Saturday 23 March 2013

Family business

Whatever his loftier ambitions (and they are many), Walter Hill has always excelled as a nuts-and-bolts craftsman, using the often limited resources at his disposal to create finely honed genre pieces. Hill's real masterpiece in that mode may be 1981's Southern Comfort, but The Long Riders, released the previous year, is also a force worth reckoning with. A flawed force, to be sure, and occasionally a frustrating one; but its joys are substantial enough.

The film's fame rests mostly on a gimmick. Hill cast four actual sets of brothers for the film's clans: James and Stacy Keach as Jesse and Frank James; David, Keith and and Robert Carradine as Cole, Jim and Bob Younger; Randy and a ridiculously young, barely recognisable Dennis Quaid as Clell and Ed Miller; and Christopher and Nicholas Guest as Charlie and Bob Ford. It pays off, in expected as well as unexpected ways.

Our setting is Missouri 'after the Civil War': The Long Riders does not use dates, giving the impression that the action is far more compressed than the ten or so years the film's events took in real life. The James-Younger gang, composed of former Confederate bushwhackers, rob banks and trains, and while they're good at it there's tension too. During the film's opening robbery, Ed Miller needlessly shoots a cashier, leading to his expulsion from the gang. The outlaws pursue their own aims - Cole Younger's abusive infatuation with Belle Starr (Pamela Reed), Jesse's marriage to Zee (Savannah Smith) - while they are increasingly hunted by Pinkerton agents. Eventually, they embark on an ambitious bank robbery in Northfield, Minnesota.

The film does, in all honesty, take a while to get going: the first half-hour is mostly dedicated to exposition and talky plot developments, and it isn't until the Pinkertons arrive at the James farm that The Long Riders snaps out of its stupor. That scene - in which Mrs. Samuel, the James boys' mother, laments the injustice of upstanding citizens being harassed by Yankee hirelings - is played to the hilt by Fran Ryan, and it's followed almost immediately by brilliantly staged confrontations between gang members and Pinkerton agents in which innocent bystanders, including the Youngers' cousin John (Kevin Brophy) and Jesse James's younger brother Archie (R.B. Thrift) are killed. Thereafter, the film keeps our interest, but half an hour of tedium is a hell of a long stretch in a hundred-minute feature.

The climactic Northfield sequence is an homage to the robbery and shootout that opens The Wild Bunch (1969) - I'd call it a rip-off, except that Hill makes no attempt to hide the influence of Sam Peckinpah. The copious use of slow-motion means it's a little overbaked in places and the sequence is probably too long. But all in all, the bloody realism is tremendously effective, and some parts are genuinely breathtaking: a gang member is shot off his horse but dragged along in slow motion because his foot is caught in the stirrup, while Cole Younger is shot almost a dozen times and still carries on (historically accurate, that).

If The Long Riders is a post-Wild Bunch western in almost all respects, the casting stands out. By and large, it does not seem forced at all, but brings a lot of benefits. Physically, only the Guests resemble each other very much at all, while the Keaches, Carradines and Quaids might as well be unrelated. But their real-life kinship gives them an easy rapport, especially in the case of James and Stacy Keach, who believably convey brothers who've been through a lot together. (An aside: I wondered where I'd seen Stacy Keach before, realised it was The Mountain of the Cannibal God, and hung my head in shame.) The result is a slew of fantastic performances from everyone involved - not least James Keach, who portrays Jesse James as an almost shy man masquerading as a cold sociopath, without the sadism-as-control that Brad Pitt brought to the role in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007).

And yet. The post-Northfield epilogue abbreviated to the point of being unintelligible, a six-year time skip swept under the rug as we practically fast-forward through Jesse's assassination by the Ford brothers. I'd make some bold claim that the telegrammic compression is deliberate, but I doubt it: it smacks of editorial interference, all the less understandable in a film that is hardly long. Hill's insistence on the laconic works against him here, as it does in his cursory treatment of the Civil War. Cole's statement that 'I spent four years in the army. Eleven trying to get out of it' is an excellent nugget of writing, but it only hints at the Confederate-Unionist divide that tore Missouri apart both during and after the war.

As a staunch partisan of T.J. Stiles's Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War I may be biased on this point, of course. To my mind, the social context of Reconstruction and the failed reintegration of bushwhackers into peacetime society is at least as important as the ties of kinship that Hill stresses. His framing places a lot of emphasis on Keith Carradine's Jim, and it pays off: Carradine handled himself well enough to recommend himself for Southern Comfort the following year. But I can't help feeling that in going for concision rather than epic scope, The Long Riders misses its chance at greatness.

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