Wednesday, November 09, 2005

It Came from Netflix! More Dead than Alive

Coming late to the revisionist ‘adult’ Western derby* (by which I mean films that meant to deconstruct the elements of the traditional Western), 1968's More Dead than Alive is as sadly inert as its hulking leading man, Clint Walker, a cartoonishly strapping actor so wooden he makes Charlton Heston look like Jerry Lewis.

[*Winchester ’73, the first of the James Stewart/Anthony Mann movies that really kicked off the trend, had been made way back in 1950. Henry Fonda’s anti-lynching drama The Ox-Bow Incident, meanwhile, was even more venerable, having been released in 1943.]

Walker is ‘Killer’ Cain, who is and has been in prison for the last 18 years, after being convicted for one of the twelve killings he had committed as a young man. He interferes with an attempted prison break, and is paroled soon after. He only wants an honest job and to stay away from guns. However, his past keeps him from gaining work, and the brother of the man he kept from escaping from prison is out to make his life a living hell.

Cain meets up with traveling showman Mark Ruffalo (Vincent Price, who unsurprisingly is the best thing in the picture), who travels from town to town with young quick draw artist Billy. Billy is unerringly fast and accurate with a gun. He is also a punk who constantly fantasizes about being around in the old days of the professional gunfighter, in which he imagines he would have been king of the hill.

Not being able to find other work, Cain finally takes up Ruffalo’s offer to join his show. Billy is a terrific with a gun, but Cain was a notorious killer, and that’s what draws crowds. Cain’s presence soon makes Billy bitter and sullen. At first he looks up to Cain as the sort of man he always wanted to be, but loses respect for him now that he’s turned non-violent. He also resents not being the star anymore, especially since he’s now far better with a gun than the older Cain.

Along the way, Cain periodically meets up with a weirdly emancipated woman painter (played by Forbidden Planet’s Anne Francis), who represents his one chance at the kind of life he wants to live. However, his past….blah, blah, blah. The problem with the film is that it intends to be deep and philosophic and anti-violence, but isn’t very good at it. The movie lumbers forward, but is highly disjointed. It’s more a collection of incidents than a story.

It’s also one of those pictures where you know in advance that the end will be aggravating, no matter how things turn out. If the film shifts gears and goes with a happy conclusion, it will seem a cop out. If it goes for the more natural bummer ending, it will merely confirm the picture as annoyingly didactic and moralistic. This aspect isn’t helped by the theme song, a thuddingly obvious pseudo-hymn about man’s inhumanity to man that is bad to start with and moreover reprised a couple of times.

Few things are more annoying than inept message films. It’s not so much that More Dead than Alive is an awful movie ('lame' is more accurate), but just that there are so many better ones. The Western has probably produced more great American films than any other genre, and when you can watch The Naked Spur, much less The Searchers or Unforgiven or a dozen other much more sophisticated movies—or in this case, hundreds of more sophisticated or at least more entertaining examples—there’s little reason to waste time with stuff like this unless you’re just an omnivorous fan of oaters or (in this case) merely a Vincent Price completist.


At 8:03 AM, Blogger baby copernicus said...

I caught this movie by chance on Cinemax a few months back.

It was OK, but nothing to write home about. I must admit to being surprised, however, by the downbeat ending.

I heard in the remake Mark Ruffalo's going to play a character named Vincent Price.

At 7:44 AM, Blogger Marty McKee said...

I checked the MPAA database and was shocked to learn that this movie now has an R rating!?! I saw it on cable several years ago, and I don't remember any R-rated violence in it (it was originally rated PG). It's pretty rare for an older film to receive a stricter rating in later years, so I wonder what the deal is here (unless perhaps the DVD reinserts some material originally cut from the film).

Director Robert Sparr was just moving out of TV and into features when he died in a plane crash. His only STAR TREK is a really good one, the memorable "Shore Leave".

At 9:52 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Personally, I prefer low-brow-ish westerns. You couldn't pay me to sit all the way through Searchers, let alone unforgiven or Once Upon a Time in the West.

The name Clint Walker, however, was enough to tell me to avoid this one. Ken's cheerful evocation of Charlton Heston does a gross injustice to all three actors involved in his comparison. Walker wasn't merely stylized and melodramatic like Heston, charismatic but limited in range like Eastwood in his youth: he was a crashing bore of colossal proportions. Pick the dullest 80s muscleman imitator of Ahnult and Sly, and Walker was duller.



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