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Our review of Tom Selleck Western Collection, published May 20th, 2008, is also available.
Monte Walsh is what the west was all about.
When I noticed that William A. Fraker's 1970 western Monte Walsh was being released on DVD, I assumed it was some sort of special edition double-dip to commemorate the film's 40th anniversary. After doing a little double-checking, I was surprised to discover that this is the first time the film is being made available on DVD. It's about time. While not quite a genre masterpiece, Monte Walsh is one of the better westerns of its type.
Monte Walsh (Lee Marvin, The Big Red One) is an aging cowboy attempting to cope with the slow death of the old west. The work opportunities available to him are less and less appealing, and the world is changing at such a rapid rate. Pretty soon, there just won't be much use for folks like Monte, Chet Rollins (Jack Palance, City Slickers), Shorty Austin (Mitch Ryan, Dharma & Greg), and Cal Brennan (Jim Davis, Rio Lobo). Now it's time for Monte to move on, but where? Should he marry the prostitute (Jeanne Moreau, Jules and Jim) he's loved for so many years? Should he join the Wild West show? Or will he simply succumb to his loneliness and drift into oblivion like so many of his old friends?
This is territory occupied by many westerns of the '60s and '70s, which frequently chose to explore the sadness and violence of cowboys attempting to survive in the dying west. Monte Walsh offers less violence than most, but doubles up on the sadness. The film begins on a cheerful note with merry pranks and rowdy mayhem among Monte and the boys, but quickly veers into misty-eyed sentiment. Films that so blatantly attempt to wring tears from the viewer can often become irritating rather quickly, but there's something immensely moving in the way the film's sense of melancholy plays against the hardened, no-nonsense personas of guys like Lee Marvin and Jack Palance. It's a Lifetime movie for tough guys.
Some of the film's best scenes are those shared between Marvin and Moreau. It's obvious where they stand on the matter of marriage: she'd like nothing more than to give up her profession and settle down with Monte; he finds the idea appealing on one level and flat-out terrifying on the other. The manner in which they delicately skirt around their feelings without really just coming out saying what they feel is quite moving. These are two people who have sampled just about everything the human experience has to offer; they don't need to spell their feelings out for each other. Though the film has numerous pleasures to offer, I'm not sure any top the heartfelt subtlety Marvin and Moreau reach in those moments (though Jack Palance shares a sublime dialogue scene with Marvin midway through the film).
The film was the directorial debut of William A. Fraker, an esteemed cinematographer who shot many fine films over the years (Rosemary's Baby, Tombstone, and The Freshman are among his credits). While his considerable visual sense adds immensely to the film's elegantly somber tone, he's merely a competent craftsman in most other ways (Monte Walsh is easily the best film Fraker directed; two films later he gave us the awful The Legend of the Lone Ranger). Much of the credit for the film's success goes to writers Lukas Heller (The Dirty Dozen) and David Zelag Goodman (Straw Dogs), who do an excellent job of adapting Jack Schaefer's novel into a lean, touching 99-minute film that never feels rushed or overstuffed.
John Barry's score also ranks among the film's principle virtues. I've listened to the score on numerous occasions on its own and judged it a pleasant minor entry on Barry's resume, but hearing the music in context gave me an entirely new appreciation of it. The central theme is heard in the opening credits song "The Good Times are Coming" (performed by Mama Cass of The Mamas and the Papas); a tender, aching melody that accentuates the delicate emotions of some of the film's more intimate scenes. At other moments, Barry's triumphant brass and majestic strings seem to foreshadow the composer's Oscar-winning work on Dances with Wolves. It's an intelligent, memorable work that aids the film immeasurably.
Monte Walsh may be a worthy film, but this DVD release is a little disappointing. The image is awfully soft at times, lacking in detail for the majority of its running time. A handful of close-ups here and there seem sharp, but for the most part it looks like the film was scrubbed with just a little bit of Vaseline. Still, depth is impressive, while scratches and flecks are kept to a minimum. The mono audio is clean and clear, with Barry's score and the dialogue mostly remaining free of distortion and hiss. The only extra on the disc is a theatrical trailer.
It may not come with many bells and whistles, but at least Monte Walsh is finally on DVD. If you haven't seen the film, it's well worth checking out.
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