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Monte Walsh (1970) (DVD Review)

22 Nov, 2010 By: Mike Clark

$19.99 DVD
Not rated.
Stars Lee Marvin, Jeanne Moreau, Jack Palance, Mitch Ryan, Jim Davis, Michael Conrad.

As if opening Cat Ballou with Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye as wandering minstrels weren’t enough, cinematographer William A. Fraker’s first stab at directing is that rare Lee Marvin Western to feature a Mama Cass (Elliot) theme song. Ironically, it’s called “The Good Times Are Comin’” — though almost everything we see on screen is on the downbeat side.

From the evidence on screen, this may have been the reaction as well in the editing room, given that the first screen version of Shane author Jack Schaefer’s source novel (there was also a 2003 Tom Selleck TV movie) is quite a throw-up-your-hands jumble. And yet, now as then, the movie sparks rooting interest that’s only fitfully rewarded despite some appealing elements here and there — especially to those who’ll watch an ‘A’-budget Western at the drop of a cowboy hat.

This less-than-full 1970 version of Monte tries to mine the theme that Sam Peckinpah turned into a cottage industry via Ride the High Country, The Wild Bunch and The Ballad of Cable Hogue: Western old-timers (by this we mean pushing 40) trying to make it in a more modern industrialized society. Marvin’s title character punches cows when certain Eastern concerns (read: money men) don’t particularly care if it’s cattle or barflies getting punched. His longtime range-riding buddy Chet (Jack Palance) sees the handwriting clearly and elects to marry into what he assumes will be a quiet shopkeepers’ life. This puts similar thoughts into Monte’s mind in terms of a prostitute he fancies (Jeanne Moreau), but fates conspire to keep them from sealing the deal.

I’m always fascinated by great cinematographers who elect to direct movies that are nowhere nearly as good as the ones they shot (Shane’s George Stevens is, ironically, one of the few who managed to surpass himself when he made the switch). In the case of Fraker, who died last May, he had recently shot Rosemary’s Baby and Bullitt in the same year — a feat guaranteed to put anyone on the map big-time in 1968. But virtually from the beginning, you sense this movie is in trouble: a scattershot assemblage of agitated cattle, local color in the bunkhouse, chow-time patter and only a fitful understanding of the coming power-grabbing that’s at stake. One can argue over just how many screen minutes it should take before you stop wondering where a movie is going. But here, it’s still a viable question after 20 or so.

Fraker had just photographed Marvin in the pricey Paint Your Wagon fiasco, forever immortalized as the source of Clint Eastwood’s “I Talk the Trees” vocal (to which grousing Paramount accountants likely talked back). Marvin has the same rustic white-mane look that he had in that musical, though he does gets trimmed up some the first time he rides into town and can buy some hygiene. The actor gives the impression of coasting here but remains as inherently watchable as he was any other time — though the movie’s best reviews justifiably went to the remarkably restrained Jack Palance for what must have been the least threatening or prickly performance in his career. Certainly, it’s an interesting counterpoint to Shane, which contains Palance’s most famously malevolent work.

Other points of interest include the mere idea of Jeanne Moreau out West with Lee Marvin; this was one of her very few Hollywood movies, and she looks mighty good for her character’s trade, though we never see her (unless I’m forgetting some scene that refutes this) in natural light. For authenticity, there’s the welcome sight of (as the decent boss man) Western staple Jim Davis — captured here in that stage of his career between working the Republic Pictures treadmill and his revitalizing casting as Jock Ewing in TV’s "Dallas." And there’s a rather amazing scene in which Marvin’s Monte, trying to break a horse on a whim, wrecks literally half the town. This set piece kind of sums up the movie’s problems: it is at once the high point of the picture (and, as presented, even credible) — yet it’s also ridiculous because no one in power demands financial restitution. Of course, given his profession’s pay scale, it would probably take 20 years.

Monte was originally distributed by the short-lived National General — a theatrical offshoot of CBS’s Cinema Center Films whose best known (though not necessarily best) release was the same year’s Little Big Man. When I suffered through Extraordinary Measures in theaters this past winter and realized that CBS was getting into theatrical productions again, I thought, “Uh-oh, bad karma.” Still, it’s good to see Paramount Home Entertainment putting its first theatrical catalog holding out on DVD since, it seems, the Crimean War. If they really want to open their controlled National General vaults, I wouldn’t mind seeing The April Fools for it’s A-team cast or Me, Natalie (with Al Pacino’s screen debut).

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