By Richard Winters
My Rating: 7 out of 10
4-Word Review: Everyone has their price.
Howard Nightingale (Kirk Douglas) is an ambitious Marshall looking to run for U.S. Senate and realizes his best bet of winning the seat is by bringing in the notorious train robbing gang led by Jack Strawhorn (Bruce Dern). Howard manages to kill off the gang by having his posse set fire to the hideout that they were in, but Jack escapes only to be captured later and brought to jail. While on the train ride to Austin where he’ll be hanged Jack comes up with an elaborate escape and turns-the-tables by handcuffing Howard and returning him to the town where they came from and holding him prisoner inside the local hotel. When the posse returns to the town everyone is convinced they’ll free Howard, or will they?
In an era where revisionist westerns were all the rage it’s confusing, at least initially, not to understand why this one, which story-wise goes completely against-the-grain of the conventional western, isn’t propped up there with the best of them and a lot of the blame could possibly be put on the direction. There’s nothing really wrong with the way it’s presented and there are some exciting moments including a realistic shootout as well as a running train being set on fire while also exploding from dynamite, but the rest of it does have a certain static feel. There’s too much reliance on music and not enough on mood or atmosphere as well as actors looking more like modern day people in period costume.
The script though, which is based on a 1971 short story called ‘The Train’ by Larry Cohen is full of many offbeat twists that keeps the viewer intrigued. Of course in an attempt to stretch out the short story into feature length there are some slow spots, particularly in the middle and the emphasis is more on concept than character development, but Jack’s crafty way at escaping is quite entertaining and the surprise ending is one of the best not because it’s a gimmick, which it isn’t, but more because it’s quite believable and yet something that’s never been done in any other western.
Douglas gives his conniving character just the right amount of pompous camp to make him enjoyable and it’s great to see James Stacy in his first movie role after his tragic motorcycle accident where he lost both his left arm and leg. In any other film this handicap would have to become a major issue, but here it doesn’t even get mentioned. The character doesn’t use it to feel sorry for himself nor is he treated any differently than anyone else, which I found to be quite refreshing.
A minor drawback though it that it’s supposed to take place in Texas and my hometown of Austin even gets mentioned a few times, which is kind of cool, but it was actually filmed in the state of Arizona. To some this might not be a big deal, but Arizona’s landscape is much sandier and has more mountains. Their cacti is of the upright kind while in Texas the cactus is of the bushy variety known as the prickly pear. All of which helps to ruin the film’s authenticity. If they didn’t have the funding to film it in Texas then have the story’s setting take place in California or Arizona, but trying to compromise it and hoping that astute viewers won’t know the difference doesn’t work.
My Rating: 7 out of 10
Released: June 4, 1975
Runtime: 1 Hour 32 Minutes
Director: Kirk Douglas
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube