erik lundegaard

Saturday March 16, 2024

Movie Review: Joe Kidd (1972)


The town name is a joke, right? From screenwriter Elmore Leonard? Sinola? Apparently there’s a Sinaloa, Mexico, but this is New Mexico, circa 1902, and I’m not seeing anything. Or maybe I just don’t know shit from Sinola.

This is the movie Clint Eastwood made after “Dirty Harry” and it’s not bad, despite its 6.4 IMDb rating. Maybe it’s so low because Eastwood himself didn’t much like it, or didn’t like making it with director John Sturges, who was often drunk on set. Sturges, for his part, didn’t much like trying to direct Eastwood, either.

Do we even know what the title character does? We know he used to be a tracker and bounty hunter, and we see how he’s dressed, in tweed suit and derby, a more citified look than we’re used to from western Eastwood, but I don’t think we ever find out his current occupation. Cattle rancher, maybe?

Eastwood v. Nosotros
Joe Kidd begins the movie sharing a jail cell with two Mexican yahoos after getting drunk and losing a fight with Sheriff Mitchell (Greg Walcott). He begins down. He then proceeds to outman everybody. Whatever a man is, Joe Kidd is more:

  • He protects the townsfolk more than the sheriff
  • He protects the Mexican people more than the Mexican revolutionary
  • He’s more ruthless than the ruthless landowner

It’s the second one that made me shake my head. “Naw, don’t go there, Clint. Naw … Aw, fuck.”

He’s in the courtroom, sentenced to 10 days for the contretemps with Mitchell, when Mexican rebels, led by Luis Chama (John Saxon), burst in. They’re tired of losing their land to the Anglos; they’re tired of white men going back on their word. So Chama decides to kidnap the judge (John Carter) to make things right. Why the judge? Who knows? But in the confusion, Kidd rescues the judge, then, behind the bar of a saloon, sipping a beer and holding a shotgun, he waits for the Mexican rebels—in particular Naco (Pepe Callahan), with whom he’d had an escalating tete-a-tete in jail. Naco wouldn’t let the hungover Kidd have coffee, Kidd pours slop stew on him, Naco tries to clock him but Kidd knocks him out with the pan. He figures Naco wants revenge. He does. He doesn’t get it. Blam.

In the calm afterwards, the wealthiest man in New Mexico, Frank Harlan (Robert Duvall), shows up with an entourage of sureshots and jerks, and they attempt to hire Kidd to help them track and Kill Chama—whom Duvall keeps calling “Chay-ma.” Kidd begs off. He’s got nothing against Chama. But then he finds out Chama, as payback for Naco, invaded his ranch home, rustled his horses, and hurt his right-hand man. So off he goes with them.

Damn, if Naco had only let Joe have that cup of coffee.

Kidd regrets his decision quickly. The men reveal who they are, killing some Mexicans in cold blood, then, with leers, kidnapping Helen Sanchez (Stella Garcia), who, unbeknownst, is Chama’s girl. They take a small Mexican village hostage and shout out to Chama—hiding in the nearby mountains—that they’ll kill five hostages in the morning unless he surrenders himself. Then five at noon, then five at … .You get the idea. Harlan choose this moment, stupidly, to betray Kidd, who’s disarmed and put in with the hostages. But of course he finds some arms, kills some men, including the loudmouth Lamarr (Don Stroud), and brings the girl to Chama in the mountains.

Which is where she finds out Chama had no intention of sacrificing himself for the people below. Becoming martyrs in his name, he says, would be a good way to die.

The original script wasn’t like that. Per IMDb:

John Saxon said “Clint needed to be the guy who dealt with all the action, so in the end Chama was smeared with self-serving and cowardice, so it was clear who the main hero was.” Saxon attended a NOSOTROS meeting, a Latin American organization opposed to stereotypes, and publicly apologized for playing such a dubious character.

Then it just gets dumb. Chama doesn’t want to sacrifice himself but somehow Kidd convinces him to turn himself in? Kidd shouts down the deal to Harlan and everyone heads back to Sinola, but Harlan and his men stop a train to get there first. Oh right, one of the men, the sharpshooter Mingo (James Wainwright) stays behind to kill Chama and crew before they reach Sinola, but he’s killed instead. By Kidd. Who out sharpshoots the sharpshooter.

Jesus, Clint, leave something for somebody.

Judge, jury, executioner
In town, Kidd sends the rest of Chama’s men away (why?), then rides a train into the saloon and starts killing the bad guys. Then he tracks Harlan to the courthouse, and, from the judge’s chair, kills him in cold blood. After Chama turns himself in, Joe decks the sheriff. He tells him, “Next time, I’ll knock your damn head off.” Don’t really get his anger at the sheriff—who suddenly turns into a goober at this point. I guess it’s payback for the stuff we didn’t see at the beginning? It's outmanning everybody.

Beautiful scenery, though. And apparently the weaponry is very accurate for the time it’s set. Duvall is his usual impeccable, awful, oddball self. The gang is great, particularly Wainwright as Mingo, the sharpshooter, who’s both cool and casually cruel. I like Lynne Marta as Elma, Harlan’s concubine, who is kissed by Kidd in the early going and doesn’t mind at all. She’s cute. Died this year, sadly.

This was the phase of Eastwood’s career when he was popular with the crowd but called a fascist by the critics—before he became a critic and Academy darling whose movies did so-so box office. Before his movies became shitty and no one went to see them.

I get his appeal. It’s just problematic. In his next one, “High Plains Drifter,” it’ll be worse.

Posted at 07:42 AM on Saturday March 16, 2024 in category Movie Reviews - 1970s  
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