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, February 4, 2014

Macho Callahan

I take pride in the fact I've seen a lot of westerns. It's my favorite genre, and I do my best to see as many as I can from lousy B-westerns to more polished, big budget ventures. The beauty of having that genre you like though is that if you keep on looking and exploring, you're going to find those little-known gems that don't have a big reputation. I can add 1970's Macho Callahan to that list.

It's late in the Civil War, a man named Macho Callahan (David Janssen) just released from solitary treatment at a brutal Confederate prison camp deep in Texas. He's been waiting to put into operation his plan for a mass escape, and in execution, it works. In a bloody breakout, Callahan escapes the hellish prison camp, managing to meet up with his former partner, Juan (Pedro Armendariz Jr.), with some revenge on his mind. How exactly did Callahan -- not a soldier -- end up in the prison camp? Well, now he's searching for the man, Duffy (Lee J. Cobb) that ended up putting him there. Callahan and Juan must first track Duffy down though, but it's not going to be easy. There is a reward on Callahan's head, a rather lucrative one, and every bounty hunter, gunman and two-bit killer in the state is looking for him.

Wow. This was one nasty, dark, brutal western. The spaghetti westerns had helped tweak the western genre in a big way already in the late 1960s (and continuing into the 1970s), giving it that cynicism, that darkness that just hadn't been there in most American westerns. Well, this entry from director Bernard L. Kowalski is one of the darkest, dirtiest, meanest westerns I've ever seen, and that's a good thing. Part of it is the look of the film, all the characters dirty, sweaty and sporting all sorts of unkempt hair and beards. It sounds simple, but that goes a long way. 'Callahan' looks and feels like we're there with the characters, a visceral, authentic peek into the not so glamorous wild, wild west. I liked composer Patrick Williams' score too, not used a ton but doing a good job of building that tension and doom.

It's more than just the look though. It's something else. This is a movie with a vicious mentality. This is brutality at its worst. This is a meanness that permeates the movie. That starts in the opening, quite-startling sequence set in the Confederate prison camp. The place looks filthy, disease and grime hanging in the air. We see a cook gutting a cow, its entrails falling from the body. The prisoners waste away, waiting for their chance to escape. This sequence was disturbing in its tension, in its reality, but it sets the tone immediately, especially with the bloody, gruesome escape. That incredibly dark mood sticks around throughout the movie. The violence is bloody and graphic and uncomfortable. No one...NO ONE, is safe. Characters are killed off with the snap of a finger. At one point, Janssen's Callahan even shoots a buffalo. There's just something hanging in the air here. No romance, no beauty, no charm of the old west. This is life, where survival reigns above all else.

A TV star from The Fugitive, Janssen doesn't scream western star, but his brooding, intense Callahan is a pretty interesting lead character. Early on, he's almost completely blinded by his desire for revenge. There's more to the character of course, and without giving away much in the way of spoilers, it comes courtesy of Jean Seberg's Alexandra, a widow who wants nothing to do with Callahan but is forced to travel with him and Juan on the trail. It's not quite a love story, but feelings do develop, two lonely people finding a friend of sorts in a nasty world. Janssen also has a solid chemistry with Armendariz Jr., a familiar western dynamic between two partners, two bandits who seem to be constantly on the run. I really liked the duo, neither stars but both very capable actors.

The rest of the cast is just as solid. Along with Lee J. Cobb, look for James Booth, Bo Hopkins, Diane Ladd, David Carradine, Richard Anderson and Matt Clark. Some of the parts are bigger than others, some just a scene or two. As I mentioned earlier though, 'Callahan' isn't interested in reputation or star power. Characters are killed without warning from beginning to end here, keeping you guessing from scene-to-scene what's going to happen. This isn't glorious, romantic death either, but an unceremonious, lightning-quick fate. One second you're there. The next second you're not.

I don't know if saying I liked this movie is an apt description. It's a tough movie to like, but to watch and experience it a little bit? Yeah, that's more appropriate. Things drag some in the second half of the 99-minute movie, but as the ending approaches, momentum picks up to the inevitable, appropriately unceremonious ending. No big shootout, no big gunfight, just an ending. There's touches of the surreal too, Callahan, Alexandra, Juan and a baby bear on the trail. Don't question. Just go with it. The whole movie is a trip.

Macho Callahan (1970): ***/****

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