“The Quick and the Dead" takes the premise of those old
Tough Man Contests and moves it to the old West, where the sadistic despot of a
small town holds a shoot-off every year. The rules are simple: The last man
alive wins a big cash prize. It's a movie that is intimately familiar with the
conventions of Westerns, especially those rules that state: (a) when a Kid
comes riding into town for a showdown with the big man, he is probably the
man's unacknowledged son, and (b) when a woman rides into town, also for a
showdown, she is probably seeking revenge for a terrible wrong in the past.
movie stars Gene Hackman as a man named Herod, who lives in a dark, Dickensian
house that looms at the end of Main Street.
by henchmen in long black leather coats, he collects a 50 percent tax on all
business in the town, shoots anyone who gets out of line and holds his bloody
competition once a year.
this contest, anyone can enter. The contestants are paired off, and at the
stroke of 12 on the town clock, they stand in the middle of the street and
shoot at each other. One must die in order for the other to win. Then it's on
to the next round (in this town it's "High Noon" over and over
again). The last man standing collects the prize money.
is always the last man standing. I figured that out because he's still alive.
His motives for holding this contest may seem obscure, but actually they are
pretty clear; he holds it because it provides a simplistic story structure for
the movie, giving it a long series of duels on Main Street as a substitute for
any form of genuine dramatic conflict.
think contestants would have to be pretty hard up to enter a contest where the
odds are about 10-to-1 in favor of their being killed. But there's no shortage
of entrants, including one guy who adds an ace to his deck every time he kills
someone, and another who cuts a scar into his arm after every kill. Also
arriving are two strangers: the Kid (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Ellen (Sharon
Stone). The Kid is cocky and self-confident: "Damn, I'm fast!" he
says after polishing off one opponent, and later he asks idly, "Is it
possible to improve on perfection?" Ellen is a little harder to read. She
is a lone rider who puffs on a thin black cigar and makes a bartender regret it
when he assumes she's a hooker. She's sexy in leather pants and a trim outfit
(and later manages to find a ballroom gown in her saddlebags). She wants to
enter the contest. Hackman, who is attracted to her, doesn't want either Ellen
or the Kid to shoot it out, possibly because he suspects that the Kid is his
he denies it. But the Kid is adamant. "I'm his son," he declares,
"and if this is the only way he's gonna admit that, so be it." In
other words (I think), the theory is that if the Kid kills Hackman, by golly,
that'll make him admit it.
movie's story, as you have grasped, isn't much. But "The Quick and the
Dead" is not without its good points. The director is Sam Raimi (the
"Evil Dead" movies, "Darkman") and he displays once again
his zest for stylistic invention. Early in the movie, a character gets shot
through the hat brim, and the sun shines through the hole into the camera lens.
A nice touch, but Raimi tops it later in the film by showing the sun shining
through a bullet hole clean through a guy's body, and by a third shot in which
we look down Main Street through a large hole in a man's head.
cinematographer, Dante Spinotti ("The Last of the Mohicans") makes
the material look terrific. The lowering skies around the isolated town make it
look ripe for vengeance of biblical proportions, and there are quiet satirical
touches, as when a man stands in a saloon door and his shadow seems about 6
miles long. It also helps the visuals that it rains all the time in this town
(although when it doesn't, nothing is green).
must also be said that Hackman somehow survives the material.
am beginning to believe he is an actor who can say anything and make it work.
As preposterous as the plot was, there was never a line of Hackman dialogue
that didn't sound as if he believed it. The same can't be said, alas, for
Sharon Stone, who apparently believed that if she played her character as
silent, still, impassive and mysterious, we would find that interesting. More
swagger might have helped. Do you suppose she took the plot seriously?