Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Movie Review: Cowboy (1958)... John Brown loves westerns...

Cowboy (1958)

Sherman, set the wayback machine for 1992.
That's when Clint Eastwood brought Unforgiven to multiplexes and garnered critical praise for his "deconstructionist" or "postmodern" western.

Film geeks worshiped at the altar of Clint, thanking him for finally breaking western conventions and allowing myth and anti-myth to duke it out (metaphorically speaking, of course). Westerns before Unforgiven featured good guys and bad guys--black and white, they said. Westerns crutched on cheap action instead of probing psychology. The western was a shallow genre before 1992, according to the intelligentsia of movieland.

They were wrong. Very wrong. The genre had long been more diverse than the critical caricatures presented in 1992. The politics of High Noon may have been a little more right-of-center than the average film student's but Gary Cooper wasn't just a shootist. One doesn't need to be a keen scholar to see the frustration with post-WWII military excursions in Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns and the other anti-hero oaters of the late 60s and 70s. Those are only a few examples out of many. The western monolith used as a reference point by those who adored Unforgiven was more of a fantasy than any white-hat John Wayne B-movie.

Cowboy is a case in point. Loosely based on the hard-to-take-too-seriously memoirs of Frank Harris, Cowboy pre-dates Unforgiven by 34 years and breaks with the ostensible conventions of western films in numerous ways. Maybe it was groundbreaking. Then again, it might just one of many westerns that don't match the bullshit caricature used to diminish the genre.

Cowboy sets up as a fish out of water comedy, transitions into a drama about the loss of innocence, slides into Frankenstein country and ends somewhat ambiguously. It was offered as an "adult" western in 1958 and although it's relatively mild in terms of content, it certainly does focus on some fairly grown up ideas.

Jack Lemmon plays the Harris character. He's a hotel clerk in Chicago who harbors dreams of riding the open range and scoring in the cattle business. Glenn Ford, only a year removed from another interesting western (3:10 to Yuma) plays Tom Reese, a trail boss/cattle baron. Harris wants to track down the girl he loves in Mexico. Reese is heading that direction. Harris wants to play cowboy. Reese could give him a job. Thanks to some bad luck on Reese's part in a poker game and the fact that Harris has some cash stuffed away, a deal is struck. The hard-ass and the tenderfoot are partners. It's a perfect set-up for some fish out of water humor.

That doesn't happen, though. Instead, Harris finds out that life on the range is hard and ugly. It isn't just the work that's difficult, the people are soulless, hard and mendacious. Harris finds a disregard for human life, a lack of esprit de corps, and plenty of shallow stupidity among his fellow cowboys. He also learns that Reese is a grade-A ass and a lousy father figure to his crew. Harris' love is already married off when he reaches Guadalupe and things with Reese finally escalate into violence.

When Reese is temporarily disabled, the disillusioned Harris takes over the drive back to the train station in Wichita. He's become a mirror image of Reese. Harris adopts the role of cruel taskmaster and Reese recoils at his "offspring" reflection. Harris' hardening results in a softening of Reese (with a hint of shame on the side). Reese creates a monster and he doesn't like it--or himself.

In the end, the two kiss and make up (but not in a literal Brokeback Mountain kind of way). We hope that both have learned something in the process, but the best we can really hope for is that they've found some livable space between pure mercantilism and true decency. At least we know they're friends and the suicide of one cowhand has already reminded us of how important that is.

Cowboy isn't a perfect movie, but it is interesting and it definitely defies the so-called norms of the western genre. It also has a spectacular cast.

Lemmon is believable as Harris an is surprisingly effective in a kind of role he didn't often take. He has one particularly powerful scene in which he threatens to "bust open" a lowlife cowpoke. His intensity is amazing for a 50s movie of any type. Ford is strong as Reese, showing the capability to play both bigger than life and wounded within the same 90-minute movie. Supporting players allow the movie to progress without distraction and Dick York of eventual Bewitched fame has an interesting turn as a trail-riding Lothario.

Cowboy is a color movie. One might say it's a COLOR movie. Although the days and nights on the trail are slightly more subdued, the freakish Technicolor rainbow of the hotel scenes is somehow both magnetic and repulsive.

Delmer Daves does a good job at the helm. He received some positive attention and at least one major award for his direction of Cowboy. Daves got the most out of his co-stars, which is critical to the film's success. That's because, in the end, Cowboy is an actor's movie. It's about Ford and Lemmon. One or both appear in every scene for a reason.

Cowboy falls short of being great. Its inconclusive end is bothersome (should we be comfortable with men who are half Harris and half Reese?) and 90 minutes isn't really enough to explore some of the issues raised sufficiently. It is, however, a good movie--both as an artifact and on its intended merits.


(3.5/5 singing cowboys)


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  1. Holy shit, dude. You are a posting motherfucker.

    It's so serendipitous that you are reviewing these cowboy movies - a feature I really enjoy, by the way - because I just rented 3:10 to Yuma, and so far it is, as expected, excellent (I haven't finished it because my down time during the week is not all that long).

    I need some time to read the John McCain and Hillary Clinton poststo make an intelligent response. I have to say, John, I've not seen the debates, yet, so I can't comment on them yet. But, at this point, given the lesser evils I may have to vote between, it's Obama over Romney, McCain over Clinton and, holding my stomach, Clinton over Romney (let's hope that worst case scenario doesn't take place). Obama/McCain is the only real race where I wouldn't know how I would vote because both candidates have positions that are attractive to me and positions that really bother me, but both of whom I trust, better, at this point, with leadership and taking the political center seriously rather than as an afterthought to be manipulated by the flanks.

    Romney and Clinton have both engaged in cynical flanking campaigns and they've lost serious credibility with me, as a consequence. Neither of them are bad people. But both are too manipulative for me to take seriously at this point (Clinton only wins my vote over Romney with a slim margin - over gay rights and abortion issues - when she should be an easy win if her radicalism wasn't such a manipulative factor in her politics and her likely governing).

    Manipulation isn't honest debate. And I'm tired of that shit dominating our discourse.

    I'll have to check out the debates to understand better your issues with McCain. There are reasons to be concerned about timetables that I think are legitimate. But I'll check out those debates and the rest of your commentary when I get a chance.

  2. I found this movie to be excellent. I think it did not find an audience because of its dark tone. It explores the concept of death in a unique way for a western.