The Sons of Katie Elder

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

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean

When people get more cynical, so do their movies.  In the 1930s, westerns portrayed good guys wearing white hats and bad guys in black duds.  By the time Clint Eastwood came along in the spaghetti westerns gunning down anything that would net him a buck, things were up for grabs.  Then in the late 1960s and 1970s, somebody decided to put a new spin on the old west, stories that were more cynical in nature that attempted to show what the west was really like.  Goodbye romantic, hello cynicism.  Say howdy to the revisionist western.

If you look at the list of westerns included in the Wikipedia entry, there are some good entries, but for the most part I don't necessarily like revisionist westerns.  They try much too hard to show you that what you've been watching all these years is garbage.  Take 1972's The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, directed by one of my favorites, John Huston.  In telling the story of real-life Roy Bean, this western blends some really awkward comedic moments, overlong sub-plots that go nowhere, some hypocritical views on just about everything (can't decide if that was intended), and in general a waste of a very strong cast.

Sometime around the turn of the century, "outlaw" Roy Bean (Paul Newman) rides into west Texas past the Pecos River, an area notorious for hiding bandits and criminals.  At one saloon, they turn on him and leave him for dead only to have the wounded man come back and gun them all down. Disgusted by what he's seen, Bean sets up shop as a judge, administering his unique brand of justice to anyone and everyone looking for trouble.  Word spreads and soon he even has deputies who help him out, all in the name of Texas and Lilly Langtry (Ava Gardner), a stage actress from the east, a woman Bean has always been in love with. But Bean's style of justice may catch up with him as civilization follows him around every corner, and his time may be running out.

I don't know where to start with this one because to be fair, Huston doesn't know where to start either.  Roy Bean was a real-life judge in west Texas who ended up becoming a legendary figure after he died.  So with this revisionist western instead of telling a story that showed what the actual man was like, Huston goes for the ridiculous legend.  At a run-time of 120 minutes (a very long 120 minutes), 'Life' is all over the place with no sense of where it's going.  The tone ranges from slapstick comedy that produces its fair share of groans -- it did from me at least -- to an oddly serious finale.  It tries to be funny while also delivering a hacked up message about the changing times and the last few years of the wild west.  Pick one or the other and go with it, but don't waver between the two.

A bright spot not surprisingly is Newman in the titular role, rising above materiel that at times is just beneath him.  Newman's parts in the 1970s typically covered a wide variety of movies, and this surely doesn't disappoint.  What works is that he commits so fully to this part.  His beliefs are ridiculously hypocritical, and he'll string anyone up at the drop of a hat if he disagrees with what's been said or done.  If you're loyal to him, he'll be loyal to you, but for heaven's sake don't turn on him.  This isn't a part on par with his best performances like Butch Cassidy or Lucas Jackson, but it's a quality one.  Even when the movie is dull to watch, it's worthwhile to check out Newman.

So with a story that is light on story and heavy on non-related vignettes, we get a chance to see a long list of actors play small parts (some being on-screen no more than a few seconds).  Gardner makes an appearance in the movie's final scene in a moving scene that comes along a little too late.  Anthony Perkins is a scene-stealer as a traveling preacher who realizes Newman's Bean may be a little off his rocker but doesn't want to get shot bringing the topic up. Ned Beatty, Matt Clark, Jim Burk, Bill McKinney, and Steve Kanaly are underused but all solid as Bean's loyal deputies. Also watch for Victoria Principal, Tab Hunter, Huston as a grizzled old mountain man, Stacy Keach as an albino gunman, Roddy McDowall, Anthony Zerbe, and Jacqueline Bisset in parts that range from bad to good, your decision on where they fall.

I will give Huston credit for trying new things.  Early on, we get narration from Perkins and Hunter, but instead of just hearing it, the camera is placed right in front of them as they ride into town. They're looking right at the audience, addressing us in a cool change of pace, a unique little technique.  But then the narration resorts to been there, done that voiceovers.  It's just an odd movie overall, one with plenty of flaws but enough positives to give it a mild recommendation.

The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean <---trailer (1972): **/****

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