By Richard Winters
My Rating: 5 out of 10
4-Word Review: Can’t cash his check.
Mattie Appleyard (James Stewart), who lost one of his eyes during a fight years earlier and now wears a glass one, finally gets released from prison after spending 40 years behind bars. Along with him there’s bank robber Lee Cotrill (Strother Martin) and a young convict named Johnny (Kurt Russell) who both get released on the same day. Mattie’s also given a check in the amount of $25,452,32 as payment for his years of prison work. Mattie, Lee, and Johnny plan to use the money to start-up their own grocery store, but since the year is 1935 and many are poor due to the Great Depression they realize they must guard the check carefully and not cash it until it’s fully safe to. During their train ride out of town they become aware after reading the fine print that the check can only be cashed in person at the bank in the town that they’ve just left, so they take another train ride back. Unfortunately for them they don’t know that Mattie’s former prison guard Doc (George Kennedy) has already hatched a plan with the bank manager (David Huddleston) to make sure that the check is never cashed. In-fact the manager has given Doc an advance on the money to have Mattie and his friends wiped-out. Doc has hired a ‘Christian’ hit man named Junior (Morgan Paull) to do the dirty deed, which Junior agrees to as long as it’s confirmed that people he kills are atheists, which Doc insists they are.
The film is based on the 1969 novel of the same name by Davis Grubb, who is better known for having written Night of the Hunter. It was shot on-location in Moundsville, West Virginia where Grubb was born and raised and it’s the setting that helps give the movie added character. The scenario though is rather odd and seems to want attain a certain quirky tone that it can’t quite reach. Leonard Maltin, in his review, complained about it being ‘unintentionally funny too many times to be taken seriously’. While I’ll agree the tension is lacking I do feel that this was meant to be humorous and some of it is slightly amusing, but it never gels and overall isn’t intriguing. I also felt the Russell character wasn’t needed. Maybe the producers wanted a youthful character added to attract younger members of the viewing public, but he doesn’t say, or do anything that’s funny, or helps move the story along. His romance with Chanty (Katherine Cannon in her film debut) who plays a 16 year-old who’s virginity is up for sale for a price of $100, is too forced, not believable, and adds nothing to the main plot.
There’s also several directorial errors including the first time Stewart takes out his glass eye, which was apparently so painful to wear that shooting could only last for 20-minutes at a time. In the shot we see Stewart put his hand over his eye and then it cuts to Russell’s shocked expression and then back to Stewart where the eye ball is in his hand, but we can see on Stewart’s face, just as he turns that he still has a blue eye in the socket where the glass used to be. When he removes the eye later he keeps the left eye closed in order to represent an empty socket, but the first time he doesn’t.
There’s also issues with Kennedy’s teeth. Initially I thought he was wearing braces, but then during close-ups it looks like there just supposed to be dirty, or rotting, but realistically it’s not done right. If they were truly bad teeth then some of them should’ve fallen out, or broken off instead of looking like they have been covered with black specks. There’s also a scene where he’s sitting in a car putting on his white shoes and his teeth are all white only to have in a later scene going back to them appearing dirty.
The performances are certainly a plus with Stewart’s being especially good and I admire the way he was willing to go out of his comfort zone by playing a type of kooky character he had never done before. Kennedy is also a scene-stealer in quite possibly the funniest thing he ever did. Huddleston is also solid as the corrupt bank manager and the segment where he nervously watches Stewart attempt to light a stick of dynamite inside the bank office is probably the film’s best moment. Kudos though must ultimately go to Anne Baxter who’s quite impressive as an aging, embittered prostitute who runs a whorehouse on a houseboat. I remember being blown away by her performance in The Ten Commandments and then later for her Oscar winning work in All About Eve, but her she’s almost unrecognizable in a role that is both darkly funny and sadly poignant at the same time.
My Rating: 5 out of 10
Released: June 17, 1971
Runtime: 1 Hour 38 Minutes
Director: Andrew V. McLaglen
Studio: Columbia Pictures
Available: DVD-R, Tubi