My chum Tim and I watch a film every week, taking it in turns to pick. The only catch? Each film has to be linked to the previous one by a shared actor. We’re on the hunt for classics we’ve missed, hidden gems and films to reappraise now we’re, uh, getting older.
With Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne and Lee Marvin to choose from there were almost too many options. So Tim nixed them all and we ended up at The Wild Bunch via Strother Martin. In fact we stuck with Strother twice more, tackling McLintock! and Pocket Money in quick succession. I’ll cover them all in this post.
Strother Martin is one of those character actors who usually has a meaty enough role but is never quite the lead. Both in name and performance he’s pretty unforgettable though, with a screen persona like a wussier M Emmet Walsh. Given the number of Westerns he’s in perhaps a better comparison is Strother being a more scheming Walter Brennan. In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance he played a giggling goon as likely to feel the back of Lee Marvin’s hand as Jimmy Stewart’s.
The Wild Bunch, McLintock!, Pocket Money and me
The Wild Bunch is one of those classics that I’d never seen but probably pretended to have during playground and pub conversations. I’ll be honest though, knowing Sam Peckinpah’s record for animal cruelty I’m always in two minds about whether I want to watch his films.
A long time ago I saw ten minutes of a John Wayne western on TV and really enjoyed it. It was a scene of Wayne sitting outside a woman’s room, either guarding her or being a creep (I can’t remember) but it was funny and silly. Given the poster for McLintock! I thought this might be the one… spoiler: it wasn’t. Got any ideas?
Pocket Money was Tim’s choice. I hadn’t heard of it, but a Paul Newman/Lee Marvin double header seemed like a sure bet. Right?
The Wild Bunch – An aging group of outlaws look for one last big score as the “traditional” American West is disappearing around them. 8 stars.
McLintock! – Wealthy rancher G.W. McLintock uses his power and influence in the territory to keep the peace between farmers, ranchers, land-grabbers, Indians and corrupt government officials. 7.3 stars.
Pocket Money – Broke and in debt, an otherwise honest cowboy gets mixed up in some shady dealings with a crooked rancher. 5.5 stars.
Oof. Well let’s start with the best of the, ahem, bunch… The Wild Bunch. Yes, Peckinpah did seem to revel in animal cruelty so I think that’s it for me and him. And there was definitely some punishment of women going on. But otherwise (and that ‘otherwise’ is doing a lot of work) it’s all solid enough. A gang of rogues go up against a villainous ruler and no-one comes out of it well. It’s all muscular machismo which wore a little thin but Ernest Borgnine is a loveable grump and Strother Martin reprises his giggling goon act nicely.
At the time it was apparently a revolutionary approach to a western, and John Wayne thought it would kill the myth of the West (along with his career). These days we’re so soaked in grimdark/realistic portrayals of violence that it perhaps doesn’t make the impact it did at the time.
Pocket Money was written by one Terry Malick, it turns out, before he became Terrence. And while I’m a fan of Badlands and The Thin Red Line he does seem to have disappeared somewhere with himself with his last few films. This is more conventially narrative then his recent ouvre (and he didn’t direct this), but its two leads are so conflict-averse as to rob the film of much interest. Paul Newman is the cowpoke, Strother Martin the scheming mastermind and Lee Marvin the comedy sidekick acting through a series of mannered ticks. They pootle south. They pootle north again. There’s almost some trouble and Paul Newman gets slung in prison. But then it’s resolved and they pootle off again. It reminded me a little of The Scarecrow, which we tackled in the very early days of CRFC. But that had Gene Hackman and Dustin Hoffman’s drifter characters change a little along the way. Pocket Money… doesn’t really.
McLintock! was a difficult watch, I’ll be honest. The last ten or so minutes feature John Wayne’s titular landowner, a boorish drunk, pursing his estranged wife (Maureen O’Hara) through town to give her a spanking. The townsfolk hoot and holler him on, pointing out where she’s hiding. As her struggle to escape becomes more desperate parts of her clothing are ripped to tatters. She flings herself through a plate glass window to escape. But eventually he catches her and gives her a spanking. And wouldn’t you know it, that’s just the tonic, and they end the film on happier terms. It’s like the Terminator lurching through the West to administer domestic violence. It may be based Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, but it looks pretty horrible now. I’m utterly gobsmacked at its rating on IMDb. I think it ousts the rapping Hamlet part of Renaissance Man as the worst thing we’ve seen in CRFC.
Meanwhile, on Strother-watch, Strother Martin played a slightly different kind of whiner in this one – an uptight big city man with a stick up his butt. I don’t think it suited him as well as his lowlife characters, but to be honest I was distracted by everything else going on. The only good news is that they didn’t copyright it correctly when it came out, so the film has entered the public domain and presumably no-one’s been able to make much money on it.
This was a wild bunch and no mistake.
We ended with Pocket Money. Pocket Money stars Paul Newman. I point blank refuse not to have a Paul Newman season next. So there.