In a half-century plus career, Jack Nicholson turned to wearing spurs and leveling six-shooters only a handful of times with less than successful box office returns. He even wrote one. Think Jack Nicholson and you picture that sly smirk, devil-be-damned boldness, and slow drawl that’s usually trailed by a sarcastic putdown. Like Marilyn, Clint, or Elvis, he’s an icon that audiences recognize by just his first name and has a record of cinematic achievements that is truly dazzling: Easy Rider (1969), The Last Detail (1973), Chinatown (1974), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), The Shining (1980), Reds (1981), Terms of Endearment (1983), Prizzi’s Honor (1985), Batman (1989), A Few Good Men (1992), As Good As it Gets (1997), and The Departed (2006). Sure, he garnered an impressive three Oscars, but he was a natural in the saddle, and those financial disappointments undoubtedly prevented further detours on the range. His very first Western outing, an uninspiring The Broken Land (1962), came when he was just twenty-five-years-old, and is now mainly of note for co-starring Nicholson. However a close friendship with cult director Monte Hellman (Two-Lane Blacktop) resulted in two highly memorable, mid-60’s acid Westerns and set the tone for two further off-the-beaten-path excursions.
The Shooting (1966)
This Western was filmed back-to-back with Ride in the Whirlwind that follows. It was directed by Monte Hellman and used much of the same cast and crew. The film’s progressive plot concerns a mysterious woman (Millie Perkins) who hires Willett Gashade (Warren Oates) and Coley (Will Hutchins) to escort her over rough terrain as a gunslinger (Jack Nicholson) follows closely after them. Willett does it for the money and Coley is infatuated with the woman, but both grow weary of their assignment, and soon enough, it is revealed that the gunslinger has some murky connection to the woman and the employees are, in fact, more prisoners than guides. The film has been called subversive, existential, and anti-Western. Certainly, a case can be made for all three descriptions, but how’s this: an outstanding story that simply asks more questions than it answers. Allegedly, director Hellman threw away the first several pages of the script and instead concentrated on the woman’s unknown intentions. Nicholson turns in a cool performance, a la Jack Palance in Shane, as a heartless killer. He wears the look well, but then again, all the performances are top-notch, particularly Warren Oates as Willett. Very much the definition of a revisionist (aka acid) Western, which projects moral ambiguity and vague character motivation.
Ride in the Whirlwind (1966)
This film was written by Nicholson and is surprisingly a little more straightforward than the allegorical The Shooting. Vern (Cameron Mitchell), Wes (Jack Nicholson), and Otis (Tom Filer) are three cowboys with the unfortunate luck of wandering into Blind Dick (Harry Dean Stanton) and his outlaw’s hideout. When a hanging party comes looking for revenge against the gang and Otis is killed, they’re caught in the crossfire. Vern and Wes escape into the mountain, where they are pursued despite their innocence. They eventually find their way to the home of a farmer, his wife, and young daughter (Millie Perkins). It’s a minimalist story that’s refreshing, dumping cliché Western plot points, especially toward the end when the two hunted men, waiting for dark to escape, break out a checkerboard to try and distract their addled nerves. Both Ride in the Whirlwind and The Shooting saw limited release and opened to little fanfare, but are now justifiably considered classics.
Note: The striking landscape featured in both The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind no longer exists, having (at least according to Wikipedia) been filled in with an artificial lake.
The Missouri Breaks (1976)
By the mid-1970s, Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson were two of the biggest actors in Hollywood, coming off successes like The Godfather and Chinatown. However, their collaborative effort, The Missouri Breaks, failed to satisfy critics or audiences, and became a well-noted bomb. (Before Heaven’s Gate, there was The Missouri Breaks.) But age has done a marvelous makeover for the film that features Nicholson’s grand performance as doomed Tom Logan, a rustler, who brazenly sets a relay ranch right smack dab in his enemy’s backyard before romancing the man’s daughter. Brando plays Lee Clayton, a “regulator,” who suspects Logan isn’t the farmer he purports to be and tracks him and his outlaw gang down. A slow—whole, superfluous scenes are still waiting to be edited—but rewarding film nonetheless. It was directed by Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde), with strong supporting performances from Kathleen Lloyd, Randy Quaid, and Harry Dean Stanton. Brando, putting it kindly, is a gratuitous distraction (he ad-libbed a majority of his part), but once you are on board with his method madness, overall, it’s a very good Western.
Note: According to IMDb, during the production, one horse drowned and several others were injured, causing the American Humane Association to put it on their “unacceptable” list.
Goin’ South (1978)
Nicholson plays Henry Moon, a no-good but likable lout, who is about to be hanged. He is saved from the gallows at the very last minute when Julia Tate (Mary Steenburgen in her screen debut) agrees to marry him, which — according to the local Longhorn, Texas, ordinance — allows the man to be spared execution. The soft-spoken Julia is far from innocent though and has ulterior motives, wanting Henry to work a gold mine that is arguably on her land. Eventually, genuine feelings develop between these mismatched but very much made-for-each-other loons. The best scene comes early on, when an elderly woman who agreed to wed Henry becomes a little too besotted with the raucous outlaw, dying on the spot. This tragedy is to the glee of Deputy Towfield (Christopher Lloyd), who leads Henry back to the hangman’s noose with a snide, “Just ain’t your day.” It’s an uneven, broad comedy with some very big laughs strewn throughout and film for which the two-and-a-half stars out of four exists. The solid supporting cast includes John Belushi, Danny Devito, and Ed Begley, Jr. My favorite line by Henry to a woman who was considering marriage: “I wouldn’t take you to a dog-fight if you was the defendin’ champ!”
Note: Steenburgen and Lloyd would team up again in 1990’s Western comedy, Back to the Future Part III.
Read all of Edward A. Grainger's posts for Criminal Element.