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An unusual western that contrasts European social upheavals with a romantic vision of possibilities in the New World, Claude LeLouch's Another man, another chance is another one of his epics that spans continents and years to tell its story. Best known here for his romantic hit A Man and a Woman, LeLouch expanded his dramas onto the larger canvasses of Toute un vie (And Now My Love) and Les uns et les autres (Bolero), stories that skipped over time periods, and even to the future. For charm and warmth LeLouch always scored high. In terms of pacing and emphasis, his stories sometimes came up slack and misshapen. Un autre homme, une autre chance was filmed in France and Arizona, in two languages. The narrative gets off to a rough start, but the likeable characters win our interest. Star James Caan projects more of a romantic spark than does the leading lady Genvieve Bujold, under direction that oddly subdues some emotional scenes while painting others in broad strokes. U.S. audiences stayed away when United Artists released the picture in 1977, at a time when viewers were going to see Star Wars for the fourth time instead of trying something new. Another man, another chance seems to be trying its hardest to dash its own commercial prospects, but there's an interesting and affecting movie within.
Curiously, although the movie isn't as visually exciting as Heaven's Gate, it's far more rewarding on an emotional level.
1870. Paris is starving as a result of another war, but Jeanne (Genevieve Bujold) is doing fairly well; her father is a baker and can set aside enough to bake a beautiful cake for his daughter's engagement to a handsome soldier. Jeanne rejects her beau and instead runs off to America with the adventurous, artistic Francis Leroy (Francis Huster), a photographer intent on making it to the Wild West, where there's more than two hours of useful sunlight per day for his pictures. Jeanne gets pregnant on the way, and they're married during their journey by wagon train. Meanwhile, rural veterinarian David Williams (James Caan) is in a different situation. His good wife Mary (Jennifer Warren of Night Moves) is lonely and unfulfilled, and wants David to return with her to Philadelphia. She's pregnant too.
The story that follows includes violent tragedies, run-ins with bandits and pleasant personalities like the runaway wife/schoolteacher Alice (Susan Tyrell). Events finally transpire to make Jeanne and David's paths cross. Life is difficult for Jeanne, who only wants to earn enough to return to France. But a fortune-teller once told her that she'd never leave America.
Claude LeLouch's directing style can be off-putting at first. He's in love with elaborate one-shot moving master scenes, where his camera roams down a French breadline, through a hospital ward and out to see a group of soldiers in the street. In Arizona, David Williams enters a corral on horseback, talks to a fellow cowboy, rides into a herd and ropes a sick steer in one unbroken shot. We can't help but be aware of the unbroken camera action, an effect that takes away as much realism as it adds. Similarly, LeLouch compounds the problem of Delmer Daves, who overused his camera crane on some of his best westerns (3:10 to Yuma, The Hanging Tree.) LeLouch adds a slight zoom to his crane moves, making the impressive shots look like modern sports coverage as the landscape perspectives shift before our eyes. The effect is not very "1876".
But the movie knows how to use its resources. The master shots in the Paris scenes and the Wild West town are large and expensive but not grandiosely out of control. Scenes reveal the presence of a great many welcome character faces, all in subordinated roles as opposed to cameo appearances: Michael Berryman, Richard Farnsworth, Robert Tessier, Burton Gilliam, Charles Horvath, Vincent Schiavelli. Familiar LeLouch performer Jacques Villeret is excellent as a fellow passenger on the America-bound sailing ship.
The film is relaxed and leisurely, yet never seems slow. Many scenes take place on nondescript grassy hills. Then again, we never quite get used to having Beethoven's 5th provide the musical backing for transition scenes, even when the story gets to Arizona. And sometimes the narrative leaps leave us wondering. Jeanne's husband goes missing over a time gap of several years, and until a flashback comes along to catch us up with the story, we don't know what's going on. The storytelling is not efficient in the American sense, but most of the time it has a likeable rhythm.
The domestic scenes and idle exchanges are quite nice. David is stubborn but sweet to his wife Mary, and more or less forces the woman to stay in a situation that she hates. He gambles and does funny things like play billiards on horseback, but he's faithful to her. Francis Leroy can't make enough money in his photo parlor, where the running joke is that all the locals want their pictures taken in front of a backdrop of France, not the old west. Jeanne wants to return to France, but her own daughter hasn't picked up the language. The movie has several charming scenes where David attempts to learn Jeanne's mother tongue. Jeanne's reluctance to get involved with him is beautifully expressed, when one of these French lessons is compared via flashback with an English lesson she remembers from her ocean voyage. It's an unusually delicate and touching moment.
LeLouch's script plays against expectations. Wartime Paris is far more dangerous than the wilds of Arizona -- Francis and Jeanne look in vain for Indian attacks that never come. The violence that occurs comes from local white scum and vindictive men out for justice. David is one of these, although he remains quiet about it. We hear talk of Jesse James and Billy the Kid. 1 David's son Simon proves to be a better shot than his father, while schoolmarm Susan Tyrell is an eccentric mystery woman who loves the kids she boards and pampers, but can't spell to save her soul. Good opportunities to watch the wonderful actress Ms. Tyrell in action are scarce.
Another man, another chance winds up with a big newspaper-sponsored handicap race between runners, wagon drivers and horsemen; it's a chance to see James Caan ride in an Oklahoma Land Rush- style scene. There follows a tense scene of vengeance. But the movie ends on a completely neutral wide shot, without a musical background or any accompanying effort to give the audience the kind of lift that would have them leaving the theater on a positive note. If Another man, another chance were radically re-edited it's probable that LeLouch's special tone would be lost. But letting it loose on an American audience with this finish was box office suicide. It plays much better on home video, where we can appreciate the movie's truly remarkable grace notes, and its French POV on the western myth.
The MGM Limited Edition Collection DVD of Another man, another chance looks very good in this enhanced widescreen transfer, with excellent color. This is one of MGM's better-quality releases. The audio is quite clear as well. A choice of tracks is given -- multi-language or English, and English subtitles are offered.
The one-sentence plot description on the MGM website and the disc package gives away the story's biggest surprise. Also included is a horribly scratchy and faded copy of United Artists' original trailer, a terrible edit that would surely drive away potential patrons. No wonder so many European directors come here to make movies, only to give up and return home.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Another man, another chance rates:
1. There must be longer early or foreign versions where Billy the Kid and Jesse James appear in one form or another -- the cast list says that they're played by actors Tony Crupi and Christopher Lloyd.
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T'was Ever Thus.