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The Big Bounce

The Big Bounce
Warner DVD
1969 / Color / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 102 min. / Street Date March 2, 2004 / 19.98
Starring Ryan O'Neal, Leigh Taylor-Young, Van Heflin, Lee Grant, James Daly, Robert Webber, Cindy Eilbacher
Cinematography Howard Schwartz
Original Music Mike Curb
Written by Robert Dozier from the novel by Elmore Leonard
Produced by William Dozier
Directed by Alex March

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The new (2004) version of The Big Bounce just did a no-show at the boxoffice, a perfect match for this 1969 original version. One of the earliest post-Valenti R rated studio features to routinely include nudity, it nevertheless got little attention. It introduced Ryan O'Neal to the big screen and also marked an early screen outing for the non-western work of Elmore Leonard (Get Shorty).


Drifter Jack Ryan (Ryan O'Neal) refuses to leave the vegetable-picking agricultural valley overseen by foreman Bob Rodgers (Robert Webber) and instead takes a caretaker job for local ex-judge and motel owner Sam Mirakian (Van Heflin). Ryan's courted by divorcee Joanne (Lee Grant) but really hangs around to sample the charms offered by the seductive, unpredictable Nancy Barker (Leigh Taylor-Young), the mistress of the local politico hotshot Ray Ritchie (James Daly). Sam warns Ryan, but the young man doesn't listen - Nancy is a weirdo, a user always looking for a new 'bounce' - her version of twisted kicks.

In 1969 Hollywood was in a mess. Universal was passing off TV movies shot in Techniscope as big screen feature work, and the other studios were split between big-budget flops and low-budget stabs at a phantom 'youth market' that nobody could define. This modestly-budgeted thriller came from a new kind of hardboiled novel and was probably green-lit by Warner-7 Arts because of its sexy, youthful leading characters. Elmore Leonard's 'tough-guy' novel The Big Bounce was more of a murderous soap opera instead of a story of crime or detective work, and took as its target the monied & powerful of rural California. The film spends about 90 seconds in the cucumber fields where young punk Ryan O'Neal bums as a farm laborer, and shows him raking trash for maybe a minute outside the hotel where he works as a handyman. The rest of the time, he's being fashionably insolent to authority figures or chasing the dangerous female of the story, Leigh-Taylor Young's bad-girl troublemaker.

The general pitch is that society is rotten. Young's lover-boss is a millionaire who buys politicians and expects her to sleep with them. Farm foreman Robert Webber is a married man already twisted around Young's greedy fingers. Honest old Van Heflin is a jaded curmudgeon who doesn't believe in anything, but takes a liking to Ryan's insubordinate manner.

Ryan gets to hang out with the crazy, teasing Young and tries to understand the cheap games of vandalism and petty theft, that she calls 'bounces.' They make love in a graveyard, and break into a house. Eventually she tries to blackmail him into stealing for her, as the patsy in a old-fashioned murder scheme.

Ryan O'Neal looks good and can say his lines but is pretty vacant; he didn't bloom as an actor until teaming up with Peter Bogdanovich a few years later. Coming straight from TV's Peyton Place he dawdled through a couple of features before striking it big in 1970's Love Story, a perplexing nothing romance that was the first of the 1970s blockbuster pictures. His awful-in-a-different-way murder story Tough Guys Don't Dance was an awkward late-career return to material vaguely similar to this first starring thriller.

Ryan's then-wife Leigh-Taylor Young is sleek and attractive as Nancy, but her kittenish pranks are unconvincing and her attempt to be a noir-ish conniving seductress too transparent. She's not all that enticing, actually. Of the characters, only Van Heflin's trash-talking old dude sees through her.

The new freedom of the screen allows The Big Bounce to decorate what is basically a television film with a bit more violence (Ryan smacks a man in the face with a ball bat in the very first scene) and a lot of gratuitous nudity. The film keeps giving us scenes where Young goes skinny dipping, etc., and it gets old. The slightly stylized dialogue skips the usual profanities. Van Heflin's dialogue is peppered with coarse expressions, and a streak of crude humor, as when Young teases the emasculated 'little pickle' Robert Webber, and he tries to disguise an erection. It all looks out of place in the TV-movie surroundings.

None of this is done with any art or style. There are some nicely-lit night scenes, but the rest of the picture is visually flat. The music score by Mike Curb is just plain horrible - TV-movie muzak blended with fake rock vibes. It's the most distracting and ugly part of the picture. Director Alex March stepped up-market for barely this one picture and then returned to the small tube to continue a long and successful television career.

Except for Heflin and Lee Grant, the actors push their hard-boiled dialogue a little too hard, as if they didn't understand how it's supposed to work. The subplot with sad Lee Grant and her kid trying to attract Ryan is a phony bid for sympathy that backfires; Ryan doesn't really learn anything from the experience.

The cheap murder story culminates in a cynical gundown. The only un-glamorous character loses his life, and the film ends with nobody punished for their sins. It's funny that, under the older production code censorship with its 'approved' subject restrictions, any attempt to inject cynical reality into homogenized Hollywood movies was refreshing. The Big Bounce has the freedom to do most anything it wants but comes off as a tepid show with nothing to say.

Warner's DVD of The Big Bounce reproduces the bright colors and Panavision width of the original theatrical presentation. The terrible musical score unfortunately comes along as well. There aren't any extras. The attractive packaging reproduces the look of the original posters while adding a new copy line that prompts the literary connection to Get Shorty. This one's for curious fans of O'Neal and Young, or minor hardboiled thrillers.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Big Bounce rates:
Movie: Fair
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: none
Packaging: Snapper case
Reviewed: February 8, 2003

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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