BluRay/DVD Reviews

BILLY TWO HATS

By • Mar 21st, 2011 •

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From the MGM Archives, and from Israel, comes this sweet and original little Western that I avoided seeing all my adult life because of its title, and also because of the casting of Desi Arnaz Jr. What I envisioned was a situation similar to RIO BRAVO (Ricky Nelson), THE ALAMO (Frankie Avalon), etc., big projects diminished somewhat by the demographic casting of singing teens to fill in the seats abandoned by John Wayne’s elder followers who were now staying home and watching TV.

What drew me to finally catch up with the film was the presence of Sian Barbara Allen, a soulful actress of the period with whom I had engaged in a great interview for my ’70s radio show, and then shortly afterward made an utter fool of myself regarding her, which I’ve regretted periodically for the last thirty-five years.

During the interview she told me that she had done a brief nude scene for the European version, and I was hoping that MGM had gotten their negatives mixed up, as occasionally happens when the studios release older library titles (WHEN DINOSAURS RULED THE EARTH being the most delicious example). Not having seen the film when it was originally in theaters, I don’t know which version I have here. Ms. Allen does do nudity, but she’s up to her waist in a lake, and it’s shot from behind – in other words outside of seeing her back it’s entirely left to the imagination.

But I’m still glad I caught it, because not only is Arnaz quite good in his role as a half-breed, but the whole tone of the film is a moody delight. There isn’t an abundance of dialogue, there are only a dozen actors in the entire film, and the real leading performance is given by the mise-en-scene, though Peck is engaging, and Allen stutters like King George VI and still manages to be sexy and appealing.

The screenplay, by Scotsman Alan (ULZANA’S RAID, ROB ROY) Sharp, is quirky and avoids all the generic clichés, though asking Gregory Peck to deliver his lines with a Scottish brogue was asking a lot. Much of the dialogue is charming (particularly from David Huddleston), though it hits neither the idiocyncratic heights of TRUE GRIT’s Western-Speak, nor the depths of the Chaucerian-Western cable series DEADWOOD, neither of which, by the way, struck me as being accurate to the times, however colorful and poetic they were written. Also, perhaps lurking in the screenplay’s subterranean tunnels, there awaits for the finding what our beloved film reviewer Victoria Alexander would label a homoerotic subtext between Peck and Arnaz, which is as touching as it is interesting. Peck lays it off on a biblical quotation, but then we all know nowadays about religion and homoeroticism…

The film is directed by Canadian Ted (FIRST BLOOD, LAW & ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT) Kotcheff, and co-produced by Canadian Norman (THE CINCINNATI KID, FIDDLER ON THE ROOF) Jewison. I don’t know the back story of why they filmed in Israel, but while it ain’t Monument Valley, it is often picturesque in ways we’re not used to in American-grown Westerns.

The transfer is good. There is softness at times, but I suspect it was shot with filtration, and DVDs have problems with some kinds of filters. The quality is fine enough not to squelch any enjoyment levels. I would take a chance on this one if I were you. It’s a pleasant surprise.

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