The Left Handed Gun (1958)

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Few figures in the West have the mystique in western lore as Billy the Kid, aside from a few prominent names like Wyatt Earp, Butch Cassidy, Jesse James, etc. Billy Joel even famously penned a tune chronicling the life of the outlaw.

Part of the allure, no doubt, has to do with his youth and the casting of the man as a Robin Hood type anti-hero who only robbed those with excess. Inspired by a teleplay by Gore Vidal (who for the record disliked the picture), television-turned-film-director Arthur Penn makes a conscious decision to focus his story on other facets of the character.

Although slightly older, Paul Newman came into acting about the same time as James Dean and in some respects they were cut out of the same mold. At any rate, they came from a similar school of actors training in the 1950s. Though Newman was no Dean, he does a fine facsimile here. He gives a, at times, disconcerting but overwhelmingly giddy performance as Billy the Kid and somehow his age of 33 doesn’t seem to distract from the part too much. Because he’s still holding onto a decent amount of his boyish charm and good looks.

Leslie Stevens’ script features terse often tiresome colloquial dialogue in a downright peculiarly paced western. However, this is not the main point of interest anyway. For the record, William Bonney (Paul Newman) drifts onto a ranch and is taken on by a trusting cattle rancher John Tunstall (Colin Keith-Johnston). But that same penchant for trust winds up getting him killed in an ambush.

Though he only knew the man for a short period, Billy carries a fierce loyalty and resolves to go after the four men who conspired in killing his boss pulling, his reluctant partners Charlie Bowdre and Tom Folliard into it with him. Allusions to “Through a glass darkly” from Corinthians suggests a bit of the muddled kaleidoscope that the man envisions the world through.

One morning he’s howling with his boys on a wagon heaped with flour, caked in white and the next minute he’s provoking another man to draw on him just so he can blow him away. His old friend, Pat Garrett (John Dehner), has trouble knowing what to do in the face of William’s lighting-hot personality.

The newly minted amnesty in the territory means a temporary peace, instantly obliterated by a moment of stupidity among Billy’s buddies. Though the novels back east have cast him as some fictionalized larger-than-life figure, he’s really nothing like that at all.

His buddies get it and then as the final straw, Pat vows to hunt down his estranged friend, putting on the badge of the local sheriff, after an unwanted blowup at his own wedding. Billy has alienated the one man who will make him pay. First, he brings him in to be hung and then after the kid escapes, Garrett heads out again to finish things off once.  It’s a pitiful character arc and that’s the key.

While it might be overshooting its influence to say that the Left Handed Gun singlehandedly erected a new brand of western, at the very least, it suggested a new age of the West as we knew it. Beyond this, it’s hard not to draw parallels to Penn’s later work in Bonnie and Clyde (1967) which The Left Handed Gun is an obvious precursor to in the depiction of the outsider who uses violence almost indiscriminately.

One scene that leaves an impression involves a blurred image as Billy taunts a deputy from up above, toting a shotgun and blowing him away as he squints through the sunlight. Not only is it composed as a slo-mo killing but as his body lies in the street and people run toward him, instead of screaming, a little girl looks at his solitary boot just sitting there and proceeds to point and laugh. Her mother smacks her but the damage has been done. His death is a joke. There’s no point to it. People fail to react as they have been coached to since the dawning of the cinematic western.

There’s a senselessness to the killing which explodes with an almost haphazard vengeance. In no accordance with reason or morals nor in the end by perceived good or evil. Each bullet is yet another indication of all that is idiosyncratic in the subject matter. Not a hero, not a villain, but a perplexingly near neurotic gunslinger.

Whether it’s to everyone’s taste is another question entirely. It’s more character study than drama and in this close observation, it’s the distillation of a new kind of western hero — the anti-hero, or lack thereof, that is most notable. Today it’s less interesting because we have Peckinpah, Clint Eastwood, and even Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969).

But as a picture going against the grain, an artifact from a certain moment in time, there’s still something burning within its frames. Even if it’s not a fully cohesive effort, The Left Handed Gun is not without its flashes of artfulness and intriguing volatility. It began the work of reconstructing the mythos of the West that had been forged in the movies though there was still a great deal more to come. In fact, Arthur Penn would return to western revisioning with Little Big Man (1970) over a decade later.

3/5 Stars

The Chase (1966)

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Of all the reasons to watch this movie, I felt compelled to as a roundabout reevaluation of Robert Redford’s career as he just recently said The Old Man and The Gun would be his last film. He more recently still, admitted he never should have said he was retiring but for all intent and purposes, he’s winding down, focusing his energies on other endeavors.

The Chase is situated at the beginning of his career and although he’s not quite the star, Redford has an integral part to play. Bubba is a local boy who breaks out of prison. Due to his dashing good looks, they don’t immediately place him as a runaway criminal type but if Paul Newman could do it, I gather Redford could do it too.

If we had to pick one central conceit this would be it, except, on the whole, The Chase proves a meandering epic, purely hit or miss, especially given such a promising cast. It’s as bloated with talent as it is convoluted by so many character arcs, each coming at us from all over the place with varying degrees of interest and importance.

The local sheriff, named Calder (Marlon Brando), lives an honest life with his loving wife (Angie Dickinson). There is talk around town that the lawman is in the coat pocket of prominent banker Val Rogers (E.G. Marshall). Though the accusations seem dubious based on Calder’s simple integrity. However, if it is true,  he wouldn’t be the only one intent on getting on the big man’s good side.

Soon it’s Saturday night and the whole town seems to be having a party. The most coveted one is thrown by Rogers and sure enough, among his guests are the Calders. Though they hardly fit into the upper echelon, they have an open invitation because Val is intent on staying on the incumbent lawman’s good side for what he might be able to do for him.

Meanwhile, an agitated bank employee (Robert Duvall) and his coquettish wife (Janice Rule) put on a shindig for the “normal folks” who never seem to get an invitation from Rogers. The means might be humbler but they similarly get a little tipsy while play fighting, dancing, and openly flirting with anything with a pulse and a pickup line.

Two of the most accomplished adulterers and partakers in sordid gossip-worthy fodder are Emily and Damon, who are quite openly lovey-dovey, given they are both married to other people. It’s telling that the status quo is getting drunk and carousing with other’s spouses.  We hardly bat an eye because the whole town is rampant with this kind of conduct.

Despite being the lead and raking in a hefty fee, Brando spends most of the film moseying around town making house calls or patrolling the streets. In fact, initially, it feels like the most mundane and understated performance from Mr. Brando I can recall. That is until the final act where for once his hand is forced and he has to struggle for his own survival and any semblance of small-town law and order.

The only other moment where he enters such terrain again is in the final moments on the steps of the sheriff’s office; this time to deliver retribution. Because this is a film where everything seems to go awry. If the hothouse dramas of the 50s were a dying breed, The Chase might be the closest thing to a reanimation of the genre, albeit with younger, newer blood.

However, amidst this southern operatic melodrama, helmed by Arthur Penn, The Chase still comes off somewhat dated, maybe due to its evocation of earlier works. It’s as if the picture is trying to push an agenda of social importance for a new decade but simultaneously lacks a compelling framework to work within. The point is made quite clear that African-Americans and Mexican migrant workers are second-class citizens and subsequently mostly forgotten in this story. But there are few interesting conclusions on this front.

Otherwise, for the first half, there’s nothing organic or terribly alive in terms of authenticity. Because while Brando gives a fine turn, admittedly easy to overlook, most everyone else is carried away by the drama. They have nothing to give us that feels truly genuine and the story freely escalates by upping the temperature in the ongoing search for Bubba.

Finally, Redford and Jane Fonda get together, an escaped convict reunited with his long lost wife. Maybe they didn’t know it at the time but it would be the beginning of a meaningful screen partnership which has been forged over 50 years. But before long, even this brief, potentially intimate moment is interrupted by first one party, then two, and before long the whole town has turned their moment into the latest county-wide social event.

The junkyard is the finest attraction as it promises to give them the most wanted fugitive for miles around and they’ve come to be a part of the show. Soon folks are yelling exuberantly, lobbing firecrackers into the heaps of old automobiles as car horns honk in this symphony of tumult. But if this is where the climax begins it actually ends on the steps of the jailhouse in a scene that evokes if not JFK’s assassination then certainly Jack Ruby’s actions the following day. The clouds of misery linger over the frames but that’s not our biggest regret.

I think, no fault of its own, The Chase boasts almost more talent than it knows what to do with. So many actors come together at so many different crossroads of their careers. Of course, Brando is front and center. He and Robert Duvall still had The Godfather and many other classics ahead of them. Redford and Fonda were both young talents. E.G. Marshall had an illustrious career on stage and screen while Miriam Hopkins was in her twilight years in a small role. Angie Dickinson was pretty much in her prime. Even Arthur Penn had pictures with more socially incisive commentary and interesting themes including the cinema-shattering Bonnie and Clyde released the following year.

The bottom line is that in each individual case it’s easy to think of at least a handful of films each of these actors was involved in which were more enthralling than this one. It’s hard to hold a candle to that type of competition and against it, The Chase looks fairly mediocre. True, it’s a rather unfair fulcrum to measure a movie by but in this case, it’s very hard not to. Taking these unfair biases into account, it has something to offer the viewer even if it’s not quite as satiating as one would like.

3/5 Stars

Little Big Man (1970)

9a376-little_big_manAlthough the film certainly had so good parts for some reason it did not quite jell with me. Focusing on the positive first, this was a revisionist western that tried to depict an alternative picture of the American west from the eyes of Native Americans. Although not perfect it was trying. Dustin Hoffman also gave an impressive performance that found him drifting between the worlds of “the White man” and “the Indians.”

Here is where I get into the main problem that I had with the film. Most of it had to do with age and casting. It was brave and somewhat strange that Dustin Hoffman portrayed his character from his teen years up until he was over a century old. For the most part Hoffman pulled it off. I also was kind of uncomfortable with his sister Caroline who looked like she was 30 even though she was only supposed to be a child. Then, you have Faye Dunaway. That had to be the strangest thing in the film. Although younger in real life, she was Dustin Hoffman’s adopted mother for a time and she played it up.

In some ways this film reminded me a bit of The Butler because we have a main character who grows old in front of us and he ultimately has a role in many diverse bits of history. Like that film, Little Big Man is quite interesting and at times entertaining, but the implausibility of the plot can get to you.

In defense of this film, I really did not know what I was getting myself into and so it surprised me with its mix of violent drama and a sprinkling of comedy. I would have liked to have seen more of Faye Dunaway and Martin Balsam, but it is what it is. Chief Dan George was the breakout character for sure. He was very enjoyable to listen to as he mentored Little Big Man.

3.5/5 Stars

Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

b1a0c-bonnie_and_clydeStarring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, with director Arthur Penn, the film chronicles the crime life of a group of notorious gangsters during the 1930s. Clyde Barrow (Beatty), a small time thief meets the beautiful young girl Bonnie Parker (Dunaway) and together they begin robbing banks. Soon they enlist the help of a dim-witted mechanic C.W., and then Clyde’s brother joins the fray bringing along his wife. They have a string of successes and they become infamous nationwide. Soon they begin to bicker among themselves and the police start to buckle down. In a shootout Buck is shot dead and Bonnie, Clyde, and C.W. just barely escape. However, their actions eventually do catch up with them and thus ends the story of these two figures depicted as anti-heroes. This film is significant because it was influenced by the French New Wave but it in turn ushered in a new era of American film . It has a unique combination of comedy, romance, violence, and of course banjo music.

5/5 Stars