Wednesday, September 19, 2012

What's Up, Doc?: "Doc" (1971)

Before the duelling biopics of "Tombstone" and "Wyatt Earp" in the 1990's, this 1971 effort had already decided to set the record straight about John "Doc" Holliday, Earp's best friend and participant in the gunfight at the OK Corral.

Just over an hour and a half, this film skips a lot of the epic western cliches and goes right into its meaty story. Doc Holliday buys prostitute Katie Elder (Faye Dunaway) from local bad boy Ike Clanton, and takes her to Tombstone, Arizona. He meets up with his best friend Wyatt Earp, played by Harris Yulin. Earp has political aspirations in the territory, and wants to control the law while Holliday would control the gambling. Elder and Holliday break up briefly, but then shack up on the edge of town, much to the chagrin of Earp's upstanding wife.

A young Clanton hand, known as the Kid, decides to be just like Holliday, gun fighting and all. Soon, a stage is held up and the Clantons are accused. Earp makes a deal with Clanton to exchange the reward money for the Kid, but Holliday bails him out instead. Earp and Holliday begin drifting apart, both over Elder and law enforcement, but become friends again in time for the climactic shootout in the infamous corral, resulting in the deaths of some major characters.

A few scenes are played a little too quietly, and move a little too slowly. The real success here is with the lead actors, professionals all. Stacy Keach is excellent as a Doc Holliday we have never seen before. His physical moves are smooth and suave, like a professional gambler should be, and Keach takes us along on an acting job that looks effortless on his part. Faye Dunaway is Katie Elder, the lifelong prostitute who finds it hard to change herself just to please everyone else's idea of what a couple should be. Dunaway is unglamorous, and never trips into the "hooker with a heart of gold" stereotype. Harris Yulin, who is better known as a character actor today, is great as Wyatt Earp. He is mean, delivering threatening lines with menace, and also not a clearcut hero. His speech to the crowd after the gunfight, as he stands near his brother's body and renews his promise to clean up Tombstone, is great.

Aside from a couple of slow spots and spotty editing, "Doc" is a terrific and underrated western that deserves a cult audience. I highly recommend it. (* * * * *) out of five stars.