As streaming services increasingly proliferate online, it can be difficult to determine which sites are worth your money. One such upstart definitely worth a cinephile’s time (and money) is the Warner Archive’s Instant service, supplementing Warner’s made-to-order DVD program for their extensive, esoteric back-catalog with a cheaper, easily accessible online platform. Every week, we at Movie Mezzanine will spotlight some of the best films the archive has to offer, from all-time classics to obscure gems fostered during the studio’s golden age.
Wagon Master (John Ford, 1950)
John Ford is well-represented in Warner’s instant service, which offers up some of his lesser-known but most fascinating work. Chief among them is one of his absolute masterpieces, Wagon Master. In it, a group of Mormons and their hired guides head west, only to be infiltrated by a murderous gang that threatens to bring wrath upon them. The picture is one of Ford’s most allegorical, touching upon issues of religion, race, morality, and how the freedom of one group may not be achievable without infringement upon another. Tag Gallagher, the foremost writer on Ford, summarized the film when he said, “Wagon Master’s magic is impossible to talk about on paper, yet easy to point to on the screen.” Its night skies alone are worthy of a chapter-length exegesis for their crystalline beauty, and the picture as a whole presents the American myth as cyclical, a journey west across sea and sand that tests the moral resolve of man with his base nature. Ford himself called it his “purest and simplest” Western, but his simplicity pays rich dividends of evocative depth. — Jake Cole
McCabe & Mrs. Miller (Robert Altman, 1971)
Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller follows the relationship and downfall between John McCabe (Warren Beatty) and Constance Miller (Julie Christie). McCabe is a gambler who wears a black derby hat and has a penchant for owning a room; he seemingly exists as the most important man around for miles until prostitute Constance arrives. The narrative follows the couple’s flourishing enterprise, which thrives until a large corporation arrives on the scene. Shot in British Columbia by Vilmos Zsigmond, Altman’s film is loaded with gorgeous scenery and mournful music from Leonard Cohen. The film contains some muddled early stretches, but its themes of relentless pursuit and corporate exploitation make it relevant even today. There are no heroes here, as Altman’s Old West mining town is harsh and unforgiving. A final scene involving McCabe and an unconventional shoot out is a reminder why this film is one of the best of its decade. — Ty Landis