12 March 2011

Movie Review: The Hunting Party (1971)

The Hunting Party (1971)
Directed by Don Medford. Starring Oliver Reed, Candice Bergen, Gene Hackman, Simon Oakland, Mitchell Ryan, L. Q. Jones

To make sure we’re clear: this Hunting Party has nothing to do with the 2007 film of the same name, starring Richard Gere and Terence Howard. Not as though you saw that film anyway. It slipped through any crack it could find; I’ve heard good things about, however.

The 1970s was a grand decade for the Western—except financially. The influence of the Italian Western and the shift toward younger filmmakers looking to experiment gave the Westerns of the decade a fresh perspective. But you wouldn’t have known it from the box-office returns of the time, nor from the critical reaction, which was damningly negative toward this new, more bloody and cynical Western. Never mind that every genre took a harder and more jaded turn during the ‘70s; the Western attracted scathing reviews because of the perception that the genre had a childlike “purity” before and was now getting spoiled. (Apparently, nobody saw Pursued or The Gunfighter). By 1976, Pauline Kael declared the Western was “dead”; that also happened to be the year of one of the greatest Westerns ever made, Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales. So goes the Western contradictions of the 1970s.

The Hunting Party is no masterpiece of the era, but it ideally frames the way the genre had changed, and why some viewers took umbrage with it.

A British production, shot in Spain, The Hunting Party has some of the aura of the Italian Westerns, but not much of their cool. It is far more angry, and this is a case where the anger gets the best of the film, making it more ugly than exciting, too attached to its negativity to make the film really breathe.

The plot of The Hunting Party has a strange resemblance to another film starring Candice Bergen made a few years later, The Wind and the Lion: a kidnapped woman falls for her kidnapper, who turns out to be more gallant than she expected. But The Hunting Party has a different formula, since instead of the President of these Here Unites States sending out the troops to get back Ms. Bergen, it sends out the abusive husband and his rich buddies, armed with long-distance rifles, to make cutting down the kidnappers into the ultimate game hunt.

The movie opens with the unsubtle editing of bandit Frank Calder (Reed) and his gang butchering a cow, while Melissa (Bergen) suffers from the rough lovemaking of her rich rancher husband Brandt Rugen (Hackman). This heavy-handed approach will dominate the rest of the film, so get used to it now.

Rugen meets with his fellow wealthy men to go on a hunting trip. They ride out on a train equipped with copious amounts of prostitutes and booze, which allows Brandt to show his abusive side to another woman. Meanwhile, Melissa goes to work at the local school, where Calder and his men swing by to kidnap her.

Amazingly, Calder has no intention of trying to ransom Melissa. He doesn’t even know that the woman he’s snatched is Brandt’s wife. He only wants her because she’s a schoolteacher, and he wants to learn how to read.

This is the film’s biggest stretch. Everything else we know about Calder (and it is not much) points toward a brutal outlaw. But he gets a sudden yearnin’ to learn his ABCs,and so seizes the first schoolteacher he finds. Or planned to find; the act seems deliberate, with Calder’s pack riding into town like the opening of The Wild Bunch, making events more confusing.

Calder has made a mistake, because cold-blooded Brandt Ruger may not care much about his wife, but he does care about hunting and his scope-mounted rifles, and sees his wife’s abduction as an to stage a hunt with human targets. And he might as well kill Melissa too—because folks, Brandt Rugen is just mule mean. Still, Brandt’s actions make much more psychological sense than Calder’s do; we have a sense of who Brandt is and what drives him, while Calder seems to do what he does simply to get the story moving.

Melissa and Calder get into it hot and heavy early in the film with a scene that tries to balance tenderness and rape, but because we have Oliver Reed as one half of the coupling, it leans toward rape. It is, however, one of the film’s more intense and interesting scenes, with effective editing and music, and it shows the movie’s view that sex, in the Old West, was always brutal from the woman’s point of view.

But the tender compliment to this scene, involving a jar of peaches, is a disaster that seems to go on for half an hour, accompanied with whimsical music. The Hunting Party has no idea how to play nice, as this scene shows. To be fair to composer Riz Ortolani, the rest of his musical score is excellent, especially the string-based romantic theme, which does much more for the bittersweet lovers than the performers do.

The Hunting Party’s main dramatic fumble is how one-sided it is. I don’t mean one-sided in its politics, the “rich-shoot-the-poor” theme. It’s the balance between Calder’s men and Brandt’s. The outlaws have no chance at all against Calder’s long-range rifles that can blow them away from the safety of high ridges. As soon as the rifles start bloodily ripping the bandits apart (often in Peckinpah-borrowed slo-mo) there is no hope for them, and almost no chance to fight back. The audience has to settle in for a slaughter, which hardly makes for compelling viewing. The drama has to turn to the balance of power between Brandt’s party, since not all of them have developed the same thrill for human prey as their crazed leader. Simon Oakland emerges here as the film’s most interesting character, Brandt’s ally with a conscience who cannot decide where his allegiance lies.

On the opposing side, Calder’s gang benefits from having L. Q. Jones, one of Sam Peckinpah’s favorite actors, as its most lunatic member. Jones’s Western-crazies are always a delight. I wish that Oliver Reed’s Calder had as much interest to him, but the character is a blank, his defining characteristic is that he wants to learn to read.

The chemistry between Melissa Ruger and Frank Calder never gets deeper than that silly “peaches scene,” and her character seems to exist solely as the victim of abuse, which the film hurls at her constantly. It’s hard to tell if the film is trying to make of point with the misogyny, or is enjoying the misogyny at the excuse of making a point. Whatever the intention, it ends up uncomfortably cruel.

With the one-sided conflict, the movie drags toward its conclusion, shedding a requisite amount of blood until the slow final slog. The prolonged ending seems like the filmmakers were trying to imitate Duel in the Sun or von Stroheim’s Greed; but unlike those films, The Hunting Party only shrugs as the credits roll, with nothing much to show for its bitterness.

As for Gene Hackman: Gene Hackman is Good in Anything.™ At the verge of stardom with his Oscar-winning role in The French Connection, Hackman has charisma even in a shallow villain part. His work with Simon Oakland, one of the most underrated character actors of his day, is the best relationship between any characters in the movie.

For viewers who enjoys Westerns, The Hunting Party is worth seeking out despite its problems; it belongs to that peculiar world of the 1970s re-imagining of the genre, and the execution of the violence does have a kick (nice squib work!). But it isn’t anything that non-Western fans will want to bother with.

The 2005 DVD of The Hunting Party is a standard no-frills MGM release. (United Artists originally distributed the film in the U.S.) The transfer preserves the 1.85:1 aspect ratio enhanced for widescreen televisions, but the print is mediocre, with scratches and a soft image. The only bonus feature is a trailer, which is a well put-together bit of exploitation advertising. Don’t expect anything better from this catalogue title, and a Blu-ray disc is probably on nobody’s agenda.