Friday 9 December 2016

The Villain (1979)

Director: Hal Needham
Writer: Robert G. Kane
Stars: Kirk Douglas, Ann-Margret and Arnold Schwarzenegger

It has to be said that The Villain is unique as a live action film. Beyond being a true statement, I keep coming back to that as it may be the greatest success the film can boast. Certainly it’s an interesting movie, but it’s also a trainwreck that unfolds at such a slow pace that we’re effectively watching it crash and burn for ninety minutes. I watched it in befuddlement, with my mouth open as I tried to figure out who thought that this was such a great idea and where it all went horribly wrong. After much thought, where I ended up is that it is a great idea and it’s cast amazingly well for the most part, but it’s directed with such lack of understanding of what it actually is that I have to wonder if the Hal Needham credited as director is really the Hal Needham who brought us Smokey and the Bandit, The Cannonball Run and, the same year as this film but earlier in this project, Death Car on the Freeway. It could always be a outrageous typo for Alan Smithee, the name that takes credit when the people who earned it disown their resulting film.

Given the cartoon logic that’s applied to this live action movie, it’s also within the bounds of possibility that the film was directed by its lead character, Cactus Jack Slade, who is as inept as he is dedicated. He’s Wile E. Coyote brought to life and, in the first great casting choice, he’s played by Kirk Douglas, who is celebrating his one hundredth birthday today and still going strong. That’s not surprising, given that he was an amazingly spry 62 years young when leaping around in this film; perhaps he’s really dyslexic and thought that he was 26. His effortless performance here reminded me of Douglas Fairbanks, Senior rather than Junior, decked out to play Zorro but actually playing a cartoon character instead. It’s not merely that Douglas’s 62 year old body is still in great shape, it’s that it seems to be infused with a boundless energy that mere years can’t diminish and mere flesh shouldn’t be able to contain. I’m assuming that some of his falling off hills and being crushed by giant boulders was done by stuntmen, but still. It’s impressive.
Cactus Jack, and his scene-stealing horse sidekick, Whiskey, are an endearing partnership if not a particularly successful one. The first time we see them work is when the outlaw leaps onto a moving train from a great height in order to rob it. Unfortunately, he misses the train completely and so lands face down in the gravel between the tracks, apparently uninjured through application of the last of nine golden rules that Chuck Jones compiled to govern the Roadrunner cartoons: ‘The coyote is always more humiliated than harmed by his failures’. Writer Robert G. Kane (no, not Bob Kane of Batman fame) followed many of these rules, excepting the ones that apply only to the Roadrunner. We have a live action Wile E. Coyote, but he’s not chasing a live action Roadrunner in this picture. Maybe Arnold Schwarzenegger is playing Sam Sheepdog, the foil of Wile E. Coyote’s clone, Ralph E. Wolf. Maybe he’s just an archetype from old time westerns rather than a cartoon character. Both his name and his role are Handsome Stranger.

Everything else can be extrapolated from those two sources. We’re in the old west for an old western with a simple plot and black and white characters. Nobody has any depth here at all; they’re all playing either archetypes or cartoons. And the unfolding story is governed by cartoon rules. At one point, Cactus Jack resorts to that old Wile E. Coyote faithful: painting a tunnel on a mountain and hiding behind a tree until the roadrunner crashes. Sure enough, Handsome Stranger drives his carriage straight through this imaginary tunnel which promptly ceases to exist when Cactus Jack tries it out himself. At another, he leans off a hillside to better spy on the leading lady, Charming Jones by both name and nature, when the grass or whatever he’s holding rips away. Instead of simply falling, he looks at it first in disbelief before his recognition of his fate kicks the laws of physics back into motion and he plummets into the river. That’s rule eight: ‘Wherever possible, make gravity the coyote’s greatest enemy.’
Initially, things feel really strange, because we’re breaking the sixth rule: ‘All action must be confined to the natural environment of the two characters - the southwest American desert.’ Instead, we follow Cactus Jack into town, which I recognised as Old Tucson from the mountains rather than the buildings, as this predates the fire in 1995 and my time there is all this millennium. It’s called Snakes End in this picture and Cactus Jack is there to rob the bank, of course, because that’s what bad guys do. He’s so dedicated to his archetype that he even reads a chapbook called Badmen of the West to tell him what to do. However, even though it guides him through the steps needed to dynamite the safe, it doesn’t work. The safe remains stubbornly intact, though the entire rest of the building is blown to bits. I looked but didn’t see Kane and Needham following rule seven with their dynamite: ‘All materials, tools, weapons or mechanical conveniences must be obtained from the Acme Corporation.’ Maybe they didn’t own the rights.

Other than moments like that, things don’t feel like a cartoon in town; they feel like a cheap comedy. Handsome Stranger helps an old woman over Snakes End’s main street, which is dangerously packed with horses and carriages; it turns out that she was on the right side to begin with. Mel Brooks could have got away with this but Needham fails dismally with it. Before he was a director, he was a stuntman and one of the best there was, founding Stunts Unlimited, introducing innovative equipment to the business, and even licensing a toy in 1977, the Hal Needham Western Movie Stunt Set, which is scarily rare but looks absolutely awesome. To be a stuntman you have to have impeccable timing, but that’s technical not comedic timing, which is what’s sadly lacking here; Arnie had no idea either, so the whole thing falls flat. The best comedic timing comes from Mel Tillis, as he uses his trademark stutter to tell the heavily accented Handsome Stranger, ‘You talk funny.’ Not politically correct, but hilarious.
Tillis is only one of many recognisable faces who show up briefly in The Villain to get our story in motion. Foster Brooks is the bank clerk who has to deal with Cactus Jack’s villainous robbery attempt. Strother Martin is Parody Jones, a mine owner who’s sending his daughter into town to pick up some money. Jack Elam is the best of them, as the villainous Avery Simpson, who’s lending that cash and wants it back again; if it’s stolen en route, then he’ll get Parody’s mine. He’s much more dapper than I’ve seen him, with an awesome hat and a wonderful demeanour as he frees and hires Cactus Jack all at once. I’ve seen Jack Elam many times, but he’s becoming a firm favourite of mine and I just wish he was given more to do, in many pictures but especially this one. Sadly, we get little of any of these folk, focusing in as we leave town on Cactus Jack, Handsome Stranger and Charming Jones. Of course, I can’t complain too much, because that means lots of Kirk Douglas, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Ann-Margret.

If Kirk Douglas was perfectly cast, then Ann-Margret followed suit. She’s a delightful young lady from the first time we see her, as the boys on her train know. And she knows they know it too. At the Snakes End station, she leans over to show dangerous cleavage and ask Handsome Stranger, ‘Would you mind taking hold of these?’ She means the suitcases that aren’t even in shot, but this sets in motion a running gag that, once again, Mel Brooks would have had a field day with but Needham mangles horribly. By escorting his daughter home with the money, Handsome Stranger is repaying Parody Jones for saving his life. That daughter would happily thank him in turn by jumping his bones but he just can’t see her attempted seduction. Sure, he’s a dunce (Mel Tillis steals his steak at the Broken Spoke by telling him that the five mile crossing is only half a mile down the track), but how could anyone not launch into a dozen sexual fantasies while accompanied by the Ann-Margret of 1979, especially when her lines are all come-ons?
Arnie looks the part, as much as anyone can in a cowboy outfit that would have worked for Marty McFly if he was 6’2” tall; it’s pale blue, it magically repels dirt and it’s as dumb as the character that wears it. I can’t even say that he doesn’t play the part the way it was given to him; he’s a good guy but a stupid guy, one who’s utterly oblivious to everything. He plays that well and, had the film been sped up either through direction or through editing, he would have been fine. Still, he’s always the third wheel when scenes feature Douglas and Ann-Margret. They could act around him in their sleep and almost had to, given how slow the whole film got. Arnie plays along with the pace, plodding consistently forward, getting more wood for the fire every time his companion attempts to get him into the sack. There are a number of scenes where I’m sure his co-stars are laughing not at what they were shooting but at how things played out off screen. At least they seem to have enjoyed the shoot!

With a quick shoutout for Gary Combs, who had the unenviable task of being a stunt coordinator in a film directed by a legendary stunt coordinator, and his team of stuntmen who all did great work here, the technical side really isn’t where this film shines; the camerawork is adequate, the music clich├ęd and the editing ridiculous. At least there was nine-time Emmy-winner Bob Mackie to design costumes for Ann-Margret; I have no idea how she didn’t fall out of that dress but I kept waiting for it to happen. I hated the Indian outfits though and, talking of Indian outfits, the one that Avery Simpson enlists is run by no less than Paul Lynde as a very nervous Nervous Elk. It’s another slice of genius casting but, for some reason, it doesn’t work at all. I often wished that Paul Lynde would have played the part but instead we got Paul Lynde. The problem certainly isn’t lack of talent or an incompatibility with the role, so I’m going to plump for bad direction again. Whatever it was, Lynde just couldn’t make Nervous Elk funny.
That leaves one actor still worthy of mention and his name is Ott. He’s the horse who plays Whiskey, in what IMDb suggests was his final performance. Back in 1971, he’d played Black Beauty in the film of the same name, and the Black Mustang in a couple of episodes of Lassie. Other films and television shows followed until this one, which came after he was the title character in a dozen episodes of his own series, Thunder, on NBC. He won three PATSY awards, the equivalent of the Oscar for animal performers (the acronym originally stood for Picture Animal Top Star of the Year), but I wonder if he ever before had the opportunities he had in this picture, both to shine as a performer and to steal scenes from his co-stars. He saves Cactus Jack’s life at one point, but he also drops him right in it on more than one occasion for no better reason than because he can. The only thing he doesn’t get to do is to ride at speed, which underlines yet again how slow this movie is.

And so everyone moves gradually closer to the ending, which I won’t spoil but is at once inevitable and yet somehow surprising. I can’t say I didn’t like this but I hated it too. It’s too bad to be a guilty pleasure, but the concept is a peach and I’d suggest that it be revisited except that it would be done with CGI and that would be horrible. Perhaps a low budget filmmaker without too much to risk could make this with real stuntmen doing real stunts and create a cult hit. The only reasons that this one would be recalled in the event of a similar movie done right are Kirk Douglas’s energy, Ann-Margret’s cleavage and the way that everything flies over Arnie’s head just like Drax in Guardians of the Galaxy. It’s totally within character for Handsome Stranger to suggest, ‘Nothing goes over my head. My reflexes are too fast!’ If only Hal Needham had shot the film like those reflexes. There’s a great twenty minute short film here, maybe half an hour, but it’s stretched far too thin for an hour and a half. Watch it on fast forward!
I research the movies I pick for my centennial reviews ahead of time. I try to find interesting films that well represent the star in question and allow me to talk about a facet of film history, without just lumping for the obvious. Often, these interesting films are also great ones but this is a solid exception to that rule. It’s far from great but it is a great Kirk Douglas movie. Regardless of what he happened to be shooting, he gave it his all and, in doing so, created a character who may well leap to mind for some viewers if the name Kirk Douglas is mentioned in passing. Of course, it’s far from the only one and there are a number of others that I could easily have picked for this project. I could have chosen his debut, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, made as long ago as 1946, or the French TV movie, Empire State Building Murders, a ‘doc-crime-drama’ and tribute to film noir that sits at the other end of his career in 2008. In between, I’m completely spoiled for choice, both for interesting movies and those which generate opportunities.

After such varied classics as Out of the Past, A Letter to Three Wives and The Glass Menagerie, there’s a vastly underrated gem by the name of Ace in the Hole, made by Billy Wilder in 1951, that would have allowed me to talk about newspapers in the movies and how far ahead of its time this one was. After more classics, such as The Bad and the Beautiful, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Lust for Life, there were a string of films produced by Bryna Productions, a production company Douglas established in 1955, including an anti-war movie in 1957 called Paths of Glory, directed by an up-and-coming director named Stanley Kubrick. Three years later, Douglas helped to break the Hollywood blacklist by hiring Dalton Trumbo to write Spartacus, with an overt on-screen credit. On we travel through his filmography to see classic after classic, each movie different from the last and each notable in its own regard, such as Seven Days in May, There Was a Crooked Man... or The Man from Snowy River, the latter of which gave Douglas a double role.
It’s a heck of a career, especially for someone who started out during the studio system era as a Golden Age star because it’s free of the routine stuff that almost every major name at the time got to churn out in between the films for which they’re remembered. It bears deep exploration, whether through binge-watching or a more relaxed examination, unlike almost any of his peers. And that isn’t bad for a man who spent his early life in poverty. He started out as Issur Danielovitch in Amsterdam, New York, the one male child of seven born to a couple of Jewish immigrants from what is now Belarus. He became Izzy Demsky and then Kirk Douglas, the name he joined the US Navy under during World War II. He worked over forty different jobs to raise funds to pay for acting classes but only made it into the American Academy of Dramatic Arts through a special scholarship. One classmate was Betty Joan Perske, who, after changing her own name to Lauren Bacall, enabled his transition from stage to film by recommending him to Hal Wallis.

The rest can mostly be watched on screen. He did turn down two Oscar-winning roles in his time, those which eventually went to Lee Marvin in Cat Ballou and William Holden in Stalag 17, but he was nominated three times, for Champion, The Bad and the Beautiful and Lust for Life, before eventually receiving an honorary award in 1996 ‘for 50 years as a creative and moral force in the motion picture community’. He also received three nominations for Primetime Emmys and even a Razzie nomination for Saturn 3 in 1980, among many other nominations and wins. Yet, even as a Hollywood star, he’s consistently refused to fish in only one pond, which is why he has more books to his name than I do, mostly written during the last couple of decades; his eleven titles include fiction, non fiction and memoirs. What’s more, he hasn’t quit yet and, like Olivia de Havilland in June, is still with us to celebrate his 100th birthday, which is today, 9th December. Happy birthday, Mr. Douglas!

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