Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Price is Wrong: "The Jackals" (1967)

This remake of "Yellow Sky" plays like a two hour episode of "Have Gun, Will Travel," and tries everything it can to convince the viewer it is not a typical western...and yet, it is.

Stretch (Robert Gunner) leads a gang into a gold rush era small town. They rob a bank, and flee into country so rough, the posse gives them up for dead and goes home. So far, so predictable, right? Except all this action does not take place in southern Arizona, but South Africa.

As the gang rides, the men begin to complain, horses drop dead, and this looks like one short film until the robbers happen upon a ghost town inhabited by the boyish Willie (Diana Ivarson) and her grandfather Oupa (Vincent Price). All the men take an immediate shine to Willie, who must fight off their collective advances. The ruggedly handsome Stretch seems to be the only one Willie doesn't seem to hate, and then the men get down to some deep thinkin': why are Willie and Oupa still here in the middle of nowhere?

A querying shootout, where Oupa is injured, answers that question. Oupa and Willie want to bring their town back, and found another gold vein in the nearby hills. The gang promises to rob Oupa of only half, and then they turn on Stretch, who wants to honor his deal with Oupa and Willie.

An African western? Actually, the story is so bland that setting it in south Antarctica and casting penguins in the lead roles could not have provided the viewer with any more interest. Remember some of those episodes of "Bonanza" and "Gunsmoke" where the series' regulars would merely bookend a story involving townsfolk we would end up never seeing again? That is this film.

With the exception of the final gunfight (which actually takes place offscreen), the violence here is mid-1960's network television-level, with all the danger of a brisk walk into your kitchen. The cast is stiff, the gang going unnamed for most of the film (but you won't really care about them either way). The soundtrack is rejected bachelor pad xylophone jazz, I kept waiting for Frank Sinatra to wonder in and ply Willie with a pitcher of martinis.

Oh, Vincent. Vincent Price should have stuck to cheesy horror films instead of hamming his way through this. While he does a good job channeling Jack Elam, he turns the half drunk Oupa into a mincing creepy lout whom you suspect really is plying Willie with a pitcher of martinis.

Had "The Jackals" been set in Arizona, with a capable cast and interesting direction, we may have had something. Instead, the film is too safe, picking all the most common ingredients off the carcass of the western film, which didn't get resurrected until "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" a few years later. Imagining Burl Ives as Oupa and Clint Eastwood as Stretch, being directed by Don Siegel, already makes me feel better...skip this one. (* *) out of five stars.