DT Moviehouse Review: Bronco Billy

Time once more for my blog feature, DT Moviehouse Reviews, in which I make my way alphabetically through my 200+ DVD/Blu-Ray collection (you can see the list right here)</a> and decide if each one was worth the money. Today I review Clint Eastwood’s Bronco Billy.

(1960) Directed by Clint Eastwood

Screenplay by Dennis Hacken

Tagline: The most outrageous of ‘em all.


What It’s About:

Frigid spoiled heiress Antoinette Lily (Sondra Locke), left high and dry in a cheap hotel by her newlywed money grubbing husband (Geoffrey Lewis), is forced to throw in her lot with a traveling wild west show led by posturing cowboy trick shooter Bronco Billy McCoy (Clint Eastwood) and featuring a retinue of cheerful outcast ex-cons.

Why I Bought It:

Bronco-Billy-1980-Sam-Bottoms-Bill-McKinney-Sondra-Locke-Clint-Eastwood-Scatman-Crothers-pic-10“I’ve got a special message for you little pardners out there. I want you to finish your oatmeal at breakfast and do as your mom and pa tell you because they know best. Don’t ever tell a lie and say your prayers at night before you go to bed. And as our friends south of the border say, ‘Adios, amigos.’”

Bronco Billy is the most unlikely movie to come out of Clint Eastwood’s repertoire since Paint Your Wagon, but it’s also one of my favorites.

Imagine One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and Cool Hand Luke brought to you by John Ford with help from Roy Rogers and Dale Evans.

shot1_largeEastwood takes his tough guy persona and flips it on its ear, turning in a winsome performance as a New Jersey shoe salesman and ex-convict who is living his dream of being a rootin’ tootin’ buckaroo, surrounding himself with a bevy of likeminded souls (and fellow ex-cons), including barker Doc Lynch (Scatman Cruthers), hook-handed wrangler Lefty LeBow (Bill McKinney), snake handling Apache dancer and struggling writer Chief Big Eagle (Dan Vadis) and his wife Running Water (Sierra Pecheur), and boyish roper and Army deserter Leonard James (Sam Bottoms). There’s a nice cameo by Hank Worden (Mose from The Searchers) as a gas station attendant too.

flagtentThe cast is just as likable as can be, solidly carrying Eastwood’s nostalgic, idealistic message of the dream of the American West, namely, that you can reinvent yourself on the ‘frontier’ of society, that America itself is a land of slightly crazy, individualistic characters, a message no more readily apparent than when, after their show tent accidentally burns down, Billy has a new one sewn together out of American flags stitched by patients at a mental hospital. Running Water says plainly, “Do you understand what Bronco Billy and the wild west show are all about? You can be anything you want. All you have to do is go out and become it!”

It’s a passion project on every level, as far from the gritty realism of Unforgiven as a hawk from the moon. It’s full of John Ford corn and dopey situations, but like the exploits of a spangled Gene Autry, I can’t help but grin watching it.

Bronco-Billy-1980-Clint-Eastwood-pic-6The central storyline of course, is Billy’s romance of the ice hearted, materialistic Lily, and of her eventual sort of Taoist-coming-around to rejecting the lovelessness her extreme wealth has engendered in her in favor of Billy’s all accepting, all-encompassing dream. At first, nobody much warms to her as Billy’s assistant. Her job is to look pretty, say her lines (Billy doesn’t approve of her early improvisation) and spin on a wheel while Billy (blindfolded) shoots targets and throws a knife at a balloon between her knees. Conversely, she can’t understand the people she’s with. In one early scene, she tries to make idle conversation with Lefty, who rankles at her talking.

“I was just trying to make the time pass by more quickly.”

“What the hell you wanna make the time pass by more quickly for?”

Lily gradually learns the true identities of the show performers as her time with them progresses, expressing indignation at their colored and criminal pasts, but warming to their genuine familial fondness of each other. There’s a great turning point scene when Big Eagle and Running Water sheepishly admit to Billy before a show that they’re going to have a baby. Knowing full well the show’s constant financial trouble (the outfit is strictly subsistence – they haven’t been paid by Billy in months) they’re fearful of his reaction to the news he will have another mouth to feed. “What?!” Billy says when they tell him. He promptly draws his matched revolvers and fires them into the air in cartoonish celebration, busting into a broad grin.  He declares it’s time for a celebration and leads the grinning parents-to-be (and the others, who naturally come running at the gunshots) out, while we see Lily sitting in the corner watching them with obvious envy.

Is it dated? Most certainly, but so what?

Sexist? Probably. When Billy attempts to seduce Lily in a cot in the ‘honeymoon suite’ of the mental asylum, she sneers;

“I find your timing less than appropriate.”

To which he replies in mock innocence,

“Oh. Is it that time of the month?”

18953612_jpg-r_640_600-b_1_D6D6D6-f_jpg-q_x-xxyxxAlso, it’s a Sondra Locke/Eastwood outing so Locke does get saved from attempted rape in the parking lot. I took a class on Eastwood in college and one girl in class wondered if Eastwood and Locke roleplayed this scenario a lot when they were married. I have no idea, but it is an oddly ubiquitous happening in all the films they made together…

Nevertheless, Bronco Billy is worth a watch, if you’ve got the heart for it.

Best Dialogue/Line:

After Billy and the gang lose their tent and fail to successfully rob a train, they decide to hole up in a mental institution for a few days (Billy’s show is welcome at orphanages and asylums alike, as reciprocation for Billy putting on free shows for the kids and patients). The kindly wannabe cowboy administrator welcomes them with this line;

“You and your gang can hole up here for as long as you like. You can take your meals with the staff or the patients – whomever you feel more comfortable with.”

Best Scene:

It’s a minor scene, but I always chuckle at Sondra Locke’s over the top heiress on her sham ‘wedding night’ with Geoffrey Lewis.

Lewis and Locke are marrying solely out of financial convenience. Locke can’t get her inheritance without being married by the age of thirty, and Lewis is on the skids. Yet he still apparently holds out hope for some intimacy and disrobes in an eager hurry, only to have Locke come out of the bathroom with a thick pea green mud mask on her face.

As they lay down to bed, Locke warns him that he is not allowed to touch her without first asking permission, at peril of being disinherited.

She flicks the lights out, and after about thirty seconds of silent, total darkness, Lewis whispers tentatively;

“Darling? May I put my hand on your breast?”

“NO,” intones Locke with imperious finality.

Next In The Queue:  Buffalo Soldiers

DT Moviehouse Review: Bad Company

Time once more for my blog feature, DT Moviehouse Reviews, in which I make my way alphabetically through my 200+ DVD/Blu-Ray collection (you can see the list right here) and decide if each one was worth the money. Appropriately enough for the first movie review of the new year, I take a look at the first western of the list, Bad Company.

(1972) Directed By Robert Benton

Screenply by Robert Benton and David Newman

Tagline: They’re young, desperate, dangerous….a long way from home, but a short way from hell.


What It’s About:
During the American Civil War, young Drew Dixon (Barry Brown) flees home with a hundred dollars and heads to the western frontier to avoid conscription in the Union Army. He winds up falling in with a group of like minded orphans led by charming and swift talking young con man Jake Rumsey (Jeff Bridges). Drew cons the ‘gang’ into thinking he robbed a hardware store and dips into his money to outfit them all with horses and supplies for their joint excursion. Times are hard, and after being robbed by a band of outlaws, the boys turn to crime themselves to survive, schooling each other on honesty and loyalty along the trail.

Why I Bought It:
I’m a big fan of Jeff Bridges and the so-called revisionist or acid westerns of the 1960’s and 70’s (like Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid, The Hired Hand, and Dirty Little Billy), and actually bought this movie sight unseen after seeing a couple stills and reading a synopsis. This gambit almost never plays out for me, but this time it did.

Bad_Company-1972-084The movie is very minimalist, with an almost cinema verite approach (in the same vein as The Culpepper Cattle Company and The Ballad Of Gregorio Cortez – see my post The Reel Real West – Seven Gritty Westerns You’ve Never Seen). It’s very diffuse, almost sepia toned like an old photograph, and everything, the acting, the admittedly meandering plot, and the sudden and extreme violence, is very realistic.

There is a scene I love where the boys surprise a rabbit on the prairie and all open fire on it. After running through a virtual firing squad of misses, one of the bullets finally blows the rabbit open, and when Jake commands the youngest of their number to skin the animal, he quickly finds out to his vociferous exasperation that none of them knows how to clean a carcass. He proceeds to show them, and from his readily apparent disgust, it seems he hasn’t ever done it either. Although the skinning of the rabbit is just offscreen, I can’t believe by Bridges’ reactions that he’s not actually cleaning the kill. He’s too young an actor at that point to be able to portray honest revulsion so well.

Bad_Company-1972-058The interactions between Brown and Bridges are the highpoint of the movie, with Brown a pampered, well educated, cowardly hypocrite, espousing high virtues at every turn (refusing to actually rob a store, refusing to avail himself of the services of a prostitute etc) and yet every bit the con man Bridges’ character is, and plainly less honest (maybe even, for all Jake’s worldly bluster, a little less naive) and loyal. Bad_Company-1972-061The movie is a morality tale of sorts, about going bad and yet also about retaining personal honor. Brown’s character allows the rest of the gang to go hungry even though he has nearly a hundred dollars hidden in his shoe the entire time. At one point this actually costs one of the boys’ their lives when they try to snatch a cooling pie off the sill of an open window and the resident shoots them dead.

P1030135 (Medium)Young Joshua Hill Lewis does a good job as Boog, the aforementioned boy. There’s a scene where Brown is reading Jane Eyre to the gang and Boog interrupts with a breathless story about his murdered father that plays very nicely.

The movie has a host of familiar faces in great ‘character’ roles. David Huddleston is excellent as outlaw chief Big Joe as are Geoffrey Lewis and John Quade as raggedy gunmen. John Savage plays one of the gang, and Jim Davis (a Republic western veteran who appears in my all time favorite Kung Fu episode, The Soul Is The Warrior) is a severe, authoritarian marshal.

Bad_Company-1972-109As a western nerd, there are some anachronisms I feel the need to point out. If it’s the 1860’s during the Civil War, it’s maybe eight or ten years before cartridge ammunition and revolvers, but they’re prevalently used here. In a great scene after the capture of Big Joe, the lawmen ask him to demonstrate the ‘Curly Bill Spin,’ a gun trick which he claims to have taught to Curly Bill personally. The Curly Bill Spin (variations of it are shown in Tombstone, Wyatt Earp, Young Guns, and The Outlaw Josey Wales) was when you passed your gun to a man butt first but kept your finger in the trigger guard so as the man reached for it, you flipped it up (or spun it up) into your palm, cocking the hammer and gaining a surprise advantage. It was once known as the Road Agent Spin or Border Roll, but Curly Bill’s name got attached to it because he supposedly employed it to gun down Tombstone Town Marshal Fred White in 1880. Again, nearly two decades after Bad Company would’ve taken place.

Bad_Company-1972-048Paul Rodgers of the band Bad Company did not take its name from this movie as I had always heard, but their hit song does (“rebel souls, deserters we are called, chose a gun, and threw away the sun”), and actually shares the introductory three chords with the movie’s score.

The movie ends somewhat abruptly, but it’s a great character piece and a fine study on the harsh realities of the outlaw trail and making a living as a scavenger and badman.

Best bit of Dialogue: (Drew, writing home to his family) I shot and ate a skunk today. Taste didn’t enter much into it.

Best Scene:
Bad_Company-1972-047The wild and clumsy shootout and the character revelations concerning Drew’s watch are pretty great, but the scene that sticks out in my mind is when the boys encounter a broken down farmer and his wife headed back east with a wagonload of possessions. The farmer tries to warn the boys that there’s nothing but trials and tribulations on the frontier, and winds up offering to let them have sex with his wife for ten dollars. Jake readily accepts and helps the woman down, walking off with her arm in arm into the grass as the husband rolls a cigarette and the other boys argue about what order they will follow Jake in. Not ten seconds pass when Jake lets out a boisterous crowing and a yahoo and comes stiff-walking quickly back, a huge grin on his face, fastening his belt.

He climbs into the saddle of his horse and declares –

P1030136 (Medium)JAKE: THAT was a deal!
The bewildered farmer, who hasn’t even lit his cigarette yet, stares open mouthed as Jake mounts.
FARMER: Are you done already?
JAKE: I do not waste my time, mister. After that ride I gave her, I expect she’ll be too tuckered out for the rest of you boys.

The goofy expression of pride and self satisfaction on Bridges’ face is just priceless. Funny, and at the same time, in the context of the scene with the farmer’s initial warnings, heartbreakingly naive and portentious.

Would I Buy It Again: Yes. Great movie.

Up Next In The Queue: The Beast Must Die

The Real Reel West – Seven Gritty Westerns You’ve Probably Never Seen

I am an immense western fan. I remember watching The Lone Ranger and The Cisco Kid as a kid on Sundays, but moved away from the genre for a long time. Like most people do nowadays, I just thought it was a dead end, with nothing to offer me, just white hats/black hats and Indian stomping. When I was in high school I got on a Dirty Harry kick, and that led me to The Good The Bad and The Ugly, which changed the way I saw westerns forever, and in turn led me to re-evaluating John Wayne, and even Roy Rogers. I finally found Louis L’Amour, Larry McMurtry, and Cormac McCarthy.

I can safely say that now I’m an avowed fan of all things western. I rabidly absorb any movies I haven’t seen, usually thanks to the wonders of Netflix Instant.

In recent years I’ve come across a bevvy of pictures I had never even heard of.  I believe they’re a part of the cinema verite movement that hit in the 70’s, in which you see a lot of naturalistic lighting and set ups, meant to evoke a more realistic experience in movie watching. I’ve heard them called ‘acid westerns,’ intended to subvert the sort of top shelf Randolph Scott/John Wayne kind of vehicle, but I don’t entirely agree with that appellation – at least not for all of these.

I thought seven was a nice ”magnificent’ number to list the best I’ve seen of this particular style. I’m sure I’m leaving some out (Buck And The Preacher comes to mind, late in the game). While not always historically accurate, they ‘feel’ pretty dang real. So if you’re interested at all in The Old West, and you’re looking for a movie that does a pretty decent job capturing what it must’ve been like without the Hollywood gloss (and I’m talking hardcore here – ‘Unforgiven’ seems like a Busby Berkely musical compared to the movies on this list), you could do a lot worse than these pictures…

1. Bad Company (1972) – Supposedly Paul Rodgers took the name of his band from this movie, which is my favorite of this bunch. Starring Jeff Bridges and Barry Brown (and including some familiar faces – Geoffrey Lewis, John Savage, David Huddleston) as a pair of teens dodging the Civil War draft and heading out West with a gang of orphans who wind up outlaws. The movie’s pretty stark and realistic, almost without musical accompaniment. It’s basically about the loss of innocence or the attainment of maturity (which is pretty much the same thing). It’s got a couple of anachronisms (cartridge revolvers and mention of the Curly Bill spin in the 1860’s), but it’s quite authentic. I would swear Jeff Bridges skins a real rabbit just offscreen (otherwise he’s an even better actor than I thought). Bridges is brilliant as Jake, the b.s.’er who is out-b.s.’ed by Barry Brown’s Drew, who provides the movie’s infrequent narration in the form of letters home to his mother (which I think are never sent). The cast is winsome, the story engaging, the violence (some of it involving children) at times soberingly brutal. A great western, readily available on DVD. Check it out.

The ubiqitous Geoffrey Lewis (here, in High Plains Drifter) – you know the face, if not the name.

2. The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez (1982) – Edward James Olmos stars as the titular character, who is embroiled in a revenge killing and becomes the fugitive in a massive manhunt in 1901 Texas, all due to a mistranslation of Spanish. An engrossing tragedy. You’ll forget you’re watching a narrative.

3. The Culpepper Cattle Company (1972) – Gary Grimes leaves the family farm and his could-care-less mother to sign on with a cattle drive bossed by Billy Green Bush, and quickly finds the life of a cowboy is a lot of hard work and drudgery, even though he’s nothing more than the cook’s assistant. When Grimes’ frequent screw ups result in the loss of some horses to rustlers, Mr. Culpepper enlists the aide of some old friends of questionable morality (including again, the great unsung Geoffrey Lewis) to help out. When they come across a religious sect being bullied off their ‘chosen land’ by a local land baron, a bloody climax is in the works. Bo Hopkins is particularly good as one of Lewis’ gunfighter cronies.

4. Dirty Little Billy (1972) –

I particularly like this poster.

Michael J. Pollard stars as Billy Bonney in this realistic (and amazingly muddy) picture loosely based around the early years of Billy The Kid, prior to his departure for the Southwest. Pollard plays Billy as a bit of a bumbler, who leaves an abusive stepfather to basically live in the back room of a ratty saloon with a gunfighter and his prostitute. Slow paced, but enthralling. When Billy finally picks up a gun, it’s like seeing ‘Wart’ draw the sword from the stone.

5. Harry Tracy (1982) – I just watched this one last night, and it got me thinking about others of its ilk. Bruce Dern (who, if you remember, famously killed the Duke in ‘The Cowboys’) gives a great performance as real-life Pacific Northwest bank robber and former Hole-In-The-Wall-er who in the opening sequence literally collides with Helen Shaver while on the run from Gordon Lightfoot (yes, the singer)’s posse of US Marshals. The two hit it off in the brief moments they’re together, and he promises to visit her later (in Seattle, I believe). Numerous robberies and escapes later, he and his partner arrive at last in town to seek her out, but are double and triple crossed by a conniving lawyer with political aspirations and wind up incarcerated. But then they escape…fairly slow, but engaging and nice to look at. Dern made the movie for me, and it had a good ending.

6. The Spikes Gang (1974) – Ron Howard, Gary Grimes (again), and Charles Martin Smith (who, amusingly, appears in Culpepper Cattle Company as a friend of Grimes who does not leave home) leave the boredom of their respective farms with a mind to make themselves notorious after they hide a wounded outlaw named Harry Spikes (the incomparable Lee Marvin) in Howard’s barn.

Lee Marvin gives The Spikes Gang a vital lesson.

They seek out and find trouble pretty quickly, and run into Spikes again, who agrees to take them under his wing.  Gunplay and ultimately betrayal ensues. Great flick.

7. The Hired Hand (1971) – I guesss if there really is an ‘acid western’ on this list, this is probably it. Peter Fonda’s follow-up to ‘Easy Rider’ stars himself and the always entertaining Warren Oates as a pair of saddle tramp cowboys who along with a third, stop off in a nowhere town to plan their next outing. When their friend is brutally murdered by a bunch of outlaws led by the settlement’s boss, Fonda and Oates shoot the boss’ legs up and depart, heading to the ranch of Fonda’s long estranged wife, Verna Bloom. Basically a romance, The Hired Hand depicts Fonda and Oates working the ranch, while Fonda and Bloom gradually become more comfortable with each other again. Of course, by that time, the boss of the town and his gang show up and kidnap Oates….this is a beautiful piece of art and a good western to boot. Amazing cinematography.

Warren Oates and Peter Fonda in ‘The Hired Hand.’

Michael J. Pollard as Billy Bonney in ‘Dirty Little Billy’

Edward James Olmos in ‘The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez’