Killer Elite, The/Noon Wine (Blu-ray Review)6 Oct, 2014 By: Mike Clark
Stars James Caan, Robert Duvall, Olivia de Havilland, Jason Robards.
What’s certain to be one of Twilight Time’s most discussed releases ever “buries its lead” — which is why I’m going to discuss up front its knock-you-silly bonus feature, which must inevitably dominate all discussion. Matter of fact, even the estimable Julie Kirgo does the same thing in her TT liner notes.
When it comes to famished audiences, Sam Peckinpah’s stirring 48-minute telepic of Katherine Anne Porter’s short novel Noon Wine has been the Holy Grail of his career since it aired on TV once (Thanksgiving Eve 1966, when a lot of people were probably doing other things) — and up until last week (when I finally saw it) the No. 1 movie I most wanted to see but hadn’t at this advanced point of my moviegoing life. Shot as a video-celluloid hybrid for ABC’s single-season anthology series “Stage 67,” it almost became a lost film once the network junked its own holdings of it, simply to create more storage space (hopefully not for “That Girl”). Thank you, morons; within the limitations of Peckinpah’s budget and the ratty (if absolutely viewable one-inch tape dub) condition of what remains, the result does not disappoint.
The storyline is full of spoiler minefields, so let’s talk about what Wine meant to Peckinpah’s career. Not counting a pair of co-written screenplays that others directed and, of all things, a “Bob Hope Chrysler Theater” entry with Bradford Dillman that Sam the Man helmed himself, this is the only full-fledged Peckinpah creation from that long four-year industry blackball that lasted from Major Dundee through The Wild Bunch (not counting a few days work on The Cincinnati Kid before he got fired, which is probably why Kid is only a good movie instead of a great one despite its cast for the ages). Peckinpah’s hatred for producers had gotten a big-time workout amid his battles with Jerry Bresler over Dundee, but it has to be said that courageous Daniel Melnick (who’d later produce Straw Dogs as well) was the angel on this one. He hired Peckinpah over the protestations of just about everyone due to the director’s oft-explosive and certainly self-destructive personality. Of course, directorial genius (when sober) was the other side of the equation.
Set on a marginally making-it dairy farm in late 19th-century Texas, this initially light but progressively tragic story deals with a lazy proprietor in a troubled marriage who’s happy to hire an about-to-be underpaid Swedish oddball (Per Oscarsson) to do the spread’s heavy lifting. In her TV debut, the great Olivia de Havilland plays the wife — mother to two sons and pretty much an invalid. I was surprised to see in the early scenes how broadly Robards played it here — and in their incisive voiceover commentary, Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons and Twilight Time’s Nick Redman note a few echoes of Cable Hogue in the actor’s characterization. But like the story itself, Robards’ performance changes tone somewhere around the midpoint when the story’s pivotal event occurs. An added treat is Theodore Bikel’s playing during this same turning point, and later we get to see Peckinpah regulars Ben Johnson and L.Q. Jones in small but effective turns.
Peckinpah’s resources were limited, and he doesn’t try to do what he can’t — yet time and time again, his staging and his gift with actors hits the emotional core of a story he served by delving into the particulars of his own rural outdoors upbringing. For this, he got the only Writers Guild and Directors Guild love of his entire career, and had this modest but potent effort not gotten the wide acclaim it did at the time, there might well have never been The Wild Bunch and the films that followed in a burst of glory that lasted four or five years, depending on how you feel about Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (subject of an upcoming book by Feydor that I can’t wait to read). The sad fizzle that followed brings to mind the career of Preston Sturges (a filmmaker otherwise not compared to Peckinpah everyday).
The fizzle includes this set’s top-billed Killer Elite, which I regarded then (as now) to be one of Peckinpah’s weakest films — in part because by this time, the booze had gotten to him but also because espionage double-crossing seemed somewhat outside his natural habitat. James Caan and Robert Duvall is a mix that doesn’t even sound that juicy on paper in a movie — especially when Duvall has almost nothing to do. Caan, as ever, is a matter of taste unless we’re talking El Dorado or his Coppola films, and I can’t think of another actor who made it as far as he did where we can always see the wheels turning in very actor-ish ways. Despite Mako and Gig Young in the supporting cast, the best scenes here come early — when Caan in rehab from a Duvall gunshot to the knee. But nothing here has the underlying feeling and tension of just about anything in Noon Wine, proving that print quality isn’t everything even in the high-def era.