Review: Kid Blue

[Originally published in Movietone News 26, October 1973]

Kid Blue, completed more than a year ago, enjoyed a belated and unsuccessful release and arrived in the Jet City even later. Reportedly Twentieth Century Fox advertised the picture as a straight western somewhere in the country and failed to find an audience for it (whatever audience they did reach with such a pitch would surely have been grievously disappointed). The film and the rest of the nation will have a second chance to get together after a New York Film Festival showcasing offers a proper reintroduction. Meanwhile, the Harvard Exit has scored another audience coup—not so spectacular as with such earlier previously-ignored-elsewhere pix as The Conformist, Taking Off, and The Emigrants, but not bad at all. Unfortunately the sizable weeknight audience I saw the film with tended to turn on at just those places where the filmmakers lost either perspective or their artistic souls.

Kid Blue is a revisionist western all the way. That easy rider Dennis Hopper takes the title role of a notorious Texas trainrobber who, finding the old life increasingly untenable, opts for the safe and lawful course of working for a living. The town of Dime Box is the place he elects for his noble experiment, and there he rides, just another saddlebum. The job prospects are unprepossessing—sweeping out the barbershop or going to work for the local Boeing, the Great American Novelty Company, helping to mass-produce miscellaneously patriotic ashtrays—but the Kid does his damnedest to abide by society’s dictates. Those dictates are pretty heavy, and so are the eager recriminations of just about everybody in town. Refreshingly in this politically sanctimonious era, writer Edwin Shrake and especially director James Frawley manage to be adroit and genially inventive in expressing contemporary disaffections that turn so many films into rant. Frawley gets fine ensemble work out of his cast—most surprisingly, out of Ben Johnson as the foremost local fascist, Sheriff “Mean John” Simpson; far from being exploited as a living symbol of earlier, ostensibly “corrupt,” westerns, Johnson turns in a shrewd, cranky characterization of both a man and an idea, fully as self-aware as those by such avowedly hip players as Hopper and Warren Oates. Very nice too is Frawley and Shrake’s sense of moseying narrative—affecting to browse through Dime Box in order to stride with the deceptively easygoing ex-outlaw, drifting into extended, improvisatory-seeming explorations of, for instance, the Kid’s wary acceptance of friendship with a soft-eyed neighbor in the boardinghouse (Oates) who yearns to revive the codes and customs of the ancient Greeks. More strained and specialty-act in nature is Peter Boyle’s erratic presence as a self-styled preacher of a gospel all his own, who’s trying to build a flying machine.

But Kid Blue‘s serious problems become clear in relation to the Indians obligatorily involved in the proceedings. Forbidden to drink, surreptitiously stoned, amusingly laidback most of the time, these three town-tamed braves keep sounding a usefully somber note foreshadowing the emergence of Deep Seriousness. As the eldest Indian, José Torvay is eccentric, charming. Completely unsentimental. When Kid Blue decides to shove Dime Box and the Great American Novelty Co. up where they belong, Torvay and colleagues ride along in full war paint. Cheers from the with-it audience who very well know who history’s new good guys are. Torvay, swept away with the thrill of it all, rides slam into the wall of a barn. Howls of laughter from the with-it audience because, well, slapstick is slapstick. Torvay collects himself and remounts, charging into certain death before Mean John’s guns; in a suddenly heroic, mythically backlighted setup, he makes spirit within himself and dies in the dust. Reverent hush from the with-it audience: the pigs have won again. Moments later, the surviving Indians reappear unexpectedly, timed to get a laugh, and they and the Kid ride off to glory. Cheers and laughter again. Now, no, sorry, it just isn’t fair. A filmmaker can’t have it every way from Sunday. You can’t treat a character as a buffoon and then kill him off and make the audience feel culturally responsible for his degradation and death, not when you the filmmaker made him ride into the wall. Much—most—of Kid Blue is informed satire and accomplished comedy, but I suspect that the audience I shared the film with are spreading the good word on the basis of its conscienceless last ten minutes. What a shame and an irony if the film goes on to commercial success for reasons as mistaken as those behind its initial failure—and, morally, far more hurtful.

RTJ

KID BLUE
Direction: James Frawley. Screenplay: Edwin Shrake. Cinematography: Billy Williams.
The Players: Dennis Hopper, Ben Johnson, Warren Oates, Lee Purcell, Clifton James, Peter Boyle, José Torvay, Janice Rule, Ralph Waite.

Copyright © 1973 by Richard T. Jameson