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SIX-GUN REVIEWS – JOE KIDD (1972)

Six-Gun Reviews is back… and this week Jonathon Dabell takes a look at one of Clint Eastwood’s most neglected American westerns, Joe Kidd (1972), co-starring Robert Duvall and John Saxon. 

An ex-bounty hunter (Clint Eastwood) must decide where his loyalties lie in Joe Kidd (1972).

An ex-bounty hunter (Clint Eastwood) must decide where his loyalties lie in Joe Kidd (1972).

Wedged between a couple of bona fide Clint Eastwood classics – those being Dirty Harry (1971) and High Plains Drifter (1973) – is Joe Kidd, an often forgotten entry from 1972. The credentials for the film look good at first glance – it is directed by John Sturges of Bad Day At Black Rock (1955) and The Magnificent Seven (1960) fame; scripted by the late, great Elmore Leonard; scored by the mighty Lalo Schifrin; and features a strong supporting cast including Robert Duvall, John Saxon and Don Stroud. With such promising elements in its favour, one expects the film to be rather special. Sadly, it doesn’t fulfil its potential. It’s not bad, don’t get me wrong… the problem is it’s not exactly good either.
Part of the blame lies with Leonard’s surprisingly thin, misfiring script. Leonard puts some good dialogue in the mouths of the characters, of that there is no dispute… but it seems that what he giveth with one hand he taketh away with the other. In Leonard’s script the characters seem morally muddled; the action is mostly of the familiar variety (apart from a train-being-driven-through-a-saloon climax which wasn’t in the original script anyway); and the predicament of the various parties – the peasants, the landowners, the corrupt lawmen and the lone-wolf hero – isn’t presented with enough sympathy to make us genuinely care one way or the other.

Brutal landwoner Frank Harlan Robert Duvall, from Joe Kidd (1972).

Brutal landwoner Frank Harlan (Robert Duvall), from Joe Kidd (1972).

In the New Mexico town of Sinola, angry revolutionary Luis Chama (John Saxon) leads a peasant’s revolt against the greedy landowners who are stealing their rightful land. Chama considers taking hostage a judge who has been fiddling land property deeds, but the judge is saved by Joe Kidd (Eastwood), an ex-bounty hunter currently serving time in the town jail for minor offences.
Rich landowner Frank Harlan (Robert Duvall) decides to hire a posse to capture Chama. He asks Kidd to be amongst his hunting party, but Kidd is initially reluctant. Kidd eventually relents, but whilst tracking the troublesome revolutionary he begins to realise that Harlan is a ruthless man who doesn’t care in the slightest for morality or protocol. He doesn’t even seem to genuinely want to capture Chama alive – dead will do just fine! After witnessing Harlan threatening to kill a number of innocent villagers if Chama doesn’t surrender himself, Kidd decides he’s better off alone. He attempts to bring Chama to justice on his own, even if it means going up against Harlan and his murderous posse in the process.

Luis Chama (John Saxon), a revolutionary and leader of a peasant's revolt, in Joe Kidd (1972).

Luis Chama (John Saxon), a revolutionary and leader of a peasant’s revolt, in Joe Kidd (1972).

Bruce Surtees’ beautiful widescreen photography gives the film a polished look, but in other aspects it’s a fairly undistinguished offering. The sub-90 minute running time makes the film feel curiously undernourished, especially during the finale which comes across rather hasty and brief. There is an admittedly novel train sequence near the end – originally suggested in jest by Bob Daley (one of the producers) – but the film as a whole could have done with more touches like this. As it stands, there’s just not enough vigour or originality on display.
Eastwood plays Kidd reasonably well, though the character isn’t as well-rounded as some of the other roles he was found in around that time (John McBurney, Dave Garver, Harry Callahan and ‘The Stranger’ are all far stronger characters). Kidd changes his mind about where his sympathies lie numerous times throughout the film, but there isn’t really enough dimension to the character to help us understand why his loyalties are so fickle. During the shootouts and fist-fights Eastwood seems happiest and strongest, but from a moral point of view Kidd seems a bit all over the place. Duvall is solid if unremarkable as the corrupt landowner, while Saxon makes for a colourful if lightweight revolutionary. There’s a sense throughout that Joe Kidd is one of those rare examples of a film which would benefit from being longer. An extra twenty minutes or so could have provided some much-needed light and shade to the characters, and allowed for a grander scale climax.

Theatrical poster for JOE KIDD (1972)

Theatrical poster for Joe Kidd (1972)

Strong score by Schifrin, good dialogue and a few decent sequences… but on the whole Joe Kidd is definitely a lesser Eastwood western. Its relative neglect in the company of such greats is hardly a surprise. By all means see it if it’s eluded you… but don’t cancel all your urgent appointments just for this film.

MoM Rating 5.5/10

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