Sunday, 17 March 2013

Film: Lonely Are The Brave (Dir: David Miller, 1962)

It's true, lonely are the brave, as I know from having been to Improv gigs attended by only myself and the musician's wife, listening to him make farting sound through a disassembled trombone. Here is another form of bravery in the shape of Jack Burns (Kirk Douglas), an old school cowboy symbolising the free spirit in a time of fences and signs...
   Jack Burns: "A westerner likes open country. That means he's got to hate fences. And the more fences there are, the more he hates them."
   Jerry Bondi: "I've never heard such nonsense in my life."
   Jack Burns: "It's true, though. Have you ever noticed how many fences there're getting to be? And the signs they got on them: no hunting, no hiking, no admission, no trespassing, private property, closed area, start moving, go away, get lost, drop dead! Do you know what I mean?"

Jack goes so far as to get himself imprisoned just to free his old friend. I wouldn't have watched this film if not for the insistence of a friend who claimed it was one of his favourite films. He lives in Watford. To show my gratification I'm thinking of breaking into Watford and getting him out. That's how brave I am.

En route to jail Jack gets into what turns out to be one of the oddest fights ever screened involving a one-armed troublemaker who he takes on with one arm behind his back because he's a decent, fair-minded guy (well, that and the fact that the rest of the hombres in the bar insist). It's a hell of a bar-room brawl.

The magnificent monochrome cinematography by Philip H. Lathrop is just one highlight here, along with Douglas, of course, who never looked more handsome in a craggy fashion, oozing roguish charm as he rails against the modern world. The notion of free man against the machine is brilliantly illustrated early on as Burns pits his Old West transport against lanes of traffic in order to cross. That's some horse he has there. It's called Whiskey, and proves to be something of a star in its own right, as well as being as free-spirited as Jack Burns (cue comedic scenes involving blankets and who gets to the watering hole first). 

The light moments contrasted with depth and tragedy make this film special. It's warm-hearted and hard-nosed, romantic and ultimately painfully realistic. Although heroic, Burns isn't allowed to get away with simply being a 'walk tall' gunslinger in the John Wayne mode. When somebody else isn't reminding him of his faults, he describes them himself. As he tells his friend's wife (played by Gena Rowlands), who still carries a torch for him: 
   "Know what a loner is? He's a born cripple. He's a cripple because the only person he can live with is himself. It's his life, the way he wants to live. It's all for him. A guy like that, he'd kill a woman like you. Because he couldn't love you, not the way you are loved."

To demonstrate her modernity we see that she paints abstract art ( as shown on the walls of her home), which may seem a little incongruous considering she lives in Smalltown USA, but it's another way of highlighting how she, along with the world, has moved on and Jack, naturally, doesn't understand the paintings either.  

Walter Matthau's Sheriff Morey Johnson has the task of hunting Burns. If he empathises with his prey, it's only hinted at most of the time. This subtlety is well handled where others might signpost the secret yearnings of a jaded cop more obviously. As the hunters close in the mountain scenes are spectacular not just visually, but in some jaw-dropping physical feats by man and horse.

The ending cannot be described without being a spoiler; suffice to say it's extremely powerful and distressing, whilst also being ambiguous. 

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