Release Date(s)1965 (May 10, 2016)
Studio(s)Columbia Pictures (Twilight Time)
- Film/Program Grade: B
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: B+
Elliot Silverstein’s Cat Ballou (1965) is an amiable comic Western elevated to classic status by a pair of iconic performances: Jane Fonda in the title role as a rancher’s daughter who turns to train robbery after her father is murdered; and Lee Marvin in an Oscar-winning dual turn as good-and-evil brothers. In typical Academy fashion, Marvin was honored with the bald swordsman not for his best work – there are a good dozen Marvin performances with far greater depth and resonance than this one, from Point Blank to The Big Red One – but his showiest. His turn as drunk gunfighter Kid Shelleen and Shelleen’s villainous twin Tim Strawn is about as hammy as screen acting gets; he doesn’t just chew the scenery in this movie, he devours it. Yet that’s undeniably part of the fun of Cat Ballou, a movie with little nuance or subtlety (or balance, or rhythm…) that transcends its limitations through the infectious good will of its performers.
That includes not only Marvin and Fonda, who leapt to stardom with this part, but supporting players like Michael Callan, Dwayne Hickman, and musicians Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye, who provide a delightful running commentary via a collection of songs they perform as the movie’s Greek chorus. Everyone here is game, and the sheer energy compensates for the fact that this isn’t really much of a movie. Silverstein came from TV, and truth be told, he didn’t have much sense of dramatic shape when it came to the feature film format – his smartest move as a filmmaker is to just aim his camera in the general direction of his actors and get out of the way. Even though the screenplay is by future legend Frank Pierson (who would go on to write the classics Cool Hand Luke and Dog Day Afternoon), the storytelling in Cat Ballou is pretty slack – there’s no real sense of momentum or tension, and the actors don’t so much tell the jokes as let them drop out of their mouths with a dull thud. Yet Silverstein does have a flair for light and color, and this combined with the enthusiasm of the actors makes Cat Ballou a highly watchable light entertainment in spite of the fact that it’s not the great movie its popularity would suggest.
The Blu-ray’s image and sound are in keeping with Twilight Time’s typically high standards, offering a crisp, vibrant presentation of this colorful romp that showcases the lush location photography (as well as the immaculately production designed studio sections of the film) with clarity and subtlety. The disc contains two amiable and informative audio commentaries, one by actors Callan and Hickman and another by film historians Eddy Friedfeld, Lee Pfeiffer and Paul Scrabo; the only – quite annoying – drawback here is an audio problem on the historical narration track in which the participants seem to me miked at drastically different levels, forcing the viewer to keep raising and lowering the volume throughout. There’s also a nice featurette in which Silverstein discusses the making of the picture, and a more original than usual theatrical trailer. The best of the supplements is a superb documentary, Lee and Pamela: a Romance, in which Lee Marvin’s widow recalls Marvin’s life and career through the prism of their relationship. It’s an exceptional piece of work, providing a poignant counterpoint to the silly but enjoyable feature it accompanies.
- Jim Hemphill