Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (Philip Kaufman, 1972)

I remember a friend asserting that if it wasn't for Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Philip Kaufman would have been acclaimed for the revisionism in his Western, The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid, about the James Brothers and their ill-fated Minnesota bank heist attempt. Having seen the film, I'n not sure the two can actualy be so easily compared--Altman's film has a dreamy glow about it, while Kaufman's is grimmer, more hard-edged; if anything, Kaufman's film seems closer to Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch in its story of a gang of outlaws on their last legs.

But Kaufman does share Altman's tendency to dawdle over little details and interesting side characters, like the bank manager constantly scheming to get people to deposit in his bank; the equally eccentric bank employee who feels morally superior to his boss; the crazed old man looking for his dead son; and the Pinkerton detective who feels confident of being able to catch the Jameses. Kaufman spends an inordinate amount of time on a baseball game complete with gloveless players, sticklike bat, well-armed audience and all--inordinate if you happen to think the game does little to advance the plot (it doesn't), but not so if you think it advances your feel of the time and place (which it does, beautifully and more successfully (albeit with less spectacular slapstick) than Altman does with his football game in MASH).

The film isn't so much about the raid, ultimately, as it is a study of contrast, between Cole Younger (Cliff Robertson, unusually subdued and good) and Jesse James (Robert Duvall). Younger excites more sympathy with his more poetic, forward-looking view on life, his childlike interest in machines and his (mostly suggested) sympathy for caged convicts. Duvall's James is a thug, a religious hypocrite, and a psychopath; I wonder if Duvall's played a more repulsive character in his career. What's interesting is how Kaufman has both men overreach with this raid, their past actions (one man's senseless murder, the other's seemingly innocuous repair of a steam calliope) catching up with them. Both their careers essentially end with this failed heist (or at least James' career with the gang--he goes on to rob a few more banks); Kaufman, though, shows more sympathy for the less fortunate Younger--despite being paraded around in the cage he earlier regarded with such unspoken dread, Kaufman has him express the last word on the marvels and hilarities he has witnessed around him.

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