1970s, Comedy, Crime/Detective

The Sting (1973)

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Director: George Roy Hill
Screenwriter: David S. Ward

By Roderick Heath

Despite winning the 1973 Best Picture Oscar and proving one of the most popular movies ever made, The Sting rarely gets much serious appreciation. Today’s popular hits can very often prove tomorrow’s deflated gasbags, but The Sting retains a kind of perfection, an ingenious and multileveled engine, a film with a narrative that takes the matter at its heart, the arts of deception and dishonesty, and also makes them the framework for its story, with a deft guile and cocksure vigour almost vanished now from popular cinema. The Sting began life when the struggling screenwriter David S. Ward, doing some research into pickpockets, read some books about the classic methods and characters of confidence tricksters, particularly David Maurer’s 1940 book The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man, about the brothers and partners in grifting, Fred and Charley Gondorff, whose last name Ward appended to one of his fictional antiheroes. Ward later had to fend off a lawsuit from Maurer, claiming that he plagiarised the book. The Sting eventually reunited the two biggest male movie stars of the moment, Robert Redford and Paul Newman, and director George Roy Hill, after the trio had scored a huge hit with 1969’s semi-satiric, counterculture-infused western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

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The Sting pulled off the ultimate trick of beating out William Friedkin’s horror juggernaut The Exorcist for the Oscar after giving it a run for its money at the box office. Of course, The Sting’s upbeat, retro fun was easier for the Academy to embrace than Friedkin’s garish and nightmarish experience, as Hill’s film exemplified old-fashioned Hollywood values in a New Hollywood context, packing major star power together with a sure-fire script. The Sting also rode a wave of nostalgic longing for bygone days, expertly coaxed by the score’s use of ragtime tunes by the near-forgotten Scott Joplin, whose works, as arranged and recorded by Marvin Hamlisch, enjoyed sudden new popularity on the back of the soundtrack’s success. Joplin’s music, most famously “The Entertainer,” used as the film’s main title music and recurring throughout, but perhaps more crucially in terms of the film’s aesthetic the melancholy piano theme “Solace,” punctuates the repeating vision of its heroes as solitary or at drift in the streets of 1936 Joliet and Chicago, dogged by their own strange knowledge of the world and themselves, both a part of but also distinct from the society whose homeless and destitute rejects still litter the sidewalks in the waning Depression.

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The appeal for the Academy might well have been something more subtle too, in the way Ward’s story offered a sharp metaphor for being a Hollywood player, depicting talented people obliged to live in a netherworld in putting their abilities on the line. The con men of The Sting are directors, writers, and above all dynamic actors who put on their shows for the highest stakes, always a twist of chance away from beggardom, imprisonment, starvation or riches and their own kind of hermetic celebrity, needing only a performance so convincing it erases the line between fakery and authenticity, a show of brilliant wit and world-reordering sleight-of-hand. Redford’s character Johnny Hooker, first glimpsed expertly bilking a mark of a bundle of cash in league with his partner Luther Coleman (Robert Earl Jones), is a young man with a true gift for his unusual art, but a need for father figures and a compulsion to try and persuade luck the same way he persuades people, a need he fulfils through gambling, at which he always ultimately loses. Despite being young and good-looking he’s so much an interloper and a habitual screw-up he can’t even keep his stripper girlfriend Crystal (Sally Kirland) after blowing his first big score on a game of roulette, and he spends much of the rest of the film running, often literally, from men who want to kill him and from his own shiftless, exile-on-main street lack of identity.

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Film and plot gain momentum from the opening moments where Hill surveys human wreckage on the streets of Joliet, one of many, prickling remembrances that the story unfolds in a time of hardship: the characters on screen have been created by their circumstance. The initial spur of the story is deeply wound into the time and place: a numbers operation, part of the larger crime syndicate run by Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw), making fortunes off ordinary people making their own paltry plays for sudden, unlikely enrichment. The Joliet operation is run by Granger (Ed Bakey), who reports relatively weak profits and a slow count owing to a brief shutdown of the operations in town by a mayor on one of his tough-on-crime kicks, gives the week’s take of $10,000 to one of his men, Mottola (James J. Sloyan), to carry up to Chicago. Just after setting off, he glimpses an aging black man who’s been stabbed and robbed by a fleeing thief: Mottola declines to take down the thief but another bystander does and gets the money back. The old man explains he was heading to make a payoff to some loan sharks he owes money to, and begs Mottola to carry the money there for him. The third man advises him to keep his money wrapped in his handkerchief and stuffed down his pants in case the thief and any pals are lying in wait for him. Mottola takes the old man’s bundle with a kindly assurance to help him and then absconds, gleefully thinking he’s made a killing, only to find he’s the one who’s been ripped off. He’s just fallen victim to Hooker, his mentor and partner in crime Luther, and their confederate Kid Erie (Jack Kehoe).

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This opening employs oblique method to get the story moving, starting with the vignette of the numbers racket and following Mottola as he’s suckered in by the expert flimflam of the three conmen, the wise guy outmanoeuvred when he thinks he’s made “the world’s easiest five grand.” Mottola’s surprise is the audience’s surprise, even as we’re schooled in both the cunning method the tricksters employ, their piercing psychology in counting on the greed and dishonesty of the people they take down in the food chain of street life and the quick twists of logic used to sell the scam. This opening also privileges us with information the conmen won’t learn until it’s too late, the mistake they’re unwittingly making in suckering a man working for a big steam operation like Lonnegan’s. The sociology of the film is also, swiftly established: there are big sharks making well-protected fortunes bilking people and the smaller, entrepreneurial kind living on their wits. Astounded by the huge sum they’ve swindled out of Mottola, the three men divide their share, with Luther happily telling the startled and disappointed Hooker that he plans to use his cut to stop grifting altogether. Hooker meanwhile blows all his share, and is then waylaid by corrupt local detective Snyder (Charles Durning), who knows about his windfall and threatens to hand Hooker over to Lonnegan’s people if he doesn’t pay him off. Hooker gives him the counterfeit money he used in the con and then races back to Luther’s place to warn him about the heat coming down, only to find Luther’s been thrown to his death from his apartment window.

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Vowing revenge and knowing Joliet is now highly hazardous to his health, Hooker heads to Chicago, where, following Luther’s last piece of advice to him, he looks up Henry Gondorff (Newman), a big-time con artist who’s now hiding out from FBI agents after a sting that went wrong: Hooker appeals to Gondorff to find some way of putting the sting on Lonnegan as payback for Luther because “I don’t know enough about killing to kill him.” Hooker first finds Gondorff lying wedged between his bed and the wall sleeping off a drunk, living as he does with his brothel madam girlfriend Billie (Eileen Brennan) in his efforts to keep hidden from the feds: Johnny’s sour introduction to “the great Henry Gondorff” is a deflating experience. Gondorff, in between soaking his aching face in a sink full of chipped ice and repairing the merry-go-round Billie uses to entertain the children of her clientele, explains the difficulties and deal-breakers, particularly warning Hooker against deciding half-way through that just bilking Lonnegan isn’t enough payback. Nonetheless Gondorff agrees to mastermind the sting not just because Lonnegan’s a big fish who could pay off in a big payday but because of offended professional community pride, a motive he knows others will feel too: “After what happened to Luther I don’t think I could get more than two, three hundred guys.”

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Much as he would a couple of years later in Jaws (1975), Shaw gives proceedings a potent dose of theatrical bravura as Lonnegan, introduced playing golf with a underworld friend-rival, refusing to let Hooker get away after Luther’s death because it tarnish his image as an exacting and omnipotent operator lest men like his current golfing opponent thing they can get one over on him. He snaps his intimidating catchphrase “D’ya follow?” at people in his grating Irish-by-way-of-Five Points accent, as vicious and sharklike as anything in Jaws. Lonnegan is another poor boy made good through criminal enterprise but garners absolutely no sympathy because his type of criminal enterprise demands a ruthlessness he dishes out with relish: it’s made clear that he murdered his way to the top of the rackets and murders to stay there. Of course, Lonnegan needs to be a grade-A bastard to make it easier to cheer along our lesser bastard heroes. Gondorff draws together a team of the best grifters he knows, with the dapper Kid Twist (Harold Gould) acting as his agent in hiring the rest of the outfit and doing much of the legwork; he also draws in the motormouthed J.J. Singleton (Ray Walston) and Eddie Niles (John Heffernan). Together they decide to hit Lonnegan with a version of an outmoded con trick called “The Wire,” depending on the brief lag between horse races and the broadcasting of the results, which demands setting up a fake bookie’s office to draw Lonnegan in and get him to put up a big stake on a supposedly sure-fire bet. To get the cash to set up the big sting, a smaller one is needed, so Gondorff swings into action, buying his way into a poker match Lonnegan likes to hold on the train between New York and Chicago, and goes up against him a duel of dextrous cheating.

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Peter Bogdanovich’s Paper Moon (1972) had staked out similar territory the year before in dealing with Depression-era swindlers, although with quite a different relationship at its heart and its setting out in the dusty Midwest. Like many gangster stories, from any of James Cagney’s hoodlum flicks through The Godfather films and the TV series Breaking Bad, The Sting plays games with the audience’s fantasies. It appeals to that part of the viewer who for a moment forgets the rage and insult of being on the wrong side of a con trick and instead reclines in the wish we too had such talents to ward off the worst abuses of the world. The Sting makes this appeal something of a motif, as the main characters, despite their general alienation and outsider stature, are imbued with fraternal distinction and seedy glamour when surrounded by the victims of the Depression camped out in the street and in tent cities under railway lines. Whilst the conmen might any moment be as broke as the other people, they’re by and large never more than a couple of sharp moves away from cash in pocket as long as they keep their cool. Con artists were usually, in earlier crime fiction and movies, depicted as the lowest of the low on the criminal world food chain, but The Sting converts this into part of the appeal. They’re the mostly non-violent, clever, impudent criminal class, usually operating alone or in small teams but when roused capable of fiendish communal purpose and ingenuity, usually punching upwards in their labours, and absent prejudice in their own circles, a zone where a black man like Luther and a white one like Hooker can work together.

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The greater part of The Sting’s pleasure is the way invites the viewer into this peculiar little subculture and its mystique – the little rituals, lingo, and signs of recognition all concisely captured and deployed, like the nose rub the grifters use to signal each-other, and the tavern haunt that doubles as a hiring hall. The big question before Hooker is whether, as Luther thought, he’s a truly top-rank conman, because he’s never participated in a trick on the level Gondorff has operated on. The price the grifters pay for their kind of freedom is however constantly reiterated in their isolation, only able to relate to women who are prostitutes or fellow rootless drifters, as when Hooker makes a play for the waitress, Loretta (Dimitra Arliss), he meets in a diner who explains she’s only working there long enough to make enough money to get out of town. Hooker’s inability to get laid, despite looking like Robert Redford, becomes a minor running joke in the film as well as a signifier of his character straits, until he makes anxious, self-lacerating appeal to Loretta: “I’m just like you – it’s two in the morning and I don’t know nobody.” 1930s nostalgia, as improbable as it might have seemed to some who lived through the Depression, had become a familiar pop cultural topic by the time of The Sting. But Hill’s restrained but rigorous sense of style and Ward’s writing are particularly piquant in annexing the ghostly echoes of writers of the era like Damon Runyon and Dashiell Hammett, luxuriating in the old-school streetwise language, and magazine illustrators and advertising as well as, for more elevated reference, artists like George Bellows and Edward Hopper. The division of the film into chapters, each announced with title cards illustrated with vintage Saturday Evening Post-like flavour by Jaroslav Gebr, signals how the film is structured like the ritualistic form of a con game itself.

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Part of the narrative’s wit lies precisely in affecting to let the audience in on the art of the con, making the basic mechanics of the sting aimed at Lonnegan comprehensible, whilst also working to keep a few twists hidden, particularly the subplots involving Hooker, who we’re told is the target of a top-notch assassin named Salino, hired by Lonnegan because his local killers Riley (Brad Sullivan) and Cole (John Quade) failed to get him. Hooker is also picked up and strongarmed by an FBI agent, Polk (Dana Elcar), who has also roped in Snyder and bullies them both into helping him nab Gondorff. Snyder, played by the ever-marvellous Durning, has followed Hooker to Chicago in his determination to nail him for the counterfeit payoff. When he happens upon Kid Erie, who’s also come to Chicago on the lam, in a bar, Snyder slams his face against the counter to avenge a quip. He also tries pushing Billie around when he insists on searching her brothel, only for her to warn him to stay out of one room because the chief of police is in there. Snyder represents degraded authority and a cynical sense of society, the nominal enforcer of the law enriching himself by leaning on criminals and punishing infractions as zealously as Lonnegan: Snyder takes it as a matter of logical course that Luther’s death isn’t worth investigating and that his murderer should be escorted safely and unobtrusively from the scene of the intended FBI bust, as Polk commissions him to do. But he’s not as convincing as the gangster in his badass qualifications, as Hooker keeps managing to give him the slip, most notably when Snyder catches Hooker in a phone booth and surprises him ramming his revolver through the glass, only for Hooker to simply open the concertina door, trapping Snyder’s arm long enough to make an escape.

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Hill studied 1930s movies and hit upon recreating their relatively sparse approach to utilising extras in street scenes, to help emphasise the isolation of the heroes and the schematics of their self-involved gamesmanship. The sense of throwback style is also extended to the opening credits, which mimic the movies of the early sound era in using Universal’s old logo sequence and introducing the cast with their names and roles with images in the opening credits. And yet The Sting is still most definitely a ‘70s movie, with its buddy movie underpinnings, the Watergate-era sarcasm about power, and the sympathy and affection for characters usually designated as worthless riffraff in any other moment. And like many films that seemed like pure popular fodder in that decade like The Exorcist, Jaws and Rocky (1976), today The Sting, with its low-key, melancholy-soaked texture, character-based storytelling, and sense of finesse in historical and plot detail, feels closer to the art house than today’s big, bludgeoning blockbuster equivalents: the biggest thrills in The Sting come from things like a well-played hand of cards. The Sting relies deeply on the appeal of seeing Redford and Newman, two damn good-looking and charming men as well as accomplished actors, hanging out together on screen, although the storyline polarises their roles more than their precursor vehicle Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Where that film offered a slick and popular variation on the late 1960s’ sense of fatalism for the beautiful loser, The Sting rides its crowd-pleasing impulses all the way, and is the better for it.

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Hill stands today as a relatively neglected figure, despite making a handful of bona fide classics and mammoth hits. Hill, who as a young man had a love for Bach and acting and was at one point a student of Paul Hindemith, also had a lifelong passion for flying, obtaining a pilot’s licence at 16. This particular talent made him invaluable in war as he became a pilot in the Marines flying transport planes in World War II, and was later reactivated to be a fighter pilot in Korea. The schism in Hill’s formative experiences, the sensitive young man deeply immersed in art and the active warrior, were mediated through the alternations of striking, gritty realism and flashes of horror and wistful, dreamy detachment in his best movies, perhaps coming closest to articulating this in his underrated adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five (1972), whilst his jarring box office bomb The Great Waldo Pepper (1975) revolved around both his love of flying and his trademark sense of dashed and stymied romanticism. Hill, after making a name for himself in the theatre first as an actor and then director, shifted into television in the mid-1950s, including writing and directing for Playhouse 90 a compressed but interesting version of Walter Lord’s Titanic account A Night To Remember two years before the film version. He debuted as a filmmaker with Period of Adjustment (1962).

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His follow-up, Toys in the Attic (1963), a Lillian Hellman adaptation starring an improbably cast Dean Martin, nonetheless first articulated a basic theme of wandering innocents trying to comprehend the world and absorb its evil shocks whilst seeking a home or an ideal, a theme infused in most of Hill’s subsequent works, and it made him a perfect fit for the mood of pop culture in the late 1960s and ‘70s. Hill’s first major film, The World of Henry Orient (1964), worked to evoke a wistful, almost fairytale-like style and poignancy whilst also providing moments of satire and high farce, in depicting two teenage girls obsessed with a concert pianist as a distraction from their unhappy home lives. He subsequently scored hits with the glossy, big budget labours Hawaii (1966) and Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967): the latter helped define Hill’s lighter comedic talents and feel for nostalgia as a dramatic value in itself in his ability to take a quasi-sociological snapshot. Whilst not a showy director, Hill developed a distinctive shooting style, often employing muted and diffused colour to amplify the kind of strong Americana atmosphere he had a special gift for conveying, culminating in the brilliant Slap Shot (1977), a panoramic study of a changing society at that moment partly disguised by the foul-mouthed and raucous vision of ice hockey. In the 1980s Hill scored his last major critical and commercial success with an adaptation of The World According to Garp (1982), before a halting version of John LeCarre’s The Little Drummer Girl (1984) and his last work, Funny Farm (1988), which suffered from fights with the studio over what kind of movie it was supposed to be, after which Hill quit cinema and taught drama at Yale.

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The Sting depends on Hill’s ability to imbue Ward’s script with a sense of place and time as exacting as the machinations. It’s often noted that the use of Joplin’s music wasn’t a great fit for the late 1930s at the height of big band jazz. But the job of a film score is to describe the film’ evanescent emotional plain, and Joplin’s tunes are perfect for this, as well as suggestively evoking a similar meaning for the characters, beset in adulthood and feeling the pensive tug of the past, that the film as whole has for the audience watching it, describing places just over the line of sight in the past. Whilst much of the film revolves around relatively mundane settings and small gestures that have large meanings, Hill injects nods to the slapstick movie tradition, particularly when he lets the camera hang back to watch slim and fleet-footed Redford trying to elude the bulbous but dancer-nimble Durning. Hill plays games with planes within his framing, as Hooker climbs onto an L station roof to elude the cop, or when he vanishes from the frame as Lonnegan’s goons chase him, only to be carried back into the shot as he clings to the side of street cleaning machine, successfully eluding the hoods. The setting has its sleazy side: Hill beautifully captures the grimly funny tawdriness of an old burlesque show with Hooker’s visit to Crystal early in the film, planning to wow her with his new fortune: Hooker waits in the wings for her to get off stage whilst she, nearly naked, shakes her tits at the sparse audience, and is supplanted on stage by a blue comedian.

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As if by counterpoint Hill gains a note faintly surreal and childlike glee in the sight of Billie’s stable of girls gleefully riding the merry-go-round on a quiet night, a vision of strange innocence amidst seediness matching the story’s overall lilt. Hill and cinematographer Robert Surtees often utilise deep-focus shots and use vertical frames within frames, conveying period flavour in the cramped and pokey urban environs the characters inhabit, the small, dingy back rooms, diners, train compartments, and dens of iniquity, and also capturing the psychological pressure, the tightness of their lives, and also contrasted with the blasted, depopulated city streets. Directorial flourishes often have two meanings in the film much like the grifter’s art – at one point Hill’s camera draws back from a window encompassing Hooker and Loretta in bed, a particularly Hopperesque image in the glimpse through from an urban space into a private world, only to pull back further and reveal an unseen presence watching them from across the street, turning the shot into a giallo movie-like vignette complete with black-gloved hands switching off a light, signalling the presence of lurking threat. Later, in a vaguely horror movie-like vignette, Hooker eludes the hitman Cole who’s still hunting for him, only for Riley to be cornered and shot by an unseen figure he calls Salino – the name strongly suggests a nod to the demonic hitman Canino in The Big Sleep (1946). Here, the film’s own sleight-of-hand involving Salino’s identity is foreshadowed, and a note of real menace is struck here to generate tension in the otherwise, generally jaunty proceedings. There’s also another, wryer dimension to this vignette” Salino’s vindictive brutality, killing a colleague because he didn’t get out of the way as professional courtesy demands, also rather cheekily gives the world of assassins a similar sense of a code to that of the hitmen, even if their way of handling things is far less amusing.

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Hooker and Gondorff are unusual film protagonists, in their unrepentant criminality but also in their essential ambivalence. Gondorff’s reassurance to Hooker in regards to Lonnegan, “Don’t worry kid – we had him ten years ago when he decided to be somebody,” reflects Gondorff’s jaded knowledge of human nature, the things that make some people successful also being exactly what people like him and Hooker feed off. Gondorff was initially characterised as an aging, portly has-been in Ward’s script – one reason perhaps in the film’s ill-fated, afterthought sequel The Sting II (1982) Jackie Gleason stepped into the role – but was revised when Newman became interested in the role into a charismatic rogue who knows enough angles to be the Pythagoras of crime but one who knows “I could do a lot worse” when Hooker goads him by asking if he wants to remain Billie’s handyman. Although not seen for half-an-hour, Gondorff quickly dominates the film as he sets his peculiar genius to work, seen in a long, droll sequence where he begins the great game against Lonnegan, first by arranging for Billie to lift his wallet and then going toe to toe with him in the card game, schooling Hooker all the while in touches like what kind of liquor to drink with a mark. The resulting, intimate comic set-piece sees Lonnegan’s habitual ferocity easily stoked by Gondorff’s performance, posing as Shaw, an insolent and besotted Chicago bookie who keeps getting Lonnegan’s name wrong, but also outdoes him in card sharping: Lonnegan’s wrath is potent, but it also blinds him to the game he’s really in, which he doesn’t realise until he’s soundly beaten. Hill cuts at one point to an exterior view of the train passing by the fire of some encamped hobos, another jabbing reminder of the social landscape beyond the hermetic workings of the plot and the obsessiveness of the characters.

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Hooker sets the next phase of the plan in motion by posing as Shaw’s disaffected henchman. The humour has a queasy undercurrent as just how close to the edge the tricksters are dancing is made clear when Lonnegan is swiftly moved to murder Hooker when he reveals ‘Shaw’s’ con, something only Hooker’s self-possession and quick line of patter staves off. Hooker’s role is to pretend to want to draw Lonnegan into his plot to bankrupt his hated boss by feeding him tips on winning horses in races, supplied by a source working for Western Union. When Lonnegan demands to meet the source, Kid Twist steps into the role, he and Singleton bluffing their way in to take over a Western Union office for a few minutes, long enough to pull off the deception. Whilst the mechanics of these scenes carefully lay out for the audience just how the grifters are taking down Lonnegan, other aspects of the plot are still ambiguous, the blow from the mysterious Salino waiting to fall, and the FBI leaning on the anguished Hooker to betray his new pals. These elements threaten to prove the ghost in the well-sprung machine, particularly as Hooker’s habit of keeping secrets from Gondorff has already almost gotten him killed.

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Whilst the star power of Newman and Redford anchor the film with their megawattage charm and crafty performances, the remarkably good cast of character actors giving them support also give it flesh. Some of the strong turns include Gould, whose Kid Twist presents the incarnation of what perhaps every grifter wants to be as they get older, worldly and debonair and sublimely easy in their command of studied surfaces, and Kehoe, whose Kid Erie is the opposite, a small-timer like Hooker who wants a bit of payback and to prove himself capable in high-pressure situations. He gets his chance when Twist hires him and he successfully pushes the hook just a little bit deeper in Lonnegan in playing a gabby gambler hanging about Shaw’s bookie office. Jones, father of James Earl, does an invaluable job in a short time as he gives the film its initial dose of pathos, presenting the more realistic face of the aging con man, tired, greying, happy to take whatever happy exit he can grab. There’s also a great example of how an actor with a small role can almost steal a movie with one well-turned line, in this case Avon Long as Benny, the agent who rents Kid Twist the necessary fittings for the fake bookie’s office who, after Twist asks him if he wants to be paid a flat rate or get a percentage of the score and then learns the mark is Lonnegan, responds with wisest of wiseguy drawls, “Flat rate,” as there’s a good chance no-one might be alive to claim his money from.

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Amidst the largely masculine milieu and cast, Arliss and Brennan provide strong, refreshingly earthy presences. Billie’s relationship with Gondorff presents the only strong human attachment anyone glimpsed in the film retains, and she stands up to Snyder with a nonchalance that’s almost transcendental. The turning gears of the plot finally begin reaching their climax after Hill portrays his heroes, and villains, waking and readying on the morning of the main event with a sense of breath being inhaled and held. Hooker is surprised to find Loretta gone from her bed when he wakes up alone, but is pleased to see her in the alley outside, only for a gunman to appear behind her and plant a bullet in her forehead. Hooker, shocked, nonetheless finds the gunman (Joe Tornatore), the man who was watching him from across the street, was actually sent by Gondorff to protect him, and Loretta was Salino, who couldn’t kill Hooker the night before for witnesses but found the perfect way to keep him on ice overnight. A jarring moment but another one where the world of con artistry and professional murder have their common aspects in the game of concealment and surprise, Hooker almost falling victim to someone willing to play a long game.

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The other dangling subplot is resolved at the same time as the central tale, as Lonnegan descends into the bookie joint to place a mammoth $500,000 bet, goading ‘Shaw’ into taking the bet: “Not only are ye a cheat, you’re a gutless cheat as well.” The last twist of the knife is delivered, as Kid Twist in character as the source drives Lonnegan to apoplexy in his mortified report Lonnegan was meant to bet on the horse to place rather than win, but just as Lonnegan begins raising hell in bursts Polk and his agents with Snyder: Gondorff guns down Hooker when he realises he’s screwed him over, and Polk immediately shoots Gondorff. Snyder bustles Lonnegan out: the gangster should know he’s well out of it, but his fixation on his money almost overrides his good sense. Of course, once Lonnegan’s gone, the dead rise from the floor and wipe away the fake blood, fake FBI man shakes hands with resurrected Gondorff, and the band of merrie men start packing up to head their different ways, much richer and rather satisfied: “You’re right,” Hooker comments to Gondorff, harking back to the older man’s warning: “It’s not enough…But it’s close.”

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Hooker turns down his share of the take, not through some phoney attack of conscience – one thing the movie is blissfully freed from is any kind of official morality – but because he’s gained something in self-knowledge, an awareness of why he does the things he does and a sense of what he needs to do to escape his own vicious circle. So he and Gondorff stride off together, seen off by Hill with the last of his old-timey touches, an iris shot, closing the curtain on this rarefied annex where show business and crime readily commingle. The Sting has remained a permanent wellspring of influence in Hollywood, and not just in providing a reusable template to a subgenre of likeable, swashbuckling criminal trickster movies like Focus (2015) or Steven Soderbergh’s Oceans 11 series, which owes it infinitely more than the movie they nominally remade, and darker but still similar fare like The Usual Suspects (1995), but arguably in the whole craze for twist and puzzle narratives seen in the past quarter-century. But The Sting remains inimitable in its most fundamental qualities, its cast, its insouciant veneer and gentle mockery of familiar movie melodrama, and its old-fashioned faith that, no matter how clever the gimmick, what finally delivers the gold is the human element.

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1970s, Action-Adventure, Western

Jeremiah Johnson (1972)

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Director: Sydney Pollack
Screenwriters: Edward Anhalt, John Milius (uncredited: David Rayfiel)

By Roderick Heath

John Jeremiah Garrison “Liver-Eating” Johnson was one of those authentic characters of the American West’s history who nonetheless occupies a blurred zone between fact and legend. Born in 1824, Johnson became one of the strange breed of wandering trappers and traders called mountain men in Western mythology, after he deserted from the US army during the Mexican-American War. In later years he served during the Civil War, worked in various law enforcement jobs around Montana, and died in Santa Monica, California in 1900, a month after finally entering a retirement home for veterans. In between these reasonably verifiable incidents in his life, Johnson survived by hook and crook, trying his hand in dozens of professions and money-spinning endeavours, becoming the subject of campfire tales and popular legend along the way. The defining event of his life, and his myth, was a twenty-five-year-long blood feud with the Native American Crow nation, sparked when some of their warriors supposedly killed his wife, a woman of the Flathead nation. Johnson supposedly defeated untold numbers of their braves and committed the purposefully blasphemous act according to Crow belief of eating the livers of his felled foes, before eventually making peace with the tribe.
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In the late 1960s Western films began to change radically. After years of being annexed by Italians and over-plied on television, its great stars aging or dead, and many of its fundamental assumptions held in dubiety by the rising new zeitgeist, the genre seemed ready to slide into pompously moribund irrelevance. For a while, however, a fresh, eccentric, wilfully heretical breed of Western film suddenly appeared on the scene, armed with a revisionist outlook and shot through with countercultural questionings of both the historic and current states of America whilst often trying to call back to the cultural roots of the genre with greater authenticity. Sydney Pollack’s take on Johnson’s life isn’t as celebrated today as Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) or Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1972), but it stands with them as an exemplar of the breed. If Pollack’s adherence to an ethic of chic entertainment eventually made him entirely too safe and tony later in his career, his first decade’s work in particular remains startlingly strong for the way he managed to blend this ethic with the verve of genuinely rich and inventive cinema, achieving rhapsodic intensity in his best work.
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Pollack’s work with actor Robert Redford eventually defined much of both men’s careers, and began with Jeremiah Johnson, with Redford playing a role far out of his familiar character zone and yet echoing through his career to his solo role in 2013’s All Is Lost, where he played a similar self-exiled wanderer who has given up the world of men but finds that self-reliance entails facing great existential terror. Pollack’s film was made in uneasy collaboration with the spikiest of the young talents in New Hollywood, John Milius. A more peculiar collision of talents is hard to imagine. Milius, the self-appointed wild man of the Movie Brats, had steeped himself in frontier and outlaw mythology, and as he kicked off his directing career with Dillinger (1973) he also gained attention writing Jeremiah Johnson for Pollack and The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1973) for John Huston. Milius was hired by Warner Bros. to try and wrangle a workable script out of Raymond W. Thorp and Robert Bunker’s biography of Johnson, Crow Killer, and accomplished the feat by working in material from Vardis Fisher’s novel Mountain Man. Milius’ love of rambling narratives that move in obedience to the happenstance rhythm of folklore might have seemed a tad too eccentric at first glance and Pollack fired him, hiring the experienced Edward Anhalt in his place during production, only to then be obliged to rehire Milius because only he could handle the stylised, old-timer idiom of the dialogue.
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Jeremiah Johnson became a passion project for Pollack and Redford, who both eventually mortgaged their houses to help get it made, and some of it was shot on Redford’s Utah property. They were rewarded when it became the first Western ever in competition at the Cannes Festival, and became a big, surprise hit. Jeremiah Johnson extended a theme Pollack explored repeatedly as he depicted various periods in history and portrayed deeply alienated individuals at odds with official mythologies in each. Such characters ranged from the pathetically marooned protagonists of Castle Keep and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (both 1969) and the radicals of The Way We Were (1973), the conscientious spy hero of Three Days of the Condor (1975), the rebellious rodeo man of The Electric Horseman (1979), and the cross-dressing wannabe of Tootsie (1982). Even Pollack’s Oscar-winner Out of Africa (1985) to a certain extent offered a gender-flipped take on Jeremiah Johnson as it portrays Karen Blixen’s introduction to a land that serves as cradle for personal transformation.
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It says as much for the mood of 1972 as much as Pollack’s efficiency in erecting the essentials of the story that it takes little to explain why Johnson wants to leave behind civilisation and the company of human beings for a solitary existence relying on his own muscle and wit (and it might well explain why it feels a tad appealing now, too). A quick glance at Johnson’s faded military trousers, a store sign that invites white men only as customers, and a general sense of disgust with civilisation is quite easy to grasp. Johnson steps off a boat and takes only what he needs to survive up into the Rocky Mountains, “the marrow of the Earth” as one character calls them. Johnson is hardy but inexperienced in fending for himself, and his early travails confirm his lack of bushcraft, his fires doused by snow, his attempts to fish by hand ending in humiliation as he’s watched by a silent, grim-faced Crow warrior on horseback, a man he will later know by the name Paints-His-Shirt-Red (Joaquín Martinez): so pathetic a figure does Johnson cut that the great warrior decides he’s not threat and rides on. Johnson knows his life in the mountains depends on the forbearance of the local native populaces, so he makes a gift of hides he’s collected to Paints-His-Shirt-Red. He obtains a longed-for article, a .50 calibre Hawken rifle, when he comes across the frozen body of a predecessor named Hatchet Jack, who, with legs broken in a struggle with a bear, took the time to pen a will explaining the story and bequeathing the weapon to whoever finds it.
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Johnson soon encounters the prickly, long-experienced mountain man ‘Bear-Claw’ Lapp (Will Geer), who specialises in hunting grizzly bears for their hides, and chews out Johnson upon their first meeting for scaring away one of his quarries with his blundering ways. Bear-Claw gives Johnson a rude introduction to his own sense of humour as well as the vicissitudes of grizzly hunting as he deliberately lets one chase him into his cabin and leaves it to Johnson to deal with the critter. Johnson nonetheless sticks with Bear-Claw for a time as the old-timer schools him in survival in the mountains. After he takes his leave, Johnson encounters a tragic scene: a frontier cabin with two children left dead and scalped by some Blackfoot marauders, leaving their mother (Allyn Ann McLerie, in a brief but extraordinary performance) a distraught, unhinged wreck. When she threatens the interloping Johnson with a rifle, he manages to placate her (“Woman, I am your friend.”) and helps bury for the dead children, prompting a cruel miniature lampoon of John Ford as mother and man sing a ragged version of “Shall We Gather at the River” over the graves: the “civilising” march, which Ford so often used that hymn to denote as having arrived in the frontier, here has outpaced itself in the ugliest way possible. Johnson finds she has a third child, a young boy who can’t or won’t speak, and the woman thrusts the lad upon him with a vague assignment to get him away so she can maintain her mournful vigil. Johnson takes the boy in hand, naming him Caleb.
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Johnson’s picaresque encounters see him, in a fashion anticipatory of Steven Spielberg’s fascination for pick-up families, piece together the rudiments of a quasi-normal life, forging odd and spiky friendships with men like Bear-Claw and shaven-pated nut-job trapper Del Gue (Stefan Gieresch), performing neighbourly acts for the crazy lady (his using a boot sole as an improvised hinge for the cabin door is one of the film’s marvels of throwaway detail), before finally gaining a son in the form of Caleb and then a wife and setting up a home. Johnson’s first encounter with Gue is a surreal moment as he and Caleb find him buried up to his neck in sand, victim of robbery and misuse by the same band of marauding Blackfoot warriors that killed Caleb’s siblings. Johnson digs Gue out and agrees to help him take back his stolen articles when they locate the sleeping band, but Gue starts a fight with them, forcing Johnson to help until all their foes are dead. A band of Flathead braves comes upon them and Gue transfers his collected scalps onto Johnson’s horse in fear they might want to repay the favour, but instead Johnson finds himself celebrated for the feat of slaying the wanton band. When he accidentally commits a faux pas by gifting the scalps to the head of the Flathead tribe, Two-Tongues Lebeaux (Richard Angarola), a gift that’s hard to match, Gue warns they’re at risk of being killed, until Lebeaux gets the great idea of marrying Johnson to his daughter Swan.
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“I see I missed another war down there,” Bear-Claw notes as he sees Johnson’s military trousers, offering the promise of blissful indifference to the drop-out who can make a go of it in the mountains. Later, Johnson has to ask whether or not the war he fled is over yet. Jeremiah Johnson contemplates this corner of the American landscape as a place of terrible but rarely entirely arbitrary violence. People kill for many reasons in the course of the film, for the cause of survival, defence of territory, for revenge and points of honour and even an eccentric spiritual cause; but it’s a deeply personal kind of violence all the way, rather than the anonymous clash of civilisations and abstract forces of history, which is one reason why, for all the woe he suffers and exacts, Johnson still prefers this way of life to any other. The narrative describes a great concentric circle that moves in accord with Johnson’s peripatetic ways, early scenes meeting their mirror later in the film, those early episodes gaining new meaning and import, as Johnson returns to places and reencounters people he met along the way, and experiences things he previously only glimpsed as an onlooker in his attempt to remove himself from the flow of history and society. The mountain man gives way to the settler; the land of the Crows becomes the Department of Colorado. The land gives unto Johnson unexpected bounties and burdens and then takes them away again with the same curt beneficence.
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Jeremiah Johnson bears distinct traces of the odd and volatile blend of creative sensibilities involve in its making – Milius’ ornery admiration for outsized figures at war with the world, Redford’s quiet, mindful observation and regard for setting, Pollack’s romanticism – and yet it never feels divided against itself. The film mediates ideas and images Pollack had parsed already in his films as well anticipating works to come. His interest in characters trying urgently to find a place for themselves in the world, and finding they can step in and out of roles with surreal mutability, echoes the gritty social drama of This Property Is Condemned (1966) and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? as well as the multiverse fantasia of Castle Keep, whilst The Electric Horseman would transplant the drama to a contemporary setting. Pollack’s suggestions of time and being in a state of flux as human nature wars with itself explored in Castle Keep recur here too, particularly in the sense of time in a gyre, of events repeating over and over according to cycles of nature and human perversity. The eagle embodying some spiritual force that haunted the soldiers of Castle Keep returns here to appeal to Johnson and warn him as it wings high above, seen vanishing in the mountain peaks where Johnson will soon face a consequential test.
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Since Ford’s Rio Grande (1950), with its band of troubadour choruses, and particularly High Noon (1952) with its faux-folk ballad theme song explaining the film’s essence, many a Western had aspired to entwining musical and cinematic narrative. This idea had a particular appeal in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s in the wake of a folk music boom, and many of the Western films around this time aspired to the state of achieving a cinematic texture closely akin to such music, a moody, low-key, ambling place that immerses completely in a way of feeling and seeing. McCabe and Mrs. Miller, with its soundtrack of carefully inserted Leonard Cohen hits and Bob Dylan’s score for Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) came close, but Jeremiah Johnson matched them with a specially crafted soundtrack that entwines deeply with the onscreen images and presaging motifs, like “the day that you tarry is the day that you lose” for a hero whose dedication to movement lends him the aspect of a holy fool. Purportedly because it was a cheaper option than hiring a name composer, actors Tim McIntire and John Rubinstein successfully sold Pollack on using their score with interpolated songs, charting Johnson’s life passage playing over images of his physical journeying in low, sonorous phrases. All this leads to the totemic final sung line, “And some folks say he’s up there still,’” as Johnson passes through a metaphysical veil to become the spirit of the land itself.
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The song scoring is particularly vital as otherwise Jeremiah Johnson could be one of the quietest mainstream films ever made, with long passages with scarcely any dialogue spoken or with untranslated Native American speech, and Pollack depending almost entirely on the rhythm of the editing and behaviour to hold the screen: he referred to it as his silent film. The audience learns the arts of mountain survival alongside Johnson. Pollack’s developing instincts as filmmaker for a mass audience nonetheless emerge in touches like the bear scene, where he offers an effect faintly reminiscent of Looney Tunes cartoons by simply watching the cabin from outside with the tumult within registering on the soundtrack. The cinematography by Duke Callaghan always considers the characters in relationship with their environment, the great cathedral domes of the mountains crusted in snow beckoning with promises of the sublime, the snow-packed alpine forests and grey, gritty scrublands. All have a specific meaning in terms of the human drama as well as foraging, as Johnson’s yearnings for escape aim always towards the high peaks but demand hunting for subsistence down where the animals lurk, and finally when Johnson drifts into something like wedded bliss he builds a cabin down on the flatlands. When he finally does venture into the highest stretches of the mountains, Johnson finds himself doomed to disturb a taboo, because communing with the sky is a pleasure reserved for eagles and spirits.
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Johnson finds unexpected accord with others who share the land with him even though they’re all seemingly defined by the same distaste for company; even the mad woman and her husband seem to have been driven out to the middle of nowhere (which is always someone else’s somewhere) in obedience to impulse that has no name. The likes of Bear-Claw, who admits that he’s never been able to adapt to a domestic situation and remains bewildered by the thought (“I never could find no tracks in a woman’s heart.”) and the shambolic Del Gue are weirdos suited for the wilds, whilst Johnson is still young and retains the reflexes of a romantic hero, much as he tries to bury it under a taciturn surface. The gentle humour, close to a romantic comedy, of Johnson’s unwilling marriage and setting up home with Swan and Caleb, sees Johnson gobsmacked by erotic contact (“Lord!”) and contending with forces he’s not too happy with, like religion, as Swan comes from a Christianised tribe who insists on saying grace. Johnson’s occasional slips into absurd boastfulness with Bear-Claw and then his serendipitous wife and son (“Great hunter!…Fine figure of a man!…That is all you need to know.”) betray his intense unease with company and also the constantly noted tension between his pretences to haughty self-reliance and the knockabout way he achieves it.
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The longing for a Zen-like deliverance from the bawling pressure of American life Pollack would return to repeatedly comes closest to being realised in Jeremiah Johnson, but also terminates in the fractious violence that results when ways of life collide. There’s an echo of this in a pivotals scene in The Yakuza (1974) in which Richard Jordan’s young gunman meditates upon his Japanese lover’s tea making skills moments before a gang of hoodlums breaks down the door. Johnson’s journey can be seen as a logical end-point for the countercultural idyll of going back to nature, and as a wistful conservative fantasy for the days of self-reliance. Pollack depicts the process of Johnson, Swan, and Caleb fusing together into a family and constructing a life for themselves with a dash of cosiness that might seem a bit too Little House on the Prairie at points, although it’s a cosiness that eventually turns out to have a ruthless price. Pollack’s sense of rhythmic visual storytelling and feel for detail certainly never desert him. Life together sees Johnson absorbing Swan’s language to the point where they can converse, the couple clearly genuinely in love, and Johnson taking pride in Caleb learning the arts of trapping and other vicissitudes of frontier life.
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Casting Redford as Johnson had a counterintuitive quality, particularly considering Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood had been considered for the role before him. Redford’s screen persona was usually considered anything but hard-bitten, with his golden boy looks and urbane, upright, but slightly cagey aura, and the period brogue sounds odd coming out of his mouth at first. But his presence soon proves vital, as he imbues Johnson with an everyman quality. He’s no giant frontier warrior who seems fittingly born to the wilds, but an ordinary guy who slowly but surely grows into the role he’s chosen, and there’s an almost shocking sense of revelation when he finally shaves for Swan and Redford’s handsome mug is revealed again. Wry deflations continue, as Johnson does the unthinkable and shaves off his beard to save Swan from being scratched by it, only to find she doesn’t recognise him, and their domestic bliss is frustrated by annoyances like scarce game and Swan’s unimpressive cooking skills. Nonetheless Johnson finds tranquillity in a life that seems to be the opposite of what he wanted, enacting, after a fashion, a version of the real Johnson’s life that doubles as a parable for the unexpected way life tends to accumulate around us.
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Johnson’s reverie is shattered when a cavalry unit arrives outside his cabin, and for a long moment he stares in bewilderment at the commander, Lt. Mulvey (Jack Colvin), and a reverend, Lindquist (Paul Benedict), before laughing and explaining to them he hasn’t heard so much English spoken to him in a long time. The soldiers have sought him out because he knows the land and can guide them to a party of settlers lost and probably snowbound up in a high mountain pass, and Johnson agrees to help. A unique diptych is offered for Johnson’s perusal: Mulvey, with his dedication to service and sense of necessity (“You say you have to hunt – I have to try.”) represents the best of civilisation and Lindquist, with his casual racism and self-righteous disdain for Johnson’s sensibilities and anything outside the purview of God and empire, embodies the worst. Crisis arrives when Johnson finds the path he’s leading the unit on leads through a Crow burial ground. Johnson becomes afraid of what offending the Crow might entail, Lindquist advocates bullishly moving through, and Lindquist feels bound to do what will fulfil his orders. Johnson reluctantly acquiesces, presaging a strikingly tense and eerie sequence as the horse soldiers proceed in deathly quiet across a somnolent, snowclad land amidst vaulted skeletons grinning at the sky, the feeling of deadly violation and broken covenants all but palpable.
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Johnson succeeds in guiding the soldiers to the lost party, but panics at some subliminal cue as he returns through the burial ground and speeds home. Pollack stages one of his greatest sequences here as he portrays Johnson’s dash along the last few metres to his cabin with a hand-held camera shot, breaking upon a scene of carnage as Swan and Caleb both lie dead and scalped. Johnson remains sitting for a night and a day in silent meditation before his horse wandering around outside rouses him. Johnson tenderly places Swan and Caleb together on a bed and sets the cabin afire, watching it burn down as their pyre before setting out after the Crow war party responsible. When he finds them encamped, Johnson strides into their camp, taking them by surprise through his sheer audacity, and a whirlwind of violence is unleashed as Johnson shoots two and smites others. Johnson only comes out of his berserker state when the last one stands off against him and starts singing his death song, and Johnson lets him flee. Something like justice, blended in with primal revenge, but Johnson soon learns the cost is a vendetta as the Crow send out warriors one by one to take him on, dogging his days and nights.
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Jeremiah Johnson reveals itself as, in part, the tragedy of a man who gains exactly what he wanted at first even as life gave him other possibilities. A late scene sees Johnson reunited with Bear-Claw and the two men struggling to work out what month it is. But it’s also a tale that uses Johnson’s life as a parable for mastery over self, the necessity life sometimes presents of picking up from square one again and making sense of it according to a private compass, and the narrative undercuts the idea anyone can live a life separate from humanity, as Johnson’s initial status as onlooker at the crazy woman’s calamity gives way to his own. The land itself is bounty, arena, church, and trap for all the characters: Johnson’s late encounter with Del Gue sees him deliver an ecstatic, poetic paean to the glory of the Rockies, a land worth all suffering to experience and dwell in, in the film’s most Milius-esque moment. The film’s gyre-like structure sees Johnson encountering his comrades in solitude and returning to the crazy woman’s shack, where he finds a shrine set up to him by the Crow and a new family led by a quaky patriarch named Qualen (Matt Clark), representing the clumsy, clueless, yet unstoppable tide of colonisation: they might be doomed to like their predecessors end up strewn around like gory confetti, but there will be more, and more.
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The slaying of Swan and Caleb was a remarkably dark and risky twist even by the brusque standards of early ‘70s cinema, however demanded by the nominal historical record and leavened by proto-Death Wish (1974) satisfaction in Johnson’s swift retribution, reflecting the way the film sprung from, and spoke to, a specific anxiety of its era about roles of masculinity and fear of social breakdown. But eye-for-an-eye morality quickly descends into a self-perpetuating bloodbath, albeit one that both Johnson and his Crow enemies feel represents a deeper challenge. White man and indigenous man are doomed to ruthlessly battle, but there’s a sense of unity in opposites that points the way to the film’s last frame. It’s not the cheeriest of portraits of the old west, but it’s certainly greatly superior to the laboured, audience-flattering parables of Dances With Wolves (1990) and its ilk in suggesting a tentative understanding between Native American and European emerging from ruthless struggle for domain. The film’s last segment is often criticised, but I feel it’s perhaps the best thing Pollack ever did, as he depicts Johnson’s transformation from man to myth in a dazzling montage, Johnson battling various adversaries. Such contention is glimpsed in a string of Pollack and Callaghan’s most technically masterful shots, as Johnson is glimpsed atop a great boulder, a lens flare grazing across the screen as his opponent is felled and tumbled down a rock, somehow encapsulating all the epic flavour of folklore into one frame.
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The montage ends with Johnson swatted off his horse by an ambusher’s bullet, and another amazing shot results as Johnson plays possum, lying in wait for his enemy with one eye wide and waiting as the warrior pads cautiously up to his fallen form. Johnson refuses to be ousted from his chosen home and the Native Americans pay tribute to Johnson in the form of the shrine, which each warrior going out to meet him adds to, for Johnson learns he’s become a great ennobling enemy to the Crow and a fabled figure to the settlers. Although their duels apparently have little to do on the surface with the war of civilisations unfolding on the American landscape, still they become spiritual avatars for that clash, locked in a perpetual death brawl that ends not in triumph but in exhausted, wary, mutual respect. Johnson sees Paints-His-Shirt-Red salute him from a distance, and Johnson, after a long moment of contemplation, returns the salute with a smile: Pollack freezes the frame and fades out, using only that song lyric as a capstone. It’s one of the most understated movie endings ever, but also an enormously moving one, as it condenses a sense of struggle becoming accord, chaos birthing understanding, hatred yielding to brotherhood, the crude and terrible business of life touched with a breath of the eternal.

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