Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The National Film Board of Ivanlandia Presents Semi-Forgotten Flix: Kirk Douglas’ Posse (1975) and Walter Hill’s The Driver (1978)

Perhaps not as black-hearted as something Billy Wilder would’ve cooked up,
Kirk Douglas’ Posse is nonetheless a smart and cynical look at electoral politics via the Western genre.
B-movie tropes once again succeeding where straight drama falls short or is obvious and heavy-handed! Huzzah! (I won’t name names presently—because I don’t feel like starting any fights—gosh, I don’t think I can handle the deluge of comments I’m receiving already! But I think you could point to practically every serious “political” film that’s been on the Oscar list in the last 10 years as examples of sanctimonious crap that couldn’t hold a candle to a good B-movie about the same subject.)

Douglas plays a marshal (backed by the railroad) planning to use notorious train-robber Bruce Dern’s capture as a stepping stone to the Senate, and that really annoys the bandit (I think Dern’s existential hatred of the railroad and blue denim jacket were some sort of nod to 1970s youth culture).

I remember loving this flick as a kid (I saw it about 30 years ago on the CBS Saturday night movie, and haven’t seen it since until now), and I’m glad that I can appreciate it even more as an adult: Douglas is pretty good as a director—the humor isn’t broad, it’s satirical—and often sick (like: the shotgun pointed at the head of the cute blonde teenager), and he uses the widescreen well, filling it with a variety of details.

But Douglas never hogs the lens himself—he hardly has any close-ups even.
But he does coax solid performances from a variety of faces familiar to Western fans, like Bo Hopkins, Alfonso Arau and Luke Askew.
And I am so happy Bo Hopkins is still alive and kicking! He rules!
Here’s his website: http://www.bohopkins.com/

(Here’s Bo on the set of The Killer Elite with Sam Peckinpah—who gave Hopkins his first film role/Hopkins had been on some TV shows before that, though/in The Wild Bunch as Crazy Lee.)

One potential gripe about Posse might be the direction of the extras: they often come off as a proto-Coen Brothers-style “grotesque mob of the unhip,” as well as one-dimensional spineless cowards and weaklings. As such, that’s a real minor point in such a fast-paced, bit not necessarily breathless movie.
Meanwhile, the action is well done, very 70s style, though: either clinical and brutal, or slow-motion poetry of death.

But best of all, Kirk Douglas lets co-star Bruce Dern shine as the sly desperado. This flick is an absolute must-see for any fans of the Dern! He’s great: Always thinking, making it up as he goes along, but never so far ahead of the lawman that it’s unbelievable.

Dern’s one of the best at playing “cunning” and it’s too bad he never kept the momentum he had once—it seemed like he had made the transition from biker/sleazeball to, perhaps not “nice guy,” but certainly “decent chap”—
Dern had a real mainstream-Hollywood streak there for a while: Smile (which would be a great double feature with Posse), Family Plot, The Laughing Policeman and even Coming Home.

(But then too many bombs, and too many successful psycho roles, in flicks like Black Sunday and Walter Hill’s awesome The Driver---then that Maud Adams scandal from that psycho-stalker movie “Tattoo”—not on DVD, unfortunately—where Dernsy went around claiming that the movie’s sex scenes were real.)

June 4 is Dern’s birthday, BTW. Send him something real niiiiiiiiice...

Posse did okay financially when it was released, but JAWS eventually totally buried everything in the summer of 1975, and since then, this movie has been mostly forgotten, which is really too bad: it’s worth a look, especially as a prognosticator of our days of crime statistic manipulation for political gain.

BTW: Kirk Douglas also directed and starred in the bizarre pirate movie/Western-musical “Scalawag” from 1973. Douglas plays Captain Peg, a one-legged pirate in the desert (!) who always carries a Bible around—because the Good Book’s pages are the perfect type of paper for rolling cigarettes!
Also in the cast were B-movie giant Neville Brand, a VERY young Danny DeVito and Mel Blanc as a parrot! I remember this movie was basically an almost incomprehensible mess—a Treasure Island rip-off, but goofy fun, still. Unfortunately it's not on DVD either. Sigh…

Since I raved about The Driver earlier—it's another Forgotten Flix if you ask me—here’s what I wrote about it in 2007:
This is a must-see for fans of good car chases: Some truly excellent stunt driving plugged into an overly existential thriller.

Had Walter Hill filmed this in French, The Driver would've gotten more respect I bet--when this flick first came out, I remember the critics savaging it ferociously! But I think The Driver has aged very well, with its characters' supercool demeanor adding a sort of nostalgic flavor (for those of us who miss those sleazy/gritty 1970s-style thrillers).

Action flicks got existential-nihilistic in the '70s, some way more so than others: The Driver is right up there with the original Vanishing Point and Friedkin's Sorcerer in that doomed "nameless" man action subgenre that usually ended badly for all characters involved.
Walter Hill usually delivers the good, and with The Driver he's in top form.


  1. I have always been up and down on Dern. I think the first thing I saw him in was "Tattoo" which was likely not a good introduction to anything. I remember him as one of the stand-outs in "Hang 'em High" (which I did not like). The only other actor I remember was The Skipper (and Clint, obviously).

    As far as B Movies besting their A Movie cousins, if you've ever seen "The Agony of Love" it is basically the same story as "Belle de Jour" - but came out a year earlier, and is arguably a better portrayal.

  2. I tend to do Dern in a sideways position, rather than the ol' up and down that Darius prefers.

    Dern's the best part of Coming Home, an otherwise average boo-hoo flick. I'd like to see Posse. And thanks for reminding me about The Laughing Policeman. The Driver; i saw it when it came out, but since then have always mixed it up with THIEF starring Jimmy Caan, for some reason.

  3. I love anything Dern is in until it stinks. Today's his birthday!
    (And the day David Carradine died...)