Monte Walsh and Chet Rollins (Lee Marvin and Jack Palance) are two cowboys in an era where their kind is becoming extinct. After a hard winter in the mountains, they discover that most of the ranches they knew have vanished, the land being bought up by Eastern corporations. They find work on the ranch once owned by Jim Davis, though he now answers to accountants back East. And though life, at first, seems all right, bit by bit they witness the end of their era, as a way of life dies, and the men who lived it are pushed to suicide, desperation, robbery and worse.
There were numerous “death of the west” movies in the late 1960s and early 1970s, films whose subjects also reflected the fact that the Western itself, as a genre, was entering a near-terminal decline from which it has never fully recovered (these days, if one Western per year comes out, that’s doing pretty well, and yet there was a time when there were more Westerns pumped out than any other genre). Unlike the blaze of glory tales of Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch being the best example), Monte Walsh is more of a tone poem. There is very little plot. We watch a few seasons in Monte’s life, see him at work and play, see the tentative romance between him and prostitute Jeanne Moreau, see his sadness over a vanishing world and disappearing friends. Then, an almost subterranean thread involving the increasingly desperate straights of Mitch Ryan rises to the foreground in the final act as tragedy descends.
There are many things the film does right. Veteran heavy Palance is cast as a good guy (in fact, as the cowboy most likely to adapt to the changing times), and he’s terrific (as is Marvin, for that matter). And the movie’s slow dance of despair is genuinely moving. But the Mama Cass song that belts out over the opening and closing credits, as well as partway through the movie, is a bit of a mood-breaker, the symbolism is often a bit on the heavy-handed side, and the film doesn’t quite follow its tragic logic all the way through to the end. Even so, this is a moody, thought-provoking Western, well worth spending an evening with.
The first thing to strike one about the picture is that… it is isn’t very striking. The colours are naturalistic, but a little muted; the image is good, but a little soft; the grain is mostly not an issue, but there are a couple of very grainy shots (and the TV trailer looks utterly awful); and there is some edge enhancement visible now and then. There were also a couple of moments where the picture skipped on my disc. About 87 minutes in, there is some flicker on the right side of the frame. None of these are crippling flaws, though, and the 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen aspect ratio is preserved. For an idea of just how drastic a butchery a full frame version would be, have another look at the trailer, and witness how compositions are ruined, and a single shot is cut into two.
The mono is warm and clear. It isn’t entirely free of distortion, but moments of buzz are rare. The sound is, if anything, a little too clear – the post-sychronization is pretty obvious at times. This isn’t because the characters sound dubbed, but because the sounds detach themselves a bit from their environment. All of which doesn’t really feel like a problem with the transfer itself, so much as it is a factor of the original film.
TV Trailer. Which, as suggested above, looks like it’s been dragged over a gravel road.
Don’t let the case fool you into thinking this is an action-packed adventure, because it surely is not. But it is a very nice Western, all the same.