Sunday, June 26, 2011

Huston's Unique Western

You have to admire John Huston throughout his long career, not only for the obvious talent he displayed in his movies, but also for the choices he made. Best known for films such as The Maltese Falcon (1941), Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and Prizzi's Honor (1985) among others, Huston generally challenged himself, working in several genres, from crime pieces (The Asphalt Jungle, 1950) to psychological dramas (Reflections in a Golden Eye, 1967) to intelligent romantic dramas (Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, 1957 - for my money, a more subtle and rewarding film than his popular The African Queen, 1951). Not every choice Huston made was enlightened - The Kremlin Letter (1970) is a poorly constructed spy thriller, while Annie (1982) proved that musicals weren't the director's thing - but over the course of 46 years as a director, Huston made a lot of inspired films.

One of the few Westerns made by Huston was the 1972 film, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean. These days, it seems that this work is largely remembered for Paul Newman's robust title petformance; many don't even realize that Huston was the director. It has received its share of negative criticism, with many reviewers opining that the film lacks structure. But after watching this film for the first time the other night, I was impressed not only by Huston's direction, but also the wild ride he provides in this film, going from charming moments of humor to explosive action to achingly beautiful scenes of tenderness. It's a very underrated film.

The film opens in a small town in Texas in the 1880s - we are told that at this time, areas west of the the Pecos River were wild and lawless - where Bean is robbed of his money and then beaten near death by the town hooligans. He recovers and kills virtually all of them in a stark, violent shootout and then lets anyone who comes there know that he will be running the town, not only as sheriff, but also as judge. We all know that Roy Bean was the famous "hanging judge" and Huston and his screenwriter John Milius (who also wrote 1975's The Wind and the Lion, in which Huston acted), make sure there are several hangings in this film. Petty theft or murder - it doesn't matter to Judge Bean - he is going to hang them, and his team of deputies are all too happy to carry out the punishment.

Huston and Milius have constructed this film as though we are moving from one chapter to the next in a book; perhaps this is the reason why various critics have complained about the film's structure, but I enjoyed the various tales told in this film. One of my favorite scenes occurs shortly after the initial shootout; a Bible-quoting minister, wonderfully portrayed by Anthony Perkins, rides into town and upon viewing the carnage caused by Judge Bean, convinces him to bury the victims. It's a brief scene that tells us that there is humanity in the judge's makeup. It's also beautifully shot and written.

Then there are the wonderfully comic scenes of Bean and his young wife Maria Elena (Victoria Principal, looking as beautiful as I can ever remember) with a grizzly bear that is happy when he's with the company of humans, especially if he can down a few bottles of beer. The picnic scene where the judge and his wife and the bear eat lunch together and play on a see-saw, all the while accompanied by the wildly funny and purposely campy song, "Marmalade, Molasses and Honey" (with lyrics by Marilyn and Alan Begman, no less!) is simply hilarious.

There are two memorably moving scenes between Bean and Maria Elena; the first taking place after she believes he is attracted to another woman (this occurs before they are married). Bean walks with her to a open field with an endless horizon. Shot during the last moments of sun one afternoon, the visuals add a haunting quality, as he tells her of the beauty of this pastoral scene ("Do you smell how sweet that air is? It's almost tropical.") and the dreams he has in store for himself ("I'm going to have a courthouse four stories high,") He tells her that she can have anything she wants - her wish is simply for a music box. Hearing that, he sings "The Yellow Rose of Texas" in a raspy voice and then tells her that she should spend the night with him in the courthouse, to protect her from the elements. It's a lovely scene, classically filmed.

The other scene comes after she has given birth to a girl and has become ill. Bean returns to her side with the music box she so dearly wanted and we hear "Yellow Rose of Texas" playing as he opens the box. This is another elegantly simple scene -the two scenes together are as moving and as tender as just about any in Huston's career.

Not all of the film is as moving or as clever as these moments. Toward the film's end, there is a scene where the town is almost destroyed amidst the shooting and the resulting fires. It's clearly a conventional scene in this unconventional film, so it seems a bit out of place. In fact, the last twenty minutes of this film, shortly after Bean and Maria Elena have their final scene together, lack the originality and cleverness of the first-two thirds of this work.

Judge Roy Bean shows us a Huston who was not afraid to take chances, especially late in his career. Think of the originality, humanity and humor of his films such as Fat City (1972) or Wise Blood (1979) and you realize the story telling talents of this great director. Bean is not quite the equal of those marvelous movies, but it shares a common DNA and for that fact alone, it's well worth your time.


  1. Interesting movie, definitely underrated. When I first watched it I must confess that the gung-ho John Milius dialogue annoyed the heck out of me; knowing how Milius is in real life, I interpreted it as a kind of right-wing response to the revisionist Westerns being made by the likes of Sam Peckinpah and Robert Mulligan in the late 60's -- with Milius somehow conning the left-wing Huston into thinking it was just an old-fashioned Western. So... it left me a bit perplexed at first.

    It was easier to digest on a second viewing, though. While I still think Huston's style meshes a bit uncomfortably with Milius' worldviews, it's without question one of the most thought-provoking films in Huston's oeuvre. I remember reading an interview with Quentin Tarantino and Robert Zemeckis in which they were both naming it as a movie they would have both directed differently, had either of them directed it instead of Huston. To be honest, the hangings in this movie are gruesome enough as it is, and I'm not sure I could *take* a more stylized treatment of them! Haha.

    We agree on the ending. I might even have considered the movie a small masterwork had it ended with Bean riding off into the sunset, with the lawyer taking over town and restoring order. That would have been a nice way of Huston suggesting that times have gotten too politically correct for judges as ruthless as Bean. But Milius unfortunately couldn't live without ending his screenplay in that violent revenge-catharsis.

  2. Adam:

    Thanks very much for the thoughtful comments, as always.

    Good point on the hangings- they are handled straightforwardly in this film so stylizing them as Tarantino might have done would have been over the top (which to me defines his style as a whole).

    Yes, the ending is not consistent with the rest of the film, but overall, a very interesting work from Huston.