Tuesday, May 25, 2021

#2,573. Posse (1975) - The Films of Kirk Douglas


Quentin Tarantino is a fan of Kirk Douglas’ 1975 western Posse, so much so that he hosted a special screening of it at the 2010 Santa Barbara Film Festival, then followed it up with a live Q & A with Douglas himself. Though he seemed more interested in complimenting the director’s own recent film, Inglorurious Basterds, Douglas did have a few things to say about Posse, which is every bit as awesome as Tarantino says.

Howard Nightengale (Douglas), a federal Marshal, is running for State Senator. To impress the voters, he assembles a specially-trained posse and vows to bring notorious outlaw Jack Strawhorn (Bruce Dern) to justice.

Nightengale eventually gets his man, and is treated like a conquering hero when he marches Strawhorn into a nearby town. But Strawhorn has no intention of remaining a prisoner for long, and concocts a plan that will not only help him escape, but ruin Nightengale’s chances of ever making it to Washington D.C.

During the 2010 Q & A, Tarantino called Posse an “actor’s film”, and it is definitely that. There’s action, of course; the opening shoot-out, a late-night ambush where Nightengale and his posse kill Strawhorn’s men (and in the process burn $40,000 in stolen cash) is damned exciting, one of several such sequences in the film. The final act, set on a burning train traveling in reverse, is especially thrilling. Yet the best scenes in Posse are those in which Nightengale and Strawhorn verbally square off. Their one-on-one in the jail cell is a definite highlight).

Dern, who at this point in his career had already portrayed his share of western villains (Will Penny, The Cowboys), plays a train robber and killer in Posse, yet we get the distinct impression throughout that his Strawhorn is, at all times, the smartest guy in the room. His mind is always spinning, searching for a way out of his dire predicament while at the same time concealing his plot from the watchful eyes of his captors.

Douglas’s character is equally as intelligent, but with a much different agenda. His Nightengale wants only to be elected, and every word he utters is geared in that direction. He even turns down the amorous advances of hotel manager Mrs. Ross (Beth Brickell), saying he’d much rather have her vote.

Equally suspect are the men who make up Nightengale’s posse. Wesley (Bo Hopkins) even seduces a married woman (Katherine Woodville) while her husband sits on the dias, listening to Nightengale’s speech. Howard Nightengale and his men are on the side of the law, but they are not heroic men. Strawhorn, watching through the window of a second-floor jail cell that overlooks the town, recognizes this. In the end, he even uses their shortcomings to his advantage, setting up a finale that will surprise the hell out of you.

This was the second and final film that Kirk Douglas ever directed (his first was 1973’s Scalawag), and to see it is to wonder why he didn’t take the director’s chair more often. Clearly, he had a knack for recognizing quality stories, and Posse tells a great one.
Rating: 9 out of 10

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