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View From The Couch

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THE BAD SLEEP WELL (1960). Akira Kurosawa dips his fingers into both Hamlet and film noir, gingerly lifts a few morsels of inspiration, and then tosses out the rest in order to fashion his own morality tale about the corruption running rampant in the world of Japanese business. Toshiro Mifune, playing it close to the vest, stars as Koichi Nishi, a corporate flunky privately scheming to get back at the company president (Masayuki Mori) responsible for the mysterious death of his father. Nishi marries the boss' handicapped daughter (Kyoko Kagawa), keeps a disgraced employee (Kamatari Fujiwara) under wraps after preventing the man's suicide, and manipulates other mid-level goons into unwittingly helping him carry out his plan for vengeance. This is one of Kurosawa's most deeply cynical pieces, as the biggest obstacle to Nishi's scheme isn't blind hatred or lust for power but rather his pure love for a woman. Yet for modern audiences, the biggest sting left by the film might be the dreary reminder that the bad still sleep well: As we watch scenes in which government officials discuss lucrative kickbacks with company presidents, it's impossible not to be reminded of the cozy relationship between Halliburton and our own White House sleazemongers. DVD extras include a half-hour documentary on the making of the film and the theatrical trailer.

Movie: Rating: ***

Extras: Rating: **

SAM PECKINPAH'S LEGENDARY WESTERNS COLLECTION (1962-1973). Watching these four Peckinpah oaters in tandem, the maverick director's long-standing themes become even more pronounced. In all four films, we watch aging cowboys attempt to hold onto their own brand of ethics -- in this case, loyalty to their cohorts in crime or law -- even as they find themselves pushed out of their Old West milieu thanks to the newfangled ideas of the burgeoning 20th century. What's also apparent -- not just through the titles collected here but throughout the whole Peckinpah canon -- is that the man equaled John Ford when it came to loyalty to his actors: From Slim Pickens to Strother Martin, the same faces appear repeatedly throughout these sagebrush sagas, members of a cinematic repertory company that traded curtain calls for saddle sores.

How popular is Ride the High Country (1962) among its devotees? In his book Alternate Oscars, author Danny Peary states that this (non-nominated) film should have earned the Best Picture Oscar over To Kill a Mockingbird and eventual winner Lawrence of Arabia. That might be overstating the case, but certainly the film ranks among Peckinpah's finest efforts, with Western superstars Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea winding down their careers with this eloquent piece about two grizzled vets hired to protect a gold shipment through rough terrain. The upstanding Steve Judd (McCrea) doesn't know that his longtime friend Gil Westrum (Scott) plans to steal the gold, but the pair are eventually united against a common enemy when a family of "redneck peckerwoods" (as our heroes call them) menaces the young woman (Mariette Hartley) accompanying them on their journey. McCrea's character is as inspiring as any of the pillars of virtue played by Cooper or Wayne -- when he states that his only wish is to "enter my House [i.e., Heaven] justified," it can bring a tear to your eye. Peckinpah would never again make a film as humanistic as this one.

The Wild Bunch (1969) is the acknowledged masterpiece in the Peckinpah oeuvre, though for a venerable classic, it's met with its share of detractors over the years. The controversy was most pronounced upon its original release, when its operatic blood-letting -- coupled with that shown in 1967's Bonnie and Clyde -- signaled a new age in screen violence. Years of imitations have diluted the impact of this film's slow-motion carnage, yet what remains is a solid drama in which a weary gang of outlaws, led by the gruff Pike Bishop (William Holden), finds itself embroiled in the power plays of a ruthless Mexican general (Emilio Fernandez) even as they're being chased by a posse headed by Pike's former partner Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan). The Wild Bunch has been shown over the years in various edited versions, but this edition reinstates all deleted scenes and brings the running time back up to its original 145 minutes.

Peckinpah opted for a change of pace with The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), a humorous and leisurely paced Western marked by two strong central performances. Jason Robards is in top form as the title character, who, after being left to die in the desert by two shady acquaintances (Strother Martin and L.Q. Jones), instead stumbles across a hidden water hole and decides to build a rest stop around it. Stella Stevens, who just seven years earlier had proven to be a suitable partner for Jerry Lewis in The Nutty Professor, again strikes comic gold, this time as an opportunistic hooker who unexpectedly falls for Cable. Peckinpah locates a rich vein of comedy in this slender material, which makes the ending (thematically appropriate as it may be) more jolting than perhaps intended.

The original print of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) was barely dry when the MGM brass wrested it out of Peckinpah's hands and snipped it down to their liking. This 104-minute butchered version is the one that has made the rounds over the ensuing years, though in 1988, several scenes were reinstated and the running time beefed up to 122 minutes. It's this latter version that's available in this DVD collection, but that's not all: Yet another edit of the film, based on Peckinpah's own notes and running 115 minutes, is also included. The 103-minute version (which I've never seen) is reportedly a disaster, but the two takes included here are of comparable quality, meaning that they're interesting without being totally successful. Narratively, Peckinpah is working on a sprawling canvas, and his attempt to cram in multiple story threads means that some invariably get lost in the shuffle. James Coburn and Kris Kristofferson are fine as Pat and Billy, two former friends now on opposite sides of the law, while a miscast Bob Dylan nevertheless adds color as Billy's trusty sidekick Alias. Dylan also composed the song score for the movie, and Peckinpah's placement of "Knockin' On Heaven's Door" in one particularly poignant sequence was a masterful stroke.

Wild Bunch and Pat Garrett are packaged in two-disc DVD editions; extras found on all four titles include audio commentary by a quartet of Peckinpah biographers, short features on Peckinpah, and a trailer gallery. The Garrett set also features Kristofferson performing original songs inspired by the movie, while the Bunch edition contains the Oscar-nominated short documentary, The Wild Bunch: An Album In Montage.

Ride the High Country: Rating: *** 1/2

The Wild Bunch: Rating: *** 1/2

The Ballad of Cable Hogue: Rating: ***

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid: Rating: **1/2

Extras: Rating: ***

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