Monday, October 22, 2012

A Bride to See: "Zandy's Bride" (1974)

Gene Hackman turns in one of his best performances in this intimate western.

Hackman is Zandy, a hard and angry rancher who needs a wife to cook the meals and birth him some sons. The title bride comes in the form of Hannah (Liv Ullmann), fresh off the stage from Minnesota to the gorgeous coast near Monterey, California. Hannah has lied about her age and Zandy already has it in for her from the beginning. The two are married immediately, and Zandy rapes his new bride that night.

Zandy's place is filthy, and Hannah does what she can to clean it up. She makes some meek requests- things like a clothesline, no hats at the dinner table, and Zandy must wash his hands before eating. Zandy reacts angrily and violently to this, and eventually we find out why. Zandy goes to visit his father (Frank Cady), mother (Eileen Heckart), and little brother (Sam Bottoms). There, Pa treats Ma with even less regard than Zandy treats Hannah. Zandy returns home and finds Hannah has befriended Maria (Susan Tyrrell), a hot to trot latina who has obvious designs on Zandy. Tyrrell is surprisingly good in an ethnic part that she normally would be all wrong for.

The film wanders from situation to situation, things that may seem minor today, but were part of life back then. Zandy is attacked by a bear, and carted home by some neighbors, who invite the isolated couple to a Thanksgiving barbecue. In one of the film's strongest scenes, Hannah tries to please Zandy by curling her hair and dressing in a red dress, just to be dunked in a horse trough and humiliated by her husband, who thinks she looks like a hussy. Hannah meekly fights back here and there, but she is trying to make the most of her situation. She walks in on Zandy and Maria together, and Zandy takes off for months without telling Hannah where he is going.

Hannah is finally pregnant, but she is also bleeding. She is very pregnant when Zandy returns with new cattle, stampeding them through her new garden when she tries to stand up to him. More pregnancy complications ensue, Ma comes to nurse her, and Zandy flees Monterey for San Francisco, caving into the ultimatum that he originally challenged to Hannah- if you don't like it here, then leave.

The big tough rancher is swallowed up in a bigger tougher town, and he returns home months later to Hannah, who has surprises of her own.

Jan Troell and screenwriter Marc Norman fashion a great film here. This is a western, but there are no gunfights, no sheriffs, no outlaws, just seemingly realistic life. Troell's camera finds great little scenes, showcasing the actors who are dressed down and dowdy. Life then was ugly, and Troell captures it well. Hackman is incredible. He is really unlikable, cruel, and delights in his cruelty to his new wife. Hackman never crosses the line into caricature, his character is totally believable. Ullmann is also great, not becoming just another victim who turns into a liberated woman at just the right time. The audience realizes she is a person before Zandy does. Like I wrote, Tyrrell is good, as is Heckart. She has a great pained look that is the product of years of her character's abuse at the hands of Frank Cady's Pa, eons from his folksy sitcom characters.

The script sends us through the lives of these people without too much direction, and I believe this is because these people's lives were just as directionless. There is an underlying anger and toughness to this cast that you do not see in many westerns, which seem to make us think that life then was really fun.

"Zandy's Bride" is not your average western, and even non-genre fans will find something to like. I highly recommend it. (* * * * *) out of five stars.