AFI #68: Unforgiven

I enjoy a good western, and Unforgiven is a good western. But in my opinion it’s not a great western, which is why I remember not loving it when it first came out in 1992 and also being very disappointed when it won the Oscar for best picture. Looking back at the list of nominees that year it’s clear now why I was upset — Unforgiven beat out two films I loved that year in The Crying Game and Scent of a Woman (hoo ha!).

But I’m actually quite glad I watched it again today. Maybe 20 years have given me some perspective. When the film came out a lot of reviewers lauded it for being the first realistic western, meaning it showed the ugly side of violence rather than glorifying it. Clint Eastwood made a hell of a living playing glorified cowboys and outlaws, so there is a sort of poetic justice here in him portraying the dark side of violence. His character, Will Munny, is not a hero. In fact, I’d argue he’s an anti-hero even though he avenged a brutalized woman. He didn’t do it for justice, rather he did it for money pure and simple. He also ran off on this ill-advised adventure leaving his young children home alone to fend for themselves — with no guarantee he’d ever return alive. That is no hero. The title I think could speak not to the fate of the cowboys who cut up a whore in a brothel, but rather to Munny who should be unforgiven for leaving his kids alone and putting himself at risk.

Unforgiven is dark, and unlike the traditional western you don’t feel a sense of justice at the end — you feel like the events of the film were a waste of energy and lives. Lots of people get killed, including some innocent bystanders and several lawmen. It portrays a west that is also unforgiving and hard, which is probably pretty realistic…at least more realistic than the classic western towns of films like High Noon and pretty much any John Wayne film. I guess that sets the film apart, but it doesn’t make it great and even though I liked it I wouldn’t call it great and I wouldn’t put it in the top 100 of all time.

One highlight was certainly Gene Hackman’s portrayal of sheriff Little Bill. Hackman won an Oscar for the role, and he was devilishly good. Eastwood was nominated for best actor but rightfully lost to Al Pacino for Scent of a Woman though my vote would have gone to Robert Downey Jr. for Chaplin or Denzel Washington for Malcolm X. All in all a great year for film!

Unforgiven also marked the beginning of Eastwood’s dark and introspective directing career. For me these past 20 years have been filled with ups and downs for Clint. I hated Million Dollar Baby and Bridges of Madison County, but loved what I’d call some of the best films of the past 20 years — Mystic River, Gran Torino, Changling and Letters From Iwo Jima to name a few. He is undoubtedly one of the best filmmakers of our time.

Next on the AFI list: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf

AFI #93: The French Connection

I barely remember seeing The French Connection when I was younger, so watching it today it was like watching a film I hadn’t seen. I’ll cut right to the chase — the film doesn’t hold up and honestly it’s pretty dull compared to most of today’s crime films. I suppose it was a good police film in 1971, but these days we’re saturated with crime drama and frankly the plots of most TV crime shows is far superior to The French Connection. It’s hard to believe this film won the Oscar for Best Picture.

I did like some things in The French Connection. Gene Hackman’s Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle is a memorable character, and Hackman won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of the gritty, boozing, racist cop with questionable skills. I also liked the style of the film…it has a definite early 70s mood and the direction caught the period well. But the action was slow and the plot was dull. Truth is Popeye Doyle didn’t do good police work to break up the big drug ring, rather he stumbled upon it. Once he was onto it he kept getting “made” by the people he was tailing and not only did he not catch the bad guy in the end he killed one of his own men in the process. Doyle is definitely a flawed character. The film is “loosely” based on a true story, so some of the plot failures may be due to that, but it doesn’t work for me.

And then there is the famous car chase. You know it…the one in which Gene Hackman swerves in and out of traffic under the elevated train trying to catch a bad guy. The thing is, it’s not a car chase at all. The film is remembered for the amazing car chase that never happened. Yes, he drives fast and almost kills a million other drivers on the road, but he’s trying to catch a train not another car. That doesn’t qualify as a car chase for me! I’ll take the car chase scene in To Live and Die in LA any day!

The French Connection is another film that for me is simply not as good as it is remembered for being. If it were filmed today it would be considered a bad episode of Law and Order.

Next Up: #92 Goodfellas