The Quick and the Dead

(Sam Raimi, USA, 1995)


Sam Raimi’s The Quick and the Dead is a feminist Western starring a gun-toting Sharon Stone, a little in the tradition of that classic Women’s Western of 1950s, Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar (1953). But it relates much more intensely and immediately to the so-called Spaghetti Westerns from Italy in the 1960s, and to the Main Man of my childhood filmgoing, Sergio Leone.


It’s a remarkably pure, distilled, almost abstract Western. It’s not about the complexities of law, morality or violence like Clint Eastwood’s masterpiece Unforgiven (1992), even though it has (like that film) the remarkable Gene Hackman as a blood-chilling, capitalistic villain (here colourfully named Herod). The Quick and the Dead is really just a bunch of gunfights in the main street of a spindly little Western town, strung together as a formal contest progressively waged among the baddies, hotheads and opportunists who have gathered there.


There are only two characters who are to any degree motivated by righteous moral impulses: “The Lady” (Stone), avenging the gruesome death of her father long ago, and Cort (Russell Crowe), a gunfighter-turned-preacher who has to turn back into a gunfighter. Lady and Cort – or, as I prefer to say (in desperate search of a pun), Stone and Crowe – get it on together in a memorable scene, a sweaty tryst between this lone tough woman in an oppressively male hell-hole and this confused Man of God. “Why choose me?”, he gasps as they tumble on. “Because we could both be dead tomorrow”, she sagely replies.


This is an exciting, often brilliant piece of filmmaking. Sam Raimi’s past movies have included the landmark gore horror film The Evil Dead (1982), the florid fantasy melodrama Darkman (1990) and the surreal, cartoonish comedy Army of Darkness (1993). There are traces of all these outsize moods and tones here. It starts out like a camp pastiche of Westerns, not too removed from Mel Brooks or the Naked Gun series (1988-1994). The saloon door opens and a gust of wind dramatically blows Lady’s blonde hair: that kind of gag. But once the violent gunfighting contest revs up, things become steadily more earnest. They also rapidly get more stylised: the camera angles get weirder and more pronounced, the editing quickens, the soundtrack amplifies every little breath and movement of clothing and insect buzz. This is the Leone legacy. As Lady strides out to her first round of fighting, Cort whispers some advice in her ear about the central town clock that determines the moment of the draw. “Listen carefully to the clock”, he says. “There’s a click before the strike”. And Raimi sure makes you hang on the sound of that click.


There’s a mystery element in the plot intrigue, and a few frissons of drama involving Lady’s fear, Herod’s menace, and particularly the pathetic, adolescent posturings of a young gunfighter called The Kid, performed wonderfully by Leonardo DiCaprio (age 21 in ‘95). The script is by Simon Moore, a Brit who wrote the TV series Traffik and much else for that medium, as well as directing Under Suspicion (1991). Raimi plays out the intrigue and the drama quite well enough, but you know his heart is basically elsewhere: in the sudden, outrageous moments of violent gore, in the accelerated rushes of melodramatic action, in the grotesque comedy of bodies slouching, spitting, falling or being knocked flying to the ground by an almighty, slow-motion bullet. His wildest effect as director comes when Herod interrupts his Overlord spiel (“I’m in charge of everything! I decide who lives and dies!”) to kill Clay (Keith David): he blows a large (and bloodless) hole clear through his skull, allowing Raimi to frame this sadistic baddie through the opening.


Raimi is one of those directors for whom the cinema is essentially a game, an exhibitionistic display. He has fun with the conclusion of each gunfight – who’s left standing, who’s been shot, who’s really dead or alive? And he goes all-out for big, wild, cinema effects, as in a terrific scene where Lady goes berserk and challenges a guy who has just sexually abused the teenage daughter of the sad saloonkeeper. Raimi takes us straight from Stone’s split-second outburst of recognition to the sight of her racing forward in the pelting rain, both guns firing in righteous fury, screaming from the depths of her soul. Leone himself couldn’t have done that bit any better.


Some old-timer Western fans (like my Dad) are probably going to experience some resistance to The Quick and the Dead, since it juggles a high-ball mixture of corny camp humour, intense generic emotion, and a severe, majestic sense of film form. But I came into the genre, as a spectator, with Leone at a tender, impressionable age – and I’m grateful for that. I wonder: do you have to remain an 11 year-old cinephile all your life in order to truly appreciate movies like these? I sincerely hope so.

MORE Raimi: For Love of the Game, The Gift, A Simple Plan, Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2

© Adrian Martin June 1995 / March 2007

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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