“Piss On The White Man.” – Nervous Elk
The Villain (Hal Needham, 1979) was Kirk Douglas’ last theatrical Western, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s only Western, and the final performance of Paul Lynde. So obviously, the production of this cinematic travesty had a tremendous impact on the psyches of all those involved, not mentioning all those that bore witness to its live action Looney Tunes insanity. Filled with copious amounts of old man humor (be careful of Arnie’s “seven shot six shooter” and the endless number of banana peel pratfalls) and handled with the nudge-nudge-wink-wink subtlety you would expect from the man that directed the Smokey and the Bandit series as well as both Cannonball Run films. The Villain is a curiosity worth at least one viewing. Its only fans rank in Schwarzenegger completests and admirers of Ann-Margaret’s ever-present cleavage. And, of course, there are plenty of those.
Kirk Douglas is Cactus Jack Slade, the titular villain dressed head to toe in black leather, who finds his nefarious code of bandit honor between the yellow pages of his “Badmen of the West” pocketbook. He’s a dope. A sad sack reincarnation of Wile E Coyote. After failing to rob both a train and a bank, Cactus Jack is locked behind bars on account of his traitorous horse. His only hope for escape comes from Jack Elam’s crooked banker who offers Slade a deal in return for the kidnapping of Ann-Margaret. The rest of the “plot” has to deal with Strother Martin’s silver mine and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s dim bulb sheriff, but to drone on any more about the story would be both painful to write and painful to read so let’s just leave it at that.
Filmed just nine years after There Was A Crooked Man (Joseph L Mankiewicz) the twinkle and charm of Douglas’ Son of a Bitch outlaw has definitely faded, and maybe that’s because time has not been kind to the actor or it’s just impossible to hide his desire to flee the confines of this painfully unfunny script. I tend to think the latter. Kirk Douglas earns his money jumping through the hoops of fast-forward frame rate comedy (a personal cinematic pet peeve) and stepping back as his stunt team summersaults over cliffs. He definitely knows how to sell being whacked over the head by balsa wood (“That’s an uppercut…that’s a left cross…” BANG! “That’s a 2 x 4.”) but he can’t sell his turmoil over a paycheck.
Or is that my own hang up? Has my hipster ironic cynicism taken over to the point where I can no longer just enjoy a sugar glass bottle smashing across the skull of a stuntman’s head? It’s possible. But maybe I just don’t live in an era where slide whistle sound effects and whinnying peanut buttered mouthed horses equal comedy anymore? Can a post 9/11 society deal with The Villain? Oh shut up, Brad.
The only reason I watched this film was because I was on a Schwarzenegger kick, and it seemed incredibly strange to me that the only film of Arnie’s I’d never seen before was his only Western—my most idolized genre. And that’s really the only manner in which to consume this film that I could recommend. Filling your gaps in Arnie worship. Raw Deal, check. Conan The Destroyer, check. Red Sonja, check. The Villain, last and most certainly least, check.
If Kirk Douglas is a dope here, than Arnold Schwarzenegger is a tremendous dolt chuckling and yammering his way through acting. He had already appeared in a handful of TV episodes and, of course, Hercules in New York (Arthur Allan Seidelman, 1969) and Stay Hungry (Bob Rafelson, 1976), but his persona still had several years of development before he erupted into 80s Action Iconography. His Handsome Stranger (ugh, seriously) is nearly bursting at the seams of his Back to the Future III wardrobe, and I kept expecting buttons to explode from his chest popping out the eyes of extras. (Un?)Fortunately, the buttons hold their strength and the only wardrobe malfunctions to bless our tiring eyes are the various plunging tops of Ann-Margaret.
The Villain definitely does not deliver on the “pistol popping laughter” promised on the back of the box, but if you can manage to pry your hipster glasses off your face and bask in the oddity of an humorless live action adaption of a Warner Brothers cartoon (that’s actually produced by Columbia Pictures) than there might be entertainment value to be found. This is not the type of film you pop on every year or even every decade, but it’s an interesting Western to have living in your memory. Something to reference at parties; show off to your nerd friends. And oh yeah, the film climaxes with an epic sexual climax. A real Kirk Douglas hootenanny that is alone worth the price of admission. Yikes. YouTube it asap.