Sunday, August 30, 2009

1992 - Unforgiven

After a bit more research, I have now narrowed down my list of unavailable Best Picture nominees to just three. It appears that two are bereft of commercial releases - 1930-31 nominee East Lynne and 1934 nominee The White Parade. Both films apparently survive in prints at the UCLA Film Archive, accessible by prior authorisation (whatever that means). The third missing film is genuinely missing. The Patriot, nominated in 1928-29, is simply lost, save for one reel that was found a few years ago in Portugal, of all places. The three-minute trailer still exists as well, housed again at UCLA. Perhaps I can just substitute the missing film for the Mel Gibson war epic of the same name.

This probably means that those three awards years will be left to nearer the end of the project and I'll deal with those films' unavailability when the time comes. But, who knows - maybe, if we're lucky, the rest of The Patriot will show up in someone's attic before I'm done.

Today, it was time for 1992's eventual winner of the Best Picture race...


Unforgiven
Director:
Clint Eastwood
Screenplay:
David Webb Peoples
Starring:
Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman, Richard Harris, Jaimz Woolvett, Saul Rubinek, Frances Fisher
Academy Awards:
9 nominations
4 wins, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Supporting Actor

A blend of film noir and western, Unforgiven relates the story of William Munny, a retired gunslinger with a shamefully violent past. He learnt the error of his ways thanks to the love of a good woman, but she passed on a few years ago and now it's just him and his two kids, barely scraping by on a farm in 1880s Kansas.

Meanwhile, in the oddly-named town of Big Whiskey, Wyoming, a local prostitute is repeatedly slashed across the face when she foolishly lets slip a giggle upon witnessing the size (or lack thereof) of a customer's wedding tackle. The town's hard-nosed sheriff, oddly named Little Bill, delivers a relatively lenient punishment to the assailant, oddly named Quick Mike, and his companion, which is deemed less than satisfactory by the whore's madam, oddly named Strawberry Alice. Consequently, she and the rest of the girls in the brothel pool together $1,000 to offer as a reward to anyone who can kill the two ruffians. Unsurprisingly, the hard-nosed sheriff is none too happy about his ruling being ignored, so his nose just becomes harder.

The mission is hastily taken on by a brash young man, oddly named the Schofield Kid, who enlists the help of Mr. Munny after hearing of his murderous ways of yore. Munny, in turn, enlists the help of his old friend, not so oddly named Ned, and the unlikely trio set off to win the reward, unaware of Little Bill's intent to thwart any who try.

The first thing that strikes the viewer on watching Unforgiven is the superbly beautiful cinematography. The vastness of the Western landscapes, the flickering intensity of the campfire light, the sparkly daggers of the heavy rain, and the uniquely imposing shape of Clint Eastwood's snarling face. From the opening silhouette, the visuals take on a role of their own. And it's nice to have something so pleasant to look at while you wait for the story to unfold. For Unforgiven moves at a fairly leisurely pace, right up until the final act. It's not that nothing happens. Not at all. There's always something happening, but there is a languishing intensity that keeps things moving a little slowly, which is something not unusual for this genre. I mean, you can't very well have a fast-paced suspenseful showdown, now, can you?

It is amusing to see Clint playing the inept out-of-practice cowboy. He has trouble mounting his horse. He falls face first into the mud while trying to rustle up his pigs. He can't even shoot a tin can off a stump. But we also see the Clint we know and love - the brooding Clint, the imposing Clint, the calmly confrontational Clint. Supporting him are two legends of the screen, Gene Hackman, exquisitely ruthless in his Oscar-winning role as the sheriff, and Morgan Freeman, brilliant as always, as Clint's only real friend. Plus, we get a treat with Professor Dumbledore ... I mean, Richard Harris, as the sheriff's long-time nemesis, English Bob.

Despite it's deliberate pace, the shootouts and showdowns, obligatory in all Westerns, are indeed riveting. But Unforgiven is first and foremost a thinker. There are plenty of moral ambiguities and internal struggles to mull over once the closing credits roll.

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