The Meanest Men In The West
The Meanest Men In The West (1967)Directed: Charles S. Dubin and Samuel Fuller Writing credits: Samuel Fuller and Ed Waters Cinematography: Alric Edens and Lionel Lindon
Cast: Charles Bronson as Harge Talbot Jr., Lee J. Cobb as Judge Garth, Miriam Colon as Eva Talbot, James Drury as The Virginian, Charles Grodin as Arnie Doud, Sara Lane as Elizabeth, Lee Marvin as Kalig, Don Mitchell as Preble, Albert Salmi as Quinn, Brad Weston as Keeler
Produced by Joel Rogosin and Charles Marquis Warren Original music by Hal Mooney
Runtime: 93 minutes
Just Another Dysfunctional Western Family
The only reason to watch this recycled duster, aside from the fun of trying to decide which parts were directed by Samuel Fuller, and which by TV bigshot Charlie Dubin, is the maniacal performance turned in by the Main Mean Man, Lee Marvin.
Originally shot as an episode of the 60s hit TV series, The Virginian, The Meanest Men In The West marks Fuller's first foray onto the small screen. One wonders how he took to the regimented timing of the TV drama, working up mini-climaxes just before the next commercial break. Maybe he needed the money. Maybe he wanted to work with Marvin and Bronson. Maybe he did more writing than directing, given the curriculum vitae of Charles Dubin, who was indeed a bigtime TV mogul, directing shows such as The Big Valley, Ironside, Hawaii Five-0, Cannon, M*A*S*H, Kojak, Rockford Files, Charlie's Angels, etc. etc.
Redoing this Virginian episode as a movie presents some technical difficulties, however, as the TV show, even at 90 minutes, was probably only 70 minutes of footage and 20 minutes of commercials. To make up the lost time, we see a lot of Fuller filler. A number of transition scenes are repeated over and over... and when the repetition starts to get embarrassing, they simply mirror the cut to try and make it look different. Good luck. Either that or we are treated to a number of horseman-picks-his-way-through-the-hills scenes, which tends to slow the plot down, but at least offer some visual treats.
Overall, it's a strange movie, like two flicks in one. The plot moves along on its own for the first half hour, then wham... in comes the TV cast. You might think that the jarring effect of having squeaky-clean James Drury, Doug McClure and Sara Lane (Lee J. Cobb is always tough) suddenly drop into the story could screw things up, but the murder and mayhem continues unabated -- which no doubt makes this version far superior to the TV show.
The plot is simple -- yet another dysfunctional American family with guns. The movie opens with the young Kalig (Lance Kirwin) being beaten by his stepfather (Michael Conrad) while his sick, pregnant mother (Miriam Colon) pleads for him to stop. Mother and son form a special bond, and when she's giving birth her sickness worsens, and Harge Sr. must decide who will live: the mother or the baby. He chooses the baby. Kalig freaks out. Shortly thereafter Harge finds him checking out his secret stash of money, and as he prepares to whup Kalig around some more, Kalig finds a gun and shoots him. Rather than killing Harge, Jr., he decides to save him by leaving him at his aunt's, and moves on to a life of crime, all the while helping Harge Jr. (Charles Bronson).
Kalig finally gets sent to prison for 10 years by Judge Garth (Lee J. Cobb), and he warps out, vowing to drive his half-brother crazy when he's released. He escapes in three months. Once out, he joins the Marines and is shipped out to fight in Korea. He kills a fellow soldier for $400, is arrested, but escapes again and returns to the West, where he and Harge Jr run separate gangs, stealing from banks and trains. But Kalig is now obsessively crazy, fixed on revenging the death of his sacred mother. Oddly enough, Harge is still devoted to Kalig, and credits him with being his surrogate father.
The turning point comes when Kalig bribes one of Harge's gang to inform on an impending bank robbery. In a scene Sam Peckinpah very well could have stolen for The Wild Bunch, the bank robbers rush out into a hail of bullets, and only four survive the ambush.
Kalig tells Harge that Judge Garth's foreman, The Virginian, betrayed him and his gang. Harge captures the Virginian, and while he's out of commission Kalig kidnaps the Judge. When Harge discovers his stepbrother is the real bad guy, the stage is set for the violent, final showdown.
Bronson escapes and the Marvin moment
The two best scenes in the movie occur during the botched bank heist, and then near the climax, when Marvin and Cobb wax philosophically about life and crime.
I mentioned Peckinpah's famous slow-mo dance of death in the bank robbery opening to The Wild Bunch, and if he didn't see this version, someone must have told him about it. The two sequences are very close, with some outrageous scenes. The suspense is the same -- we know Bronson's gang has being set up by Marvin, and the fight-it-out escape scenes are great, including riding a horse through a store picture window and out the back of a store, and running a huge wagonload of burning hay down the main street of town. But it's not over yet... Bronson and one of his gang are pursued by a posse to a cliff over a river... and yes, shades of 1969's Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid... except this time they ride their horses off a 30-foot cliff! Quite the image.
Lee Marvin doesn't have a lot to do in this picture until the end, and then he's superb as the intellectual psychotic. If I was to bet on who directed these scenes, I'd go with Fuller. Not only does Marvin talk about being a Marine, fighting in Korea in 1871 -- all things army being a Fuller obsession -- but the cutting is quick and natural, the dialogue smart and snappy as he and Cobb engage in a little repartee before the cliched ending.
Marvin: I've always been interested in the arts. Especially the art of abduction. I figure I can pull off the perfect crime with the right man.
Cobb: And I have that honour? Because I sent you to prison?
Marvin: Revenge. That's an inhuman word from small minds.
An intensely ironic statement, given Marvin's movie-long plot to revenge the death of his mother. But it's just one of many such gems that crowd together in the final rush to the climax.
Unfortunately, the movie is designed to spinoff from the popularity of the TV show, and it does have that constricted look of the small screen, with anchor shots cutting to close-ups and some hilarious moments when studio shots are cut into location shots.
Charles Bronson is good, playing his quiet, tough guy persona, and James Drury is as dreary as he is on TV. Cobb is a true professional, and the rest of the cast is made up of generally replaceable louts and saddletramps, with the exception of the very young Charles Grodin.
Most of the action is comprised of horse chase scenes, the usual train robberies, and with the exception of the well-shot bank holdup, there's not much here to propel this flick off the shelves. The movie, however, is obscure and should be a great addition to any Fuller/Marvin/Bronson library. If Fuller adds anything, it's that dash of existentialism which flavoured all end-of-the-cycle westerns as they segue from romantic cliche to stories of characterization.
Meanest Men? Maybe. Depends on what you mean.
© Rick "Ojo" McGrath 11/2000
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