12 August 2009

Movie review: Lonely Are the Brave

Lonely Are the Brave (1962)
Directed by David Miller. Starring Kirk Douglas, Walter Matthau, Gena Rowlands, Michael Kane, William Schallert, Carroll O’Connor, George Kennedy.

Kirk Douglas appeared in many A-list films, but his personal favorite from his canon is Lonely Are the Brave, a movie that the general public never embraced with the same enthusiasm. It only got a DVD release this year after Steven Spielberg pushed Universal Pictures to take it out of the files, so maybe a wider general audience will get to appreciate it at last.

Douglas is right to have such pride in this movie. It’s a brilliant piece of work, and sports one of legendary screenwriter and blacklisted author Dalton Trumbo’s finest scripts. It is also one of the first great scores from Jerry Goldsmith (ah Ryan, so that’s why you’re reviewing this film!), a composer who had started to emerge from television scoring into features; Lonely Are the Brave, combined with the Academy Award-nominated score to Freud the same year, established Goldsmith as one of Hollywood’s great music talents. (And would somebody please release Freud on disc?)

Lonely Are the Brave belongs to the subgenre of “the contemporary/modern Western.” These films use the plots, settings, and themes of the classic Western in a post-World War I time period, when there no longer was anything that could be called a “Western Frontier.” Famous contemporary Westerns include Bad Day at Black Rock, Comes a Horseman, Brokeback Mountain, Coogan’s Bluff, and Junior Bonner. I could even make a good argument for No Country for Old Men (and the Coens wouldn’t disagree with me). Lonely Are the Brave takes one of the popular themes of Westerns in the 1960s and ‘70s, “The End of the West,” and runs with it in the contemporary 1962 setting. To distill the film down to a simple tagline: modern law enforcement vs. the 1880s cowboy. And the cowboy does extremely well for himself, showing that a man and horse in connection with the land can even take on the Air Force. However, Douglas’s cowboy Jack Burns and his horse Whiskey are anachronisms, and I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that this is heading for tragedy. Even so, the ending packs surprise and a heavy emotional gut-punch.

Dalton Trumbo’s screenplay layers the straightforward action plot with a marvelous touch for character and dialogue, plus an unerring sense of always pulling more out of single scene than you might expect. The movie divides into two “acts.” The first one shows Jack Burns returning to civilization after years of sheep-herding and transient work far from the world of highways and motels. The opening scene seems to show Burns living in the classic American West, but then a sound overhead reveals a flight of jets over the desert, and the viewer immediately understands Burns’s position relative to modernity. The very next scene, where he confusedly tries to cross a two-lane highway on his horse, reinforces Burns’s outsider role. It’s terrific filmmaking shorthand to get us into the first arc of the movie.

Jack Burns has come back to the modern world because he found out his best friend, Paul Bondi (Michael Kane) is in prison doing two years for helping immigrants across the Mexico border to secure jobs and education. Burns first visits Paul’s wife, Jerri (Gena Rowlands), and it’s clear that these two love each other even though they can’t and won’t admit it. Burns gets involved in an explosive barroom brawl and ends up in jail with Paul. Rather than face a year in the slammer, something a free-roaming cowboy like Burns could never handle, he arranges an old-fashioned prison break, imagining that somehow the frontier days are back and he can get away with it. He asks Paul to come, but Paul, as Burns notices, had “grown up,” and refuses. He has his wife and child to think about, and he won’t risk placing another five years on his sentence. Burns understands at last… but he still makes his break. After another visit with Jerri—the movie’s best-performed and written scene—Burns lights out for the hills with his horse, Whiskey.

The second half of the movie is the pursuit. Sheriff Morey Johnson (Walter Matthau) leads the law on the chase after Burns, and the action and suspense builds as Burns makes one astonishing escape after another against modern law enforcement.

During the travails of Jack Burns, a subplot unfolds about a truck driver (Carroll O’Connor) who is hauling a load of toilets on a deadline. It seems as if this has nothing to do with Jack Burns, except to provide a look at modern banality, but this will eventually have a very powerful impact on our larger story. O’Connor, still some years away from Archie Bunker, is superb in his small but crucial role as Hinton, man on a wearisome mission.

Although the action in the second half of the film is excellent, filled with the thrill of seeing Burns use his cowboy skills to elude the police and the Air Force, it’s the character and dialogue of the first half establishing Burns and his world that make the extended climax as powerful as it is. To take just one example, seeing Burns get the drop on the thuggish cop (George Kennedy) who thinks he can take him out easily, is made more energetic because of the way the same cop lackadaisically brutalized Burns while he was in jail. It’s the sort of emotional and action pay-off that make movie magic. A modern movie might have leaped into the chase much faster, but Lonely Are the Brave spends quality time showing the people involved and why they and their concerns matter before putting them through the plot machine that will determine their lives.

Trumbo’s script, based on the Edward Abbey novel The Brave Cowboy, may be the best thing the great author ever wrote. According to Douglas, not one word of Trumbo’s dialogue was changed during filming; everybody knew it was that good. The scenes between Burns and Jerri are the movie’s best; the emotion seething underneath what they say to each other is marvelous. Trumbo also shows sympathy for the downtrodden and the poor, and the way the modern world grinds away the individualism that Burns represents. He even tosses in some great comedy moments, mostly through the interaction between Matthau and Schallert, who plays the sheriff’s deputy.

Kirk Douglas often played aggressive, unpleasant men, but Jack Burns is a character ideally suited to him—and he must have known it from the first time he read the novel. Burns is a loner and survivor—he would not have it any other way—but he’s also a gentle soul, and it’s a surprising quality to see Kirk Douglas project this. Much of the softer side of Burns comes out in his connection with Whiskey, his horse. The link between man and mount is powerful, and the jeopardy that Whiskey faces beside Burns makes the suspense scenes even tenser. The silent performance Douglas gives at the finale contains some of the best work in his whole career.

As an adversary, Douglas has great competition in Walter Matthau. Matthau is a laconic but very effective law-enforcement man, but he also show sympathy and respect for Burns as he chases him while the men around him are only interested in flexing macho muscle or slacking off. Matthau’s sheriff seems similar to the character he would eventually play in The Taking of Pelham One Two Three; the same intonation, the same smart-ass cool.

Of course I’m going to talk about Jerry Goldsmith, who not only wrote a great score for but also started his meteoric rise as a master composer with Lonely Are the Brave. The composer’s characteristic ability to cut through the outer layers of a movie to find an emotional core and build entirely off of it is already obvious in this early work. He adds an incredible feel of heartbreak to scene after scene, always capturing the “lonely” of the title. And the explosive barroom brawl music ain’t bad either. But Goldsmith pulls out his finest work for the film’s best scene: Burns saying goodbye to Jerri before heading into the mountains. The undercurrent of repressed love in the music is incredibly touching.

Interestingly, the movie bears a strong resemblance to a film Goldsmith would score twenty years later, First Blood. Watching the helicopter pursuit of Burns will bring memories of John Rambo trying to avoid getting shot down by another whirlybird, and then taking it back to the men inside. Goldsmith must have drawn some emotional memories from one film to the other, and makes a solo trumpet a key part of the themes for both Jack Burns and John Rambo.

Kirk Douglas was the driving force behind getting Lonely Are the Brave made: he asked Universal to buy the rights to Abbey’s novel as a vehicle for him; he produced the film through his company Joel Productions; he was responsible for hiring Dalton Trumbo; and he picked Goldsmith to score after a suggestion from Twentieth Century Fox’s musical director Alfred Newman. Unfortunately, Douglas could not stop Universal from giving the film a wide general release instead of a slower art-house roll-out that the actor thought would better suit it, and the movie vanished in the general over-abundance of American Westerns of the early ‘60s. At least we now have a proper home video release to let us appreciate it.

The DVD presents the movie in a pristine black and white print. You don’t often see anamorphic widescreen B&W films, so it’s a pleasure to see the gorgeous canvas of cinematographer Philip Lathrop’s images stretched over the 2.35:1 aspect ratio. An eighteen-minute tribute to the film contains new interviews with Kirk Douglas (sadly limited in speech by his stroke), Gena Rowlands, Steven Spielberg, and Michael Douglas. All of them express their immense love for the film. Douglas Sr. is very proud of how hiring his friend Dalton Trumbo to write under his own name helped “break the blacklist.” The other special feature is a nine-minute featurette about Goldsmith’s score, with producer Robert Townson, who released the recent album of the film and worked with Goldsmith many times, guiding us through this superb film composition. It also shows the original cue Goldsmith wrote for the finale but which was not used playing under the scene. It’s sad to think that had this DVD been produced a few years earlier, it would have been Jerry Goldsmith himself telling us about the score. He apparently had a great love for it as well.

By the way, not only is this one of Carol O’Connor’s earliest films, it’s also the screen debut for Bill Bixby, who plays one of the unfortunate Air Force helicopter pilots. Another piece of trivia: the one-armed man who forces the barroom fight with Burns, Bill Raisch, is the one-armed man, the one from The Fugitive.

Lonely Are the Brave is a masterpiece. It needs to be better known. So see it.