By Richard Winters
My Rating: 8 out of 10
4-Word Review: Money in snake pit.
Paris Pittman (Kirk Douglas) is a rugged bandit who at times can be quite charming, but also cunning and ruthless. When he gets sent to an escape-proof Arizona prison he becomes determined to find a way out while using the skills of his fellow prisoners, who he has all promised will get a share of some stolen loot that he has hidden in the desert, to help him do it. Woodward Lopeman (Henry Fonda) is the prison’s new warden. He’s on to Paris’s manipulative ways and becomes equally determined to stop him from escaping while also subtly attempting to reform him.
During the social/sexual revolution of the late ‘60’s many film genres took on society’s new attitudes while also taking full advantage of the new found freedoms by showing things that had previously been taboo. Comedies, dramas, action films and even sci-fi movies were suddenly breaking new ground, but the western for the most part remained entrenched with the old-school values at least until the ‘70’s, but this film is one of the early entries into what became known as the revisionist western where age-old dramatic trappings where suddenly given a whole new spin and the caricatures of good and evil became much murkier.
Here the ‘good guy’ is to some extent the bandit who works outside of the system while seeing all the hypocrisies from those still working within it. The people getting robbed are no longer ‘God-fearing’ innocent town folk, but instead the greedy establishment who enslave blacks and use the façade of religion for their own self-interests. Woman are no longer virginal maidens waiting to be properly married, but instead sexually oppressed young ladies eager to pursue their horny desires behind their parents back if they can get away with it. Those that still remain loyal to the old ways of doing things such as with Fonda’s character are now seen as being out-of-touch and unreasonably rigid to an inflexible, dated system.
Watching the western genre suddenly ‘grow-up’ as it where and show things that only a few years earlier would’ve been unthinkable is a lot of fun and the script meshes in a good amount of snarky humor, which keeps things consistently lively and comical. Even the music score gets a new slant. Typically music themes in westerns had a booming, orchestral sound, but here it’s much jazzier and modern.
Douglas is engaging and makes a great adversary to Fonda. Fonda, who just a year earlier shocked filmed audiences with his brilliantly creepy portrayal of a psychotic gunman in Once Upon a Time in the West goes back to his old form as the stoic good guy and does it quite well although I was confused why he is seen in the first half walking with a limp and a cane due to being shot only to go without it and walk normally during the second half.
The support cast, all men in their 50’s and 60’s and seen for years in the old fashioned westerns, but now clearly relishing the chance to be bawdy and irreverent are in fine form as well. Burgess Meredith is quite funny as an old codger who has worn the same underwear for 35 years and refuses to take it off even for a bath. Hume Cronyn lends equally good support and I loved the scene where he adds giant tits onto a drawing of an angel. This also marks the film debut of Pamela Hensley who became best known for her work on the TV-shows ‘Buck Rogers in the 25th Century’ and ‘Matt Houston’.
There are clearly other comical westerns out there, but this one, with a script co-written by Robert Benton, manages to still have a good story, some very exciting moments and even a great twist ending. The prison used in the film was built specifically for the production and great effort was put in to make it seem authentic to the period. The detail that was put into it along with the rock quarry where the prisoners work in is impressive and worth catching just for that.
My Rating: 8 out of 10
Released: December 25, 1970
Runtime: 2Hours 6Minutes
Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Studio: Warner Brothers
Available: DVD, Amazon Instant Video