Monday, July 20, 2009

"The Grey Fox"

[Note: When this feature premiered here some weeks back, it was under the title "Not on DVD". As several readers were thoughtful enough to point out, this was not technically accurate, because there isn't anything that you can't find in some version on DVD provided you have access to an all-region player, live at one of the far corners of the earth, and know a guy what knows a guy. Since then, researchers in the Screengrab test labs have labored to come up with a title for this feature that will be both honestly descriptive and pithy. As you can see, they failed. But you get the idea, right?]

The release of Wolverine has inspired a number of reviews and even studies of the Marvel Comics character written by people who could not resist the temptation to make light of the seemingly incongruous fact that this superheroic berserker figure is supposed to be Canadian, and therefore a product of what is widely, if unfairly, stereotyped as the dullest, most mild-mannered, phlegmatic society on Earth. It's true that Wolverine himself found life in the Great White North so unexciting that he ran off and got involved in the American Civil War. But at least one glamorous American antihero found the Canadian climate perfectly to his liking when he set about disproving F. Scott Fitzgerald's notorious line about there being no second acts in American lives. This was Bill Miner, the famously charming "gentleman bandit" who, in the course of making a name for himself as a stagecoach robber, is credited with having invented the pithy and hard-to-misconstrue phrase, "Hands up!" Miner is played by the 61-year-old Richard Farnsworth in The Grey Fox, which opens with our hero's release from prison. At first it appears that changing times have rendered him an honest man whether he likes it or not: the jail doors swing open to usher him into a post-stagecoach universe. For a time, he attempts to adjust to the practice of honest labor, with dispiriting results. Then he finds out about these neat things called trains.

It's the conceit of The Grey Fox, which was written by John Hunter and marked the feature directing debut of the twenty-seven-year-old Phillip Borsos, that Miner was inspired to start holding up trains after seeing a movie, the famous, early silent Western The Great Train Robbery (1903). (This is a fanciful bit of conjecture, and in fact, the botched Silverdale train robbery credited to him here is a matter of dispute among some historians; some don't think Miner was involved, and some disagree with the contention that it was Canada's first train robbery. That said, we don't cotton to spoilsports here at the Screengrab.) Shot by Frank Tidy, The Grey Fox has a beautiful look that ties in with its awareness of the movie past, and also with the West that was preserved in early photography. Most self-consciously arty Westerns of the past forty to fifty years--the period since the Western has been officially considered all but dead--are doomy, blood soaked affairs that look as if they were staged in the world's largest mud puddle and shot in natural light during a solar eclipse. The Grey Fox is steeped in a quality almost unknown to art Westerns: charm.

Farnsworth deserves much of the credit for this. He broke into movies in 1937 thanks to his skill with horses, and did stunt work and bit parts in scores of Westerns and other films (including Red River, Gunga Din, Gone with the Wind and Spartacus before he began to get speaking parts in the 1960s. He was still doing stunt work into the mid-1970s, before getting a major break as a past-his-prime cowpoke in Comes a Horseman (1978), for which he got an Academy Award nomination. That led to a run of steady work until his death in 2000, but The Grey Fox is your one chance to see the man having a fling at playing a romantic lead. His amused pleasure at the unlikeliness of it all is contagious, and he's perfectly believable both as a relic from an earlier time and a man so naturally courtly that you'd be hard put to remain sore at him for a little thing like robbing you at gunpoint. (Farnsworth's "natural" acting style--the manner of a man who picked it up over the course of forty-five years in front of the camera--sets him apart from the other trained actors in the cast in a way that passes for the self-contained oddness of a man who sat out the turn of the century in a four-by-five cell.) He even gets a girlfriend, in the form of Jackie Burroughs as a proto-feminist who herself is a practitioner of the new art of photography. There's a nicely underplayed in-joke when she admires the planes of his face and tells him that he'd photograph well.

The year before he died, Farnsworth had one other major starring role, in David Lynch's The Straight Story, for which the actor reeled in one more Oscar nomination. Phillip Borsos was not so lucky; though he burst out of the gate early, he was never able to follow up The Grey Fox with a comparable success. His eye stayed good, but his subsequent Hollywood films, The Mean Season and One Magic Christmas, were blighted by ill-conceived scripts and some questionable strokes of casting (such as Harry Dean Stanton as a guardian angel), and his Canadian biopic, Bethune: The Making of a Hero, was reportedly a fiasco. He died of leukemia, at the age of 41, in 1995, the same year as the release of his final film, Far from Home: The Adventures of Yellow Dog. Given the acclaim lavished on his first and best feature and the pleasure it's given people over the years, its absence from American DVD shelves doesn't make a hell of a lot of sense. Here's hoping that somebody busts it out of distribution limbo before the century turns again.

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