Friday, March 13, 2009
Clint Eastwood, scenarist Elmore Leonard, and director John Sturges teamed up to make this traditional, action-packed horse opera about racial injustice in the old West. “Joe Kidd” (***1/2 out of ****) ranks as Eastwood’s least appreciated western. Nevertheless, it qualifies as a solid, well-made, shoot’em up with spectacular scenery enhanced by Bruce Surtees’ pictorially elegant widescreen cinematography, and a well-rounded, first-class supporting cast including Robert Duvall, John Saxon, Don Stroud, Paul Koslo, and Gregory Walcott. “Mission Impossible” composer Lalo Schifrin’s orchestral score delivers atmosphere and ramps up the suspense without calling attention to itself. Schifrin is the flipside of the coin to Sturges’ usual composer Elmer Bernstein. Bernstein always brought a thunderous, larger-than-life, Aaron Copland quality to Sturge's westerns, chiefly “The Magnificent Seven” and “The Hallelujah Trail.” Indeed, “Bad Day at Black Rock” helmer John Sturges crafted a modest, little dust-raiser that gave Clint Eastwood his least pretentious but most masculine role while Duvall makes a worthy adversary with Saxon as the victimized Hispanic caught in the crossfire. Elmore Leonard of “Hombre” and “3:10 to Yuma” delivers his usual brand of quirky dialogue that has an improvisational spontaneity. “Joe Kidd” isn’t the kind of oater that makes a big impression. It lacks the off-beat imagination of “High Plains Drifter,” the stolidity of “Hang’em High,” the abrasive violence of Leone’s Spaghetti western trilogy, the epic grandeur of Eastwood’s own “Outlaw Josey Wales,” or the funereal Bergman-esque histrionics of Eastwood’s “Pale Rider” and “Unforgiven.” Watching “Joe Kidd” is like eating ham on rye and washing it down with a light beer. You’ll enjoy it, but you’ll probably forget it until somebody prompts you to comment about it and because it is so fluid, you’ll dismiss as adequate but less than memorable. If you do remember “Joe Kidd,” you’ll remember it as the western where Clint Eastwood wields an automatic German Mauser pistol and crashes a locomotive through a saloon.
Not long after Kidd hires on to guide Harlan and company into rough country in pursuit of Chama, he discovers that Harlan has no qualms about killing Chama. Initially, Kidd turned Harlan down and decided to serve out his ten days. Joe owns a small horse ranch, and he found his Mexican ranch hand barb-wired to a fence. Ramon did this to Joe’s hired hand, so Joe changes his mind and tells Harlan that he will guide him for a $1000 rather than $500 dollars. Joe and Lamarr get off to a bad start. Lamarr confronts Joe on the hotel staircase and asks him where he is going. Joe simply grabs Lamarr’s belt and sends him tumbling down the stairs. Later, Lamarr confronts Joe again and threatens to kill him with his multi-shot Mauser pistol. Harlen and company with Kidd set out to find Chama.
At one point, Harlan takes an entire village hostage and threatens to five people if Chama doesn’t give himself up. Harlan fires Kidd and packs him into the church with the rest of the hostages. Joe has a brief scrap with Lamarr and leaves the upstart henchmen reeling after he slams a rifle butt into Lamarr’s throat and knocks him down. In the church, Joe sprawls out in the priest’s quarters. At this point, “Joe Kidd” takes on symbolic significance. The Eastwood character is about to become a genuine hero. First, the village priest offers him holy water, and this act serves as a kind of consecration for him. Kidd asks the priest to get him a gun, but he doesn't really think that the cleric with come through on his request. Later, the priest smuggles a revolver to Kidd because he cannot stand the thought of Harlan killing five of his worshippers. Kidd escapes from the church by ascending through the bell tower and manages to dispatch villainous Lamarr. Symbolically, Joe makes a messianic ascension and then spirits Helen away with him, and they ride off to find Chama. Kidd defies the odds and takes Chama back to Sinola, but Harlan doesn’t give us so easily and “Joe Kidd” concludes with a gunfight. The last scene when Kidd guns down Harlan in the same courtroom epitomizes Kidd’s character. He is seated where the judge sets so he amounts metaphorically to judge, jury, and executioner.
Characterization is integrated into the action so that the entire film becomes a fast-moving, tightly-knit story without one extraneous character or event. Every action that Kidd performs in the opening sequence foreshadows his later behavior. Rescuing the judge from Chama’s men compares with Kidd’s decision to bring in Chama before Harlan’s men kill innocent Mexicans. The remorse that Kidd displayed in the courtroom or tried to conceal with his admission later that he “made a poor judgment with which he must live. This philosophy reveals Kidd’s character. He accepts live in terms of good and poor judgments and lives with them. He is not proud of his mistakes, but he wastes no sentiment on them. Throughout the opening scenes, Sturges strongly characterizes Kidd as a man of unruffled nonchalance. According to Clint Eastwood, at CLINT EASTWOOD.NET, "Joe Kidd" never had an ending, and Eastwood states that he had never before gone into a movie without knowing "the punchline." Eastwood adds that Sturges said they would figure it out as they went along. Eastwood didn't seem too impressed with the train ending." Glenn Lovall in his book "Escape Artist" points out that Sturges got the idea for the train ending from an unproduced World War II movie project. Sturges had ambivalent feelings afterward about the film. He wrote in a letter to me in 1978 that, "There were a lot of holes in Joe Kidd. Some in the script that were never fixed and some resulting from cuts because the scenes just did't play." What sets “Joe Kidd” apart from other Eastwood westerns is the reluctance of the hero to shoot down his adversaries. Altogether, “Joe Kidd” qualifies as an underrated oater.
An excellent book to peruse if you are interested in John Sturges, his life, and his films is Glen Lovell's exhaustive biography on Sturges entitled "Escape Artist: The Life and Films of John Sturges." Mr. Lovell spent 10 years writing and researching this seminal text.