Lonely Are The Brave (1962): The Last Cowboy

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Armed with black and white and rolling plains full of instantly recognizable western exteriors, Lonely Are The Brave goes for an intimate approach. The camera focuses on a man splayed out with his hat tipped over his eyes in slumber. This could have been out of many earlier pictures up until this moment. An instant later the illusion is stripped when a jet cuts across the skyline. It’s an indication of where we are.

Because this is not a blaring lack of continuity. This is a telling signifier. What proves to be out of place is not this jet but the main character at the center of our story. If one of these things is not like the other, then he is indeed the anachronism.

This is the continual struggle of Kirk Douglas’s John W. Burns because even as he fights to maintain his rootless lifestyle reminiscent of the bygone drifting cowhands of old, it’s hardly in vogue with the introduction of social security cards and, for a lack of a better word, civilization. The two diverging stratospheres just don’t gel very well.

The film must sit somewhere atop the list of deceptive film titles. Going in imagining a High Noon-like film about one man standing up in the face of many, instead we get an equally meaningful meditation on the lingering ways of the west in a contemporary context. No thanks to the marketing department, I might add.

However, what does that matter when you employ the considerable wit and wizardry of Dalton Trumbo? He has a ball toying with the most obvious thematic idea of a near-mythical man — an old-time cowboy — whose code of conduct and dwindling philosophy on life butts up against a world that will not have him. He is at odds with it. Averse to fences, boundaries, sectioning off of lands — all now common practice.

He’s indicative of a certain romanticism with his horse and hat out on the range. Even as the pragmatic world around him as passed him by in favor of changing forms of living. This intersection of the remnants of the West with post-war American modernity is made visibly evident when he is forced into playing animal crossing with his horse on a heavily trafficked highway.

When he pays a visit to a woman (Gena Rowlands), there’s something enigmatic about the encounter. A wife, perhaps a lover. At first, we’re not sure. It’s more complicated and less understood. Until it comes out her husband — his best friend — is in prison, and she’s worried about him. Rowlands would have to wait for a true tour de force, but the best compliment I can give is her role has something equally bewitching about it. She’s not quite an entirely conventional housewife.

The subsequent scene takes place in a Mexican-flavored cantina. It proves to be the unlikely arena for an explosive fistfight with a belligerent one-armed man, for what seems to be no reason at all.

If we’re ever told, I’ve no recollection of it and if we weren’t, it doesn’t much matter. It conveniently serves the story twofold. Because we get a rowdy action piece with Douglas duking it out “mano y mano,” while subsequently landing himself a jail sentence so he can drop in on his old buddy as a favor to the incarcerated man’s wife. If this makes little logical sense, then at least it’s different — not where we expect the story to go.

His jail sentence gets dropped and then upped following a police station scuffle carried out while the booking officer dryly lists off the unidentified drifter’s personal belongings like it’s just another day in the office. In the end, Burns keeps his promise to see Paul. There are momentary glimpses this could be a prison movie not unlike Brute Force, Caged, and certainly Cool Hand Luke.

We have a sadistic George Kennedy on the outside of the bars instead of inside. His main adversary is obvious. However, true to character, nothing can keep the cowhand in one place, not even prison.

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The movie is beholden to a cast of giants (current and soon-to-be). Trumbo’s impeccably inventive scripting gives them all the words to emote with wry humor and assorted ticks making them come alive beyond the range of flimsy cinematic outlines.

The plotting itself is of a strange and unorthodox nature, nevertheless buoyed again by the talent and words on the page. Payoffs abound for these very reasons. Otherwise, it would wander as an ill-paced, unfulfilling mess. Thankfully, this is far from the case. The payoffs are strangely affecting, thanks to a story that bides its time, allows for asides, and spends time in untrodden places.

Between Douglas playfully cajoling a recalcitrant new mount and Walter Matthau observing the daily rituals of an unseen mutt outside the office window, Trumbo continually adds these delightfully offbeat touches.

William Schallert — as the good-natured bumpkin officer manning the police radio is in one sense totally aggravating and yet endearing in an innocent way. Even a fresh-faced Bill Bixby is manning the police helicopter the fugitive promptly shoots down from overhead. It’s an unceremonious reversal of fortune with the cowboy’s bullet taking on the whirly gridiron machine down from its illustrious heights.

Still, he cannot hang on forever. Eventually, even his tried and true way will betray him against the rapid assault of constant advancement. It cannot survive just as he cannot. Carrol O’Connor gets only a few solitary lines at the beginning and the end of the picture with rain pounding the highway, but his truck driver has a crucial moment we can all but see coming from a mile away. Though such a realization does not make it any less impactful when it arrives. It was inevitable.

Kirk Douglas, a man known for his intensity (some would say overacting), gives a performance bridled back with his winsome charm. In fact, the entire story plays with this generally lackadaisical, at times, melancholic pacing.

The final act in another picture might be chockful of moments. Lonely are the Brave needs only one. Turner makes one final push to freedom — his escape route, a harrowing ascent into the mountains. As gravity determines, the only way to go is down. It must be the so with John Turner.

So he never quite reaches his apotheosis. He is a partial embodiment of the sentiments of Dylan Thomas’s most famous work — the fight to rage against the dying of the light. Except the light is the way of the West and the battle is lost. It is a foregone conclusion. As time marches on, there is no way to claim victory. One wonders if being the last cowboy is an act of bravery, futility, or folly. Perhaps the answer runs the gamut of all three.

4/5 Stars

Note: This review was written before the passing of Kirk Douglas on 2/5/2020.

The Naked Kiss (1964)

thenakedkiss1If you’re not at least mildly prepared for it, The Naked Kiss comes at you like a ton of bricks. A woman comes at the camera menacingly beating up a man, for a reason we don’t know. Then her hair comes flying off and there she is still swinging at him completely bald. It’s frightening, frenetic, and completely engrossing. From thence on, Sam Fuller has us in the grips of his story, even if we don’t quite know what it’s about yet. His hook has grabbed us.

It turns out the women we were so brutally introduced to is named Kelly (Constance Towers). A couple years down the road she looks strikingly different, with no sign of turmoil. Instead, she’s a sleek beauty working the streets of Grantville.

thenakedkiss2Of course, her first customer happens to be a police chief named Griff (Anthony  Eisley), who advises her to skedaddle out of town as quick as possible. He gives her the details on a cozy joint across the border known for their Bonbon girls. He thinks he’s got her pegged, but Kelly goes and does something even he wouldn’t expect.

She acquires a job at an orthopedic hospital for disabled children and quickly becomes a favorite in the ward. All the kids love her dearly, and she cares for them faithfully. But Griff still thinks she’s working an angle. His mind is closed off, looking for every opportunity to dredge up Kelly’s guilt. He wants to confirm everything he already knows about her, even if it’s not true.

Kelly’s stellar performance catches the eye of town millionaire J.L. Grant, who also happens to be a good friend of Griff’s. She and Grant hit it off on topics such as Lord Byron and Beethoven. Their time together turns into romantic dreamscapes of Venetian waterways.

At the same time, Kelly is extremely sympathetic to her fellow workers supplying money for a woman so she can keep her baby instead of getting an abortion. To naive young Buff, she warns of selling herself out and becoming a Bonbon (“You’ll be every man’s wife-in-law, and no man’s wife. Why, your world with Candy will become so warped that you’ll hate all men. And you’ll hate yourself! Because you’ll become a social problem, a medical problem, a MENTAL problem!… And a despicable failure as a woman”). It’s in these candid moments where Kelly reveals her scruples, although she’s not above vigilante justice, whether it involves her old pimp or the morally questionable proprietress Candy.

There are strangely peaceful lulls that only make the climactic moments in the film all the more dramatic. Fuller utilizes the children’s song from the hospital wonderfully with the hollow images he juxtaposes on screen. The song reverberates several times as a haunting marker of what Kelly has seen between a little girl and her soon-to-be husband. But that’s over with now. Kelly has deeper troubles to worry about afterward.

The Naked Kiss is a pulpy delight as only Fuller can deliver with twisted natures and deep-seated brokenness. He makes glorified trash which is often times far more engaging than the most polished blockbuster Hollywood can churn out. The seedy exterior almost always gives way to great depth. Even when you step back for a moment, it becomes obvious how implausible this story is. How does Griff not know about his best friend? Yet Fuller plays the drama so well we are completely engrossed.

thenakedkiss3The social commentary is there. The characters are interesting. Meanwhile, Fuller slices and dices through taboo subjects that would have horrified censors and yet he brings them to the forefront in such a way that hardly glorifies them, but actually gets them out in the open. Every detail isn’t written out, but Fuller throws us into the narrative and allows us to track with him. He puts a little faith in his audience.

Constance Towers’ performance looms large in this film and she reminds me a great deal of Gena Rowlands. Her turn as Kelly is multifaceted and dynamic. Her look of genial charm just as easily turns into an icy gaze of contempt. Furthermore, she, much like Fuller, is willing to go to the streets and acknowledge all the dirt and grime there. She wants to clean it up, and she truly is the hooker with the heart of gold. Only such an easy categorization should not take away from Towers’ role at all. There’s more to her than a look, or a wig, or a body.  To paraphrase Grant, she’s the most interesting contradiction I’ve met in some time.

4/5 Stars

A Woman Under the Influence (1974)

a6338-awomanunderinfluenceWow, this film from John Cassavetes was truly gut-wrenching and powerful. Gena Rowlands and Peter Falk are wonderful as Mabel and Nick. At their core they both seem like essentially good people. They love their kids, their family, and friends. Except Mabel’s problems tear them apart and in turn hurt the ones they love. The drama is not created my major plot twists, but the mundane and the typical. Dinner conversations, picking the kids up from school, gatherings with friends. This is when the film takes place and this is where we see their family unwinding at the seams. It is a personal story and the cinematography and the script for that matter are not polished. They are allowing us to see into this situation and thus the heartache and the pain washes over us and we become engaged with it.

Supposedly Richard Dreyfuss threw up after watching this film. Some may not be able to claim that same reaction, but there is no doubt that your heart goes out to not only Mabel but her children who are caught in the middle of it all. Even Nick, who can be a callous and even violent person is given a heart because he was portrayed by the great Peter Falk. This is definitely powerful stuff that is worth seeing.

This film may actually be more difficult to watch than some gorier films for the simple fact that it will hit the audience close to home. Literally. This is my first film from the director John Cassavetes and hopefully there will be more in my near future. Take a chance with this one because there is a chance that it is different than many of the polished Hollywood films you have seen in the past.

4.5/5 Stars