Nicholson and Brando face off in Arthur Penn's uneven western
DIRECTED BY Arthur Penn
STARRING Marlon Brando, Jack Nicholson, Harry Dean Stanton
Opens May 23, Cert 15, 126 mins
The story is, on paper at least, the stuff of traditional westerns. Regulator Robert E Lee Clayton (Brando) is hired to take down Tom Logan (Nicholson) and his band of cattle thieves (Stanton, Randy Quaid and Frederic Forrest). Inevitably, it was originally viewed as Brando versus Nicholson?as if teaming the two great actors of American cinema was some kind of OK Corral in itself, but it resulted in a disappointingly bloodless encounter. Brando himself is wildly, wilfully eccentric?a riot of accents and costumes, including, famously, a dress and bonnet?while Nicholson, one year after winning his Oscar for One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, gives a restrained, sturdy performance as the rustler who wants to settle down.
But watching this fine, crisp new print, you realise that the most substantial element of the film is novelist Thomas McGuane’s brilliant script. A brief scene in which one of the rustlers is hospitably fed, furtively serviced and killed, transcends its place in the plot through the sheer quality of the writing. His host talks of Thomas Jefferson, his wife is bored, you glimpse the dynamic of the family, the scene building towards it inevitable conclusion. Later, Harry Dean (with a haircut and hat which make him look like he’s just stepped out of a Frederic Remington painting) delivers a monologue about the killing of the dog which McGuane invests with quiet devastation.
Of course, these were richer times for writers. Meanwhile, Penn directs indulgently, giving everybody time to establish their little patch in Montana. The much anticipated big bout, mano a mano, was never on the cards, though. Nicholson confronts the defenceless, fat Brando in his tub, covered in bubble bath, and can’t bring himself to kill him. Both are too supine. That’s their big scene together, and it dribbles away. Nicholson’s love affair with the rancher’s daughter, Kathleen Lloyd, on the other hand, is gloriously and even-handedly erotic, her desperate to lose her virginity, him lecherous yet infinitely considerate.
One of the great ’70s westerns?occasionally bizarre, frequently brilliant. Damn good to have it back.