Paramount // 1975 // 92 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Patrick Bromley // June 2nd, 2004
It will knock you off your horse.
Imagine my surprise when I put on Paramount's new release of Posse and it featured no novelty rappers or members of the Van Peebles family. Where's Sonny Spoon? Where's my Funky Cold Medina?? There are no black cowboys to be found in this Posse at all!
Apparently, there was another Posse which came out in 1975 -- almost twenty years prior to Mario Van Peebles revisionist western of the same name. Who knew?
U.S. Marshal Howard Nightingale (Kirk Douglas, Spartacus) is a man on a mission, leading his posse of marshals -- the best there is -- on a hunt for the most dangerous man in the West, Jack Strawhorn (Bruce Dern, The 'Burbs). Despite Strawhorn's best efforts to outwit, outgun, and outrun the posse, Nightingale captures him and brings him in -- all as a ploy to gain enough popularity to win a seat in the Senate. Once Strawhorn is in jail, however, Nightingale is surprised to learn that his actions aren't perceived quite as heroic as he had hoped -- even in the eyes of his own posse.
Posse snuck up on me. Even after recovering from my initial disappointment that the man responsible for unleashing Nino Brown on the world was not the same man responsible for this Posse (that honor belongs to its star, Kirk Douglas), I couldn't quite get excited for what began as an utterly by-the-numbers western. I like Bruce Dern just fine -- he seems forever on the verge of wigging out and consuming human flesh -- but Kirk Douglas has never really done it for me, especially in his Heroic Posturing mode. The story isn't grabbing; most of it is essentially a chase film. The characters didn't necessarily thrill me, either -- the two leads are more archetypal then they are fully realized humans.
It's around the edges that the true intentions of Posse began to seep in. It isn't about plot, or even about character -- what makes Posse work are its tone and theme. This is the kind of film where what is unspoken is far more successful that than what; it's not necessarily what's happening on screen, but what's behind it that makes the film such an interesting piece of work. What began as a simple Old West cops-and-robbers tale shifts drastically around the two-thirds mark, as the heroic images of both Nightingale and his posse are slowly revealed to be false. Nightingale is gradually exposed as an opportunist, not caring as much about what apprehending Strawhorn means for the law as it does to increase his popularity for the upcoming election. The posse, originally presented to be the finest lawmen in the country, isn't quite as upstanding as their image would suggest either. They shoot and kill unarmed men in the middle of surrendering; they take advantage of the young women in town; and they kill innocent people. All this adds up to the movie's climactic scene, in which the posse makes a choice that spells out just how corruptible authority can be. The power of the movie's final images is undeniable.
Before you know it, Posse has become a quintessential '70s western. It's a witty and cynical film, containing harsh criticism of politics and social structure (even sneaking in several digs at the American treatment of minorities -- in this case, Native Americans). It mistrusts its central authority figure, Douglas, and seeks to tear him down -- exposing his inherent opportunism and corruption in the process. While the film never exactly takes sides with the Bruce Dern character -- he is, after all, a cold-blooded killer (thankfully, the film never attempts to win him favor by suggesting otherwise) -- there is a certain amount of respect and dignity awarded to him, as it is simultaneously stripped away from Nightingale. Strawhorn is at least honest about who he is -- unsavory as that may be -- and delivers a great speech near the end of film that may as well be directed right at powers-that-be of the day. At a time when a large percentage of the country felt that it had been lied to with the Vietnam War, here was a character calling out Authority on lying for personal gain. Posse is sly, funny, and wickedly subversive, playing like a rebel yell from the jaded youth of the '70s.
Interesting, then, that the film's star, producer, and director, Kirk Douglas, was nearly 60 years old at the time the film was made. He was already a long-established movie star, working within the studio system, and yet created a film similar to those of the many young film school brats working well outside of Hollywood (early Scorsese or Coppola). Posse marks Douglas' second and final outing as director (the first being 1973's Scalawag), and it's pretty rough around the edges. From a technical standpoint, it's clumsily conceived and sloppily assembled; the photography and editing are a mess, and several sequences (such as the shootout between the posse and Strawhorn's strung-together gang) are repetitive and predictable. While Douglas may not have been the most accomplished director, he went out on a limb and used his name recognition to make a film that was radically different than those of his peers. He was also able to exploit his onscreen personae, beginning the film as the grinning, statuesque hero and ending as something very different. There is a refreshing lack of ego and clear dedication to the project evident in every aspect of Douglas' participation -- the film could not have happened or worked without him.
Paramount has released a bare bones version of this seemingly forgotten western. The transfer, presented in anamorphic 2.35:1 widescreen, is not among the best I've seen. There is a considerable amount of grain and scratching, with color hues leaning too far on the orange side to provide a decent balance. More consideration has been put into the audio presentation, giving viewers two possible options: the first, for purists, is a restored version of the film's original mono presentation. The second, and probably more desirable of the two, is the Dolby 5.1 surround track -- gunshots go off in one channel and ricochet in another. The track, though considerably dressed up, is the more interesting of the two.
For whatever reason, Posse has been overlooked by most historians and movie buffs, and that's a shame. I'd rank it closer to deconstructionist works like Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller or Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch (in tone and resonance only, not in terms of significance or technical skill) than to the collective of forgettable westerns it fell victim to. It almost makes you nostalgic for a time when films -- even genre films -- had loftier goals than just special effects. It's a true original -- a lost gem of a film -- and it's worth seeking out.
Posse avoids a hangin' and is found Not Guilty. YEEEEE -- HAW!!
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English, Restored)
Running Time: 92 Minutes
Release Year: 1975
MPAA Rating: Rated PG