28 December 2007 | Bunuel1976
THE APPALOOSA (Sidney J. Furie, 1966) **1/2
Yet another film from Brando's lean years; now, I only have THE UGLY American (1963; also included in Universal's "The Marlon Brando Franchise Collection") to watch from this period but, all in all, it's an underrated phase for the celebrated method actor. Incidentally, it was nice to see such long-term Universal regulars as composer Frank Skinner (SON OF FRANKENSTEIN ), editor Ted Kent (BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN ) and make-up man Bud Westmore (ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN ) still involved in high profile productions such as this one after all those years. Anyway, Brando made only three Westerns in his career the others being the self-directed ONE EYED JACKS (1961) and Arthur Penn's THE MISSOURI BREAKS (1976) but they're among the more intriguing, if pretentious, from their respective eras; having said that, the film under review is easily the least rewarding of the three.
The simple plot finds aspiring rancher Brando falling foul of small-time Mexican tyrant John Saxon over the former's appaloosa stallion (later on, Saxon's girl, Anjanette Comer who does what she can with a basically underwritten role becomes the object of contention between the two); beaten up by Saxon's men and his prize horse stolen, Brando follows in pursuit ignoring the advise of friend Rafael Campos and a goat herder (Frank Silvera), he encounters on the way. Reaching the town where Saxon lives with his band of cut-throats, Brando tries to pass himself off as a local (by affecting a silly Mexican accent whose inspiration seems to have been Speedy Gonzales!); it doesn't take long for Saxon to discover his ruse and, when he does, challenges the star to a game of arm-wrestling (with a sting in its tail)! Brando loses and is beaten up again, after which Comer fed up with her own way of life takes him to Silvera's place to recover; catching up with the latter, Saxon's men kill him because he won't reveal the rancher's whereabouts but they're eliminated soon after by Brando himself. Finally, a showdown between the two parties takes place in the mountains.
Thematically, THE APPALOOSA - which celebrated film critic Pauline Kael had dismissed as "a dog of a movie about a horse" and whose title was, understandably changed to SOUTHWEST TO SONORA for its British theatrical release doesn't really cover any new ground despite Brando and director Furie's attempts to respectively infuse meaning into every gesture and shot. The latter was known for his flashy camera stylistics, and he really goes overboard here (placing characters in the extreme foreground when the main action is occurring in the remaining part of the frame including the very last shot or choosing bizarre angles such as a tilted shot during the arm-wrestling bout from the POV of a scorpion!); with this in mind, I had become even more interested in checking this one out after learning how Italian B-movie exponent Enzo G. Castellari drew on it for his impressive latter-day Spaghetti Western KEOMA (1976) on the Audio Commentary of that film's R1 Anchor Bay DVD. All of this plus Saxon's enjoyably hammy, Golden Globe-nominated performance (with an exaggerated Mexican accent to match) keeps one watching, even when the pace flags or the plot turns dreary.
Brando is said to have agreed to do this principally because he needed the cash to pay in alimony for his two ex-wives and that he quickly lost interest in the project (to the consternation of his producer and director); consequently, his contribution is atypically understated thus allowing co-star Saxon to walk away with the film! Nevertheless, the confrontation scenes between their two characters constitute definite highlights (and the climax is nicely handled kudos, in fact, to Russell Metty's cinematography throughout); otherwise, Silvera and popular Mexican actor/director Emilio Fernandez (perhaps still best-known for playing General Mapache in Sam Peckinpah's THE WILD BUNCH  and here appearing as Saxon's right-hand man) are notable among the supporting cast.