Welcome once again to It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Movie Challenge, a series in which two blogger friends (Me and Mike’s Take on the Movies) pick movies for the other to watch & review once a month, hopefully expanding each others’ viewing horizons.
Chalk this 1973 movie up to another fun discovery for a western movie fan (that would be me) who has a 1970’s sized gap in her viewing knowledge. It’s a great looking, carefully but steadily paced movie with a deep cast of amazing actors (Jack Warden, George Hamilton, Lee J. Cobb, George Hamilton, Jay Silverheels, Bo Hopkins, Robert Donner and Nancy Malone). Sarah Miles plays a well-to-do woman on the run from her husband Hamilton. She rides (sidesaddle, take note, it’s relevant) into the middle of a train heist orchestrated by Burt Reynolds. The gang take her along, while lawman Lee J. Cobb, despite his nagging suspicions about Hamilton’s motives, forms a posse to go after the robbers and/or find Miles.
And then they ride. And they all ride. And they ride some more. I’m not complaining, director Richard Sarafian with music by John Williams make this ride anything but boring. They travel over beautiful scenery and tough conditions, from scalding desert to snowbound mountainside, and they stop for story: to allow Miles an escape attempt, to switch horses, have fatal fights over Warden and Hopkins’ lusting over and handling of Miles, have a scary encounter with Indians, have a romantic turning point in an old abandoned mining town, be visited by old enemies and finally to see Reynolds make it back to his true goal, an Indian settlement and a reunion with his little kids. By then, Miles and Reynolds fall in love and she’s a transformed woman, changed from awkward, sheltered and inexperienced (doesn’t even know how to make coffee) to looking, riding and acting like a seasoned cowgirl who knows how to handle a gun. There are many original little moments of writing and acting, like the mud sunscreen as a sign of caring, or Reynolds teaching Miles how to whistle, combined with many big and loud moments suitable for a great western like the long and brutally realistic, face-burning brawl between Warden and Reynolds.
Maybe Sarah Miles is meant to be the lead, her arrival the trigger for the destruction of the whole group, and her journey the focus, but this is Burt Reynolds’ picture. He looks absolutely fantastic here, a towering hunky cowboy with that charming twinkle in his eye and a deadpan way of delivering lines meant to make him seem cold and stoic when everyone around him knows he’s anything but. In one funny exchange Sarah Miles tells him he’s not very romantic but he proves her wrong. You see, there’s a reason he’s so closed up, and that’s part of the mystery that keeps you involved in this plot. The Cat Dancing of the title was a native woman that Burt loved and lost, had children with and went to jail for. There’s much more to that story but you have to let it unfold along with the long ride, the wide landscape and the relationship between Miles and Reynolds. The girlish cutesy mannerisms Miles puts on in the beginning of the movie wore on me a bit but thankfully they were part of the meek and uptight character she leaves behind as she grows up.
Some interesting background: this movie was written by a woman, Eleanor Perry, who also wrote The Swimmer and Diary of a Mad Housewife, and she adapted from a novel by a woman, Marilyn Durham, which might, if you are prone to stereotypes, lead you to expect more of a chick flick than this is. Balanced with the romance you really do get more of a classic-style yarn among that era of revisionist westerns. Even more background involves something of a scandal, the suicide of Miles’ manager and boyfriend (she was married at the time) during shooting. Both Miles and Reynolds had to testify in court while the initially mysterious death was being investigated. Robert Osborne spoke about this in his outro to the movie, noting that Miles’ career was damaged by the scandal but that the related whispering about an affair with Reynolds proved untrue. Reynolds got a hernia during the big fight scene and John Williams had only a week to score the movie after being called in to replace Michel Legrand, whose Indian and ethnic themed score ended up out of sync with what the filmmakers wanted. I’m a bit surprised this movie isn’t mentioned more as one of Burt’s best and as one of the gems of 70’s westerns because I liked it a lot and am glad it was recommended to me. (That poster is pretty great too!)