Doc Review

Here's an interesting example of making the wrong movie at the wrong time. The 1971 film Doc, ostensibly in the western genre though closer in spirit to the same year's revisionist McCabe & Mrs. Miller, was penned by writer Pete Hamill and directed by Frank Perry, both products of New York City. Lead Stacy Keach, still a year before John Huston's Fat City, was known mostly as a Broadway stage actor and co-star Faye Dunaway was no stranger to Manhattan theatre either. Thus, one might conclude that the road to a film about noted gunfighter John "Doc" Holliday, just fourteen years after Kirk Douglas owned the role in Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and only four since Jason Robards put his own spin on the character in Hour of the Gun, somewhat originated in New York. In actuality, Hamill has stated that he based his idea for the film, wherein Doc looks positively admirable in comparison to the morally corrupt shadings given Wyatt Earp, on the Vietnam conflict, even modeling Earp on President Lyndon Johnson.

From a certain standpoint, none of this makes any sense at all. Earp and Holliday are two of the most revered and frequently portrayed characters in screen history. John Ford gave audiences two distinctly different portraits of Earp, lionising him in My Darling Clementine only to present an altogether harsher view in Cheyenne Autumn, and Holliday too has shown up in film after film, usually as a darkly unheroic good guy. The question of why Hamill and Perry would attach the problems of Johnson and Vietnam onto a familiar and, most likely, popular figure of the old west, once again focussing on the famed 1881 shoot-out in Tombstone, seems downright impossible to answer with any satisfaction. Hamill apparently saw a parallel in Johnson's actions with Earp's own shortcomings, but the premise alone seems like a stretch. Yet, somehow the film got made with Perry at the helm. The director, who's perhaps now a bit underrated or underappreciated, fit Doc in between a pair of pretty good efforts, Diary of a Mad Housewife and Play It As It Lays.

As befitting the title, the focus is squarely on Holliday. The film opens with the former dentist entering a grimy saloon and challenging the Clantons to one hand of poker, with dirt-faced prostitute Kate Elder (Dunaway) as the prize. Unsurprisingly, Holliday wins and thus begins a strange mixture of wham-bang loser love story between Doc and Kate and the male equivalent between Wyatt and Doc. There are elements of the picture that are unconvincing, but the mere idea of perpetually drunk, tuberculosis-suffering Doc as the comparatively in the right protagonist to Harris Yulin's Wyatt is not without some interest. At this point in cinematic history, Earp was such a stalwart of good guy bravado that pulling the rug out from underneath his legend might've been a tough pill to swallow. Ford's Cheyenne Autumn only places Earp in the background, but Perry and Hamill seemed to have an agenda in that revisionist priority of tearing down legends in favour of reality's cruel truths. Indeed, most historical accounts place Earp as closer to the corrupt opportunist we see in Doc than the strong-willed beacon of justice Henry Fonda played in My Darling Clementine.

Even with history (partially) on its side, the film has to also work as a compelling narrative. It's no surprise that Doc certainly isn't going to win over the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral audience. For one thing, it's a much different kind of movie. Distractingly profane, like a ten-year-old who uses expletives simply because he can and without realising he instead comes across merely as inarticulate, Doc often has no sense of structure, narrative, or point. There must be more than a simple repainting of Earp and Holliday. An entire film cannot withstand its own weight if the only thing it strives to accomplish is tying a legendary figure with a sadly misguided modern one. Actually, Hamill and Perry do tackle two very meaty topics for a film that's only about 96 minutes long, but neither are properly explored. The unfortunate thing is that much can be derived from Doc's relationship with Kate while the Earp portion mostly makes for a good contrast with previous portrayals.

It should be understood that such a short amount of time isn't going to allow for much in the way of complex dives into these characters' psychological profiles. Not helping matters is how dull Keach's Holliday and Yulin's Earp are. The latter's eyes seem permanently stuck. No matter what he says, his eyeballs try to mimic glass. Keach is better in comparison, but there's still a component missing from his performance. He's not entirely believable as either a man dying from tuberculosis or one whose legendary status precedes him. This again brings to mind the question as to why even use Holliday. He's been played so effectively both prior to the film and since that Keach's contribution becomes entirely forgettable. It's only in the more quiet look at Doc and Kate, a whore given reformation and a white dress, that the film resembles something worthwhile.

Much of this is due to Dunaway, an actress whose highs are nearly off the charts, despite her work too often being confusingly insubstantial. She'd later join Perry again for Mommie Dearest, before arguably devolving into continued mediocrity ever since. Yet, in Doc, Dunaway is again effective and on target. The relationship she has with Holliday seems simple in the sense of him saving her from the life of selling herself on a daily basis. But why him and why now? The more complex aspect of what's going on between Doc and Kate isn't really answered and the hints are pretty vague. Dunaway skillfully sells the dynamic, of a woman literally cleaned up and freed from a life of prostitution, and it's her acting that holds this portion of the film together. With Keach's Holliday, it's nearly impossible to determine what his motives or dreams are. He's much too blank and, unfortunately, not that interesting.

Nonetheless, the film wishes to keep the main light shining on the Tombstone showdown. That's what forms the climactic sequence, showing Earp and his boys as shotgun-wielding political bullies, and it's probably what the viewer, the one who's hardly been placated throughout, expects. I see the staging as a weakness, both because this isn't and shouldn't be a traditional, action-packed western and because it takes the movie away from Holliday in favour of Earp. Doc does at least portray it a bit differently - swift and without giving Earp the benefit of any doubt, but it ultimately matters little. Perry's film is working against its position as an Earp-Holliday film because it prefers to disconnect the myth. Unfortunately, its structure aims otherwise and actively wishes to be included among the Tombstone shootout movies. If the film could decide which point it truly wants to drive home, Earp's flaws or the relationship between Doc and Kate, and then keep the focus accordingly, we might have something. Otherwise, Doc is an always interesting, if somewhat lethargic, wrinkle in the revisionist western movement. It could be better, but the film still doesn't deserve to be forgotten.

The Disc

Worth mentioning is that the BBFC apparently cut five seconds from the film to "remove sight of cockfight." A disclaimer or warning to this effect would have been appreciated.

The print used here is quite good, presented in 1:85:1 and enhanced. Very little damage, amounting to just a few speckles, and adequate detail help the progressive transfer look satisfactory. I'd rate it just above Optimum's concurrent release of The Spikes Gang, a film which is actually a bit more recent. The opening sequence of Doc is quite dark, though surely this is intentional and the remainder of the film is sufficiently lit. The palette employed is brown, brown, and more brown. This is obviously a common attribute of the western and no need for concern. The transfer seems to present everything up to acceptable standards. It seems doubtful Optimum would've altered the print used to any significant degree, and the video quality of this DVD is of a perfectly watchable standard. Even more so since there's no other existing release in R1 or the UK.

Audio is just an English Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track. The immediate thing I noticed was how low the volume is turned down. It's at a consistent level, but expect to boost the volume quite a bit. Otherwise, an acceptable track. Dialogue is the main concern, and it's presented clearly and effectively. Don't expect a whole lot here and you won't be disappointed. The most significant problem is a lack of subtitles. Some of the dialogue is low enough in the mix as to be difficult to hear so no subtitles is a big minus. Really no excuse for failing to include subtitles on a DVD at this stage of the game.

Even though there's probably no reason to expect Optimum to include any supplemental material of interest, something to put everything in context would've been nice. Alas, nothing here at all, not even a trailer. The menu allows us to play the film or select a chapter stop. That's it. Enjoy.

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