Friday, July 29, 2005

Movie: Lonely Are The Brave (1962)

Here there be spoilers. The movie should bear a similar warning, because it manages to spoil itself.

Kirk Douglas has cited this as his favorite of the films he made, and with good reason. He plays John W. Burns, a cowboy who rides the deserts of New Mexico, sleeping outdoors, living off piecework as a ranch hand. He rides into town primed for a bender, only to learn that his drinking buddy has been thrown in jail. Burns promptly gets himself arrested so he can bust his friend out. When the friend decides to stay and face the charges, Burns flees the law on his own.

It’s a solid plot for a western. The difference is that the story, based on an Edward Abbey novel, is set in the then-present day. Burns is an anachronism, living as if the frontier were still a reality. Actions that wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow in Tombstone or Dodge City only a few decades earlier come across as revolutionary. Burns tells the police he doesn’t carry ID because “I don’t need it. I know who I am.” No one would ever think of asking the Duke or Gary Cooper for his papers. When Burns heads into the high country with his horse and his rifle, local sheriff Walter Matthau pursues him with helicopters coordinated by radio.

It’s the clash of the Old West versus the New brought to vivid, brawny life, and Douglas has seldom been better. So it’s a shame that the movie shoots itself in the foot from the get-go.

Very early on, the film makes a baffling stop in the Midwest, where we meet long-distance trucker Carroll O’Connor. He’s hauling toilets, he says. Taking them down New Mexico way. You know, that state where Kirk Douglas is.

Throughout the film, the action cuts back to O’Connor as he booms his way southwest. He’s pushing that big rig hard, swilling coffee, trying to stay awake. I kept wanting to say, “Archie, pull over, get some shuteye. Let the Meathead drive for a while.”

What I actually shouted at the TV was, “Why the hell are we seeing these scenes?” I doubted that Kirk was going to come up with a clever, MacGyver-esque plan to escape that would require several dozen porcelain privies at exactly the moment O’Connor’s rig rumbled past.

Nope. When these two meet, it’ll be bad news. And you know that from the first frames, which drains the movie of all tension. What happens between Douglas and Matthau doesn’t matter. It’s what happens between Douglas and the truck that counts.

Maybe these scenes were in Abbey’s novel. I suspect they were added by screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, a talented man who learned a thing or two about life the hard way. Perhaps he wanted to make a comment about fate, or the futility of fighting modernity.

All I know is they ruined an entertaining movie for me. It’s tough to be subtle with an idea that’s an eighteen-wheeler bearing down on the audience. Literally.