There wasn’t much love lost between Marlon Brando and co-star Jack Nicholson (or his director Arthur Penn) on this one. A hipster Western by anti-establishmentarianist Thomas McGuane, Nicholson’s horse thief is meant to gain our rooting interest against the capitalist rancher & against Brando’s ‘regulator,’ the film’s anarchistic angel of death. Jack found acting against a legend who used cue cards instead of learning lines unnerving, and Penn found his own authority constantly questioned by a portly icon who hid behind bubble baths and a roving Irish accent. Or so went the buzz at the time. But there’s method to Brando’s madness. He wasn’t simply spoiling a trendy counter-culture Western, timed for the 1976 bicentennial, he was blowing it up, deconstructing tropes for fun and profit. He couldn’t quite pull it off, the set-up works largely against him and roots for rising star Nicholson. But in his first outing since the one-two commercial/critical punch of 1972's LAST TANGO IN PARIS and THE GODFATHER, Brando figured he could do pretty much whatever he wanted to do. Alas, after this, what he wanted to do was sell out. For the record, there’s a fine perf from Harry Dean Stanton as Nicholson’s senior partner in stolen horse flesh; a painfully inadequate one from Kathleen Lloyd as Jack’s love interest, the rancher’s free-spirited daughter; and an odd John Williams’ score that brings back the larky mode he used for THE REIVERS/’69. Not great, but a step up from those trendy out-of-focus foreground dandelions seen in Michael Butler’s groovy lensing.
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY/DOUBLE-BILL: Arthur Penn’s rep never quite recovered from this; only four more pics (all failures) over the next four decades. His calling cards pics (THE MIRACLE WORKER/’62, BONNIE AND CLYDE/’67, LITTLE BIG MAN/’70) are more honored than watched, yet the film he made just before this, NIGHT MOVES/’75, is something of a revelation. One that sadly was smothered by misguided comparisons with Coppola’s THE CONVERSATION/’74 which shared leading man Gene Hackman.