Comic Cowboys and Other Heroes

Unusual roles for well-known actors this month: everything from John Wayne as cop to Mel Brooks as Governor?

April 1974By Comments


THE LAST DETAIL IS WELL-INTENTIONED, but much like its central character, never quite lives up to its full potential. The story, based on a first novel by Darryl Ponicsan, concerns a familiar enough situation: three footloose sailors with money to spend and time to kill. The telling difference is that one of them is handcuffed. “Bad-Ass” Bud-dusky and another old salt named Mule (Otis Young) are assigned the shit detail of escorting a young recruit to the Naval brig in Portsmouth. There he will serve eight years for filching $40 from the commissary’s polio contribution box, the severity of the sentence owing to the C.O.’s wife’s love of March of Dimes.

Mule and Bad-Ass initially badger the frightened recruit, living up to their expected roles, but soon an all-too-predictable traveling encounter group evolves. They find themselves feeling sorry for the shafted kid (Meadows); he in turn comes to think of them as his two and only friends.

Jack Nicholson salvages an otherwise mediocre movie as Bad-Ass Buddusky, a career signalman with the emotional range of a bright but shallow adolescent: verbally inclined to arranging profanities into an infinite variety of put-downs, sexually oriented to finding a whore in every port, and physically given to proving his manhood by periodically unleashing the bully that crouches inside him like a watchdog.

If anyone but Nicholson were playing the role, I would probably dislike him; but he succeeds in making raunchy ole Bad-Ass appealing even when he’s making yodeling-in-the-canyon sex allusions or doing semaphore signals clad in his boxer shorts. But Nicholson can’t quite make him convincing. He somehow seems too good for a man of his behavior. I kept feeling that anyone so obviously smart and conspicuously good-looking would prefer being a Midnight Cowboy hustler rather than a Navy “lifer.”

As Mule, Young is convincing enough, but he never quite emerges as a full-fleshed person. He is chiefly the voice of reason, a poor black from Bogalusa’s slums who claims the Navy “is the best thing that ever happened to me” and is militant only in his determination not to let Buddusky get him in trouble.

Meadows, the puffy-cheeked, gap-toothed prisoner, is brilliantly played by Randy Quaid. But he’s been so watered down from the novelistic character he’s based on that I had trouble caring about his plight. Like Gomer Pyle, he’s a little too good to be true. When his friendly guards permit Meadows an unauthorized visit to his mother, the ramshackle filth of her living room, strewn with whiskey bottles, screams “dumb poor white trash” a little too obviously.

By now, Bad-Ass and Mule are determined to award the kid a cram course in The Good Life as they see it, before delivering him to the brig. These include the old macho stand-bys: battling, boozing and balling. Here, director Ashby faces the thorny problem of how to show bored people trying to have fun without boring an audience trying to have fun. He fails. Not only are the adventures a little too deliberately orchestrated to ring true, but scene after scene of beer cans and banal conversation prove more anaesthetizing than enlightening.

The best of these adventures, Meadows’ first trip to a whorehouse, is handled with understated good taste. The few minutes of soft light and soft voices provide a much-needed respite from the ugly hard-edged cityscapes and dingy railroad stations that make the rest of the picture such a visual downer.

I feel uncomfortable about being disappointed in The Last Detail. Because it is obviously a “man’s” movie, I worry that if I’d been born a boy, done some time as a WAVE, or lived my life in the tattoo-and-plastic-Jesus culture, I might appreciate it more. Maybe so, but still I know I’d leave the theater feeling it could have been done better.

It’s another case of the book being superior to the film. All the things that didn’t quite jell in the film come together perfectly in the book. For example, as the movie opens, Bad-Ass is reading a girlie magazine; in the book, it is a copy of Camus’ The Stranger. That subtle distinction in complexity of character is what makes the book very good and the film merely fair.


I HAD FUN SEEING BLAZING Saddles. Not just for its humor, which often falls flatter than the Edwards Plateau, but for its nostalgic reminders of those old primitive westerns when cowboys toted guitars as well as guns, and horses had Christian names; before arty directors and method actors perverted the Saturday afternoon oater.

Not that those old westerns were any good … they were atrocious. But like all nostalgia films-Summer of ‘42, Paper Moon, American GraffitiBlazing Saddles recalls a time when things seemed better, even if they weren’t: when Roy Rogers was plugging outlaws instead of fast food franchises, and you could tell a man’s morals by his mustache.

Veteran gag-writer Mel Brooks, who scored, directed and co-scripted Blazing Saddles, was probably on more of an ego trip than a sentimental journey, but I thank him just the same. The show opens with a great booming western ballad (He rode a blazing saddle/He wore a shining star!) opening onto a wide-open prairie and a high blue sky. And I was hooked. So much did I want to stay hooked that I laughed at routines so lame they needed help making exits. Oh, a lot of the film really is funny, but it’s the mood furnished by the first few minutes that made me receptive to the ensuing silliness.

Blazing Saddles is not content merely to poke fun at westerns; the western itself becomes a vehicle for funning anything Brooks chooses; from Cecil B. DeMille to the Mills Brothers, Howard Johnson to the big Hollywood studios.

Brooks is equally arbitrary in the brands of humor he uses to accomplish his lampoonings: re-cycled vaudeville, slapstick (with pies), ethnic jokes (venturing the no-no “nigger”), even a generous helping of barracks vulgarities (belching and breaking wind). He happily plagiarizes every known comedian from Aristophanes to Alien (Woody), and if only half of it works, it makes up for the other half.

It works because the Blazing Saddles cast is so clearly having a good time, and inviting us to share it. Cleavon Little plays the black sheriff of Rock Ridge, appointed to his high but hazardous office only because the bigoted townsfolk consider him more expendable than one of their own. Mel Brooks appears as the requisite ill-governing governor, suffering from sexual incontinence and palsy of all his moving parts. Gene Wilder is the winsome Waco Kid. You might remember him as the guy in love with a sheep in All You Ever Wanted To Know About Sex*. Here he is an alcoholic gunslinger who likes to screw and play chess, and who claims food makes him sick. Madeline Kahn plays a dance hall floozy who sounds suspiciously like Marlene Dietrich; she falls in love with the black sheriff, cooking him up a yummy Aryan soulfood breakfast of wiener-and-sauerkraut after an all-night stand.

Had Blazing Saddles for a moment taken itself seriously, its ham-and-corn routines would be impossible to forgive. But anything that wallows so joyously in its own anachronisms and giggles so hard at its own absurdity deserves a little indulgence. All in all, not a bad movie to ride into the sunset with on a rainy afternoon.


THIEVES LIKE US IS ROBERT Altman’s best and certainly most beautiful film, if not as funny as M*A*S*H or as startling as his most recent effort The Long Goodbye. I’m very tempted to call it a perfect film. A lot of people may not like or understand it, but of all Altman’s films Thieves Like Us comes closest to saying exactly what he wants to say.

It is perfectly integrated at least. His story, based on a 1947 novel by the same name, turns all the myths about laws and lovers inside out. None of the actors he’s chosen are big name stars playing themselves instead of their roles, and they manage to win our understanding without claiming our allegiance. It’s scored with the old radio series of the thirties—a melodramatic counterpoint to the stripped-down view of reality drifting across the screen.

The film is visually almost mesmerizing. Altman is one of the few contemporary directors who doesn’t feel compelled to wrap his hard, ugly truths in plain brown celluloid. Recent films that do just that, like Serpico, Mean Streets and The Last Detail are so visually repelling it’s hard to look beneath the grimy surface. The cinematographer Jean Boffety films the lush Mississippi countryside and the gang’s various hide-outs in subdued pastel twilight tones. It gives the film a dreamy, tentative, low-keyed quality that Altman’s characters share as well.

One of them, young Bowie, waiting for his co-escapees from the prison farm to pick him up, ducks under a bridge and spends the night snuggling a stray dog for warmth. He is unsure, afraid, and a little lonely but fairly content with a friendly dog to talk to and his freedom to enjoy.

Thieves Like Us is perfectly titled, for the characters Bowie, T-Dub and Chicamaw are not so different from the way we might be, given the same arbitrary accident of birth. In their case, Depression times only made their predicament more acute.

Rejecting the 1930s outlaw glamour treatment of Bonnie and Clyde and The Sting, and avoiding the too-precious sentimentality of films like Paper Moon, Altman has managed to make a film as compelling as those, and far more believable. So believable that although he evokes the time and the place (Mississippi Delta Lowlands) well, there’s not a trace of good-old-days nostalgia.

T-Dub and Chicamaw and Bowie are neither buffoons nor cold-blooded killers. They are just people trying to make a living, who find robbing banks easier than sacking groceries or pumping gas. (Not that cons could find work, especially in that era). Bowie (Keith Carradine) is 23, an inmate of a prison farm since he was sixteen. T-Dub (Bert Remsen) is a lame, soft-spoken man clinging pathetically to his dream of settling down on a New Jersey farm; his life is so empty that his only point of pride is the number of banks he’s cleaned out, and he recites each new total with the glee of a Hank Aaron counting his homers. Chicamaw (John Schuck) is an unhappy Mug-faced drunk who has always been an outsider, who shouts at children and once needlessly kills a hostage—vain attempts to vent his fury on an uncaring world.

Altman is no more concerned with the intricacies of the robberies than we are. The three of them draw more straws than diagrams when planning their heists (short straw drives the get-away car). Nor do we see any actual violence, although there is occasionally some gunfire. It’s the seeming “trivia” of everyday life that concerns Altman. During one robbery, we remain outside, with the getaway car, where the “Gang-busters” radio serial blares out its make-believe version of crime and punishment, and a girl hands out complimentary Cokes (which along with Levi jeans will survive us all). Meanwhile, pathetic old Chicamaw is cocking his hat in the rear view mirror, trying to look, I suppose, like Warren Beatty or Robert Redford in their 30’s get-ups.

Without resorting to shots of tin-cupped beggars or bread lines, the silent signs of Depression poverty are everywhere: chipping paint, peeling wallpaper, dilapidated screens, mirrors that badly need re-silvering. But Altman shows us, in this world centered around console-size radios, Coca-Cola, cheap magazines and cheaper whiskey, a deprivation more emotional than financial. And one which didn’t end with World War II.

Only Bowie and Keechie (Shelley Duvall), the girl he falls in love with, don’t feel deprived emotionally.

His courtship is awkward as a fifth-grader’s: “Do you know what the state animal is,” he asks, in a bid for her attention: “A squashed dog in a road!” So in love are they with love that he can ignore the homeliness of a girl whose ears stick out further than her breasts, and whose mouth barely accommodates her teeth. She in turn is willing to dismiss the murder he committed seven years before as simply “dumb.”

A fink finally reveals Bowie’s whereabouts, and the law surrounds the hide-out. After riddling the shack with enough fire to sink a gunboat, the officers bring Bowie’s body out, wrapped in his and Keechie’s love-making quilt—which seems a little heavy-handed until we remember that life is full of such ironies.

Keechie, witnessing the gunplay, agonizes in slow-motion, a technique usually reserved for the victim. It’s an appropriate switch, because her agony is more real than Bowie’s.

In the final scenes, after sitting in the train station looking shell-shocked, she eventually decides to take the train to Fort Worth, simply because it’s the next one leaving.

She blends anonymously into the listless crowd who are boarding the train like loading-pen cattle. Altman slows the motion, again, in this scene, and effectively conveys the feeling that the lonely, monotonous future she and all the others face is far more terrifying, desperate, and certain than a random encounter with a band of thieves, bullet-ridden bodies, or even a quick death. It is a sight we still see today, and tomorrow and the next day … thousands of people moving and traveling and searching, drifting dazed as sleepwalkers who can’t afford to wake up.


THE FOLKS AT 20TH CENTURY Fox who bring us Zardoz thoughtfully provided us reviewers a printed glossary of terms and names so that we could better understand a movie they claim is “part science fiction, part fairy tale and part adventure.” I guess the fairy tale part refers to the happy ending and heavy-handed symbolism, and the science fiction part to the futuristic setting (2293) and the invention of more kinds of heaven, hell and purgatory than you’ll find in Dante’s Inferno. But the adventure part is what puzzles me, because I had wilder adventures hunting the gasoline to get to the theater than I had sitting in it watching Zardoz.

With Sean Connery as the star, I expected to be entertained if not enlightened. You know, a couple of hours’ worth of slick sex and space-age violence, and bouquets of gorgeous girls giving up state secrets for a minute of Bond’s undivided attentions. No longer 007, Sean appears as Zed, the best and brightest of the Brutals (our glossary word for the mortals living in the polluted wasteland that once was the modern world). But something’s wrong. Where is the forceful Sean we knew? He seems docile and dazed … almost shell-shocked. And’you can forget about that magic visceral appeal to our baser urges; instead, we have a balding, thickly-adiposed man in floppy thigh-high boots, bandoleros criss-crossing his chest, and what looks like a red diaper hiding his prize specimen charms. He looks more like a hairy Barbarella than a conquering hero.

There’s not a touch of deliberate humor in Zardoz, but some of it is laughable anyway. Science fiction only works when it creates a unique environment, a place that looks and sounds alien, undreamed-of. But instead of elaborate beautiful 2001 sets and special effects, the world of the Vortex (where most of the action takes place) looks like the bargain table from a Big Studio prop auction. It’s hard to suspend your disbelief with only a few flashing lights, floating heads and fuzzy lens filters to represent a strange new world.

The most elaborate special effect is the stone godhead Zardoz, which resembles a 3-D befanged Greek tragedy mask. It floats through the air, informative as the Goodyear blimp, broadcasting anti-penis propaganda (“The gun is good. The penis is evil.”) and spewing out firearms, to the whooping delight of the mortal Brutals below.

The adventurous Zed somehow penetrates (symbol!) the insulated world of the Vortex, where effete snobs and intellectuals have gone Agnew one better: started a world devoid of death, taxes or dissension.

Here we learn, at director John Doorman’s stultifying leisure, all about the Eternals. And about the Renegades, persistent offenders who are aged for their sins and condemned to what looks like Arthur Murray Dance Studio life-membership. Then there are the Apathetics, who are so bored with everlasting life that even Zed copping a spirited feel of one girl’s breast does nothing to perk her up. There is, of course, no sex in paradise, a fact which may account for the spiraling Renegade-Apathetic drop-out rate. Maybe it’s because everyone’s so unattractive. The men have turned into mealy-mouthed wimps, and the girls wear their hair in yesteryear bouffants and beehives, and outfits showing more bulging midriff than bosom.

Charlotte Rampling, who does the best she can with the lines she’s got, is Zed’s leading lady; but though she was sexy in Georgy Girl, she comes off here as just another bitchy-butchy.

After a very long turtle-paced series of semi-adventures, Zed’s odyssey comes to an end, and all the liberated Eternals rush back to the world, either fornicating furiously or re-dedicating themselves to Death. I’d love to tell you the ending, but I don’t want to destroy the didactic denouement should you stubbornly decide to see it.

Let me just say that I became an Apathetic ten minutes into Zardoz, and might become a Brutal if forced to see it again.


MCQ IS WORTHWHILE IF YOU’RE really itching to see John Wayne out of the saddle and into plainclothes civvies. Yes, he plays a cop for the very first time, but that’s the only innovative thing about McQ. It’s still another predictable cop movie with explicit violence, suggested sex, tedious Dragnet dialog, and the obligatory chase scene.

Although John Wayne has aged, he hasn’t changed. He still talks in a sing-song and lumbers along like a tug-boat, leaving intimidated offenders in his wake. Like Serpico, McQ is honest as Boy Scout. Unlike Serpico, he’s got a touch more Nazi in his soul: not above roughing up belligerent hippies or fudging on due process.

Unlike some of his fellow cops, McQ never touches the heroin and other confiscated dope. But I personally suspect he’s a secret monkey gland addict; at an age (68) when most cops are drawing pensions and mobile-homing it in the sunshine belt, McQ rides around like a rookie thirsting for promotion. He can still out-shoot, out-run and out-bully any hood in town. And as for women well, …

That’s fortunate, really, because the only sensitive scene in the movie is one where Colleen Dewhurst, who plays a former girlfriend of McQ’s, tenderly makes his overnight stay with her the price for the information he’s requesting. Screenwriter Lawrence Roman deserves the Chauvinist Scriptwriter of the Century Award for having the attractive 40-ish Ms. Dewhurst apologizing to the 68-year-old Wayne for her looks, claiming she knows she “needs an overhaul.”

If you dearly love cop movies, or John Wayne, this one is as good as most French Connection re-treads. But don’t go expecting any motion-picture milestone more dramatic than the advertised switch from buckskin to tweed.

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