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The name's Spikes, Harry Spikes. I'm a bank robber boys.
The Spikes Gang is directed by Richard Fleischer and adapted to screenplay by Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr. from the novel The Bank Robber written by Giles Tippette. It stars Lee Marvin, Gary Grimes, Ron Howard and Charles Martin Smith. Music is by Fred Karlin and cinematography by Brian West.
Happening upon an injured man, three boys nurse him back to health and learn that he is bank robber Harry Spikes (Marvin). Enchanted by his tales and way of life, the boys decide to form their own gang and eventually linking up with Spikes who then teaches them the tricks of his trade. However, the outlaw life is not as romantic as the boys first envisaged...
It's filmed in DeLuxe Color and the location photography is out of Tabernas, Almería, Andalucía in Spain. Yet the colours and landscape contours are not vivid, they are deliberately pared back so as to not give the impression this is a vibrant yeehaw tale of young spunkers on the lam. The Spikes Gang is ripe with a foreboding atmosphere about the innocence of youth corrupted by stretching too far for romanticism. The boys home life out there on the frontier is painted as sad, even grim, with bad or absent parents featuring strongly, it's not hard to buy into the fact these impressionable young men in waiting yearn for adventure.
Once out there striding for fortune and notorious glory, the lads find the harsh realities of outlaw life. No money means no food, and to rob people you have to be prepared to use violence, and to then take the consequences of those actions, be it emotionally or by having a price then put on your own young heads. Hooking up with Spikes seems the cool thing to do, he becomes a surrogate father and he at least gives them skills to survive a basic outlaw way of life. There's hope dangled, even much humour inserted into the narrative, but there's always an air of disillusionment lurking around the corner as this character study unscrews the myths of the West.
Which leads to what? A moral lesson? Perhaps? Well what we do know is that it builds gently, with Fleischer adroitly forming his characters and garnering superb performances from his cast (one of Marvin's best turns actually) in the process. Once the finale plays its hand, it's of such sadness to leave an indelible impression that anyone of sound heart will find hard to shake from the memory bank. Western legends Arthur Hunnicutt and Noah Beery pop in to the picture to add some weight, the former quite excellent with a pitiful characterisation that really kick- starts the emotional wattage, while the contributions of Karlin and West are faultless in terms of screenplay alliance.
Judged harshly by the jaded critics of the time and mostly ignored at the box office, The Spikes Gang may just be one of the most under valued Westerns of the 70s. Whether it was bad timing due to the direction the Western genre was taking at the time of release I'm not sure, but this is an elegiac treat waiting to be rediscovered by the Western lover. 8/10
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