Directed by Don Medford, 1971's The Hunting Party is a somewhat notoriously nasty little western backed by British financers, shot in Spain, scored by an Italian and featuring two of the three lead roles played by Americans. This makes it a somewhat international affair but it's clearly intended to feel like an American film in many ways, even if by the standards of the western genre up to this point it takes things to much stronger extremes than viewers might expect.
Brandt Ruger is a wealthy landowner and rancher who goes away on a hunting trip with a few friends, leaving his pretty young wife Melissa (Candice Bergen) alone in the family home. Brand is, to be blunt, a bastard. Before he leaves on the trip he roughs Melissa up and sexually assaults her. This is intercut with scenes of a cow being slaughtered (this film is not subtle). We never get the impression that Frank cares for Melissa much, he just sees her as another one of his many possessions, an object he owns and to which he's entitled to do what he pleases with.
Enter Frank Calder (Oliver Reed), a notorious bandit on the run, along with his posse of similarly criminally minded men. Frank is illiterate and when he comes across Melissa he kidnaps her, telling her that she wants him to teach him how to read. He doesn't know who she is or, just as importantly, who her husband is. Frank rapes Melissa too, but somehow with him it's different. She starts to fall for him. As many faults as he has, he still treats her better than her husband does in a lot of ways and before you know it, she's essentially left Brandt for Frank. Of course, when Frank gets back from his trip he's none too happy about this, and so he calls up his hunting party pals, loads up on rifles and ammo, and sets out to take back what's his.
It's easy to draw comparisons to the films of Sam Peckinpah here (there are elements of Straw Dogs at play), what with the heavy and bloody violence featured in the film and Medford's penchant for employing slow motion photography in a few scenes. Medford mostly did TV work, he was quite prolific in the various projects he helmed for the small screen, but he also directed the gritty Sidney Poitier thriller The Organization in 1971 as well (and of course, it's 1967 predecessor In The Heat Of The Night). He has a knack for staging violence in exciting and tense ways, and even if the film were to cut out the sexual assault scenes The Hunting Party would still have earned its R-rating for the bloody shoot outs and fights alone. For the most part, he paces the picture well, ensuring that we get enough character development to keep the principals interesting to the audience and to draw us into the story, but at the same time he's savvy enough to keep pushing forward with the plot. There are a few spots where the picture drags a bit but this doesn't really hurt anything all that much.
As to that character development, the movie doesn't deal in black and white so much as it does a lot of grey areas. There aren't really any good guys here, at least not in the traditional sense. In a more pedestrian story Brandt would have been the hero, putting a posse together to go out and save his wife from the criminal who has abducted her, but the movie makes it clear early on when he rapes her that this is not the case. His behavior while out with his friends is no better, we see him harass a Chinese prostitute and fool around behind Melissa's back. He's not out to save his wife, he's out to get back a possession. At the same time, while Frank is better to Melissa in a lot of ways he still forces himself on her and he's still a career criminal, taking what isn't his and killing who he needs to kill along the way. As to Melissa, we can sympathize with her to a large degree, and we can see why she'd want more out of life than she gets with Brandt, but in many ways she's trapped and has no choice but to let the two blustery alpha males fight it out.
Production values are solid. The cinematography captures the Spanish locations doubling for the American west quite nicely, there is some striking imagery here. Riz Ortolani's score has good dramatic weight behind it, managing to heighten both the dramatic scenes and the action scenes accordingly. Performances are strong across the board as well, with Reed and Hackman delivering work here that is as intense and powerful as you'd expect given their pedigrees. Bergen is also very good in her part, playing the conflicted Melissa with a good amount of depth. There are a few questionable logic gaps here and there, particularly in the middle stretch of the film where, without wanting to spoilt things, characters should do things and do not. The movie also runs about fifteen minutes longer than it probably needs to, but otherwise this is decent stuff. Grim, gritty and nasty, sure, but well-made and nicely acted.The Blu-ray:
Kino presents The Hunting Party on Blu-ray in an AVC encoded 1080p high definition transfer framed at 1.85.1 widescreen on a 50GB disc. Image quality is good, if slightly imperfect. There are some scenes where colors look a little flat and a little faded but otherwise there's not much to complain about here. Any print damage that shows up is mild, just small specks and what not, otherwise the image is pretty clean. Detail easily surpasses what standard definition would be able to provide and there's a fair amount of depth to the picture. Grain appears naturally throughout, and the image is free of any obvious compression artifacts, noise reduction or edge enhancement issues.Sound:
The only audio option on the disc is a DTS-HD 2.0 Mono track in English, there are no alternate language provided although there are removable English subtitles offered. Audio quality is pretty solid. Dialogue is clean and clear and easy enough to understand and there are no noticeable issues with any hiss or distortion. Levels are properly balanced and Ortolani's score sounds pretty strong here, with good range and presence.Extras:
The extras for this release start off with an audio commentary featuring Nathanial Thompson and Howard S. Berger that is quite a welcome addition to the disc. The pair offer up a lot of background information on the film, how it was financed by a British production company, the genesis of the script, the Spanish shooting locations, Ortolani's score and quite a bit more. They also talk up how the film was received when it first hit theaters, make some observations on what works and what doesn't in the film man and offer some insight and analysis into the storyline, the characters and the various performances featured in the picture.
Also included on the disc is a twelve minute long interview with actor Mitchell Ryan. This is a pretty interesting talk as he explains how he came on board to work on the project only to be fired, then hired back on again thanks to his penchant for boozing alongside the notoriously thirsty Oliver Reed!
Rounding out the extras are trailers for the feature and bonus trailers for Burnt Offerings, Prime Cut, The Organization and The Missouri Breaks as well as static menus and chapter selection.Final Thoughts:
The Hunting Party is a rough and gritty western that focuses on the dark side of frontier life. It isn't a pretty film, nor is it always pleasant, but it is very well acted and quite gripping. Kino's Blu-ray release is a good one, presenting the film in nice shape and with some interesting and informative supplements accompanying the feature. Recommended.