Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Barquero (1970)

Outlaw Jake Remy (Warren Oates), his very French Lieutenant Marquette (Kerwin “Frenchman” Mathews) and his merry band of crazy murdering bastards have just destroyed a town somewhere in the Old West, killing the whole populace, stealing three hundred Winchester rifles from the US cavalry, and taking everything else that took their fancy. To make a decent escape before the cavalry realizes what has happened to their rifle transport and the town it went through, the band of arseholes needs to cross a river on the only barge for a good hundred miles.

That’s where Remy’s problems start, for the barge is owned by Travis (Lee Van Cleef), an ill-tempered frontiersman who has grudgingly turned ferryman to a bunch of settlers slowly coagulating into a town around his barge whom he sees as squatters. We’re never sure what Travis thought what his building a barge would otherwise result in; nor does the man himself seem to know.

Travis, now, isn’t the man to do any barging at gunpoint, and once his ire is raised, he’s certainly not helping Remy even a bit. Instead, the barquero, his rather mad mountain hermit friend Mountain Phil (Forrest Tucker), and the not exactly happy settlers are holing up on the side of the river Remy would so very much get to. A cat and mouse game between the two men and their respective cohorts develops that sees Travis getting rather protective of his squatters, and Remy slowly losing control of his men as well as of his sanity, becoming so obsessed with his enemy/mirror image on the other side any thought of crossing the river somewhere else becomes tantamount to treason for him.

Quite a few American directors with a past in more traditional US Western movies had more than a little trouble when it came to adapting their styles to the pseudo-Spaghetti Western ideal the companies who hired them rather wanted them to make when the Spaghettis hit it big, often resulting in films that are boring, or ill-advised, or both at the same time.

At least going by Barquero, Gordon Douglas didn’t have that sort of problem. While his direction style here is a bit less experimental and dynamic than typical of the higher tier Italian and Spanish films of the genre, he hits the combination of off-beat humour, off-handed brutality and plain weirdness the Spaghetti Western so often revelled in without a hitch, and even seems to enjoy the plain weirdness the script by George Schenck and William Marks is filled with, instead of looking down on it.

To my eyes, it’s not always clear if the film is joking with any given idea it shows, or if it just believes existing at a frontier (one of the many parallels between its two central antagonists) must turn everyone involved crazy in a manner that makes it all too easy to fluctuate between ridiculousness and physical threat. Definitely, there’s a vibe of deep mental un-health surrounding everyone involved, not just on the side of the outlaws, but on that of their enemies too, a madness that seems to be catching the longer anyone is involved with Remy or Travis. Because this is still an American Western, the men’s madness is understood as belonging to the kind of man you need to widen your frontiers but whom you’ll want to get rid of as soon as possible once things become peaceful enough for civilization to hold sway, which is one of the basic arguments of US Westerns since at least the 50s.

In Douglas’s film, though, this typical, and typically unsolved problem is framed in a way that makes the question itself look as pathological as the people asking it (or shooting it out violently). The whole film is shot through with violence so sudden and bizarre it becomes surreal, and so much off-handed strangeness – everything Mountain Phil does or says, for example, be it discussions of ant life or the polite little chats he likes to hold with men before he shoots them – it at times feels as if were just getting its breath for a parody of this old question of Western filmmaking, one the Italian films Barquero is oriented towards very often (outside the works of Leone, at least) do not care about or for at all. However, the film never quite arrives at parody, not even when it shows a weed-smoking Remy having a vision of his violent past. Instead it floats between the poles of parody and a just very strange interpretation of the real thing.

The performances fit the film’s peculiar tone quite nicely, with Van Cleef making shifty eyes and looking pissed off in a manner even more exaggerated than usual, Mathews faking his horrible French accent like a champ while still maintaining is role as the straight man to an Oates performance so broad, one could believe he could have crossed the damn river on it without Van Cleef’s barge. What would be destructive in other films fits Barquero’s approach perfectly.

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