Louis L'Amour had 89 novels, 14 short story collections and two non-fiction books to his name. Kinda a busy career, huh? He's always been one of my favorites, and a personal favorite (one of many) is one that doesn't always get mentioned as one of his best or most well-known. It's a 1963 western that got a feature film adaptation with the same-named 1971 flick, Catlow.
It's the years following the Civil War in the American southwest and veterans from the war have had to move on to other things, some good, some bad. Ben Cowan (Richard Crenna) is a marshal out on the trail looking for an outlaw wanted for rustling cattle and horses. Jed Catlow (Yul Brynner) is that outlaw, an amiable fella who always has a smile on his face. The problem? Cowan's warrant is for Catlow, but the two men are old friends having served together during the War, making that potential arrest a little more difficult. Well, sorta. Through a series of mistakes and misadventures, Cowan just can't seem to bring his friend in. Now, Catlow could have bitten off more than he can chew. With his gang, the outlaw is heading into Mexico after a recently discovered hidden gold treasure. He's not the only one in pursuit though, with Cowan and others on his trail.
Not quite an American western, not quite a spaghetti western, 'Catlow' lies somewhere in between. Director Sam Wannamaker's western has been basically completely forgotten, lost in a wave of one of the more tumultuous times in the genre's history. It reflects more the past than what's coming, a tongue-in-cheek tone unfortunately stepping to the forefront. That tone does feel a bit weird, a bit forced, especially against the Almerian backdrops. Spaghetti western fans will see a long list of familiar locations, all those locations providing a ton of fun along the way. The score is a mixed bag, two main themes dominating the soundtrack (listen HERE). One is more serious, the other reflecting the light mood, that tongue in cheek angle. The weird thing? Well...
L'Amour's source novel is not light or comedic or tongue in cheek at all. It's pretty standard stuff, and I mean that in a good way. A likable, resolute anti-hero of sorts, a bad guy who's not so bad, a not so trustworthy gang, conniving, greedy female characters, and a treasure that would change any man's life. Getting there is part of the fun so even the story drifts and isn't that pointed...it is fun. The cast, the winding, often goofy story, the locations, It...Is...Fun. L'Amour's novels are always entertaining, even when the film versions aren't so great. That's a case in point here. Original? No, sir. Entertaining? You bet. Don't expect too much of a coherent story, and you'll be aces.
So....hmm...fun, there's gotta be something positive to talk about, right? I'm going with Yul Brynner, one of my favorites and clearly having a lot of fun here as the affable Catlow. His most iconic parts are The Magnificent Seven and Westworld where he plays stoic, almost emotionless gunfighters so it's cool to see him branch out and show off some comedic timing. He's an underrated comedic presence. His chemistry with Richard Crenna is very solid, two old friends who are on opposite sides of the law but don't seem to let that bother them too much. They're always getting each other out of one sticky situation or another, and they're always able to laugh it off in the end. I will say Crenna's Cowan as presented here could be the dumbest sheriff/peace officer I can think of in a western. He continuously walks into one ambush after another and takes his fair share of lead in the process. Still, Brynner and Crenna are excellent together throughout.
The rest of the cast is interesting to say the least. Mr. Spock himself, Leonard Nimoy, plays Miller, a gunman hired out to bring Catlow in dead or alive (preferably dead). For you Star Trek fans, yes, you do get to see Nimoy's naked ass in all its glory. Talk about bizarre, huh? We need some sexy love interests too and get them in Daliah Lavi as fiery, murdering, betraying Rosita (Catlow's sorta girlfriend) and Jo Ann Pflug as Catherine, the beautiful daughter of a Mexican rancher who falls for Cowan (naturally). Jeff Corey plays Merridew, a grizzled trailhand and Catlow's right-hand man, while Michael DeLano plays Rio, the more treacherous, greedy member of the gang. Also look for Julian Mateos as Recalde, a Mexican officer who Cowan meets on the trail.
Look, this ain't rocket science. It's a fun, pretty mindless American/spaghetti western. It doesn't try and rewrite the genre by any means and is quite content being fun and pretty mindless. Watch it for Yul Brynner, Richard Crenna, Leonard Nimoy's naked butt, some pretty ladies, fun action and cool Spanish locations filling in for the American southwest and Mexico. If you can, watch for it on Turner Classic Movie's schedule. The print they showed was by far the best -- clean, very clean -- I've seen.
Catlow (1971): ** 1/2 /****