Tuesday, January 10, 2023

The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean

Paul Newman's favorite role, for your consideration

The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean

What's it about?

Tonight's nostalgic pic is "The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean" (First Artists, 1972). Roy Bean (Paul Newman) isn't a bad man by his own account, despite being a wanted criminal on the lam. When he stops in the wastelands of Texas for a drink at a run-down brothel, he recounts his most recent successful criminal enterprise, which the patrons respond to by beating him within an inch of his life, robbing him, putting a noose around his neck and letting his horse drag him into the desert.

Honestly, what did he think would happen?

Unfortunately for them, the rope breaks. Looked after by a local girl, Roy Bean asks for his gun, which she brings to him. After unleashing his fury upon those who wronged him, the newly reborn Bean decides that he's going to bring law and order to the west… At the end of a rope.
The lounge arm of the law.

The rest of the film follows "Judge" Roy Bean as he uses his loose interpretation of the law to bring justice to the streets of the town of Vinegaroon, all the while amassing a personal fortune for himself and his marshals ("reformed" criminals that he deputizes) as well as a large graveyard outside of town.

The marshals and their "justly" gotten gains.

Soon, Vinegaroon is prospering, a safe haven for law-abiding citizens and a scourge criminals across the west, all while he professes his love to his never-seen amore, stage performer Miss Lilly Langtry (Ava Gardner).
Bean's real love, Lilly Langtry.

We watch as various characters speak of their interactions with Roy Bean. We see him dispense justice, fall in love, adopt a bear, experience tragedy and loss, and come back in heroic fashion.
Falling in love... with a bear.

Some background on the film

This long-forgotten western was written by prominent screenwriter John Milius and directed by Hollywood legend John Huston (who also has a cameo in the film as "Grizzly" Adams). It's a peculiar blend of goofy hayseed sensibilities, old west gunplay, and gallows humor.

Literal. Gallows. Humor.

It's a highly fictionalized version of the life of real Justice of the Peace Roy Bean, who was the original progenitor of the "hanging judge" stereotype. I need to stress that most of this film's narrative is manufactured, particularly the invention of antagonist Frank Gass (Roddy McDowall), whose name is a both an obvious metaphor for the Texas oil industry as well as a well-hidden verbal joke (after Bean's there is Gass).
"What are you trying to pass, Gass?"

A diamond in the rough

From a technical aspect, this film is a bit lacking, but it's really just a hallmark of lower budget films of the time. The lighting is off in many scenes, resulting in dark foregrounds in front of backlighting, and it's obviously not a stylistic choice.

Backlit shots; not necessarily a style.

The audio is uneven, and is quite quiet in certain spots, much of it on-set recording rather than ADR. There's not a lot of action, and the dialog isn't especially punchy, but if you pay attention it's very rewarding and provides a lot of character.

A bit adult in tone

Please note that this is a hard PG film. There's a lot of death, but not a lot of blood and gore. There isn't a lot of swearing, but there are a few derogatory racial slurs without much minority representation. While this is typical "of the time," I'm just throwing it out there so that if you're interested it doesn't catch you off guard.

This scene uses the "N" word multiple times.

My thoughts

I love this movie, and I'm not alone: This was allegedly Paul Newman's favorite role. Roy Bean is a complex antihero, but he's also trying to be just and right. He's flawed but trying to be pious and the conflict therein is a joy to watch.

You get to see the town rise and fall with Bean.

There's a lot of cameos from various 70s character actors of the time, sometimes playing allies, but usually playing the victims of Roy Bean's judgement.
I honestly didn't recognize Stacey "Mike Hammer" Keach as "Bad Bob"

There's genuine love that develops between Bean and his ward Maria Elena (Victoria Principal) and their pet bear.
The bear is a delight in every scene.

There are a few genuine moments in this film that I will not hesitate to admit make me cry. The passing of Roy Bean into legend is heartfelt and the "heroes' last stand" moment near the end of the film is fantastic, even if it has very little to do with the actual man the movie is based on.
Humor and tragedy go hand-in-hand.

Where can you find it?

"The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean" is streaming on… nothing. Well… It's available on VHS (where I first watched it), on DVD and even on Blu-ray, but you'd be hard pressed to find it in stores. I found it for rent and purchase on Amazon Prime, but honestly I don't see much benefit in getting it in high-definition (the audio is mono anyway). If you're interested, watch it any way you can.

No comments: