The film was directed by Kirk Douglas, who also stars as lawman and aspiring politician Howard Nightingale. With the help of his deputies, Nightingale is on the trail of bank robber Jack Strawhorn (Bruce Dern). Strawhorn is soon captured, and as he plots his escape from the hangman's noose, Nightingale uses the arrest to ensure his election to the United States Senate.
With the Western dying a slow death in the '70s, Kirk Douglas made several that were nothing if not unique. He starred in The Villian (1979), a broad comedy that emulated the style of Warner Bros. cartoons (especially those featuring the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote). For Scalawag (1973), Douglas's only other directing credit, Stevenson's Treasure Island was adapted to the Old West (though the movie was filmed in Yugoslavia) and turned into a musical (!).
Though not nearly as bizarre, Posse definitely has an odd feel to it. There are several standard action set pieces, including a well-crafted sequence involving a train Strawhorn has commandeered. In addition, the scenes where Nightingale and Strawhorn try to outwit one another are entertaining and clever. Mostly though, Posse is about flip-flopping the expectations of moviegoers by making Dern, who had played countless Western psycho-killers, into a sympathetic character (though he still kills in self-defense), and Douglas into a charming but ruthless S.O.B.
For the most part this works. In a sense, the movie answers Butch and Sundance's oft-quoted line, "Who are those guys?" Nightingale and his deputies are, at least according to Christopher Knopf and William Roberts's script, ultimately even worse than the outlaws they're pursuing. In this sense the film recalls Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch and Robert Ryan's posse of low-lifes.
Douglas and Dern are both extremely good throughout, playing their roles with a cool intelligence, the kind of performances where without any dialogue you can read what's going on inside their heads, though their actions are often unpredictable.
Nightingale's politically savvy lawman uses Strawhorn's capture to its fullest advantage, misleadingly playing him up as something along the lines of a terrorist, and the town eats it up. After Nightingale's deputies wonder what will become of them after their boss is elected to congress, he slickly appeases (most of) them with a speech full of nostalgia but played with a disturbing glossy insincerity. Douglas, excellent here, must have known his share of disingenuous politicians and slippery Hollywood types.
Strawhorn's motives aren't as believable; he's too noble in attempting to expose Nightingale to the townsfolk when he should be trying to save his own neck. But Dern's understated performance makes the character work. Actor James Stacey, who had lost his left arm and leg in a motorcycle accident a year before this was made, has an interesting role as Hellman, a local newspaperman who questions Nightingale's willingness to have his campaign bankrolled by the railroaders. Whose interests, Hellman asks, is he ultimately looking after? Eventually, as Nightingale's political ambitions begin to fall like a house of cards the film's message, already overdone, lumbers front and center and the picture ends on a somewhat unsatisfying note.
The film is rather bland visually, with the art direction too tidy and freshly painted to be believable, and shot with little pictorial flair. Dick O'Neill plays a Matthew Brady-esque photographer, and a gimmicky device of showing action through the camera lens adds nothing.
Video & Audio
Filmed in Panavision, Paramount has given Posse a solid 16:9 transfer. There's some minor speckling here and there, but mostly the image looks like good with the print showing only minor age-related wear. There are two audio options: "restored" English mono (whatever that means -- restored from what?) and a 5.1 surround remix. The remix is unusually robust, with excellent separations in its sound effects and in Maurice Jarre's atypical score. There are optional (yellow) English subtitles and that's it; no French, no Spanish. Otherwise bare bones, there are no Extras, not even a trailer.
One suspects Posse didn't do much at the box office. The kind of audience that might have enjoyed the film just didn't go to see Westerns, and even the genre's regular audience had pretty much dried up. It's no lost masterpiece, but Posse is a small-scale success, original and interesting.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. He is presently writing a new book on Japanese cinema for Taschen.