Quentin Tarantino and Kirk Douglas show POSSE (1975) at SBIFF and Quint was there!
Published at: Feb. 8, 2010, 5:03 a.m. CST by quint
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with something a little different. When you go to a film festival the focus is almost always on what’s new. You look forward and not back. Typically. At most festivals there’s a retrospective element, like at Sundance they did a screening of Harold & Maude, one of the great American dark comedies, but those are usually not the priority.
At the Santa Barbara Film Festival I noticed they had a screening of an obscure 1975 movie called POSSE, which Kirk Douglas directed and starred in. The big draw wasn’t just a movie I hadn’t seen before and probably wouldn’t get a chance to see in the near future, but that Quentin Tarantino hand picked it to play at the festival and was going to be hosting a Q&A with the legendary Kirk Douglas after the movie.
Well, Q&K is what they called it, but you get the picture.
So, my last movie of the festival wasn’t a foreign film or an indie or documentary, but a forgotten film from the ‘70s starring one of the biggest and best screen icons in the history of the motion picture.
I might catch some shit for that from some people, but all I can say is that by its very name Film Festivals are a celebration of all cinema, not just new cinema.
This review might feel a little like my old A Movie A Day columns, which is only a good thing, I think. I’ll be starting up a new series of A Movie A Day very soon, so consider this a primer for the new run. Also make sure to scroll below the review to see the entire Q&K recorded by my handy-dandy FlipHD.
This is a mean little film. It’s not Wild Bunch mean… like bloody or intense… but it’s a highly political take on The American Western. POSSE takes your idea of heroes and villains and turns them on their heads as we see Kirk Douglas take on Bruce Dern.
If you’ve seen THE COWBOYS you know that at this point casting Bruce Dern in a Western playing a train robber would be, without a shadow of a doubt, the villain role. Especially with the heroic, square-jawed tin-star-wearing Kirk Douglas trying to bring him to justice.
But things aren’t exactly what they seem… That’s not say that Dern is a straight up hero and Douglas is a straight-up villain. Dern’s still a thief, but Douglas is something worse: a politician.
His Nightingale is running for the Senate seat and is a tried and true politician. He’s good at speeches, he can smile and nod and rub the right elbows… but on top of the politician’s shine he’s also a damn smart lawman, a brilliant tracker and strategist. And did I mention cruel?
The movie opens with Douglas’ posse paying off one of Dern’s men to tip them off on their location. As the outlaws sleep, their recent railroad loot (some $40,000) scattered around the old barn that is their hideout, Douglas’ men sneak in, throw torches and burn them all alive. Dern is outside when the posse rides up and hides amongst the horses, killing one of Douglas’ men before making his escape.
Right away you know that both men are willing and capable of murder, but at first we’re kind of taken in by Nightingale’s charm. A lot of that is the baggage that both actors bring to their roles. You expect that if Douglas is after Dern and willing to kill all of Dern’s men that Dern himself must be fucking Satan.
So we’re automatically torn. Our sympathies should lie with the hunted, not the hunter, but I found myself waiting for the shoe to drop, waiting for Dern to show his true evil colors.
You think that’s coming when Dern’s character, Jack Strawhorn, starts enacting his revenge by killing the Judas from his group in a nearby town’s saloon. But when he’s confronted with the town sheriff he tries to avoid confrontation… The only business he had in town is lying dead in the saloon, but Strawhorn’s reputation has everybody jumpy and the sheriff sees his chance to be a hero. He’s not good enough, naturally, and is shot dead in the street.
Strawhorn high-tails it, turning to his Mexican friend, Pepe (played by Alfonso Arau, who every single one of you knows even if the name doesn’t ring a bell. He is El Guapo in Three Amigos! “It’s a sweater!”), to organize a group of cut-throats as Douglas and his methodical, highly trained posse close in.
But Dern’s men, while mean, are dumbasses and are easily picked apart by Douglas’ posse and, in a surprise turn, Douglas actually captures Dern at this point, still in the first two reels of the movie.
The movie has a 3:10 To Yuma element to it as Douglas and Dern verbally spar as Douglas revels in the political advantage he has now that he’s captured the big, bad Jack Strawhorn. It becomes more and more evident that Douglas has been bought by the Railroad and is so blinded by his ambition to become a powerful politician that all sense of morality has flown out the window.
As immoral as Dern’s character is there’s a “What you see is what you get” honesty to him. He’s a bastard, but hey… at least he’s honest about it whereas Douglas is bastard who is trying to come across as a saint.
Over the film’s runtime the balance of power shifts between Dern and Douglas, sometimes verbally, sometimes physically, and we witness the political destruction of Douglas’ carefully crafted image.
Both lead actors are in fine form as are the supporting cast. There are a lot of recognizable faces in here, like the great Bo Hopkins (of White Lightning, American Graffiti and The Wild Bunch fame) and Luke Askew playing members of Douglas’ posse, Dick O’Neill (The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, Wolfen and The Mosquito Coast) as Douglas’ personal photographer who follows him around like a puppy dog… and then there’s James Stacy.
James Stacy knew some popularity in the ‘60s for doing beach movies and having a regular role on Ozzie & Harriet, but was in a motorcycle accident in the early ‘70s that took an arm and a leg.
In Posse he plays a newspaper man and ex-soldier. He’s the only townsperson not taken in by Douglas’ charm. In what could have been either a throw-away sequence or a boringly overdone one, Stacy has a sit down with Douglas who tries to charm him over to his side. “Why don’t you like me?” Douglas asks. Stacy pauses and says he’s wary of ambitious men. Douglas says that ambition is a good thing, then Stacy mentions his career as a military man and a commander he had. Brilliant man, but too ambitious, reached too far. You get the idea that in reaching too far this commander is responsible for Stacy’s character’s handicap, but it’s not dwelled upon or even made a gigantic moment.
Really smart bit of storytelling and a great performance by Stacy.
The script was written by William Roberts (The Magnificent Seven) and Christopher Knopf (Emperor of the North Pole). I didn’t realize this until writing up this review, but I was absolutely reminded of Emperor of the North Pole while watching the movie. I guess it’s just the inclusion of period badasses (on trains no less) butting heads. In Emperor it’s Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin, in this movie it’s Kirk Douglas and Bruce Dern.
It’s a tight, impressive and whip smart political western. And cynical, too. This is post-Watergate and the cynicism is palpable, the distrust in politicians heavy. So it’s a radically different kind of western than you’re used to and boy what a fucking great ending.
After the movie Tarantino and Douglas came up onto the stage and the Q&K began. Instead of recapping it I decided to try a video experiment. Below is the entire Q&A caught by my FlipHD. I apologize for any shaky-cam going on, but I think it turned out pretty good. For any film lover this is going to be a must watch…
Keep in mind Douglas suffered a stroke years back, so it’s a little difficult for him to talk, but you can tell the fire is still there. It’s especially poignant near the end when Douglas talks about how lonely it is being 93 years old, how all of his colleagues are dead and he’s left with little but beautiful memories.
Hope you liked that. Be back soon with some Sundance catch-up and final pieces on Santa Barbara!
Follow Me On Twitter