Flawed but fascinating New Hollywood era drama from writer Thos. McGuane
God bless the New Hollywood era of the late 1960's and early 1970's: it seems to be a bottomless well of offbeat (and often criminally overlooked) gems like Frank Perry's PLAY IT AS IT LAYS, Bill Norton's CISCO PIKE, Noel Black's PRETTY POISON -- and even the flawed but still-fascinating THE SPORTING CLUB. This was the first of several films based on the novels of (or screenwritten by) author Thomas McGuane, followed by the wonderful pot-addled western RANCHO DELUXE and the equally-good 92 IN THE SHADE with Peter Fonda and Warren Oates. THE SPORTING CLUB sadly isn't quite as good as these two, but it's still pretty interesting in its own right. The plot revolves around a woodsy retreat for wealthy sportsmen (and women) called The Centennial Club where they gather sporadically to drink heavily and congratulate themselves on being so rich. James Quinn (played by Nicolas Coaster in a fine, understated performance) is a soon-to-be-broke member of this fraternity whose one close connection is with his former college buddy Verner Stanton (Robert Fields), who has a dangerous obsession with dueling pistols, and Verner's girlfriend (Margaret Blye). There are some parallels here with DELIVERANCE (which came a year later): both movies feature heavily-armed businessmen trying to find themselves out in the woods, although SPORTING CLUB is much more satirical. The movie achieves a kind of cock-eyed brilliance when Jack Warden arrives, playing a boozey former bait-shop owner whose been picked as the Club's new groundskeeper. His performance suggests something that's been stewing in grain alcohol for a bit too long and captures the off-center flavor and rhythms of McGuane's writing better than almost anything else in the film. (It also strangely reminds me of Burl Ives's great performance as a grizzled swamp poacher in Nicholas Ray's WIND ACROSS THE EVERGLADES.) Warden's final anarchic act of payback against the Club members is truly classic. Director Larry Peerce's early 1970's career included some fine dramas such as "Goodbye Columbus," "A Separate Peace" and "Ash Wednesday" and deserves re-appreciation. One of the best sequences here comes early in the film when Fields and his friends hijack and destroy a bus during a Presidential appearance at the local dam; the sight of two wealthy capitalists literally trashing their own Establishment is the kind of contradiction that makes McGuane's writing so memorable. To be honest, the film is far from perfect -- the plot tends to meander too much and lose focus, and if anything, the movie feels a bit too consciously "literary" -- but its definitely worth checking out especially if you're a fan of early 1970's New Hollywood films. Note: although it doesn't seem to be listed on Amazon.com, there is a late 1980's video release of the film on Charter Entertainment so it's available if you can find it.
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