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Monte Walsh

Monte Walsh(1970)

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teaser Monte Walsh (1970)

Although these days, The Wild Bunch (1969) is often considered the final word on the subject, Hollywood wouldn't be done pondering the demise of the Old West (and, not incidentally, the Western genre) for a few years after Sam Peckinpah's blood-filled meditation hit the screen. William A. Fraker's relatively little-known Monte Walsh (1970) somehow fell between the cracks of The Wild Bunch and Robert Altman's elegiac McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), but it's still an impressive film that benefits greatly from Fraker's experience as an A-list cinematographer.

Fraker, who photographed such memorable films as Rosemary's Baby (1968) and Bullitt (1968), paints a picture of the Westthat is at once romanticized and surprisingly decrepit. As was the case with most of the movies in this anti-genre, the frontier often looks beautiful in Monte Walsh. But the characters don't notice the beauty. They're just trying to survive in an unforgiving environment.

Lee Marvin plays the title role, a down-and-out ranch hand whose life intersects with some old riding buddies, Chet Rollins (Jack Palance) and Shorty Austin (Mitch Ryan), in the thoroughly misnamed town of Harmony. You know this is a more modernized Western than the 1940s archetype when the nominal hero has his life thrown into disarray by bankers foreclosing on a ranch. Hardcore capitalists always seem to play a role in these pictures, intimating that the traditional cowboy game was over once bad guys started running conglomerates rather than merely firing pistols.

Rollins eventually marries into a conservative family, and tries to convince the hard-drinking Walsh that maybe it's time to hang up his spurs and settle down. But with Lee Marvin in the title role, it takes an inevitable murder to finally seal Walsh's standing as one of the last of the old-fashioned cowboys. The story is nothing earth-shattering, but Fraker pulls sturdy performances out of his cast, and the picture in general displays a healthy distaste for standard Hollywood conventions, just like its star, Lee Marvin.

Fraker who, lest we forget, was a first-time director knew Marvin liked to drink. But he decided to nip the star's penchant for drunkenness in the bud while shooting Monte Walsh, even if it might mean losing his job.

One morning when production had just gotten underway, Fraker was driving up to the film's central location outside of Tucson, along with a battalion of other trucks transporting the cast and crew. As the trucks approached, everyone could see Marvin standing grandly on a large rock, in full costume, with a bottle of beer in his hand rather than the more appropriate six-shooter. Realizing he needed to establish himself as the one-and-only head honcho, Fraker recklessly approached the actor and told him it was too bad he was so loaded because now they had to cancel the entire day's shoot - at six in the morning!

Marvin insisted that he was fine and knew his dialogue. Fraker, though, argued that Marvin knew everybody's dialogue he always did but was still so plastered he actually appeared cross-eyed. Finally, Fraker informed Marvin that Monte Walsh would not contain a single frame of film in which the lead actor was "smashed." Then all the trucks turned around, and Fraker, despite the huge expense, called it a day.

Fraker returned to his hotel and told his assistant to pack his bags, since he believed the studio would be relieving him of his duties at any minute. When the call finally came, the producers congratulated Fraker on standing his ground against Marvin. The move also apparently worked for Marvin, who, from that point on, never again showed up drunk on the set. That's not to say he gave up drinking completely, but even risk-taking first-time directors can't have everything.

Director: William A. Fraker
Producer: Hal Landers, Bobby Roberts
Screenplay: Lukas Heller, David Zelag Goodman (based on the novel by Jack Schaefer)
Editor: Richard Brockway, Robert L. Wolfe, Ray Daniels, Gene Fowler, Jr.
Cinematographer: David M. Walsh
Music: John Barry
Production Design: Albert Brenner
Art Design: Ward Preston
Costume Design: Albert Brenner
Makeup: Emile LaVigne
Cast: Lee Marvin (Monte Walsh), Jeanne Moreau (Martine Bernard), Jack Palance (Chet Rollins), Mitch Ryan (Shorty Austin), Jim Davis (Cal Brennan), John Hudkins (Sonny Jacobs), Michael Conrad (Dally Johnson), Tom Heaton (Sugar Wyman), G.D. Spradlin (Hal Henderson).

by Paul Tatara

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