Fritz Lang moved effortlessly between genres; his "western period" scattered throughout his "urban crime" and "film noir" periods. Even now, 60 years on, Rancho Notorious remains one of the strangest westerns ever made, furthering Lang's fascination (obsession?) with retribution, which arguably started with the 1936 lynch-mob drama Fury, his first film as a German émigré in the US.
Perversely, although the protagonist is the wronged Vern (Arthur Kennedy), whose fiancee has been raped and killed by bandits unknown, Lang's film - which, as we are constantly reminded by its theme song, tells a tale of "hate, murder and revenge" - is more concerned with the owner of an outlaw casino bar called Chuck-A-Luck, somewhere near the Mexican border. Or more pertinently, the real star, rare for a western, is a woman: Marlene Dietrich's outrageous Altar Keane, den mother to the bad guys and a saloon girl on the slide.
There isn't so much that's unfamiliar in Rancho Notorious as a genre movie, but Lang certainly had fun with the casting. Though Kennedy is nominally the star, Lang is more concerned with Dietrich, still packing a punch in her early 50s, in a role that, we see now, segues perfectly into her appearance as the enigmatic Tanna in Touch of Evil. There is a covert feminist message, of sorts, in Lang's coded but perfectly discernible disgust for rape as an untold part of the old pioneer story. And in a nod to Brecht, Lang eschews straightforward naturalism, foregrounding the music as a narrative device. It may be no coincidence that this was Lang's last western, having done everything he ever wanted to do with it. Damon Wise
The "wild west" was concocted by the writer Ned Buntline. Wyatt Earp later worked as a Hollywood consultant and Robert Ford became famous for shooting an outlaw in the back. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a brilliant movie about violence and celebrity, the two founding myths of America. It is directed by a poetic grace and precision by Andrew Dominick and charts the last days of the notorious train robber, who knows his days are numbered and that the noose is closing in.
In the wake of what would turn out to be his last heist, in Blue Cut, Missouri, Jesse James (Brad Pitt) returns to his hometown of Kansas City, with the straggling remnants of his gang at his heels. He is in his mid-30s but he feels older, like a watchful grey wolf sniffing at the air for the first scent of trouble. Then into the mix comes Ford (a superb performance from Casey Affleck), clamouring to join the gang and desperate to impress his betters. Ford is gawky, awkward, unstable; a nightmarish fanboy who has arrived a century ahead of time. We don't know whether he wants to kill James or befriend him and the reason for this, I think, is because Ford does not know himself.
The gang is becalmed, the house is too full and the tempers are fraying. In the meantime, James parks himself at the kitchen table and tests the atmosphere in the room. Has the outlaw now become too jaded and exhausted to ensure his own safety? Or might he be playing an altogether more sophisticated game? James has one foot through the exit door and the manner of his departure may be the one last thing that he can control. He is grooming his own killer in order to write his own legend. Xan Brooks
The best westerns are about changing times, warring ideologies and the ruthless march of progress, so it was fitting that Red River pitted the Hollywood old guard against the new. Howard Hawks's 1948 epic ostensibly concerns the efforts to drive 10,000 head of cattle along the Chisolm trail from Texas to Kansas. But the thundering cows and swirling dust-clouds merely serve as the accompaniment to the see-saw struggle between John Wayne and Montgomery Clift, the foursquare bulwark of red state America versus the soulful outrider from the New York stage.
Wayne headlines as Thomas Dawson, tough and unyielding, while Clift (in his film debut) co-stars as Matt Garth, his sensitive adoptive son, who challenges his authority and possibly points the way to the future. By all accounts the picture's off-screen tensions mirrored the on-screen fireworks. Wayne dismissed Clift as "an arrogant little bastard", while the younger actor hated Wayne and Hawks's locker-room antics: the drunken card games by the camp-fire, the endless boozy braggadocio ("the machismo thing repelled me, because it felt so forced and unnecessary").
And yet, fortuitously, Red River seemed to thrive on the friction. It's one of Hawks's best: a bold, expansive epic with a knotty psychological portrait at its core. In the clash between bullish Dawson and resolute Garth we have the sense of two very different men, two very different worldviews and, by implication, two very different Americas vying for supremacy. This is not so much how the west was won. It's how it is still being fought for today. XB
Anticipating the decline of the western as a populist genre and the rise of the "revisionist" westerns of the 60s and 70s, Fred Zinnemann's man-against-mob-mentality movie is a deceptively sophisticated piece of work. Indeed, although it can be seen as a extension of the white-hat/black hat movies of the 30s, and starred cowboy icon Gary Cooper, High Noon caused rifts even within the masters of the genre; it raised the ire of John Wayne, who considered it not far short of a commie plot, and director Howard Hawks, who made his 1959 classic Rio Bravo as a direct rebuttal.
Today, High Noon's most striking feature is its real-time plot. Cooper stars as retiring marshall Will Kane, who is about to leave town when he hears that his nemesis, Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald), has been reprieved from death row and is arriving on the noon train. Kane considers leaving with his newly-wedded wife Amy (Grace Kelly), but instead decides to stand his ground. Amy gives him a second ultimatum - she wants him with her on the noon train out - and so the 85-minute countdown begins.
Although subtextual film criticism wasn't really in its prime in 1952, what High Noon was really about did not go unnoticed. Pitting a good man against a cowardly townspeople that do nothing to stand up to Miller, Zinnemann's film was an obvious allegory for the recent political witch hunts launched by Senator McCarthy. Nevertheless, it remains an extraordinarily tense piece of film-making that works perfectly, featuring a suitably solemn Oscar-winning song of the same name by Tex Ritter. Last but not least - always a sign of a really great movie - it was even remade in space, as Outland. DW
Clint Eastwood's 1992 multiple Oscar-winner is probably this actor-director's profoundest work. Not only is it a western, it's also about the flawed mythology of the genre. In the town of Big Whiskey, Wyoming, in the late 1880s, a prostitute mocks a client's less-than-plentiful manhood and gets a razor across the face for her chuckles. Her colleagues put a bounty on the miscreant's head, prompting a trickle of would-be assassins into town, including English Bob, played flamboyantly by Richard Harris from beneath a cascade of nicotine-yellow locks. He's not the film's key character. Nor is the sadistic sheriff L'il Bill (Gene Hackman), or even the retired gunslinger William Munny (Eastwood). Instead, the movie hinges on the lowly hack WW Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek), who begins the picture as English Bob's sycophantic biographer, but switches allegiances to L'il Bill when the odds change. His fickle quill transcribes history, embellishing the truth. And it is his hyperbole that the film sets out to correct. Unforgiven's original title was The Cut-Whore Killings. How the West was Spun would have sufficed.
The disparity between fact and fiction runs through the movie. A cocky young fighter named the Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett) cannot actually see beyond the end of his revolver. Meanwhile, Munny is tempted out of retirement when he hears that the prostitute has had her eyes scooped out, and her body mutilated. It's a key moment when he actually sees her only moderately scarred face; flickers of confusion, disappointment and relief play gently on Eastwood's normally rigid features.
But the film is most potent when it addresses matters of life and death. "It ain't so easy to kill a man," L'il Bill warns Beauchamp. Indeed, Ned (Morgan Freeman) dithers over the trigger even as he has his quarry squarely in his sights, and is unable to fire the fatal bullet. The Schofield Kid suffers crippling pangs of conscience after his first murder. "It don't seem real," he whimpers. "How he ain't gonna breathe again, ever." The screenplay, by David Webb Peoples (Blade Runner), has a haunting refrain. Three separate characters each deliver the line "He had it coming" before Munny provides the chilling pay-off: "We all got it coming." Ryan Gilbey
Robert Altman was nothing if not an iconoclast. One of his greatest talents was to reinforce genre by dismantling and even undermining it. What he did to the war movie with MASH, and what he would later do to film noir in The Long Goodbye and the country house drama in Gosford Park, he did to the western in McCabe & Mrs Miller. John "Pudgy" McCabe (Warren Beatty) is an entrepreneur who establishes a brothel in the Pacific Northwest mining settlement of Presbyterian Church in 1902. He's a shambles, a vain and foolhardy clown dressed in burdensome furs, and his brothel is a shambles too, at least until the chippy, cockney Constance Miller (Julie Christie) rolls in through the drizzle and the mud and shows him how to make it a success. She's earthy but also alluringly unreachable, and not only because of her opium habit. "I never knew anyone in my life who spent so much time behind a locked door," grumbles McCabe.
Vilmos Zsigmond's cinematography is lyrical but grainy, even more so when Altman throws in one of his trademark inelegant crash-zooms, so that the camera burrows into the very fibre of the celluloid. Aside from Leonard Cohen's achingly plangent songs, what we can hear in the film is generally no prettier than what we can see. "The sound was fucked," said Altman's editor, Lou Lombardo, "but he never changed it… It was recorded in there—a dirty track, a muddy track. It was like trying to get an out of focus picture into focus."
And yet this barely-audible, filthy-looking movie is a work of towering beauty, eroticism and pain. Beatty and Christie seem liberated by their director's irreverence toward their star power (neither is exactly given a glorious on-screen entrance). The western genre benefited from this morphine-shot of grubby poetic realism. And it could even be argued that when representatives of big business ride into town looking to cash in on McCabe's triumphs, the film becomes a portent of the decline awaiting American cinema in the blockbuster age. RG
It is the mother of all buddy movies. Or should that be the father of all bromances? Paul Newman and Robert Redford play it loose and for big laughs as affable outlaws Butch Cassidy and Sundance in this classic western comedy. They are the ringleaders of the notorious Hole-in-the-Wall gang – only they're not as bad as all that. Butch never shot a man. And when a posse of hired gunmen comes after them (a terrific, thunderous chase) they don't fight. They get the hell out of there, to Bolivia, where robbing banks is easy – so long as you can remember the words in Spanish. In 1969, Butch Cassidy was a massive hit, but it was panned by critics; the ribbing and the gags were too glib ("the bottom of the pit," wrote Pauline Kael).
Today, it has weathered splendidly, and we can enjoy it as a movie of its time as much anything else: for its laidback late 60s-ness, with Butch and Sundance a couple of hipsters for whom the worst crime of all would be looking like they are trying too hard. Just watch Newman larking around on a new-fangled bicycle contraption with his pal's girl to a Burt Bacharach number. Some of the biggest laughs are at the expense of the conscientious railroad book-keeper Woodcock, who would rather be blown to smithereens than open the safe – a total square. Cath Clarke
The ur-text of the "movie brat" generation of the 70s, The Searchers – John Ford's story of two men trailing their female cousin, kidnapped by Apaches – has been cited endlessly in their movies. Paul Schrader's Hardcore is a remake set in, of all places, the LA porn industry; Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver, John Milius's Big Wednesday, and Wim Wenders's Paris, Texas all either directly quote it, bicker with it, or partially remake it. And why? Because The Searchers is simply the densest, darkest, weirdest, funniest, most incoherent and yet most satisfying western of the 50s.
It is the portrait of an American hero possessed of all the virtues of frontier honour and self-reliance, who is also a flat-out exterminatory racist and white supremacist, a man driven to the brink of insanity by his fear of racial impurity. And the movie never sits still, piling one bravura sequence upon another – family reunion, Indian murder raid, pitched battles, fraternal fist fights, heartbreaking sadness, all against the forbidding grandeur of Monument Valley and the south-western desert – and never once losing its vicelike grip on the audience. John Patterson
Director Sam Peckinpah was considered a spendthrift, a loose cannon, and a failure by the time he shot The Wild Bunch in 1968. His last feature, Major Dundee, had been an acrimonious experience. It had been released in a brutally truncated and mutilated form to middling reviews. In the interim Peckinpah had regained a measure of respect for his beautiful TV adaptation of Katherine Anne Porter's 1937 novel Noon Wine. It is the least seen of his great works, and demonstrated, at the time, that he was not the madman of recent legend (not that there wasn't plenty of legendary madness to come).
Offered the screenplay for The Wild Bunch, he tore it apart with a vengeance, retrofitting it to accommodate his own key concerns and themes: men out of time facing obsolescence and death (it could easily be called No Country for Old Men); violence as a ballet of brutality; and corruption as all-encompassing, with every transaction, be it moral, monetary or sexual, deeply stained by betrayal. By the time The Wild Bunch hit screens and became the most controversial movie of 1969, Peckinpah's erstwhile detractors were elevating him to the pantheon, up there with Stanley Kubrick and John Ford.
And there was to be blood. Deafened by the ambient roar of the ever more violent and amoral Vietnam war, which splashed blood across the nation's TV screens nightly, and emboldened by the sanguinary possibilities sanctioned by Bonnie and Clyde's runaway success, Peckinpah packed a wagonload of blood squibs for use on his Mexican locations and forever changed the nature of screen violence with what might be called the first "splatter western".
He also revolutionised film editing, shooting his many, violent action set-pieces with multiple cameras and viewpoints, running the cameras at different speeds, from 60 to 120 frames a second, after seeing what editor Lou Lombardo had achieved with similar effects on earlier projects. The results were eye-opening, stretching and collapsing time in each of the movie's many masterfully assembled action set-pieces, particularly the opening robbery. That sequence included the famous credit, "Directed by Sam Peckinpah" hammered on to the screen after Pike Bishop (William Holden) spits out the words: "If they move, kill 'em!" Which immediately told us where the director's sympathies lay – with the doomed and the outcast. JP
A Marxist revisionist western that feels like a comedy half the time and a revenger's tragedy in operatic guise for the other half. On paper at least, this looks like the very last western worthy of admission to the pantheon of the genre's masterworks. But there it is, routinely counted among the greatest westerns ever made. And rightly so.
Leone, together with Dario Argento and Bernardo Bertolucci, initially conceived a western almost entirely made up of references to the classics of the genre – The Iron Horse, The Searchers, Shane and High Noon are just some of the movies plundered and revered in the final three-hour epic. The film has an unabashedly leftwing tilt in its depiction of capitalism's ruthless conquest of the west as it crushes or kills every obstacle in its path.
If that all sounds a little dry to you, then Leone knew enough to cast his movie with icons of the genre, including rising star Charles Bronson in the no-name lead role and Jason Robards as comic relief. His most daring gambit, however, was to persuade Henry Fonda to play his monstrous killer – railroad enforcer Frank.
Legend has it Fonda, preparing for his first evil role, showed up on set wearing a bandito mustache and half rolling his eyes. No, said Leone, I want Henry Fonda, clean-shaven – and then we'll make him bad. There's no doubting Frank's evil core when he guns down a child moments after appearaing on screen.
And opera? Well, consider that Leone's schoolmate Ennio Morricone wrote individual musical signatures for each of the four main characters (the fourth being Claudia Cardinale's Jill McBain, who fares about as well as you'd expect a woman in a macho Italian western), and the music is almost as busy channelling our attention as anything in the script. The climactic gunfight, with its three minutes of intro music and flashbacks (including the big revelation) and two seconds of gunplay, achieves an almost orgasmic intensity through Morricone's soaring, slashing score. With every set-piece artificially elongated for comedy or suspense, and every other scene almost wordless, this is a movie that takes its time, but by the final credits, you know you're in the presence of imperishable greatness. JP