Weekly Top Five: The best of "Bloody" Sam Peckinpah | Bleader

Weekly Top Five: The best of "Bloody" Sam Peckinpah

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Ride the High Country
  • Ride the High Country
The fine folks behind the Northwest Chicago Film Society are wrapping up their winter programming on Wed 4/24 with a screening of the Sam Peckinpah film Convoy. (Luckily for us, NCFS is diving straight into its spring/summer offerings the following week; check out the complete schedule here.) Peckinpah's reputation as an alcoholic with a notoriously irascible personality tends to take precedence over his films, which is truly a shame considering the singularity of his work. Convoy, the second Peckinpah film screened at the Portage in recent months (the first was Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia), strikes me as an odd but no less worthwhile selection. It's by no means a perfect film, but as the NCFS website notes, "Convoy is one of those rare films that manages to be weirdly moving and simultaneously kick-ass," a joy for fans of subversive and strange filmmaking and essential for any Peckinpah completest.

In honor of the screening, you can catch my five favorite Peckinpah films after the jump.

5. The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970) After the success of The Wild Bunch, Peckinpah completely switched gears with this idyllic and energetic western, which is almost entirely devoid of violence. Likely spurred by Peckinpah's continuous heavy drinking, the shoot was problematic. It went overbudget and overschedule, and Peckinpah fired the majority of the crew. That such a snappy and expressive film could emerge from such circumstances is something of a marvel. Peckinpah often cited it as his favorite among the films he made, precisely because of its more playful tone.

4. The Wild Bunch (1969) The crown jewel of early New Hollywood. Relentless, introspective, and impeccably formed, the film represents Peckinpah at his most calculated. The final sequence has been discussed and analyzed for decades, and rightfully so, but the film features numerous artfully crafted action sequences. The frenetic editing, use of slow motion, and bravura approach to mise en scene render the film a singular experience.

3. Ride the High Country (1962) Peckinpah may have perfected his style with The Wild Bunch, but his earlier efforts aren't without charm; take, for example, this lyrical, deeply personal revisionist western about an ex-lawman who's hired to transport gold through a dangerous, crime-infested territory. Peckinpah reworked much of the script to incorporate elements of his own biography—in fact, the character of Steve Judd is based on Peckinpah's father. Ride the High Country also has an endearingly sentimental streak, and could be categorized as Peckinpah's most gentle film, a sort of lament for the old west in addition to a clearly radical reworking of the genre's tenets.

2. Cross of Iron (1977) The last truly great film Peckinpah made, a humorless though not entirely nihilistic WW II movie that brazenly mixes documentary footage with staged combat sequences. Told from the perspective of both German and Russian soldiers, the film positions itself on the front lines of battle and examines the psychological repercussions of war on the soldiers. But rather than atoning for the violence of his previous work, Peckinpah searches for the root cause of violence, presenting it as a systematic flaw of classism and errant masculinity. Upon seeing the film, Orson Welles sent Peckinpah a letter congratulating him on making the best antiwar film he'd ever seen.

1. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974) This self-referential, booze-soaked neonoir is the consummate Peckinpah film, featuring many of his trademark stylistics (slow motion, multiple camera setups, oppressive desert landscapes), as well as a bravura central performance from Warren Oates, playing a burned-out former army officer based on Peckinpah himself. The richly textured photography and strong characterization go a long way in filling in the fragmented story, which is so hastily told and lazily constructed that it often feels like an elaborate dream sequence.

Drew Hunt writes film-related top five lists every Sunday.

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