Thursday, May 1, 2014

Will Penny (1968)

Aging cowhand Will Penny (Charlton Heston) has just ended a trail somewhere in the colder parts of the West at the beginning of winter. Together with two of his colleagues, Dutchy (Anthony Zerbe) and Blue (Lee Majors), who are probably as close to friends as the rather shy Will ever comes, Will’s planning on finding work at a nearby ranch.

Before that can happen, though, the trio encounters the crazy family of crazy “Preacher” Quint (Donald Pleasence). A pointless altercation about an elk leaves one of Quint’s sons dead and Dutchy badly wounded. Quint swears vengeance, but because there’s a river in the way, it’ll probably have to wait a bit. While Blue and Dutchy end up in the closest town, with Dutchy probably dying, Will goes on to that ranch they were looking for. There, he hires on as a line rider, a cowhand living at the edge of the ranch’s areal, keeping cattle from wandering off.

Unfortunately, while out and about in the increasingly snowy mountains, Will encounters Quint and his family again. They quickly overwhelm him and leave him to die, bleeding out in the cold. Fortunately, Will’s mountain cabin is being squatted in by Catherine Allen (Joan Hackett) and her little son Horace (Jon Gries) who have been left behind by a guide supposed to bring them to California and Catherine’s husband. Catherine saves Will’s life, and slowly, a romance develops between the unhappily married woman and the sensitive, even fragile, cowboy. Things might develop into a direction that may be good for both of them, as well as for the boy, but alas Quint isn’t finished with Will yet.

This description does make Tom Gries’s Will Penny sound like a more concise film than it actually is, when it is in fact, particularly during its first half, a rather meandering and episodic one. Most of these episodes do come together to make a whole later on, though, if you have the patience to follow the film where it leads. The meandering feel of the early film is of course also just a clever mirror of Will’s life, a slow, directionless drifting from no place special to no place special, something that is only focused through Will’s work, sudden bouts of violence one encounters in the place where Will lives even if one is as basically peaceful as he is, and finally his encounter with Catherine and her boy.

In what I can only call a completely unexpected turn of events, Heston plays Will, the absolute opposite of the larger than life grimacing assholes he specialized in and, in the end, seems to have turned into in real life, exceedingly well. I really didn’t think Heston had something like this in him, a character as believably sensitive, even shy, and emotionally pained as Will is, a man who is quite conscious of the fact that he’s going nowhere, the place he’s coming from not much worth mentioning either. There’s, believe it or not, a subtlety to Heston’s performance of Will that suggests he could have been a much better actor than he ever was a star. It is really Heston’s performance that carries the film through its necessarily slow parts, until what actually is his second encounter with Catherine after an earlier episodic moment starts the actual plot, and quite possibly the first great emotional upheaval Will has undergone in years, or ever.

And while this is very definitely Will’s story, the film leaves space for Joan Hackett to turn Catherine into much more than just someone the cowhand could anchor himself too, a plot device with breasts. Instead the film shows us a woman as complex, complicated and curiously practical as her male counterpart is, with plans, and agency, and a life all her own. Hackett and Heston do work very well with one another, too, making clear what attracts them to each other without any need for the film to ever spell it out, going far beyond the point of lonely people feeling attracted to one another.

The weakest link in the acting chain here is, strangely enough, good old dependable Donald Pleasence who lays his crazy person shtick on a little too thick, going from threatening to cartoony, standing quite in opposition to the rest of the actors. It’s the kind of performance you’d use in a Heston film when Chuck does his usual Moses, but not between naturalistic and subtle performances as they’re found here. It’s hardly enough of a flaw to ruin the film even a little, though, because Quint isn’t the point of the film. It is – very pointedly – not Pleasence’s character that begins or ends the relationship between Will and Catherine, but Will’s own inability to get over a fear that finds an easy confederate in his frontier pragmatism, which is an easy shield against the risks of the heart.

If I haven’t really mentioned anything about Tom Gries’s direction of the film, then it’s because Will Penny, following the suggestion of its title, is very much a film about people and landscape, and Gries’s part of the job in bringing his own script to life is letting the people and the landscape do the talking. Which he does quite perfectly.

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