Friday, August 23, 2013

Lee Van Cleef

For the rest of the year, this blog will intermittently feature pieces serving as testing grounds for a longer format project I'm working on, featuring my experiences as a youth in 1983, for future publication in book form. This is one of them.

It was thirty years ago... or more precisely, Friday, April 22, 1983, that yours truly discovered Lee Van Cleef. For a Few Dollars More played on the CBS Late Night Movie (remember that?).  I had seen it a year earlier, on the same late night show, but half-remembered it due to the wavering states of consciousness attained in those days when I was still developing my stamina to stay up for the late movie.

What had prompted me to watch it again on this night (other than that I loved westerns, especially stories about bounty hunters) was the opening scene where the man in black cunningly tracks down and dispatches of a wanted man hiding in a hotel room, and even apologizes to the lady in the bathtub for the disturbance! ("Pardon me, ma'am!") The actor playing the man in black was Lee Van Cleef, previously only known to me as "that guy with the moustache", who was appearing in a string of Midas Muffler commercials airing on Ontario TV stations at that time. (Because they were locally produced, I had wondered at the time if he was Canadian.)

For A Few Dollars More began a new career for Lee Van Cleef, and appropriately, this was the film to make me a lifelong fan. After spending over a decade playing villainous supporting roles in numerous westerns and action films, he was largely forgotten until director Sergio Leone offered him the second lead, in the second of his unofficial "Dollars"spaghetti western trilogy, featuring top-billed Clint Eastwood as The Man With No Name.  The film showed the world that Lee Van Cleef was a capable leading man, and made him an international star.

His performance as the black-clad Colonel Douglas Mortimer was Oscar-caliber: rising to the challenge of a role that required nuances of humour, wisdom and wistfulness. Although he would not resume the role in the many spaghetti westerns that he would soon make as a lead actor, he would use some of the character's trademarks that became his signature: the moustache, the black clothes, flat hat, cross-draw holster, and of course, a pipe. Because the movie opens with a scene of Mortimer instead of The Man With No Name, I had thought that Van Cleef was the star, not Eastwood. No matter- he steals the film. He had tremendous presence, charisma and vitality. But simply, this cat was cool!

Additionally, LVC's visage was so striking: once seen, never forgotten. His piercing eyes, high cheekbones, hawk nose and dry voice made him appropriate for all those innumerable villains he played on the big and small screens in the 1950s. Even after his star-making performance for Sergio Leone, he would still sometimes play bad guys (his next role was, after all, "The Bad" in The Good The Bad and the Ugly), yet I preferred his heroes. Although in interviews, Van Cleef would say that playing a villain allowed him more chances to be creative than as a straight leading man, I think, however, his good guys showed his maturity as an actor.

Because of his unconventional screen presence, LVC was seldom cast as a romantic lead, or as a classically noble hero. Rather, his unusual look added greatly to roles as flawed anti-heroes: people who were as tough and gruff as the villains, and also did bad things, but for the right reasons. In addition to the sly humour that he brought to his roles, I think his talent was best used in those complex moments where the characters are conflicted between good and evil: witness his haunted expression at the end of Beyond The Law, or during the revelation in the last quarter of Death Rides a Horse. These are moments of craft!

That late night April viewing of For a Few Dollars More made me a Van Cleef fan, but the subsequent months made LVC my hero, at just the right time when yours truly needed one.  In my teenaged years, I was mostly a loner, since my high school friends and I didn't necessarily hang out after class. Marching to the beat of my own drum came with a dear price: being almost always alone made me easy prey to get picked on. (In a sense, my lifestyle as an outsider without romance or camaraderie drew parallels to the western heroes I admired.) Things were also difficult at home: my grandmother had passed away earlier in the year, and my mother had lost her job from Loblaws (coincidentally, on the very weekend that I had viewed For a Few Dollars More). There was further friction between my divorced parents when my father planned to remarry in August, and each was using me to get back at the other.

It appears blatantly obvious now that I was put in the middle of this psychological tug of war, but if I was aware of it at the time, I did nothing about it. My traditional reaction towards most things was to remain passive: perhaps a subconscious behaviour to avoid thinking of my helplessness to change things.  At the same time, however, I was looking for something to believe in. As the summer months unfolded, the cathode ray tube provided a friend, as I trundled through the stations in the wee hours, and found more movies with Lee Van Cleef.

In fact, the ensuing twelve months proved a great time to be a "Vancleefian", as a lot of the actor's films played on television: The Magnificent Seven Ride, The Tin Star, The Return of Sabata, Death Rides a Horse, Kid Vengeance, The Hard WayThe Young Lions, Barquero, Take a Hard Ride, and High Noon (his first movie appearance)... and this was just simply what could be seen in those pre-VCR, pre-converter days with only twelve channels to choose from!

His films even played on the French station- and yes, I watched them, despite my ongoing difficulty to follow the language in spoken form. As such, The Return of Sabata in French was difficult to understand, but I still enjoyed this live-action cartoon, and even dubbed in another tongue, Van Cleef still emerged super cool as the western gambler with all kinds of James Bond-like gadgets. I particularly loved his derringer with the four rotating cylinders, both on the barrel and the handle! (Admittedly, after seeing it again years later in English, the film still didn't make much sense, but never mind.)

ABOVE: Lee Van Cleef and derringer in The Return of Sabata
The more films I saw with LVC as a lead actor, the more I became influenced by his tough-as-nails, yet dryly humourous characters, which I attribute in no small part to helping me get out of my shell. Mind you, the graduation from wallflower to self-confident, assertive and outgoing was a two-year process, however it was in summer months of 1983, where this change had begun. It was without coincidence, I think, that vacation from school began and ended with viewings of The Magnificent Seven Ride.

In this fourth and final instalment of the Magnificent Seven franchise, Van Cleef has a turn at the role of Chris, originated by Yul Brynner in the 1960 classic. The viewer now finds the do-gooding mercenary acting as a town marshall, attempting to settle down in a frontier that has become more tame than his earlier years. Circumstances force Chris to put together a new brand of fighters to save a border town of women and children from a bunch of bandidos. In this flick, LVC's character is gruff as hell, unforgiving and unrepentant, but is seen to have a heart beneath his exterior.

Van Cleef's admirers seldom consider this as one of his best vehicles (I've seen this movie far too many times to merely dismiss it), but his interpretation of Chris is another part of the unique western hero that he was forging for himself in those post-Sergio Leone projects. These characters were often good people, even though he didn't necessarily do anyone any favours. His protagonists were more cynical, and far less righteous than the squeaky clean cowboy heroes of Saturday matinees in previous decades.

This was a cowboy hero for a different, and less moral age, however the presentation was essentially the same: the persona was more significant than the films. The B-westerns of the 1930s and 1940s were often formula vehicles for Roy Rogers, Gene Autry and all the rest: inexpensive products to keep alive the archetypal stars. Time would make their faces far more memorable than the titles of their movies. The films of Lee Van Cleef's prolific period as leading man were B westerns for a new age, largely existing to keep alive his persona for a different era. The matinee western heroes of less complicated times told viewers to listen to their mother, help those in need, and drink Ovaltine; this unlikely protagonist for a complex age had a different set of values. Lee Van Cleef's films instilled the belief that it was okay to be different: stand up for what you belief in, even if it isn't necessarily the status quo; be proud, walk tall. The Magnificent Seven Ride may have been just a vehicle to most, but it succeeded all the same in delivering those messages, and they were exactly what this teenaged introvert needed to hear at the time.

ABOVE: Lee Van Cleef and Stefanie Powers in
The Magnificent Seven Ride!
And as if the boob tube hadn't provided enough content for a Van Cleef fix, I would further write up synopses for non-existent movies that the actor could "star" in. Thirty years on, I still remember some of these stories I dreamed up, and won't embarrass myself further to describe them, except one. Because his former co-star Clint Eastwood had a series of movies as Dirty Harry (Sudden Impact was a box office smash at the time), I felt that LVC too should have a cop franchise. Thus, I conjured up some gritty, New York-lensed scenarios in which he played a police detective. Jeff Bridges as his partner? Teri Copley as a prostitute? Okay, then.

During this period, I used to go to this store called Second Time Around (which I've chronicled more fully elsewhere), run by John and his wife Paulette, to buy old western paperbacks. John and I would often talk about western movies: once I had mentioned that I was a huge LVC fan, he then revealed that on the side, he was doing a woodcarving project for a Mister Jim Flett, a stuntman and sometime actor, who had once doubled for Lee Van Cleef! John had mentioned me to Mr. Flett the next time that he was in town, and he in turn wanted to invite me out for coffee- but they didn't have any contact information for me at the store. Mr. Flett had instead left for me an autographed picture of himself, as "Black Bart", the persona for his quick-draw artist act that was appearing at shopping centres and fairs. In the photo, one could see the resemblance to LVC, with the moustache and sharp features. I no longer have the photo, sadly: that was too many moves ago. However you too can see the likeness, in this 1984 Mother's Pizza commercial, spoofing High Noon, where Mr. Flett plays one of the desperadoes seated in the background.

A quarter-century later, I learned more of the Flett-Van Cleef connection. At the time, LVC was making public appearances on behalf of the Midas Muffler campaign: the gimmick was that Mr. Flett, dressed in the same clothes as Van Cleef, would ride in a horse up to the stage, disappear behind it, and then, ta-dah!, Mr. Van Cleef would come out from behind the curtain.  In real life, Van Cleef hated horses: apparently, in his years as a leading man, it was even written in his contracts how much screen time could be devoted to riding the nags. I didn't know this back in 1983, and it was probably just as well. In our youthful days of hero worship, we can't envision our idols as anything less than the larger-than-life icons we have cast.

During this already fruitful time to be a card-carrying Van Cleef fan, the 58-year-old actor also appeared in an action-adventure TV series, at the start of 1984. In The Master, he played an aging ninja master, who shows the ropes to a young drifter during their adventures on the road to find Lee's long-lost daughter. Careful not to upset my iron-clad image of the man, this lad pretended not to notice that a lot of LVC's stunts were doubled by somebody with a bald wig, and let the illusion of filmmaking convince me that it really was my hero doing all those acrobatics. Even in those days, I may have admit that this series was cornball, but still... man, was it cool to see my favourite actor having a prime-time series on a major network! The show was cancelled after 13 episodes; it was however very popular at the time. (Seen today on out-of-print videocassettes, the series is still quite fun.)

Yet, the more one studied his work, Lee Van Cleef appeared as less of an impervious superhero. He was missing a tip of a finger from a carpentry mishap; and a 1959 car accident had him walking with a limp for the rest of his life. Consequently, his unusual screen presence had a surprising honesty in being so brashly human, flaws and all, without ego or pretensions.

Perhaps because he was merely grateful to be working after a considerable lay-off, he wasn't afraid to take on projects that appeared embarrassing or unworthy of him. This "take me as I am" approach to his craft added another nakedly human shade to the screen characters we so commonly attribute as being so larger than life. He may have been a "star" to a certain degree, but he still had his instincts of a character actor.

It has never been fully explained why his career never achieved the superstardom he deserved after the promise shown in For a Few Dollars More. He certainly had the talent, charisma and masculinity of his contemporaries, like Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson, who also achieved leading man status in Europe. However, while they succeeded in bringing that level of stardom to their homeland, Lee Van Cleef largely still found employment in Europe, in films of diminishing size and quality.

During the early 1980s, PBS broadcast a weekly hour-long series entitled Six Gun Heroes, hosted by former matinee cowboy Sunset Carson, which showed B-westerns from the 30s and 40s. The program's theme song was "Ride Off In the Sunset", by country singer Bill Anderson (from his album, Love and Other Sad Stories). The show used the refrain "He would ride off to the sunset / No goodbyes, just so long for a while" for the appropriate amount of melancholic nostalgia. But listened to as a whole, the song is really a bittersweet valentine to the Saturday matinee cowboys, as a man sees his childhood hero now old and frail, considerably less dynamic than his onscreen image from years ago. This tune is a lament for the things that are not preserved outside of a child's innocent gaze.

When I think back to those months of discovering Lee Van Cleef, those memories are often scored by this song- not just because I was also watching Sun Gun Heroes at the same time, but also the lyrics precisely capture that same feeling I have in looking back at my own childhood hero. Our joyful nostalgia is tinged with sadness, because adults cannot relive youthful experiences that were unfettered by judgment and grades of quality. These memories are also disheartening because they recall a great promise that unfortunately was underused.

Thirty years later, however, I still don't think anything less of Lee Van Cleef's talent or screen presence. As we get older, we care less about larger-than-life heroes, and are instead merely happy to see parts of ourselves inside them. My adult eyes may notice the seams showing in some of these productions, but they also are humbled by those human qualities he gave to his roles. It is refreshing to revisit many of Lee Van Cleef's films for this reason, and also that even when our adult priorities have changed, he can still be our hero.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Shadow Comics and Shmay Dray

For the rest of the year, this blog will intermittently feature pieces serving as testing grounds for a longer format project I'm working on, featuring my experiences as a youth in 1983, for future publication in book form. This is one of them.

After the A&P supermarket moved to the mall on the outskirts of town in the 1970s, its original downtown building was re-used for many businesses over the years- including a bus depot, bingo hall, arcade and taxi office. The more durable enterprises at this address consisted of a pharmacy later in that same decade (as a temporary location while the permanent address had fire damage repairs), and as a T-shirt printing factory in the 1990s (after all those years, still retaining the old supermarket's separate entrance and exit doors).

For a relative blip in the life of that structure, one day per week in the spring of 1983, it was the Simcoe Sales Barn, a bazaar featuring two aisles full of at least two dozen different vendors at the tables. In the height of the recession, this proved a popular place for discount retail, where one could find good deals on shoes, dry goods, various household items, and gifts (there was even a deli counter in the back). For a few assorted teenaged nerds, however, it also provided the closest thing that Birdtown ever had resembling a comic book shop… if only for three months.

Specialty shops are always great for having back issues of titles. In the 80s, they became even more beneficial for two reasons. As the decade began, some publishers released titles only for the direct market (even Marvel had some titles under this strategy), meaning via subscription or for sale in comic book shops. This avoided the usual newsstand routine where unsold magazines would be returned to the companies once the new issues came out, thus causing greater loss and overhead. 1983 was especially a game changing year, as an unprecedented number of independent labels began publishing, thus competing with such juggernauts as Marvel and DC for consumers' hard earned allowance money. Rarely, if ever, did any of these titles make it to regular circulation. To be part of these new trends, one had to live in an urban centre large enough to accommodate a comic book shop. The Birdtown contingent of comic book fans were among the many towns or rural areas who were out of luck to peruse anything less mainstream than Archie, Captain America or Batman. Therefore, for us, the Simcoe Sales Barn was a welcome reprieve.

It was great to access a lot of titles that were hidden from our small town's circulation, and just as importantly, to find a lot of old comics, some dating back to the 1960s. (Otherwise, one could only find back issues at garage sales or flea markets.) I first became aware of the place through a friend during March Break, and promptly went downtown to check it out once I finished my catalogue route. In my first visit, I had picked up two of Mike Kaluta's series of The Shadow (especially elating for this long-time fan of the durable pulp character), and mint copies of the first three issues of Captain Canuck (published in the mid-70s by Richard Comely, who after a hiatus resumed the series with issue number four in 1979, when I began reading it). Afterwards I had informed some like-minded friends about the stand, and before long, everyone I knew (and them some) who collected comics were weekly customers. Simcoe Sales Barn was first open on Wednesdays, then halfway through its lifespan, shifted to Fridays so it could legally stay open later. (Even today, few businesses downtown stay open midweek past 6 PM.) Some friends of mine would go shopping during their school lunch period so that they could get dibs on the new stock, but I preferred to go after the 3:05 bell, so I could hang out longer- especially when the barn switched to Fridays.

The two men responsible for bringing us these weekly treasures were Leo and Peter, business partners from far away Toronto who jointly ran a store in the city's north end, entitled The Shmay Dray Shoppe. The two entrepreneurs and their wares were as colourful as their namesake. Their tables were also full of socks and other knick knacks for sale, but unquestionably their money was made from the comic book nerds (myself included) hungrily raiding their numerous white long boxes. There was an odd, surrogate fraternity among the people who rubbed shoulders at their stand every week and would occasionally fill the air with "Hey, look what I found!" At least for me, there was also a surrogate friendship that evolved with the men who ran the stand. Leo was the more personable of the two: a comical, portly man whose white moustache and wavy hair to match suggested that he was older than his trusty companion Peter, a lantern-jawed, dark-haired, bespectacled gravelly-voiced man, who was nice but often solemn. One cool part of their business was that you could request certain issues of titles for them to bring down next time if they had them. In addition to a list of direct sales titles that eluded us, I would also ask for any more old Shadow-related books they had in the archives.

It never occurred to me to ask how on Earth two men from Toronto found out about this out-of-the-way venue, but perhaps Birdtown wasn't so off the mark for these well-travelled entrepreneurs. Through the week, in addition to running the store, they would also "go to market" (an ambiguous term I interpreted to mean going to wholesalers to stock up on their goods), and would also do business in other venues similar to ours. It was a hell of a way to make a living, no question, with the long hours (and money) spent on traveling, but there was something adventuresome about it that appealed to my teenaged mind. I was fascinated by the life of the drifter, romanticized not only in the western novels I loved, but also the good ole boy movies in vogue at the time. (After spending some time on the road last decade touring my fanzine, I can attest that it is a gruelling but exciting vocation.)

What also made this weekly venture fun, was that Leo and Peter were characters. There was Peter always bugging Leo to get him coffee or make him a sandwich, and then there was Leo the born showman, God bless him, wearing socks on his ears while smoking a cigarette in order to attract sales. They fit right in with the rest of the Sales Barn's quirky charm. The Mexican family that ran the deli counter would play guitars and sing during downtime: once I offered to bring in my harmonica and join them; they seemed delighted at this idea, and sadly, I never followed up. Indeed, the vendors were as offbeat as a lot of the merchandise for sale. I had bought other things at the Sales Barn than just comics, yet the only one that remains in my mind thirty years on is this souvenir tabloid that reprinted the original 1922 newspaper clippings pertaining to the discovery of King Tut's tomb. (Regretfully, that went away in a yard sale many moons ago.)

To puritanical eyes, the Simcoe Sales Barn was nothing but a junk store. My mother especially was less than thrilled with my weekly jaunts there, and would use my hobby as an excuse for my poor grades. (This was false- I studied and did my homework, albeit without passion, since I considered school useless in preparing me for my probable future of working in a cannery.) She even told me once that she had gone by the place with some of her friends, and said aloud, disparagingly, "I know where my kid is!" This statement I think revealed more about her than me, but that is another story.

She may have seen this as yet another way for me to fritter away my allowance on comic books, but there was much more to it than that. This place was magic! There was an ambiance here that I really dug. After a few weeks, an interesting little community evolved, as vendors and customers became familiar to one another. A kinship was felt among the people before and behind the booths, and it was far less superficial than merely the vendors putting the touch on people to part with their money. There was an unspoken solidarity- all of us were just trying to get by! Being there gave one the confidence to take on those economic hard times with a fortuitous joy of life, where we didn't have much, but rejoiced in what we did.

As the weeks went on, Leo and I especially became close, as Peter became increasingly absent from the venue, attending to other parts of their business. Leo would invite me to sit down, and we'd shoot the breeze or tell off-colour jokes (Leo never laughed out loud- he'd always just smirk and shake his head while holding a cigarette in the air). We had even discussed my working for him, as the summer months loomed, and that Peter likely wouldn't be around.

And then, it ended.

Without any warning or reason, our routine Friday trek was met with the shocking discovery that the barn was empty, locked up and in darkness. This sudden departure was abrupt even to me, who hates long goodbyes. Some time in the fall, Simcoe Sales Barn reopened in the same location, but things just weren't the same. Only half the space was filled, and this time a lot of it really was junk. (If memory serves, the King Tut books were still for sale.) Few of the original vendors returned - an East Indian gentleman and I nodded recognition to one another.  No Leo. No Peter. Consequently, the traffic was practically non-existent. In short order, this place closed with as little fanfare as its predecessor.

In hindsight, this microcosm reveals itself as the first of several times in my life where I've been blessed to be part of a wonderful world where the unique ambiance and friendships evolve out of just the right coalescence of things that happened to be in the air at the time. Those moments end just as quickly when just one of the ingredients is subtracted, and any attempts to recreate that magic with other parts results in disappointment. In many ways, this place was a life lesson to a young man; even today, it isn't hard to remember that euphoric feeling which lived there. I hope some of my anonymous fellow travelers can recall it too.