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I reviewed a German disc of this fine western a year ago, and rushed to see if Kino's new Blu-ray looked as good. It won't be out until the end of July, so if it appeals mark your calendar now.
Even before The Wild Bunch there were "elegiac" westerns bemoaning the closing of the frontier. The West was less 'won' than it was overrun by Eastern civilization and business interests, bringing to an end the freedom it once represented. Anthony Mann's Man of the West and Sam Peckinpah's earlier Ride the High Country are obvious examples of this trend, but the same themes can be seen in westerns from the silent days. Just the same, starting perhaps with Tom Gries' Will Penny, the screen saw a number of 'sundown' semi-tragedies, tales of cowboys and rodeo stars forced to watch as their way of life is made extinct. Being downers by nature, most of these pictures weren't exactly popular.
The best of the bunch is possibly 1970's Monte Walsh, a beautifully filmed tale of Montana cowboys driven from their jobs by Eastern investors. Winter cattle-minders Monte Walsh and Chet Rollins (Lee Marvin & Jack Palance) return with the thaw to find that all the local ranches have sold out to a combine. Foreman Cal Brennan (Jim Davis) keeps one spread in operation. The two men are among the few local cowboys allowed to retain their jobs. Relaxed scenes observe ranching life, finding it both demanding and personally rewarding. When he can, Walsh retires to town to visit the French prostitute Martine Bernard (Jeanne Moreau), commonly known as The Countess due to her accent. Chet eventually defects to marry a widow (Allyn Ann McLerie) and happily take up work in her hardware store. Their boastful associate, bronc buster Shorty Austin (Mitchell Ryan) foolishly falls in with a pair of cowboys-turned criminals (Matt Clark and Billy Green Bush). With the ranch finally scheduled to fold, Monte travels to the next town to see where Martine has relocated. A shortage of cowboy customers forces her to wait tables to make a living. A big-time showman offers Monte good pay and star billing if he'll perform in a Wild West circus. Monte turns the job down with the prophetic words, "I ain't spittin' on my whole life".
Given the possible title Sunset Trail, the movie that became Monte Walsh began with Robert Aldrich and Fox, as a possible follow-up to Aldrich's big hit The Dirty Dozen. When Aldrich went in other directions with MGM, the project was sold to Cinema Center Films for $150,000.
The movie became an auspicious feature debut for cinematographer William A. Fraker, a Conrad Hall associate who broke out on his own shooting such distinctive films as Bullitt. Fraker begins with a title sequence showcasing Remington drawings, and many of his vistas of cowboys at work remind us of dramatic artwork of men and horses in motion. Lee Marvin and Jack Palance make an amusing pair of buddies, trading jokes and conspiring with the other cowpokes to give a foul-smelling cook a much-needed bath. Palance is especially impressive in his underplaying (!) of many scenes; his Chet is a sweet and inoffensive guy, something Palance didn't get to play very often. Monte engages in a muted competition with the hotshot Shorty Austin, and offers him some traveling money when Cal breaks the news about layoffs. The Eastern owners aren't vilified as villains, just absent speculators who would rather fence the land in and sit on it while waiting for an improved business climate -- perhaps a recovery of beef prices?
Director Fraker lends his scenes a European feel, filming several in lazy one-take master shots and just letting the characters behave. Relaxing after making love, Monte tries to roll a cigarette but Martine keeps interrupting him until he realizes that she wants to make love again. We observe how well they get along and hope they'll be smart enough to go somewhere together and try to make a life for themselves. The movie instead opts for muted tragedy. Rescues don't happen in the nick of time and sick people don't hold out long enough to give loved ones time to rush to their bedside. Monte finds himself undertaking a revenge quest, less to close accounts than to just have something relevant to do.
In one impressive action scene, Monte gets stone drunk at midnight and decides to break a horse in the middle of town. The bucking bronco rips up the corral, trashes several buildings and topples the town's water tower. The chaos is staged and filmed with more than enough realism, but it still seems wrong ... after Monte wrecks half of Main Street, nobody shows up to arrest him, or even protest. He simply walks away.
At the end we're likely to think, "Gee, what's so wrong with Monte joining the circus and getting rich?" Mama Cass sings the film's hopeful title song, "The Good Times Are Comin'". It's to William Fraker's credit that a movie with so much bad news doesn't leave us with a sick feeling. Quite to the contrary, Monte rides into his future with a positive attitude.
KL Studio Classics' Blu-ray of Monte Walsh is licensed from CBS. It appears to be identical to the Region A-B Blu-ray released last year by Explosive Media of Germany. If you've only seen this on DVD, the excellent HD transfer makes a big difference. Director Fraker frequently goes in for various 'atmospheres' and soft focus effects, flourishes that the added resolution prevents from dissolving into visual mush. The soundtrack sounds fresh as well, with composer John Barry contributing a stylish score to complement the film's muted emotions.
Originally Released by Cinema Center Films, a DVD came out from Paramount and CBS Video rather late (2010) in the DVD cycle. The German Blu-ray from last year had a few extras, but Kino offers none.
I remember seeing a giant billboard for Monte Walsh on Sunset Blvd. in 1970 but can't recall the film staying in theaters very long. After directing a poorly-distributed horror thriller called A Reflection of Fear, Bill Fraker finished his theatrical directing career on the major debacle The Legend of the Lone Ranger. That great property has seen nothing but bad luck ever since the corporation that owns it was so cruel to TV's original Lone Ranger Clayton Moore. I met Mr. Fraker when he was Director of Cinematography on '1941'. A real artist, he didn't let the massive scale of the production faze him in the least. His crack lighting crew and loyal camera staff worked beautifully together, pulling off elaborate, difficult shots as a routine. I never saw a take ruined by a camera malfunction.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Monte Walsh Blu-ray rates:
The version of this review on the Savant main site has additional images, footnotes and credits information, and may be updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.