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Monte Walsh

Monte Walsh(1970)

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It's still something of a mystery as to why the celebrated Hollywood films of the homely, thorny, sometimes haywire Nixon/'Nam era, blooming as they did in the midst of a worldwide youth culture siege, were so overwhelming interested in the lostness, melancholy and frayed edges of middle age. Think about it - today we're beset by literal teenagers and aging actors who never seem to age out of high school, but in the magical New Wave era of 1967-77, the ascendent stars were people like Jack Nicholson, Gene Hackman, Barbra Streisand, Steve McQueen, Ellen Burstyn and Robert Redford, all in their 30s or older, and none of them mistakable for a kid. Movies then constantly took menopausal turmoil as their meat and potatoes, basked in the gritty light of no man's land Middle America, and zeroed their attentions, more often than not, on working-class crises and lifestyles. It was as if movies themselves, after decades of studio formula and gloss, had resolved finally to grow up.

What happened? You couldn't blame it on the fading lions in charge of production for greenlighting films that echoed their own demographic - the hot young directors out of film school were focused, too (consider that The Conversation was Francis Ford Coppola's pet project, enabled by The Godfather), and the audience turned out in passionate troves. Of course, the window had to close, and by most perspectives it closed in 1977, with Star Wars, easily seen now as a film intended for children. Consider that the biggest grossing film before that was The Godfather, which no child was allowed to see without the accompaniment of a presumably deranged adult.

But for a span the grown-ups had their heyday, and theaters were stocked with modest, wise movies like William A. Fraker's Monte Walsh (1971). This forgotten anti-Western is a prototypical tissue sample from its day and age, adapting Jack Schaefer's novel into a dawdling, small-bore riff on the mundanities - pleasurable and maddening both - of cowboy ranch life in the Old West. It's not unlike a rowdy John Ford oater but without the Indians and gunfights. The New Wave priority of realism over glamour or showbiz baloney is here in unceremonial form: Lee Marvin and Jack Palance are aging, unexceptional cowhands coming off a long winter's stint, hired on at one ranch as another goes bankrupt, and wondering how much more deeply into their middle years they'll be able to sustain their freelance, nomadic lifestyle.

It's a movie about midlife anxieties, but the soul-searching is minimal: the boys' life is consumed with horsing around (literally and otherwise) with the half-dozen other ranch-hands in their bunk, and finding solace in brawls and women. (Jeanne Moreau, as a secretively consumptive whore, is Marvin's indulgent nowhere girl.) It's up to us to see the bleak destiny awaiting this oblivious men. (Palance's amiable cowpoke shruggingly decides to quit and marry a store-owning widow, but, being a cowboy, never quite articulates his reasons.) The tiny and perfectly nice town they frequent begins to feel, before long, like a unsatisfying, undramatic dead end. Amid the cheap bravado - the characters' and the actors' both, all of it in a minor key that feels a little pathetic - the story dallies on life opportunities long lost, and when the tragic plot turn comes, it pivots not on epochal events but on an economic downturn, cowboy unemployment and poverty.

Fraker, debuting as a director here, was a pivotal cinematographer of the Hollywood New Wave (he shot Rosemary's Baby, Bullitt, Rancho Deluxe and Dusty and Sweets McGee), but his choices here are often mushy: the Way We Were soft-focus filters, the reliance on post-Ford barroom humor and corny macho simplicity. Still, none of the hokey details get in the way of the film's primal thrust, dressing down as it does the heroic myth of the American West in a way comparable to the bloodbaths of Sam Peckinpah, though far gentler. Alongside David Miller's underrated Lonely Are the Brave (1962) and several of Peckinpah's elegiac monsters, it's a heartrending statement about the loss of an entire frontier and the culture that went with it.

Lee Marvin's starring vehicles from this period almost always seemed to reflect his own persona and lifestyle - lazy, drunken, laconic and rueful, with the ever-present feeling that whatever the story entailed, the plot (like the film production itself) was simply something getting in the way of what he'd rather be, or should be, doing. This hardly implies criticism - Marvin was no sweaty Method actor, but he was unarguably one of the most mesmerizing, original presences American movies have ever known. With his torpedo-shaped head, alligator eyes, snoring-dinosaur voice and lightning-strike body English, Marvin was born for the movies, and in a sense postwar Hollywood and the American New Wave grew up with him, as he graduated from snarling villains in the '50s to a supercool outsider man's-man who looked like a real person, and a real person you'd cross the street to avoid.

The surprise of Monte Walsh is Palance, whose career seemed etched in bad guy stone because of his post-WWII-plastic-surgery puss, with cheekbones like gargoyle wings. Like Marvin Palance aged into our fondness and empathy, too, and in Fraker's movie he smiles more than in the rest of his films combined, emerging organically as the story's hauntingly sad heart.

The new Paramount DVD comes with merely a trailer as a supplement

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by Michael Atkinson