Since time immemorial, the simple-minded boisterous people of Malava, a small Polish town near the border of imperial Russia, have lived on horse-stealing, horse-trading and horse-smuggling... See full summary »
Since time immemorial, the simple-minded boisterous people of Malava, a small Polish town near the border of imperial Russia, have lived on horse-stealing, horse-trading and horse-smuggling. Life changes abruptly when a Russian garrison, commanded by Captain Stoloff, occupies the town and, in the name of the Czar, requisitions all the horses for the Russian-Japanese War. With no more horses to steal, Kifke cannot afford to marry Estusha and all the young men in the village are likely to be incorporated into the Russian army. This state of affairs cannot continue and Zavill will take care of things. Written by
ROMANCE OF A HORSETHIEF (Abraham Polonsky, 1971) **1/2
It's safe to assume that, even among casual film buffs, the fate of Abraham Polonsky is arguably better known than his actual cinematic works are since his is arguably the most notorious case of the impact that the Red Scare/HUAC hearings of the late 1940s had on a promising Hollywood career. After writing the seminal boxing drama BODY AND SOUL (1947), Polonsky stepped into the director's chair for the first (and, for the next 21 years, only) directorial effort with the marvelous noir FORCE OF EVIL (1948); incidentally, both these movies starred an even more fatal casualty of that Communist purge, John Garfield who died a mere 4 years later at just 39 years of age. The political climate in Hollywood changed over the years and, by the end of the 1960s, Polonsky was able to officially work again, both as writer on Don Siegel's MADIGAN (1968) and, more importantly, as a director on the acclaimed Revisionist Western TELL THEM WILLIE BOY IS HERE (1969) and the much lighter ROMANCE OF A HORSETHIEF. As it turned out, Polonsky's directorial stint still proved short-lived as he was advised, for medical reasons, not to undertake any more strenuous projects! Equally ironic is the fact that, while on the Italian-language TV print I watched the opening credits clearly state that one is about to see "an Abraham Polonsky film", the actual credited director has an unpronounceable Yugoslavian name!!
On original release, the film under review seems to have been quite well-received by critics but the public stayed away and, while this may have surprised Polonsky himself, in hindsight I'd say it was just too old-fashioned and inconsequential for its own good. Or perhaps it was simply overshadowed by Norman Jewison's 3-hour musical FIDDLER ON THE ROOF (1971) which similarly deals with the trials and tribulations of Jewish Poles in a war-torn society in a light-hearted fashion. The cast list was certainly impressive: Yul Brynner, Eli Wallach, David Opatoshu (who also penned the script based on his father's novel), Henri Serre, Jane Birkin, Serge Gainsbourg, Oliver Tobias (his first starring role) and Marilu' Tolo. But it's Lainie Kazan who steals the show as the lusty, busty brothel madam who seduces Russian Captain Brynner to keep him away from his duty of pursuing her intended, horsethief Wallach; the sequence where cross-dressed Wallach and Tobias attempt to spring three horses hidden inside the brothel unbeknownst to drunken Brynner is the film's comic highlight. Meanwhile, peasant Opatoshu's son Tobias romances wealthy liberal Birkin who, in turn, is engaged to clumsy French gentleman (Gainsbourg, who else?). This enjoyable but ultimately unsubstantial film also boasts a fine score by Mort Shuman and attractive cinematography by Piero Portalupi.
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