Scalphunters, The (Blu-ray Review)21 Jul, 2014 By: Mike Clark
$19.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray
Stars Burt Lancaster, Ossie Davis, Shelley Winters, Telly Savalas.
Unless some audacious Hollywood rowdy of the day was willing to go the all-out Tarantino route — something near impossible to envision in 1968 — the young Sydney Pollack’s minor cult Western likely represents the best way to make a comedy about American slavery, which is a dicey enough prospect any way you cut it. Well spoken-of by the not exactly masses who’ve even seen it — though I myself put it only on the high side of “one-joke mild” — this one has a little history on its side as the first Pollack feature that was a cut above his preceding theatrical warm-ups at a time when most of his directorial career had been in TV. Pollack and Burt Lancaster obviously hit it off when the former did some effective mop-up work on a dismissed Frank Perry’s underrated movie of John Cheever’s The Swimmer, which was shot in ’66 but way belatedly released after The Scalphunters. And Lancaster always seemed to have a comfort zone in terms of the other professionals with whom he worked, exercising considerable clout when he could.
The other history this fairly raucous game of racial one-upsmanship has going for it is occurring right now: The Scalphunters is in the initial wave of “Kino Classics” Blu-ray releases that Kino Lorber has just launched out of the United Artists library. This list includes, but isn’t restricted to, a pair of Billy Wilders (Witness for the Prosecution and my beloved The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes); a couple Oscar-bait biggies of the day that were slightly overrated then but underrated now (Marty and Separate Tables); and the jazz-oriented, star-powered Paris Blues, which has never had a home release in any format — possibly due, though I’m only guessing, to issues over the music rights. There’s no question that I have some very welcome viewing on my immediate horizon.
On the face of this release, and only this release, it appears that these new Kinos will be something akin to what we’ve been getting from Olive Films: library titles for high end prices (those licensing fees cost money) sans any obvious restoration work but utilizing generally good prints from the get-go. The Scalphunters has a not particularly attractive green-ish/brown-ish tint that almost looks as if it’s been stained into the image, but I’d better emphasize that this is exactly what United Artists DeLuxe Color looked like in 1968, when I saw every big-star Western that came along — usually at the drive-in, where a lot of them had their local premieres, even in the Midwest where I was raised. Unlike a failed epic like, say, The Way West, which UA had brought out the year before, The Scalphunters was a product of the times (read: racially-charged times) and wouldn’t have been a likely project even three or four years earlier.
It fairly affably pits a man of the outdoors (fur trapper Burt) against an escaped slave fallen into his company (Ossie Davis) — when the slave is educated about any number of subjects from Julius Caesar to astrology, you name it. Less affably, it ends up pitting both against a band of predominantly male scalp hunters led by Telly Savalas, who himself had a good relationship with Lancaster going back to a juicy supporting role in 1962’s Birdman of Alcatraz. When I say predominantly male, the obvious exception is Shelley Winters, who by this time had won two supporting Oscars in seven years for descending into on-screen blowsiness, almost as a matter of curse. I’ll always have a certain affection for Winters — and heavily regret the time that pressing USA Today assignments in New York kept me from dining with her and two of my former Washington-based AFI colleagues in a Georgetown restaurant. At which time she removed her pantyhose. For reasons obscure. At least to me.
Winters’ character is blowsy as well here but doesn’t necessarily want to see herself go to hell physically … and since slave Davis’s talents somehow also include hairdressing, the two hit it off some, which later comes in handy when Savalas is tempted in indulge in what is clearly his meaner side. The last, in fact, regards Davis as property (stolen from Lancaster) that he now intends to turn into cash — while Lancaster had been harboring the same sentiments, though his own vengeful objections seem to be on the principle of the thing (having the slave whose possession he fell into taken from him) rather than any solid intentions he’d had of initiating a sale. Though the Lancaster-Davis relationship occasionally turns physically acrimonious, it’s basically one of bicker-bicker-bicker. But one of their fights (at the end) does result in the movie’s best gag, and there’ll be no spoiler here, even though it’s a fairly celebrated laugh-maker if your taste goes to this kind of movie.
The two principals (despite Davis’s fourth-billing) play off each other with ease, and it’s a pity that Davis couldn’t land roles in major movies until much later in his career, though that was the tenor of the times. Speaking of this, I not long ago re-saw Sidney Lumet’s The Hill, which is one of his best early movies (I always divide his career between pre and post-Serpico). Everyone talks about Sean Connery and Harry Andrews, and well they should, but Davis is also one of the best things about one of the relatively few MGM releases from the mid-1960s that seems to have had a shelf life.