Friday, October 5, 2012

The Full Monte: "Monte Walsh" (1970)

The idea of the cowboy in the disappearing west is not a new one, but it has rarely been done this well...tons of spoilers ahead.

Lee Marvin is the title character, and his best friend is Chet (Jack Palance). They come out of the mountains after a harsh winter and find all the ranches are being bought by a giant corporation. Brennan (Jim Davis) offers the duo jobs on his old ranch, which he sold but still runs. Among the new ranch hands is Shorty (Mitchell Ryan), so named for his short temper. There is also a cook whose body odor is so bad, the men give him a forced bath in one of the film's light moments. The cook does whip up a little gastro-revenge. Jobs are scarce, but Monte and Chet are happy doing what they have always done- work with horses and cattle.

On time off, Monte sees Martine (Jeanne Moreau), a prostitute who never charges Monte for services rendered. Chet is pursuing a young widow who owns a hardware store in the local dying town. Things begin to get bad. An old Civil War veteran and fellow ranch hand kills himself by riding off a cliff. Brennan must lay off three men, and one of them is Shorty, who has developed a grudging friendship with Monte and Chet. The three are in competition to see who can break a wild grey mustang, which is eventually sold by the troubled ranch.

Martine leaves town, and Chet announces he is marrying the hardware widow, finally finding love. Shorty accidentally kills a marshal, and leaves the area as well.

As Monte watches his comfortable, uncomplicated life unravel, he finds the gray horse penned in a corral in town and determines to break him. A good scene, watching a cowboy do what comes naturally to him, and showing the world he is still important in the grand scheme of things, turns into high comedy as Monte and the horse destroy the town's main street in a sequence that can give any of today's action scenes a run for their money. Walsh is offered a job by a wild west show, but turns it down, still promising to marry Martine, who is now unhappy and drinking.

Chet is married and a store owner, but Shorty kills him in a botched robbery. As Walsh tracks Shorty, he finds out Martine has died, and Shorty and Monte have it out in a cattle slaughterhouse of all places.

"Monte Walsh" came out in 1970, in the heyday of the original revisionist western. The entire cast is excellent, anchored by Marvin, who has never been better. His Walsh is stubborn, funny, and just a regular guy caught up in circumstances beyond his control. Director Fraker perfectly restrains Palance, who is laid back and likable. Ryan is also good as the tortured Shorty. He is not the hothead outlaw we have seen before, he regrets his killings, and Ryan's face registers this.

John Barry does the musical score, and the music for the half-good theme sung by Mama Cass. His orchestral score is great, with grand strings and horns, and the final gunfight is well scored, playing on the suspense. Fraker's direction is also good, he is not obsessed with the pretty scenery, he likes his actors too. The action is handled well, and his camera loves Marvin's ruddy face.

The cast boasts quite a few known faces, including: G.D. Spradlin, Michael Conrad, Bo Hopkins, Eric Christmas, and Richard Farnsworth. It is well acted, well shot, well scored, and well edited. The fact that all the elements come together so well heightens the entertainment factor, and makes this an overlooked gem that should be seeked out.

The plot is light, like Walsh's life. If the story meanders, it is because this is Walsh's life. I loved what I saw, and I highly recommend "Monte Walsh." (* * * * *) out of five stars.