Stanley Kramer, I think of any number of movies. The 1960s were quite the decade for this director with movies like Judgment at Nuremberg, Mad, Mad World, Inherit the Wind and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner to his name. Oh, and that 1950s decade? The Defiant Ones and On the Beach. Quite a list, huh? And that's only listing some. I'm familiar with most of Kramer's movies as a director, have seen many of them and was at least aware of some others. One that qualifies as...well, none of those is and was 1973's Oklahoma Crude, a quasi-western with little reputation.
It's the 1910s and feisty Lena Doyle (Faye Dunaway) owns a chunk of land smack dab in the middle of the Oklahoma oil fields. She has put the time into the land, building a shack and a derrick and intends to tap the crude oil she believes is in the ground below her. There's a problem of course. A powerful oil magnate is scooping up land left and right, purchasing all the small-time owners. Well, most of them. Lena refuses to sell, claiming (rightfully so) that the land is hers. In hopes of protecting her investment, Lena gets some help from some unlikely places, including her estranged father, Cleon (John Mills) and a hired gun he hired, Mason (George C. Scott). Mason isn't quite sure what to make of the job, looking to make some quick and easy cash, but the little group is in for more than they planned on when the oil company sends out an enforcer, Hellman (Jack Palance), to make sure Lena sells.
Well, this was certainly an interesting movie if a heavily flawed one. I struggled through it at times and was rewarded with a far stronger second half of a 108-minute movie. Getting there can be a trial at times though, and even the last hour isn't as good as it could have been. Still, Kramer chooses an interesting story to tell and picks the right time to release it, the 1970s when audiences would have been all sorts of stirred up about a huge company strong-arming small businesses (I guess that'd land pretty well now in 2014 too). The development of the oil fields in Oklahoma in the early 1900s is an interesting enough historical period -- one that hasn't gotten its due in films, TV and books -- with plenty of dark, nasty material to dive into, but...
Kramer doesn't seem to be able to pick a tone, a voice and stick with it. Is it supposed to be truly dramatic and dark and unsettling? Or is it supposed to be goofy and fun and the kinda oddball romance story I typically hate? And that's where the problem is. It's both. The song that plays over the opening credits, Send a Little Love My Way, had me worried I was jumping into a folksy, disgustingly pleasant western that I do love so much. It wasn't, but it's a good forebearer of what's to come. The score from Henry Mancini is simply put, very obvious, big and loud and not appropriate for what the dark and depths of the story could have been. Instead, we get the Dunaway/Scott rivalry, the Dunaway/Mills fighting, Palance vs. the world, and all mixed in with some "I hate you until I love you" story and some all too painful comic relief. Oh, look, that naked guy got shot in the butt with buckshot!!! Yeah, it's too schizophrenic for its own good.
There is a saving grace, one that quickly popped up as the pleasant song mentioned above plays over the credits. Yeah, it's that cast thing. Dunaway, Scott, Mills and Palance?!? Yes, I will invest some time to see how this develops. The script doesn't always do this quartet a ton of favors, but there is a ton of talent here that manages to bring these characters to life. Dunaway's Lena is tough as nails, never been handed anything in her life, ready to fight for what's hers and screw anyone who gets in her way. Scott's Mason -- or Mase, his full name revealed late -- is harder to read, a worker and quasi-hired gun looking for a payday but just as interesting to see develop. I loved the energy Mills as Cleon brought to his part, a father who wasn't there for his daughter as she grew up. Now that he can help? He's going to do everything he can, even when that daughter tells him to screw off. And then there's Palance, doing what he does best, playing that near lunatic but very obsessed bad guy that you're never quite sure what he's capable of.
The human moments are not surprisingly, those that work best in Kramer's film. I especially liked the dynamic between Dunaway's Lena and Scott's Mase. It develops nicely -- but takes quite awhile getting there -- and for the most part manages to avoid all the pratfalls of a sappy story of two opposites who aren't so opposite. Mills is a scene-stealer and Palance is solid. The darkness of the second half is what the entire movie should have been. Filming out on the desolate, stark prairies, you get a sense of what these small-time drillers went through. Isolated and alone with no help in sight should it be needed. I simply wish Kramer would have committed, not trying to mix the light-hearted with the dark. At least if he kept it light, so be it. It's there. That's it. That's all. Enjoyable enough to recommend but far from a classic.
Oklahoma Crude (1973): ** 1/2 /****