Enter Yuen Biao: Knockabout (Sammo Hung, 1979)

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Yuen Biao had worked as an acrobatic stuntman in Hong Kong films throughout the 1970s, and finally made his mark as a leading man in Knockabout, Sammo Hung’s fourth directorial effort. Biao plays Yipao, close friend of Ka-Yan Leung’s Tipao. The two are con-artists who are frequently bested by Fat Beggar (Hung). They attach themselves to a skilled master, Silver Fox (Lau Kar-Leung), who turns on them when they discover that he’s a wanted murderer. Yipao must get on Beggar’s good side to learn the skills he needs to defeat Wu-Tai.

This film is simply aiming for action and comedy, with no goal other than to entertain. The comedy may make or break it for the viewer: it’s non-stop, over-the-top slapstick all the way. Plot doesn’t matter, with breaks between fights rarely lasting more than a few minutes. The characterisation is also quite basic and, rather damningly, none of the characters are especially likeable.

The martial arts is not impressive at the film’s beginning, reflecting Yipao and Tipao’s inability to defend themselves. It’s well over an hour into the film before Biao’s skills truly shine through, with the Beggar training him in cruel and unusual ways before the two of them launch into a lengthy battle with Silver Fox. The uses of a jump rope during the training and a rope of thorns during the final fight are unmissable. Biao is capable of amazing feats and his timing with mentor Hung is fantastic.

Biao is confident and charismatic as a leading man, pulling off the comedy on the same level as Leung (a more experienced, but usually more serious actor). Kar-Leung is funny in a different way as Silver Fox – he walks around with a self-serious, slightly sad expression, looking like a mopey 70s singer-songwriter. His character’s shift into pure evil makes no sense, but he’s still fun to watch. Hung, however, is highly irritating as the Beggar, pulling endless face twitches in every scene.

Anyone with a low tolerance for slapstick martial arts will not enjoy Knockabout. Nonetheless, the skill shown by Kar-Leung, Hung and, especially, Biao in the last half hour is something special, and the most enduring aspect of the film.

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Pre-Code Stanwyck: Night Nurse (William A. Wellman, 1931)

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Night Nurse is a Pre-Code black comedy that’s primarily of interest for its display of just how much Hollywood could get away with in the early 1930s. It follows Lora (Barbara Stanwyck) through her nurse’s training, as she faces poverty, medical horrors, an overbearing matron, and one-track mind student doctors, all with the help of roommate Maloney (Joan Blondell). After graduating, her troubles grow exponentially as she comes to suspect that the children in her care are being slowly starved by their wealthy mother’s chauffeur, Nick (Clark Gable).

This film is better enjoyed for its standout moments than as a whole. Part of this is because it has two fairly disjointed sections, the first of which resembles a series of sketches. Another part is that the dialogue is repetitive and often uninspired, and the directing unremarkable (perhaps the sometimes-brilliant Wellman felt uninspired too). The plot gains traction in the second section, but the film has the unmistakeable aimlessness of many early Talkies.

Night Nurse can be truly appreciated, however, for just how far it takes its lack of censorship. Much of it would be impossible to show within just a few years, from its occasional attempts at cynical realism to its frequent sexual humour. Ribald lines abound, and Lora and Maloney seem to be perpetually stripping down to their underwear. In one scene, Lora is almost raped and then slugged unconscious by her seeming rescuer. Bootlegger Mortie (Ben Lyon) is something of a hero, and by the film’s end he’s getting away with murder for the greater good.

The film also has a reasonably nuanced take on women – more so than many later Hollywood films, at least. Lora uses her looks for her own benefit, but only on a doctor, as Maloney has warned her that this behaviour is wasted on the students, who have no money for the time being and won’t marry nurses in the end. Lora’s no hard-hearted Lily from Baby Face, however; she does want to help people, and truly cares about her job, even though she’s seen the worst of what happens behind the scenes. Meanwhile, the children’s mother is a useless lush who can’t do much more than shriek “I’m a dipsomaniac!” when criticised. Post-Code, motherhood was more likely to be venerated and sexual opportunism punished.

Stanwyck doesn’t peform with much subtlety here, but she does manage to show her burgeoning ability to be both sympathetic and tough. She also has what is arguably one of her best all-time scenes, in which she tries to persuade the children’s mother that one of the girls is on the brink of death. When the mother’s boyfriend (also Lora’s attempted rapist) gets handsy again, Lora responds by punching him to the floor and scaring him enough that he crawls behind the bar. The mother won’t wake up even after Lora drags her across the carpet and drenches her with water. Lora growls, “You mother,” and goes off to save the kid herself.

Gable was not yet an established actor and feels a little odd in the role of a heavy. He’s menacing enough though. His introduction is one of the film’s most unintentionally funny scenes, with the camera dollying in on his face as he barks, “I’m Nick – the chauffeur!” The camera then dollys in on Lora, who knows him by reputation, as she gasps, “Nick – the chauffeur?!”

Night Nurse is not the most enjoyable or well-made of Pre-Code films. Beyond being of historical interest, it does have its moments. Nonetheless, anyone who only wants to watch one early Stanwyck film, or even one Pre-Code, would be better served by watching the even blacker, franker Baby Face.

Nights at the circus: Nightmare Alley (Edmund Goulding, 1947)

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It can sometimes get difficult to pin down whether or not a movie is a film noir. Nightmare Alley has the right kind of feel – it occurs primarily at night, has a (mostly) cynical attitude, and involves a protagonist who makes one dreadful mistake. His sense of identity and mental stability are also shaky at best. However, the film’s characters and settings are, mostly, quite atypical. Our lead is Stan Carlisle (Tyrone Power), a circus tagalong who hits paydirt when he uncovers the secret code that medium Zeena (Joan Blondell) uses to fake her clairvoyancy. Stan gets help from sideshow girl Molly (Coleen Gray), who becomes his wife and beautiful assistant, and psychiatrist Lilith (Helen Walker), who feeds him information about her wealthy clients, but both of them betray them in their own ways.

The real mindfuckery Stan experiences doesn’t happen until the third act, and prior to this, Nightmare Alley seems less like a noir than a character study. We know Power can play oversized characters, but this is a juicier role for him. He gives us hints that Stan’s charming exterior, used to great effect during his performances, hides his inner fragility. We can see the cracks before he shatters. Close to the end, Power goes from horror to despair to acceptance in just a few seconds. It’s a great moment.

Power is backed by three highly capable women in this film. As the fraud who believes in her tarot cards, Blondell was well into her progression from comedian to character actor. As the “good kid”, Gray was seeing her career on the rise; she featured in this film and Kiss of Death in 1947 and Red River in 1948. As the closest woman to being a femme fatale here, Walker was trying to recover from a driving accident that saw her condemned by the public. She performs with such a sense of control and self-possession that it’s a great pity her career would soon be over.

Does Nightmare Alley qualify as a noir? The fact that it steers clear of familiar trappings and character types, and involves little direct violence, undercuts an affirmative answer. The tacked-on upbeat ending also disturbs the tone, but this wasn’t unusual for the time. It’s better, perhaps, to say that Nightmare Alley is a distinctive film – and that this makes it an easy one to recommend.

Overvaluing ambiguity: The Escape Artist (Brian Welsh, 2013)

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In The Escape Artist, a three part TV miniseries, David Tennant plays Will Burton, a barrister who has never lost a case. Burton can defend anyone, no matter their crime, but a single lapse in politeness towards his latest client, Liam Foyle (Toby Kebbell), leads to tragedy. Soon Burton’s fiercest rival, Maggie Gardner (Sophie Okonedo) is defending Foyle for the murder of one of Burton’s family.

TEA appears to be a quality production. It has a slick and polished (albeit subdued) look. The pace is fairly slow, but maintains a sense of tension that makes the serieseasy to watch. This means that the story’s problems only become noticeable afterwards, upon reflection.

The series squanders almost every opportunity available to it, largely because, aside from Foyle, the characters’ motivations aren’t well established. Does Burton work for criminals because he truly believes they all deserve a good defence, or does the challenge just serve his own ego? Does Maggie hate Will, or just want to better him? The answers to these important questions remain unclear. The story’s moral aspect stays muddled, just as potential plot points, such as the differences between English and Scottish law, go unexplored.

Ultimately, TEA is trying to achieve ambiguity. Maybe Foyle, though disturbed, is not a murderer. Maybe Will’s accusations and further responses are unjustified. The series leaves the viewer with something to ponder after the conclusion. Combined with plot holes and dead ends, however, the overall effect looks like nothing other than bad writing.

Tennant, as could be expected, delivers a strong performance. Kebbell lifts his role higher than the standard TV psycho, but this is solely because of his acting – the character just isn’t interesting. Meanwhile, the series wastes Okonedo’s talents, as well as Ashley Jensen in the role of Will’s wife. None of the supporting cast and characters leave a lasting impression, rather like The Escape Artist itself.

Coogan’s revenge: The Trip to Italy (Michael Winterbottom, 2014)

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Five minutes into this followup to 2010’s The Trip, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon are discussing the merits of sequels. This conversation turns out to be not just a typical Winterbottom post-modernism,  but also a shifting of blame. Of course you’re not going to like this as much as the original. What did you really expect? The Godfather Part II?

This miniseries-turned-film follows the same formula as the first: Coogan and Brydon (playing versions of themselves) drive through some beautiful scenery and periodically eat beautiful food. They jab at each other’s weak spots, engage in ever deteriorating and escalating bouts of impersonations, and occasionally overcome (or compensate for) their petty natures by connecting with art and history.

If there’s a significant change from the first film, it’s that Coogan doesn’t come across as so sad and lonely here. The Trip ended with him alone in his London apartment while Brydon, seemingly the less successful man, returned home to his wife and child. This one ends with Coogan spending time with his son and planning their future, while Brydon ponders whether or not to continue the adulterous relationship he’s started. Brydon is now the one who’s aiming for a part in an American film, but he also seems far more mean-spirited and insecure.

For the most part, The Trip to Italy is bland and unexceptional. The recurring Alanais Morrisette songs during driving scenes don’t lead to any good jokes, which is a big problem if you’re not a fan of her music. There’s no sense of increasing tension between Coogan and Brydon, and the abrupt ending is emblematic of the film’s lack of direction.

Great comedic bits are few and far between, though they are notable. The impressions are nowhere near as funny this time around, but a slip up during Coogan and Brydon’s inevitable approximations of Michael Caine does lead to laughs (perhaps because it feels accidental). Another moment fits into the character developments of the film: while regarding an encased Pompeii victim, Brydon self-aggrandisingly launches into his small man in a box routine, and Coogan walks away in disgust. Our exasperation at Brydon pays off; Coogan’s expression when he returns and realises that Brydon is still going, without an audience, is priceless.

Any potential for a sequel to The Trip lay in making use of the real life changes in Coogan and Brydon’s careers. Coogan had two successes in 2013, making a return as Alan Partridge (a role he seemed tired of in The Trip) and also producing, writing, and starring in the Oscar-nominated Philomena. Incorporating this into the film could have expanded the ruminations on self-worth and true achievement seen in The Trip. The Trip to Italy does tip our opinions of Brydon on their head, but doesn’t work hard enough at making this much more than an uncomfortable surprise.

The original Trip miniseries was superior to the film, and yet the film still felt stuffed with excellent jokes. That’s not the case here. Anyone new to the sequel would have to be better off trying the miniseries version, because the film is scarcely worth the time.

Agatha Christie goes noir: The Unsuspected (Michael Curtiz, 1947)

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The Unsuspected begins with a murder: the secretary of renowned radio host Victor Grandison (Claude Rains) is strung from a chandelier to make her death look like suicide. Odd things are happening around Victor; only a few weeks previously, his ward Matilda (Joan Caulfield) seemingly perished in a shipwreck. In the meantime, a mysterious young man named Steven (Michael North) has emerged, claiming to be her husband – but when Matilda reappears alive, she has no memory of him. Throw into the mix Victor’s brassy blonde assistant Jane (Constance Bennett), his nasty niece Althea (Audrey Totter), and her alcoholic husband Oliver (Hurd Hatfield), not to mention a cop and crook or two, and we’ve got a complex house-bound murder mystery on our hands.

This film actually reveals the murderer, in a brief flash, in the opening scene. It’s taking the Colombo approach, then. It works here because the murderer’s motives remain a mystery, and more than that, the motives of everyone around this individual remain quite uncertain too. Take the initial murder: Althea is on the phone with the secretary at the time, and hears her scream, yet does nothing other than quickly establish her alibi for the time of death. This, and a host of other curious twists and turns, keep the viewer off-balance.

The whole film has an Agatha Christie air to it, but with fewer affectations. Maybe that’s a side-effect of the American setting. The film doesn’t believe in itself too much, either – while not a parody, it’s not completely serious. The fact that Victor’s radio show is about murder mysteries indicates that the story is knowing about its genre.

The Unsuspected is a marvellous looking movie. Curtiz doesn’t miss a trick – nearly every scene has some inventive use of light and shadow. It far surpasses the typical noir shuttered-blinds-lighting. There’s plenty of fine camera choices, too: here, we’re looking down on Matilda from a high angle as a figure (who proves benign, but startles her) hurries towards her; here, a victim’s shadow slumps in the frame before her body falls into view; here, we’re peering through a thin curtain at an illicit meeting, the camera pulling back to reveal the reactions of two people watching from outside.

The actors in The Unsuspected are almost as curious as their characters. Totter was a noir staple, perfect at paying bad girl roles. Caulfield is a favourite of Joss Whedon’s, which is something to puzzle over. Hatfield had a certain something about him, but never made much of an impact beyond the starring role in 1945’s The Picture of Dorian Gray – only his second film. Bennett is now less famous than her sister Joan, not for her lack of talent, but perhaps because she was almost disinterested in Hollywood. Michael North (the weakest link here) gets an “introducing” credit in this film, but had been in many films as Ted North, and has no acting credits after this one.

Claude Rains, of course, is Claude Rains. In this film he gets to do all the things we like him for. He could not be more perfect as a radio host who happily refers to himself as “mellifluous.” Take away the nicely baffling plot, the odd collection of co-stars, and the fantastic cinematography, and you’d still have a terribly enjoyable performance from Rains. That alone would make The Unsuspected good fun, but as the film stands, it’s one well worth hunting after.

A horrific historical: Witchfinder General (Michael Reeves, 1968)

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By 1968, Vincent Price’s roles in Roger Corman’s various Edgar Allen Poe adaptations had brought him great success. To capitalise on this, Witchfinder General was renamed The Conqueror Worm, after the Poe poem, for its US release. That Price’s performance as Matthew Hopkins should be entirely camp-free will not be surprising to anyone who knows he had an extensive and diverse acting career before becoming a horror icon. What may surprise, even shock, is just how grim and pitilessly violent this film can be. Price himself was disturbed by Witchfinder General upon seeing it in the final cut, which serves as some indication that the film stands out from his usual fare.

Hopkins is based on the real “Witchfinder” from 17th century England. While the Roundheads and Royalists do battle up and down the country, Hopkins travels from village to village, accepting payments in return for testing, condemning and killing people singled out as witches. When Sara Lowes (Hilary Dwyer) tries to save herself and her uncle John (Rupert Davies) by offering favours to Hopkins, the Witchfinder has made an enemy in her fiancée, Roundhead soldier Richard Marshall (Ian Ogilvy).

Witchfinder General succeeds as a historical film. The sets and costumes are not extravagant, but have an authentic feel. The cinematography and score are often beautiful, which is no doubt a commentary on the concealed cruelty that exists within these villages. The film is at its best when depicting this social climate of greed and gleeful malice. It manages to suggest enough that I wonder how much more interesting still the film could have been if it had spent more time on its setting, story and characters.

When people talk about Witchfinder General, I think they don’t put enough emphasis on how unclear Pierce’s motives initially are. On first viewing, we don’t know if Pierce believes in what he’s doing, or just how much he enjoys it. There’s some great ambiguity to the character; when Sara tries to seduce Hopkins, he gives little away and her plan seems on the verge of backfiring. Price is so restrained that he doesn’t make Hopkins’ pleasure in his work obvious – which is, perhaps, why the character is truly horrific.

The film’s other actors also give notable performances. Dwyer is so good as the wholesome and brave Sara that it’s hard to believe that this was her first film role. Ogilvy does well as the decent hero who descends into bloodlust. Davies makes John, a priest who prays for Hopkins even while facing torture and death, sympathetically tragic. Meanwhile, Robert Russell as Hopkins’ assistant John Stearne acts as a contrast to Price by portraying open sadism.

This film underwent some censorship, and in the unrated and restored version I watched, it’s easy to see which portions had been cut from the film. The quality changes drastically; if the entire film looked like this, it would be unwatchable. It is helpful, however, to see unequivocally what was censored. In my opinion, these frames are actually, with a few exceptions, not necessary. It’s usually clear what the characters are doing or intend to do, which causes a visceral enough reaction that we don’t need to see it. It is a little ridiculous that one segment seems to have been cut simply because a woman is screaming offscreen. However, so much of this film is full of women (and the occasional man) screaming, not to mention being hit, tied, drowned, stabbed, and burned, that it becomes hard to take.

This is just my personal opinion, however. Reactions to onscreen violence vary from viewer to viewer. I find that I like Witchfinder General enough as a well-made and well-acted historical film that I wish it was less horrific. Of course, the real witch hunts were more violent and terrible than what we see here, but this film is just too much for me. It’s best watched by horror fans, but there’s enough talent involved, and enough substance to it, to make it worth enduring at least once.

In the sunset of the world: The Egyptian (Michael Curtiz, 1954)

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More than many other historical eras, Ancient Egypt has a wide-reaching appeal. Who doesn’t find it intriguing in some way? Odd, then, that it should have so rarely been brought to life on the big screen. Is expense the issue, or was 1963’s Cleopatra such a bomb that it took a chunk of the genre out with it? Whatever the reason, while it’s hard to claim that any particularly good films have been made about Ancient Egypt, The Egyptian certainly isn’t the worst attempt.

This film follows the life of Sinuhe (Edmund Purdom), a real folkloric figure. Abandoned at birth and adopted by a doctor, Sinuhe’s fortunes rise and fall. Babylonian temptress Nefer (Bella Darvi), ambitious soldier Horemheb (Victor Mature), loyal barmaid Merit (Jean Simmons), wily princess Baketamon (Gene Tierney) and weak Pharaoh Akhnaton (Michael Wilding) figure largely in his story.

The Egyptian is hampered by an unremittingly slow pace. Even where particular outcomes are clearly evident well in advance, events proceed methodically. Nearly all of the conversations unfold at half their ideal speed. The film is over two hours long, but doesn’t need to be.

Not to say that The Egyptian doesn’t have its fair share of memorable characters and performances. Though Purdom is competent but lacking spark, Mature plays his character to the hilt. Darvi, best known (and unkindly mocked) as Daryl F. Zanuck’s then-girlfriend, makes Nefer a peculiar creature – in that blue wig, she could be from another planet. Peter Ustinov offers lively comic relief as Kaptah, Sinuhe’s self-appointed servant. Simmons’s Merit is a steady presence, while Michael Wilding conveys that Akhnaton is not completely situated in the physical world (for better or worse). Tierney is a real delight – she was made for these sort of costumes, and though it isn’t a typical role for her, she’s quite good at playing tough. John Carradine, not always a guarantee of quality, is so good as a grave robber that his single scene becomes the film’s standout moment.

I bring the same complaint to The Egyptian that I have to other historical epics: there’s not enough closeups. This may have something to do with the difficulties of achieving proper focus in Cinemascope. Regardless, there’s a distancing effect that becomes a real drawback in a film that’s already not especially gripping.

When the dialogue fails to engage, there’s plenty to look at, at least. Various historical artifacts, such as Nefertiti’s headdress, have been authentically recreated here. Street scenes bustle with life. Akhnaton’s throneroom, which cost $85 000 to build, never gets dull. The costumes and wigs are gorgeous throughout; if accurately replicating these is an impediment to getting this time period onscreen, then at least there’s plenty of them to savour here.

The Egyptian does feel ponderous, but this is partly a side effect of one of its more impressive qualities. It’s ultimately a story about the meaning of life; Sinuhe is an intellectual who’s trying to find his place in the world. The film becomes a tragedy by avoiding the conclusions that other films would have chosen: Sinuhe gets neither love and poverty nor wealth and power. His claim that he’s living “in the sunset of the world” is given lasting impact as he loses everything, and Egypt seems poised to fall into dark times.

The film does suggest a new dawn is coming. It’s hard to find a historical epic from the 50s that’s not Biblical, and though I thought The Egyptian would be an exception, it sneaks a Christian message in at the end. Ironically, Akhnaton’s view of the world as God’s temple is not terribly specific to any religion, but the film seizes on his monotheism as a harbinger of the coming of Christ. This is the only upside of the film’s ending – as far as it goes.

Within a few years, Gods of Egypt, starring Gerard Butler (the Victor Mature of our times?!), will make its way to a cineplex near you. No doubt it will be a CGI-driven extravaganza that won’t have a fraction of The Egyptian’s thoughtfulness, but just as much white-washing. For its traces of historical accuracy and occasional high points, I’ll be looking back on The Egyptian with a certain amount of tempered admiration when that time comes.

Screwball schemes and frilly dresses: The Flame of New Orleans (Rene Clair, 1941)

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Universal’s Marlene Dietrich: The Glamour Collection box set is good value, including as it does not one but three, count ‘em, three Josef von Sternberg films. This leaves The Flame of New Orleans and Golden Earrings as filler, but as far as filler goes, Flame in particular is a nicely silly film that’s a pleasure to watch. It literally invites you in. A narrator tells us that in New Orleans, in 1841, a wedding dress was found in the river. Promising that we’ll learn how this came about, the narrator leaves us, the camera temporarily acting as our point of view as it moves into an opera house, servants beckoning us forward, until we encounter Lili (Dietrich). Disguised as Countess Claire Ledoux, she’s engaged in a scheme to ensnare the wealthy Charles Giraud (Roland Young). However, her affections for ship captain Robert Latour (Bruce Cabot) keep things from running smoothly, and quicker than you can say “Positively the same dame,” Lili’s disguising herself as her own cousin to cover up her mistakes.

It’s not difficult to guess how this story’s going to end, but because the film embraces its silliness, it’s impossible to predict what’s going to happen scene by scene. We get a fake-stickup foiled by a runaway monkey, a highwire act that leads to a duel, a quick costume change, a spot of trellis-climbing gone awry… Even Dietrich’s obligatory musical number turns into a neat little set piece; she performs it with a panicked expression as rumours about Lili’s conduct in Russia and Europe spread around the room. Through it all, the film is often genuinely funny, no more so when Dietrich reacts to a high society lady trying to explain the ordeals that Lili will face on her wedding night.

Also of note is Theresa Harris as Clementine. Harris spent most of her career, by virtue of being black, getting uncredited roles as maids. Clementine, however, is more than a servant; as well as getting some good comedic scenes, she shows herself to be as intelligent as Lili, working with her as a team. At one point, Clementine even obstructs Lili’s unwillingness to go through with their plans. Lili messes things up more for Clementine than for herself by the end, but the film gives Clementine a romance with local carriage driver Samuel (Clarence Muse) as compensation.

The Flame of New Orleans is no classic, but watched decades after it was made, it has acquired a campy charm. It’s a visual treat, with large sets, and even larger hats for Dietrich. The star plays both her roles with good humour. Perhaps the film’s biggest drawback is that Young and Cabot, though fine, don’t make enough of their parts. They’re not quite distinctive enough, which leaves Harris (like Anna May Wong in Shanghai Express) as the actor who has the most interesting interactions with Dietrich but relatively little screentime. A film that focused more on the two of them would be a better one – but as a bit of 40s fun, Flame is fun enough.

A subversive, quirky Western: Buck and the Preacher (Sidney Poitier, 1972)

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One possible reason that the Western has become a less popular genre in the past few decades is that audiences aren’t as willing to accept (or at least celebrate) the notion of Manifest Destiny, or the type of masculinity usually represented by the hero. Though this is a positive thing, it’s also something of a shame, because not every Western, past or present, plays into the same values. Most people who claim to hate Westerns seem to think they haven’t changed since the forties, but as often as the typical Western lead has been an unemotional, Indian-killing white man, there’s plenty of room within the genre for different points of view. Indeed, with his directorial debut, Buck and the Preacher, Sidney Poitier made an unconventional Western that manages to be fun as well.

Poitier plays Buck, a wagonmaster who does his best to escort former slaves to land where they can make new homes. These people are often pursued by Southerners and forced to return to their former owners. When Buck falls afoul of the Preacher (Henry Belafonte), a fast-talking conman, he’s made a devious enemy. However, after the Southerners attack his latest wagon train, Buck, the Preacher, and Buck’s lover Ruth (Ruby Dee) are the only people who can get back the settlers’ money and lead them to safety.

Buck and the Preacher is something of a buddy movie. The stoic and moral Buck stands in contrast to the eccentric, stylish Preacher. Of course, once Preacher starts caring about people other than himself, they’re going to make a great team, and the actors play their parts well. Surprisingly, though, there’s room in the partnership for Ruth too.

The film has a laid-back sense of style about it. There’s some odd framing in a few shots, but the film feels nicely quirky. The soundtrack, which combines harmonica with a lively bassline, is certainly off-kilter. A scene where the lead trio rob a bank so seamlessly that they don’t even need to say a word is impressively cool.

Buck and the Preacher’s plot is fairly predictable and the pacing is a mite slow, but it’s hard not to like this film. Though it takes on a much overlooked, weighty subject, the overall tone is optimistic. It’s also impossible not to admire a Western that mostly stars black men, gives a major role to a black woman, avoids making all the white characters bigots, and respects its Indian characters. Westerns need not be riddled with racist cliches (even if, like most Hollywood films, they often are) and not every film in the genre is cut from the same cloth. Buck and the Preacher reuses many familiar elements but, with only a few changes, becomes something markedly different. When so many more modern Westerns, from There Will Be Blood to The Ballad of Little Jo to Deadwood to The Proposition, take a heavy tone, this film’s lighter touch is appreciable, too.