The B-Movie Isle: Twilight Time’s Comes a Horseman (1978)
Adam/The B-Movie Isle dissects Twilight Time’s newest Blu-Ray Release the forgotten Alan J. Pakula neo-western Comes A Horseman
I started The B-Movie Podcast and the B-Movie Isle not just to curate and share films with the like-minded film geeks. I also started them for the opposite; to find filmmic gold. To find that filmmic gold it takes an ample amount of blind buying films and watching them, renting films and watching them, reading books on films, on-line research, podcasts and much more. I’m basically doing what any good historian does; their research. For every film I talk about there’s at least five films I do not because they’re garbage. Of those one in five films worthy of discussion, one in ten of those is a good film. Of those good films, one in ten is a truly great film.
Alan J. Pakula’s neo-western Comes a Horseman, is a great film. Forgotten, misjudged and discarded after its release. The film set in 1940 sets a pair of small ranchers (played by Jane Fonda and James Caan) against a cattle baron (Jason Robards). The film is as much a western as it is a treatises against capitalism and big business in any form be it Oil or Cattle.
Pakula’s film tells of an era of fluxing ideals. The wide expanse of the western frontier has dwindled, quickly becoming more myth than a reality. Frank (Caan) is a man fresh out of WWII wanting only to work a piece of land. Ella (Fonda) is a woman wanting nothing more than to keep the land that she’s inherited away from her father’s former partner, Ewing (Robards). Though each share the same ideology, the trio’s methods are much different and come into conflict. Pakula does a wonderful job of showing us this. The film is not loquacious, rather like the trifecta of characters. The film allows simple gestures, glances; rather actions take the stage more than the sparse Cormac McCarthy-esque dialog.
Fonda as the hard-bitten Ella is a beautiful performance. At first glance it seems a rather simple performance, played through the eyes. There is a quiet veneer and under that… an anger. The opening moments of the film, Fonda feels like a spitting image of her father in Once Upon a Time in the West; quiet danger and strength. Fonda uses that interior life and stillness to bring us hard truths about Ella without saying a word. This woman has been spurned by the world. For years men have been circling the homestead like a pack of wolves. This and so much more has made Ella an uncompromising piece of hard bitten steel.
The dance that she and Caan have that moves throughout the film is one of its beating hearts and is never over played. Caan has never been more subdued than he is here. As Frank, he is allowed to settle into a character that feels more a comfortable fit than the likes of Sonny Correlone or even dare I say Brian Piccolo. This is Caan at the height of his prowess as a performer. Here the actor is able to play the cowboy, play to the romantic lead, play the reluctant hero. Caan seems to channel Gary Cooper in this role; a decent man, affable, wanting nothing more than to make his life far and way from the killing he did in WWII.
Robards is the looming cloud over this film. Pakula uses Robards’ status as an icon and the audience’s expectations of the acting titan to his benefit. There isn’t a moment where Robards as Ewing, isn’t perfection. Ewing like Ella is an internalized character. A snake oil sales man who trades in niceties and cordial exchanges as he plots to murder men to ensure his family’s legacy. There is nothing mannered or any sort of affectations in Robards performance. It’s raw and at the surface, no explanation is necessary to understand Ewing wants nothing more than to set the world ablaze because his family’s legacy in America has been ruined by tragedy.
The film’s heartbreaking soul belongs to Richard Farnsworth. Farnsworth gives the film a life and humor, as Dodger (Ella’s loyal ranch hand), that he brought so beautifully to David Lynch’s equally forgotten and beautiful A Straight Story. What could have been just a role as theme (the death of the cowboy’s way of life), in his hands is so much more. Dodger is as much Farnsworth as he is a creation. Farnsworth was a stunt man transition from that hard life, as the westerns in Hollywood began to become rarer and rarer a venture. Farnsworth’s performance was so affecting it netted him an Oscar Nomination.
The film has a sense of the inevitable. We know these three titans and forces of nature will eventually collide. Pakula never falters at giving us a worthy entry into the Western Genre. The final show down is we come to expect from this particular genre. Though, the finale is done with such quiet menace and stoic heroism that most may find it slight. If one does feel slighted from Pakula’s ending anti-ending (he did something very similar in his adaptation of The Pelican Brief), they missed the entire point of the film. Comes a Horseman is not shootouts and acts of traditional heroism. This is a story of humans struggling and winning hard won fights against insurmountable powers. This is a story of how hard the simple act of trusting that not all humans are deplorable despicable self-involved narcissist when the world has shown you likewise. Comes a Horseman may have been released in 1978 but thirty nine years later it has become a vital piece of film-making in 2017.
The transfer, as Twilight has pointed out is a point of contention. It’s not a horrible transfer but the age of the print is very present. There was no work done on restoration it appears. So, dust, scratches, specs are very present. It doesn’t distract from the presentation. Actually, it enhanced my late evening viewing of the film. Gordon Willis’ photography is kept in that brownish/goldish hue he loved so much. The blacks are a crushed but surprisingly it’s not distracting in a huge way and only a few scenes seem to be affected by this. There’s a sense of discovery present in watching this… like an old book you’ve found, browned with age. It works brilliantly if not intentionally.
Theatrical trailer is the sole extra.
The Bottom Shelf
Comes a Horseman has set a high level water mark for the films of 2017. This is the type of film that’s quiet power will hit you in the most unexpected of ways. Passionate and compassionate film-making from a master of cinema that remained undiscovered for close to forty years deserves to be rediscovered. HIGHEST POSSIBLE RECOMMENDATIONS!