10 April 2004 | bob the moo
An enjoyable film - but a very unusual western
Just outside of town is a small saloon where the owner, Vienna, plans to develop a new town once the railroad comes through. However her associations with criminals (namely the Dancin' Kid and his gang) bring the disapproving Emma Small and the authorities to the saloon. Aided by the arrival of a man from her past, Vienna stands against them, but only succeeds in putting off the inevitable confrontation in a situation made worse by love and deception.
I came to this film simply because it was the username of another person on the imdb boards and I was intrigued as to what it was about. The film starts as a western but it simply doesn't conform to that genre, instead it is a weirdly matriarchal piece where the traditional roles are almost roundly reversed and the whole film has an otherworldly feel to it. The plot summary doesn't really do justice to a story that essentially comes down to being a battle between Emma and Vienna as well as throwing up all manner of issues regarding the relationships between the characters. The western clichés become secondary to these relationships and the director seems to prefer these to any lynching or shoot out.
The full colour of the film gives it a gaudy, otherworldly appeal that is very enjoyable. Fires range in terrible, hellish reds, while shadows divide scenes of emotional complexity. Heck, it even goes down to the basic level of having the innocent Vienna dressed in perfect white before doing a blood red shirt to become a fugitive. Not all of this works of course, and several times I wished it would settle down into a film that I could recognise rather than being so different from what I am used to, but it was more interesting as a result (aside from being less accessible).
The cast are roundly good but the fireworks belong to the two lead actresses. Despite being the title character, Hayden is rather underplayed but I think that was the point - he is not the typical Western man's man. Crawford is very good as Vienna but she is out-hammed and out-vamped by McCambridge who is excellent. In any other film her performance would be woefully OTT but against the background of a saloon burning with a hellish fire, her facial expression work very well and her whole performance fits well too.
Overall this film is no classic western - mainly because it is not a western but rather a complex story in western clothes. The gaudy colours and cleverly framed shots only serve to enhance a plot that is difficult to fully appreciate but is engaging none the less.