Monday 3 October 2011

Movie Review: Pale Rider (1985)

A western that combines elements of the traditional and spaghetti forms of the genre, Pale Rider is a gratifying movie that builds to an enthralling climax, mixing along the way a perfect balance of grit and haunting otherworldliness.

After completing the Dollars trilogy (A Fistful Of Dollars, For A Few Dollars More and The Good, The Bad And The Ugly), and early in his North American film career, Eastwood teamed up with director Ted Post for Hang'Em High (1968), and directed himself in High Plains Drifter (1973). Both were valiant but flawed attempts to bring Sergio Leone's unique brand of unhinged mysticism into mainstream productions. In Pale Rider Clint Eastwood finally succeeds in importing the Man With No Name mythology to an American film.

Hull Barret (Michael Moriarty), his companion Sarah Wheeler (Carrie Snodgress) and her daughter Megan (Sydney Penny) are part of small peaceful community mining for gold along a river bank. They lawfully own the mining rights, but rich business man Coy LaHood (Richard Dysart) owns everything else in the area, including the town and the law, and wants his hands on Barret's land. LaHood's mass-scale land exploitation includes the devastating use of hydraulic mining that causes widespread permanent damage to the landscape.

Lahood's son Josh (Christopher Penn) is in charge of forcing Barret to abandon the land, and uses increasingly thuggish tactics, including deploying the brute Club (Richard Kiel) to intimidate the miners. Megan says a prayer, appealing for God's help, and soon the mysterious Preacher (Clint Eastwood) appears. With his unlikely expertise with the fist and the gun, The Preacher soon tilts the balance in favour of Barret, forcing Lahood to change tactics and call on the services of the vicious Marshal Stockburn (John Russell) and his six deputies to eliminate The Preacher and the miners once and for all.

The stranger who rides in to help a child's struggling community (Shane); the peaceful locals up against heavily armed assailants (The Magnificent Seven); and most tellingly, the man with a mysterious past and a score to settle taking on the powerful business interests (Once Upon A Time In The West). In lesser hands Pale Rider could have been an unbalanced disaster trying to combine diverse Western foundation rocks. But Eastwood taps into the rich heritage of the genre coursing through his veins and delivers with bravado, assembling all the pieces of the puzzle into a perfect fit. The Preacher may have no name in Pale Rider, but to fans of classic westerns, he is as familiar as a lifelong friend.

The film does have some weaknesses, most notably the generally forgettable music score, and a supporting cast that offers a limited counterbalance to The Preacher. The relatively young Christopher Penn buckles under the pressure of having to carry most of the load opposing Eastwood, Richard Kiel cannot get past his caricaturish Jaws persona from the James Bond films, Richard Dysart is not infused with enough menace to threaten on his own, and it is late in the game before John Russell as the corrupt Marshal Stockburn arrives with his six deputies. The Stockburn seven, as imposing as any evil presence offered up in Western movie history, finally present an interesting foe for The Preacher.

Better contributions are delivered by the actors calling on The Preacher's help. Michael Moriarty is an appropriately bland but determined Hull Barret, representing the men who quietly built the west without dominating it. Carrie Snodgress has the marks of many struggles and disappointments reflected in her eyes, and her Sarah Wheeler is a salute to the women who had the resolve to support their men's quest for survival in a hostile world. And finally Sydney Penny shines as Megan, a girl growing rapidly into a woman and barely able to control the emotional turmoil that arrives with the transformation.
Pale Rider seals its triumph with an abundance of style, some emphatic framing and dominating cinematography courtesy of Bruce Surtees, an unforgettable final confrontation, and Eastwood's sheer epic presence. Pale Rider not only pays homage to some of the best Westerns, it proudly joins them on the list of classics of the genre.

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