The Appaloosa (1966)

the_appaloosa66One of the original methods actors –if not the original method actor – Marlon Brando did it all in his career. His acting was often powerful, intriguing, fun to watch, and at other times, downright weird and featuring too much mumbling. While they aren’t remembered as some of his great films, Brando did three westerns, One-Eyed Jacks, The Missouri Breaks, and today’s review, 1966’s The Appaloosa.

Matt Fletcher (Brando) is a buffalo hunter returning home riding from Mexico and crossing the border into Texas. In a quiet border town, he’s accosted by Chuy Medina (John Saxon), a powerful bandit, for something that wasn’t his fault. He continues on his way, reuniting up the trail with his half-brother, Paco (Rafael Campos). With Matt’s speckled appaloosa pony, he intends to start a horse ranch and with Paco’s help, he knows he can do it…until Medina intervenes again. The bandit steals the appaloosa and retreats into Mexico where he’s protected by his many pistoleros. Paco tells Matt to forget about the horse, but Fletcher is having none of it. He intends to bring his horse back one way or another.

It’s harder and harder for me to track down quality 1960’s westerns that I haven’t seen before. When ‘Appaloosa’ popped up on Encore Westerns, I had to jump. I’m glad I did, but what a weird little western! Released in 1966, this western came along a time when the entire western genre was a-changing. Old-fashioned westerns were on the way out, and more violent entries like the spaghetti westerns were on the way in. Bleak, dreary revisionist westerns were still a ways down the road. Where does ‘Appaloosa’ fall? Oddly enough, right in the middle.

From director Sidney J. Furie, ‘Appaloosa’ ends up being an artsy, minimalist, beautifully shot, cynical and sinister little western. I didn’t love it overall, but there’s a ton to recommend. For starters, the look of the film. Furie and cinematographer Russell Metty do some impressive work with the camera. The extreme use of close-ups reflects spaghetti westerns as conversations are often handled from eye-to-eye. The composition is interesting. The camera shoots through objects, at odd angles, from low angles and is rarely just straight-on. Without going into horrifically specific detail of shot-to-shot analysis, I can say that the visual look of the film is a huge positive. It’s a cool movie to watch.

The most traditional aspect of ‘Appaloosa’ is the main character, Brando’s Fletcher, a buffalo hunter and a drifter. What isn’t traditional? Brando’s always-unique spin on the character. The western hero doesn’t always have high-arcing, high-reaching goals. He wants his land, wants his wife/family to be safe, to right a wrong. It’s simple, straightforward stuff. That’s all Fletcher wants; his horse back so he can start a new life. But…it’s Brando so Fletcher is quiet, sinister, intimidating, a wild card from beginning to end. He also shows off a pretty decent accent that could have been painful to watch, but it works.

As his opposition, Saxon is excellent as Chuy Medina. It isn’t a stereotypical villain. Sure, he’s one nasty dude, but it’s not big and bad and blustering. Saxon’s Chuy is equally intimidating and menacing, especially when it comes to his woman, Trini (Anjanette Comer), who he bought years ago and is beginning to beat. In Fletcher, both individuals see potential, one for danger, one for help. Campos is solid as Fletcher’s brother and friend with Miriam Colon as Paco’s wife. Also look for Emilio Fernandez as Chuy’s enforcer and right-hand man, Lazaro, and Alex Montoya as another pistolero, Squint Eye. Frank Silvera is excellent in a smaller part as Ramos, a sheep and goat-herder who crosses paths with Fletcher.

Filmed in California and Arizona, ‘Appaloosa’ has an isolated, almost other-worldly look to it. This is a less-populated west than we’re used to. It’s beautiful as the story bounces back and forth between “Mexico” and “Texas.” The musical score is fairly traditional but solid and used in positive fashion. It disappears for the most intense scenes as the on-screen action speaks for itself. The ending? A little disappointing, a little too traditional, but an underrated western overall.

Worth checking out, especially for Brando, Saxon and the generally non-traditional everything going on.

The Appaloosa (1966): ***/****

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