by Ken B.
Note: This movie was suggested for review by the winner of an Oscar prediction contest that I hosted earlier this year.
I mean, I can’t in good conscience call Catlow an awful movie – it’s a western with a solid cast, pretty cinematography, and a score that calls back the classics of its genre, but at the same time, it’s hard to excuse the meandering script and the soft-thudding aim. I have given it two stars for the pure reason that such a classification is smack in the middle of my rating system. This is a film that has left no impression on me whatsoever. Perhaps the problem lies in my longstanding apathy in the western as a genre, or maybe the movie’s frustrating range between action and comedy, with a seeming fear to fully tip into one or the other. Whatever it is, the only fact I can assuredly say about my opinion is that I couldn’t really care less.
The movie stars Yul Brynner as a Southwestern outlaw known as Catlow, in the years just after the Civil War. The only reason that he’s still up and about, instead of rotting in jail, is his connection to a marshal named Ben Cowan (Richard Crenna). Catlow seems to have built a life on catching a lucky break, but his latest heist seems to be tempting fate itself – an attempt to pull of a $2 million gold heist when avoiding the clutches of the law, Mexicans and Native Americans chasing after him endlessly, and an assassin (Leonard Nimoy) who’s watching his every move. There’s a lot of plot going on here, you see.
Catlow is a strange picture, there’s no doubt. It’s more self-aware than many a melodramatic western, but not to the point where it’s fully enjoyable on its own merits – although there are some odd sights to be seen. Have you, for example, ever seen Richard Crenna fight a naked Leonard Nimoy? Unless you’ve seen this film, I’ll bet the answer is no. As the movie was released in 1971, you can definitely sense a tone of evaluation over all its 101 minutes that is very much at home in something made in the late ‘60s or early ‘70s. (As you no doubt know, indirect elements of a piece of pop culture often serve as dead giveaways to when they were made, such as… everything about this music video from 2000.)
But back to talking about this movie. Brynner and Crenna have fun chemistry, and Nimoy’s stone-faced killer role is effective, if small. What a shame that now all three of these storied actors have left us. Director Sam Wanamaker, if nothing else, does a credible job at blending his talent together. Behind the camera, cinematographer Ted Scaife frames gorgeous vistas and exteriors, a requisite for this genre, and a score composed by Roy Budd gives playful nods to the western’s traditional orchestrations while carving out its own rhythms and motifs. It’s just the screenplay that drags everything the most – moments of classical standoffs are combined with borderline-slapstick comedy, and the mix, while far from intrinsically flawed, isn’t bold enough in either respect to feel like a true genre mash-up. And since a script is one of the most vital aspects of any dramatic production, its shortcomings are only magnified even more drastically.
It’s hard to drum up enthusiasm in one camp or another regarding Catlow. It’s shot splendidly, but it otherwise has the general visual feel of something that could have premiered on lower-priority TV. The main cast is really good, but the writing doesn’t give them much to do. As a result, it’s unsurprising that this film has been largely forgotten over the decades, despite the big names on the poster. Seemingly destined to a legacy where it is almost exclusively part of a DVD boxset for an exponentially larger collection, Catlow is decent entertainment yet instantly forgettable. It comes, it plays, and it exits. For many movies, cheap, disposable watchability is a desirable target, and there are definitely instances where we want nothing more, so holding something like that up to a mirror of basic comprehension doesn’t do it any favors. Case in point…