Tuesday, December 10, 2013
Purple State of John
Thoughts of a wordslinger…
There’s a scene in Walter Hill’s 1980 western The Long Riders that strikes me as David Carradine’s finest hour. I thought of it when the actor returned from years of obscurity to play the assassin CEO Bill in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, and it came to me again when I read the news of his death.
The Long Riders tells the story of the James Gang, one of the recurring western sagas in the American movies, and Walter Hill seems to have cast the movie with an eye to freshening up what could have seemed overly familiar material. In legend and to some extent in reality, the James crew was a family-run business, so the director picked his actors with genetics in mind.
Two or three Missouri clans staffed the operation: the James, of course, Frank and Jesse; the Youngers, Cole, Jim and Bob; the Millers, Ed and Clell; and the Fords, Bob and Charlie. To good effect, Hill found real brothers to inhabit those roles—James and Stacy Keach as Jesse and Frank James, Dennis and Randy Quaid as Ed and Clell Miller, Nicholas and Christopher Guest as Bob and Charlie Ford, and the Youngers, played by Keith Carradine as Jim, Robert Carradine as Bob, and David Carradine as Cole.
Though an ensemble piece, in many ways, the movie belongs to David Carradine’s Cole Younger. Brother Keith may have had the sex appeal, but David was the source of the film’s tension, its unhappy, restless heart, crossing swords with James Keach’s affectless Jesse James and generally feeling more like a damgerous outlaw of the 1880’s than a movie star of the 1980’s.
Carradine’s emblematic moment is the knife fight with Sam Starr,played by James Remar; it’s as if his character from the television series Kung Fu got bored with the virtuous life and tossed out all that stuff about being a peaceful warrior to lustily pick up a knife fetish. It’s a fantastic action sequence, but for my money the heart of Carradine’s performance, a magnificent and melancholy moment in the history of the later western, comes in an exchange with Frank James, played by Stacy Keach.
In the scene, Frank James and Cole Younger are seated together on a train bound for Northfield, Minnesota, where most of their gang will be killed or wounded and imprisoned. The two men clearly dislike each other. As played by Keach, Frank James strives for a certain respectability, marrying and settling down, while Carradine’s Younger barely understands the impulse. To the extent he does, he holds it in contempt.
Yet Carradine’s performance is not quite romantic. He gives us a Younger envious of the celebrity of the James brothers and resentful that he has somehow been eclipsed. The actor conveys an outlaw who is acutely aware of the class difference cultivated by his partners, who feels the stigma of being poor and uneducated.
In the conversation, which is brief, all of this is beautifully recapitulated. Younger announces that he’s going to write a memoir about his exploits as a man of the world. James look askance and says something like, “If pigs could fly.” But Younger assures him that he’s serious. Condescending, James then tells Younger that he expects a free copy, and Younger snorts in derision. “You gotta pay, Frank,” he says. “You gotta pay.”
It’s the quintessence of the actor in a few lines. Onscreen, Carradine always carried around with him a rueful sense of his own reduced dollar value, an awareness that he’d never quite ascended to the heights of movie stardom. Even in Kill Bill, where he is wonderfully showcased, he seems aware that he’s been resurrected from an undeserved obscurity and might topple back at any moment, unlike, say, Travolta in Pulp Fiction, who revved back into stardom as if he’d never been away.
It’s not fair to label David Carradine as merely a cult favorite, though. Carradine was a minor but vital character actor of the late 1970’s, one of those ugly, rough men that Peckinpah liked to slip into his movies like grizzled cherubim haunting the beauty of the landscapes. Carradine never worked for Peckinpah, but Walter Hill did, and I like to think Hill cast Carradine as Cole Younger in The Long Riders because the actor carried an authentic streak of Peckinpah despair and hardness.
David Carradine never stopped working, even as his star faded. It sounds like he liked his work. His death, whether by suicide or auto-erotic asphyxiation, seems sadly in keeping with his life in the movies. He was a disturbing presence, at his best, and the manner of his departure, bound in ropes, hanging in a closet, suggests why.
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