(Check out my previous Western film review: The Undefeated)
Generally speaking, I avoid watching films and series that I have suspicions of being terrible or potentially awful from a mere glance at their trailers and those associated with the project. For the 1975 contemporary Cattle Rustler Western Rancho Deluxe, I did just that. The film stars Jeff Bridges and Samuel Waterston, both of whom I can generally stomach as actors, but more importantly contains a number of bit players in minor roles or cameos who are legendary actors. These figures include Harry Dean Stanton and Richard Bright as cattle-hands Curt and Burt, Slim Pickens as private investigator Henry Beige with specialty in rustling cases, and Joe Spinelli as the Uncle of one of the rustler kids.
Aside from these figures, I had never heard of the editor, producer, writer, or any of the female stars in the picture before coming to it. I knew the music of the film was provided by the awful ballad country-ish singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffet, which should have been a warning regarding the bad taste of those who made the film. I also had no familiarity with the director of the film, Frank Perry, and after studying his filmography, still have no familiarity with his work as a director of B-pictures and independent films of little or no regard or critical merit. However, I told myself that this was a Western, made in the post- New Hollywood period and thereby potentially something of a heartfelt personal picture in that tradition with an auteur sensibility. And man, I could not have been more wrong.
The protagonists of the film are Jack McKee (Bridges) and Cecil Colson (Waterston), relative bums with no jobs, and no place in society on account of their stupidity in life and their lack of will to work or to create their own work as businessman. Cecil prides himself on being a Native American, despite the actor playing him not looking a bit like one and doing so only naively within the context of the film (something for which his friend ribs him). The two often make ends meet and pay their rent by killing rancher’s sheep, hogs, or prize cows, hacking the best parts of them up with a chainsaw, and hauling them out to their landlady who saves some money on groceries every month thereby.
The farmers who the boys prey upon are hard-working people who don’t deserve the bullshit brought upon them by these ‘protagonists.’ Early on, the two develop an antagonism against a ranch owner who raises prize beef stock, and who is a relatively sympathetic character who works hard, but gets no respect from his kids or his wife (as assholes are won’t to do). The cattle rustlers steal the man’s prize cow and only return him after receiving a large ransom that could potentially wipe the man out financially. In other words, as a kid from a working class background, I can only view the main characters of this film not as fun-loving rogues living off of the fat of the land, but as vultures, vampiric beasts living off of the hard work of others.
Throughout the picture, there a few subplots about the rancher’s wife attempting to cheat on him for no easily ascertainable reason, his own ranch-hands turning against him and deciding inexplicably to work with the cattle-rustlers, and the PI he hires to track them down turning tailcoat and refusing to turn them in to the proper authorities. The film could have been rehabilitated if it contained within it some communist worker revolt subtext against the industrialist ‘man’, but only if it also transformed the rancher from a rational, hard-working, decent person into a monstrous being. It does neither of these things. Instead, by the denouement of the film, viewers are left pissed off that the cattle rustlers finally escape and wishing that some force of moral outrage and firepower would have joined the rancher, and blown out the brains of the two idiots, the ranch-hands, the old investigator, and the man’s wife, and ultimately return to him his cattle and the money he lost for no good reason so he could live out the rest of his days comfortably and in the lap of luxury, where a life of hard work and entrepreneurial activity ultimately ought to lead when undertaken morally and with an ear to the pulse of what consumers desire.
In the words of the immortal Roger Ebert: ‘I don’t know how this movie went so disastrously wrong, but it did.’
[Next up: another film you never want to watch Wild Bill]
Sam Peckinpah began his career as a writer, and then director, for episodes of various Western TV shows in the 1950s like Gunsmoke, Broken Arrow, and The Rifleman. In 1960, he created, developed, produced, and directed the acclaimed series The Westerner, before finally landing an opportunity to direct his first feature, The Deadly Companions, in 1961. Peckinpah began to gain some real clout after directing his first unqualified masterpiece in 1962’s Ride the High Country.
Peckinpah was now in a position to begin directing bigger budget films, and in the following year, he was finally given that opportunity. Aside from being given a $3.8 million USD budget, he was given free reign to develop his own script and story and direct it pretty much as he pleased. However, Peckinpah suffered no fools and made films for himself, first and foremost. As such, the resulting picture shot over time and over initial budget, and came in originally at nearly five hours in length before he cut it down to a little over two and half hours in length. The Studio seized the material from Peckinpah, fired him from the post-production period, and cut twenty minutes from the film, premiered it in a limited screening to bad notices (what can you expect when you cut that much from a complete picture), and finally cut an additional 13 minutes from the film (resulting in a run-time of 123 minutes) before releasing it theatrically.
The result should be obvious. The Studio’s cut of this film, Major Dundee, was critically panned and eventually lost more than million dollars. It whiled away in production hell, and despite being filmed in 1963, wasn’t released until 1965, and established Sam Peckinpah within the minds of studio execs as an unreliable, unwieldy, difficult director. As a result, Peckinpah bided his time, working as a writer for films and TV episodes, and only directing the 1 hour TV special Noon Wine over the next four years until 1969 when Warner Brothers took a chance on him, he directed the classic Western The Wild Bunch, and established himself as a director whose orneriness and drunkenness could turn a profit and bestow upon a film critical praise, if a studio let him alone to do his thing.
But back to Dundee. The film was Peckinpah’s response to John Ford’s 1948 Cavalry Western Fort Apache, which follows the exploits of General Custer. That film changed the names of all those who participated in the final events of Custer’s life and command, metamorphosing Custer into Lieutenant Colonel Owen Sunday (Henry Fonda) and his Native American opponents the Sioux nation (including the legendary Crazy Horse, Chief Gall, and Sitting Bull, as well as contingents of fighters from the Arapaho, Cheyenne, and Lakota). Thursday is shown to be a drunk and a relatively useless figure to the American military who was shipped out to a post in the middle of nowhere, and somehow managed to start a skirmish that evolved into a full-on war, and ended in the death of himself, two of his brothers, and many of those troops under his command, who were never supposed to engage an enemy in the first place.
In Peckinpah’s version of the story, the Custer character becomes Major Amos Charles Dundee (played by Charlton Heston who gave up his own salary on the film to keep Peckinpah on as director). Dundee is, unlike Custer, an ex-commander of Confederate forces who changed affiliations after the Civil War ended. He is sent to a post on the frontier that is primarily a prison camp for rogue Confederate holdouts, and is given express duties not to engage in any battle or military maneuvers. But when an Apache contingent sacks a small frontier town, killing all of its civilians, except for its young boys who they take in to raise as Apache fighters, Dundee decides to strike back.
Dundee assembles a rag-tag team of misfits including the one-armed tracker Samuel Pitts (James Coburn) and his Native American entourage; a group of Confederate outlaws including his old friend Captain Benjamin Tyreen and his subordinates Sergeant Chillum (Ben Johnson) and O.W. Handley (Warren Oates), amongst others; a contingent of black guards and janitors from the camp led by Aesop; the devil-may-care hellfire, brimstone, and hot lead preacher Reverend Dahlstrom; and various cowboys, ranch hands, gunfighters, and drunks like Wiley (Slim Pickens). The team seems doomed to failure, but over the course of weeks and months trailing the Apache and fighting small battles against them and their friends, The French Army, the team become a hardened unit.
Here, the Custer character becomes less of an imbecile and more of something akin to his legend: a madman driven on to pursue the enemy at any cost. The invention of the Apache destruction of a small town and abduction of children transforms this Custer’s quest into one of necessity and decency, rather than one, as in reality, of Custer refusing the Apache their land, refusing to respect their treaties, and wiping his ass with their legal structures and rights to not be exploited within the area of their own reservations. The result is a transformation that makes Custer into something of a Captain Ahab character who sojourns in a quest for blood, out for his enemy even if it means his own death in the process (and indeed the screenwriters on Dundee used the structure and character profiles of Moby Dick to guide them in their own picture of a man after his own white whale).
Because this Custer is so different from the historical one, he becomes a new character altogether. And as such, his death becomes no longer necessary, no longer an obvious conclusion to a life lived in evil and stupidity. And his aims are reached throughout the film as the kids are returned, the aberrant Apache unit destroyed, the French Army thwarted, and he and his troops (or at least a fraction of what he began with) return to United States territory over the Rio Grande, worse for the wear, but still alive despite seemingly impossible odds.
In 2005, a new version of the film was released in a limited theatrical run and later in a DVD home video release. This version was a found and restored third version of the film, running 136 minutes long. Whereas the original theatrical cut of the film becomes incomprehensible through its omissions, this version (a mere thirteen minutes longer) is completely intelligible and gives audiences and Peckinpah fans insight into what his vision for the film might have originally been. However, his original 156 minute cut of the picture is seemingly lost forever. Hey, but anyway, it’s like I say: you take what you can get, right?
[Catch my next Western film review here: Convoy]
In 1972, famed Western and action film director Sam Peckinpah helmed a neo-noir heist film adapted from a novel by the hardboiled pulp author Jim Thompson. Peter Bogdanovich was originally slated to direct the film and Thompson to adapt his own novel into screenplay format. However, the two butted heads early on in the production as Bogdanovich approached the property as an opportunity to direct a Hitchcockian thriller, despite that approach being fundamentally antithetical to Thompson’s source novel rife with surreal motifs and procedural, hardboiled narrative.
The Studio, sensing problems ahead given the current state of things, fired both men and thankfully replaced Bogdanovich with Peckinpah, and Thompson with Walter Hill. Thankfully in the case of Peckinpah as his approach to filming has always been appropriate to action films than Bogdanovich (despite the latter being a great director in his own right). And thankfully in the case of Walter Hill as the writer of a novel is typically overprotective of their property when adapting a screenplay and often has difficulty cutting the fat from their own work, which means an outside voice was necessary to shape the text into a workable script. In this case, they chose one of the best screenwriters one could imagine as Walter Hill would later go on to write and direct a number of classic films including The Driver, The Warriors, The Long Riders, Streets of Fire, and Crossroads, demonstrating his ability (at least in his early career) to really spin a yarn.
Along with Walter Hill, Peckinpah employed his then-favorite cinematographer Lucien Ballard who had previously worked with him on five projects including the television series The Westerner, and the films Ride the High Country, The Wild Bunch, The Ballad of Cable Hogue, and Junior Bonner (which was released after The Getaway in later 1972 despite being shot prior to it). Ballard was something of an old hand by the time he began working with Peckinpah in 1960 and was close to retirement by 1972 on The Getaway. But prior to this period, he had worked with some of the greatest directors of Westerns during the classical Hollywood period including Budd Boetticher (on the Ranown Cycle film Buchanan Rides Alone and the TV show Maverick) and Henry Hathaway (on his classic Westerns The Sons of Katie Elder and True Grit).
The film follows the exploits of a couple of bank robbers named Carter (Steve McQueen) and Carol McCoy. Carter begins the film holed up in a maximum security prison for holding up a bank. However, he’s up for potential bail on good behavior and should be released any time now. Therein lies the crux of the problem as he inexplicably is never released. His old crime boss, Jack Benyon (Ben Johnson), pulls the political strings that could have Carter freed, but Benyon wants something in return before he cedes this freedom to his past employee: a sexual experience with Carter’s wife Carol. Obviously Carter is against the whole thing, but realizes this may be his only chance to escape prison for some time. He asks his wife to do the deed and she complies.
Benyon holds up his end of the bargain and uses his influence to free Carter. As Carter is starting over once again and needs some bread, Benyon also gives him a new job on a minor bank heist. He hires both McCoy’s and two goons of his own who turn out to be rather unprofessional. One man is gunned down during the heist itself as he gets trigger happy and lets loose the first kill, thereby inciting cops to fire back. The second man tries to pull a fast one on Carter at the meet-up point, but Carter is quicker to draw and plugs the man, Rudy Butler (Al Lettieri), four times in the chest. Unfortunately for the McCoy’s, Rudy was wearing a bullet-proof vest, survives and spends the rest of the film tracking them down in an effort to kill them both and reclaim his cut of the heist money (and the McCoy’s cut as well for good measure).
Added to this problem, is the complication of Benyon. During their intimate evening together, he and Carol agreed to take out Carter when the heist was over and he returned to Benyon to deliver the money and take his cut. Carol has once again grown close to Carter, however, and triple crosses Benyon. She changes her aim, and my god, is her aim true. She plugs Benyon, her and Carter run off with all of the money, and now Benyon’s men and his brother are out for revenge as well.
Finally, the cops initially have no clue that Carter and Carol are in on the heist. But eventually, through a series of unfortunate mishaps, they are identified as the prime suspects in the case of the heist, and in the multiple murders surrounding it. So now, with an assassin, a crime family, and the police on their trail, they must trek halfway across the country, stealing cars and hiding in garbage trucks all along the way to escape, they hope, to Mexico. But this wouldn’t be a Peckinpah film without a climactic final shootout with their aggressors, their pursuers. And unlike in The Wild Bunch wherein the death of our heroes signifies the death of the West and an ideological move into a more complicated, less honorable, forthright society based on law and technology, and wherein our heroes must therefore die off as dinosaurs of a time long gone, Carol and Carter are ultimately characters who must continue to survive.
And survive they do. With the help of a sympathetic ex-con (Slim Pickens) who drives the couple over the border and into Mexico, and eventually sells them his truck for the hefty sum of $30 grande: their offer. This shows the relative good faith and decency of the couple who never wanted to hurt anyone, but were dragged into impossible circumstances through problematic turns of fate. And turns of fate that would kill just about any other duo any less smart, or half as hard.
The resultant picture was critically maligned at the time, which is bewildering today upon the re-viewing it. The Getaway is a just a good little heist picture with plenty of action, nihilism, humor, and good-spirited fun. A picture every bit deserving of the box office numbers of drew (more than ten times its budget of $3 million USD), and one of the biggest grosses of any film in Steve McQueen’s career. The biggest of Peckinpah’s. And not even a Western.
[Check out another one of my Peckinpah film reviews here: Major Dundee]