THE AMERICAN WEST (mostly): Fact and Fiction (mostly fiction)





"NOBODY GETS TO BE A COWBOY FOREVER." -- Chet Rollins (Jack Palance) in MONTE WALSH (NG, 1970)

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Friday, April 19, 2013

FINN by Jon Clinch




(Random House, 2007)
If you are a fan of Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, as I am, you may have wondered about Huck's parents. Why was his father an alcoholic vagrant who abused his son? How did that father end up dead in a house floating down the Mississippi River? Moreover, who was Huck's mother?  What happened to her?

Now we have the answers to those questions and more. Mark Twain does not provide them, but Jon Clinch does in his impressive debut novel, Finn.  Finally, we have Huckleberry Finn's back story. It helps us understand him a little better.

I must admit that there were times as I was reading the book that I wondered if it would have held my interest to the degree that it did if it were about a man named Finn who had no connection with Twain's classic. In other words, would it still have merit if it had been forced to stand alone?  Eventually, my answer to that question was, yes, it would still have merit, but the fact that it provided some details in the life of one of my very favorite fictional characters added to my appreciation and enjoyment of the novel.  Besides, it took considerable courage to tackle a novel dealing with what is already one of literature's most famous characters.  For that alone, Clinch should be commended. 

Clinch is a talented writer and I look forward to reading more of his work.


Jon Clinch





Monday, April 15, 2013

A MIRACLE OF CATFISH by Larry Brown




(Algonquin, 2007)
I had heard the late Larry Brown interviewed on NPR a couple of times and thought he sounded interesting, but for some reason I had never followed-up and read any of his work. Then about a year ago, a friend recommended him to me. She suggested that I begin with his novel, Dirty Work.  I did – and I was hooked. I quickly read three more of his novels and a short story collection. Moreover, I have just finished A Miracle of Catfish.

Larry Brown wrote about his northern Mississippi homeland, which is the same geographic area about which William Faulkner wrote.  Not only was Brown’s literary territory Faulknerian, so were his characters, mostly hard-living, hard-drinking, hard-loving, hard-luck losers, whose hard-luck is mostly the result of bad choices and bad decisions.


However, Brown was his own man and his voice was not that of the great man. I always had the feeling that Faulkner was a detached observer who viewed his characters and their foibles from afar. He seemed to look down his aristocratic nose at them and there was no possibility that he would ever associate with them on a social level.


Brown, on the other hand, was anything but detached. He was riding down the back roads in the pick-up with his characters, drinking beer, smoking cigarettes, and cursing the circumstances that had made them the losers they were, while not recognizing the role they themselves played in creating the situations in which they found themselves.  Brown knew these people intimately, I believe, because he was once one of them.


The two writers differ in another way. Faulkner was overly generous with his words (but not with his periods). Brown was an economical writer who was stingy with his words (but not with his periods). Therefore, while they wrote about the same region and the same people, they did so in a different fashion.

 

A Miracle of Catfish left me with an empty feeling. Despite its 454 pages, it is an unfinished novel – which is why I would give it four stars rather than five. We are left hanging, not knowing what eventually happened to the story’s five main characters and large supporting cast. Unfortunately, we will never know.

A Miracle of Catfish is not Brown’s latest book; it is his last book. Before he could finish it, he died of a massive heart attack on November 24, 2004. He was fifty-three years old.

Larry Brown


Thursday, April 11, 2013

TOP 21 FAVORITE WESTERNS -- MONTE WALSH

#2

MONTE WALSH (NGP, 1970)

 
DIRECTOR: William A. Fraker;  PRODUCERS: Hal Landers and Bobby Roberts; WRITERS: David Z. Goodman and Lucas Heller from story by Jack Schafer;  CINEMATOGRAPHY: David M. Walsh



CAST: Lee Marvin, Jeanne Moreau, Jack Palance, Mitchell Ryan, Jim Davis, G.D. Spradlin, John Hudkins, Raymond Guth, John McKee, Michael Conrad, Tom Heaton, Ted Gehring, Bo Hopkins, John McLiam, Allyn Ann McLerie, Matt Clark, Billy Green Bush, Eric Christmas, Charles Tyner, Richard Farnsworth, Guy Wilkerson, Roy Barcroft




“The good times are coming
They’ll be coming real soon
And I’m not just pitching pennies at the moon”




(NOTE: Earlier I wrote about my introduction to MONTE WALSH and if you wish, you may read about it here)



THE PLOT.

This underrated and unappreciated classic film is the best depiction of the hardship, humdrum drudgery, good humor, and camaraderie of cowboy life ever filmed.



Railroad expansion has made the long cattle drive obsolete; the open range has been fenced in; and a bitterly harsh winter has forced the local ranchers to sell out to a corporation, the Consolidated Land Company.  The land company, like corporations everywhere, does not possess a conscience.  Accountants are in charge, money has become capital, and the primary concern is the bottom line. All these factors have a basis in historical reality, including the harsh winter.  Blizzards in the 1880s bankrupted many ranchers and exerted a long-range transformative effect on Western cattle ranching.



Sadly, these events conspire to make the cowboy – or most of them, anyway -- obsolete. Nevertheless, two aging cowboys (Marvin and Palance) try to continue as though nothing has changed, but the economic forces of the era are working against them.  In the short run, they are more fortunate than some of the other cowhands.  Cal Brennan (Davis), the former owner of the Slash Y, is now an employee of the land company.  As ranch manager, he is forced by the company’s absentee property owners to downsize the workforce.  He does so by laying-off the younger men, which allows Monte (Marvin) and Chet (Palance) a reprieve – at least for the time being.




“I’m not about to come unhinged when everything goes wrong
A fact is something to be faced
But not for very long”



Monte is an optimist, one could say an idealist.  No matter what bad things come his way, and many bad things do, he nevertheless retains his optimism.  Many idealists become cynics when events transpire against them and their ideals do not carry the day, but not Monte.  He loses everything that he cherishes, his friends, especially Chet, the woman he loves, and is on the verge of losing his way of life, but he never gives up the battle to retain his self-respect, his optimism, or his sense of humor, even though he is reduced to telling stories to his horse in the film’s final scene.

Chet, on the other hand, is more pragmatic than his partner.  He has seen the handwriting on the wall and finally realizes that it is time to accept reality and to adjust accordingly.  The most poignant moment in what is a very poignant film occurs when Chet finally concedes and decides to quit cowboy life and marry a town widow (McLerie) who owns a hardware store:



MONTE WALSH (Lee Marvin): “Cowboys don’t get married, unless they stop being cowboys.”


CHET ROLLINS (Jack Palance): “Nobody gets to be a cowboy forever.”



How true, but how sad.




“I ain’t doin’ nothin’ I can’t do from my horse.” – MONTE WALSH (Lee Marvin)




Shorty Austin (Ryan), a buddy to Monte and Chet, is one of the younger cowboys who loses his job.  He teams up with a couple of other men (Bush and Clark) who are in the same fix.  The trio of ex-cowhands respond to the changing times by taking to the outlaw trail with tragic consequences for Chet and Monte.



There isn’t a lot of action or violence or gunplay in MONTE WALSH.   It is a character-driven story that spends the first half of the movie establishing the characters and the changing circumstances they must confront.  The lack of action is the primary reason that some critics have been negative in their reviews.  But there is a great deal to like, including outstanding performances by the cast, good direction and writing, and stunning location photography.



Colin over at Riding the High Country perfectly summarizes the movie’s appeal when he writes, “[t]his 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.”   



THE STARS.

Ironically, Marvin, in THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE (Ford/Paramount, 1962), and Palance, in SHANE (Paramount, 1953), gave us two of the meanest, most unredeemable, and most memorable bad guys ever to appear on the screen.  But here they are excellent in  good-guy roles.



Roger Ebert wrote in the Chicago Sun-Times:



The performances are extraordinary.  Marvin has very seldom been better; he leaves in the toughness of his usual screen character, but he also reveals a lot of depth….[Y]ou’re reminded once again what a good actor Palance is, and how seldom he gets the opportunity to prove it.



However, here is another view.



Vincent Canby wrote in his review of the film in the New York Times that MONTE WALSHis not a very good movie, but one that is often appealing in its individual parts.”   



He is also critical of Marvin’s performance:



I suppose that Marvin seemed like an excellent choice for the title role.  He is tough, grizzled, a little crazy, but he is also turning professionally cute, given to comic mannerisms that are beginning to remind me more and more of Andy Clyde—but this may be because the film includes a rather exuberant outhouse routine.



Andy Clyde?  Come now, Mr. Canby.  Furthermore, just how is it that Andy Clyde and “a rather exuberant outhouse routine” are related?  



Canby has better things to say about Palance, Moreau, and Ryan, but also complains that the story’s principal villains, the property owners, are 2,500 miles away, off screen, and communicate via letter and telegraph. 



Well, that’s the way it really was.



“The good times are coming
When they come I’ll be there
With both my feet planted in mid-air”


One of the great strengths of the film is how well Marvin and Palance relate to each other.  That could be because they knew each other quite well, having appeared together in two films before this one.  In 1956, Palance, in an electrifying performance, starred in the intense WWII drama, ATTACK! (UA, directed by Robert Aldrich), with Lee Marvin very good in a supporting role.  A decade later, after his Oscar winning performance in CAT BALLOU (Columbia, 1965) had elevated him to leading man status , Marvin starred with Burt Lancaster in THE PROFESSIONALS (Columbia, 1966, directed by Richard Brooks), with Palance in a supporting role.





In the realm of what might have been, I have read that Marvin turned down a role in THE WILD BUNCH (WB, 1969) in order to star in PAINT YOUR WAGON (Paramount, 1969), the film he appeared in just prior to MONTE WALSH. I suppose it seemed to be a good idea at the time.    



Jeanne Moreau gives a touching performance as Martine Benard, a prostitute who loves Monte, but understands that marriage is probably not in their future.  In their scenes together, it is obvious that there is some real chemistry between Moreau and Marvin.  She was later quoted as saying, “Lee Marvin is more male than anyone I have ever acted with.  He is the greatest man’s man I have ever met and that includes all the European stars I have worked with.” 



In the course of her career, Jeanne Moreau acted in more than a hundred movies and dozens of plays and she was a huge star – especially in Europe.   

 

In 2001, Jeff Galipeaux wrote on the Salon website that Moreau “is the heavyweight of 60s cinema, and so far, the last of the heavyweights.  In the decades since Moreau’s heyday, many fine welterweights have come up through the ranks…but no one who could have handled her run of 60s films with the intelligence, wisdom, range and unself-consciousness she conveys with preternatural ease.”



THE SUPPORTING CAST.

The stars have much able support beginning with Mitchell Ryan, in only his third feature film, and Jim Davis appearing in his 86th.


three memorable cowboys: (L-R) -- Monte Walsh, Cal Brennan, Chet Rollins


Davis, much like John Ireland, was always an effective performer in Westerns.  It is hard to figure, but neither got the big break that he deserved.  They often gave good performances in supporting roles in bigger-budget productions and were nearly always better than the low-budget movies in which they starred.



It was well nigh impossible to make a Western in the 70s without casting Matt Clark in a supporting role.  MONTE WALSH is no exception and Clark is very good as Rufus Brady, one of the cowboys who respond to hard times by becoming an outlaw.  His partner in crime, in addition to Shorty Austin (Ryan), is another very good supporting actor, Billy Green Bush.  I really like his name in this movie: Powder Kent.  I even like the name Billy Green Bush.




"There's gonna be a place for us
A place where we belong
To stand outside just looking in
Has got to be all wrong"




THE DIRECTOR.

MONTE WALSH was William Fraker’s first film as director.  It was an impressive debut and showed great promise for the future.  However, he directed only two other films. 



He was more interested in cinematography, the job that had made him famous.  During his illustrious career, he received five Academy Award nominations for Best Cinematography.  His expertise in that area is ever apparent in the outstanding utilization of Arizona locations in MONTE WALSH.  He and cinematographer David Walsh teamed to give us a beautiful film.

William Fraker, Director
What were the two other films that he directed?   Well, that probably should be left unsaid since they certainly didn’t come up to the standards of his debut, that’s for sure.  Roger Greenspun wrote in his review of Fraker’s second directorial effort, A REFLECTION OF FEAR (Columbia, 1973), that “there is such a density of atmospheric haze that half the film looks as if it had been photographed through  a jellyfish.” (Ouch!).  It must have quickly faded into oblivion because I don’t know of anyone who has ever seen it.



His third film could not be criticized for its photography,  but unfortunately,  he was done in by his star, the one-and-only Klinton Spilsbury.  Beautifully photographed in New Mexico and Monument Valley, THE LEGEND OF THE LONE RANGER (Universal, 1981) could not overcome a star whose acting was so atrocious that his dialogue had to be dubbed by James Keach.



No wonder Fraker returned full-time to cinematography after that one.  He was fortunate to have a fallback position.  Klinton Spilsbury didn’t.  It was his first and last appearance on the screen – big or small.


THE WRITERS.

The film’s original source material is an episodic novel by the same name written by Jack Schaefer, and published in 1963. Schaefer, of course, is known primarily as the author of Shane, a much more famous book.  However, he was quoted as saying that he thought Monte Walsh was a better novel.  I have to agree with him. It is one of my favorite novels – Western or otherwise.



The screenplay was placed in the capable hands of David Goodman and Lucas Heller.  They took great liberties in adapting Schaefer’s novel to the extent that it is possible to enjoy both without one ruining the other. Despite the differences that exist between the novel and the screenplay, I highly recommend both.



THE MUSIC.

The film has been criticized by some (Brian Garfield for one, but not me) for its theme song, “The Good Times are Coming,” which is sung by Cass Elliott over the opening credits, and at other times during the film.  Personally, I love the song (music by John Barry and lyrics by Hal David) and I think that it fits the mood of the movie like a comfortable old shoe.  In fact, it takes days to get it out of my head after hearing it.  Also adding a nice touch are the Charlie Russell sketches that serve as a backdrop for the opening credits.  Cass Elliott and Charlie Russell – now that’s a winning combination.

 
"The good times are coming"


REVIEWS:

Generally underrated,  MONTE WALSH is a fine film in its elegiac depiction of real cowboy life; it’s better and more honest, for example, than the similar WILL PENNY [Paramount, 1968].” – Brian Garfield in Western Films: A Complete Guide

“…Marvin and Palance (a wonderful grin playing across his face for most of the film) give an example of the inarticulate but good-humored friendship that alleviates the drudgery of a cowboy’s life.” – Phil Hardy in The Western

And now for an opposing viewpoint:

“…MONTE WALSH is handled with such meditative pacing and melodramatic deliberation that it continually threatens to put the viewer to sleep.  Interest is maintained by Lee Marvin and Jack Palance…who manage to come across as aging ranch hands….First-time director Fraker managed to conjure up a grimy, naturalistic view of the dog-eared West that is effective.” – Steven H. Scheuer




 









Thursday, April 4, 2013

FOURTH OF JULY AT THE DRIVE-IN, or How I Met Norwood and Monte



It was a hot, humid, sweltering Fourth of July in middle America as only Fourth of Julys in the middle of America can be.  The local drive-in theater was screening its usual double feature.  However, its biggest attraction of the evening was the fireworks display that would occur between features.  Two feature movies and a fireworks display, what else could one possibly want? -- especially since our home had no air conditioning.  Therefore, my wife and I loaded up our three children and headed down the road to enjoy the movies, the fireworks, and especially the cooler night air.

The first movie was NORWOOD (Paramount, 1970).  On paper, it didn’t look all that bad.  It was brought to us by the same people who a year earlier had brought us a big hit movie, TRUE GRIT (Paramount, 1969).  Once again, Marguerite Roberts wrote the screenplay and as before, her screenplay was based on an excellent (and very funny) Charles Portis novel.  Hal Wallis was again the producer.


Kim Darby (good) is again in the cast and so is Glen Campbell (uh oh).  He is Norwood.  And I guess John Wayne wasn’t available so we got Joe Willie Namath (yikes!) as the film’s third lead player.


I have to admit that I didn’t see the entire movie.  What I did see was gawd-awful.  The problem was not how it looked on paper, but how it looked on the screen.  It pretty well terminated the acting careers of the three principals and Hal Wallis never produced another movie at Paramount. I can see why.


The reason that I didn’t see the entire movie (although I did see more than I wanted to) is that about mid-way it began to rain – hard – and we had to roll up the windows which then became fogged and the vehicle took on the characteristics of a sauna.


At this point, I was more than ready to call it an evening – and so was my wife.  But not the kids, of course.  The fireworks, you know.  So we soldiered on.


The rain did let-up, but it never stopped, which certainly put a damper on the fireworks display.  I will admit that the folks responsible for the display gave it their best.  They kept lighting the damn things and when those fizzled they would light some more.  It turned out to be the longest and most unspectacular fireworks display I have ever attended.  However, it was better than NORWOOD.


It is now midnight and everybody in the car – except me – is ready to go home.  No, not me.  The second feature was a film that had surprisingly slipped below my radar.  I say this because it was a Western and it had a couple of big names in the cast. 
 

The rain never completely stopped that evening.  Everybody else in the car went to sleep, but I was now wide-awake.  There were only three vehicles left on the lot when the film ended – and that’s counting ours.  I don’t know how many people were awake in the other two, but as I said, I was the only one in ours.


The projectionist should have received some kind of award because he remained alert enough to screen the reels in their proper order.  That didn’t always happen at that particular drive-in.  I remember that it didn’t happen when I was watching THE BUDDY HOLLY STORY (Columbia, 1978).  Poor Buddy died in the middle of the film and then came back alive and appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show.  Very confusing.  Dennis Weaver died in an excruciatingly gruesome and graphic fashion in the middle of DUEL AT DIABLO (UA, 1966) only to recover and return to his unforgiving, snarky, devious, obnoxious ways (his character’s, not his) for the remainder of the film.  I knew what was going to happen to Buddy (very sad), but finding out that James Garner and Sidney Poitier could not save Dennis ruined the rest of that film.  Nevertheless, it was a Western so I stayed with it to the end – or rather, I stayed with it to the middle.


But this Fourth of July evening the projectionist was awake and through the raindrops, I watched a movie that I would later return to many times.  It became one of my all-time favorites.  It was MONTE WALSH (NGP, 1970).


I like MONTE WALSH so well that I rank it number two on my list of “Top 21 Favorite Westerns.”  It will be the subject of my next post.  In the meantime, however, Colin has an excellent review of the film at Riding the High Country, and I recommend that you ride over there and read it by clicking HERE.  I agree with all his views regarding the movie and he states them so very well.


By the way, it’s difficult to believe, but for his role in NORWOOD, Joe Namath received a Golden Globe nomination for “Most Promising Newcomer.”  It’s almost as difficult to believe as the fact that a year earlier Glen Campbell was nominated for the same award.