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A no account outlaw establishes his own particular brand of law and order and builds a town on the edges of civilization in this farcical western. With the aid of an old law text and unpredictable notions Roy Bean distinguishes between lawbreakers and lawgivers by way of his pistols. Written by
Keith Loh <email@example.com>
The Life And Times Of Judge Roy Bean (John Huston, 1972) ***
This was Paul Newman’s third of four films about legendary figures of the American West – the others being William “Billy The Kid” Bonney in THE LEFT HANDED GUN (1958), Butch Cassidy in BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (1969) and William “Buffalo Bill” Cody in BUFFALO BILL AND THE INDIANS, OR SITTING BULL’S HISTORY LESSON (1976) – and his first of two in a row with director Huston – the other being the espionage thriller THE MACKINTOSH MAN (1973; which, incidentally, was partly filmed in Malta).
The last three Westerns all came at the tail-end of the genre and, apart from being in a decidedly comedic vein, can also be dubbed “Revisionist”. Newman essays the titular figure as a character part, with his handsome features hidden behind a scruffy beard (his hair has all gone white by the end) and little display of his trademark ruggedness and mischievous charm. Ironically, despite the phenomenal box-office success of movies like THE STING (1973) and THE TOWERING INFERNO (1974), the Seventies weren’t particularly distinguished for Newman as an actor and his performance here is arguably his best work of the decade!
The film is generally elegiac in mood (especially during its last act when the Old West is all but vanquished in the name of progress) and episodic in nature, with a plethora of stars turning up for just one sequence or scene: Anthony Perkins as a preacher, Tab Hunter as a convicted murderer, Stacy Keach as an albino badman who terrorizes the town, John Huston himself as the owner of a sideshow attraction (an amiable beer-guzzling bear which eventually comes in handy to the Judge), Roddy MacDowall – who has the largest role of all is an ambitious lawyer (he’s subsequently appointed mayor and eventually becomes an oil tycoon), Anthony Zerbe as a mugger, and Michael Sarrazin – whose “participation” extends merely to sharing a photo with Jacqueline Bisset (as the Judge’s daughter)! The latter, then, provides undeniable eye-candy along with Victoria Principal (radiant in her film debut) as Bean’s Mexican lover and Bisset’s own mother – while Ava Gardner’s Lilly Langtry only shows up at the very end after Bean himself, who worshiped the celebrated actress, has died; Ned Beatty is also quietly impressive as the most loyal of Bean’s gang (who actually prefers tending bar to performing his duties of deputy!).
The best/funniest bits are: Bean assuming control of the town after a near-lynching, Principal shooting repeatedly at a whore (a potential rival for Bean’s affections) and being thrown to the ground with the force of each blast, Bean’s entire gang shooting in unison at a drunkard who dared take a potshot at Lilly Langtry’s portrait, Keach’s cartoonish demise, and Bean and Gang’s epic Last Stand. As had been the case with BUTCH CASSIDY’s Oscar-winning “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head”, the film features a recurring song motif in “Marmalade, Molasses And Honey” (music by Maurice Jarre, lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman) – which also ended up nominated, but is nowhere near as memorable as that Burt Bacharach/Hal David classic (though Jarre’s score, in itself, is quite good). For that matter, neither is Huston’s film up to the George Roy Hill masterpiece – though it’s certainly better than the talky Robert Altman-directed Buffalo Bill pic.
By the way, William Wyler’s THE WESTERNER (1940) had been another film which centered around Judge Roy Bean: played as a semi-villain by Walter Brennan, that characterization had led to his third Oscar. I own it on VHS but, since this month’s schedule is absolutely crammed with movies I need to watch in tribute to someone or other (including JUDGE ROY BEAN itself to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Huston’s passing!), I couldn’t possibly fit it in...
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