Greetings, once again. After some refreshing down time during the long July Fourth weekend. I’ve returned refreshed and renewed. And with a better appreciation of those who aided in making some of the smaller, less known films of the 1970s and 80s larger and more entertaining than first imagined.
I’m not talking about the Hollywood hyped, “Next Brandos” like Mickey Rourke. I’m talking about the lower tier, constantly working hungry young faces, Who have their scenes on stage, television screen or film. Deliver more than required or asked. Make their mark. And quietly move on.
One in particular crossed my path long ago. Warranted curiosity and attention. And has consistently paid off.
Stacy Keach: Greatness in Proper Doses.
Fat City (1972)
First caught my eye in this little known John Houston film from 1972. A unique and somewhat melancholy piece of cinema solidly ensconced in parts of Stockton, California never seen before or since, Its tone set in stone by Kris Kristofferson’s Help Me Make It Through The Night. As Mr. Keach awakens in a very low rent, kind of flea bag hotel room and prepares for another day of… Not much.
The two talk. Then spar. And Ernie proves his worth. To the extent that Tully suggests that he look up his own manager. One might think that a flowering mentor/student might arise from this chance meeting. And they’d be right. To a point. But this is John Huston in full blown “no slack” mode. Where Tully does odd jobs and picks fruit and vegetables under the blazing California sun to make ends meet. While Ernie is given a few bouts to prove himself. Bouts that end in quick losses for Ernie. As his manager, Rueben (Nicholas Colosanto) juggles numbers and takes at the gate to cover bad bets.
Throughout it all, Tully hunches down and keeps on plugging. Hanging out at low rent dives and their always present barflies when not sweating away and working. One in particular, Oma (Susan Tyrell) shows promise as Ruben is busted and sent to jail for a few months. The two move in together, but Oma likes the bottle more than she does Tully. While Ernie’s girlfriend, Faye (Candy Clark) announces that she is pregnant. Which sends Ernie looking for more lucrative bouts.And Tully thinking about one final fight.
Though there is a plethora of young, wonderfully end of the line talent to add to and take up whatever slack. This is Mr. Keach’s film to make or break. And he does. Quietly. Stoically. Within the claustrophobic and tight confines of a few square miles. Where life does not get any better than what is seen around you.
The height, though not majestic are there. As are the inverse lows. Delivered straight forward and with no apologies. That ends with Tully and Ernie, both beaten and bruised. Sharing a drink at scraping to get by bar. And saying… Nothing.
Creating a near decade long sabbatical, where Mr. Keach worked as a rookie LAPD uniform officer opposite veteran, George C. Scott. In a decent presentation of Detective Joseph Wambaugh’s premiere novel, The New Centurions. Along with well received stage and television efforts.
Then plunging into the diving well of underplaying a character. In an admittedly quirky and offbeat piece of cinema that was wrongly trashed by the critics when first released. Due mostly to the media generated hoopla of its writer and director’s earlier novel and work in William Friedkin’s The Exorcist. And the media expecting more of the same.
I beg but a few moments to opine and possibly rave about…
The Ninth Configuration (1980)
Also known as Twinkle, Twinkle, Killer Kane. And based on William Peter Blatty’s novel of that name. The film focuses on a very secluded castle deep in the tall woods of the Northern Pacific seaboard. An Army installation, actually. Where its parent organization, and later, all services. Send those high-ranking officers. With equally high security clearances. To recover and rehabilitate after incidents which may prove harmful or embarrassing to said service and those officers’ careers.
Into this ornate amalgam of nuance and over the top farce enters tall, cautiously quiet and rarely blinking Mr. Keach. As Marine Colonel Vincent Kane. A minor and often grisly legend of the jungles north and west of the DMZ in Vietnam. Suddenly promoted to Chief of Patients in this all too elegant and laid back asylum. Flanked, surrounded and buttressed by a then “Who’s Who” of present and later television talent. And met at the of his Executive Officer, Colonel Richard Fell’s digs by always pleasant Ed Flanders (St. Elsewhere) in Class A shirt, tie and boxer shorts.
Unfazed by this accidental lack or decorum (Or is it?), Colonel Kane is briefed in and turned over to the kind ministrations of the inmates who are running the day to day of the asylum. Chief among them are Captain Cutshaw (Always reliable Scott Wilson). The victim of a massive panic attack and abort of a launch to the Moon. Whose sudden epiphany has him constantly questioning God and higher powers.
Along with an African American officer. Major Nammack, (Moses Gunn) who believes he’s Superman. A Captain, (George DiCenzo) who believes he can move through solid objects. Though only water yields to his wishes. And Joe Spinell as Lt. Spinell, who wants to teach Shakespeare to dogs.
The calm and quiet dialogues between Mr. Keach’s Kane and Scott Wilson’s Captain Cutshaw are as deep and ponderous as they are flat-out funny. With neither ceding an inch of the turf of their personal beliefs. Until Kane notices Cutshaw’s Saint Christopher medal. Which will play a major role in answering many of the Captain’s questions.
Safe and secure inside the castle as he creeps into Kane’s office. Only to find him waiting and bleeding out from a quick, deep knife wound. Ready for a final conversation.
I’ll leave it right here for Spoilers sake.
Once again, Mr. Keach carries and makes this film the gem that rightly is. Eschewing the desire to step beyond the low-key constraints. Approaching his role as one of many underneath his calm facade. Aided and abetted by superb moody cinematography. Often off the wall humor. While obliquely cocooning the questions of fate, faith and a higher power.
Which sets the stage for one of the best westerns of the latter part of the 20th century. An ensemble and period piece, no less. But what an ensemble! And what a well detailed and executed post Civil War western. Directed by Walter Hill and focusing on one of the most written about and documented desperadoes of that era. The James-Younger gang.
The Long Riders (1980)
Four sets of cinematic brothers. Stacy and James Keach as Frank and Jesse James.
David, Keith and Robert Carradine as Cole, Jim and Bob Younger, respectively. Dennis and Randy Quaid as Ed and Clell Miller. And Christopher and Nicholas Guest as Charlie and the traitorous Bob Ford.
Applying tactics learned and employed under the leadership of William Clarke Quantrill during the war. And finding that they work quite well in robbing banks on either side of the Kansas/Missouri border. Celebrating when their plans work well and all are flush. Though there is a definite rivalry between David Carradine’s Cole Younger and James Keach’s Jesse James as to what should be robbed when. While Stacey Keach”s Frank watches from a safe distance.
Fully aware that the law and Pinkerton detectives are devotedly on their tails. And are not bashful about going outside the law to find leads and names and breadcrumbs from harassed neighbors, saloon and cat house patrons.
Add to that a most recent robbery that went bad early and ended up with an innocent bank customer being killed by Bob Ford. Given his share and cut loose very early on. The Youngers feel safe enough, but something is ticking the backs of the James brothers’ necks. Which results in more bank and a train robbery. And a rather large, early morning ambush led by Pinkerton man, Rixely (James Whitmore, Jr.). Whose body count is decidedly negative in regards to winning hearts and minds of the local farmers. Putting a crimp in local information that could be vital in giving chase as the Cole, Jesse and company ride over the horizon.
Made worse as Rixley’s Pinkertons outsource and distant relations of the gang are shot after their farms are fire bombed. Creating enough slack for the Quaid brothers’ Ed and Clell Miller to scout northwest and find plump and vulnerable bank. Returning with word of a bank in Northfield, Minnesota. Easy access from the town’s main thoroughfare. And a huge vault with many teller cages. And town folk who speak their own foreign language and thought to be naive and backwards. Beneath contempt.
Cell and Ed’s sell on the bank could have been smoother and accepted more easily. If due diligence had been applied, but the Youngers, Frank and Jesse sign on. And the bank appears too good to be true. As Cole waits outside and across the muddy main drag with a diversionary double-barreled twelve gauge. Ignoring locals who openly and annoyingly want to buy his horse. Clell waits on the opposite side and Jesse, Frank and the rest go into the bank.
Only to discover that its vault cannot be opened due to a new fangled time lock. Things go south as the men folk decide they do not wish to be robbed and draw pistols. Shot gun blasts echo outside. Horses panic and rear. And the main street of Northfield becomes a walking, running and riding free fire zone. As locals shoot from behind cover and the Younger-James gang desperately look for a way out. Taking hits while riding through plate-glass windows of bars. Riding over obstacles and picking up wounded on the fly.
Creating one of the most well articulated and executed running gunfights in cinema. Blending well cut slow motion and standard time film between rifle, pistol and shotgun blasts. Leaving the gang intact but wounded and badly bloodied. Riding out of town ahead of a posse. And pausing only to bandage and tie off wounds before shoulder shot Frank and cut up Jesse decide to ride on.
The noose is definitely tightening and both brothers can feel it as the two lay low. And the Youngers are approached by Rixley with a reduced sentence deal for a name or location. The Youngers stay loyal. Which leaves Charley. then Bob Ford ready and waiting.
Being one amongst so many in a stellar ensemble cast. There are not many times and scenes to shine. And Mr. Keach takes advantage of every one. And saves some of his best work for after the last botched bank robbery. Taking on the cautionary older brother role to heart. Wanting to lie low. Tend his farm and be left alone. Yet knowing that is never going to happen.
What the primary cast does bring to Walter Hill’s superior work is a vibrancy and sometime humor. Aided by Ric Waite’s cinematography and editing by Freeman Davies and David Holden. And a superb original soundtrack by Ry Cooder makes this film much more than it first appears. Or the sum of its well meshed parts.