Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (July 24, 2018)
For the first time, Hollywood legends Paul Newman and John Huston joined forces for 1972’s The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean. Set at the end of the 19th century, outlaw Roy Bean (Newman) arrives in remote Vinegarroon Texas.
A realm known for general lawlessness, Bean sets himself up as the local judge. Unsurprisingly, he doesn’t renounce his past, so Bean resorts to his own off-beat form of “justice”.
Newman devoted a decent chunk of his career to anti-heroes such as his roles in Cool Hand Luke and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. This makes Bean another in that string, one with a pretty obvious nod back toward Sundance.
If you watch the film’s trailer, you’ll probably expect the same kind of romanticized fable found in Sundance, as the promo stretches hard to create similarities. Heck, it even heavily features a sappy pop song that sounds a lot like “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head” and pairs it with visuals that remind us of the Sundance’s famous bike-ride scene.
From the film’s start, though, Life actively distances itself from the gauzy, friendly tone of Sundance. Its first scene takes us to one of the nastiest saloons committed to celluloid, complete with an obese prostitute who gets a sponge bath in the middle of the room.
Based on this, I got the impression Life would bring us an anti-Western in addition to its anti-hero, and to a decent degree, it does. Much of Life seems like a parody of Westerns, one that accentuates the unreality of the genre.
In addition to the grimy saloon, we get a mix of violent escapades that stretch the bounds of reality. For instance, when Roy shoots an intruder, the dead man winds up with an enormous, exaggerated hole in his midriff. This shot would feel at home in a Sam Raimi movie.
And then there’s the scene that uses “Marmalade, Molasses and Honey”, the aforementioned sappy pop song. In perhaps the movie’s most obvious moment of mockery, it subverts the Sundance bike-ride to show Roy and his mistress (Victoria Principal) as they frolic with a bear.
I could practically hear Huston cackle with glee due to the way this sequence subverts Sundance’s famed musical bit. Add to this a stellar cast that also includes folks like Ned Beatty, Roddy McDowall, Ava Gardner, Anthony Perkins and many others and Life manages to create a movie that’s never worse than watchable.
Unfortunately, all that talent – including Huston and screenwriter John Milius – sets up expectations for something better than what Life can deliver. While interesting in bursts, the movie loses steam due to the general lack of real narrative movement.
Much of Life feels episodic. Though it does follow an overall arc of sorts, the movie doesn’t trace that path in an especially compelling way.
It also takes a big left turn late in the film that I don’t think works. To avoid spoilers, I won’t articulate what happens, but after a fairly languid pace, the last act of Life packs far too much time passage into far too small a space, and it makes the finale less satisfying.
Any film with Paul Newman as a degenerate outlaw can’t be too bad, and Life does work acceptably well most of the time. Still, with the potential involved, it winds up as a mild disappointment.