Thursday, March 12, 2009

4 for Texas

Here's a little lesson about tone.

The tone of a picture should, ideally, suit the story you're telling. For example, if you're telling a story centered around several misunderstandings causing problems, ideally it should be comedic. On the other hand, if you're telling a story with a high body count revolving around the theft of a large amount of money and the devious schemes to get it back, it probably shouldn't be at least moderately serious. Not saying that an action movie should be all frowns and angry eyes - I love the James Bond series, so if I said that I would be marked out as a hypocrite - but when people are shooting each other, if they're clearly enjoying themselves, they will seem somewhat deranged. Even Roger Moore at his most campy had the good sense to frown when shooting a man in the face.

So when Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra are grinning like idiots and not really reacting when everyone around them is gunned down, they don't seem like lovable outlaws, but instead psychopaths. The most glaring example is Dean Martin joking merrily with a recently deadified stagecoach passenger. Wouldn't a normal person be at least a bit bothered? A man just died here, I'm not expecting a heavy emotional sequence, but could we have a moment of minor distress maybe? Something?

This movie is ostensibly about two men - Sinatra and Martin - fighting over the fortune they found in the stagecoach. They're scheming to get money out of each other, with the help of a bunch of wacky characters who orbit around them. Hell, the Three Stooges make a cameo, so this is clearly a wacky comedy, right? It's certainly played like a wacky comedy, with lots of quips, wacky setpieces, and a score designed to underscore amusing moments.

It's really about a pair of men who fit the clinical definition of psychopathy scheming and devising ways to screw each other out of money that never belonged to them in the first place. They're murderers, thieves, and con men, indifferent to the lives ruined and ended in the wake of their schemes. They show no indication of emotion or empathy, just greed and ambition. It's a significantly more disturbing movie than it would be if they would have toned down the lightheartedness.

I wonder if it's intentional, maybe a touch subversive. In spite of the claims in the first lines, there aren't any good guys. The only thing about the bad guy that makes him different is that he's not especially charming, and weirdly probably less psycho than the two heroes. Don't think too hard, and it's a silly comedy, but I'm one to think too hard, so I'm a bit disturbed by it. If you're like me, you might be too.

(In a strange side note, I am writing this while listening to Dean Martin. Funny how things turn out.)

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