Jun 11, 2009

Doc (1971)

Made during the period of so-called "revisionist" westerns a la The Wild Bunch; Once Upon a Time in the West; and McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Frank Perry's Doc doesn't so much redefine the genre as those apocalyptic films. However the release of these (and Italian westerns) surely influenced pictures such as this, and other scruffy titles like Dirty Little Billy or The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid. The heroes were painted in shades of grey, often against changing landscapes, and the films were rife with profanity, sex and violence for a new liberal audience. Perhaps these movies were closer to depicting the grubby reality of frontier life not necessarily seen in the classical pictures of John Ford, but even so these eccentric movies often had an otherworldly quality.

Doc surely is closer than most films in painting an accurate picture of the Earps. The famed OK Corral battle (while depicted as briefly in here as the actual historical gunfight really was) is seen more as a struggle for money-grubbing opportunism than law and order. Still, it takes some liberties with history-- and if we're going to take this film to task for inaccuracies then it's only fair to do the same for John Ford's My Darling Clementine (usually regarded as the definitive movie about Wyatt Earp and the OK Corral). For example, Doc Holliday's constant traveling companion "Big Nose" Kate Elder (with the nickname removed here, perhaps because Faye Dunaway's nose wasn't large enough) meets him for the first time just days away from his rendezvous with the Earps in Tombstone, Arizona leading up to the famed gun battle.

However, just as Julie Christie's glamourous image was erased in McCabe, so too is Faye Dunaway with some well-placed mud on her cheeks in low-lit interiors. Wyatt Earp (Harris Yulin) is a cold, smug lawman whose frequent activity is sneakily hitting people on the head with his gun barrel. Doc Holliday is no Shakespeare-spouting dandy a la Victor Mature-- instead, he's an opium-addicted lout who coughs up blood in every other scene (the gunfighter was slowly dying from consumption). Stacy Keach has added another interesting credit to his roster of unusual films in this period (End of the Road, Watched, The Traveling Executioner-- his Doc Holliday is equal parts charismatic and cad, dashing and disgusting.

But Doc is a superlative, wonderfully vulgar look at the old west. Pete Hamill's morally ambiguous script debunks the well-scrubbed white-hatted cowboys of previous movie lore, and presents us with frontier characters who curse, flatulate, fornicate and (it's implied) fellate. The production was shot in Spain, no doubt to emulate the Spaghetti Westerns of the time (which were often filmed around Almeria). Thusly, this film gives a supra-real effect: this "realistic" depiction of life in the old west is also given an otherworldly, larger-than-life, perhaps mythic, feel. Particularly striking are the moments in which Doc and Kate journey through the desert en route to Tombstone. The tone is nearly Biblical.

Frank Perry was surely one of commercial cinema's most interesting figures in the 1960's and 70's. His films (many scripted by his ex-wife Eleanor) always took chances. And if perhaps some of them were inconsistent, they nonetheless succeeded as gripping studies of unusual human behaviour. Whether it was the dysfunctional love stories of David and Lisa or Last Summer, quirky rural adventures at Rancho Deluxe, or Hollywood melodrama played to the hilt in Mommie Dearest, his scenarios implode the conventions of whatever genre they study, and present us with unconventional characters in these worlds. Doc is surely one of his finest.

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