Label: Twilight Time / Region: All / Released: March, 2012
Synopsis: Disparate riders compete for a $2,000 cash prize in a deadly 700-mile horse race.
Special Features: 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3,000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment.
During the later part of his career, writer/director Richard Brooks made increasing less films, perhaps because studios felt he was too old guard, or Brooks, like many of his contemporaries, was finding it tough to pitch personal projects while commercial blockbusters were being made by a younger generation.
Bite the Bullet runs a bit long; the story, based somewhat on a 1908 500-mile horse race, could’ve been wrapped up in less than 2 hours, but it’s the director’s second perfect western, following the action / moral challenges of The Professionals (1966).
Ostensibly a movie about a cross-country horse race, like Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969), it’s a tale where aging genre icons gather for a desperate payoff as times are shifting from horses to motorcycles and fast sports cars.
Sam Clayton (Gene Hackman) is a decent hired hand who fails to deliver the prize-winning horse of the contest’s sponsor on time because he stops to save the lives of a nag and its colt, rounded up for the glue factory. Fired by his employer, Jack Parker (Dabney Coleman), he decides to take a crack at the $2,000 prize, and compete against Parker’s own rider, Sam’s best friend Luke (James Coburn), an old cow hand (Ben Johnson), a young snot (Jan-Michael Vincent), a wealthy British racer (Ian Bannen), a desperate Mexican (Mario Arteaga), and a part-time whore named Miss Jones (Candice Bergen).
The whole enterprise feels like a final gasp of the old west, and Parker’s created a mini-traveling town for the riders, with a spontaneous saloon, and fresh whores on board a train which follows the riders and offers them comfort each night after a hard day’s riding, where they can bathe, drink, gamble, and repair themselves (including a nasty rotting tooth). The onboard media is represented by a lone reporter – a self-serving crony hired by Parker because apparently no one else really cared enough to cover the race.
All the icons of the genre are packed into the cross-country challenge, and during the trek each rider is worn down, sometimes losing a horse to cruelty or bad luck until just a handful are left to approach the finish line. Allegiances and friendships are somewhat tested, but Brooks’ film is really a forum where genre archetypes relay their fatigue amongst themselves – bonding and commiserating by the fire or a jug of booze – over lives that started off fun and wild, and kind of turned out pretty shopworn for no good reason.
Bite the Bullet’s a remarkable film for expanding on Peckinpah’s own (and much narrower) lamentation of the old west, and for achieving a docu-like quality in placing the actors and their horses in extreme locations. A major highlight is a desert crossing, but there’s also plenty of small scenes that gently expand on the character of each contestant, such as the Mexican’s increasing dire toothache which brings together complete strangers as comrades.
Harry Stradling Jr.’s cinematography is stunning, and Sony’s HD transfer used by Twilight Time is amazing. This is one of the best-looking, best-sounding classic films on Blu-ray, with its natural film grain preserved. Why Sony wouldn’t want to create a special edition on its own is baffling, but its existence ensures indie labels have a great opportunity to mine the studio’s superb collection of hi-def masters.
Some of the film’s visuals are also quite unique, such as the artful lap dissolves used to condense montages; and the use of slow-motion, of which the most arresting is a sequence where a character is overtaken by a rival: as the exhausted rider is shot in slo-mo, the rival advances in normal speed, creating a hypnotic contrast that (again) feels like a metaphor for Brooks’ own stature as a veteran Oscar-winning, filmmaking powerhouse being overtaken by rivals.
Julie Kirgo’s booklet notes provide needed background info on this forgotten little masterpiece, and it’s easy to see why it faded into obscurity: it’s a slow-burning western largely starring aging character actors; and it’s about a mode of transportation and thrill wholly overtaken by car chase movies. It may seem baffling why Brooks would tackle a genre considered largely irrelevant to a younger demographic, but then it’s a film about what Brooks and his contemporaries knew best: working hard towards a goal that’s personally rewarding rather than pleasing to the masses.
The entire cast is very strong, including Vincent as the young snot, a young Sally Kirkland playing an eager whore, and Johnson, who has a career high delivering a simple, poetic fireside monologue on his character’s rambling life – a speech that could easily come from a journeyman writer/director’s heart.
TT’s BR comes with the studio’s uninspired trailer (which frankly misses the film’s point, editing scenes into a generic action montage), and an isolated stereo score track featuring Alex North’s booming score. North, who was freely exploiting modernism in the seventies, crafted a sometimes bewildering blend of melody, harmony, and grungy percussive dissonance; few cues remain in any consistent style, yet it’s perfectly tailored for a film about disparate characters charging or ambling through extreme terrain and facing unknown dangers.
After a fairly steady career during the fifties and sixties, Brooks would make 3 films during the seventies – $ (1971), Bite the Bullet (1975), and Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977) – and a final 2 during the early eighties – Wrong is Right (1982), and the little-seen Fever Pitch (1985) – before passing away in 1992.
© 2012 Mark R. Hasan
Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review