracks on these films are incredible. I mean, seriously fantastic music. "The Ecstasy of Gold" is pretty incredible, but "Sixty Seconds to What?" gives me chills when the organ cuts in.
  • Joey and I are slowly working through the Kurasawa movies. We just watched Hidden Fortress last week -- it immediately found itself on my (unenumerated) 'favorite movies' list.
    • Minna and I were just discussing how we need to start working through some Kurosawa. Even not having seen more than a few bits of Rashomon while preparing for a play in college (that's an epic tale itself), I have seen plenty of other Japanese produced films- and there's a very Japanese element to Leone's directing. If Japan had the terrain to support filming Westerns, you could think they were Japanese produced.
  • Speaking of the relationship between Japanese films and Westerns, I was today made aware of Takashi Miike's Sukiyaki Western Django which looks awesome.
  • Tombstone, Old Tucson Studios...*cough*...visit...*eyebrow wiggle*
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