RSS

Category Archives: Jack Palance

Monte Walsh

Elegiac is a word that has been used more than a few times to describe westerns that began to appear in the 1960s and particularly in the 1970s. While many movies tagged with this term do have a certain sorrowful quality to them, I can’t help feeling that it’s been overused at times. On the other hand, there are occasions where this description is highly appropriate, Monte Walsh (1970) being one of them. This is a remarkable film, a work of gentle and understated power, one which can break your heart and yet fill it up with renewed optimism at the same time. Being well aware of the fact that filmmaking is a collaborative effort, I’m loath to place too much emphasis on the contribution of one individual. However, and despite the fact there’s uniformly excellent work from all those involved in the film, I do feel that a large part of what makes Monte Walsh such an enriching experience comes down to Lee Marvin’s performance in the title role.

The film is split into roughly two halves, with the first part spending less time on plot development than the careful establishment of mood and character interaction. This technique is particularly important in creating believable human beings, people we get to know and consequently care about as the twists and turns of their lives unfold. Monte Walsh (Lee Marvin) and Chet Rollins (Jack Palance) are two veteran cowboys, men starting to feel the sharp bite of age in a world on the brink of huge changes. This fact is apparent right from the outset, when the two friends ride back into town after a hard winter to be met with ominous news. The harsh weather has taken a heavy toll on the ranches, wiping out many and allowing corporate interests to step in. Monte and Chet can count themselves among the lucky ones though; they at least have the offer of doing the only job they really know or care about. Their new masters, never seen and contemptuously referred to as “the accountants”, are an unsentimental breed, however, and owe an attachment to nothing beyond the bottom line. As the need to ensure investments remain profitable rules supreme, the initial group of cowhands is gradually whittled down in the interests of efficiency and cost effectiveness – the tight little community the viewer has come to know and identify with is being broken up before our eyes. To begin with, the younger men, those who have more chances of finding alternative employment, are given notice. Still, these chances are few and far between on a frontier that’s becoming hemmed in by both the barbed wire fences of new owners and the economic restrictions of a new era. One of the first redundancies is Shorty Austin (Mitch Ryan), and his departure is significant in that his meager opportunities set him on a path that will bring him into conflict with the law, his former friends, and ultimately shape the course of events in the second half of the picture. Throughout it all, the overriding theme is a sense of loss, and this is seen principally from the perspective of Monte. As viewers, we’re invited to watch as Monte loses first the job he knows and respects, the friends he’s had all his life, the woman he loves, and the only way of life he’s ever experienced. On paper, this should all add up to a pretty depressing time for the audience, yet the stoicism, the determination, the unstinting hope and essential humanity of the lead character means that there’s a kind of life-affirming optimism at the heart of the movie.

Jack Schaefer wrote one of the most famous stories to be made into a western movie when he penned Shane. He also provided the source material for Monte Walsh and thus added another iconic frontier hero. Instead of a wandering gunfighter, although Monte’s no slouch on that score either, he presented a man battling to come to terms with a world that seems to be suddenly passing him by. I guess it all boils down to a meditation on integrity, the determination to remain true to the experiences and life one knows, and ultimately to oneself. As such, the movie is a curious and successful combination of the melancholy and the triumphant. For all the disappointments, and they come thick and fast as the tale goes along, there’s always a hint of hope. John Barry was one of the greatest composers of film scores and although his name isn’t one normally associates with westerns, he created music that’s literally pitch perfect and complements the images on the screen. He was one of the best at conveying a sense of expansiveness and those dusty scenes of the mustang round-up would be a whole lot poorer were it not for his contribution. Still and all, it’s the main theme  The Good Times are Coming – with lyrics by Hal David and vocals by the incomparable (Mama) Cass Elliot – that dominates it all. At first, this piece may seem like a paradox, an irony, in such a story but it’s actually entirely appropriate. Monte Walsh is a man who’s been bruised by life, but never beaten, a dreamer who’s both in thrall to the past and in love with the future – the ultimate cowboy perhaps. And then there’s the directorial debut of William A Fraker, that master cinematographer who took the reins in only a handful of films. His eye for landscape, his ability to draw genuine performances from his cast, and his impeccable sense of timing are wonderful and it’s regrettable that he directed so few movies.

Lee Marvin has to go down as of the Hollywood greats. Starting out in supporting roles, he damned near stole the picture from many a legendary lead. By the time he made Monte Walsh, Marvin was in his mid-40s and looked every hard-living day of it. He always had character in his face, his voice and movements – you just knew this was a man who had been around, who had done things and was no stranger to life. Consequently, he fits the role of Monte like a glove, having the looks and experience in the genre to positively demand you believe in him. Despite winning an Oscar for Cat Ballou, I still feel this actor has never received his full due. Even today, he tends to be thought of as an action actor, a villainous character and tough guy. Well, he was a tough guy, but in the real sense of the term – an all-round man. He could play menacing as well as any but there was a whole lot more to him, power and subtlety to be exact. As Monte Walsh, he’s electrifying – you can’t take your eyes off him. Every bad break in life is etched into those craggy features and every sadness too, but there’s humor and tenderness beneath it all. I could pick out most any scene in the movie to prove my point but I’ll mention just two. The aftermath of Chet’s wedding is a sobering moment for Monte; the full impact of the changes to his world have just begun to hit home, and he heads for the refuge of the saloon. But as he enters he gets another shock – the place is deserted, a forlorn shell that’s a world away from the thriving hub it had once been. The realization and subsequent acceptance of this unpleasant truth is clear to see in just a few brief twitches around the eyes and mouth. Additionally, one of the most moving sequences comes when Monte arrives too late and discovers that his great love Martine (Jeanne Moreau) has passed away. His grief is completely internalized and controlled, yet there’s no question about its depth. As he opens her little jewelry box and finds both a lock of his hair and the unused money he once pressed upon her, there’s just the faintest glimmer of a tear in the corner of his eye – far more telling and powerful than any display of histrionics.

Marvin may have been the beating heart of the movie, but he had no shortage of first class support right through the cast. Jack Palance was another performer who could ignite the screen at will, an actor of extraordinary intensity who was capable of exhausting an audience emotionally. This film, however, saw him playing a model of restraint and self-control. Where Monte would not be cowed by the vagaries of fate, Chet was the more philosophical. Recognizing that time was no longer on his side, he took the pragmatic view and settled down to town life and marriage. Palance added a note of calmness and pragmatism to his performance here, more blissful than defeatist. However, it’s worth noting that it’s the ornery refusal to bow down that leads to Palance’s downfall. Monte held onto that quality throughout, refused to succumb at any point, and fares better in the end. Jeanne Moreau also gave a memorable turn as Martine, the woman in Monte’s life – even his lifeline to some extent – who can forgive him anything and would wait for him for ever. Moreau was all sadness and sexiness, a classically tragic figure. The wordless scene where she tries to arouse the interest of her man as he struggles to roll a cigarette is a beautiful moment of humor and sensuality. And the discussion she has with Marvin about their future together is an object lesson in how to blend romance and regret with ever allowing it to descend into the maudlin.

For a long time, Monte Walsh was one of those movies that I feared would never see the light of day on DVD. Then Paramount finally came to their senses and released it in the US. The film is correctly presented in anamorphic scope and looks pretty good with no distractions or damage that I was aware of. The only extra feature offered is the theatrical trailer, which I think is a shame as a commentary track would be welcome and appropriate. Still, I’m grateful to have the movie available on disc so I’m not going to complain too much. I think this is one of the great westerns, not only of the 1970s but of one of the greats period. There is a depth and richness to Monte Walsh that stands the test of time; I think it’s a perfect piece of filmmaking where I cannot honestly find anything to criticize. It’s one of those films that grows on you and draws you further in with each subsequent viewing, improving with age. To those already familiar with it, it should need no recommendation. And for those others yet to experience its magic, well you’re in for a treat. I recommend this one without reservation or qualification – the definition of a classic.

 
39 Comments

Posted by on December 5, 2012 in 1970s, Jack Palance, Lee Marvin, Westerns

 

Young Guns

Poster

Such is the nature of this series of reviews that we go from the sublime to…well, Young Guns (1988). To be honest, it’s hard for me to find very many positive things to say about this one. It seems to be touted as the most historically accurate movie dealing with the life and times of Mr Bonney, but that’s really only in a superficial sense – events take place out of order, characters are missing or misrepresented, and people are shown to die in ways and at times they never did. But OK, it’s a film and you have to expect some of that. For me, the biggest problem is the poor acting of the “Brat Pack” stars. There’s nothing the least bit convincing about any of the central performances nor is there any real feel for time and place.

The plot deals with the events leading up to and during the Lincoln County War. It starts off with Billy (Emilio Estevez) being taken in by Tunstall (Terence Stamp) and his integration into the group of Regulators (of course they weren’t actually known as Regulators until after Tunstall’s death) that act as hired muscle. Now, there’s a problem here right away; the Regulators were, by all accounts, a bunch of tough gunmen who were ruthless by nature. What the movie presents us with, however, is a collection of soft looking post-adolescents being tutored by the kindly Tunstall. Mind you, this set up does allow the chief villain, Murphy (Jack Palance), to toss out a loaded line about Tunstall’s interest in “educating” young boys. There’s also an allusion made to the Old World grudges fuelling the rivalry – Murphy being an Irish immigrant and Tunstall a wealthy Englishman – but nothing further comes of that. Such bad feelings weren’t the source of the conflict, but it might have made for an interesting plot device if it had been explored in more depth – after all, the script doesn’t shy away from other departures from the truth. With the assassination of Tunstall, the story gets down to the serious business of depicting as many tit-for-tat killings as can be squeezed into the running time. This gives rise to another scripting issue; the action tears headlong from one manic and confused gunfight to the next, with characters popping up and being dispatched before you get a chance to even realise who they are. There’s never a sense that you’re getting to know anything of substance about the leads, except maybe Chavez (Lou Diamond Phillips) and Doc Scurlock (Kiefer Sutherland). And even then the results are nothing to write home about; the former plays out an embarrassingly bad scene where he explains his motivation, and the latter is handed a horribly tacked on romance in between his poetry writing sessions. So the plot charges its way towards the climactic Battle of Lincoln – one of the better staged sequences – before coming to a pretty dumb conclusion.

All guns blazing - Emilio Estevez as the Kid.

Essentially, this film is trying to pack too many events and people into its running time, leading to clutter and an unsatisfactory lack of development. As the Kid, Emilio Estevez comes across as a kind of giggling fool with no character progression whatsoever from the opening until the ending. I already mentioned the low point of Lou Diamond Phillips getting in touch with his angst, but his “mystic Indian” schtick all through the movie is both dull and cliched. I think Kiefer Sutherland probably fares better than any of the other young stars, though it has to be said that the attempts to portray Doc Scurlock as some kind of sensitive and bookish intellectual feel too much like an affectation. Also the romantic subplot involving the Asian girl really serves no purpose other than to show what a bad man Murphy is. In truth, that’s not even necessary as Jack Palance’s presence should be enough in itself. Sure the old-timer leers and hams it up, but even so he still blows the so-called stars away every time he appears. Which brings me to the only positive aspect of the picture, the older generation of actors who make appearances. Terence Stamp brings a touch of class to Tunstall and it’s a pity he wasn’t given more to do. Brian Keith, as Buckshot Roberts, only has one scene but it says something for the man that it’s so memorable. Even Pat Wayne’s little cameo as Pat Garrett stands out and helps illustrate the gulf in class between the nominal leads and their elders.

The R2 DVD from Lionsgate is acceptable but not particularly notable. The film is given an anamorphic transfer that looks a little soft to me. The only extras are the trailer and some filmographies. I saw Young Guns when it was first released, and I wasn’t very impressed at the time. If I hadn’t been doing this series then I don’t think I would have bothered to watch it again. It represents the kind of western that doesn’t appeal to me at all, telling you more about the time it was made than the time in which the action takes place. I’m afraid it’s not a film that I could recommend.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on December 14, 2011 in 1980s, Jack Palance, Westerns

 

Attack

Robert Aldrich made one of most people’s favorite war movies in The Dirty Dozen. In fact he made all kinds of great movies encompassing almost every genre. By 1956 he had turned out a handful of fine pictures, including Kiss Me Deadly and Vera Cruz. That year he turned his hand to the war movie and came up with the superior and intense Attack. This came at a time when the war film was transitioning from the flag-waving efforts of the forties to more bitter and realistic portrayals of combat.

The story focuses on the strains within a WWII company of US soldiers during the Battle of the Bulge. The company is under the command of Capt. Cooney (Eddie Albert), a privileged man who joined the army to satisfy the wishes of his father. However, Cooney is an undisguised coward whose position only remains tenable due to his friendship with Col. Bartlett (Lee Marvin), the battalion commander. The situation in the company has reached crisis point after Cooney’s inaction has caused the death of a squad of Lt. Costa’s (Jack Palance) men. When orders come through that a small town must be taken and held, Costa delivers an ultimatum to his superior – if he fouls up again then Costa will kill him.

Jack Palance reaches the breaking point

The film was adapted from a stage play and, as is often the case, is a real actor’s movie. Both Palance and Albert hold centre stage and the focus is on the duel between these two. Palance’s performance is raw and painful to watch as his endurance is fully tested. The latter part of the movie, when betrayal and the pointless slaughter drive him to the edge of reason, is something to behold. Eddie Albert gives him a good run for his money, forcing the viewer to both pity and despise Capt. Cooney. Lee Marvin’s colonel is at once cunning, ambitious, cynical, and the absolute epitome of cool machismo. Of the support cast, Buddy Ebson, Robert Strauss and Richard Jaeckel all give entertaining turns.

This is one of the finest war movies of the fifties and bears comparison to the best of Sam Fuller. It is probably one of Aldrich’s least known films but deserves a much wider recognition. It is on DVD in R1 and R2 from MGM and the full screen image looks very good. Being an MGM release the only supplement is a trailer. However, a movie as good as this should have a place in any self-respecting war collection.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on February 14, 2008 in 1950s, Jack Palance, Lee Marvin, Robert Aldrich, War

 
 
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 484 other followers