Cut-Throats Nine (1972)
A very small subset of groovy people have asked this question (in privacy or in the strictest confidence): “What would happen if you crossed an Italian splatter film with a Spaghetti Western?” Well, lean in closer, fellow freaks, for such films exist. And one of the best is Cut-Throats Nine. Try to refrain from hooting and hollering as we recount the plot: A wagon full of convicts escape when their captors are attacked by bandits. Only a lone sergeant (Claudio Undari) and his daughter (Emma Cohen) survive to escort the seven sadistic prisoners to their final destination on foot.
Then: the complications. The chain gang discovers their shackles are made from solid gold. Oh, right, and the sergeant reveals that one of the convicts raped and murdered his wife, but he doesn’t know which one. Set in a stunningly stark mountain range (in reality the Pyrenees of Aragon), Cut-Throats Nine is a mean-spirited, scumbag-filled film sure to scratch a wintery Western itch as well as a macabre thirst for candy-apple blood.
Available on Tubi and The Film Detective.
California Split (1974)
Only three years after making McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Altman returned to the world of gambling with possibly the best movie ever made about chasing the high of a win. George Segal and Elliott Gould star in California Split as a pair of buddies and compulsive gamblers willing to risk it all. The film is wickedly funny with credit amply due to two lead actors able to bounce off each other with ease. But what really elevates the film is Altman’s confidence and willingness to live in a murky place where the characters feed off each other but lack an understanding of any clear motivations. Things meander and then escalate, ebb and flow. And of course, everything can change on a dime.
Available on Amazon Prime, The Criterion Channel, Tubi, and Pluto TV.
Days of Heaven (1978)
It’s hard to say what the best part of Days of Heaven is. Contenders include the beautifully tender performance from Richard Gere, an actor with a unique blend of masculine and feminine energy that is so rarely seen. There’s also the film’s story, following drifters navigating unreliable work and perilous love triangles in the turn of the 20th century Texas panhandle, where nothing is certain and everything is fraught, but hope persists. But what ties it all together is Terrence Malick and cinematographer Néstor Almendros’ gorgeous imagery. Seemingly shot entirely during the magic hour, every second of the film is beaming with golden light and a dusty haze. It all comes together as a beautiful testament to the ties that bind and the stories that are left out of the collective remembrances.
Available on The Criterion Channel, Kanopy, and Pluto TV.
Risky Business (1983)
The American Dream is to make money, honey. And for both Risky Business and McCabe & Mrs. Miller, a surefire way to line your pockets is by digging into the world’s oldest profession. Sure, the industrious, reliable Joel Goodson (Tom Cruise) and the foolhardy, rough-edged McCabe may have little in common on paper. But when push comes to shove, both men see a lot of potential in monetizing the business of, well, pushing and shoving.
Joel may be a golden boy, but he quickly finds himself in a financial pickle when he accidentally destroys his out-of-town daddy’s Porsche. Luckily Joel and Lana (Rebecca De Mornay) — the Mrs. Miller to his McCabe — have a plan to make a quick buck: turning Joel’s suburban home into a pop-up brothel. Both McCabe and Joel deal in human fulfillment. And sure, the movie’s starry-eyed 1980s excess is a far more optimistic tale of the pursuit of life, liberty, and cold hard cash. But boy, oh boy, what a double bill.
Available on HBO Max.
Ah, to be a reformed ne’er-do-well just trying to make a peaceful living on the frontier. That’s one thing William Munny (Clint Eastwood) and McCabe have in common. For Munny, a retired, once-ruthless killer turned mild-mannered widower and pig farmer, life is far simpler without all the gunslinging. Unfortunately, much like McCabe, Munny’s seedy past catches up with him, despite his best efforts. Pulled back into the bounty-hunting life to support his two motherless children, Munny accepts a job to seek and destroy the men who disfigured a sex worker. Morose and dread-filled, Unforgiven sports frigid plains and a more grounded vision of the realities of frontier life. Arguably Clint Eastwood’s best movie (which is saying something), this swan song for rehabilitated bad boys is a must when it comes to myth-shattering visions of the Old West.
Available on Showtime and Fubo TV.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
Westerns rarely get enough credit for how sad they are. And they really can be sad as hell. Case in point: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. It’s all right there in the title — no one in this story will come out on top. And even though we know that from the get-go, it’s impossible to not be drawn into this world. Credit here must go to Brad Pitt’s remarkably introspective performance. The actor brings a certain subtlety and a softness to America’s most infamous outlaw, while never distilling the character’s legacy into something as simple as a misunderstood gunslinger. We also can’t talk about this film without mentioning the lush cinematography from the patron saint of moving image photography Roger Deakins. The images here are all refracted light and smoke and endlessly rolling fields. Don’t that picture look dusty, indeed.
Available on Roku.
First Cow (2019)
McCabe & Mrs. Miller is a prime example of a film about American mythmaking; a doomed and desperate yearning for something lying just out of reach. And when it comes to this feeling, there are few working filmmakers that understand such a bittersweet longing the way Kelly Reichardt does. In First Cow, the American frontier is a cruel locale with faulty promises of opportunity. For Cookie (John Magaro) and King-Lu (Orion Lee), two loners who find they share a similar outlook and goal, 19th century Oregon seems a place that still has possibility.
The story being written here isn’t definite. Like McCabe, Cookie and King-Lu approach their place in history with the hope that they can make something new and useful out of what they have. But things are never that easy. Much like the Altman film, Reichardt’s tender and tragic vision captures something ineffable about the notion of the American dream, who it caters to, and who it dooms from the start.
Available on Showtime and Fubo TV.