Wednesday, May 12, 2010

1973: The Year of the Joe Don

The Chinese Zodiac chart says that 1973 was the Year of the Buffalo.

But the Americana Genre Fan Zodiac chart has 1973 possibly as the year of Joe Don Baker.

Per my usual, I was informed of quite a few films this week that I of course had not seen. I had asked Will of The Gentlemen's Guide podcast what Joe Don Baker films I should check out. Samurai and Will as well as a few callers over the months have mentioned him, and I just wasn't sure who he was.

Sure, I could have just looked him up, but I'm a lazy bastard, remember?

If you don't recognize his name by now, you will probably recognize his face.

See what I mean?

Anyway, to beef up on Mr. Baker before he started cashing some turd-soaked paychecks by the mid-1980s (Leonard Part 6... Dukes of Hazzard remake... Joe Dirt...), I was recommended a handful of films he was in, all of which happened to fall in 1973. So it was triple feature time!

I call it the year of Joe Don because this was certainly his time to shine. The starring role he is probably most remembered for is Walking Tall. He played alongside a guy you might recognize... Mr. Robert Duvall... in what seems to be a somewhat forgotten film The Outfit. And then there is an Anton Chigurh type character opposite another guy that looked rather familiar... I think his name was Walter Matthau or something like that... in Charley Varrick.

Baker was quite the busy fellow around this time, and it really seems like he was hitting on all cylinders in this great year of '73

Walking Tall, directed by Phil Karlson, was a film I knew about for years, but obviously never got around to watching or even looking into all that much. I knew the general story from having a lukewarm interest in the 2004 remake with the same name. I never saw that film either, but it did catch my eye because I was (and still am I suppose) quite the Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson fan.

This film happened at the end of Karlson's career as a director and second-unit director. He would direct Baker once more in a movie called Framed (which I haven't seen of course) before hanging up the directing boots for good.

Walking Tall is presented pretty straightforwardly. Karlson doesn't seem to show any flourishes or anything like that as we get a point A to pont B to point C Hollywoodified account of Sheriff Buford Pusser's life upon returning to his small hometown after an extended stay away. While nothing really stood out in regards to the visual style and direction of the film, I did think that Karlson's deliberate pacing along with the runtime of the film coming in just a little over 2 hours had some parts feeling superfluous. There's a handful of times that I just felt that a scene could have been cut down or cut out and it would have had everything feeling crispier and pacier. Is pacier a word?

The strength of the film lies in the subject matter and the performance of Baker. The story is the easy part because not many men lead the life of Buford Pusser. Single-handedly taking on The State-Line Mob and the Dixie Mafia along the border of Tennessee and Mississippi, Pusser was harassed, threatened, and even shot multiple times in his tenure as sheriff of McNairy County, TN. This man's personal quest was ripe for the picking in regards to books, movies, etc. I encourage anyone to read more about Pusser's short life. Doc Zom (check out his pro wrasslin blog at has recommended a book called The State Line Mob for a gritty account of the illegal activities of the group and Pusser's dealings with them.

And the other strength, Baker's performance, is a biggie. This is a star-making type role and Joe Don was most definitely up to the challenge. His performance has great range as we see him shine in quiet/down moments such as outwitting a belligerent judge in a public restroom to painful scenes like getting his ass whipped, shot, etc., to dishing out some hurt of his own with a very convincing yet controlled rage.

This was a fantastic way to really see Joe Don Baker in a strong role for the first time.

Buford Pusser, aptly nicknamed The Bull when he was a professional wrestler, was portrayed here as stubborn and very determined. Nothing was going to stop him from continuing his "quest for justice" so to speak. Pusser had his ideals and no matter what shit and grime and terror was thrown his way just kept on his path. It makes for a great story, a solid movie, and served as a wonderful gateway for an underrated actor to really shine.

Score: 7.75 / 10

Next in my triple feature I checked out a much harder to find film directed by John Flynn,  The Outfit, which found Joe Don teaming up with Robert Duvall as a couple guys performing a series of heists  to in essence get revenge on The Outfit, that has killed Earl's (Duvall) brother and has their sights set on him. Earl recruits Cody (Baker) after learning of everything as we swing into motion.

As with Walking Tall, I felt like this was a solid, fun movie. I can now say I am a fan of Joe Don Baker after seeing these three films rapid fire, and I have been a Robert Duvall fan for a long time. I really like the team up of these two because in ways I feel like they are similar actors. I'm not sure their style is super similar, but both of them give me a similar feeling... they can both be serious badasses when the time is right (with Joe Don being a little louder in these times) but damn if I don't wanna just hug both of these guys.

Duvall's Earl certainly has a serious and even violent streak, but like many of his characters, he has a very cool approach to it all. He doesn't lose his temper but will shoot a bastard through the hand in front of a group of people that would surely see him killed if possible. Maybe it's my bias speaking, but Duvall is just great as usual here. What he does, he does right by me.

Baker here doesn't really have the outward acting as I mentioned, but plays it pretty cool similar to Duvall's character. He seems to be a simple guy with plain-as-day assessments of the shit that is going down, and he does what he does because that is what he knows how to do best. You get the hints (and some not so thinly veiled) throughout the film that he is ready to finally give the heist life up and settle down somewhere quiet, similar to his character from Walking Tall. Where Earl is driven and has a personal stake in everything going to plan, Cody does it out of loyalty to his friend and probably still the enjoyment he has inside when a heist/hold up goes according to plan.

In fact, some of my favorite scenes in the film were the down moments when Earl and Cody would just talk about future plans or whatever. The two interacted very well with one another... sometimes having simple yet interesting conversations without even making eye contact.

One scene in particular near the middle point of the film had Earl and Cody driving along while lady friend Bett (played by the lovely Karen Black) slept in the back seat. Cody talks about his diner in northern Oregon and how well he can fry an egg while Earl smokes and chuckles and listens. It's just a really cool moment for me for whatever reason.

It's a shame that this film is not on DVD... it deserves better treatment than it has received. There are VHS and "other versions" floating around which unfortunately is the only way to see this as far as I can tell. It's definitely worth watching. It's not a flashy film, but one to see for two very solid performances in Duvall and Baker.

Score: 7.5 / 10

The last film I watched in my mini-marathon was actually not technically a Joe Don Baker film. That honor would go to Walter Mathau. But  Baker's supporting character is quite the memorable one and could possibly be my favorite of the three here. The film itself I enjoyed the most.

Charley Varrick, directed by Don Siegel of Dirty Harry fame, follows a group of bank robbers dealing with the realization that the money they have stolen may be a little too hot for them to handle.

Walter Mathau is fucking great here. He plays Charley Varrick and is cool and smart and witty as he can be. I love seeing Mathau's kinda smart ass characterizations just slightly creeping their way into Varrick along with the character himself being written to be one cool motherfucker. I really liked the details written in for him to show how on top of everything he was such as retrieving his dental records when there is risk of being caught or even using his crop dusting business as a cover (and means of transportation) for his bank robbing profession.

His speech/way with words may be the most impressive. There is a terrific scene when Varrick is talking about a round shaped bed with a woman.

"You may find this hard to believe, but I've never slept on a round bed."

"Is that so?"

"What's the best way... north, south, east or west?"

"That depends on what you had in mind..."

"What i had in mind was boxing the compass."

GET EM! It's all just delivered in that Mathau style, only with a cool cucumber skin over it.


But let's not forget why we are here. We are celebrating the Year of the Joe Don, remember? I mentioned earlier that Joe Don Baker plays an Anton Chigurh type character. He's not quite as frightening as Javier Bardem's portrayal in No Country for Old Men, but plays the same wild card hit man on a mission. His name is Molly. He has his peculiarities. But once he has someone in his sights, he doesn't stop. Baker is great here with a quiet intensity with Mr. Molly. Like I said, he's not as creepy and certainly has more personality as Chigurh, but his focus and his apparent enjoyment of what he does makes him almost as intimidating.

Molly just walks into places and pushes his way into obtaining information. He has a job and no one is going to stop that job from being finished. Baker is really well cast here being that he does happy and intense so well at the same time.

The contrast between Varrick and Molly is one of the more interesting aspects of the film. Both men in a way follow the same path (as Molly has been tasked with tracking Varrick down), and to see the way they interact with the same or at least similar people is awesome. Varrick uses his charm and wit to get his way. With Molly it's intensity and bullying.

"You just keep throwin' your feathers, Mister... before I put you in the hospital."

I loved the pacing of the film and thought the tension was spot on. It's not super action packed, although there are some nice action sequences, but through the tense tone, Siegel was able to make an exciting cat and mouse style story, only here the mouse was brilliant.

This film is a high recommendation from me.

Score: 8.5 / 10

So there you have it. 1973 was certainly Bakers time to shine and in my opinion he was sparkling. Watching these films certainly opened my eyes to him as a great and underrated actor of the 1970s, and I'll certainly be tracking down more of his films.

Now, back to Trenchard-Smith or something... heh


Damocles66 said...

Great write up. My to watch pile has grown again.

Samuel Wilson said...

Charley Varrick is great stuff, right up there with The Taking of Pelham One Two Three as my favorite Matthau film, and I buy your equating Joe Don's character with Chigurh. Maybe Cormac McCarthy saw the film. Meanwhile, I definitely need to see The Outfit some day.

Doctor Zom said...

Excellent! The Loaf comes thru again (as usual). Joe Don... The Loaf... together? HELL YEAH! Keep up the great work daddy-O!