BluRay/DVD Reviews

BEHOLD A PALE HORSE

By • Feb 22nd, 2005 •

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Columbia Pictures, 1964.
121 mins / 1.85:1 Aspect Ratio / B&W

Columbia/TriStar has several hundred films left in its library, some of great stature. Why this one?

Not that I’m carping. I saw this at the right time, right in the middle of my college career, and it made a strong impression on me. I saw its flaws for what they were – acting that was occasionally too high-decibel considering the documentary tone of the piece, character arc moments that didn’t seem justified (Peck calling himself a coward, which comes out of nowhere, and follows what appears to be other dialogue scenes which had been clumsily edited out), and of course, Maurice Jarre’s jarring score. But, balanced against that, the darkness of the black and white cinematography, the sullen anti-heroic nature of the protagonist, the odd twists in the narrative structure during act two, and the beautifully wrought third act, more than compensated for the film’s flaws.

Today, looking back on Zinneman’s career, one can see connections to his other work (HIGH NOON most definitely), but probably PALE HORSE should be paired with his more successful work, THE DAY OF THE JACKAL, also about an assassin on a last mission. Formerly I would have paired JACKAL with its Bruce Willis/Richard Gere/Matilda May remake, but this double-bill supercedes that one.

BEHOLD A PALE HORSE concerns Manuel Artiguez (Peck), a former resistance fighter during the Spanish Civil War, now wallowing in malaise after twenty years of exile in a French town across the Pyrenees. Hoping to lure him back to his death is Vinolas (Quinn) a civil commander who, never entirely clear to my satisfaction, is himself tortured by the spectre of the lone wolf assassin out there lurking. And then there is the priest (Sharif), who is asked by Artiguez’s dying mother (Mildred Dunnock in an excellent brief turn) to alert her son before he walks into a trap.

What I didn’t see in ’64 was a case of miscasting, possibly the weakest link in this meticulous web. Anthony Quinn, who never convinces us of his character’s character, would have been a perfect fit for Peck’s role. Peck has moments, some truly affecting, but he’s a disconcerting reach just in terms of casting. Were they purposely going against type, or did the studio insist on star power for such a dour, B&W story?

Omar Sharif, in his only B&W film, looks striking in another weak, emotionally-torn ZHIVAGO-type role, fulfilled as part of the miserable multi-picture deal he was hoodwinked into by Sam Spiegel for LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (making it easy, I’m sure, to appear emotionally torn). His scenes in Artiguez’s tawdry apartment are key to exploring Peck’s soul. They are admirably adapted from Emeric Pressburger’s novel so as not to hit the nail on the head, but on the other hand, I never quite felt Peck’s soul rescued by his encounter with the priest.

About Jarre’s score, again, I can only wonder. His solutions to the low energy of the narrative was to complicate the tempo with off key resonances and here, as in a number of other films from the 60’s, the approach is more distracting then mood-enhancing. But was it his decision, or the studios, to pump up the film’s pace (kind of like Elmer Bernstein upping the tempo for THE SONS OF KATIE ELDER, John Wayne’s first film after cancer surgery, so that the actor’s painful walking of his horse appeared to be closer to a canter)?

This is a bare bones DVD release. Too bad, because the featurette that ran the weeks before the film opened was quite revealing about Zinneman’s style. I remember the narrator explaining, over a shot of Peck moving down a slick night street, and blowing out a puff of smoke before rounding the corner (1:48:27), that this was Zinneman’s exclamation point on the shot. That one example influenced me more than a year of NYU Film School three years later.

The cinematography is the highlight of the film, and the quality of the transfer is generally pristine. However, there is some fluctuation of light in the first ten minutes of the film coming from somewhere – camera, negative deterioration, the transfer…?, and there is an annoying line for a short time, down the middle of the screen, as Artiguez stealthily creeps up on a victim on a rooftop.


Cast:
Gregory Peck
Anthony Quinn
Omar Sharif
Mildred Dunnock
Marietto Angeletti.

Crew:
Directed by Fred Zinneman.
From the Book by Emeric Pressburger.
Production Designed by Alexander Trauner.

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