Review: ‘Posse’

[Originally published in Movietone News 44, September 1975]

All right. Posse is an unusual Western. But not that unusual. And it doesn’t end like nothing I’ve ever seen. In fact, it ends very much like a number of other films I’ve seen (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was only the first of several to come to mind). The sociopolitical message of the confrontation between a brilliant outlaw and a self-serving politician offers little that Abe Polonsky’s Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here didn’t provide with greater subtlety—and few people have ever accused Polonsky of understatement. Posse really doesn’t have much to say, old or new, yet it does keep insisting. The grizzled typesetter’s comment that “All politicians are full of shit” might as well have Author’s Message flashed over it. A flagrant anachronism, neither appropriate nor cute, is the remark of a newspaper editor—a double amputee whom we are forced to think of in terms of Vietnam—that “This is the age of New Journalism.” And it’s not clear whether the highly visible eagle logo at the beginning and end of the film—”To the Polls, Ye Sons of Freedom”—is intended to exhort (we should all go out and vote to keep Howard Nightingales out of office) or to ring ironically (why vote at all when “all politicians are, etc.”?). This has less to do with ambiguity than with sloppiness, a sloppiness that carries over to the film’s style.

No attempt is made at realism—yet the lack of realism points nowhere either. The trim little town of Tesota, Texas, looks like some modern amusement-park idea of an old Western town. Everything is clean: streets, storefronts, clothing, horses, cowboys after weeks on the trail, even locomotives are spanking. There’s little effort at originality either: A brief, rowdy baseball game is shamelessly borrowed from Phil Kaufman’s The Great Northfield, Minnesota Raid. The use of photographs-within-film to freeze characters in a milieu while defining it in modern terms was already a worn idea when George Roy Hill claimed it for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and here it’s handled with even less integrity, by way of a photographer whose 19th-century camera and anachronistic darkroom give him in a few short hours prints of a quality no photographer achieved before about 1920. Fred Koenekamp Jr.’s cinematography, as a matter of fact, is perhaps the least attractive aspect of the film. In overuse of an artsy effect that wore out its welcome a decade ago, our eyes are bombarded with great swimming balls of refracted sunlight; portions of some shots—and entire compositions in one or two others—are washed out by overexposure, and a couple shots are even out of focus (no, it wasn’t the theatre’s projector) to no purpose whatever. And aurally, we find Maurice Jarre—never a discerning composer but occasionally an original one—serving up a slapdash score having nothing to do with the 19th-century American West; and he stoops to joining automobile TV commercials in ripping off Jerry Goldsmith’s echo-motif from the Patton score.

The pity of it is that Posse, as conceived and written, could have made a fine film with a different person in charge. (I think particularly of Lamont Johnson, who has built a reputation for taut direction of two-character confrontations in films like The McKenzie Break, A Gunfight, and You’ll Like My Mother and such TV movies as My Sweet Charlie and Deadlock.) But those who said, on the basis of Scalawag (1973), that Kirk Douglas ought to stay out from behind the camera are right.

There are good things in Posse: the dialogue of outlaw Jack Strawhorn, the performances of actor Douglas, Bo Hopkins, and Bruce Dern (a very fine actor who will never be a “major star” as long as his best performances are buried in gruel like this and The Great Gatsby). But these are all in the writing and the acting. The things that are bad about the film—director Douglas’s obvious bid for recognition as a serious creative personality—are all traceable to faulty production decisions and a direction willing to settle for easy second- or third-best solutions instead of seeking the most effective means of staging, shooting, and mounting a scene. The failure of Posse must be laid completely at the feet of an over-ambitious and under-meticulous Kirk Douglas.

POSSE
Direction: Kirk Douglas. Screenplay: William Roberts, Christopher Knopf, after a story by Knopf. Cinematography: Fred Koenekamp Jr.; additional cinematography: Jules Brenner. Production design: Lyle Wheeler. Editing: John W. Wheeler. Music: Maurice Jarre. Production: Douglas.
The players: Kirk Douglas, Bruce Dern, Bo Hopkins, James Stacy, Luke Askew, David Canary, Alfonso Arau, Katherine Woodville.

Copyright © 1975 Robert C. Cumbow