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Well, not 'the best', perhaps, but an interesting and stylish western
starring Kirk Douglas, who also produced and directed it. Bruce Dern is
great as Strawhorn, the bad guy who ends up stealing the
Howard Nightingale is running for a seat in the US Senate. He is a man of great complexity, and one trait very much to the fore in his personality is a ruthless desire to impress the voters. He has assembled a posse of rangers, his own personal uniformed army of crimebusters. Nightingale (played by Douglas) has calculated that he can win the election on a clear-the-territory-of-lowlifes ticket. He and his posse are hunting down Strawhorn, and have fitted out a crusade train for the purpose of capturing their prey. The plan is to grab Strawhorn and hang him just in time for the election.
Nightingale is in the pocket of the railroad owners. The local newspaper is the Tesota Sentinel, and one of the film's themes is the valuable role played by the press in speaking truth to those in power. One-armed, one-legged journalist Harold Hellman (played by James Stacy, who had recently lost both limbs on a motor cycle accident) is the equal of the photogenic wannabe Senator. Nightingale works the crowd with glib words, but his position is being eroded by a different formula of words - that used by The Sentinel.
One of the film's elegant touches is the photography motif. At various points in the story, the participants pose to have their picture taken, and the resulting stills form a freeze-frame chronicle of the action. A lot of post-production work went into dubbing extraneous voices onto the soundtrack, so that the crowd scenes are laced with apposite little remarks.
A violently-burning train provides terrific visuals, as well as offering acerbic comment on Nightingale's political aspirations. The film's concluding message, that by its nature a standing army is a threat to democracy, is well made - as is the point about the fickleness of public opinion.
Verdict - A clever, enjoyable little western.
Kirk Douglas had already directed the somewhat terrible Scalawag in
1973, but that previous flop did not deter him from having a second
stab at the directing job a couple of years on. Fortunately, Posse is a
much more accomplished film than Scalawag in every way: Douglas's own
direction is more assured, the script by Christopher Knopf and William
Roberts is very literate and clever, and Fred Koenekamp's
cinematography has a good, professional look about it. By 1975, one
would have thought that there would be little mileage left in the
western genre. It seemed that nothing new could be done, but this one
comes up with a fresh twist by having the "hero" gradually revealed as
an unlikable and ambitious social climber.
Marshal Howard Nightingale (Douglas) publicly announces that he will bring in infamous railroad bandit Jack Strawhorn (Bruce Dern). Although Strawhorn is a criminal of considerable notoriety - and definitely a man who belongs behind bars - Nightingale has an ulterior motive for apprehending his man. For the good Marshal has decided to run for the Texan senate, and believes that if he can nail Strawhorn - painting himself as a hero into the bargain - he will win over plenty of voters. Gradually, more and more people begin to see through Nightingale's selfish and egotistical political plans. His own posse have their doubts about how they will figure in the Marshal's future schemes; a news editor named Hellman (James Stacy) expresses distrust over the Marshal's ludicrously self-important opinion of himself; even Strawhorn eventually realises what his sly adversary is up to. Ultimately, Nightingale loses his posse and his public favour, with a little clever intervention from Strawhorn, and sees his political dreams left in tatters.
The critical response to Posse was much more favourable than Douglas's previous directing attempt, and deservedly so. The western action in the film is good, solid stuff, not too violent (as was the trend in '75), but certainly tough enough to satisfy genre addicts. Douglas gives a strong performance as the absurdly self-obsessed marshal, and Dern is even better as the charismatic, even likable, bandit. The subversive nature of the plot (hero gradually turns out to be villain, villain gradually turns out to be hero) is intriguing and fairly fresh, and helps to add interest to the film. While Posse has occasional lulls, and a few noticeably amateurish performances lower down the cast list, it remains a fresh, interesting, and intriguing addition to a virtually exhausted genre.
One thing about Kirk Douglas is that he's never been afraid to let the
public see him as a bad guy. It's a great tribute to his ability as an
actor to develop such a wide range of characters from the heroic
Spartacus to the villainous George Brougham in The List of Adrian
Posse falls somewhere in the middle of those two films in terms of the good versus evil scale for Kirk Douglas. Politicians running on "law and order" platforms were just coming into vogue at the time and this western is spot on about those kind of politicians and the motivations behind them.
Kirk Douglas is a U.S. Marshal with political ambitions to be a United States Senator. He's got his photographer with him to record his exploits and travels on a private railroad car provided by the railroad.
He's on the trail of outlaw Jack Strawhorn, played by Bruce Dern. Before capturing Strawhorn, Douglas and his posse burn alive Dern's gang in a barn fire and then butcher another group of misfits he's put together even as they want to surrender.
What I like most about Posse is that it doesn't try to make Dern out any kind of a hero. He's an outlaw the way some people are grocers, bakers, shoemakers, etc. This may very well have been Bruce Dern's best screen role.
It turns out that Dern is a far better judge of human nature than the fatuous Douglas is. The town of Tesota, Texas where most of the action takes place is very much sadder and wiser when the film concludes.
A lot of the same themes are covered in the more acclaimed The Unforgiven with Clint Eastwood who also starred and directed himself. But I think Kirk Douglas got there first.
The outlaw Jack Strawhorn (Bruce Dern) is betrayed by one of his men,
Pensteman (David Canary), after robbing US$ 40,000.00 from a train.
During the night, his gang is ambushed in a barn by Marshal Howard
Nightingale (Kirk Douglas) and his posse that set fire on the place,
burning the criminals and the money, but Strawhorn escapes from the
attack. He heads to Tesota, Texas, where he kills Pensteman and the
local sheriff. Meanwhile, the ambitious Marshal Nightingale that is
running for the senate is traveling by train with his posse to Tesota,
expecting to capture Strawhorn to help him to win the elections.
Nightingale succeeds in his manhunt and poses of hero, but while
Strawhorn is in the jail, he poisons the posse asking what will happen
with them after the election of their boss. During the transportation
of Strawhorn for judgment by train, the outlaw reverts the situation
and captures Nightingale. Now he demands the same amount he lost in the
fire to release Nightingale and the posse force the locals to give the
money to rescue the marshal.
"Posse" is a western with a cynical and amoral tale of leadership, disloyalty and greedy. The twist in the very end is totally unexpected and all the characters are despicable and disloyal with no exception. Marshal Howard Nightingale is probably the worst, with all the characteristics that politicians usually have. James Stacy lost his left arm and left leg when he was riding a motorcycle with his girlfriend and they were struck by a drunk driver that also killed his girlfriend. My vote is seven.
Title (Brazil): "Ambição Acima da Lei" ("Ambition above the Law")
U.S Marshal Howard Nightingale is a man who has big political
aspirations and to achieve this dream. He and his posse of deputies go
after an out-law Jack Strawhorn. When Nightingale captures Strawhorn,
just like his other captors or conquests he exploits it through the
media for public support. Strawhorn would be Nightingale's ticket into
the US senate, but Strawhorn thinks otherwise.
Can westerns be too low-key? 'Posse' felt so. Kirk Douglas directs and stars in this understated, but thoroughly ambitious under-the-radar western that had something cynical to say when it came to its closing credits. Quite heavy-handed and aware of its messages (money buys loyalty with the guys donning their badges being no better than the outlaws and representing an image (the people's?) to manipulative achieve a politically upper-hand), but the story's format is just so odd and subversive. The western conventions are there, but by the end William Roberts and Christopher Knopf's cleverly sharp (if sly) material basically turned it upside down with an ironic turn of events. It has that fragrance of the pioneer Hollywood westerns, but its punishing violence and sexual inclusions with a quiet, but powerful conclusion roots it in the 70s. The unusual theme to it and the effortlessly collected and cool-witted performances of Kirk Douglas and Bruce Dern (who shared a terrific chemistry) cover for how mechanical the film did look. Nothing totally skillful or stylish about it. Douglas' direction is raggedly rough and a little too plain. However some action shootouts and chase sequences were competently entertaining, but when the violence did hit, it wasn't presented in such a meaningless parade. It went hand-to-hand with the thoughtful nature of the script. Dick O'Neill's taut, but at times flashy photography is fluidly shot and Maurice Jarre's uncanny score is strongly delivered. Supporting Douglas and Dern (who's character's made great for sparing confrontations) is excellent performances by Bo Hopkins, James Stacy, Beth Brickell, Dick O'Neill and Alfonso Arau. A western that's too interesting to pass up because of the calculating tone lurking underneath.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
kirk douglas being a rather intelligent man, I was still a little surprised the way this movie turned out. I didn't think he had that much OOMPH in him or whatever. The good guy is the bad guy and the bad guy is the good guy - that's always a good start. But then the good/bad guy gets too greedy and forgets about paying his men decently and then they leave him. If it was only like that in reality! Things have become too complicated today with too big societies and the crooks just too stupid and coward. they don't steal from the rich anymore - they steal from the poor and when they don't get caught they get to be presidents or whatever. Where is the modern day Robin Hood? Nowhere or maybe the media just refuse to write about him - who knows? Anyway, great finish on a film that, without this glorious OOMPH, would have been mediocre. Kirk belonged to the old school of decency and he shows it here. By the way, it's he, who plays the bad guy, in case you would miss it.
Bet you didn't know that Kirk Douglas took the director's chair a couple of
times, POSSE being one of them. If you like westerns, like me, you'll
probably find this decent. The movie does suffer from the middle third of
the movie, where the story pretty much grinds to a halt. Though this part
wasn't really boring, it will probably make you wish they would get on with
it. Also, the actions taken by certain characters near the end, though
having some justification, didn't seem to have enough justification.
On the positive side, POSSE is well shot, well acted, good production values, and an interesting ending. It's worth seeing.
P.S. - Leonard Maltin's description of this movie isn't exactly how the movie plays.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The BBC showed a documentary on the career of Kirk Douglas tonight and as it
normally does after a retrospective look on a star`s life it showed one of
their films . Strangely it wasn`t one of Douglas`s classics like PATHS OF
GLORY, LUST FOR LIFE , or SPARTACUS but a western from the 1970s I`d never
seen called POSSE . Oh well at least they didn`t show CACTUS JACK
***** SLIGHT SPOILERS *****
For someone who normally dislikes westerns I found POSSE very enjoyable for the first third . Jack Strawhorn escapes town after shooting a couple of men and Howard Nightengale leads a posse after him . This is good Peckinpah inspired stuff as the Nightengale boys catch up with Strawhorn gang and decide they`re not going to take any prisoners . But then the middle third becomes too talkative while the final third feels more and more anachronistic as Strawhorn decides to end Nightengale`s political career . This seems to comment more on modern America than the wild west , though I do suppose that money was the root of all evil back in those days too hence the very unlikely ending .
Not the best western ever made and not the best film Douglas has starred in but solid enough entertainment
On screen I find Kirk Douglas to be without peer, but I have come to
admire him as much if not more for his real-life advocacy of some
highly unorthodox, yet worthy projects.
If this movie doesn't rank among his very best, it is still remarkable for how unapologetically it goes against the grain and makes a very bold personal statement (one that was not so popular at the time but resonates to this day). All the while he is producing and directing himself in what proves to be a rather unflattering role. I can't think of anyone else who would have the real-life grit to do such a thing - Kirk Douglas has done so repeatedly with aplomb.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Finally, after watching literally hundreds of westerns, score one for
the bad guy! Bruce Dern's character is Jack Strawhorn, a savvy train
robber with enough sense in the early going to know that his gang was
second best to Marshal Howard Nightingale's (Kirk Douglas) lawmen.
Savvy enough also to allow himself to be captured than to foolishly
throw down with Nightingale when he had the upper hand. Strawhorn's
capture virtually assures Nightingale of an election win for a U.S.
Senate seat, a position he's angling for with a lot more ambition on
his mind than simply serving the people.
As the story plays out though, things get a whole lot murkier, so much so that the finale winds up totally at odds with any sense of credibility. Granted, Nightingale's men spend a fair amount of time worrying about what will happen to them should he pack up for Washington, D.C. Here's what bothers me though - whose payroll were they actually on to begin with? They were uniformed officers and all wore stars; Nightingale's title was that of a Marshal. So why wouldn't they have remained no worse off than their present circumstances? I can understand them shaking down the town to save the life of their boss, but then to turn around and split up the money just because Strawhorn suggested it just doesn't make sense to me.
Other than the ending that proved a letdown for this viewer, the film does have some fine points to offer. The cinematography is more than adequate, and the hijacked train on fire was an exciting touch. There are also two outstanding scenes where horses go above and beyond the call of duty. The first involves a mount going over a cliff and into the water at the Mexican camp, and later when Styrawhorn attempts his getaway from the train on horseback. How does one get a horse to take those crazy spills?
Pay attention to the scene when Strawhorn plans his breakout on the train. He rigs a garrote from a piece of wire taken apart from a broom and lashes Wesley (Bo Hopkins) tightly by the neck to the bars of the cell. Later when Wesley answers Strawhorn's call to come to his room where Nightingale is kept hostage, there isn't even the slightest hint of redness or abrasion on his neck from the event.
One other comment bears mentioning that came across unintentionally funny. The train bearing Nightingale's posse is clearly marked as the Texas and Arizona Rail Road. While stationed at the town of Tesota, three of Nightingale's randy men entertain women folk of the town in secluded quarters. Interestingly, there's a shot of one of the train cars with the abbreviated name - 'T.& A. R.R.' For Wesley and the boys, it certainly was.
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