The Crack of Dawn
The Crack of Dawn
Although it’s now forgotten, in the late 1980s, and into the early ‘90s, Clint Eastwood’s luck had run out. He had a shocking run of miserable, bomb movies in a row – City Heat, Pink Cadillac, Tightrope, Honky Tonk Man, White Hunter, Back Heart, Bird, The Rookie – that it seemed like he was heading straight toward retirement. Hell, in 1990 Clint Eastwood was 60 years old, which is old in Hollywood, and he seemed to have lost his sense of what was good, or what anyone wanted to see.
Then Clint did something that I would have never guessed he could do – he made a great movie, Unforgiven (1992). For me personally, Unforgiven is the last great movie. I was so utterly impressed on every level – and from Clint Eastwood, of all people – that I went back to the theater and saw it again the next day. That used to happen with some regularity: a movie that was so good that I was compelled to see it again as soon as possible, just to make sure that I wasn’t kidding myself. And no, I wasn’t kidding myself, Unforgiven is a great movie on every possible level: script, direction, casting, photography, and it doesn’t have a wrong moment in it. And best of all, in my opinion, is that it’s loaded with great lines of dialogue. Memorable dialogue is my single favorite thing in movies, and it’s not in movies anymore. Here, I’ll do my best.
Morgan Freeman is dead in a coffin in front of the saloon. His head is bent at an unnatural angle, and there is a sign around his neck, saying, “This is what we do with assassins in this town.” Inside the saloon, Sheriff Little Bill (Gene Hackman) is buying drinks. An out-of-focus shoulder appears at the bottom of the frame. Clint Eastwood’s voice asks, “Who owns this shit-hole?” A guy steps forward and says, “I do. I bought it from Greely.” Clint says, “Then you’d better not decorate it with my friends. Anyone who doesn’t want to die better step away from that man.” People quickly step away, and Clint kills the guy. Hackman’s eyes glare, “You must be William Munny, out of Kansas. You’re the killer of women and children.” Clint says, “I’ve killed women and children. I’ve killed everything that walks or crawls, and now I’m going to kill you, Little Bill.”
In any case, I was standing in front of Circuit City in L.A. and who was standing next to me, but Saul Rubinek, who is great as the bespectacled western writer in Unforgiven. In his own way, he’s the lead of the movie; it’s his point of view that sort of moves us through the story. He’s the only one who lives through the shoot-out, and he’s already getting details to write it before he runs away.
He explained what Clint’s set was like while shooting the film. As we’ve all heard, it’s very calm, Clint knows exactly what he wants, but doesn’t tell the actors what to do at all, except to hits marks on the set, and even that’s optional. Hitting the mark means that you’re in the light, but you don’t have to be. If you had a decent reason to not be in the light, that was fine with Clint. However, unlike what you always hear about Clint using the first take, or even getting a take before you know that the camera is on – which he has done – he usually runs the scene a few times, like we all do, then he shoots it twice.
Saul Rubinek said very proudly that in the final scene of Unforgiven – one of my favorite scenes in movies – when Clint has just killed Little Bill (Gene Hackman) – he turns to Saul Rubinek and they have a scene together. So, they did their scene twice, and it went pretty well. Clint seemed satisfied, and was ready to move on, and Saul said, “Clint, do yourself a favor and do it again.”
Well, nobody gives Clint Eastwood direction. He doesn’t think he can act anyway. Saul said that they went again, and that was the take he used in the movie. He was very proud of getting Clint to go again.
Meanwhile, in front of that same Circuit City, I met Jurgen Prochnow, the craggy, German star of Das Boot (1981). I told him I thought the film was amazing, and he thought so too. We didn’t talk for long.
But wait, in the 1980s, in the early days of computers, I didn’t have a printer. It was dot matrix then, and I wouldn’t buy one. I went to a shop in Westwood, and kept running into Monte Hellman. I mean, like eight times. Monte Hellman directed two westerns starring Jack Nicholson: The Shooting (1967) and Ride the Whirlwind (1965), which Nicholson wrote. They’re both perfectly OK movies.
My buddy Rick and I saw Monte Hellman’s western film, China 9, Liberty 37 (1978), with Warren Oates and Jenny Agutter, at the L.A. County Museum and Monte was there. Early in the film you see a sign that points in two directions and says, “China 9, Liberty 37,” so that mystery is quickly cleared up. After the film, Rick asked him, in a really nice way, “So, are you married to that title?” And he was. He was adamant. It was China 9, Liberty 37, or nothing.
I’m not sure why I feel the need to make this clear, but I do – I haven’t got a shred of nostalgia in me. Those weren’t the good old days; those were just the times I lived through. I don’t want to return to any of it. It’s simply the panorama of events that I have to work with.
The blue gels are just beginning to reveal the outlines of the trees.
A new day has begun.