Posted in: Film Reviews, Westerns

Review: The Electric Horseman

[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

Horse comes over the horizon and slants down into the golden valley, right there I figure Sydney Pollack auteur time, whoa up. I mean, if Sydney Pollack can be an auteur, it isn’t worth being one. But he wants it, oh, he can taste it. He cranes, he tracks, he dissolves. (They shoot auteurs, don’t they?) All right, enough funnin’, let’s fess up and concede that after enough films get made and enough thematic and syntactical evidence piles up, there gets to be somebody there you can recognize, and that’s Sydney Pollack. The guy has a style. Whether that style has much to do with style in the richest, most analytical and mystical senses of the word is another question. But a style he has: slick, thin; getting to be rather touching in its naïve pretentiousness; suited to keeping movies moving, and hence giving his films a leg up when it comes down to the competitive question of which movie should I go to, which film in the local triple or sextuple shopping-mall cinema is likeliest to keep me entertained. Entertained, goddam it, not edified, no matter how much the entertainer may strive to be taken for an edifier as well. The Electric Horseman entertains better than almost anything else that’s twinkled onto the scene this Christmas season. The key factors in this—gorgeous, adorable, intelligent, watchably changeable, iconically constant factors—are a couple of stars who would have been stars even when the Hollywood firmament was filled with them. REDFORD : FONDA : ELECTRIC say the ads. Believe them. And this time believe Sydney Pollack, too.

Believe him especially when he tells you about sleaze. Highest-quality sleaze, to be sure, but sleaze. The credit sequence of the film, detailing Sonny Steele’s fall and rise, from much-battered but five-times-world-champion rodeo cowboy to well-paid but grotesquely demeaned pitchman for a “ranch-style” breakfast food, is a greased marvel of montage and matching action. And as Sonny stumbles his drunkenly gallant way into Las Vegas to rendezvous with a slew-footed heroic destiny, Pollack goes expertly ape with neon and chrome, stacked and shellacked showgirls, slippyslidey camera movements for the choreography of corporate corruption. It’s obvious, but it’s wonderfully kinetic. Is it also, perhaps, the least bit confessional? That’s part of the auteur game, too: regardless of the official imperatives, the implicit side-choosing in the scenario, l’auteur gives himself away through the aptest application of his style. And Pollack convinces me he’s at home around Vegas, and executive-suite chicanery, and media manipulation, much more than in the high country of Romantic aspiration. (Was he the lipstick-smeared comer Fonda gives the brush to while prowling Caesar’s Palace? Not sure; maybe, though.) Owen Roizman’s widescreen cinematography of Nevada and Utah wilderness is crisp, color-saturated, full of bracing cold air (he did well by Irvin Kershner’s dreadful Return of a Man Called Horse, too); but that’s technique. From a stylist’s point of view, Pollack on the great outdoors is well-intentioned and boring. As in Jeremiah Johnson, his epic wallow in western scenery and exterior action evokes nothing so much as the image of an urbanite with his feet up on an office desk, daydreaming. Which, again, is not without a certain inadvertently expressive charm.

The Electric Horseman occasionally recalls the Kirk Douglas–Dalton Trumbo–David Miller Lonely Are the Brave, as anachronistic cowboy and brave steed take on the mechanized forces of Modern Amerika in a race for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But only briefly does it ever appear that Sonny Steele is likely to come to mortal grief like Douglas’s brave cowboy. The Electric Horseman charms and ultimately conquers through high spirits. There is no need to insist on anything more than gentle, genial comedy when Sonny and the pushy TV newswoman attached to his one-man crusade klutzily sing “America the Beautiful” while climbing against a vista of purple mountain majesty. That Robert Redford is personally committed to that mountain majesty, and that Jane Fonda will now join him in singing about it, is all we need in the way of extra significance. Still, it’s Pollack’s party. I had a very good time.

© 1979 Richard T. Jameson

Direction: Sydney Pollack. Screenplay: Robert Garland; screen story by Paul Gaer and Robert Garland, after a story by Shelly Burton. Cinematography: Owen Roizman. Production design: Stephen Grimes. Editing: Sheldon Kahn. Music: Dave Grusin. Songs: Willie Nelson. Second-unit direction: Michael D. Moore.
The players: Robert Redford, Jane Fonda, Willie Nelson, John Saxon, Nicholas Coster, Basil Hoffman, James Sikking, Valerie Perrine, Allan Arbus, Timothy Scott, Wilford Brimley.

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.