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Buried Treasures, Hidden Gems: Loveable Losers

Film

Buried Treasures, Hidden Gems: Loveable Losers

Movies Due For a Revisit…

Maybe it was a product of the time:  the counter-culture revolution, youth rebellion, disenchantment and disillusionment with the societal status quo and authority figures seen as morally bankrupt.  Some of it was a reaction to Vietnam, some of it a more universal reaction against an individuality-suffocating demand for social conformity.  However it happened, over the course of the 1960s and into the 1970s, Hollywood fell in love with oddballs, mavericks, rogues, eccentrics, renegades, demimonders, outcasts, misfits, and people who just couldn’t—or wouldn’t — supply what mainstream American society demanded of them. 

Portraits of rebellion ranged from the comic (A Thousand Clowns [1965], A Fine Madness [1966]) to the tragicomic (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest [1975], Network [1976]) to the absurdist (Brewster McCloud [1970]) to movies that became icons of societal rebellion (Cool Hand Luke [1967], Easy Rider [1969]).

Some of these social outsiders were free spirits (Vanishing Point [1971), others were broken spirits (Midnight Cowboy [1969]), some lived in a shadow world where the “straights” rarely if ever ventured (The Hustler [[1961], The Cincinnati Kid [1965], Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia [1974], Hard Times [1975]), some were flat-out lawbreakers (The Flim-Flam Man [1967] Bonnie and Clyde [1967]), some had broken with reality (Taxi Driver [1976], They Might Be Giants [1971]), and some, well, they had their dreams, their ambitions, but never got the breaks (Rocky [1976]).

Interestingly, in most of these movies, the central character…loses.  Again, that might have been a sign of the times, an impression that you could rebel, you could work your ass off, but things just weren’t going to break your way.  Some of these movies ended with a kind of martyrdom (Vanishing Point, Easy Rider, A Thousand Clowns, Cool Hand Luke, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Network, Brewster McCloud), or hubris-fueled defeat (The Cincinnati Kid) or maybe their protagonists just ran out of luck (Bonnie and Clyde, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia).

My point is that idea of the loveable, even admirable loser carved out a space in the movie spectrum and while Loser Cinema (to give it a name) might generally have had a grim flavor in the ’60s/’70s (again, maybe a product of the time), there are those that are as likable as their often luckless protagonists.  We still have them today.  The Coen Brothers even have a label for their own Loser Cinema efforts like The Big Lebowski (1998), Burn After Reading (2008) and O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000); they call them “Idiot Movies.”

I wouldn’t say that this installment’s list necessarily features idiots (well, most of them don’t), but they are worth dusting off and giving a present-day viewing because here’s the thing:  we admire heroes and winners, aspire to their triumphs…but we all know the feeling of what happens when for reasons over which we have no control, things break wrong and the only victory open to us is not breaking down and crying.

So, with that said…

Junior Bonner (1972) - hidden gems
Image: 20th Century Fox

Junior Bonner (1972)

d.  Sam Peckinpah
w.  Jeb Rosebrook

Sam Peckinpah was one of the most controversial, most iconic, and most important filmmakers of the late 1960s-early 1970s.  With films like The Wild Bunch (1969), Straw Dogs (1971), and The Getaway (1972) – his three biggest hits – his name became synonymous with increasingly graphic screen violence.  His combative nature (fueled by booze and drugs) certainly didn’t help his growing image as somebody who reveled in sanguinary mayhem as he got into sometimes nasty public disputes with his critics.  Screen just those three films and it’s no surprise some referred to him as “Bloody Sam.”

As much of a cultural touchstone for the era as he was, ironically those three titles were his only big moneymakers.  Peckinpah turned out more misses than hits, but perhaps more than any other filmmaker – certainly from that era – a lot of those misses have since been revisited and re-evaluated and redeemed.  Major Dundee (1965) would have studio-cut footage restored and reconsidered as a flawed masterpiece.  Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973) received the same reboot, having studio-deleted footage restored and a box office bomb reconsidered a worthy successor to The Wild Bunch.  And easily his most outre endeavor – the tequila-fueled fever dream Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia – which was brutally dissed at the time, is now viewed (at least in some circles) as one of the filmmaker’s best.

Peckinpah did try to get out from under that “Bloody Sam” label with his first effort after The Wild Bunch:  The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970).  But squabbles with the studio (Warners) resulted in a bare minimum release, and despite a number of glowing reviews, the barely visible film quickly disappeared.  Today, like so many of his other box office misses, …Cable Hogue is thought to be one of Peckinpah’s best and proof he wasn’t just “Bloody Sam.”

But there was another movie, one I think may have been less ambitious than …Cable Hogue but better executed, that doesn’t get the same love as Peckinpah’s other commercial duds:  Junior Bonner.

Image: 20th Century Fox

Steve McQueen plays the title character, a former rodeo star now on a losing streak, so broke he’s sleeping out under the stars not out of some cowboyish love of nature, but because he can’t afford a motel.  He’s heading for his hometown of Prescott, Arizona and its annual Frontier Days Rodeo with the aim of getting another try at the fierce bull which tossed him on his ass and left him limping out of the ring in a previous ride.

But home has changed.  His mom (Ida Lupino) is divorced from his fortune-hunting, girl-chasing dad (Robert Preston), his money-minting entrepreneurial brother has bought the family ranch for a song and bulldozed the old homestead with the aim of developing the land, and stuck mom at the counter of a chintzy gift shop.  Did I mention that Junior is broke?

Rosebrook had grown up in Prescott and returning to the town after a gap of fifteen years had been rocked by how the sleepy little town he’d known had turned into a booming place of business.  That idea of the old being (literally) bulldozed by the new was something that always resonated with Peckinpah who, in The Wild Bunch, The Ballad of Cable Hogue, and his early Ride the High Country (1962) mourned the passing of the Old West and a kind of noble American spirit with it.

Junior Bonner is an unrushed yet deeply felt portrait of that transition from old to new; the exploitative turning of what was once authentic and sincere into a commercial commodity leaving Junior not just out of luck but a step out of time.  “You’re my brother and I love you,” his enterprising brother (Joe Don Baker) tells him, “but I’m working on my first million and you’re still working on eight seconds” (the required time for a winning wild bronc ride).

Junior Bonner (1972) - hidden gems
Image: 20th Century Fox

McQueen, who one biographer says thought Junior Bonner was one of his favorites, was a terrific minimalist actor; few screen performers knew how to get as much out of a small gesture or a single line as he did (McQueen, a dyslexic, would often cut down his dialogue as opposed to most stars who want more lines).  The strongest scenes in the movie are lovely soft ones like the one with Junior sitting with his treasure-chasing dad (Robert Preston) at an abandoned railroad station as he breaks the news – “I’m busted, Ace” – that he can’t fund Dad’s latest scheme (this was, apparently, a favorite scene of the director’s).

But my favorite moment?  As only McQueen could pull it off.  He’s sitting with Peckinpah stock company actor Ben Johnson as the rodeo promoter and trying to convince Johnson to rig the bull riding drawing so he can have another crack at the bull that thrashed him last time around.  It’s a quietly sad, quietly desperate moment.  “I need it, Buck,” Junior says, “It’s my hometown.”

While the movie is more highly thought of today than it was in 1972 (reviews were lukewarm at the time, but today it has a critics’ rating of 92% on Rotten Tomatoes), Junior Bonner died a quick box office death.  Both McQueen and Peckinpah were associated with actioners and a gentle story about a few down-and-outs seemed too out of character to pull much of a crowd.  It didn’t help that – for God knows what reason – there was a glut of rodeo pictures that year:  J.W. Coop, When the Legends Die, The Honkers.  Maybe they split the audience for rodeo pictures; maybe there wasn’t much of an audience for them at all.  In any case, they all tanked, and Junior Bonner’s failure permanently funneled Peckinpah toward movies which would only cement his reputation as “Bloody Sam.”

Pocket Money (1972) - hidden gems
Image: National General Pictures

Pocket Money (1972)

d.  Stuart Rosenberg
w.  Terrence Malick, adaptation by John Gay from J.P.S. Brown’s novel, Jim Kane.

Don’t bother Googling Pocket Money, in case you were curious, because you won’t find much.  But, in a way, that’s sort of appropriate:  it’s a slight movie, and if you look up the few reviews it has on Rotten Tomatoes (most of which are negative), the thumbs-down crowd dislikes it for the very same reasons the few thumbs-uppers like it:  there’s really not much of a plot.

Paul Newman is rancher Jim Kane, an amiable sort but the kind of guy with the kind of luck that if he were to bend over to pick up a quarter on the sidewalk, he’d probably fall over and crack his skull.  Things just don’t break his way.  He’s brought a herd of horses to auction but they’re quarantined because they have the equine version of the clap, so financially Jim’s in a bit of a bind.  He can’t pay his alimony, he’s behind on his loan to the bank, and the only thing that’s buying him some slack from all concerned is, well, he’s not the brightest bulb in the pack but damn, he is a likable cuss.

He takes a job with shady rodeo promoter Strother Martin to go down to Mexico and buy cattle for Martin’s next show.  South of the border he hooks up with his old friend Leonard (Lee Marvin) because they’re both under the unfortunate delusion that Leonard is some kind of slick operator.  They get screwed on some of the cattle buys, they get screwed by Martin, in fact, every time they turn around, they’re either catching a bad break or somebody is sticking them for money they don’t have.  And then because the cattle are coming up from a tick zone (which Newman had warned Martin about, but Martin told him he had things taken care of), the cattle go into quarantine, too.

This is not a movie about plot.  It’s a comedy that’s more about grins and nods-of-recognition than yuks.  It’s not about larger-than-life goofs like, say, The Big Lebowski (1998), or outrageous situations like The Hangover (2009), and I think that’s what I like about it:  everything from the situations to the characters are very life-sized, and that, to me, is the charm of the piece.

And there’s sort of an underlying sweetness to it all because, in the end, it’s about a friendship.  Jim and Leonard may not have a whole brain between them, but…  Well, for instance, there’s a point in the story where poor Jim winds up in a Mexican jail.  Leonard bails him out (unfortunately by selling Jim’s truck) but has a trombone player waiting at the jail exit to welcome him back to freedom.  Dumb…but, like I said, sweet.

Pocket Money (1972)
Image: National General Pictures

In the closing scene of the movie, the two are hanging out at a railroad station, musing on the events which have left them exhausted, frustrated and broke.  An exasperated Jim talks about “busting your butt” and “what have you got?”

Leonard:  “You got me, Jim.”

See?  Sweet.

The way to plug into the laid-back tone of the film is to keep in mind that the screenwriter was Terry Malick.  This was before Malick made his directorial bones with Badlands (1973), when he was hustling screenwriting gigs, often uncredited.  Among those writing gigs:  Drive, He Said (1971) and Dirty Harry (1971 – Can you think of a more un-Terry Malick movie?).

If you look at the films Malick has written and directed – Badlands, Days of Heaven (1978), The Thin Red Line (1998) and others – they’re not driven by plot, but by a feeling, a tone, something that’s more in line with poetry than narrative.  In its own playful way, Pocket Money plays more-or-less the same way.

Unfortunately, this low-key pic was the premier release from First Artists, the production company Newman had set up with other actors so they could have more control over their films.  Stuart Rosenberg was tapped to direct no doubt because he’d already worked with Newman twice before:  on one of the actor’s most iconic hits – Cool Hand Luke – and the prescient political drama, WUSA (1970 – a bit heavy-handed but it’s frightening how much of our current political polarization the movie picked up on over fifty years ago).  And Newman, with movies like …Luke and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) under his belt, and Lee Marvin still a marquee name after The Dirty Dozen (1967), were at the peak of their popularity.  But critics didn’t see the same small charms I did, the movie was largely panned and quickly sank.

Jim Kane doesn’t get many breaks.  Give him one and spend some time with him and his buddy Leonard.

Comfort and Joy (1984) - hidden gems

Comfort and Joy (1984)

w./d.  Bill Forsyth

As I remember it, Scottish writer/director Bill Forsyth first started catching some buzz on this side of the Atlantic when his second film – Gregory’s Girl (1980) – hit the U.S. art house circuit.  Those audiences were charmed by what would become the Forsyth signature – an easy blend of low-key comedy and quirkiness.  His next film – Local Hero (1983) – was his breakout, earning $5.9 million – about $18 million in today’s dollars, a respectable haul for an indie release.  Its story of an American oil exec trying to buy a sleepy seaside Scottish village that secretly wants to be bought (that’s a big payday for everybody!) had all those Forsyth elements:  a warm sense of place, easy charm, quirky unobtrusive humor, and some unexpected twists.

In a way, Local Hero’s success didn’t do Forsyth any favors because, as Forsyth put it, that movie “…created the impression that my films make money…”

Bill Paterson is Glasgow disk jockey Alan “Dickie” Bird who somehow gets himself sucked into the middle of a war between two ice cream vendors.  Recovering from a broken relationship, Bird finds a purpose in trying to negotiate between the two parties although his efforts are not all altruistic since each side takes out their dissatisfactions on poor Dickie’s new BMW.

Comfort and Joy (1984)

Forsyth got the idea for the story from a real-life ice cream war, although the real thing was a much darker event; it was actually a drug war with ice cream trucks being used for distribution.  Forsyth turned that event into a more Forsythian oddity of baseball bat-wielding ice cream vendors beating up each other’s trucks over routes.  I still remember one scene where the Italian owner of Mr. McCool’s is explaining to Dickie, in the silky tones of a James Bond villain, why his competitor must be reined in.  “This Mr. Bunny,” he purrs, “is a rogue.”

While reviewers didn’t dislike the movie, after the buzzy success of Local Hero it was considered something of a letdown, Comfort and Joy assessed less on its own merits than as it compared to Forsyth’s previous release.  It is, admittedly, a film with smaller stakes, but as Adam Lippe wrote in a retrospective review for Examiner.com, “Like its main character…it’s just the right amount of not important.”  Get yourself a double scoop, sit back in comfort and have a little joy.

Scarecrow (1973) - hidden gems
Image: Warner Bros.

Scarecrow (1973)

d.  Jerry Schatzberg
w.  Garry Michael White

If it was a time when Hollywood loved outcasts, it also loved the road.  Scarecrow married the two concepts.

Gene Hackman is Max, an ex-con making his way to Pittsburgh where he has been banking money to fulfill his lovably humble dream of opening a car wash.  While hitching, he meets Lionel who, after six years at sea as a merchant sailor, is heading for Detroit to try to mend fences with his ex-wife and see the child who was born after he went to sea.  As they travel cross-country together, a friendship develops and it’s hard not to see them as two souls adrift who at least have each other to hang onto.

Like most road movies, Scarecrow tends to drift from one episode to the next, some funny, some tragic, some quite dark (when they both wind up sentenced to a work farm, one of the other cons tries to assault Lion).  In Detroit, Lion’s ex-wife has no use for him and lies to him about their son saying she’d had a miscarriage.  Lion has a breakdown, goes catatonic, and Max has to make a decision about moving on or holding on to the only friend he has. 

For Hackman, Scarecrow was a welcome turn away from the flood of violence-filled scripts he’d been getting since copping a Best Actor Oscar for The French Connection (1971) and he would often call the movie one of his favorites.  Pacino was also generating a lot of industry heat for his performance in The Godfather and would later call Garry Michael White’s screenplay the “greatest script” he’d ever read.

The same enthusiasm was not shared by most reviewers who, while usually applauding the work of both actors, didn’t seem to think much of Scarecrow as a road movie, and something of a second-rate Midnight Cowboy (although it’s current Rotten Tomatoes rating is 78% critics/79% viewers).

Scarecrow (1973) - hidden gems
Image: Warner Bros.

Their tepid opinion was not universal.  When the film was shown at the Cannes Film Festival, it tied for the Palme d’Or with The Hireling (1973) so somebody somewhere thought the movie had something going for it.

I suppose one of the reasons I’m a sucker for movies like Scarecrow, or Pocket Money, or Midnight Cowboy for that matter, is as I grow older, I appreciate the fine wine of friendship, and the stories that capture it, particularly in an age where friendship is often portrayed as two (or more) people in tights spectacularly saving the world from destruction.  Life-size amiability seems to be a rare quality on the big screen, and it’s there in my favorite scene.

Lionel has been busting Max’s chops about his habit of wearing layers of clothing.  “Some partner I picked,” he says.

“You didn’t pick me, I picked you.”

“Why?”

“’Cause you gave me your last match.  You made me laugh.”

I’ve never met a superhero, but guys like this I know…or would like to.

Previously: Buried Treasures, Hidden Gems: Sci-Fi And Superheroes
Next Buried Treasures, Hidden Gems Installment:  Cops & Robbers

Written By

Bill Mesce, Jr.'s books include Overkill: The Rise and Fall of Thriller Cinema, the recently published The Wild Bunch: The American Classic That Changed Westerns Forever (McFarland), and The Screenwriter's Notebook: Reflections, Analyses, and Chalk Talk on the Craft and Business of Writing for the Movies (Serving House), as well as the novel Median Gray (Willow River Press) and Inside the Rise of HBO: A Personal History of the Company That Transformed Television.

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