The Quick and the Dead: Sam Raimi’s trippy homage to Sergio Leone Westerns has a great ensemble cast and style to burn

The Quick and the Dead(1995), directed by Sam Raimi and starring Gene Hackman, Sharon Stone, Russell Crowe and Leonardo Di Caprio, is an ultra-stylish Western inspired from Sergio Leone Westerns as well as characters from ‘The Bible.’

I guess Sam Raimi’s recipe for “The Quick and the Dead” was as follows: dump all the Sergio Leone Westerns into one pot; heat them to a pulp, so that whatever substance (in the form of character or plot) exists is melted away and the overheated style itself becomes the substance; garnish it with some biblical references; sprinkle stardust on top in the form of some great actors, big stars, and great actors who are on the brink of stardom; and serve piping hot. Raimi is a master at ultra-stylizing movie genres: he did it to ‘Horror’ with “Evil Dead” films; he did the same to comic book\superhero films with “Darkman.” With “The Quick and the Dead,” he gives a stylish and postmodern take on the Westerns of Sergio Leone- who himself is a master of style & postmodernism. Of the many trademarks of a Leone Western, the most striking is the gunfight: Leone’s gunfights are high on elaborate buildup and too quick and abrupt in execution. Raimi takes this is as the pivot of his pastiche\homage and builds a Revenge-Western (in the mold of “Once upon a time in the West”) around a gun slinging contest in an old-West town, appropriately named “Redemption.” Though ‘Westerns’ could be considered retellings of mythical\biblical tales about the battles between good and evil transported to an old-West setting; in the case of “The Quick and the Dead” it could be said that the title itself is taken directly from the Bible:  from the Second Epistle to Timothy, describing the final judgment. The title also refers to the ‘Quick-draw, single elimination’ tournament that’s the centerpiece of the film. So right from the title, the film is a clever mix of the greatest American film genre and ‘the Good Book.’ And this mix is felt in every aspect of the film, whether it’s the characters or the town of ‘Redemption’ in which almost all of the film’s action take place.

The town is filled with criminals, cutthroats and whores of the worst kind, and it’s ruled by a despotic sheriff, John Herod (Gene Hackman doing a delightfully cartoonish parody of his Oscar winning performance in ‘Unforgiven). The reason why Herod organizes these gun slinging contests is to give an opportunity to the townsfolk (who are itching to get rid of him) to take a shot at him face to face; that way he can avoid the prospect of somebody shooting him in the back. As already mentioned, It’s a fast-draw single elimination contest, where the gunfighters fight to their death; and since he’s still alive and in charge, it could be safely assumed that Herod is the best (and the most cunning, meanest and morally bankrupt) gunfighter among them all. And like the biblical King Herod, the Sheriff has a (step)child with whom he has a contentious relationship . In place of Salome, we have Fee Herod aka ‘The Kid'(Leonardo Di Caprio); Herod believes that The Kid is his wife’s illegitimate child sired out of wedlock through an adulterous relationship with a farmer (Herod has probably eliminated the wife and the farmer on account of this betrayal, as he’s without a wife in the film), while Kid believes that he is Herod’s legitimate son, and uses every opportunity to try and win his father’s approval. Herod, on the other hand, never fails to mock the Kid for being a farmer’s son, even though the Kid – in an effort to prove his lineage – has taken up the profession of a gun salesman. He is a pretty good gunslinger himself and he’s also taking part in the shooting contest where he hopes to defeat his father in a duel and prove his worth once and for all. There’s also a analogous character resembling ‘John the Baptist’ in town: Cort (Russell Crowe) used to run with Herod’s gang looting and plundering the land, but after he was forced to kill a priest by Herod, Cort has a spiritual transformation; he renounces violence and becomes a ‘man of god’ himself, and takes over the dead priest’s mission; Herod calls Cort a hypocrite, has his mission burnt , and has him brought back to town to be kept chained as a prisoner in the town square. And to further prove his point about Cort’s hypocrisy regarding violence, Herod has him forcefully entered into the shooting contest.

The film’s plot kicks off when a mysterious stranger – in the mold of Clint Eastwood’s ‘Man with no Name,’ only this one a female – named ‘The Lady’ (Sharon Stone) arrives in ‘Redemption’ to take part in the impending contest. In an opening sequence that resembles “A Fistful of Dollars,” the lady is received at the town’s entrance by an undertaker (played by the great Western veteran Woody strode in his final screen performance; he had also played one of the three gunslingers in the iconic opening sequence from “Once upon a time in the West”) who measures her body height perfectly in just one glance. Of course, in a town where every woman is a whore, a female gunfighter is looked upon with curiosity and derision. But she proves her shooting skills to Herod (in another nod to a Sergio Leone Western, this time “The Good the bad and the Ugly”: the lady shoots through the rope around Cort’s neck and saves him from being hanged) and manages an entry into the competition. The rest of competitors in the contest – apart from Herod – are a compendium of colorful Western archetypes: there’s an Indian, “Spotted Horse,” who claims he cannot be killed by a bullet; there’s a braggart gunfighter, Ace Hanlon, who claims he can shoot with both hands; there’s a black professional gunfighter, Clay Cantrell, who it turns out has been hired by the townsfolk to kill Herod; and so the list goes on. Though ‘The Lady’ claims that she’s in the contest only for the prize money, it appears that she has far deeper motivations- recurring flashbacks to her past giving us a hint that she’s trying to overcome some childhood trauma.

It’s soon revealed that the Lady’s real name is Ellen. Her father used to be the Marshal in Redemption until Herod invaded, killed all the deputies, and had him strung up. Herod gave Ellen a pistol and three shots to try and break the rope her father was hanging from but she accidentally killed him on the first attempt (echoes of Charles Bronson – Henry Fonda feud in “Once upon a time in the West.”; and like Bronson, who carried around a harmonica, here the lady carries around her father’s Marshal’s badge). Ellen has entered the contest to take revenge on Herod. But all the killing she’s forced to do in the initial stages of the contest seems to take a toll on her; she withdraws from the contest and rides out of town. Ellen is coaxed back into the competition by an old-timer, Doc Wallace, who knows her history- he strengthens her resolve to kill Herod and free the town. But before Ellen could challenge Herod, he is challenged by ‘The Kid’ to a duel- which Herod accepts. Herod tries his best to dissuade the kid from dueling him, but the Kid, determined to prove himself to his father, stands his ground. In the ensuing duel, Kid manages to scrape Herod’s neck with his bullet, but is fatally wounded by Herod. On his last breath, the Kid tries to connect with his father, but Herod refuses to take the son’s outstretched hand.

Meanwhile, Cort, to his astonishment, finds out that he still has it in him to kill when being plunged in the middle of a gun duel. He successfully kills every opponent put against him in the tournament, and in the end, after the Kid’s death, he, Ellen and Herod are the only one left in the contest. This means that Cort and Ellen will have to duel it out to find out who gets a crack at Herod in the finals. Cort and Ellen had fallen in love in the interim, and Cort asks Ellen to kill him during the gunfight , so that she would get to square off against Herod. Ellen balks at this, and is in turn gunned down by Cort in the duel. Now, only Cort and Herod are left, and as they prepare to duel it out for the prize, the film proceeds to an ‘Explosive’ climax – very much like the ending of “A fistful of Dollars”: in which heroes who are presumed dead return with a ‘Bang’ to right the wrongs and free the town.

Apart from the fact that the Western is centered around a fast-draw contest, the rest of the plot is as generic as you can get. But the plot is not the point here; it’s just a clothesline for director, Sam Raimi, to hang a host of crazy set pieces and baroque audio-visual designs. Though Raimi is not as great an all-round filmmaker as Leone, as far as cinematic stylization goes, Raimi tops Leone. Now to be fair to Leone, he didn’t have the advantage of modern filmmaking tools like Steadicams, computer controlled Zoom lenses & cranes, and Green screen, CGI effects that Raimi has. So one cannot say what the Italian maestro would have done with them. Anyway, Raimi runs riot with these toys. There are a dozen gunfights in the film; and each fight is rendered differently. Raimi plays around with his camera movements, camera angles, camera zoom ins and outs, background score, sound effects (the ticking of the clock mainly), and natural elements like sunlight, rain, storm, etc. to create a unique flavor for each gunfight. Gunfighters just don’t get shot and fall down; they do a full backflip when hit by a bullet. One of the most baroque visual styles he employs, and in service of heightening the cartoonish nature of the violence, is in the duel between Herod and Cantrell, where we see Herod’s bullet making a hole as big as a baseball inside Cantrell’s head; the head appearing to be a a sort of cardboard cutout. Other times he uses Dutch camera angles (actually the film has very little of the classical screen framing, every frame is tilted, overturned and stretched) to zoom in (or out) into the contestants as they prepare to draw their guns; and green screen effects are used to alter what’s in the background of the characters. These stylistic affectations are the real substance of the film; and if you are a cinephile like me who loves ‘movie’ movies and like these stylish cinematic flourishes, then this film is highly recommended for you. You wont get a more stylish film, and a more stylized, self-aware Western than this one. The film is consciously populated with standard Western archetypes, scenarios and clichés, and there’s absolutely nothing that’s realistic about it. It’s a pastiche of several past Westerns, and everything in it comes from movie Westerns and not from the real old-West.

I only wish that Raimi would have taken this the whole hog, and did not give into half-hearted attempts at humanizing his characters. I guess, one of the reasons could be that lead actress, Sharon Stone, is also a producer on the film. Stone, for one, is terribly miscast in the lead role. She looks tall and strapping in leather alright, but her attempts at channeling Clint Eastwood’s iconic cool and self-aware nonchalance is rather bland and sometimes downright laughable. On paper, It’s a great idea to put a feminine (if not an outright feminist) twist to the cool mysterious stranger archetype, but Stone just doesn’t have it in her to pull it off. The only actress who would have successfully pulled it off in the mid 90s is Michelle Pfeiffer; she would have been perfect for this role. But Alas! Stone is also the film’s producer, and i have a feeling that she got Raimi to ‘deepen’ her role; give it vulnerabilities: a very bad idea indeed for a such a fun, postmodern Western. Clint Eastwood’s heroes are blissfully amoral and possess an invulnerable style- they have no inner life, they don’t need inner life; they are basically style statements within what’s one big stylish movie pastiche. But Raimi doesn’t stop there: he tries to go deeper into the dark recesses of the material by showing (maybe not explicitly, but still disturbingly) scenes of child-rape; that’s unforgivable. It completely unbalances the movie. We have a big Western cartoon unfolding in all its quirky glory, and smack in the middle we are confronted with something that’s so serious and shocking. After that we are not sure how to treat this movie. It’s again thanks to Raimi’s visual flourishes that we marginally get back into the spirit of the proceedings , but after that scene, I just couldn’t shake off my uneasiness completely.

I feel that Raimi was a little confused about the tone of the film; because this was his first big-budget Hollywood studio film. He must have been getting notes from the studio; there were lot of writers – including an uncredited Jose Whedon – working on the script; Raimi himself didn’t think he got the ‘style’ right for this picture. On hindsight, he must have felt he should have made a ‘straight’ serious film rather than a satirical pastiche. Anyway, the reason why the film has a cult following today is because it’s more of the latter rather than the former. Though Raimi was given a generous budget of $35 million (more than the budget of all his previous films put together) he didn’t let go off his B\Horror movie sensibilities, and that’s a big plus. We have shadows of characters extending as along as a building, like ghosts; a dead gunfighter’s hand comes alive for a moment and rises up holding a gun- a straight up horror film image. With the collaboration of his cinematographer Dante Spinotti, Raimi gives the film a dark, eerie atmosphere; The film is not as bright and sundrenched as the Leone Westerns; the skies are dark, the interiors are even darker; the town is lashed by rain and thunderstorms. This dark palette is reflected in both the set designs and the costume designs. Patricia Von Brandenstein has designed a baroque town set on par with the outsized sets that Carlo Simi designed for Leone. And Pietro Scalia’s montage heavy editing – all abrupt cuts, dissolves, double exposures – provides the visuals with a delirious feel.

All this also made the film just too trippy and out-of-the-box, and maybe that’s why the film was a flop at the box office when it released in February, 1995. Additionally, audiences may not have been in the mood to see Sharon Stone (whose only bonafide hit was the sexually-charged thriller “Basic Instinct”) as an old-West gunfighter. The Western genre itself was pretty hit and miss in the 90s. After a brief resurgence in the early 90s with films like “Dances with Wolves,” “Unforgiven” and “Tombstone,” Westerns were once again on the downslide, with expensive productions like “Wyatt Earp” and “Wild Bill” tanking at the box office. Guess, “The Quick and the Dead” also fell victim to that. The film was a watershed in Raimi’s career in that it marked a huge shift from a B filmmaker to a big time Hollywood studio director; and a downward spiral in the quality of his output. His subsequent studio films – like “For the love of the Game” and “Spiderman” – will see him getting increasingly Hollywoodized- sacrificing his auteur flourishes in the service of making mass-market, large-scale blockbusters. So I consider this film an important entry in Raimi’s entry. Apart from the trippy aesthetic of it, the film also showcases Raimi’s not much celebrated skills as an actor’s director. With the exception of Stone, the rest of the cast is terrific. The supporting cast is populated by such respected names as lance Henriksen, Pat Hingle, Gary Sinise, etc.

Then there’s Russell Crowe making his American film debut as Cort. He is superb in the role, which is shockingly prescient of his star-making role as Maximus in “Gladiator.” If you change the old-West to Ancient Rome, despotic Sheriff Herod to despotic emperor Commodus, and fast-draw competition in town square to gladiatorial contests in the colosseum, then it’s pretty much the same. Cort even gets beaten up and handicapped the day before his final gun duel with Herod, just as Commodus fatally wounds him before their final duel. Maybe Ridley Scott and the writers were in some way influenced by this film. Then there’s the young & fresh-faced Leonardo Di Caprio (then at the beginning of his career) giving one of his most charming and loose-limbed performances; a complete contrast to the more exaggerated and heavy going acting he indulges in these days. Both Crowe and Di Caprio (as well as Raimi) were hired on the insistence of Sharon Stone- exercising her powers as a producer,, and she deserves kudos for that.

But the ‘star of the show’ is Gene Hackman, unquestionably one of the greatest American actors of all times. Hackman was at the height of his ‘Character actor’ phase in the early to mid 90s; always taking second billing to top stars like Tom Cruise, Clint Eastwood, Robin Williams or John Travolta, and always ending up stealing the show. He was prolific, doing three or four films a year, and in several different genres- slipping in an out of roles\films as dissimilar to each other as “Unforgiven,” “Get Shorty,” “The Firm,” “Crimson Tide” and “Birdcage”(where he can be seen in drag). Hackman fully embraces the quirks and absurdities of his character and this film. Raimi gives him a big buildup and always shoots him reverentially- befitting a character who maybe the villain of the piece, but who’s a superhero-gunfighter; a man so divinely gifted in the use of guns that he’s invincible (This also makes the final shootout between him and Stone very unconvincing, but what the hell it’s a Western, so the her(oine) always shoots down the villain). Hackman gets the best lines and the best character interactions- whether it’s with Crowe, Di Caprio or Stone. But his tour de force is the dueling scene with Keith David’s Sergeant Clay Cantrell. Herod has realized that Cantrell has been hired by the townsfolk to kill him. So as the gunfight begins, he starts toying with Cantrell, shooting in his arms and legs, and simultaneously lecturing to the townsfolk:

I’m Confused. All I hear from you, you spineless cowards, is how poor you are; how you can’t afford my taxes. Yet somehow, you managed to find the money to hire a gunfighter to kill me. If ya got so much money, I’m just gonna have to take some more. Because clearly some of you haven’t got the message! This is my town! I run everything! If you live to see the dawn, it’s because I allow it! I decide who lives and who dies!”

Between these words, he’s continuously shooting at Cantrell, and finally, when he has delivered the coup de grace, he sums up his lecture with: “Your gunfighter’s dead. Old news.” and withdraws from the ‘arena.’ The staging, the cutting and the scoring of the scene is masterful, but it’s Hackman’s performance that takes it to another level. It’s so effortless, so free flowing, and yet so powerful- it’s simply exhilarating. This scene alone is worth the price of admission.

One thought on “The Quick and the Dead: Sam Raimi’s trippy homage to Sergio Leone Westerns has a great ensemble cast and style to burn

  1. Does anybody know where or if you can find the marshal badge in the movie the quick and the dead would really love to find one of these badges for my costume love westerns this is one of my cult classic favorites, thanks.

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