Film Diary: Cat Ballou (Elliot Silverstein, 1965)

Monday, 7 April 2008

Cat Ballou

A western that follows well-trodden paths and plays them for laughs, mostly. Nice-as-pie schoolteacher Jane Fonda returns to live on her father’s ranch in Wolf City, Wyoming. But all is not well; there’s a campaign to drive him off his land in the time-honoured way of ambitious property developers everywhere – horse manure in the well, that sort of thing. It could be Surrey in 2008. Things turn nastier when hired assassin Lee Marvin rides in to give a final warning, which the amiable Mr Ballou does his best to shrug off. The next thing you know, Lee Marvin’s back, Frank Ballou is dead, and his daughter is swearing vengeance. She hires a notorious gunslinger to sort out Lee Marvin, but when he arrives he’s not only also Lee Marvin, but this Lee Marvin is a hopeless drunk who looks more like Harpo Marx on an off day than a hero of the Old West.

Well, I wouldn’t want to give anything away, and you can probably predict the way things develop, and it could be a real turkey. But the truth is, it’s pulled off with some aplomb and rises well above the mediocrity it could have been in lesser hands. Besides, the show is stolen by Stubby Kaye and Nat King Cole as a couple of troubadours who drift in and out, singing the ballad of Cat Ballou. Bonnie & Clyde it ain’t, but that won’t come for another couple of years and it certainly poins the way.

I might not be heartbroken if I never saw Cat Ballou ever again, but my life is richer for having seen it.

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