Monday, January 25, 2016

#734: The Shooting

(Monte Hellman, 1966)

The Shooting is about the Kennedy assassination, which seems to me to be like saying the fish is about the '88 Olympics. Don't let this mystical analogy bother you, though, because this is a fine, unique Western that fits nicely into the Collection. Monte Hellman (who also made the cult-classic Two-Lane Blacktop) made the two Westerns in this collection back-to-back (they received individual spine numbers, and so will get individual posts) in 1966. Interestingly, neither received a wide theatrical release - they were bought out of festivals by a company that put them on television, which was the only place to see them until home video.

I haven't watched Ride in the Whirlwind yet, but I found The Shooting to be incredibly engrossing. The mystery at the center of it starts slowly and the simplicity of the plot is deceiving (there are only really four characters in the film, and they all maintain more or less the same purpose throughout the film with minimal evolution). But once it gets going it's quite suspenseful and tightly constructed.

The cast is also surprisingly strong for such a small production. Jack Nicholson, who had been working for ten years by then but was still three years away from his breakthrough role in Easy Rider, is the most famous actor in the small cast, and he plays his menacing but removed hitman with a mythic quality. Millie Perkins doesn't get much to do, but she delivers a sort of spoiled obstinance that in retrospect becomes determined obsession. But the film rests on Warren Oates's performance. Though he found reasonable success as a character actor before his early death, Oates had the charisma and screen persona of a Western star. If he had been born a few decades earlier I think he would have been huge, but it's nice to have this film to preserve his potential.

Although I'm ultimately at a loss to make the connection between the film and the Kennedy assassination, I find the surreal existential qualities of the ending (and what it means for the rest of the film) to be appealing in a Waiting for Godot sort of way. The film's deliberate march toward the final showdown turns it into a minimalist Western that transcends the cliches of the genre by consciously avoiding anything resembling a conventional story. It's not the masterpiece that similar deconstructionist Westerns were around the same era like The Wild Bunch or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but it is a nice complement to those films and deserves its place in the Collection as a crucial facet of the original film genre.

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