Thursday, December 10, 2015

#1,942. Oklahoma Crude (1973)

Directed By: Stanley Kramer

Starring: George C. Scott, Faye Dunaway, John Mills

Tag line: "A wild raunchy rip-roaring yarn!"

Trivia: For his work in this movie, Stanley Kramer won the Golden Prize for Direction at the 8th Moscow International Film Festival in 1973

Stanley Kramer certainly wasn’t the most prolific director of his era (his television work aside, he helmed only 15 movies between 1955 and 1979), but the ones he did turn out have stood the test of time, and included "big" pictures (Judgment at Nuremberg, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World), intimate dramas (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?) and some that fell in-between (Inherit the Wind). Oklahoma Crude, his 1973 film about the oil business in the early days of the 20th century, fits neatly into the “somewhere in-between” camp: a big-budget western that’s also an effective character study, focusing on three mismatched individuals doing their damnedest to survive.

The year is 1913, and Lena Doyle (Faye Dunaway) is one of the few people in Oklahoma still operating her own oil derrick. Convinced that the big oil companies will eventually pressure her into selling, her estranged father Cleon (John Mills) offers to help out. But Lena isn’t the trusting type, so she tells dear old dad to go to hell. Not willing to sit back and watch his only daughter get pushed around by the conglomerates, Cleon uses his own money to hire a vagrant named Mase (George C. Scott), paying him $0.75 a day to work for Lena and keep an eye on her. Though hesitant at first, Lena agrees to take Mase on, forcing him to perform menial tasks (like washing dishes and stringing a barbed-wire fence) while she and her Native American assistant Jimmy (Rafael Campos) manage the derrick.

Then, one night, just as Cleon predicted, Pan Oklahoma, the biggest oil company in the state, sends former army officer Hellman (Jack Palance) to negotiate a deal to buy Lena’s land (not a subtle man, Hellman has his associates drag Lena from her bed while holding a gun on both Mase and Jimmy). After taking her to an undisclosed location, Hellman presents the offer to Lena: $5,000 for her land (including the derrick), plus 10% of the profits (if any). Naturally, the stubborn Lena turns him down… and pays a heavy price for doing so. Realizing she can’t beat Pan Oklahoma on her own, Lena reluctantly teams up with both Mase and Cleon, knowing full well she’s fighting an uphill battle to hold onto what’s rightfully hers.

With its sprawling panoramas, shot by award-winning cinematographer Robert Surtees (Ben-Hur, The Graduate, The Sting), and Henry Mancini’s impressive score, Oklahoma Crude does, at times, feel like a Hollywood-style epic. But it also has a cast that features four Oscar-winners: George C. Scott (Patton), Faye Dunaway (Network), John Mills (Ryan’s Daughter) and Jack Palance (City Slickers), who, with the help of Marc Norman’s fine script, ensure that the focus is never taken off the characters. Scott (as the shifty Mase, whose loyalties are sometimes in doubt), Dunaway (as the stern, stone-faced Lena) and Mills (whose Cleon is arguably the most sincere of the bunch) are superb as the trio standing against big business, but it’s Jack Palance who delivers the film’s best performance. Few actors could play a prick as well as Palance, and his Col. Hellman is a true bastard (when Lena first refuses the offer from Pan Oklahoma, he has his thugs drag her outside and beat her with clubs), yet whenever he’s on-screen, you can’t take your eyes off of him.

A drama / western that also has its share of action and comedy (during a particularly violent showdown between our heroes and Hellman’s men, one poor guy, running bare-naked, gets shot in the ass), Oklahoma Crude is a tense, moving, and very entertaining motion picture.

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