Along with Noir and the Musical, the Western is a genre of the past. There have been entries in the last forty years on television and the cinema that serve the Western well, notably Appaloosa, Open Range, Lonesome Dove and some of the films of Clint Eastwood. For the most part it is an unused side of cinema, regrettably so, a distinct American creation that dominated the first half of 20th century moviemaking and still holds a gallery of some of the greatest films ever made.
Near the end of the sixties, directors were still playing with the genre. Playing is the operative word. What many of these late Westerns achieved was a purposeful rejection or reaction to the values and ideas that make up the Western. Robert Altman turned it into a dark landscape full of Leonard Cohen folk songs in his great McCabe and Mrs. Miller. Sydney Pollack experimented in the mountain-man sub-genre with his Jeremiah Johnson. Peter Fonda made his Hired Hand and Michael Cimino tried for epic size glory with Heaven’s Gate. These films contain shoot-outs, men in hats, and horses; still they are not quite Western.
Again, whether on purpose or by accident, they ignore or refute the principles of the Western. Though there were endless variations of this genre before it faded, certain qualities exist throughout. The idea of code, in the law and against it, is consistent in the work of John Ford, Howard Hawks, Budd Boetticher and others. There is a lack of code or a corruption of code in the late sixties experiments. And in the Spaghetti Westerns that followed (and have grown more popular amongst current audiences than the films that spawned them), code is practically abandoned and replaced with a focus on style and sensationalism. Though the Westerns of old had style too, and never ignored the visual, most of them were focused on something else: the characters and what they held true and how that affected their conflicts with others. In that light, it seems that Spaghetti Westerns are hardly Westerns at all, but skeletons wearing the clothes and the hats, holding guns.
Of these “Not Quite Westerns”, there are some magnificent films. As mentioned before, McCabe and Mrs. Miller is haunting and beautiful. Heaven’s Gate possesses some extraordinary moments in its four hours. And of all the Sergio Leone movies, his Duck You Sucker is his best and his closest to being authentic.
Bad Company (1972)
I recently watched my favorite of these films: Bad Company, directed by Robert Benton in 1972, starring Jeff Bridges and Barry Brown. Brown plays a young man dodging the Civil War draft. He goes West and soon stumbles into a gang of young ruffians, led by Jeff Bridges. Together they go through a series of trials and misadventures.
On the surface, the movie sounds like a light, Western adventure. But this is no ordinary West. There are no beautiful landscapes. The background is drab, a dreary mid-west setting of dead grass and naked trees. The colors are dark grays and pale yellows. There are startling moments of violence. Take for instance a scene where the youngest of the group, just a kid, tries to steal a pie from a window. Someone shoots him in the head with a rifle.
At one point, the young men buy quick rounds of sex with another traveler’s wife. There’s something pitiful about the scene. They betray and lie to each other constantly. Everyone in the picture is starving, and the phrase “Who told me to go West?” is repeated often. Even the villain, a fast-slinging gunfighter played by David Huddleston is the opposite of the traditional Western bad guy: he’s obese, he acknowledges that he’s the leader of a band of idiots, and even his most impressive “gun trick” is not impressive at all. Near the end of the picture, he calls himself “the oldest whore on the block.”
The final shootout is at once thrilling and violent and completely absurd. The piano score spins a Marx Brothers feel while the characters awkwardly kill each other. It’s an odd moment, but in its own not-quite-Western way it works really well.
The best part of the picture is Jeff Bridges and Barry Brown. Their struggle for friendship is an interesting reverse of the usual Western companionships (John Wayne and Dean Martin in Rio Bravo, or Henry Fonda and Victor Mature in My Darling Clementine). Bridges was and is a great presence on screen. He is unpredictable, yet he avoids any sign that he is acting. Barry Brown, an actor I wasn’t familiar with until this picture, carries the whole thing. He is as authentic and natural as Bridges and together they make a great pair.
I was sad to read that Barry Brown committed suicide in 1978, not ten years after he made this film. He had a short career but however short, something of him is left in this great movie, not really a Western, but still great nonetheless.
Jeff Bridges and Barry Brown, not long after the Bad Company shoot.