Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door: PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID (MGM 1973)

(PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID airs tonight at 11:45 EST on TCM. Do yourselves a favor… watch it!)

PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID was director Sam Peckinpah’s final Western, and as usual it’s about more than just the Old West. It’s about the new breed vs the old establishment, about the maverick auteur vs the old studio guard, and about his never-ending battle to make his films his way. The fact that there are six, count ’em, SIX different editors credited tells you what MGM honcho James Aubrey thought of that idea! They butchered over 20 minutes out of the movie, which then proceeded to tank at the box office. Fortunately for us, PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID has been restored to its full glory, and we can enjoy Peckinpah’s original artistic vision.

I’m not going to try to make excuses for Peckinpah; he was a legitimate pain in the ass, a chronic alcoholic and drug abuser with manic mood swings and a violent temper. A real reprobate. But damn, he made some of the best films of the 60’s and 70’s! His takes on the western and crime genres were ultra-violent lyrical tone poems, influencing an entire generation of filmmakers who tried to copy his style, but rarely succeeded. Take a look at virtually any action-packed movie made in the last fifty years, at directors from Scorsese to Tarantino, and you’ll see the Peckinpah influence. Sam Peckinpah may have been a pain in the ass, but the man was an artist of the first order.

PAT GARRETT & BILLY THE KID concerns the familiar tale of two old friends, one an outlaw, the other now a lawman, and their final confrontation. The two leads are veteran James Coburn as Garrett and relative newcomer Kris Kristofferson, better known at the time as a singer/songwriter. Garrett has been hired by the powers that be in Lincoln County, New Mexico to rid the territory of Billy and his gang. The pair had ridden together as outlaws, and been on opposite sides before (Billy: “Wasn’t long ago I was the law, riding with Chisum. Pat was an outlaw. The law’s a funny thing.”). Garrett doesn’t want to kill Billy, but knows in his heart that’s exactly what it’s going to take.

Cinematographer John Coquillon got his start working on AIP horrors (WITCHFINDER GENERAL, THE OBLONG BOX ), and was a favorite of Peckinpah. There are marvelous location shots of the rugged Durango, Mexico scenery, notably the reflective river. A standout comes when Billy kills his religious fanatic jailer (a scary R.G. Armstrong), and at Billy’s capture, his arms stretched out like Christ on the Cross when he gives up. Coquillon and Peckinpah worked together on the director’s seminal STRAW DOGS, and later on CROSS OF IRON and THE OSTERMAN WEEKEND. They make a great duo, each man enhancing the other’s artistic vision.

The plaintive score, as you may already know, is by Bob Dylan, who also has a role as Alias, an enigmatic figure to say the least (Pat: “Who are you?” Alias: “That is a good question”). Dylan may not be an Olivier or DeNiro, but he’s just right in this role, saving Billy by throwing his knife at just the right moment, being intimidated by Garrett, and pretty much just being Dylan. The hit song “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” is featured on the soundtrack, which was released as his 12th album, and I’m sure you Dylan fans already own it!

The movie is stocked with some of Hollywood’s best character actors, all of whom get their chance to shine. Slim Pickens and Katy Jurado play a pair of lawmen (lawpersons??) aiding Pat, and Pickens’ death scene is played out to the aforementioned Dylan hit. Jack Elam is Alamosa Bill, who tracks Billy down and dies in a gun duel. Good Lord, there’s Luke Askew, John Beck, Richard Bright, Matt Clark, Elisha Cook Jr , singer Rita Coolidge, Jack Dodson, Gene Evans , Emilio Fernandez, Paul Fix Richard Jaeckel , L.Q. Jones, Jason Robards Charlie Martin Smith , Harry Dean Stanton, Barry Sullivan , Dub Taylor, Chill Wills, a veritable Who’s Who of Hollywood Familiar Faces!

The final, fatal killing of Billy the Kid is haunting for both its beauty and its ugliness. That pretty much sums up the best of Sam Peckinpah’s work, the dichotomy of beauty and the grotesque, the proud and the profane, walking hand in hand through a random, chaotic world. PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID was Peckinpah’s final word on the Western genre, and I’m glad it’s been restored to its original form, so future generations can study the cinematic artwork of this difficult, self-destructive, brilliant genius.

Roger Corman’s Bloody Valentine: THE ST. VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE (20th Century-Fox 1967)

Low budget auteur Roger Corman had visited the gangster genre twice before, with 1958’s MACHINE GUN KELLY (featuring Charles Bronson in the title role) and I, MOBSTER (starring noir vet Steve Cochran ). Nine years later,  Corman produced and directed THE ST. VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE, with major studio backing, star power, and a million dollar budget. It’s still a Roger Corman film though, which means it’s a helluva lot of fun!

We’re in 1929 Chicago (as narrator Paul Frees tells us), a time of lawlessness, bootlegging, and mob killings on a daily basis. Two rival factions are battling to control the Windy City: the Southside gang led by ‘Scarface’ Al Capone (Jason Robards) and his Northside enemy ‘Bugs’ Moran ( Ralph Meeker ). Moran sends his top hood Peter Gusenberg (George Segal) to muscle in on Capone’s rackets, but when Big Al’s mentor Patsy is gunned down by Moran’s assassins, the crime boss goes off, vowing revenge, and assigning his torpedo ‘Machine Gun’ Jack McGurn (Clint Ritchie) to plot the infamous mass murder.

Robards goes waaay over the top as Capone, a part Corman originally wanted Orson Welles to play (can you imagine?). He bellows, hollers, snarls and growls like a rabid wolverine, pops his eyes, and mugs shamelessly while chomping on a big old stogie. Yet somehow, it all works, since Capone’s such a larger-than-life character anyway. Meeker’s just a trifle more subdued (but not much!) as Moran, whether roaring at his own men with equal intensity, or throwing darts at a picture of Capone in his office.

The rest of the cast is a regular Rogue’s Gallery of Hollywood hoodlums. Segal gets most of the supporting screen time as Gusenberg, and he chews the scenery with the best of them, especially in the scene with his spendthrift moll (Jean Hale). You’ll need a scorecard to keep track of all the Familiar Faces here: John Agar , Richard Bakalyan, Joseph Campanella, David Canary, Mary Grace Canfield, Alex D’Arcy, Mickey Deems, Bruce Dern Charles Dierkop , Milton Frome, Reed Hadley, Kurt Kreuger, Celia Lovsky , Paul Richards, Alex Rocco, Joan Shawlee, Frank Silvera, and Harold J. Stone all appear, in roles both large and small. Some of Corman’s stock players also make cameos, including Leo Gordon , Jonathan Haze, Betsy Jones-Moreland, Dick Miller (of course!), and Barboura Morris. Jack Nicholson, as a favor to Roger, does a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it bit as one of the hired killers. When Miller asks what his goombah is rubbing on his bullets, Jack (using a raspy voice), says, “Garlic. If the bullets don’t kill ya, ya die of blood poisoning!”

Howard Browne adapted his 1958 PLAYHOUSE 90 teleplay “Seven Against the Wall” into the screenplay. Browne was an old pro at pulp fiction, a former writer/editor of the magazines “Amazing Stories” and “Fantastic Adventures”. Browne only wrote two other films (1961’s PORTRAIT OF A MOBSTER and 1975’s CAPONE, with Ben Gazzara as Scarface), but he was prolific in TV, writing for, among others, CHEYENNE, MAVERICK, 77 SUNSET STRIP, RUN FOR YOUR LIFE, and MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE. His 1954 novel “Thin Air” was adapted as episodes of both THE ROCKFORD FILES and SIMON & SIMON.

There’s plenty of violent tommy-gun action though the actual massacre takes less than thirty seconds. Corman is ably aided and abetted by DP Milton Krasner and Lionel Newman’s period score. The sets were refurbished from films like THE SOUND OF MUSIC, THE SAND PEBBLES, and HELLO, DOLLY to replicate 1920’s Chicago, and there’s loads of vintage autos and 20’s slang sprinkled throughout. Corman allegedly didn’t like working in the studio confines, and returned to his home at American-International. The independent filmmaker wanted to remain independent, free of the constraints of big-budget moviemaking and studio politics. But with THE ST. VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE, he proved to the world he could work within those confines just as well as the big boys, and gave fans of his work an entertainingly bloody valentine.