Writer/director Richard Brooks’ third & final Western is a straightforward turn-of-the-last-century endurance horse-race. Set on some of the bleakest, toughest terrain imaginable, Brooks gets it up & galloping quickly, introducing each character with the broadest of strokes. Like our lead, Gene Hackman. He rides in and immediately rescues an orphaned colt whose mare was trapped for the glue factory! (No kidding, check the signage on the little wagon.) Next thing you know, the thirsty colt gets handed off to a poor, but worthy country lad. So, Hackman’s the good guy, right?* Jan-Michael Vincent’s the young punk who needs to become a man; Ben Johnson’s the old-timer with a bad ticker; Ian Bannen a Brit sportsman; James Coburn the cool professional who knows the score (even about himself); and Candace Bergen’s the token female rider who can’t quite act. (Gosh, she’s gorgeous though! But just watch those reaction shots during Hackman’s big confessional. Lord!, she took a long time to learn her trade.) So, why is the film so darn pleasurable? Somehow, someone or something got the stiff filmmaker in Brooks to loosen up. Such a big, damn handsome thing (be sure you get the new transfer) with a visual swing Brooks never showed before or after. (Was it lenser Harry Stradling, Jr.?) The old one-foot-in-front of-the-other Brooks returns in the third act for a plot twist and a misjudged Slo-Mo finale, but it hardly dims the demonstration level look of the thing and all those feel-good perfs.
DOUBLE-BILL: Brooks’ second Western, THE PROFESSIONALS/’66, shot by the great Conrad Hall, is well known, but his strange, downbeat first try, THE LAST HUNT/’56, about slaughtering herds of buffalo, has an angry, powerhouse perf from Robert Taylor worth checking out.
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Hackman does get the best line in the pic, answering a hooker who asks him how he likes it with a laconic ‘without conversation.’