Martin Ritt made too many good films to be written off as the styleless laissez-faire helmer he’s often taken for. Though he does show a bit more obvious adventurous spirit working in b&w (THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD/’65; HUD/’63) than on his color pics. But here, working from a decent, if formulaic triumph-of-the-underdog script, and without favored cinematographer James Wong Howe, he’s not so much a dull dog as a dutiful one. Walter Matthau, off his big surprise hit as a tippling, curmudgeonly Little League coach in THE BAD NEWS BEARS/’76, is back with a pack of tough/cute kids. Only this time the sport is quarter-horse racing and the trio of kids are his own. (By the look of things, there might well have been three separate moms and maybe a surrogate stud as Dad to help explain the lack of family resemblance.) Matthau’s pretty odd casting as a Louisiana Cajun horse trainer, anyway, though he makes it work in his own quirky manner. The story runs along pleasantly enough for a couple of acts, but things go off the rails in the third. Not only does the story turn darker than the tone of the film can handle, but the script can’t decide on which of three possible endings to use . . . so they use ‘em all!, one after the other. Try to ignore the propulsively dreadful down-home song-plugging score from Patrick Williams and instead concentrate on a really sharp supporting perf from Alexis Smith as a classy trader in horseflesh. Fifty-seven at the time, making her only a year younger than the rumpled Mr. Matthau, she’s the very definition of what’s meant by ‘one fine figure of a woman.’
DOUBLE-BILL: Matthau had a thing for the track, trying another horse-racing tale a couple of years on (with no more commercial success) with a fourth version of Damon Runyon’s LITTLE MISS MARKER/’78. He’s far better cast, with a truly great moment where he pours the cream off the top of a bottle of milk for his own use before letting the little girl he’s stuck with have some for her cereal. But, like all too many Runyon adaptations, the film feels bloated with the cutes.
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Don't forget to count the hidden 'NINAs' in the Al Hirschfeld drawing above. Click on the caricature to enlarge.