The Western is a threatened genre, that save for the latter day works of Eastwood, the odd throwback (Open Range) or the occasional instance of female revisionism (Meek’s Cutoff, Dead Man’s Burden), subsists on the collective memory of yesteryear’s classic cowboys and long forgotten rodeos.
Thank God then, for the treasure strand at the LFF run by Clyde Jeavons, whose passion for the genre has made rescued and restored Westerns one of the annual anticipations of the festival. In previous years the under-stated and overlooked films of Delmer Daves have been highlighted with both 3:10 To Yuma and Jubal being screened. Both of these 4K digital restorations by Sony Columbia’s chief conservationist Grover Crisp, have since been given a very loving Criterion Blu-ray treatment. As the third and best of the Daves Westerns at Columbia, one can only hope this year’s world premiere of the restoration of 1958’s Cowboy will soon be joining their collection.
Cowboy’s bedazzling rejuvenation is a marvel all of its own. The digital damage correction by the wizards at MTI has somehow preserved the phantasmagorical flourish of a photochemical image, a shimmer of gelatin discharge smearing the frame in which silver halide crystals perceivably swelter. The flawless print is more than matched by crystal clear audio work from Chase Audio Deluxe, really highlighting the slang and colloquialisms of cowboy drawl.
So why all this painstaking production for a filmmaker whose name has never ranked alongside John Ford and Howard Hawkes, and whose work has never warranted major critical study? Never quite earning the imprimatur of auteur, Daves has been openly disparaged by tastemakers, with Kent Jones toe-tagging him a “casualty of auteurism” and the ever dismissive David Thomson disparagingly labelling him a “grown up boy” and “purveyor of non-reflective action movies.”
Having recently watched all three films in this unofficial trilogy, Thomson’s claims seem wildly off base. While the incredible stunt work in a Cowboys vs. Indians standoff during a stampede outdoes any CGI-riddled set piece of today for raw, visceral thrills, that’s but a short sequence in a film which consciously avoids recycling the action-oriented archetypes of gun-tootin’ lawmen, hired assassins and ornery, tobacco-spittin’ outlaws. “A man has to have something besides a gun and a saddle” is one spoken allusion to the inner conflicts, spiritual depletion and fractious fraternity between men, which most interests Daves.
The iconography of Saul Bass’ title sequence; bulls, boots and ten gallon hats purposely presented in the colours of children’s drawings, are the same childishly romanticised notions of the old West held by Frank Harris (Jack Lemmon), a Chicago Hotel clerk looking to make a fortune on the trail so he can marry the daughter of a senator staying there. The initiation of a callow young man into the macho, virile world of life on the cattle trail is of course a long held tradition of the Western, most notably exemplified by Red River, but Cowboy goes out of its way to show what a tough, mercenary, sad and lonely lifestyle it really is.
Tom Reese (Glenn Ford) is the man heading up this cattle drive, and though he may love opera, he’s anything but sensitive. An unflinching businessman who won’t settle for anything less than his own terms, when one of the meat magnates tries to talk down the agreed upon price, his curt reply ends any negotiation. “You need beef so bad, your mouth’s watering.” On its own, the sweat, dirt and toil it takes just to break horses in and get them ready for the long trek seems enough to earn every penny owed. Reese cuts his men no slack either, especially tenderfoot Harris, disgusted at the way his boss so easily puts the cattle before a man’s life. When a hazing prank played on the new guy goes wrong and one of their number is killed by a rattlesnake, Reese officiates the most unsentimental of burials, listing the dozen other ways the man would have likely died on the trail before pointing to the open grave and instructing the boys to “ fill ‘er up”.
If Glenn Ford is born to the saddle and as rugged as the landscapes they ride across (“Anyone who starts a fight’s gonna finish it with me”), Jack Lemon doesn’t work at all in a stetson and spurs, which is exactly why he works in Cowboy. Lemmon’s doughy features aren’t hard enough for the great outdoors and his waffling patter is that of a self-regarding city slicker, but Harris’ cries for compassion are slowly worn down, replaced by a self-loathing cynicism predating The Apartment by two years, and it’s here that Lemmon excels. After Reese is injured and Harris takes charge, a gradual role reversal occurs, showcasing the subtle versatility of the two leads. The clothes still don’t fit right, but watching Lemmon bark unfeeling orders to the posse demonstrates the extent of how weathering work as a cowhand can be. This, just as Reese gets tired of burying people and finds his humanity.
The internally directed depth of Delmer Daves’ Westerns have a reticent resonance unlike those of any other filmmaker in the genre and Sony Columbia’s restorations will hopefully find a distributor who can bring this forgotten classic to the attention of wider audiences and more open-minded critics. As resilient as the cockroach Ford takes aim at from his hotel bathtub, history has already tried to quash Daves, whose contemporary canonisation by Criterion, should give his career the second chapter it deserves.
First published by Vérité Film Magazine on October 21, 2013