Friday, March 3

Good 70s Films: Monte Walsh

1970 Western
From Cinema Center Films
Directed by William Fraker

Lee Marvin
Jeanne Moreau
Jack Palance
Mitchell Ryan
Jim Davis
G. D. Spradlin
Bo Hopkins
Matt Clark
Allyn Ann McLerie
Billy Green Bush

I call it a thoughtful western, an emotional one, completely character-driven and not action-oriented which may be a reason why it's not all that well-known and slipped under the radar of some armchair cowboys.  It is an elegiac tale much in the vein of Kirk Douglas' Lonely Are the Brave (1962).  It also reminds me of Alan Ladd's great western, Shane (1953), which is understandable since both that film and Monte Walsh were written by the same man, Jack Schaefer.  Shane saw his way of life as a gunslinger coming to an end while Monte sees his way of life as a cowpoke ending... similar and yet not.
It is the second of two favorite westerns to star Lee Marvin and Jack Palance (they actually made four films together), the other being The Professionals (1966) which I wrote about earlier.  They were similar types of actors, I think.  I find it interesting that they both won Oscars for comedies because there wasn't really much funny about either one of them.  Both were highly dramatic actors, rather taciturn but brooding and often ill-tempered.  One of the things I loved about Monte Walsh is how each achieved something I don't recall seeing much in their other performances... sympathetic characters... ones who showed tenderness, kindness, a sensitivity... and they pulled it off with great √©lan. 

No less credible is Jeanne Moreau although one is given to asking... what is she doing in this movie?  What is a Frenchwoman doing in this one-horse town in the middle WTF Nowhere?  The movie doesn't explain that but I admit her always luminous presence adds to the allure of this cast.  Her character, the town whore, is played as sympathetically as the two men are and it's to be acknowledged that one roots for them all.  We want it to go well for them but there's that nagging feeling that it won't.

And that reminds me of Mama Cass.  Yes, really.  She sings a song as the opening credits roll and at the end and also now and then as appropriate during the film.  This story about a way of life ending inspired some irony in the title of the song, The Good Times Are Comin', and a most delightful piece it is.

Monte (Marvin) and his pal Chet (Palance) come into town from working all winter at some far off place tending cattle and quickly learn they are only going to be paid for only one month. We can tell these are some longtime saddle pals who have worked together often and know each other well.  Monte may have a little more romanticized version of life than the sensible Chet but they complement one another well.

They need to find work in a hurry and manage to get hired on as cowhands for the richest rancher in the area (western veteran actor, Jim Davis.  Actually I've always been a little pumped up at the familiar western faces in this film).  After a time the rancher decides he must let three of his hands go and he chooses the youngest ones.  He just can't afford to keep everyone.  Businesses are being taken over by eastern corporations, jobs are disappearing, railroads are helping to change everything.  The rancher declares that Monte and Chet and the few he's keeping on won't be doing much more than mending fences. 

It's not how Monte envisioned life would work out.  He will not work for the railroad and he sure in the hell ain't doing nuthin' that doesn't include my horse, no sir.  

There are a few light moments in the bunkhouse with all the grubby guys and a funny outhouse incident that we'll just leave at that. When the good friends first sign on, they are involved in a beautifully-filmed roundup, something lovers of horseflesh will particularly enjoy.

The drama of the piece picks up when the three young ones who were sent on their way become bankrobbers.  One of them, Shorty, played so well by newcomer Mitchell Ryan (who would go on to a lengthy and very visible career), is at first a young hero and student of sorts of Monte and Chet's, but ends up going bad and kills a marshall who was trying to arrest the trio.

To ward off all the storms brewing around him,  Monte falls into the arms of Martine, as he has many, many times before. He never paid her for her services because, despite her profession, they are in a relationship. They love one another.  He calls her countess because, in his rough-hewn cowboy way of looking at things, all foreign women are countesses.  The countess is wise in life because she's seen it all.  The ultimate goal for all women in her profession, she says, is marriage.  But she's wise on Monte, too, and he's not the marrying kind. She's made it ok to cook for him, cut his hair, dispense some advise and make love with him.  She needs to be loved.  She doesn't need another roll in the hay.

In their tenderest scenes together she tells him I work in a profession with diminishing returns.  As time goes by, we all have to take the best that we can get... perhaps someday you'll see the same applies to you.

Monte has an equally heartfelt scene with Chet who clearly sees the need to move on from a life in the saddle.  He's going to marry the hardware widow, as she's called, and become a shopkeeper.  You're gonna live in town, Monte says incredulously.  Chet tells Monte nobody gets to be a cowboy forever.

This scene was played out at sunset while the two sat rolling cigarettes in rocking chairs on a front porch.  It was so touching observing their trusted friendship and while they saw their futures a little differently, they supported one another as they always did. Pals in the saddle, comfortable enough to take naps around one another, to almost finish the other's sentences.

These scenes that Monte has with Chet and Martine are the hallmarks of the film.  But there are other colorful ones and a favorite is when Monte takes a silent stroll around town and looks at the clapboard structures and soaks up the ambience of the town and obviously thinks about what he will do.  He winds up climbing on a wild horse, opening up the corral and off they go bronco-busting through town, ruining just about everything in their way.  I suspect many folks who have seen the film remember this scene above all others.  Mama Cass resumes her melodic song.

Monte proposes to Martine, thinking what else is there and while it may not be her ideal proposal, she accepts, knowing he's said it about as well as he can manage.

His crazy ride has been witnessed by a wild west show impressario who is so impressed that he offers Monte a job in the show which would seem to solve some of his problems.  Martine seems bright-eyed at the prospect... marriage, steady work, a little respectability. But ultimately Monte decides he cannot live in cities, in one hotel after another, and declines the offer.  He also tells Martine that maybe they should put off their marriage for a couple of years... until he finds himself.  She is lovely and kind in her response but she knows what we know.  

Meanwhile the three young thugs are in need of more money and they go to Chet's hardware store and rob him and in a state of some confusion, Shorty kills Chet.   Damn, that was sad.  Monte is furious and goes after Shorty in a beautifully choreographed scene and shoots him dead.

If things weren't sad enough, Monte goes to Martine and finds that she, too, has died.  I don't remember why.  But there she is in bed, laid out like the angel she was, and Monte lies down next to her and says his goodbyes.  He spies her jewelry case and opens it. Inside is a wad a cash, obviously intended for him, and a small pair of scissors.  He leaves the money for someone else to find and takes the scissors and cuts off a lock of her hair and pockets it.

In the final scene, Monte is on his beloved horse and heading toward some mountains. I always imagined he went from cowboy to mountain man and was rarely seen by anyone again.

It was wistful from start to finish and beautifully told.

This was always a special project for Lee Marvin.  One thing he liked was that he would have love scenes.  That was something that never happened in his long career as it did here.  He was a little apprehensive about doing them but excited, too.  He apparently originally wanted Deborah Kerr for the role but was thrilled and quite awed at the presence of Jeanne Moreau.

Their relationship became romantic in real life and she encouraged him to move to Paris but it didn't work out. Perhaps it was a little life imitating art.

Marvin was more involved in the production than any in his past. He was a friend of William Fraker, the cinematographer who stunningly filmed Marvin's box-office bomb, Paint Your Wagon, the year before Monte and Marvin encouraged him to make his directorial debut.  He would only direct three theatrical films and did his best work on this one.  His trained eye obviously helped in delivering a sense of place with the vastness and bleakness of the prairie and the the smallness and bleakness of the town.  The mood of the piece is as striking as the visuals.

One thing I loved about this... another look... was Marvin's.  Who remembers that hat? Marvin went through many before he picked this one and it is absolutely perfect for this character as is the rest of his attire.

I have always thought this was one of Marvin's two or three best performances and absolutely his most unusual.  He was notoriously difficult to get along with and a major drinker but all went well on this one because he felt it had to.  He was on his best behavior also because of Moreau and happy trading jabs with his old pal, Palance.  I hope all three were proud of making this film.

Cinema Center Films, the movie arm of CBS, produced only thirty pictures and this is one of their finest.  It was remade in 2003 as a television movie starring Tom Selleck, Isabella Rossellini and Keith Carradine and I also enjoyed it.

Next posting:
A closer look at Miss Moreau

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