RANCHO DELUXE (1975)

RANCHO DELETERIOUS

I was a senior in high school when director Frank Perry released DAVID AND LISA (1962). Perry had cut his creative teeth as a TV documentary producer. He became a pioneer in the low budget B&W Indie market. He struck box office and Oscar gold right out of the gate. His wife, Eleanor Perry, who wrote the screenplay for DAVID AND LISA, was also honored at the Academy Awards. Perry directed 20 films from 1962 to the early 90’s. He died of cancer, at age 65, in 1995. He and his wife, Eleanor, collaborated on his first seven films. They divorced in 1970. Their collaborations represented his best body of work, including the enigmatic THE SWIMMER in 1968. Perry did go on to do the very strange myth-busting western, DOC, in 1971 with Stacey Keach and Harris Yulin. He also is responsible for the cult classic, MOMMIE DEAREST, in 1981.

Thomas McGuane wrote the screenplay. He had recently moved to Montana, where he his neighbor was Peter Fonda. McGuane has written nine novels, and several non-fiction books on horses and fishing. He considers himself to be a writer, rancher, fisherman, and conservationist. He has written screenplays for 8 films, including THE MISSOURI BREAKS (1976), and TOM HORN (1980). He directed, from his own screenplay, 92 IN THE SHADE in 1975. It used to be quite often in America’s now almost defunct Drive-Ins, that one could catch that film playing as a double bill with RANCHO DELUXE—a kind of mini-McGuane film festival.

Glancing at photographs of Thomas McGuane, he looks a little like Barry Bostwick. His first wife was a direct descendent of Davy Crockett. Later she went on to marry neighbor Peter Fonda. When she and Thomas lived in Key West, Florida, their home was known as a “party place”. It makes me wonder if Dennis Hopper didn’t wander in there sometimes with Warren Oates, Harry Dean Stanton, and maybe even Jack Nicholson. McGuane’s second wife was actress, Margot Kidder. They were only married for one year (1975-1976). His present wife is the sister of musician Jimmy Buffett—what marvelous synchronicity. These days, McGuane lives with his family, dogs, and horses in Sweetwater County, Montana—in the SW corner of the state.

Jimmy Buffett did the original music, during his “Country”period. He and his band appeared as themselves during the big barroom scene in the film. RANCHO DELUXE was his first film score. He has composed several songs that have appeared in 10 films. For the sharp movie buff, one can find Warren Oates playing a harmonica in the band.

The cinematographer was William A. Fraker. He has been working as a cameraman since 1961. He has been head lenser over 50 films, like ROSEMARY’S BABY and BULLITT, both in 1968. He directed MONTE WALSH in 1970. He was one of several cinematographers that worked on CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND in 1977. He was responsible for the visuals in the stylish TOMBSTONE (1993), with its Frederic Remington tableaus similar to those he created for MONTE WALSH—it was like those classic paintings just kept coming to life—those lean men in battered pushed-back hats on great muscled steeds. One doesn’t expect a TV remake of any film classic to amount to much, but I think the Tom Selleck version of MONTE WALSH, done for TNT in 2003 was excellent.

Jeffrey Leon Bridges played Jack McKee. Jeff is, of course, the son of actor Lloyd Bridges, and the brother of actor Beau Bridges. Jeff has carved out a distinguished career in films. This characterization did not do much to enhance it however. His Jack McKee [by the way, Bridges has played characters named “Jack” in seven of his films] was energetic, loose-limbed, randy and irresponsible. He took full advantage of his boyish charm while laying down a con, or hustling a woman. But the character of Jack never became anyone. Something was missing in the heart of it. When one thinks of the New West, as Hollywood portrayed it—one conjures up images of a Paul Newman and Melvyn Douglas in HUD (1963), or Ben Johnson as Sam the Lion in THE LAST PICTURE SHOW (1971)—or even a John Voight as the hapless Joe Buck in MIDNIGHT COWBOY (1969). Those actors all inhabited characters that were indelibly memorable—that were some one. This is just not the case with Jeff Bridges as Jack McKee.

We do find out that McKee is an unhappy Richie Rich kid, who has fled to Montana to escape his wealthy family, and a failed marriage. There was no real indication as to how long he had been in Montana, or why he chose to go to seed and live off his wits and wiles—slaughtering other people’s livestock to pay the rent, or barter for guns and tools. Bridges just coasted through this part—phoned it in breezily. McKee, the supposed brains in the outfit, would come up with rustling ideas so matter-of-factly that they never seemed fully planned and begged to be poorly realized. It was like watching two very dumb street kids talking about moving up in the world of crime from mere muggings to a sophisticated bank heist.

Jeff Bridges made his film debut in 1951. He appeared as an infant, being cuddled by Jane Greer at a train station in THE COMPANY HE KEEPS. He and Beau both appeared several times on their father’s television series

SEA HUNT. Bridges has made 60 films. He became a bankable star in the 70’s with his THE LAST PICTURE SHOW (1971), FAT CITY (1972), and THE LAST AMERICAN HERO (1973). RANCHO DELUXE was his 12th film. Probably the most cherished thing he retained from the shoot was that he met his future wife, Susan, on the set of the picture. She was a housekeeper. They have remained married since 1975, and have three daughters. During his long career I enjoyed him in CUTTER’S WAY (1981) with the excellent John Heard. He was very well received in STARMAN (1984), and AGAINST ALL ODDS (1984), which was the modern Noir remake of OUT OF THE PAST (1947). Jane Greer, who was in the original with Robert Mitchum, played the mother of her character in ODDS. She and Bridges must have had a few laughs over their “co-starring” roles back in 1951. He was outstanding as the alcoholic Matt Scudder in 8 MILLION WAYS TO DIE (1986), which introduced the dynamic Andy Garcia. I also liked Bridges in Coppola’s TUCKER (1988), THE FABULOUS BAKER BOYS (1989)—filmed in Seattle with his brother Beau, WILD BILL (1995), one of my favorite off-beat westerns, and the recent SEABISCUIT in 2003.

In the last couple of years I have noticed that his speech, his voice seems odd or impaired—not quite natural. My wife postulates that he is becoming deaf. Bridges is an accomplished guitarist, learned to play the piano for BAKER BOYS, and he is quite a good photographer. When asked how he missed the superstardom status of say a Sly Stallone, Burt Reynolds, or even a Bruce Willis, he stated, “As far as the lack of hits goes, I think it is perhaps because I’ve played a lot of different roles, and have not managed to create a “persona” that the public can latch onto.” I consider him a much better actor than any of the aforementioned super stars.

Sam Waterston played the half-breen Cecil Colson—Jack McKee’s Indian companion. Both actors are 6’1” tall, and they potentially were good foils for each other. Waterston found stillness in his character as a counterpoint to Bridges manic escapades. These men were roommates, bedding down their girlfriends in the same bed at the same time—completely accepting of each other—partners in crime, shiftless types looking for the slacker’s solution. But what was the back-story on these young men? Cecil seemed very loyal to Jack, subservient to Jack’s plans and whims—like a Jay Silverheels to his Kemo-Sabie—but why so? Waterston presented us with more depth, more to chew on—a character to remember. In every scene they shared, I felt like Cecil was the one potentially with the stronger will. When did he settle for the role of sycophant? There was just something false about the mix—like watching Charles Bronson pretend to be beaten up by Anthony Quinn in GUNS FOR SAN SEBASTIAN (1968).

Sam Waterston has appeared in 69 films since 1965. RANCHO DELUXE was his 9th film. He worked for Woody Allen several times in films like INTERIORS (1978), and SEPTEMBER (1987). He came to the critic’s attention in 1974, with his role in THE GREAT GATSBY. He and Jeff Bridges were reunited, sort of, at HEAVEN’S GATE (1980). He enjoyed considerable critical success with his role in THE KILLING FIELDS (1984). I really enjoyed him working with John Heard in the esoteric MINDWALK (1990). He has pulled down a steady paycheck as a regular on LAW AND ORDER, the television series, since 1994. You may have noticed that his face keeps popping up in commercials too. He is the sole spokesperson for T.D.Waterhouse.

Bridges and Waterston as Jack & Cecil never did become a Butch and Sundance, and for that matter not even Bonnie and Clyde. We never were allowed to get to know them well enough, or understand their motives enough, to actually care about them. Now the supporting cast was an entirely different kettle of fish. They carried the film.

Elizabeth Ashley played Cora Brown, the almost Cattle Queen of Montana, the much maligned princess of Bovine, and the spouse to blowhard cattle king, John Brown. In her first major scene in RANCHO DELUXE, she put the make on her two ranch hands, Curt and Burt. With her dancing, prancing, preening, and purring she implied that she was the kind of rancher’s wife that liked to ride the cowhands more than the horses. Sadly for the film, Burt and Curt did not respond to her sexy gyrations and overtures—and we never did find out what she did about this situation. For Burt and Curt, was the randy owner’s wife one of the reasons that they were so unhappy out there on the Brown spread? So why didn’t Miss Cora Brown spread her “femaleness” beyond the fences of her ranch, to others? It is just one of the many loose threads of plot, left dangling in the breeze like an unraveling old sweater.

Ms. Ashley was the toast of Broadway in 1962, winning a Tony award for TAKE HER, SHE’S MINE, and a LIFE magazine cover. She has appeared in 54 films since 1964, starting with THE CARPETBAGGERS. I thought she was quite good in SHIP OF FOOLS in 1965. RANCHO was her 14th film. She was married to actor James Farentino from 1962-65. She met actor George Peppard on the set of CARPETBAGGERS. They were married from 1966-1972. She seems to think of herself as a “theatrical” actress, who appears in films in order to finance her forays into legitimate theatre. These truths are self-evident by her body of cinematic work. For over thirty years, her film roles, and her choice of films, have been unremarkable. In 1999 she relocated back to New York City from Los Angeles. She is a smoker, and apparently she left a smoldering butt in a trashcan. It caught fire and the apartment burned down. She lost a lifetime of theatrical and film mementos.

Clifton James played rancher kingpin John Brown-- an interesting choice of name for a fat arrogant capitalist. Yes Brown was a blowhard and a grandstander—and he seemed to buy up every ranch or farm adjacent to him that he could get his hands on—but under the bluster we discovered a real person—not a very likeable person granted, but James was able to find the pulse of this man. Setting himself up as the obese target for the mystery rustlers, and buzzing around in his personal helicopter like a mad horse fly—he presented his buffoon side. But Brown was type-A times three—always at some stock auction or breeder’s show, collecting blue ribbons, and making speeches. He seemed ripe for the cuckolding, and more than ready to be ripped-off. Yet in that fine scene in his ranch house, when he and Cora stood in the living room, staring out at the majestic snow-capped mountains that ringed their immense Rancho, James revealed a glimpse of the inner man—the quiet under the braggadocio. Somehow, he had me caring about Brown and his ridiculous plight.

James has been in 63 movies since 1954. He was raised in NYC, and he was one of the early graduates from the Actor’s Studio School. Ironically, he has built his career on playing characters that were dumb, arrogant, fat Southerners. He is well remembered as Sheriff Pepper going up against Roger Moore as James Bond in LIVE AND LET DIE (1973), with the role reprised in THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN in 1974. He was in DAVID AND LISA in 1962, so he had a long-standing relationship with director Frank Perry. He was good in WILL PENNY (1968), KID BLUE (1973), and THE LAST DETAIL (1973). He was especially good in EIGHT MEN OUT (1988) for director John Sayles. He worked for Sayles again appearing in LONE STAR in 1996.

The incomparable Slim Pickens played the infirmed aged stock detective, Henry Beige. His bent over posture, long neck scarf, and propensity for long and frequent naps, along with his hearty appetite—created quite a characterization. Ranch hand Burt had recommended him for the job, counting on his senility and infirmity. Beige’s subsequent turn-around and cat-and-mouse mentality was not entirely unexpected—but it was well played. His scene where he fussed about being interrupted during his graphic dreams—wondering if he was a lowly house servant standing near the Pharaoh, or was he a true prince of Egypt—was a classic.

Louis Bert Lindley, Jr. began rodeoing at age 12. He didn’t want to use his real name though. The promoter said,” Fine kid, it will be slim pickins out there today anyway.” Junior said,” Yes, that handle will wear just fine.” The promoter spelled the name “Pickens”—and several careers were set into motion for young Louis. He grew up to be a very good bareback bronco rider, saddle bronco rider, rodeo clown, and bullfighter. One of his favorite film roles was as Clete, the rodeo clown, in THE HONKERS (1972), working with James Coburn. I think he should have received more critical notoriety than he did, but that small film was literally buried by two other Rodeo pictures that were also released in 1972—Sam Peckinpah’s JUNIOR BONNER, with Steve McQueen, and Cliff Robertson’s J.W.COOP.

In 1983 Slim Pickens passed away from a brain tumor, right after completing his last film. He was, and remains, sorely missed. He was definitely one of a kind. In his long career he appeared in 111 movies, starting out in an Errol Flynn western, ROCKY MOUNTAIN in 1950—when Pickens was already 31 years old. RANCHO DELUXE was his 67th film. He became Rex Allen’s sidekick in several more westerns in the early 50’s, working in the long tradition of Smiley Burnette, and George “Gabby” Hayes. Pickens’ character name was just “Slim Pickens”. This can be confusing when one does the research. His first big commercial hit was as deputy Lon Derrick in Marlon Brando’s [launched by director Stanley Kubrick, until Brando had him fired] ONE EYED JACKS in 1961. Then he took the film world by storm in 1964, riding that nuclear bomb to its target in DR. STRANGELOVE. Stanley Kubrick, it is said, liked Pickens. He wrote the Caretaker part in the SHINING (1980) for him. Not appreciating Kubrick’s love of multiple takes in the twilight of his career, Pickens turned him down—and the juicy part went to Scatman Crothers. I liked Pickens as the stagecoach driver in the remake of STAGECOACH in 1966, reprising Andy Devine’s role from the original 1939 film, and as the cattle drive cook in WILL PENNY (1968). I was touched by his portrayal of the aging sheriff, married to the plump Katy Jurado in Peckinpah’s PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID (1973). This film also reunited Pickens with James Coburn from THE HONKERS, and both Harry Dean Stanton and Richard Bright from RANCHO DELUXE.

Henry Beige: [digging a bullet out of a dead steer] If I wasn’t so dad-blamed old, I wouldn’t know what this is.

John Brown: What is it?

Beige: It’s a fifty-caliber bullet!

Brown: From what kind of gun?

Beige: A Sharps buffalo rifle! This is getting’ downright romantic!

Henry Beige: Here’s my bill. You can pay it, or use it to wipe the pablum off your chin.

John Brown: I’ll pay it.

Beige: Don’t make me no never mind; I’m just in this for the sport. Sir, I’m going to give you a rule of thumb. You foller it and you just might hold on to this ranch of yours. All large-scale crime is an inside job. Takin’ fingerprints and sendin’ trash off to the lab don’t get her done. If you are dealin’ with people, you gotta be human.

Harry Dean Stanton playing ranch hand Curt was also a spark for this lethargic film. Curt and Burt were considered as book ends—a kind of Twiddledom & Twiddledee—but the comedic possibilities got lost in the shuffle. Stanton played Curt as an easily duped dimwit—a solid mark for the dubious con-woman—Laura Beige. Roger Ebert considers Stanton to be one of America’s finest actors—a national treasure.

Harry Dean Stanton, aka Dean Stanton—not to be confused with an older actor from the 50’s named Harry Stanton—could not use his “full name” until the early 60’s. He has appeared in 103 movies since 1957, and he has logged in over 50 TV episodes on various shows. I remember him in an early COMBAT. He began to be noticed in PORK CHOP HILL (1959), along with a young Bobbie Blake. He was in RIDE THE WHIRLWIND (1965) with Jack Nicholson. He had a good role in COOL HAND LUKE in 1967. He made two fine films in 1973, DILLINGER and PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID. RANCHO DELUXE was his 33rd film. He was again, one of the gang, with Jack Nicholson, being pursued by Marlon Brando in THE MISSOURI BREAKS (1976). He pulled his weight on another crew with Sigourney Weaver in ALIEN (1979). He was bizarre working with Emilio Estevez in the cult classic REPO MAN (1984). I liked him a lot as the drifter in Wim Wenders’ PARIS, TEXAS, also in 1984. He gave an interesting and touching performance as Richard Farnsworth’s brother in THE STRAIGHT STORY (1999).

Few realize that H.D.Stanton is also an accomplished musician. His “Harry Dean Stanton Band” has toured internationally to rave reviews. He plays guitar and sings. They used to be called “The Repo Men”. They play jazz, blues, pop, and Tex-Mex style music. In Hollywood, they often play at “Jack’s Sugar Shack”.

Richard Bright played ranch hand Burt. He seemed only slightly less dim than pal Curt, but somehow less gullible. So it had to left up to Stanton’s Curt to “fall in love” with the scheming Laura, and to spill the beans about their upcoming “big job”. He wanted to impress her and calm her down.

Bright has played more than his share of cops and hoodlums. He is a bit baby-faced, so it was a surprise to find that he has appeared in 62 films since 1959. RANCHO DELUXE was his 11th film. He had a prominent part in THE GODFATHER (1972), and his character reappeared in both Part II (1974), and Part III in 1990. His first big role was as Al Pacino’s brother in PANIC IN NEEDLE PARK (1971). I remember him in RED HEAT (1988). He has logged 22 TV series episodes as well. For a time he was on THE SOPRANOS in 2002. Charlene Dallas played the lovely but shifty Laura Beige. She has only appeared in 4 films, and RANCHO DELUXE was her second. Patti D’Arbanville was Betty Fargo, and Maggie Wellman was Mary Fargo. They provided the skin shots and the love interests in a very spirited manner.

I enjoyed those scenes with veteran character actor Joe Spinell playing Cecil’s Indian father, Mr. Colson. It was nice to see him in a role where he wasn’t psychotic, or insane, or ripping someone off. He had a very funny speech while fishing with Cecil. He knew that his son was up to no good, but he was determined to enjoy his son’s gift to him—that new fishing boat.

Mr. Colson: I’ve seen more of this state’s poor cowboys, miners, railroaders and Indians go broke buyin’ pickup trucks. The poor people of this state are dope fiends for pickup trucks. As soon as they get ten cents ahead they trade in on a new pickup truck. The families, homesteads, schools, hospitals and happiness of Montana have been sold down the river to buy goddamn pickup trucks! And there is a sickness here worse than alcohol and dope. It is the pickup truck death! And there is no cure in sight.

The plot of this film circled back on itself like a confused snake swallowing its own tail. The small time rustling that Jack and Cecil were doing initially, just to pay the rent and barter for necessities—would probably have been “tolerated”. But then they became more daring—more seemingly desperate to foil John Brown—and make some “real” money. But it just seemed that it was like they wanted to get caught. They approached Brown directly at that stock auction, and questioned him about his prize bull. So when the bull came up missing—who would have been the natural suspects? When the ransom for the bull was paid, dropped in a remote area by the ranch chopper—why didn’t John Brown have riders hidden to apprehend them? When Curt and Burt approached Jack and Cecil in that bar, and flat-out accused them of the local rustling—why didn’t they just deny it? Why were they talked so easily into the big-time rustling of a whole herd of Brown’s cattle? And it all became supremely silly when old Henry Beige, in the time it took for the boys to load up the herd, set up a town barbecue, with police escort, right across the only exit road that Jack and Cecil would have to roll down in the semi-truck and trailer, loaded down with bawling and stolen steers.

Modern West as comedy is a tricky ploy. When I first saw RANCHO DELUXE, it reminded me of another modern western “comedy”—POCKET MONEY (1972), with Paul Newman and Lee Marvin. That film too, though billed as a laugh riot, turned out to be lethargic, implausible, and down right boring—stillborn and certainly not “funny”.

Roger Ebert did not like RANCHO DELUXE. He rated it at 1.5 stars. He wrote,” There is nothing as hapless as movie made in the wrong style. Did Frank Perry intend the film to be a comedy? If so, then why are there no laughs in it? McGuane’s script has no real humor in it.” I agree. Even John Brown’s prize bull being left alone in that apartment, as it crashed about breaking furniture, being mistaken for some playful honeymooners—was not all that funny. Ebert wrote further,” I don’t know where this film went so disastrously wrong, but it did—and the story must be a sad one.”

Some critics, of course, praised it. One wrote,” It is an easy going and sexy comedy where nobody gets hurt except for a few steers.” Another scribed,” In the New West, things are not as simple as the good guys against the bad guys. It is like the new “money” meets the old West. Director Frank Perry stages a pleasant comeback with this comedy, after his mediocre MAN ON A SWING (1973).” Another wrote,” Working from a witty script by Thomas McGuane, one of America’s brightest young writers, Perry has come up with a funny movie, that is rich in characterization and mildly satirical.”

I was disappointed in this film. I was disappointed when I viewed it in a theater in 1975. I was even more disappointed after I watched it recently. I suspect that there may be a better movie lost in the mush of it somewhere—a dark dramedy, not a confused comedy. Each time I see it again, I dearly hope that it will get better. It never does.

I gave this movie a rating of 2.5 stars
Glenn A. Buttkus (2005)