Cowboy (Blu-ray Review)7 Mar, 2016 By: Mike Clark
Available via ScreenArchives.com
Stars Glenn Ford, Jack Lemmon, Anna Kashfi, Brian Donlevy.
I’ve never gotten around to reading Frank Harris’ My Reminiscences as a Cowboy, but somewhere along the line in my teens I came across a copy of his once-scandalous My Life and Loves and sneaked a look (if I recall right, the out-of-the-way downtown newsstand where I had to go to buy serious film magazines also had copies of L&L for sale from behind the counter). Looking over my shoulder because this was a very taboo tome, I landed on a passage that dealt with one of the techniques by which a guy could “please a woman” — though I will not go into the mechanics here. The point, though, is that I had a tough time reconciling this Harris with the initial tenderfoot played by Jack Lemmon in the quite solid Delmer Daves movie of Reminiscences, which was simply called Cowboy. Or, for that matter, dealing with the concept of a Jack Lemmon Western in the first place.
I am indebted to Julie Kirgo on the Twilight Time commentary here for pointing out that Lemmon also appeared on an episode of “Death Valley Days” — which presumably will show up on Shout! Factory’s upcoming set of that half-hour TV series’ first season. But even so, Cowboy is no less an example of oddball casting that works, especially since Lemmon (as the notoriously prone-to-exaggeration Harris) proves to be a really nifty screen match with co-lead Glenn Ford, who’s as good as he ever was here (which would mean The Big Heat and Blackboard Jungle). In fact, 1958 was the year that Ford topped the exhibitors’ poll as the No. 1 box office star (it was the year John Wayne’s only movie was John Huston’s DOA The Barbarian and the Geisha, so that removed one factor right there).
As the Cowboy screenplay goes — this was Edmund North fronting for the still Blacklisted Dalton Trumbo — Harris is a fairly callow Chicago hotel clerk whose life savings come in handy when trail boss Ford falls prey to financial losses from his one vice other than maybe chronic hard-headedness: poker. Lemmon/Harris supplies the funds so that wiped-out Ford and his hired cattlemen can keep going while demanding that he become, in return, a Ford partner — a reality the latter tries to ignore as much as he can. Harris thinks he has beef in his blood, but he is also trying to impress a hands-off Mexican beauty (Anna Kashfi, in her real-life Marlon Brando days) whose permanently unsupportive father is in the cattle business as well.
Like a lot of film folk, I have a hard time figuring where to rank Daves in terms of his spotty if surprisingly long career — but don’t think his “Lightly Likable” designation in Andrew Sarris’s The American Cinema is very far off the mark (though Kirgo, Nick Redman and Paul Seydor call foul on Sarris in the Blu-ray’s voiceover commentary for underrating him). One problem is that the teen-sex melodramas Daves made late in his career are not the stuff of “critical standing” — with Susan Slade a particular howler for the ages. This isn’t to say that I don’t enjoy the Troy Donahue oeuvre myself on a kind of demented live-and-let-live level, though it ought to be said that Claudette Colbert said she would not make a personal appearance in a career retrospective at the AFI Theater in Washington unless Parrish (her final theatrical feature) was deep-sixed from the schedule. And yet: the best of Daves’ mid-to-late-’50s Westerns are something else again, and these would be Jubal, The Last Wagon, 3:10 to Yuma, Cowboy and (my favorite) The Hanging Tree. They never bite off more than they can chew and are impressively composed for 1.85 (except for Wagon, which is in CinemaScope).
Of the five, Cowboy is the one whose virtues can’t be separated from its limitations. It feels somewhat truncated on the trail, especially after its long Chicago set-up, and I don’t know, for instance, if Brian Donlevy’s wonderful performance originally got more footage, but it kind of plays that way.
Yet, the resultantly tight 92-minute running time may have contributed to its Oscar nomination for editing, and you certainly don’t come out of it without a feeling for life on trail — when tossing around a live rattlesnake (in this case, with tragic consequences) constitutes a relaxing break from the grueling norm. Like other Daves Westerns, Cowboy is beautiful-looking without turning its images into the equivalent of a Sousa march, and we can all be thankful that it was shot in Technicolor not long before Columbia Pictures elected to utilize bottom-rung Eastman Color by Pathe, which was so debilitating that it almost made me nostalgic for Republic Trucolor, even when I was a kid.
Speaking visually, everyone (myself included) was flabbergasted when Sony released the Cowboy DVD in a pan-and-scan version (Turner Classic Movies did save the day — before this most handsome 1.85:1 Blu-ray — with showings in the correct aspect ratio). This is a movie where the framing really counts because the actor close-ups and tight two-shots are fairly spare and thus highly effective when they’re utilized; on the commentary, Seydor gives a welcome primer on how one edits for emotional power, and we can see exactly what he’s talking about.
What with Yuma and Jubal already part of the Criterion Collection, the Daves Westerns from his peak period are now getting their due. I wish Warner Archive would put out The Hanging Tree — which was, after all, one of Gary Cooper’s last movies, George C. Scott’s first and (a lesser selling point) the only movie in which you’ll ever see a boil being lanced on Karl Malden’s behind. But Germany has a Region B Blu-ray of The Last Wagon scheduled for release in just three weeks.