She's beautiful. She's carefree. She's trouble.
Elmore Leonard is a novelist whose work has been translated to the screen with mixed results. For every Get Shorty, there is a dud like Cat Chaser. Earlier this year, a big budget adaptation of his novel The Big Bounce was released in theaters, but many are unaware of an earlier 1969 production, also distributed by Warner Bros. It had become a "lost" film, one you heard about but could never see.
Thirty-four years later, it is now ripe for rediscovery. Warner Bros. has finally released The Big Bounce on DVD (and home video, period) for the very first time.
Facts of the Case
Former GI Jack Ryan (Ryan O'Neal, Paper Moon, Love Story) has been ordered to leave town by his former boss Mr. Rogers (Robert Webber, 10, S.O.B.). His crime: assaulting a fellow worker with a baseball bat. While waiting for the bus to Seattle, Jack stops in a local bar for a beer. Local Justice of the Peace Sam Mirakian (Van Heflin, Shane, Johnny Eager) invites Jack to join him for a few beers and decides to offer him a job: look over his vast beachfront property. Jack thinks about it and decides to stick around.
While working, he befriends a local woman (Lee Grant, Shampoo, The Landlord) who desires him. But it is Nancy Barker (Leigh Taylor-Young, Soylent Green) who catches Jack's eye. He'll soon find out that Nancy likes to play games—games that can get a man into deep, deep trouble.
Elmore Leonard has long been one of my favorite novelists. Crime stories that are not densely plotted but chock full of clever, spare dialogue and deep, three dimensional characters remain his specialty after almost forty years of writing. It was only natural of Hollywood to option his novels for the movies. Unfortunately, most of the resulting films strayed away from the qualities that made Leonard's novels so good to begin with. Many claim that it wasn't until the 1995 release of Get Shorty that Leonard's work was finally done justice. That isn't necessarily true. There were a few exceptions such as Mr. Majestyk, 52 Pick-Up, The Ambassador, and our film, released in 1969 to little fanfare and poor reviews.
Granted, The Big Bounce isn't completely faithful to Leonard's novel. The locale is changed to California from the original Hawaii, and quite a bit of the second half of the novel is missing. However, the film gets the tone and attitude of Leonard's novel exactly right. It pays careful attention to the dialogue. Screenwriter Robert Dozier keeps it terse and flavorful, albeit more sanitized than Leonard's. Producer William Dozier, famous for the popular Batman television series, has made a film that is not hammy and dumb, but rather respectable and intelligent. He resists the temptation to venture into camp, which would have resulted in a severely dated film, even at the time of its release. Director Alex March has had an uneven career, but his direction of this difficult material is fine, often maintaining a balance between sly humor and exciting drama quite skillfully.
I was surprised at how liberated the film is for a major studio picture in the late 1960s. While content in cinema was changing drastically, Midnight Cowboy and Medium Cool had yet to pack the major one-two punch to the general sensibilities. The nudity and colorful language, while not explicit, is still jolting, even in these jaded times. (Leigh Taylor-Young disrobes quite a bit during the course of the film. There are also three uses of the word "p***y" and believe me, it's not cats that they're talking about.) A PG version, with the nudity and language removed, was released but didn't make much of a difference at the box office. The uncut R rated version is the one offered here.
Ryan O'Neal makes his film debut here, after several years of playing Rodney Harrington on the hit series Peyton Place. He was a good choice to play Jack Ryan. The role requires a fresh face, but a hard-boiled personality to sell the character. O'Neal has always been a good actor and his performance here is the main reason why the film works as well as it does. Leigh Taylor-Young is also well cast as Nancy Barker. She doesn't rely on the standard femme fatale clichés, but underplays the role. It's the right acting—it makes her actions all that more devastating and shocking when they come. She has great chemistry with O'Neal (they were married at the time) and it goes a long way. The supporting cast is excellent. Robert Webber plays Rogers as a nebbish, but along the way, his subtle movements and quirks help reveal a great deal about the character. Van Heflin provides the comic relief in the film as Mirakian; watch his deadpan, serious delivery of some truly wicked dialogue. Lee Grant is in the film for far too brief a time, but she delivers her usual good performance.
Warner Bros. has done a good job bringing an unknown and long unseen film onto our favorite digital format. The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer retains the dimensions of the original Panavision photography. There are defects throughout the film, such as grain and the usual scratches and specks. Colors look nice and bold, a surprise considering this film has been unseen in any form for over thirty years. But this is a nice looking print of a film that deserves reappraisal.
Audio is the usual Dolby Digital 1.0 mono mix given to catalog titles. It's actually pretty good, with the dialogue coming through nice and clear. The Mike Curb score also sings through the speakers with clarity and a lovely tone. If I have any problems with it, it's that a few splices in the soundtrack are too easily noticed.
The sole extra included on the disc is the film's original theatrical trailer, a full frame mess that shows you how much information you lose with the evil practice of pan-and-scan.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I think The Big Bounce is one of 1969's best films, but that doesn't mean the film is flawless. My sole complaint about the film is over the abrupt finale. I could have easily gone for another half-hour, which could have resolved the loose ends in a neater fashion.
Still, it's a minor complaint. The pace is breezy and quick and the film will leave you wanting more.
$19.99 is a bit steep for a barebones disc such as this one. You would be best to rent it first. It's a thoroughly enjoyable film that will leave you satisfied long after the final frame has passed.
Let's hope The Big Bounce makes the big splash that has eluded it since its original release. Case dismissed!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Theatrical Trailer
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