Monday, August 27, 2018

WOMEN OF THE WEST: new Anthology Film Archives series features 18 westerns with female protagonists

The usual suspects are all gathered here: Joan Crawford in Nick Ray's Johnny Guitar, Jean Arthur in Wesley Ruggles' Arizona, and especially Barbara Stanwyck (above), who stars in in three films in this series: Anthony Mann's The Furies, Sam Fuller's Forty Guns and Allan Dwan's Cattle Queen of Montana. These are all from the glory days of the American western, the 1940s and 50s. But among the surprise delights of this new series -- WOMEN OF THE WEST, presented by Anthology Film Archives in New York City and beginning this Friday, August 31, through Sunday, September 16 -- are some unexpected near-gems.

Look for Gordon Parks, Jr.'s Thomasine & Bushrod (above: a sort-of Blacksploitation western from 1974), Maggie Greenwald's The Ballad of Little Joe (a cross-dressing surprise from 1993) and a must for any Lina Wertmuller "completists" out there, The Belle Starr Story, a Spaghetti western from 1968 that Wertmuller co-wrote, co-directed (under the pseudonym of Nathan Wich) and then took over, once her co-writer/director Piero Cristofani left the film.

All these and more are part of the series which TrustMovies imagines will be catnip for feminists, western fans and just about anybody who appreciates oddball movies -- some of them very good indeed.

Having already seen most of the films included here, I'll concentrate on the Wertmuller, which was spanking new to me and is not very good at all. Nor is the print I viewed via DVD screener, said to be provided by The Swedish Film Institute, which is utterly bleached of color and looks like it was transferred from a much-copied VHS tape back in the day.

From the outset almost everything about this silly movie seems rudimentary, as though everyone involved -- from those in front to the camera to those behind it -- were  thinking, "God, let's just get this over with!"

Consequently, it is difficult to determine or even imagine what drew Ms Wertmuller (shown at right) to the project, other than the opportunity to simply be able to direct a movie. Any movie. And, as this occurred very early in her career, it must have provided some important on-the-job training.

What the movie does have is a couple of Italian
"stars" of some note from the 1960s, especially the beautiful, slightly-freckle-faced Elsa Martinelli (shown below) in the leading role as that American woman outlaw icon known as Belle Starr.

Also onboard is the darkly handsome hunk, George Eastman (below), as another outlaw named Larry Blackie, who proves especially good at undressing, rolling his eyes and laughing a lot. The two of them prove to be one of those on again/off again romances in which the lovers keep vying for control over each other, with neither willing to give in (this would become a kind of hallmark of much of Wertmuller's work).

With a screenplay that's as obvious, silly, clunky and pseudo-poetic as it gets, the movie gives us Belle's back story and history -- which includes a lecherous and evil uncle, an Indian maiden rescued from lynching, and a friend-and-maybe-eventual lover (played by Robert Woods, below),

all finally leading up to the major diamond heist that provides the movie's most compelling section -- it's final half hour in which things heat up and get a little interesting for a change.

We get a bit of safe-cracking, the robbery itself, and then -- via a Pinkerton agent (Bruno Corazzari, below) who proves both the movie's major villain, as well as a bizarre bit of actual conscience at film's end -- a nasty, sexy torture scene complete with homoerotic overtones between said agent and our semi-hero Blackie (above).

The Belle Starr Story will take you back to a time when men were men, women women, and those Italian spaghetti westerns were already getting way too long in the tooth. And it'll make you eager to view again some of Ms Wertmuller's later films, while offering the chance to see an example of how this talented director, movie-wise at least, first cut her own teeth.

Her film will play during AFA's Women of the West series on Monday, September 10, at 6:45pm; on Wednesday, September 12, at 9pm and on Friday, September 14 at 9pm.  To view the entire AFA series schedule, simply click here.          

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