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Strother Martin

Review: ‘Hard Times’

[Originally published in Movietone News 46, December 1975]

The beginning of Hard Times comes close to successfully evoking a sensitive feel for rundown Thirties landscapes and the forced freedom of men on the move to the next city in hope of something better than what they left behind. Charles Bronson rides into town in an empty freight car, gazing out at a countryside whose facelessness is placed in perspective by a simple touch: a truckload of Depression-reared children who, perhaps enviously, stare back at Bronson as he rolls on by. He hops off the train and wanders towards a clump of deserted factory buildings, then off into the town where, like a man with nothing much to do, he sits down in a sleazy joint for a bowl of chili and a cup of coffee. Soon he’ll stumble onto a little fistfight between two hulking sluggers, the object of a few friendly bets, and he’ll take up as a fighter himself in order to win enough money to get him to the next stop. So far, though, we simply hope that his quiet and quietly depicted arrival may be building towards an understated film of real men in hard times. Bronson’s lived-in face seems as unflinchingly stoic and potentially lethal as it does in any Michael Winner movie, but there’s that lurking possibility that a period movie like Hard Times will soften its edges and crags and turn Bronson into something of a more easygoing romantic figure.

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Review: The Great Scout and Cathouse Thursday

[Originally published in Movietone News 50, June 1976]

The Great Scout and Cathouse Thursday may rate a footnote in film history as the first Hollywood Western to include oral-genital humor, and if that’s your idea of cinematic immortality, enjoy. As American-International Pictures’ first “class” production, the film does not bode well. Any one of AIP’s beach party flicks was funnier, and quite a few of their horror and action programmers have shown more class. You can wonder about the title for a while (Great Scout and Cathouse Thursday … is it a train? a medicine show act? a holiday?), but what it refers to is this old scout (Lee Marvin) who helped win the West and then misplaced his share of it; and this young refugee from a whorehouse (Kay Lenz) whose name becomes Thursday only momentarily, and irrelevantly. They travel some together, along with a clap-ridden halfbreed who went to Harvard (Oliver Reed) and an ineffectually randy reprobate (Strother Martin). There’s an old pal of the male trio’s (Robert Culp) who’s boondoggled and bombasted his way to a position of political prominence, along the way marrying the scout’s erstwhile girlfriend (Elizabeth Ashley), and we can’t forget—although we try, oh do we try!—the putatively lesbian madam (Sylvia Miles) our adventurers have “stolen” Thursday from. The Old West was a pretty silly place, you know: people fell in the mud a lot, and everybody was basically some kind of cheat. The music tells you when things are supposed to be funny, which is about 95 percent of the time; and about 100 percent of the time, it’s wrong.

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Review: Slap Shot

[Originally published in Movietone News 54, June 1977]

Slap Shot has provoked such solemn head-wagging over its failure to take a hard line, one way or the other, on the issue of sports (good, clean, manly, by-the-rules competition) vs. spectator bloodsports (decent American games—hockey in this instance—turned into vicious slugfests to parallel the psychic violence in the stands and in Our Society) that I can only conclude someone has been taking George Roy Hill seriously all these years. Why else start complaining about the absence of anything resembling moral rigorousness or a sense of narrative ethics? Surely not because Butch and Sundance only said “Oh, shit!” when plummeting down the cliffside to the rapids, whereas everyone belonging to or in the neighborhood of the Charlestown Chiefs employs every four-, ten-, and twelve-letter word in the language with the carefree abandon of yapping puppies. So OK, Slap Shot snickers into its own armpit about those crass owners and empty-skulled sportscasters and rummy fans, and then taps the oafish violence on the ice for considerable physical and/or comic exhilaration. In this case I found the moral queasiness easy to ignore, partly because I learned long ago to expect this from Hill, partly because the time to make a federal case of it was back in his more pretentious days—but mostly because Slap Shot is extremely funny, full of rowdy life and business, and irresistibly goodnatured; and you can count on the fingers of one hand all the recent movies of which that could be said, and still have enough fingers left to play cat’s cradle.

The film is particularly interesting as a Paul Newman picture in which the star gets to exercise his penchant for de-glamorizing himself without, for once, turning his performance into a social-consciousness exemplum or an act of self-denigration. The aging player-coach he portrays is a raunchy jock (like almost all his teammates), venal, sexist, not very bright. Newman creates him for what he is, without sermonizing and without denying him his broad, likably evil good humor, his tremendous—if utterly unsophisticated—joie de vivre. The rest of the nonstellar cast matches his vigor and fairness. Michael Ontkean merits special praise as the slightly-smarter-than-his-buddies player with the most acutely developed ambivalence toward the game, and manages to keep the viewer in touch with his mood and movements even when the script treatment of his character vacillates between convenient ellipsis and middling-heavy editorializing. Altman find Allan Nicholls is especially successful at serving up the bounteous scatology with convincing spontaneity and socio-psychological precision (his pained “Fuckin’ embarrassing!” as he listens to some youthful additions to their jaded team giving out with lockerroom gung-ho is priceless), and Brad Sullivan is triumphantly scuzzy as the team’s sex fiend; one expects him to be followed about by a semi-permanent attendant whose responsibility it is to wipe the drool off his nether lip every few minutes, as a token gesture toward public decency.

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The Ballad of Cable Hogue and Jr. Bonner: Another Side of Sam Peckinpah

[Originally published in Movietone News 52, October 1976]

At a basic level, Peckinpah’s is a cinema of oppositions. When one thinks of Westerns, a genre whose configurations and conventions Peckinpah has done a lot to redefine, one tends to reduce moral tensions to a simple antagonism between forces good and evil—something Peckinpah’s films emphatically don’t do. In Jr. Bonner, the kind of moral tension that operates between Buck Roan (Ben Johnson), a onetime cowboy who has become a notably successful businessman and smalltown icon, and Jr. (Steve McQueen), a middleaged cowboy who is having trouble winning, indexes the complexity of Peckinpah’s ideas about heroism and morality. There is a scene early in the film in which Jr.* goes into a saloon in his hometown of Prescott, Arizona, for a drink, and discovers Buck sitting in a corner booth. Jr. sits down and makes a pitch to Buck to fix things so that he’ll ride the bull Sunshine in the rodeo and hopefully win back some of his flagging self-esteem. (Sunshine is a bad bull who has thrown Jr. before; the cowboy is absolutely not seeking an easy ride.) Buck says, “I ain’t goin’ to make a living off somebody else’s pride,” and in the near-mythic uprightness of those few words lurks an inherent set of values that, on the one hand, stands opposed to the waywardness of Jr.’s pragmatic individualism, but that, on the other hand, suggests the same kind of dauntless adherence to archaic codes that lends the doomed Romanticism of Jr. Bonner an almost celebratory force. Buck and Jr. are two of a kind, cut from the same mythic block, even though they seem to be at odds about the means of maintaining their ways of life.

Junior Bonner
Junior Bonner

Peckinpah’s characters do not readily yield to neat moral dichotomizing. Identity is the main positive force in Peckinpah’s films, but equally crucial is the moral attitude it embodies, or from which it derives. In The Ballad of Cable Hogue, we tend to forget that Hogue’s persevering out in the desert has as much to do with a somewhat nasty urge to avenge his having been cast out as it does with more enduringly admirable qualities like his love for Hildy and his societally utilitarian, and quite affable, capitalistic tendencies. Hogue (Jason Robards) is sustained in equal parts by forces which are destructive as well as those which are constructive, life-giving. Inherent in Peckinpah’s Westerns is the same dissociation of heroism from simplistic moral attitudes which figures as an essential premise in earlier Westerns by directors like Ford, Hawks, Mann, and Fuller. One has only to think of The Searchers, Red River, The Naked Spur, and Run of the Arrow to realize that the informing qualities of the modern Western protagonist include a sense of alienation, crippling flaws, blind spots, and weaknesses proportionate to the potentially tragic stature of the characters.

In Peckinpah’s Westerns from Ride the High Country through Jr. Bonner, identity clings to lives and lifestyles that seem perennially on the road to extinction. But the plight of the Peckinpah “hero,” residing in a world where even the notion of heroism is ambiguous, is more complicated than the simple fact of his propensity to vanish from the historical scene. Peckinpah’s films ultimately seek to reconcile the necessity and the futility of a Romantic worldview, a dialectic which is important in evaluating Peckinpavian morality and, subsequently, in understanding Peckinpah’s characters within that context. The two sides of that dialectic are often manifested in different characters within a given film: Jr. and Buck here, Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett, Ride the High Country‘s Steve Judd and Gil Westrum. All these pairs in some way suggest unities; they are seen not as separate entities inherently antagonistic, but as outgrowths of the same passing world who have been unnaturally wrenched into positions of fatal contravention.

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The Ballad of Cable Hogue

[Originally published in Film Comment Volume 17 Number 1, January/February 1981]

“If I cannot rouse heaven,” says the Reverend Joshua Duncan Sloane (David Warner) in The Ballad of Cable Hogue, “I intend to raising hell.” It’s the hell-raising in the cinema of Sam Peckinpah that has most claimed the attention of both the director’s adverse critics and the contingent of the audience Pauline Kael has termed “the thugs”; heaven has rarely entered the discussion. Yet when Steve Judd (Joel McCrea) states, in Ride the High Country, “All I want is to enter my house justified,” the spiritual authenticity is unmistakable. And it doesn’t spring from institutionalized virtue, even if the rhetoric sounds vaguely churchified. (Peckinpah borrowed the line from his father.) Elsewhere in Ride the High Country, Judd trades Biblical quotations with a pathological fire-and-brimstone type (R.G. Armstrong), each of them footnoting chapter and verse; but the last word belongs to Judd’s partner, Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott), who cuts across their dialogue to compliment Fire-and-Brimstone’s daughter, “Miss Knudsen, you cook a lovely ham hock,” then glances at Judd: “Appetite, Chapter One.”

The Ballad of Cable Hogue is one of the most joyously earthy movies ever made. It’s also quite heavenly. That both qualities are valid in the film traces from their inextricability. And the inextricability has a lot to do with Cable Hogue‘s being a very funny movie.

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“I don’t like those hard goodbyes” – Strother Martin

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

Introduction by Richard T. Jameson

Strother Martin thought the folks from the Seattle Film Society wanted to meet him just because he had done some jobs of work for Sam Peckinpah and they had had Sam to tea a year or so earlier. Not that that gave him any trouble. Like any other veteran character actor he had long since got used to being the face and voice that people marked immediately without being able to attach a name. Unlike many other character actors, he had been wrong on that point for quite a few years—at the very least, since late 1967, when filmgoers first heard the line “What we have here is failure to communicate” out of the mouth of the pusselgutted chain-gang overseer in Stuart Rosenberg’s Cool Hand Luke. Plenty of people, not just film-society types, could be relied on to look right fond whenever the name Strother Martin was dropped, and say “Oh yeah, I like him, he’s always good.”

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Strother Martin in Seattle in 1979 (photo by Tom Keogh, scanned from Movietone News 66-67)

The Martins were having dinner with two other cast members, Marjorie Bennett and Meg Wylie, who Joined us for the first part of our chat in an improvised semi-private diningroom. Bennett, especially familiar for her work in Robert Aldrich pictures (she and Martin had both appeared in one-scene roles in Kiss Me Deadly; her son from What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Victor Buono, was out bulking in the lobby a few yards away), held forth in her best sinister-pixie style on everything from Rudolph Valentino to the fireweed-honey-from-the-sky ritual at Snoqualmie Falls Lodge. The rest of the company delightedly deferred to her. Then, after she had retired for the evening, Martin settled down to talk about, well, Sam Peckinpah, he thought, but we insisted we were interested in Strother Martin, too.

The Strother Martin we met was a fellow markedly different from the variously desperate, deranged, and depraved characters he had so often essayed. Mostly he spoke in soft, gracious tones, with a particularity of reference and inflection consistent with the classical tastes and sensibility he frequently evidenced. Every once in a while, though, when an anecdote required the quotation of a line from The Wild Bunch or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, that familiar backwoodsy twang cut the air. (He was particularly proud of the appreciative reception a Harlem moviehouse audience had given his pronunciation of “pussy” while cussing out the hockey team in Slap Shot.) From time to time he lit a cigarette and got about two puffs out of it before Mrs. Martin quietly reached across and stubbed it out.

That was in March 1979. A year later, Strother Martin appeared at a Filmex program, “Characters,” devoted to the work of people like him; the entirety of his Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid performance was screened. One hoped that Martin and those other colleagues present—Richard Loo was a few seats away—would be called up to take their bows. It didn’t happen. They signed a few autographs. Within months, both men had passed away.

The following remarks were recorded and transcribed by Tom Keogh and Lesley Link. As the tape started to roll, Martin was talking about an unlikely director….

…I would like to own the film on the life of Delius that Ken Russell did for the BBC? Did you see that? It was done on the PBS stations. Max Adrian played Delius. It’s Ken Russell’s best film, and it’s about one of my favorite subjects. It’s a great film; it’s better than Women in Love. I read once that Glenda Jackson said it was his best film. Such a wonderful biography. He’s meddled with a lot of composers and he’s made me very angry. I didn’t go to see “Tchaikovsky” [The Music Lovers] and I was terribly disappointed in the Mahler film, I just hated it. But I admire his images and his imagination.

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