The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Great Bank Robbery (1969)

From banks to trains, stagecoaches to payrolls and everything in between, wild west bandits, robbers and thieves had plenty of choices as to who and where to rob. But how about an impenetrable bank built specifically to hold back any would-be robbers? That's the basis for 1969's The Great Bank Robbery, a western spoof.

Having just pulled off a successful robbery of a government gold shipment, notorious outlaw Slade (Claude Akins) heads to the town of Friendly, Texas to stash his takings in a bank built by outlaws for outlaws. No one can rob it. Well, that perfect bank is about to be tested. A con man and robber posing as a priest, Rev. Pious Blue (Zero Mostel), with his assistants, including "Sister" Lyda (Kim Novak), to tunnel into the bank. At the same time, a Mexican bandit (Akim Tamiroff), and his gang are prepping for an attack on the town and bank. Also, a Texas Ranger, Ben Quick (Clint Walker), has been sent to Friendly to investigate and to see if he can get into the bank too. His plan? Hire a group of Chinese laundry workers to tunnel into the bank as well. Well, this should be interesting as all these different groups unknowingly working toward the same goal.

Western comedies usually aren't my at all. This one worried me some with its low IMDB rating and generally across the board negative reviews. Still, the cast sounded pretty appealing, and who am I kidding? I'll give any western -- even a spoof-life comedy -- a shot when it comes right down to it. Well, I'm really glad I did. Is it dumb, even too stupid for its own good? Oh, yes, very much. Director Hy Averback works on a straightforward, broad comedic strokes level. This is not any subtle English humor. This is stereotyped Mexican bandits and Chinamen, one goofier situation on top of each other, and a madcap finale that includes colliding horses and wagons, a getaway via a hot air balloon and a cannon cutting loose on a church steeple. Nothing academic, smart or subtle here. We're talking LAUGH! moments. That said, I cracked up and liked it a lot.

Committing to the goofiness is a very solid cast that embraces the stupid. Walker plays the straight man, Texas Ranger Ben Quicky who is a good trailsman, a fast draw with his pistol and a gentleman to the end. Mostel is a scene-stealer as Reverend Pious Blue, a con man with an eye on a pot of gold. He even gets a goofy musical number with a boys choir that comes out of nowhere. Novak gets to sex kitten it up as Sister Lyda, always with a couple strategic buttons undone here and there. Lyda ends up being a diversion for the questioning Ranger Quick. Their scene together when Lyda gives Ben some peyote candy is priceless (watch it HERE), the Ranger no idea he's hallucinating. As for Pious' "assistants," look for John Fiedler as Br. Dismas (explosives), Peter Whitney as Br. Jordan (tunneling/engineering), and Sam Jaffe as Br. Lilac (art forger). In addition to the stereotypical (if fun) Mexican bandit, Papa, played by Tamiroff, is Larry Storch as his dim-witted but well-meaning son, Juan.

My favorite part goes to western veteran/regular and character actor Claude Akins as the outlaw and man in black, Slade. His part is underplayed to perfection in putting a new spin on that familiar character of the western baddie. Akins as Slade is a philosophical wondering man, calling all those around him "Scum" and "Scum of the Earth." When he shoots people -- kinda a must in the business he's chosen -- he questions "Why do they always make me do that?" He's a brooding, almost depressed man, always keeping his right hand man, Jeb (Elisha Cook Jr.), down with a series of threats and putdowns. A great, scene-stealing part for the always reliable Claude Akins. Also look for John Anderson as Kincaid, the crooked mayor and bank owner, Mako as Secret Agent Fong, working with Quick to find out what's going on, and Ruth Warrick as Mrs. Applebee, a curvy townswoman who takes an interest in Reverend Pious.

I can appreciate this comedy isn't rewriting the genre, and maybe it isn't even that good. But I keep coming back to one of my old standbys. Was I entertained? Throughout, even if that madcap finale is a little much and the movie just sort of ends. The always reliable Clint Walker, sex kitten Novak with a quasi-nude scene, Akins in a memorable part, there's a lot going for this comedic western that isn't trying to rewrite the genre. It's supposed to be fun and goofy and stupid. I liked it throughout.

The Great Bank Robbery (1969): ***/****

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