Thursday, December 22, 2011

Jordyn's List: The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972)

Reverend LaSalle: "I shall pray for you, Bean. This land abounds in ruffians and varmints. Their numbers are legion, their evil skills commensurate."
Bean: "Piss on 'em."

I am almost willing to bet my toes that you have never seen or heard of The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean. Considering it's a star vehicle for Paul Newman, directed by John Huston, and written by John Milius, that is quite a fucking feat. But in spite of the big names attached (and for reasons unknown to me) it fell into obscurity, reduced to a footnote on the epic resumes of the three legends of film.

So how in the hell did I see it?

Call it Fate if you will, but The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean was one of the few VHS's my father owned and so it was watched alongside my Disney Animated Features. Ah, yes, another movie from my childhood. It is with a heavy heart that I admit TLATOJRB is the one and only western on Jordyn's Canonized List of Favorite Movies*, but let's see what makes it so damn special, shall we?

The opening title card states Maybe this isn't how it's the way it should have been, as we watch Roy Bean (Paul Newman) cross the Pecos River; the thin blue line that separates law and order from rattlesnakes and bad men. At a nearby brothel/saloon, Bean is robbed by the bandits n' whores within and then dragged behind a horse and left for dead. With the aid of a pretty Mexican girl named Marie Elena (Victoria Principal), he takes his vengeance and then claims the brothel and land for his own and appoints himself as judge.

In the next ten years or so (they're never quite clear on when the film begins), Judge Roy Bean rules over the area with his guns, hanging rope, and loyal marshals -- Bart Jackson (Jim Burk), Nick the Grub (Matt Clark), Fermel Parlee (Bill McKinney), Whorehouse Lucky Jim (Steve Kanaly) and Tector Crites (Ned Beatty), who takes over as bartender and narrator.

It isn't until about halfway through the film when a plot presents itself; Frank Gass (Roddy McDowall), a lawyer from the East, comes to claim the land as the rightful owner. But before that, we get cameos from Anthony Perkins, John Huston and Stacy Keach and a lot of scenes with a bear (played by an actual bear named Bruno) that PETA would shudder at if this film were made today.

A character driven western is about as easily found as a plot driven indie film...oh SNAP! While most westerns are about a conflict (i.e. treasure hunting, taking revenge, killing Injuns, protecting Indians, etc.), The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean is a character study and not much else. While Bean is a fairly static character -- determined, stubborn, and a little egotistical -- the people around him, and more importantly, the town of Langtry, mature and grow where he cannot. Ironically, Bean waxes rhapsodic about bringing law, order, respectability, and civilization to Langtry, but with it, he loses his importance because he has an inability to grow with the town.

Along with westerns being very plot/action heavy, they are also sausage festivals. The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean isn't a glaring exception but it's take on male-female relationships is worth discussing. One of the more appealing quirks of the Judge is his obsessive yet endearing infatuation of English actress Lillie Langtry (portrayed by Ava Gardner in dozens of posters and in cameo). Time and time again he praises her beauty and talent without ever actually seeing her perform. But because he can't be with the one he loves, he loves the one he's with, Marie Elena, the senorita who saved his ass in the beginning of the film.

In my most recent viewing, I was surprised at how often her character was present on screen even if Victoria Principal isn't given much to do other than watch Paul Newman adoringly, disparagingly, or to react to the goings-on at the Jersey Lilly saloon. Marie Elena's acceptance of always being second to Lillie Langtry is both heartbreaking and understandable; the audience knows as I think she does, when it comes right down to it, the Judge loves Marie Elena more, but it's one hell of a trip getting there.

One could write a senior thesis on the representation of women in the American western, so I will try to keep my conjectures to a minimum. I only wish to say that this movie presents both Marie Elena -- who bears a bastard child to the Judge -- and Lillie Langtry -- a known mistress of Edward VII -- in a positive light and as creatures worth protecting and cherishing despite their hymenlessness.

Onto something for the audio/visual side of things, well, I watched a literally 22 year VHS tape on a 18 year old VCR hooked up to a 13 year old TV, so as you can imagine, what I've seen and heard wasn't all that and a bag of chips. However, in the case of westerns, the grittier it looks the better. As with all westerns made after the advent of color, it has a sepia tone overlaying every frame. The score is haunting, underplayed and not a bit bombastic until the ending where it is called for. Also, if I didn't mention "Marmalade, Molasses, and Honey" a cheesy Andy Williams Oscarbait song, I would kick myself. It's pretty awesome even if it doesn't really fit anywhere in the movie.

The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean is a deeper film than one may figure at first glance. As with any film, it is not perfect and suffers from a few pacing problems and a general meandering until the introduction of Frank Gass and the plot. However, it will remain my favorite western and a movie I will force upon anyone who mentions the genre to me.

*No, Back to the Future-Part III doesn't count.

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