Friday, July 5, 2013

THE GREY FOX (1982)

A Film By Phillip Borsos
Review by Don L. Stradley
 

Richard Farnsworth: The Grey Fox
 
In 1983 a Boston Phoenix reviewer wrote of Phillip Borsos' The Grey Fox, "It will make you feel as if you're seeing a train for the first time." I was so enamored of the line, and the accompanying photo of Richard Farnsworth, that I clipped it from the Arts section and carried it around for years. I kept it in the front cover of Carl Sifakis' Encyclopedia of American Crime. That seemed like a good place for it.

The clip grew brown and ragged, but I wouldn't part with it. Farnsworth looked too good, dressed up in his best Sunday duds, leaning against a fence and smirking. The smirk worked on two levels:  he was smirking because he was playing Bill Miner, the last of the great train robbers, the man credited with inventing the phrase "Hands up," and also because he was Richard Farnsworth, a veteran stuntman and bit player who was finally getting noticed as an actor.

I also kept the review because it reminded me of when The Grey Fox hit our local Charles Cinema during the rainy summer months of 1983. I saw it three or four times, always coming out of that cinema and stepping into grim weather, enjoying the rain and wind, trying to maintain the feel of  the muddy Canadian countryside I'd just seen on the screen.
 
Few films have hit me the way The Grey Fox did. Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven, perhaps, or Fellini's Nights of Cabiria. I remember being moved by Robert Duvall's stoic performance in Tomorrow; I  remember feeling transformed during a Scorsese triple feature at the old Harvard Square Cinema, back before the place was heated and before they got the mice out. The Grey Fox, though,  edges them all by a whisker.   
 

Farnsworth was the key. He was 61 at the time, but looked older because of his long white mustache and weathered face. He had a regal bearing, but was also on a familiar basis with danger. There's a scene in a saloon where a punk pulls a knife on him; Farnsworth smashes a bottle on the kid's face.  "You come at me again," he says, aiming his pistol, "and I'll put a window through your forehead, so help me."  He had a gentle, reedy voice, and he spoke slowly, as if he was nudging you. He knew better than you did, and if you wanted to come along, fine.  If not, as he says in the movie, "A professional never begs."
 
When we first see Miner, he's coming out of the darkness of a cell, having been imprisoned for 33 years. He licks his lips nervously, as if he can taste the daylight.  Early in the film, after trying to find some legitimate work, he goes to a newfangled moving picture show. The feature: The Great Train Robbery. He's mesmerized. He licks his lips again.  
 
Borsos and screenwriter John Hunter cover the classic western theme of an aging character trying to deal with the changing world. Along with moving pictures, there are now automobiles, silly, fragile contraptions with buffoonish drivers. The steam locomotives look like unholy monoliths. And women are coming into their own. Miner meets Kate (Jackie Burroughs) a progressive lady who golfs and takes photographs, which must've seemed like a novelty at the time.   Miner wants to stick to robbing stagecoaches, but a man doesn't spend 33 years in the hole without learning to adapt.
 
When Miner does get around to robbing a train, Borsos creates a cinematic event. The rocky British Columbia countryside,  the smoke billowing out of the train, The Chieftains' bright, powerful music on the soundtrack, add up to something at once elegant and potent. Some moments in The Grey Fox are as stirring as the opening scene of William Wyler's The Big Country (1958), where a lone Pony Express rider pounds across the plains accompanied by Jerome Moross' exuberant score. 

The train heists are businesslike. Miner has a couple of helpers, including a nervous sidekick named Shorty ( Wayne Robson), but he does most of the work himself. The men don't kid around, they don't act macho; there are are no one liners, no jokes. There isn't even much action, just men going about their job.  We get no cliched scenes of robbers basking in piles of money. Miner doesn't even seem particularly thrilled by criminal life. When some thug tells him he's starting a gang, Miner feigns interest. "Like Jesse James?" Miner says, playing along. The glamour of crime means nothing to him.


 
 Borsos had originally wanted Harry Dean Stanton for the role of Bill Miner. Stanton bore a resemblance to the real Miner, but would've lacked Farnsworth's ease and elan. Watch Farnsworth dancing with Kate in a gazebo, and later as they lay in bed together, relaxing in each other's company, or the way he politely tells a gun dealer that he wants something "with a little more heft." Farnsworth had never had a leading role, but he'd been around movies for more than 30 years. He'd learned something along the way, something about being calm and relaxed. There's a quiet scene of him in a bathtub singing 'Sweet Betsy From Pike.' Most bathtub scenes in westerns are played for laughs. Farnsworth played it quietly.
 
There are no crass comments about aging, no grand philosophical moments. This is such an unusual western  that the characters, even the lowest of them, speak in grammatically correct English. Would an American filmmaker have made such a film? I doubt it. Frank Tidy's cinematography is breathtaking, but not postcard pretty; it is almost always overcast in this Canadian West, and the ground muddy. An American would have insisted on clear blue skies, not to mention at least one bloody shootout, and some comedy relief. What makes The Grey Fox so unique could be it's Canadian sensibility. Review after review commented on the film's "gentle," and "leisurely" quality, words not often used to describe an American western.


 Borsos first heard of Bill Miner when he saw a picture of the bandit hanging in a restaurant. Fascinated by Miner's story, Borsos  planned to produce a movie. When he couldn't find a director, Swedish filmmaker Jan Troell convinced Borsos to direct the film himself. Borsos had just received an Oscar nomination for Nails, a documentary, which helped attract backers. Still, the movie took its time being made; it was finished in 1980, but problems in the editing room plus the lack of a distributor kept the film out of the public eye for two years.  It eventually won seven Genies, Canada's highest honor for films, including awards for Farnsworth, Burroughs, and Borsos, plus Genies for Bill Brodie's art direction, Michael Conway Baker's musical score, and John Hunter's screenplay. 

Hunter was in his 70s at the time of The Grey Fox. He hadn't written a film since the 1950s. He, too, was coming out of darkness to work in a new world. How much of himself did he put into Miner?  
 
Borsos and Hunter played fast and loose with the facts of Miner's life. For instance, Miner died in prison. In The Grey Fox, Miner escapes one more time. We see him in his prison clothes, wading clumsily through a swamp. Then he finds a little boat we believe was left there by Kate. That's OK. Such a lyrical movie deserves a hopeful ending.

The Grey Fox has never been available on DVD, but it maintains a legacy as a Canadian classic. The Audio-Visual Preservation Trust of Canada, a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of Canada's audio-visual heritage, has designated The Grey Fox a "masterwork." Borsos directed a few more movies, including The Mean Season (1985), an excellent crime drama. He died at 41 of leukemia. 
 
Farnsworth (1920-2000) became a familiar face in movies during the next several years.  He told The Associated Press in 1983, "I guess you might say that The Grey Fox is a kind of Cinderella story for me. When I was a kid, I read in the western magazines about a skinny old guy with a moustache who came out of San Quentin after 30 years for stage robbing and tried his hand and train robbing. Forty-two years later, I end up playing him in a movie. I guess I grew into him."
 
Hollywood didn't always know how to use Farnsworth. He appeared in some good films like Comes a HorsemanThe Natural, Misery, and The Straight Story. Then again, he also played Dolly Parton's father in Rhinestone. No matter the part, Farnsworth was always a true and steady presence. Like Bill Miner, he was a professional.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent tribute to a superb film. A pleasure to read. Thank you!

    ReplyDelete