Review: The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean

[Originally published in Movietone News 22, April 1973]

Curious that both films built around the legendary Judge Roy Bean, self-styled purveyor of Law West of the Pecos, should suffer so grossly from mode trouble. The Westerner, directed by William Wyler in 1940, featured one of the all-time great performances on screen in the presence of Walter Brennan (nominally a “supporting actor,” in which category he copped a richly merited third Oscar); Brennan’s irrepressible craziness as the lethal scoundrel with an unreasoning devotion to the beauty of Lily Langtry and an ill-advised sentimental tolerance of drifter Gary Cooper, who ended up killing him, almost saved this confused western that vacillated without conviction between freakishly comical behavioralism and socioeconomic sanctimoniousness about farmers in cattle country, and, visually, between the near-stereoscopic crispness of Gregg Toland’s realistic cinematography and some jarringly pointless and punk process work. John Huston’s new Roy Bean film has no problems as gross as that, but neither has it anything as potently good as Brennan’s characterization to recommend it. Paul Newman can’t resist waving his professional integrity like a flag, and this generally works for the worst (e.g., the hysterical and monolithically conceived WUSA); here integrity takes the form of flamboyantly trying on an unglamorous character part and, moreover, playing it in a single comic key. As George Roy Hill remarked in his documentary about the making of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Newman can play comedy successfully only when he doesn’t remember to tell himself he’s playing comedy. (There is, incidentally, an unforgivable Son of Butch Cassidy number involving Newman, Victoria Principal, a bear, and a song about the marmalade, molasses, and honey that keep falling on my head.)

The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean ultimately works because of the director’s patient insistence on maintaining a deadpan look while trotting out the most outrageous events. For instance: a scene wherein a grimly lonely drunk (Neil Summers as Snake River Rufus Krile) perforates the walls and ceiling of Bean’s saloon headquarters while Bean and his disreputable marshals go on playing cards without giving the fellow a glance, only to gun him down in unison with unquestioning righteousness when he shoots a hole in a picture of the Jersey Lily. Or—the finest moment of all—a hell-raising one-man raid on the settlement of Vinegarroon by the Original Bad Bob (not to be confused with the Original Mexican Bob of True Grit), a wild-eyed albino with hair down past his black-clad shoulders who meets his end with a grotesque special effect that has been lurking in the collective unconscious of all Saturday-afternoon western fans just waiting to be recognized and realized through the technology of the cinema (Fat City‘s Stacy Keach takes this role).

The Life and Times will understandably exasperate a lot of viewers but will worm its cankerous way into the affections of others, probably fewer in number. It’s a film that starts unpromisingly (one fears another Dirty Little Billy is in the hatching when Bean first walks into the dusty desert saloon he will make his own by way of a monumental and, I’m afraid, a very funny slaughter), thrashes helplessly under the onslaught of its first couple guest-star appearances (Tony Perkins is unmitigatedly awful and Huston’s direction encourages him to be), but eventually comes to very quirky life. There’s no guessing that it’s headed where it’s headed until the wishful apocalyptic purgation of the last reel, but anyone who loves westerns will be glad it gets there.

RTJ

THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JUDGE ROY BEAN
Direction: John Huston. Screenplay: John Milius. Cinematography: Richard Moore. Music: Maurice Jarre; song lyrics (“Marmalade, Molasses, and Honey”) by Alan and Marilyn Bergman. Production: John Foreman.
The Players: Paul Newman, Victoria Principal, Ned Beatty; (in order of appearance) Anthony Perkins, Tab Hunter, John Huston, Stacy Keach, Roddy McDowall, Anthony Zerbe, Jacqueline Bisset, Ava Gardner.

Copyright © 1973 by Richard T. Jameson


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