THE QUICK AND THE DEAD has a very traditional western story, other than featuring a woman – Sharon Stone (ABOVE THE LAW) as Ellen – in the role of vengeance-seeking gunslinger. You’ve got your western town desperate to get out from under the yoke of a cruel ruler (Gene Hackman [THE SPLIT, PRIME CUT] as John Herod), and your mysterious drifter in town trying to get up the guts to shoot him for killing her father in front of her. All the shootists with the fastest guns and biggest mouths are coming in for a quick draw tournament, and she enters in hopes of getting a shot at her enemy.
But I think it’s truly distinct among ‘90s westerns, with two major things that make it stand out. One is the incredible cast. It includes great western icons: Woody Strode, Roberts Blossom, Pat Hingle, and of course Hackman in a performance arguably on par with UNFORGIVEN. It has colorful roles for genre favorites: Lance Henriksen, Keith David, Mark Boone Jr., Tobin Bell, Sven-Ole Thorsen. It has Gary Sinise immediately after his star-making, Oscar-nominated performance in FORREST GUMP. And it has two right-before-they-exploded co-stars: pre-L.A. CONFIDENTIAL Russell Crowe as former outlaw turned pacifist preacher Cort, and known-for-WHAT’S-EATING-GILBERT-GRAPE Leonardo DiCaprio as The Kid, the cocky, baby-faced son of Herod entering the contest just to get the attention of his asshole dad. We actually see The Kid mobbed by young women at one of the shooting matches, something that would become more familiar to DiCaprio a year later when ROMEO + JULIET came out.
The other thing is that it’s directed by Sam Raimi at the peak of his filmatistic powers, and he made a western with the energy of EVIL DEAD II. The tournament format means numerous Ash-suiting-up style montages, zoom ins and cool angles, plus the occasional cartoonish bodily destruction. I won’t say which character it is, but one of them ends his duel with a grapefruit sized hole in his head, and the camera looking through it as it perfectly frames his killer, gun still smoking. I always remember that when I saw this in the theater my friend and I walked out raving about that specific moment just before hearing a guy say to his friend, “It was pretty cool, but then the fucking hole through the guy’s head…” Like it was a bad thing. Maybe that’s why it never seemed to catch on with the Your Dad market that watched TOMBSTONE and DANCES WITH WOLVES. It still feels like a cult movie.
I’ve seen this many times over the years, and it only gets better with time. It works as a completely sincere story about people who don’t enjoy violence trying to stand up to a bully who lives for it, and I bet it could’ve been a decent movie if directed by some hack. But in Raimi’s hands it’s a constant marvel. It feels like every 30 seconds at least there’s a good line or a delightfully clever gimmick, not just the visuals but the little moments and odd touches of heightened reality. (Spookablast realism?)
When Stone’s character Ellen (or “Lady” as she’s mostly referred to) rides toward the town of Redemption, a bandit named Dog Kelly (Tobin Bell, BOILING POINT) assumes she’s some dude trying to steal his gold, and shoots her off her horse. When he goes to check her body she turns out to be alive, knocks him down and stands over him. We see first in her shadow, then in a glorious hero shot, that his bullet went through the brim of her hat.
As she enters town, Woody Strode is in the street carving a coffin. He looks at her and asks, “Five-foot eight. Am I right?” I love a good coffin maker joke in a western.
The clock tower will be an important element throughout the movie, because the firing always starts when it strikes the hour, so of course Raimi (via cinematographer Dante Spinotti [MANHUNTER]) is gonna get a cool shot of it as she strolls into town. And the hand moves as she arrives right on the hour.
The heart and soul of the town (if it indeed has a heart or soul) is The Pigeon’s Nest Club Cafe, a saloon and inn run by Horace (Pat Hingle, BATMAN). He’s on a stool putting a bottle of whisky away when she asks for a room, and he tells her “Whore’s next door.” That’s when she kicks his stool, catches the bottle and pours herself a glass. A hell of a second entrance.
This is where the tournament kicks off, as various colorful characters put their names on the board. They include Sven-Ole Thorsen (previously in the Raimi-produced HARD TARGET) as the Swede, Gutzon; Kevin Conway (THE FUNHOUSE) as the pervert Eugene Dred; Mark Boone Junior (DIE HARD 2) as the escaped convict (stilling wearing stripes) Scars; and Keith David (ALWAYS) as pipe smoking Sergeant Clay Cantrell. The showiest show off of the bunch is Lance Henriksen (also in HARD TARGET) as “Ace” Hanlon, who’s introduced in an outlandish shot that travels along his ridiculously long shadow, stretched all the way across the room, before hitting his fancy-ass boots.
Cort (Crowe) has renounced violence, and Herod gets a kick out of trying to make him break his vow, so he drags him in in, strings him up on a chair and shoots at the legs to get him to enter. Ellen watches and looks unusually freaked out for a western hero (because, we’ll learn, this is how Herod killed her father). Then she jumps up and shoots the rope, saving Cort and earning her place in the contest. (But he has to enter too.)
Once the contest lineup is settled everybody starts shooting into the air to celebrate. They don’t even wait until they get outside. Although this is a town in need of rescuing, it’s fair to say it’s full of assholes. It’s the kind of town where when you walk in some guy (INTRUDER director Scott Spiegel) offers “Gold teeth. All sizes. I got uppers, I got lowers.” As soon as the quick draw contestants hit the dirt, bystanders scurry in to strip them of their valuables and teeth. When Cort has his first forced duel, kids make balls of horse shit with their bare hands to throw at him (a one-upping of those kids poking enslaved Ash with sticks as he’s marched in a pillory at the beginning of ARMY OF DARKNESS).
Of course he has to give in and shoot some guys. Or to “accidentally” kick a door to break the nose of Herod’s stooge Ratsie (Raynor Scheine, NAKED GUN 2 1/2). And he can’t hide his excitement when Herod brings him into a gun shop to see some top of the line product. The Kid throws him a Colt and he feels it out with a bunch of flips and spins like some circus performer. But he has no money so Herod buys him “the cheapest piece of worthless crap you got in this whole miserable store.”
To further the humiliation, he’s only allowed to carry one bullet at a time, setting the stage for the camera to follow one being thrown to him when he needs to reload. (That’s cool, but not as cool as when Herod throws a glass of water at his head, turning into a POV shot like the flying eyeball in EVIL DEAD II, and Cort catches and drinks it.) When he wins his first round he looks down as if surprised to see the smoking gun in his hand. The other guy yells, “He shot me!,” like it wasn’t fair for him to actually participate.
I love the way Raimi can make you laugh with a simple camera move in the middle of a suspenseful scene and not ruin anything. Case in point: when Ellen’s about to challenge Herod in the first round we hear her heart beating fast. But before she can say it someone taps her on the shoulder saying, “I challenge you.” She turns to face Dog Kelly, and the camera pans down to show he’s dragging a broken wagon wheel chained to his wrist, then back to his face now that we remember that’s the guy she left chained up in the opening scene.
They gotta have some sub-villains to kill off in the tournament, but Ellen really doesn’t like ending people’s lives. When she finds out Dred raped a little girl she angrily shoots his dick off, but still doesn’t want to finish the job.
They also gotta have some guys for Herod to kill, and he certainly seems to enjoy killing Ace Hanlon, the braggart who struts around preening his mustache and shows off by shooting right through the center of an ace of spades in a little girl’s hand. Of course, this is THE QUICK AND THE DEAD, so he first flips backwards over his horse, shoots between the horse’s legs, and we see the hole burst through the card framing Ace inside it. How the fuck did they do that?
But Herod catches Ace in a tall tale, taking credit for killing some guy he doesn’t realize was actually killed by Herod. “And I doubt if a lying little chicken shit like you was even in the same state,” Herod says. A dramatic sting scores the “oh shit” look on Ace’s face and the camera pulls out to reveal that we’ve already jumped ahead to their duel.
Herod not only kills Ace, but the legend of Ace. He shoots off his thumb (referencing an earlier allegation that he once shot off a girl’s thumb doing the card trick) and then makes him draw with his left hand (since he was just bragging that he was equally good with both). Ace tries to pull as Herod lights a match, but Herod shoots him right through the hand and finishes lighting his cigar.
He makes him dance like a buffoon, calls him “a bladder full of hot air,” coerces the crowd to applaud his death. Thieves strip Ace’s body of his flashy boots and clothes, and leave him dead in the street in his long underwear. Damn.
Herod is first introduced as a reflection on a telescope lens watching Ellen from his fancy house. Later she senses him coming to the saloon and spots him through a dirty window. He walks through the door with his face covered in shadow, bringing a breeze that whistles and blows Ellen’s hair back like a supernatural presence. She watches his spurred boots in slow motion before it pans up to his face.
He’s a villain worthy of his biblical name. He has a Greek muscleman statue on his porch. He watches the fights from a literal golden throne. When the full story of what he did to Ellen and her father is revealed, the cruelty is extravagant. Hackman of course grounds it all, and completely sells the malevolence, the arrogance, the fake friendly moments that are really threats. But there’s a powerful scene where he briefly fails to hide some humanity. Ellen comes to challenge him, only to find he’s already been challenged for this round – by the Kid. And he actually looks stressed about having to kill his own son. When the deed’s been done he looks even worse. He comes over and mumbles a couple different half-assed excuses for the inexcusable, the first being, “it was never proved that he was my son.” Pathetic. Perfect.
Man, he’s such a bastard, but he’s Hackman, so you kinda grudgingly admire how good he is at being such a bastard. He turns on his own man Ratsie for “ruining the contest” by bashing Cort’s hands, even though (according to Ratsie’s pathetic whine of “that’s not fair”) he put him up to it. He lets Ratsie run, then shoots him in the back and tosses his rifle to someone off screen like Prince did with his guitar after that “My Guitar Gently Weeps” solo.
When Ellen finally kills him (spoiler) it’s gonna have to be more than a standard quick draw competition. It has at least two pretty-fuckin-sure-Kevin-Costner-wouldn’t-do-this touches. One, she shoots him and he sees a hole in his shadow. Not in his hat like hers at the beginning – in his chest. Looks down and there’s a beam of light shining through him.
Two, we take the bullet’s perspective as she shoots him exactly in the iris, then we see brains splattering and his body doing a back flip. Not a typical Hackman death in my opinion. Although I haven’t seen WELCOME TO MOOSEPORT.
Many critics didn’t buy Stone in the role, and I’ll admit that at the time, although I liked her overall, I had issues with her in some scenes. But watching it now I don’t know what my problem was. I think it had to do with seeing her as some mainstream figure who it’s not cool to like, and thinking she had to fit into some kind of box. But, you know, the same year I dug some movie called COLDBLOODED where Jason Priestley played a hitman. That was way more of a leap there. Stone’s not Clint Eastwood, but she’s not exactly supposed to be either. Ellen can be tough, but it’s partly an act. She has a scene where she runs to the cemetery and cries to the doctor (Roberts Blossom, DERANGED) that she can’t do it. Another time she leaves town thinking she can’t even kill Herod.
Stone is great at all that, and also it’s fun to see her have the rare opportunity to play the type of cool asshole that Eastwood and other males get to play. Like she’s constantly annoyed by the young inn employee (Olivia Burnette, PLANES TRAINS AND AUTOMOBILES) who seems in awe of her, and she always has mean things to say to her.
“Are you really gonna do it? What if you get killed?”
“Then I won’t be around to answer any more of your dumb questions.”
But she does have a heart. She cradles The Kid’s head and comforts him as he dies, then kisses his crying girlfriend (Fay Masterson, THE LONE RANGER) on the head. In a 1994 L.A. Times set visit article Stone said, “I really like that the woman plays what is classically the man’s role, because I’m learning that that’s what I’m best at. Not that I play it like a man. I think it’s woman revealed in a new way… It’s a pleasure because every day I get to come to work and experiment with what that is, what would it be like to be trapped in this situation in the Old West? And because I don’t have to fit into some agreement of femaleness, I get to really be female.”
According to The Evil Dead Companion by Bill Warren, it was Stone’s idea to hire Raimi. Producers approached her with “a six-page list of approved directors for her to choose from. She sent back a page with one name on it: Sam Raimi. And she told the producers that if Raimi didn’t direct the movie, she wouldn’t star in it.” She was particularly a fan of ARMY OF DARKNESS, but felt that in all of Raimi’s movies “you could see a filmmaker taking the opportunity to become a better filmmaker, to stretch the limits of his technical and creative ability.”
It was a great call. The story, some of the visuals and the score by Alan Silvestri (THE DELTA FORCE, RICOCHET) are obviously paying homage to spaghetti westerns, but it never feels like pastiche. It’s a Raimi movie through and through. The distinctive montages of EVIL DEAD II and DARKMAN are expanded upon greatly in a story that has to bring great drama to (and pass the time between) one simple one-shot duel after another. Raimi and editor Pietro Scalia (JFK) lovingly cut together closeups of pocket watches opening and bullets being carefully loaded into elegantly engraved barrels before the pistols are spun and slid into holsters. The camera twists and zooms in on Gutzon’s face, then his holster, then The Kid’s face, then Gutzon cracking his knuckles, then a man in a nearby building slamming his shutters closed. A few seconds later it does the same to Herod’s eyes, Cort’s eyes, the clock, each of the fighter’s faces. It’s not about the duels (which are so simple) but everything around them.
I like how Raimi overlaps shots of both the shooter and the person shot, to put two views into one shot. And he superimposes the duels with the people watching them. A dropped gun is shown tiny, spinning across the screen in front of Ellen’s eyes. A body is carried away as Herod’s cold eyes dissolve in above, like an evil emperor on a sci-fi movie poster.
Another memorable sequence is all about sound design. When Ellen tries to listen for the click that Cort tells her can be heard right before the clock strikes, we listen for it too, watching them stand tensely as a fly buzzes by, leather clothes rumple, a knuckle cracks, a woman in the crowd gasps.
The script was written on spec by Simon Moore, who was perhaps best known for the original mini-series Traffik that Steven Soderbergh later adapted. He had also written and directed UNDER SUSPICION starring Darkman himself, Liam Neeson (not the one by the same title that Hackman was in). The studio hired John Sayles (ALLIGATOR) to do a rewrite, but Moore was rehired when it got too long, and has claimed that he simply cut out the parts that Sayles added. Additionally, Raimi told Vulture that after he shot the movie, he didn’t think the ending was working, and asked the studio for a writer to help him. “They suggested Joss Whedon, who was doing Buffy, so I met Joss and he saw the movie, and he helped me solve this ending in one afternoon. I thought Damn, you’re a good writer! I wish I could have had you rewrite the whole movie and save this picture!”
(Not necessary, Sam.)
That attitude seems to come from being considered a financial disappointment (though not all out flop) with mixed reviews (though they were mostly complimentary of Raimi’s direction). And maybe he heard too many people like that guy complaining about the fuckin hole in the head. To the world’s great loss, Raimi was convinced that it was a mistake not to “change with the material,” and he has completely or partially subdued that style in almost everything he’s made since.
Thanks alot, assholes. THE QUICK AND THE DEAD was and is a great movie. It revels in all the traditions of the western, and yet to this day there’s nothing else quite like it.