Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Magnificent Seven: The Movie and the Music


By Nicholas Stix

If there's a more rousing opening theme—the first 1:33 or so—in the history of pictures, I haven't heard it. This was the first installment of Bernstein’s masterpiece run in film scores, which continued with To Kill a Mockingbird, and ended with The Great Escape, the first and last of which were directed by John Sturges. Mockingbird was directed by Robert Mulligan.

(Give a listen to the opening theme from To Kill a Mockingbird here.)

The movie, a remake of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, was one of the greatest and most successful remakes ever done. The brilliant cast included Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, James Coburn, Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn, and Eli Wallach, as the bandit Calvera. (Vaughn and Wallach are the last major cast members still alive.) Most of the aforementioned players were just on their way up, so that they were available for quite reasonable rates, though for more than the $20 for six weeks' work that the down-on-their-luck characters they played accepted.

Like a jazz ensemble, each of the actors I named was given several scenes in which to play solo, and in which he shone.

This is a Western, and so the characters are not big talkers. But most of the scenes do not involve a lot of talk. But the spare dialogue is excellent.

While Chris and Vin drive a hearse holding a dead Indian up to Boot Hill, where a "welcoming committee" seeks to prevent his burial, on racial grounds, a faceless nemesis fires a rifle out of a hotel window, trying to blow Chris' head off.

Vin: Elected?

Chris (pulling a cigar out of his mouth that the shooter had split down the middle): Nominated.

And the performers infuse their roles with their personal and physical charms. Coburn’s role, for instance, as Britt, has almost no dialogue, and yet he gives a great performance through sheer physicality. As Uta Hagen says, in Respect for Acting, your body is your instrument. And the most physically charming performance of all is that of Steve McQueen, who fills his role as Vin with all sorts of physical business, like a chuck (a combination of a resigned cluck and a chaw), where his character must make a point without words.

Reportedly, these bits of business did not endear McQueen to his fellow thespians, some of whom thought he was using them to steal scenes, but they certainly endeared him to moviegoers.

The most touching performance is given by Charles Bronson, a wonderful actor who rarely got his due, as Mexican-Irish Bernardo O'Reilly. (This had much to do with politics; had Bronson been a good socialist or communist, or made movies that promoted said politics, the critics would have loved him, and he might have gotten Academy Award nominations. It sure worked for Warren Beatty and Susan Sarandon.)

Starring as the man who organizes the heroes, Yul Brynner is surprisingly good for a man who spoke with a (“exotic”) Russian accent who, with his shaved head, did not look like a Western hero, and who was making his first—but far from his last—Western.

Look for John Alonzo, who is solid as “Tomas,” one of the village leaders. Alonzo would soon switch to cinematography, in which he would have a much more successful career, including an Academy Award nomination for his stellar work on Chinatown. Alonzo also directed several TV movies and, though you won’t learn this from IMDB, which whiffed on it, came back to acting in 1989, for Lonesome Dove, in which he played the second cook. Note, however, that while he looked tall in Seven, he looked tiny in Dove. Was he wearing elevator shoes in Seven, or was he teamed up with tiny actors?

Charles Lang’s cinematography is not flashy, and has the traditional action movie virtue of letting the viewer actually see and comprehend what is transpiring, rather than today’s fetish of incoherence (e.g., Oliver Stone’s Platoon).

An uncredited “star” of The Magnificent Seven is composer Elmer Bernstein, whose ambitious score is central to the film’s power. Even during scenes where you wouldn’t expect a strong musical presence, such as after the successful burial on Boot Hill, with its rousing theme, Bernstein continues in a low yet tense key, accompanying the terse, physical conversation (much of which is through gesture and business) between traveling salesman Henry (Val Avery), Chris, and Vin.

I didn’t cite “Seven” members Brad Dexter and Horst Buchholz as being among the brilliant cast, because neither was a brilliant actor. However, Dexter did excellent work in the film, and later said that he’d had the time of his life making it, even though he seems to have lost most of his earnings playing cards at night, after the days' shooting. Buchholz, a German appearing in his first flick, as a young Mexican villager who joins the Seven, was less satisfying. Instead of speaking Spanish with a Mexican accent, his English accent is easily identifiable—to those of us familiar with that sort of thing—as that of a postwar, West German schoolboy. Although Buchholz has some good scenes on the road to the village, mostly involving no dialogue, he amateurish overacts in most of his big scenes.

The Magnificent Seven runs two hours and eight minutes, but you’d never know it. Veteran action director John Sturges keeps things moving. According to the documentary that accompanies the DVD I saw the picture on, Sturges demanded and got a producer’s credit, and the extra money that went with it, for directing the picture, but stole the producer’s credit from Lou Morheim, who had put together the picture, yet who settled for an “Associate Producer” credit, rather than undertake a possibly Quixotic legal fight.

* * *

A few years after the movie came out, Marlboro cigarettes adopted the theme for its ads, and it became the most popular commercial jingle of all time. During my childhood, to my knowledge, it played at least once an hour in a commercial on every TV channel, a minimum of 8,760 times per year per channel. And no one ever got tired of it!

A couple of cowboys would be riding around, furiously, herding cattle. One in particular had a hard face (something like the way Bill Holden would later look in The Wild Bunch) and bristly, light brown mustache.

“You get a lot to like, in a Marlboro. Filter, flavor, [soft] pack or box.

“Come to where the flavor is. Come to Marlboro country.”

The ads made Bernstein a fortune in royalties, until they were banned by the unconstitutional 1970 federal bill, signed into law by President Richard Nixon, that outlawed the advertising of tobacco products on TV, effective January 2, 1971.

Marlboro had been introduced in 1902 by the British tobacco company Phillip Morris as a lady’s cigarette “featuring a red tip to hide lipstick marks. It does not catch on with the public.”

The brand didn’t pick up in sales until the early-to-mid 1950s, after the introduction of tough-looking “Marlboro Men” (sailors and athletes). It wasn’t until 1964 that the “Marlboro Country” ads began, featuring cowboys and Bernstein’s music. At that point, Winston (“Winston tastes good, like a cigarette should”) was the world’s most popular cigarette. Early in the “Marlboro Country” ad era, Marlboro’s sales increased at a rate of 10 percent per year.

One year after the TV advertising ban goes into effect, Marlboro surpasses Winston, to become the world’s most popular cigarette.

One of the men who played the Marlboro Man later contracted lung cancer, and filmed a public service ad on the horrors of smoking. There was a lot of that going around those days, as men who had spent their adult lives enjoying a vice that they knew was deadly (also Brynner and William Talman), suddenly saw the light at five minutes to midnight. It was undignified, and likely of little preventive value.

Thanks to sjsjsjssfd.

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