[Originally published in Movietone News 28, December 1973]
Santee is a very unremarkable program western with a familiar plot complication: a former lawman, now bounty hunter, runs down and kills a bad fellow, only to have the man’s adolescent son swear vengeance on him; the bounty killer takes the boy under his wing, mainly to keep him where he can see him, and gradually (so tradition has it) the lad comes to love and respect him, and to assume the place of the son killed long ago.
Actually the director fumbles even this tried-and-true progression, leaving it to a shapeless, graceless, quite unentertaining montage of The Good Life on the bounty hunter’s ranch to convey that the kid sees the light and abandons all notions of revenge. The sequence is so unconvincing that the well-meaning viewer will preserve narrative suspense longer than the director apparently intended: one goes on waiting/hoping for Michael Burns’s sappy grin to turn vicious when Glenn Ford presents his back, but it just doesn’t happen. Aside from the attractive and nostalgic presence of Jay Silverheels as a glorified ranchhand and a couple moments of bemused resignation on the part of outlaws Robert Wilke and Robert Donner, very early in the movie, the most interesting thing in the film is the inclusion of some (apparently) videotaped material among the Instamatic-style photography: so help me God, at two points the screen changes shape, leans into an underwater blur, and for all the world resembles nothing so much as a color telly drifting out of register. Pondering the reasons for permitting such gross mismatching gives one more to think about than, again, what the director has provided intentionally. But the ending is worthwhile, too: director Gary Nelson gives us an abstract freezeframe of three men firing their guns simultaneously, then goes into a long, coy stretch of obscurantist shooting and cutting while we are supposed to sit and squirm, wondering who’s being toted home in a coffin and who’s left alive to do the driving. The only suspense that results derives from wondering whether the director is dumb enough to try to pass off anything but the only ending possible, given the lines of fire so clearly evident in that cute freezeframe. He isn’t—and that did surprise me.
Direction: Gary Nelson.
The Players: Glenn Ford, Michael Burns, Dana Wynter, Jay Silverheels, Harry Townes, Robert Wilke, Robert Donner, John Larch.
Copyright © 1973 by Richard T. Jameson