Saturday 29 December 2007

True Grit (1969) Henry Hathaway

Mattie Ross's father goes into town to buy Texas ponies but ends up dead at the hands of Tom Chaney, a man who works for him. No, that's not a spoiler, it's plain and obvious and right there on the screen a few minutes into the movie. Our film isn't a whodunit, it's a whereishe. Chaney escapes onto Indian territory where the local sheriff has no jurisdiction and so stubborn little Mattie enlists a stubborn old US marshal to go in and get him. Naturally the marshal is John Wayne's eye patched drunkard Rooster Cogburn. Add to the mix a Texas Ranger called Le Boeuf who's looking for Chaney for the murder of a Texan senator and you have a intriguing trio running a manhunt.

Mattie Ross is played by young Kim Darby, who was only 22 years old but got to share the top credits with her two far more well known co-stars. She comes off to my eyes as half Molly Ringwald and half Linda Blair, with maybe a little Carrie Fisher, which put together makes her joyously sassy and opinionated. She manages to walk a very fine line and she walks it well: she's very apparently nervous and out of her depth, but sucks it up and manages to meet up with people like John Wayne and Strother Martin and either order them around, insult them or haggle with them. That isn't an easy task but it's one that she's more than up to. She deserved a Oscar nomination for her work.

The Oscar of course went to John Wayne, who apparently wanted not just to act but produce and direct. He only got the lead role but he makes the most of it. It's a real treat of a role and he relished it and it's very likely the most memorable one of his career. Glen Campbell is Le Boeuf and the film's other Oscar nomination went to the title song that he sang. Of course the Oscar honour roll isn't where you go to find good music. This was his first leading role and he had fun with it, though he looks too much like a chipmunk and couldn't compete with Wayne to save his life. He gets a lot of scenes just standing there while Kim Darby and the Duke go at it.

There's a powerful supporting cast to my eyes, though they were mostly still up and coming at the time with major films right behind them. Dennis Hopper is a great victim here, fresh from Easy Rider which garnered him an Oscar nomination of his own as a writer. The bad guy everyone thinks Chaney is riding with is Robert Duvall, fresh from Bullitt. Mattie's laywer that she draws like a gun is John Fiedler, best known for being the voice of Disney's Piglet. The sheriff with the limited jurisdiction is John Doucette, western regular who apparently had the fastest draw in Hollywood.

Chaney himself is played by Jeff Corey, who took advantage of being blacklisted in Hollywood during the communist witchhunts after taking the stand and claiming the fifth to become the premier acting coach in the city. He taught everyone from James Dean to Jack Nicholson to Jane Fonda. He even taught Kirk Douglas in preparation for Spartacus, and it was Douglas's hiring of screenwriter Dalton Trumbo for Spartacus that effectively ended the blacklist. Corey is excellent here, as he was in The Killers but notably wasn't in Bagdad, even though he was about the best thing about that film.

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