Seen by Martin before? No
What did I expect? A Clint Eastwood western, of the more serious kind.
What did I get? Written by Elmore Leonard and directed by John Sturges, Joe Kidd testifies to the undying effectiveness of storytelling skill. There’s nothing fancy about the movie, but the narrative tug kicks in from the get-go. It’s not especially serious, as I had thought — something about the poster suggested a slower burn — but it is quite good. It isn’t much different from Eastwood’s earlier Two Mules for Sister Sara and John Wayne’s Big Jake, but maybe a bit more rewardingly focused.
Joe Kidd is about the righteous rebellion of Mexican Luis Chama (John Saxon) to secure his people’s rightful lands and the disproportionately ruthless response from landowner Frank Harlan and his posse of mercenaries. At first Kidd allies with Harlan, but the gang’s inescapable barbarousness pulls him to Chama’s side. As in Sister Sara, Eastwood expresses his usual code of honor and thoroughgoing identification with the underdog.
Notice how efficiently Sturges and Leonard get the action going — within five minutes we’ve been apprised about Kidd’s basic situation and code — he’s serving out a short prison term for a hunting violation and his insouciant disrespect for the legal system — and Chama has stormed the courthouse and staked his claim to re-take the wrongfully appropriated farmlands. Shortly thereafter, Harlan enters town with a trio of scruffy and overdressed sharpshooters, and no time is wasted in establishing Harlan’s bone-deep brutality as well as Kidd’s distaste for the whole operation. (Fresh from The Godfather, Duvall plays the imperious Harlan to contemptible perfection.) The stakes are crystal-clear, the rest of the movie an enjoyable playing-out of the inevitable confrontations. At no point is any political or thematic point overplayed; properly, the story is king.
Leaving the ambiguous Last Picture Show out of it, Joe Kidd is the sixth western I’ve seen during the Boffo project, and it’s the first to draw me in quite so thoroughly, and I’m grateful for the occasion to understand just what it is people like so much about westerns. Leonard has been so widely praised that he’s in danger of being pretty wildly overrated, but it’s hard to dispute the premise that there are few better at telling a story. Sturges’ most notable credits lay in his past, with such standouts as Bad Day at Black Rock, The Great Escape, and The Magnificent Seven. The studio system was in deep crisis in the early 1970s, but Joe Kidd might have been a little-heeded reminder of its efficacy of its methods.
What here smacks of 1972? Much like Sister Sara, the political emphasis on the wronged Mexicans seems salient.
IMDB score: 6.3
My score: 7
Director: John Sturges
Writer: Elmore Leonard
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Robert Duvall, John Saxon, Don Stroud, Stella Garcia, James Wainwright, Paul Koslo, Gregory Walcott, Dick Van Patten, Lynne Marta, John Carter, Pepe Hern, Joaquín Martínez, Ron Soble, Pepe Callahan
IMDB synopsis: Joe Kidd is a former bounty hunter and all-around tough-guy in the American Southwest. When a band of Mexicans find their U. S. land claims denied and all relevant records destroyed in a courthouse fire, they turn to force of arms. Louis Chama is their charismatic leader, spouting revolutionary rhetoric and demanding land reform. A wealthy landowner with interests in the disputed area, Frank Harlan, decides to settle things his own way. He hires a band of killers and wants Joe Kidd to help them track Chama. Initially, Kidd wants to avoid any involvement, until Chama makes the mistake of stealing Kidd’s horses and terrorizing his friends.