JOE KIDD (1972) is Clint Eastwood’s only movie directed by John Sturges (BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK) and also his only one written by Elmore Leonard. Leonard was no stranger to Hollywood – his western novels The Law at Randado, Last Stand at Saber River and Hombre (plus the short stories 3:10 to Yuma, The Tall T and Only Good Ones and the crime novel The Big Bounce) had already been made into movies, and he’d adapted his own The Moonshine War. But this was his first original screenplay, which he’d written as THE SINOLA COURTHOUSE RAID or SINOLA.
Eastwood plays the titular fuckup, formerly a bounty hunter, now pursuing other interests, primarily getting drunk and arrested. He has a pretty good Leonard-ian introduction: passed out in a cell, his jailers bring breakfast and coffee to wake him up for a court appearance, but his cellmate Naco (Pepe Callahan, THE LONG GOODBYE) keeps it out of his reach and taunts him about it. Joe thinks he remembers that deputy Bob Mitchell (Gregory Walcott, PRIME CUT) hit him, but has to ask for confirmation. They say he was illegally hunting a mule deer on the Indian reservation, then threatened to piss on the court house, and it took three cops to bring him in.
When it’s time to walk him across the street to the courthouse (for a hearing, not to piss), Naco finally offers him some stew. Joe tosses it in his face and hits him in the head with the pan, then examines the dent it made. That’s ol’ Joe Kidd for ya.
It turns out to be a wrong-place-wrong-time scenario. Right after Joe’s hearing a group of armed Mexican revolutionaries led by Luis Chama (John Saxon, THE GLOVE – yeah, casting was different in those days) storm the court and try to take the judge (John Carter, MY SCIENCE PROJECT) hostage to protest the theft of their ancestral land. Chama explains how white people were allowed to build on the land, but eventually stopped asking permission, and claimed the documents that proved ownership were lost in a courthouse fire. So Chama’s people find the current deeds that say the white people own the land and lose those in a fire too. Nice touch.
Joe is no John McClane, he kind of hangs out and watches, like he’s curious but knows it’s none of his business. I like the moment when he realizes it’s not gonna be quick and sits down. But ultimately he doesn’t stay out of it – he spirits the judge to safety and stops at the saloon, where of course he knows the bartender, Harry (Ed Deemer). He takes Harry’s shotgun from behind the counter, fills up a beer and enjoys it while drawing on Naco (who has been freed by Chama) in self defense.
Then he posts up at the door to watch what’s going on with the whole revolutionaries vs. deputies situation, and even raises a glass to the fleeing Chama.
This is my favorite type of stuff in these movies, and it gets even better. He gives Harry the gun back (Harry just says, “Geez”) and starts making himself a sandwich on the bar. Then he stands leaning against a pole on the porch, eating the sandwich, drinking a beer, watching the deputies argue about how to catch Chama. I always love casual snacking during high pressure situations, and Clint is one of the legends in this department, maybe the greatest ever (see: shooting at bank robbers while finishing his hot dog, DIRTY HARRY). This is especially cool because as he says, he’s currently serving ten days. He gets to have an outside day, I guess.
Nevertheless they respect his skills enough to offer him a chance to join the posse. He declines: “I don’t got nothing against Luis Chama.” Next, rich landowner prickface Frank Harlan (Robert Duvall, THE OUTFIT) tries to recruit him for a private posse. He pays to have Joe released from jail and demands to see him. Joe doesn’t know who the fuck the guy is, but goes over as a courtesy. When he’s told “be with you in a minute” he doesn’t feel like waiting and is about to leave. He only sticks around when Harlan’s kept woman Elma (Lynne Marta, BLOOD BEACH) talks to him, amused by his nonchalance, and he thinks he can make it with her.
He doesn’t look like a tough cowboy – his suit seems too big, his tie and collar are loose, and he wears a bowler hat. He walks blurry-eyed into the courtroom, doesn’t think to take his hat off but Mitchell grabs it and removes it for him. When Elma sees him she laughs, “Boy you sure don’t look like you’re supposed to.”
“Just how am I supposed to look?”
Harlan says his “associates” played by Don Stroud (DEATH WEEKEND), James Wainright (KILLDOZER) and Paul Koslo (THE OMEGA MAN, ROOSTER COGBURN) are “A-1, first-class hunters” who need Joe to be their guide. Joe gets him to admit that what he’s hunting is Chama, to stop him from “stirrin’ up the Mexican population with talk about land reform.”
Joe turns him down, and on the way out peeks into Elma’s room and says, “Uh, he’s goin’ on a huntin’ trip. I’ll be back.” But when he goes home to his ranch he finds out Chama stole some of his horses, shot the rest and tied up his ranch hand (Gil Barreto, SCARFACE) to avenge the death of Naco. So he decides to help catch the fucker after all. And you know he means business when he shows up dressed like Clint, not some town dude.
Their wealthy benefactor provides them with new high range rifles, and there’s a great scene where Joe carefully, patiently aims at a guy up on some rocks far away, takes him out, and can’t quite hide his smile of pride. Duvall maybe doesn’t get as much to do as you’d expect for a villain, but he just exudes evil motherfucker in that unique Robert Duvall way, long before he makes the priest (Pepe Hern) gather the Mexican villagers so he can give a “sermon” that begins, “Now, then, I don’t want to take up too much of your time, I just wanna say that we’re gonna shoot five of you if Luis Chama don’t come down off his mountain by sunup tomorrow morning,” and gets worse from there.
Oh yeah, and when he rolls into town at the beginning he bullies the hotel manager (Dick Van Patten!) into kicking people out of their rooms so he can have a whole floor to himself. Seems to think that’s okay. Probly doesn’t tip either. Fuck this guy.
By the time Harlan’s crew are forcibly staying at the home of Chama’s special lady friend Helen (Stella Garcia, CHANGE OF HABIT), Joe realizes he shouldn’t be in with these dicks. Helen talks up Chama as a guy willing to die for what he believes in, a theme that continues when the priest tells Joe they’re celebrating The Feast of St. James the Apostle. “Saint James was beheaded rather than deny his faith.”
Unfortunately, when Joe and Helen find Chama up in the mountains he says “We only win if I stay alive” and is happy to let the innocent villager hostages become martyrs instead of him. When Helen tries to convince him it’s wrong, he says, “I do not care what you think. I take you along for cold nights and days when there is nothing to do, not to hear you talk.” Joining Joe and Harlan in a pretty competitive sexism contest.
Joe’s solution to the standoff will save the villagers, but seems very naive. He convinces Chama to “Come with me back to Sinola, give yourself up, take your chances in court.” In a clever move, he sends Chama’s guy Ramon (Ron Soble, TRUE GRIT) into town ahead of them, ‘cause he knows they’ll shoot the first guy in, and that’s the guy who barb-wired his buddy. But Joe’s best idea is taking over a steam engine, driving it to the end of the line, through a stopper, through the drugstore, and right into the saloon (sorry, Harry), shooting out the window at some of Harlan’s men, who just walked in. Harry and Chama pass the shotgun back and forth shooting at more guys across the street. Harlan gets his when he’s hiding in the court room (where most of this began). The judge’s chair spins around and there’s Joe and he shoots him, spewing thick ’70s fake blood out his back. I doubt that was what Joe was thinking when he told Chama to “take your chances in court,” but it works out. In his capacity as judge, I guess, he lets Chama go, and Helen leaves with Joe.
It’s a movie that brings up some interesting political themes, but barely explores them. You’ve got your screwed over indigenous population fighting for what’s theirs, and your piece of shit white landowner who gets his comeuppance, but that’s all there really is to say about that. The revolutionary turns out to kind of suck and also Saxon (who I love regardless) miscalculates how much his handlebar mustache will compensate for his take on a Mexican accent. But I’m not sure Joe learned much of anything from any of it. He may have gotten a new girlfriend. Maybe he’ll learn from her.
On the other hand it does pretty much follow the standard Eastwood character arc that I love, and feel is sometimes misunderstood. Joe wants to stay out of it, but he doesn’t. He thinks he’s above it all, and not taking sides, but he finds out it’s more complicated than that. (He does still solve this one by shooting a guy, but not the guy he initially wanted to shoot.) Eastwood characters always talk a big macho game that seems very appealing because he’s so charismatic, but the lesson of the movie is never “Yep, he was 100% right about all that.”
Leonard later said “I don’t think the picture worked at all” and that “Sturges had done THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN and he was trying to work ideas that didn’t make it into that movie into JOE KIDD. Only little funny things, but I wasn’t very happy with it.” I gotta believe Elmore was right, but reportedly one of the things Sturges added was the train crash gag, so he probly deserves some credit in my opinion.
Eastwood liked Leonard enough that after shooting but before release he asked him to write him something “like DIRTY HARRY but different.” He quickly came up with and pitched MR. MAJESTYK, and Clint liked it, so he wrote it, but by then Clint was doing HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER and didn’t buy it. Oh well. Somebody called Charles Bronson, I guess. That movie shares JOE KIDD’s issue of trying to say something righteous about Latinos while unconvincingly using white people to play many of them, but it’s an overall more successful use of Leonard’s storytelling in a vehicle for one of our greatest screen badasses.
JOE KIDD was Sturges’ fourth to last film (followed by CHINO, McQ and THE EAGLE HAS LANDED) but his biggest hit besides THE GREAT ESCAPE. By all accounts the director wasn’t very invested in the movie, and/or lost control to Eastwood, who had recently started directing. In the 50 years since, Eastwood has starred in 35 movies, and directed all but 11 of those.
This is definitely lesser Eastwood, but I enjoyed it. You get a nice score by Lalo Schifrin, with some mellow electric piano or organ in there – a hint of DIRTY HARRY – under more traditionally western sounding music. You get some nice scenery, beautifully shot by Eastwood regular Bruce Surtrees. Mostly you get the classic Clint persona, where he’s somehow both a sloppy fuckup and the coolest and most competent guy who ever lived. That’s always fun to watch. Happy 2023, everybody.
This review brought to you by my self-invented superstition that my first review of the year has to be a Clint Eastwood movie. Previous entries:
2013 – TROUBLE WITH THE CURVE
2014 – A PERFECT WORLD
2015 – THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES
2016 – KELLY’S HEROES
2017 – PINK CADILLAC
2018 – TWO MULES FOR SISTER SARA
2019 – THE MULE
2020 – WHITE HUNTER BLACK HEART
2021 – THE GAUNTLET
2022 – ESCAPE FROM ALCATRAZ