Saturday, September 22, 2018

MISSOURI BREAKS (1976): Or How to Kill All of the Bats

Many of the best movies ever made were low budget films with big stars released in the 1970s.  I’m not being nostalgic in saying that because many of these films were anything but nostalgic.  The Great White Hope starring James Earl Jones came out in 1970.  There was McCabe and Mrs. Miller starring Warren Beatty and directed by Robert Altman released in 1971.  Straw Dogs featuring Dustin Hoffman also came out in 1971.  And Mean Streets with Robert De Niro and directed by Martin Scorsese came out in 1973.
Jack Nicholson especially played in some of the best films.  Nicholson appeared in Five Easy Pieces in 1970, co-starred with Bruce Dern in The King of Marvin Gardens in 1972, co-starred with Randy Quaid in The Last Detail in 1973 (one of my all-time favorite movies), played alongside Faye Dunaway in Chinatown in 1974, and finally appeared with Marlon Brando in Missouri Breaks.  Missouri Breaks may go down as one of the more bizarre and quirky westerns ever made.  And it isn’t Nicholson that gives the film it’s peculiar edge.  That left up to Brando, and the technique of telling the story by director Arthur Penn.  

Nicholson plays Tom Logan, a good-natured horse thief and cattle rustler, who would more than anything like to find a good woman and settle down.  Unfortunately, he has a friend hanged by a large landowner named Braxton (John McLiam).  Tom purchases a tract of land next door to Braxton’s property.  This tract is a sort of meeting place for Tom and his gang of cattle rustlers.  While Tom and his gang are intent on revenge against Braxton, Tom also falls in love with Braxton’s daughter, Jane (Kathleen Lloyd).  His confused loyalty does not prevent his gang from hanging Braxton’s foreman.  This results in Braxton’s hiring of a bounty hunter to take care of all of the cattle rustlers once and for all.

The bounty hunter is none other than the famous Lee Clayton (Marlon Brando).  In all movie history, there is probably never a more eccentric villain than this character.  Clayton will do practically anything to get information about the cattle rustlers.  This includes disguising himself as a preacher and as a grandmother in dress and bonnet.  Clayton can kill a man from a long distance with the rifle he carries.  And he will explain to anyone willing or unwilling to listen that he passes gas anytime he gets too upset.

Clayton knows that Tom is not a farmer, and he suspects him as being the leader of the gang of cattle rustlers.  One by one he kills the rustlers off.  These are all of Tom’s best friends.  Clayton is so effective and single-minded in killing off the rustlers that he even frightens the man who hired him.  Braxton eventually tries to fire Clayton only to find out that Clayton is not interested in whether he does get paid.  All Clayton wants to do is finish his job.  Clayton compares pursuing cattle rustlers to the hunting of bats.  He said that if you gather them all together, you have the “evil buggers” at your mercy. 

But Tom is wily enough to escape Clayton.  In fact, he cuts Clayton’s throat while Clayton is sleeping under the stars.  Tom then wants to leave the area with Jane, but after Braxton feigns having a stroke Jane is unwilling to leave her father’s side.  This elaborate ruse is an attempt to get Tom at close range and kill him.  But Braxton fails to accomplish this and ends up shot himself instead.  We presume at the end of the film that Tom and Jane will someday be together. 

Missouri Breaks is 126 minutes long.  There’s some good action sequences, but there are also some very long scenes where nothing occurs other than listening to the characters talk to each other in a comical and sometimes cynical fashion.  Yet with all that occurs, the two characters who survive in the movie are in their own peculiar ways the most decent characters in the film: Tom and Jane.  There is a sort of happy ending at the end of this strange film.

Many recent critics remain puzzled at why this film never made it at the box office.  This seems especially odd when at the time of its release the movie featured two recent Academy Award winning stars.  But when you see what films do make the most money, it’s really not a mystery.  Most blockbusters fit a formula.  Because moviemakers are frightened that anything new may not bring in money right away, most blockbusters have sequels.  And most blockbusters along with the sequels will make money and be deservedly forgotten in ten years.

The beauty of Missouri Breaks is that one can watch it over and over again, and still enjoy it.  One can catch reruns of the film on late night television.  You can even watch the entire film on YouTube.  It was too unorthodox to ever become extremely popular in the theater.  Yet it’s too original for those who saw it early on to forget it at a later date.

September 22, 2018

© Robert S. Miller 2018