Monday, March 14, 2016

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid

The climax of Tapping the Source, a surf noir novel I reviewed here a few years back, features two characters, former compadres, facing each other one final time.  Preston Marsh and Hound Adams were former surfing buddies who had gone through all manner of danger and '60s excess together, and neither exited it unscathed.  Preston would go on to Vietnam, then a stretch in jail. He would become a alcoholic biker who all but gave up on life.  Hound became a successful drug dealer.  Their friendship long severed, any chance meeting on the street resulted in awkward silence, near rigor mortis of posture.  What happened between them? Why, by novel's end, are they about to end each other's lives? You have to read the book, partner.

I thought of those characters as I watched 1973's PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID, as lawman Garrett hunts down his former partner in crime, William H. Bonny.  Many tales have been spun about these two.  Director Sam Peckinpah, working from Rudy Wurlitzer's screenplay provides no backstory.  I didn't hear any of the multitude of characters in this movie even recount specific memories.  The "action" begins in the last days of a life, reflecting the Old West itself.   Early in the movie, the longtime friends share a drink, the sheriff (James Coburn) warning his quarry (Kris Kristofferson) to clear out of the country within a few days.

A few days plus one later, Billy is apprehended after a standoff.  A deputy sheriff named Ollinger (R.G. Armstrong) relentlessly beats Billy over the head with the Bible.  Beats him literally, too. Soon enough though, Billy will make his escape, with Pat in deliberate but steady pursuit, fueled/hindered by gallons of booze and a bed filled with prostitutes.  Garrett is doing what he must, and not even interested in a bounty offered by New Mexico's governor (Jason Robards). The finale is inevitable.

The destination's not the thing.  It's the journey:  a long, slow trot through the American Southwest and into Mexico, with lots of (mostly) low key banter among the members of Billy's gang, Pat's posse, and folks they meet along the way.  There's plenty of death, sometimes foretold and other times recalled in a gallery of imagery set against some stunning vistas lensed by John Coquillion.  One curious moment involves the lawman's firing at the same bottles in a river as an unidentified man in a floating barge.  Both stop short of emptying lead at each other.  Peckinpah himself shows up as a coffin maker. 

As in THE WILD BUNCH, the director examines the demise of an old way of life in the face of a changing America, of a place where types like cattle baron John Chisum (Barry Sullivan) exploit the land and workers in the name of capitalism. Pat and Billy's points of view on the law are also considered, as is that of what the term even means.   This theme weighs on every moment in PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID, more a poem than a narrative, set to the moody tunes of Bob Dylan, who also appears (in a strange, almost Chaplinesque performance) as a character called Alias.  Regrettably, even though the 122 minute version I saw is considered the director's preferred, it does not include the use of the vocal version of "Knockin' on Heaven's Door".

The director fills his revisionist tale with a stable of great character actors like Slim Pickens, L.Q. Jones, Harry Dean Stanton, and Richard Jaeckel in the damnest hairpiece I've seen in some time.  And hey, there's even Western stalwart Jack Elam as Alamosa Bill, left in charge in charge of Lincoln County by Garrett in his absence.  He'll find himself doing ten paces with Billy when the outlaw unexpectedly shows up for dinner, which is concluded quietly and the men are polite as can be as they go about the business they know is necessary.  Billy even asks the gent if perhaps there is an alternative way they can settle things.  But, alas....

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