Monday, February 10, 2014

The Underappreciated James Coburn - THE LAST HARD MEN (1976)

There was a period of time when James Coburn was easily one of the coolest movie stars in the world. Onscreen he epitomized a certain kind of calm, competent, intelligent man who could be as comfortable in the extreme dangers of any place on Earth as he was sipping a cocktail with a gorgeous lady on his arm. Coburn always gave off an air of effortless style and sophistication that seemed to hide a sharp, dangerous fighter just below the surface. His career was a glorious thing to see because it was as if he could glide into any movie and immediately hold the audience rapt. It helped that either he or his agent had a fine eye for scripts because he starred in one of the most impressive string of smart movies of any star you can name. From the mid-1960s to the late 1970s he was in an easy dozen truly fantastic movies that were not only great at the time of their release but stand up today was brilliant works worthy of serious attention. With a list of credits hat includes the two Flint movies, THE PRESIDENT'S ANALYST, DEAD HEAT ON A MERRY-GO-ROUND, DUCK YOU SUCKER, PAT GARRET & BILLY THE KID, THE LAST OF SHEILA, HARRY IN YOUR POCKET, BITE THE BULLET, HARD TIMES and the amazing CROSS OF IRON how can anyone doubt his credentials as one of the great screen stars. 

The trouble is that for more than a generation Coburn has been almost completely out of the public eye. Luckily Shout Factory's recent DVD double feature can start rectifying this sad state of affairs. First up is the late period western THE LAST HARD MEN which pits Coburn's vicious escaped criminal against Charlton Heston as the lawman Burgade who put him in prison. The time is the first decade of the 20th century and Coburn's character Provo has been in jail for ten years. He's able to take advantage of light security on a railroad building prison gang to kill the guards and with a few other hand picked inmates make his way across the desert. As soon as Heston as the retired lawman learns of the escape he knows that his nemesis will be coming to take revenge.

There are a lot of great things in this film with the first being the fine cast. Besides the above the title names of Coburn and Heston the film has a very good early performance from Barbara Hershey as Heston’s brutalized daughter Susan and  a great group of character actors on both sides of the law. Among the escapees is John Quade as easily the nastiest and least pleasant of them. Anyone familiar with westerns of the 1960s and 70s will recognize Quade from several movies including THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES  and HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER. He was nearly always tapped to play dodgy, villainous roles in westerns but his lecherous, vile performance here creates unease in the viewer that feels more in keeping with a horror film. The other scumbags in the group seem almost tame in comparison to his revoltingly sweaty stare as he literally licks his lips at the idea of raping Hershey’s character. He’s a disgusting, unredeemable bastard and the movie’s hard edge is never more in evidence than when he is onscreen.

Among the lawmen is the fantastic Michael Parks as the over- cautious sheriff that Heston has to badger into doing things a certain way. This is one of the earliest roles I’ve ever seen from Parks and its nice to see his idiosyncratic mannerisms and superior acting skills are obvious from such an early time. He had made his living from television up to this point but was clearly capable of bigger things. Playing Hershey’s young love interest is Chris (son of Robert) Mitchum and his performance is the only one that doesn’t work 100 percent of the time. Let’s just say that Chris didn’t inherit much of his father’s onscreen talent so he’s only occasionally able to impart the necessary emotions convincingly. As strange as it may seem I’ve been a fan of Mitchum the younger’s film career but it has nothing to do with his acting abilities and much more to do with the crazed energy of his foreign produced action movies. If you’ve never seen RICCO- THE MEAN MACHINE or AMERICAN HUNTER let me suggest a viewing enhanced by few beers. You'll come away with a smile. 

Of course, the real acting power in THE LAST HARD MEN resides in the two name stars. Heston is typically great as the lawman pulled back into service out of both the desire to protect himself from an enemy and the feeling that he is the only man capable of stopping Coburn. It’s this almost arrogant certainty that everyone else is an incompetent that leads the audience to root a little for Coburn’s character as the chase develops. At first we almost want to see the self-important man taken down a peg or two but when the cruel depths of Coburn’s hatred is revealed the nastiness of the situation becomes clear and it becomes harder to root for the bad guy. These really are hard men and there is little chance of either backing down or giving up. In most ways it is Coburn that has the harder job onscreen. He has to convince us of his malicious nature while still being the lesser of the various shades of evil onscreen. He does this well and its a testament to his charisma that we are willing to root for this increasingly nasty man for as long as we do. 

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