Friday, March 29, 2013

Film Review: BRONCO BILLY (1980, Clint Eastwood)

Stars: 4 of 5.
Running Time: 116 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew:  Clint Eastwood, Sondra Locke (THE GAUNTLET, SUDDEN IMPACT), Geoffrey Lewis (DOUBLE IMPACT, MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL), Scatman Crothers (ZAPPED!, THE SHINING), Bill McKinney (THE GREEN MILE, DELIVERANCE), Sam Bottoms (APOCALYPSE NOW, THE LAST PICTURE SHOW), George Wendt (HOUSE, CHEERS), and Merle Haggard.  Cinematography by David Worth (BLOODSPORT, director of KICKBOXER).
Tag-line: "The most outrageous of 'em all."
Best one-liner:  "We're barroom buddies and that's the best kind..."

I'm not gonna lie: I had some pretty low expectations for BRONCO BILLY.  Its always sat at the back of my unwatched Eastwood pile, keeping films like PINK CADILLAC and CITY HEAT company.  (Now that I've actually seen the thing, I guess we can stuff TROUBLE WITH THE CURVE back there in its old spot.)  Anyway, my point is this:  BRONCO BILLY is actually a good movie.  It's low key and occasionally goofy, but overall it's a strong, dramatic ensemble piece that effortlessly (sort of Howard Hawks by way of Robert Altman) recreates the atmosphere and camaraderie of what it's like to make your way in the world with a group of traveling players.

The players in question are Bronco Billy (Eastwood) and company, a touring old-timey Wild West show in an era (1980) that may have outgrown them.  Bronco Billy hasn't paid his crew (who include Scatman Crothers, Bill McKinney, and Sam Bottoms, among others) in ages, and their ramshackle show sometimes plays to crowds in the single digits.  Billy can't get female assistants to stick around for more than one performance (there's plenty of knife and horse tricks that go easily awry), local law enforcement's bustin' their balls, and things in general simply ain't lookin' too good for the gang.  At least not until they meet a stranded rich bitch with a heart of gold (Sondra Locke, Clint's real-life girlfriend at the time) and a whole variety of zany, salt of the earth characters along the way.
This film is also notable, because it may have been the first time that the upper echelon of the critical establishment began to take Clint's films seriously: it garnered a special screening at the Museum of Modern Art.

Anyway, let's get right down to brass tacks:  here's eleven reasons why you should consider joinin' up with BRONCO BILLY and the gang:

1.  "Barroom Buddies."

The subtle majesty of the classic duet as performed by Merle Haggard and Clint Eastwood is truly something to behold.  Here, Clint sings along with Merle on the radio, much to the chagrin of Sondra Locke and a snoozing Scatman Crothers.  The simple joys of this kind of raggedy friendship are what "Barroom Buddies" and this film are really about–  "We're barroom buddies and that's the best kind, nobody fools with a buddy of mine– I laugh when you're happy, and I cry when you're blue-hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo-hoooooooooooooooooo!"  Simply poetry.

2. Post-coital "Barroom Buddies."

 After a wild night with Clint, Sondra Locke awakens the next morning, alone, dreamily singing "Barroom Buddies," a cappella, to herself.  This is patently insane, and I appreciate it.

3.  Speakin' of barroom buddies, look- it's Normie!  The original barroom buddy!  He's lookin' a little slimmer than usual, and he's got unexpected sideburns, but that's an uncredited George Wendt, all right.

Hopefully there's enough CHEERS fans around to appreciate the fact that in this universe, Wendt tends bar, instead of functioning as the sort of ultimate, beer-swilling, one-liner quipping barfly.  He even razzes Scatman Crothers about paying his tab; interesting since Norm never pays for a beer in the entirety of CHEERS unless he absolutely has to (his enormous tab is a constant source of amusement).   Also, the whole Clint & Sondra romance here has a real proto-Sam & Diane vibe to it, as well.  Anyway, yeah... CHEERS, ladies and gentlemen.

4.  Continuing on this tangent– the mood of the film is fantastic.  It's a little straighter and squarer than URBAN COWBOY, say, but that's fine too.  Smoky bars, wood-paneling, cheap beers,
barroom brawls worthy of a Burt Reynolds movie, and a place where the goddamn house band is Merle Haggard himself!

5.  The custom revolver door handles on Clint's car. 

If you can't appreciate the inherent genius and trashiness of it all, then you probably shouldn't be watching BRONCO BILLY anyway.

6.  This can't really be illustrated by a screencap, but at one point, Clint and the gang make a stopover at a mental hospital.  One of the night shift guards can be heard whistling Eddie Rabbit's wondrous theme song to "Every Which Way But Loose."  This, A: made me really happy, B: caused the song to be stuck in my head for several hours afterward, and C: reminded me that I really need to get around to reviewing the EVERY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE novelization.

7.  Classic Eastwood crony Geoffrey Lewis.

He's a serious old-school country boy character actor in the vein of Bruce Glover, M. Emmet Walsh, and Joe Don Baker.  He's collaborated with Eastwood seven times, fathered Juliette Lewis (!), and always delivers offbeat, nuanced performances.  Playing Sondra Locke's ex, he's sort of a kooky antagonist throughout the piece, and he gets a lot of great glowering reaction shots.

8.  Scatman Crothers.

1980 was a good year for Scatman (see also:  THE SHINING and LAVERNE & SHIRLEY), and he personally rated BRONCO BILLY as one of his favorite performances.  As a quack doctor and the master of ceremonies, he brings a positive energy to the piece that makes the brotherhood of the troupe all the more believable.

9.  Rotating balloon-target POV in the knife-throwing sequences.
'Cause who doesn't like this sort of thing?

10.  Seems like Clint has to save Sondra Locke from getting raped in almost every movie (see also: THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES).  This entry in particular refers to the hilariously deranged expression upon Eastwood's face as he pulls a would-be rapist off of Ms. Locke (of course this leads immediately to a Philo Beddoe-esque parking lot brawl).

11.  Art imitates life: aka, Clint's a cheapskate.
I've heard on multiple occasions (most thoroughly in Sondra Locke's tell-all, THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE VERY UGLY and Patrick McGilligan's CLINT: THE LIFE AND LEGEND) that Clint is something of a real Scrooge McDuckin', penny-pinchin' cheapskate.  I'm not here to sling mud, but it seems that Clint's pretty self-aware of this, and in fact inserts references to it throughout his canon.  (The first that comes to mind is in DIRTY HARRY, when he doesn't want his expensive pants cut with scissors by the doctors trying to treat his bullet wound: "For $29.50, let it hurt.")  Well, here in BRONCO BILLY, we get Clint hassling Sondra Locke and deducting a dime from her paycheck when she needs to make a phone call.  Then there's the big robbery scene, whereupon two hoodlums stick up a country bank and Bronco Billy, with his trick shooting prowess, blasts their weapons out of their hands and saves the day.  But what is it that pushes him over the edge and into action?  It's when he sees the robbers shove a little boy, whose piggy bank explodes onto the floor, and the pennies go everywhere.
I'm going to choose to believe that it's not violence against the child– it's the sight of all those sweet, sweet pennies that gets his blood up.  In fact, later in the film, we learn that Billy and his gang are almost all ex-convicts, and they later even attempt a half-hearted train robbery.  So Billy's not against robbery in general– he simply was distraught because (and I'm going to paraphrase a Man with No Name quote from THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY)  "I've never seen so many pennies, wasted so badly."

In closing, BRONCO BILLY's a wonderful little Western slice of life that proceeds at its own pace and charms you with its scruffy, wood-paneled, Barroom Buddy charisma.  Four stars.

–Sean Gill


Anonymous said...

This one looks like a rollicking good time, I'll have to look for it. I remember "The Gauntlet" being a pretty neat, slowly simmering kind of Eastwood/Locke number, with Pat Hingle (the immortal Bubba Hendershot from "Maximum Overdrive" -- one of my favorite characters ever, for real!) as Clint's buddy.

Sean Gill said...

Definitely a fun one. I remember enjoying THE GAUNTLET, but for some reason can't recall too much in the way of details. I do love me some Pat Hingle- SUDDEN IMPACT, BREWSTER'S MILLIONS, MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE, the BATMANs. He even shows up in a CHEERS episode as the abusive former owner of Cheers!