I have virtually no memory of seeing this in a theater, although it seems unlikely that I would have missed it. I know I saw it on Select TV after we were married and I may even have it recorded on a videotape in a box in the Garage. Those of you not familiar with Select TV, it was an over the air scrambled channel that required a decoder box. Before cable TV was widely available, if you wanted subscriber television in Southern California, you had two choices, On-TV and Select-TV. On-TV had a good choice of sports programming that was part of the package you would buy, but Select had the wider movie choices. It was clearly a different time, because the channels were not scheduled 24 hours a day, and every month you had to program in a code that the company sent you to de-scramble the image. When we were first married, we had to get permission from Mr. Foley, our 83 year old landlord, to put a special antenna on the roof of the apartment building. When cable TV came in, the two companies merged into On-Select. They had a terrific little program guide each month that I always looked forward to. I held on to the guides for twenty five years, and through them out reluctantly just a couple of years ago.
This movie came out three years before Conan the Barbarian and five years before the Terminator. Schwarzenegger was a familiar celebrity, but he was not yet a movie star, so he was not the main selling point of the picture. Kirk Douglas is again a cowboy in one of my blog entries, but this time he is not to be taken seriously. Basically, he plays Wile E. Coyote, to Arnold and Ann Margret’s roadrunner. It is essentially a live action cartoon. It must have seemed that the casting of the Austrian Oak as Handsome Stranger, was amusing, but I don’t really think it sustains itself. Douglas is funny at times but the timing is often off on the movie and jokes fall flat. There was nothing flat about Ann Margaret, she was still a big star at the time and at the height of her mature beauty stage.
There is a very basic plot about a banker using a bad man to rip off a miner and his daughter. That sets up all the set pieces that occupy the middle of the picture. We go from one disastrous scheme to another, as the villain, Cactus Jack, falls off of mountains, is run over by boulders, and run down by trains. Explosions never work the way he plans them and he never succeeds in slowing down the progress of the miner’s daughter “Charming” and the “Handsome Stranger” who is supposed to protect here. The main problem is that as much as Douglas works it, he can’t get an exasperated smile or a crooked eyebrow to work the way an animated character like Wile E. Coyote could. The set up of the stunts needs different music, and we need to see something funny during the time that Cactus Jack is puzzling out his next approach. As a consequence the timing always seems off.
In the seventies, Warner Bros. often re-edited together classic cartoons with short bits of new material to try to make a feature length release for kids to watch in theaters. Most of those movies run into the same problem, the repetitiveness of the gags undermines our interest and enjoyment, and the added narrative slows the proceedings down. The makers of the Roger Rabbit cartoons got that everything was about timing, and the six minutes of energy in a single cartoon is a lot more entertaining then a lengthy movie with the jokes repeated. There are many clever ideas in the Villain, but they don’t pay off with a big laugh, usually they only earn a slight smile. For example, the real co-star with Douglas is the horse that he rides. “Whiskey” has a mischievous streak, and more facial expression than Schwarzenegger. Try as he might, he can’t quite pull off enough of a look to get the joke across as an animated character could.
There are some funny songs in the movie including the title track. They repeat the theme quite often and that hurts it’s charm a bit. At the end of the movie, there is a sequence where the Cactus Jack character is accelerated in his scenes, mimicking a cartoon character more directly. That actually got a laugh from me but only at the end of the movie. Strother Martin is in the movie, although he has no scenes with Kirk Douglas or Arnold. The one section that he is in does not give him much chance to shine. Jack Elam, the great crooked eyed actor is also wasted as the banker. The funniest performer in the supporting cast is Foster Brooks. He was a comedian whose regular bit consisted of a drunk routine, He does it in the movie to good effect. I never cared much for his act when I saw it on TV, but it worked great in the four or five minutes he was on-screen in this movie. The director was Hal Needham, a stunt coordinator turned director, well known for doing several Burt Reynolds comedy films. Unfortunately, they are not the great Burt comedies, but some of his late seventies outings where he simply mugs for the camera. He was doing a good job on the stunts, and he shot Monument Valley, much like an old cartoon, but there is an energy and pace that makes this picture just sit there. I said SIT there.