Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Not Delmer Daves' best work, but a rather good movie, Cowboy makes an effort to de-glamorize the myth of the Western cowpoke while stretching the acting range of the then-new Columbia star Jack Lemmon. Well-structured, it never quite becomes a classic. It might have had a better chance on DVD if Columbia TriStar hadn't hobbled it with a full frame-only transfer. More on that later.
Cattleman Tom Reese (Glenn Ford) does a long trail drive every year, ending up with a wild party for his cowboys for which he hires an entire floor of a Chicago hotel. Hotel clerk Frank Harris (Jack Lemmon) sheds his city clothes and joins Tom on his next drive, claiming that adventure and the great outdoors is his dream occupation. But what he doesn't admit is that he's after a beautiful Mexican Señorita, Maria Vidal (Anna Kashfi), and wants to make
a name for himself - her father is also a cattleman from the Southwest, and won't have a hotel 'servant' for a son-in-law.
Cowboy doesn't promote the connection, but it's the autobiography of a real Frank Harris, who apparently did indeed start as a dude and go West to see what all the excitement was about in cattle country. It's basically a trail drive movie in the tradition of Red River and The Tall Men, but refreshingly unconcerned with grand themes. It concentrates instead on the grief, grit and anti-heroic reality of living with those smelly, troublesome, skittish animals called cows. Reese is just a well-to-do businessman, and has no plans to build a mighty West, gun down Mexicans to take their land, or chase Jane Russell.
As in just about everything he was in around this time, Glenn Ford handles both the drama and the comedy well. He's tough enough to make you believe he likes the Jack Lemmon character without going all soft inside. Lemmon is a good actor who tends to overact in really serious work. In my estimation, the goodwill he sparked in his best comedies (Mr. Roberts, The Apartment , Some Like
it Hot , Avanti! ) doesn't translate to Oscar-sniffing roles like Days of Wine and Roses and the insufferable Save the Tiger. There's a fine line between his romantic mensch characters and the strained whining of pictures like The Out-of-Towners. Just before this film, Columbia put him in an unlikely concoction called Fire Down Below , trying him out as a tough-guy sailor. Next to authentic tough guy Robert Mitchum, Lemmon looks like a silly fool in a striped T-shirt, and the idea of them competing on an even basis for Rita Hayworth is laughable (nice song, though).
Here, Lemmon is great as the wanna-be hotel clerk, and thanks to a good script, remains credible as he hardens on the trail. He learns his lesson about women the hard way: The beautiful señorita who batted her eyes at him in Chicago turns out to be out of his reach - at least for now. She's played by an Indian actress, Anna Kashfi, who had been in The Mountain a couple of years earlier and only made a few pictures, including the elusive Night of the Quarter Moon by Hugo Haas. She had me completely fooled that she was Latin in origin.
Without being too strident about it, Cowboy pulls the cowhide rug out from under genre conventions. One of the gang gets himself into trouble in town, and Lemmon finds that nobody, even the 'heroic' trail boss, has the slightest intention of attempting a noble rescue. A luckless cowpoke (young Strother Martin) gets snake-bit during some unnecessary horseplay. When his buddies realize there's no stopping the poison, he's quietly allowed to die without any undue histrionics. And Lemmon's grand gesture to show off for the girl he can't have is sidetracked by
Ford. The matter is just dropped.
Most of the situations are muted, especially a very nice character played by aging actor Brian Donlevy. He's a gunfighter who's joined up with the drive because his heart's no longer into defending his reputation. We immediately suspect this is a setup for a later gunfight scene. But age has turned Donlevy into a kinder, gentler man no longer up to the game, and his character arc is resolved just the way it might in real life - off-screen, with little our 'heroes' can do about it.
Cowboy makes its modest points and ends before really striking any deep chords, but the ones it does hit, stick. It gets a solid A-.
Columbia's DVD of Cowboy is one of their unwelcome new 'full frame only' transfers, that have been sneaking out of late - Homicidal and The 3 Worlds of Gulliver are two Savant has reviewed but there are a lot more. Columbia was once a label with such a good record for aspect ratios, I wrote in these pages that I would buy one of their discs with the package details unread. While visiting the studio a couple of years ago, I saw a stack of HDTV video masters for
Cowboy -- which amounted to a lot of tapes: flat, flat letterbox, 16:9 letterbox, all in both PAL and NTSC. Until the very recent (March 2002) shut-down of their HDTV facility, they were mastering all of their titles in every format and appropriate AR. Almost every Columbia disc released was 16:9 if the original film was wider than Academy ratio. Even 1954, the very first year that widescreen 'bloomed', was represented by The Caine Mutiny -- presented both flat full frame, and widescreen 16:9.
What's the big deal? This becomes important when you show the film on a large-screen monitor. An anamorphic 16:9 image stays sharp, but when the flat versions are blown up (cropping off the top and bottom as they should be), the picture loses clarity and brightness. The whole point of getting studios to continue their commitment to 16:9 enhancement is that that's what they promised us in the first place when they introduced DVD in 1997 -- a better picture, a video picture as impressive and pleasing as a theatrical one, albeit on a smaller scale. I looked at an original brochure from 1997 the other day (not from Columbia), and it proclaimed that 'all releases would have four languages, four sets of subtitles, closed captioning, multiple aspect ratios,' etc. The mass market for DVD has finally come to fruition, but if it means dumbing-down and feature-stripping the format to the level of VHS releases, there are going to be several million angry and vocal voices raised.
Cowboy is a nice movie, one that would have benefited from a 'big sky' look. Being deprived of this particular show in 16:9 isn't bringing tears to my eyes. What makes Savant uneasy is the erosion of quality in the DVD market. Several studios are flirting with it. DIVX happily self-destructed but with studio attitudes toward excellence as capricious as they are, this problem won't go away as easily.
The flat transfer of Cowboy is actually rather grainy, clearly due to less-than-optimum surviving film materials. Some scenes look worse than others, but many optical sections get pretty grungy-looking with the grain. Color is also variable, with nice hues at night and indoors, and some rather leeched scenes along the trail. An amusing trailer is included that contrasts the flood of standard Western programming with this film. It must use the word 'Real' 50 times.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: May 14, 2002
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson