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  • Writer's pictureCarrie Specht

Overlooked and Underrated Double Feature at The Aero

In the latest edition of the Overlooked and Underrated series, the American Cinematheque has selected a modern day Western, Lonely are the Brave starring Kirk Douglas and paired it with a comparable ode to the same genre, Cowboy, starring the always entertaining Jack Lemmon. Thursday March 8th at 7:30pm.

First up in this well coupled double feature is Lonely are the Brave, a 1962 Universal release helmed by director David Miller. Although Miller’s only other notable films were produced twenty years earlier (1942’s Flying Tigers with John Wayne and 1941’s Billy the Kid with Robert Taylor), this salute to a dearly missed age of fierce individualism and the freedoms abandoned in the name of modernization is expertly handled with a direction that is subtle and yet deliberate with every nuance. This is the simple story of a middle-aged man out of step with the rest of the world, living the cowboy life he dearly loves, and trying earnestly to hold onto it and everything it stands for while his friends, the world and even the horse he rides change all around him.

With such classic and over-used themes, it’s impressive that director Miller didn’t succumb to obvious heavy-handedness while working with bigger-than-life superstar Kirk Douglas. Douglas plays “Jack”, a man whose time has come and gone with the ways of the Old West virtually before his own existence. But that doesn’t bother Jack. As long as there is open land for him to roam and stars to camp out under at night, there will be a place for him. The problem is that those lands are closing up with barbed wire fences and the lights of the growing cities are dimming the stars. Where is there left to go, what is happening to this great land, and why aren’t others as concerned as he? Who better to impart these values and themes than an actor whose own persona is linked with a bygone era of greater (albeit Hollywood) days, whose chiseled features, now deeply lined with the tell-tell signs of the passage of time, reveal every thought and slightest emotion of a complex character.

After getting himself arrested so as to gain access to an imprisoned friend, Jack finds that the friend is unwilling to break out with him. Unable to face the new world with the same practicality, Jack sets out on his own, running from the sheriff and the rest of law that, abiding society, is snapping at his heals with the aid of Jeeps, helicopters and the military. The lonesome cowboy honestly doesn’t understand why such a big fuss is being made over one free spirited man who means no harm and desires only to be left alone to live his carefree life. But the law doesn’t see it that way. Manifested in the form of a wonderfully understated Walter Matthau, the law is unable to turn a blind eye as it may have done in the golden days of the past. Kindly, eccentric character or not, the law has been broken and justice must be completely blind to all who challenge societal norms, however well meaning their intentions. Matthau’s patented hangdog expression reflects the growing empathy in his heart as he carries out each step of his unpleasant duty.

Legendary screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (Roman Holiday, Spartacus) penned this mournful masterpiece that highlights the very values unjustly stripped from him as a member of the “Hollywood Ten”. What could have been an arch cliche in lesser hands is a pitch-perfect hymn to rugged individualism, mercilessly squelched by the undiscriminating march of progress. Certainly, the experience of surviving an industry wide “blacklist” contributed to the honesty and depth of the two-time Academy Award winning writer’s work (both Awards presented to people fronting for him), providing an underlying passion that brims, but never boils over with realism and heartbreak.

Lonely Are the Brave utilized a masterful combination of great talents to create a truly gut wrenching film reflective of the deep loss that necessarily comes with great growth. It’s unlikely one would ever see such a multitude of talents working together these days on a single project. The cost would be insurmountable, let alone the egos. And the subject matter would be dismissed as trifling, when in reality, with today’s ever fluctuating political climates, it couldn’t be more relevant. Change is inevitable, and so is loss. What this film says is that for some, it is a matter of life and death. Those who stampede forward with progress should be careful not to lose understanding for those incapable of clearing out of the way; for they are likely to one day be trampled themselves.

Next on the same bill is a lesser-known and less satisfying ode to the great west, the 1958 Glenn Ford and Jack Lemmon vehicle Cowboy. Delmer Daves (Dark Passage, 3:10 to Yuma) directed this modest outing that stars Ford as a cash-strapped and shorthanded cattle drive boss in the latter days of the old west. Due to the dwindling numbers of able men and the growing threat of rail lines, Ford begrudgingly takes on starry-eyed hotel clerk Jack Lemmon as a Cowboy and financial partner.

Also set in a time of great change at the cusp of the end of an era, the themes here are similar to that of Lonely. Not surprising, since Dalton Trumbo authored both screenplays. Although the characters are particularly well drawn and deftly executed by notable Western actors (Brian Donlevy is particularly good as an ex-Marshall who tries to recapture glory only to face disillusion), the film is unexceptional. The widescreen cinematography by Charles Lawton, Jr. is worth viewing, and this is not a bad film by any means, but if it weren’t for the Double Feature pairing with Lonely Are the Brave, it would not be a film for one to make a special outing. But heck, you’re there anyway, so why not?

Screenings are at the Max Palevsky Theatre at the Aero Theatre, 1328 Montana Avenue, Santa Monica. Advance tickets available through General Admission is $10; $7 Cinematheque members; $9 Seniors (65+ years) and students with valid ID card. 24-Hour information: 323.466.FILM

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