Thursday, July 30, 2009
A Seven-Shot Six-Shooter
When I was a kid I was unsuccessful in convincing my father to take me to see THE VILLAIN with Kirk Douglas. Now, only thirty years later and long after one of its leads became the biggest star in the world, I’ve finally gotten around to seeing it on my own. So, I ask you, who’s laughing now, huh? Actually, he probably is, if only because he avoided being forced into sitting through this thing. It’s safe to say that I’ve gotten over it by now, just as I’ve long since forgiven my mother for not taking me to see HERBIE GOES BANANAS. Boy, I guess I wanted to see a lot of really bad movies when I was young. I hope I’ve improved in that sense except, well, I did actually sit through THE VILLAIN even though the disc from Netflix turned out to be a full-frame job and those are usually only useful as coasters. But, well, I figured the film wasn’t in Scope, I already had it, so I decided to give it a look. And so went the next 89 minutes of my life. This review can be considered, as Variety would put it, for the record.
Back in the old west, notorious bandit Cactus Jack Slade (Kirk Douglas) is arrested after unsuccessfully trying to rob a bank. He is sentenced to be hanged but is soon released by the local banker (Jack Elam) who hires Slade to rob the money that the banker has to hand over to Charming Jones (Ann-Margret) who has been sent there to retrieve it by her father and is now being escorted back by friendly cowboy Handsome Stranger (our beloved Governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger). Slade sets out with his trusty horse Whiskey to try everything possible to retrieve the money but soon finds that more difficult than he expected. Paul Lynde, who narrated the commercials that I found so hysterical all those years ago, plays the Indian Chief Nervous Elk, in case you still weren’t sure how serious all this was supposed to be.
It doesn’t take long to describe the plot, mostly because there’s not much of a plot. For the most part THE VILLAIN, directed by future CANNONBALL RUN helmer Hal Needham between in between HOOPER AND SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT II, consists of a series of gags in which Kirk Douglas tries and fails to retrieve the money in the most outlandish way possible. Then he gets up from the huge fall he just took or whatever and tries again. That THE VILLAIN is essentially a live-action Warner Bros cartoon, with Douglas as the Wile E. Coyote-Daffy Duck character, is something it never particularly tries to disguise particularly at the end when it even brings in the familiar Looney Tunes music to help wrap things up (actually, it’s surprising that Warner Bros. allowed this, since the film was made by Columbia). There’s tons of gags involving Douglas jumping onto a train and missing, Douglas crashing through a window that turns out to have bars on it, as well as him contending with a very large boulder which in separate sequences both falls on and rolls over him—shouldn’t they have just picked one boulder gag and gone with it? I’m tempted to call THE VILLAIN just a crass knockoff of CAT BALLOU but the honest truth is that I haven’t seen that film in years. Still, with the veteran serious actor playing comedy, comely female lead (Ann-Margret is practically falling out of her dress in every single one of her scenes) and musical interludes to further the narrative, in this film sung by Mel Tillis (who also appears as a telegraph operator), I’m not sure what I’m supposed to think. It seems rather reminiscent of Blake Edwards’ THE GREAT RACE as well and there’s certainly no comparing it to that.
To not be too critical, and with this film there’s very little point in spending too much time being critical, I’ll at least say that the first half works better, mostly because the setup for everything is fairly enjoyable, the pacing is quick and it’s always going to be fun watching certain old-school character actors in a western. But by a certain point everything sputters to a halt, not because this Warner Bros. cartoon stuff gets in the way of the plot but because it turns out that it’s all the plot is, with the setup revealed as little more than just a setup to all this stuff. There are some pretty shoddy scene transitions as well as everything just feels kind of fractured sort of like lurching from scene to scene in one of the CANNONBALL movies, only here we never get a break to go back to some other characters we haven’t seen for a half-hour. And as much as I get the joke trying to make a live-action cartoon, very little of it actually winds up being funny.
Maybe I smiled on occasion but by a certain point—pretty much when Paul Lynde as the Indian Chief begins to play a central role in things—any good will I had towards the thing had drained away and I was just looking at the clock. It was really only 89 minutes? Was there really still an audience for this sort of thing as late as 1979? The nature of both the jokes and the various people who make cameo appearances put me in the mind of a boozy, Dean Martin Celebrity Roast feel by a certain point (paired with the Looney Tunes-type jokes, that’s an odd melding of tones) and then when I was researching the film earlier I discovered that the screenwriter Robert G. Kane had actually worked on the Celebrity Roasts back then. So there you go. And the end just feels like nobody had any other ideas of how to wrap the thing up. At one point Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character proudly shows off his gun, what he calls a “seven-shot six-shooter.” When asked why he had such a pistol specially made he stops, puzzled, and simply replies, “I don’t know.” (That’s the joke) To a great extent, that sums up the movie.
I will give THE VILLAIN this much—Kirk Douglas brings a huge amount of energy to the role, more than the film probably ever required and it becomes rather admirable by a certain point. It’s not just a case of him clearly having a fun time chewing up scenery. He completely commits to playing this cartoon character full throttle through ever indignity he suffers as well as doing his absolute best Kirk Douglas impression in the process. He certainly doesn’t do all his own stunts but, still in very good shape in his early 60s here, he does enough leaping onto his horse (incidentally, the horse is very funny as well) and getting dragged along the ground to be impressive enough. As the other male lead future Governor Schwarzenegger is likable and eager enough but he can’t quite make much of an impression in comparison. He’d get better as the years went on. Ann-Margret, bursting out of her dress (wait, did I already say that? It bears repeating) is pretty enjoyable as Charming, hitting just the right spirited tone the whole way through. I can’t help but think that there are plenty of actresses from this period who might have been equally fetching to look at but they wouldn’t have been able to bring just the light, appropriately cartoonish touch to this role. The various familiar faces in smaller roles (Elam, Tillis, Foster Brooks, Strother Martin) are as dependable in their brief screen time as you’d expect them to be. Ruth Buzzi turns up as well, for anyone who ever wanted to see her share the screen with Schwarzenegger. Paul Lynde, riding a horse with a Swastika painted on it for some reason, just annoyed me, bringing nothing to his scenes which just seemed to go on for a while as a result. What’s worse, lack of political correctness or lack of laughs? Anyway, this was his last film. The Arizona scenery is very nice, because nothing helps out a comedy like nice scenery (snarky comment, I know. At least it helps it feel a little like a real western at times). The score by Bill Justis leans a little too heavily towards ‘funny’ music but at least the main theme is appropriately energetic with a three-note fanfare that is pretty much identical to the big chorus in the old PERFECT STRANGERS sitcom theme song (“Standing Tall…”)
There’s not much else to say about THE VILLAIN. Some of the stunts are pretty cool, I guess. Lately things have been hectic enough that I’ve found myself occasionally drifting away to thoughts of going to the movies over the summer years ago, a time I would look at the newspaper ads or see the commercials on TV and they would make such a strong impression on me. I guess this film was one of them but finally seeing THE VILLAIN all these years later was such a ho-hum event that I can barely even compare it to an itch being scratched. I really can’t blame my dad for not wanting to see it, even though he probably didn’t base the decision on anything other than reading the Janet Maslin review in The New York Times. To give him some credit if I’m remembering right, he actually took me to see that other comedy western HOT LEAD AND COLD FEET some other year but I have absolutely no recollection of that one. And to give him even more credit, he took me to see Jacques Tati films as well. He took me to a lot of films. He was a good guy. I’ll just think about that for a while.