Sunday, January 26, 2014

Monte Walsh (1970) review

     Monte Walsh (1970) is a sad, lonesome ode to the American cowboy of the Old West. The project, based on a novel by Jack Schaefer, was very close to star Lee Marvin's heart. In addition to script and director approval written into his contract, he fought to cast co-star Jack Palance who wound up arguably giving the best performance of his career. When Palance was holding out for more money, Marvin ensured that producers Hal Landers and Bobby Roberts give it to him.

above left: first edition hardcover of Monte Walsh, 1963 Houghton Mifflin Company 
above right: author Jack Schaefer posing with a copy of Shane, circa 1959

Marvin and Palance had worked together before in Robert Aldrich's underrated Attack! (1956) and Marvin saw a different side of Palance, who was normally cast as a heavy. Here he plays Monte's partner and best friend, Chet Rollins. Chet is a hard man, like the rest of the cowhands facing down the end of an era, but he's also a gentle soul. Palance of course played the iconic villain in Shane (1953) which was also adapted from a classic Western novel by Schaefer.

The great Jeanne Moreau (Jules and Jim, 1962) plays Monte's love interest, a saloon girl named Martine, but the real love story is between the main characters, Monte and Chet. The scene when Chet has to break the news to Monte that he's settling down and getting married, and becoming a "hardware man" is one of the most touching moments to ever grace the Western genre. Equally as touching, and hard to get through dry-eyed, is the scene in which Monte sits at Martine's deathbed. It is easily the finest piece of acting that Marvin ever committed to film, and he plays it almost completely silent.

There's another stunning bit of acting when Monte stares at himself in a full-length mirror and imagines what life would be like to give up the open range and be a Wild West Show entertainer. It's moments like these that remind one how powerful the medium of film can be with the right marriage of script and actor. Marvin was undoubtedly the right actor for the role of Monte, and he owns every frame of this gorgeously shot picture. Mitch Ryan, who plays the reluctant outlaw Shorty, is also quite memorable.

It's rare that a Western not have a traditional bad guy, but Monte Walsh is ultimately about the real people who inhabited the Old West, not the matinee heroes or Machiavellian gunslingers that Marvin and Palance both excelled at playing numerous times before. Schaefer's book was essentially a collection of previously published short stories that the author said he always intended to link together in novel form. It's a film of quiet, understated moments that seem to linger forever; and true to life, like those we love, can simply slip away from us.

Marvin also must have felt a strange attraction to the project being as how his own father was nicknamed "Montey" and had an affair with a French woman, just like Marvin does with Jeanne Moreau's character in the film. Marvin and Moreau also had an intimate relationship off screen as well. There's a wonderfully playful scene they perform in bed as Monte is trying to roll a cigarette while Martine attempts to seduce him. It appears so real because their attraction was real. There's nothing in the competently made Tom Selleck version from 2003 that can touch it.

Alas, Marvin was not satisfied with the final product. The director was William A. Fraker, a well known cinematographer (Rosemary's Baby; Bullitt). Monte Walsh was his first time in the director's chair, and Marvin realized too late into the production that Fraker was not confident at directing actors. Although he remained proud of it and thought the film was saved in the editing, Marvin did not consider it a great picture. This is where I think every die-hard fan of this movie would disagree.

Fraker's instincts as an accomplished cameraman elevate the precise casting and excellent storytelling. There's a single crane shot early on that illustrates just how in-tune Fraker was with what was going on around Monte and Chet's story. One aspect of the film that often polarizes people is the soundtrack. The recurring song (The Good Times Are Comin') performed by Mama Cass in addition to the heavy symphonic John Barry score have been rightly criticized as not matching the elegiac tone of the film. Personally, I've never heard a John Barry score I didn't eventually fall in love with, and the Mama Cass song is inoffensive, and thoroughly catchy (if not the Academy Award winning hit that Burt Bacharach and Hal David's Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was the year before).

Monte Walsh didn't do exceedingly well at the box office even despite it's playful qualities. Although it can be quite somber, it never falls into maudlin territory. The far jauntier Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) had just preceded it, as did Sam Peckinpah's melancholic masterpiece The Wild Bunch (1969). Perhaps mainstream audiences were simply tiring of yet another big screen sagebrush saga. Marvin had also just abandoned the lead role in The Wild Bunch to star with Clint Eastwood in the loony, Lerner and Loewe musical Western Paint Your Wagon (1969).

above left: original U.S. one sheet movie poster for Monte Walsh (1970); above right: director William A. Fraker (1923 - 2010)

Marvin's rendition of the song Wand'rin' Star from that film went to number one in the U.K. and held Let It Be, the last Beatles single (released while the group was still officially together) at number two. Marvin had already won an Oscar for Best Actor (Cat Ballou, 1965) and was making a million dollars per film; a hefty sum at the time. Fortunately for us, he was able to use his muscle to bring Monte Walsh to the screen. It's a beautiful film that is ripe for rediscovery.

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