The Spikes Gang Review
It's difficult to know what to make of the career of Richard Fleischer. Few directors were blessed/cursed with helming about as many near-great movies as near-awful ones. With Fleischer, it seems that every Armored Car Robbery or The Narrow Margin has a Doctor Dolittle or The Vikings. The versatility is admirable, but it's difficult trying to reconcile Fleischer as making Violent Saturday and 10 Rillington Place, but also Che! and the 1980 version of The Jazz Singer. The Boston Strangler, and Red Sonja? Such are the dangers of the auteur theory, where Fleischer would probably either be ignored, chuckled at, or dismissed. Yet, he made many, many good films and his failures were often spectacularly bad to the point of having their own value as representatives of the perils of attempted epic filmmaking. Despite his missteps, Fleischer is a director whose work is firmly interesting and often emblematic of skilled, under-the-radar craftsmanship. Many of his better movies are straightforward, lacking any flash, and deliberately effective. You don't necessarily realise how good they are until the walk out of the cinema, the ejection of the disc, or even the day after watching, when you're still thinking about what you've seen.
In all those regards, The Spikes Gang is a Richard Fleischer picture. There are flaws and it's probably just an above average effort, but it's hard to deny that the movie is entirely worthwhile. The 1974 western does what a lot of films from that genre did in the '70s by eliminating the white-hatted hero and soaking the story in blood and despair. An aspect it can claim as its own is the focus on young adults, kids really, who are anxious to find independence in the west and instead discover tragedy in and around Mexico. The three lead youths are played by Gary Grimes, Ron Howard, and Charles Martin Smith. Grimes is the de facto leader whose father is shown beating him just prior to their journey away from home. When the film begins, they've discovered a bloody and beaten man seemingly on the down side of life who ends up being Harry Spikes, played with mustachioed glory by Lee Marvin.
Spikes is wanted in at least three states ("$1000 in Arkansas") and his profession seems to be that of a bank robber with murder as no obstacle. The kids are all impressed with his grit in that scab-pulling way young males idolise their elders. When Spikes rides out after being sufficiently rehabilitated, the three eventually break away from their home lives and venture out on their own. They rob a bank (poorly) and acquire bounties on their heads before getting locked up in a Mexican jail. Conveniently, Spikes comes to town and gets the boys out. Indebted but also enthralled, they align themselves with him until he leaves again, only to return with a plan. Bank robbery again and not entirely well thought out. At the risk of ruining the ending, Spikes is hardly a man of honour and his well-being always trumps anyone else's.
Lee Marvin delivers his usual inimitable and great performance as Spikes. I think maybe his work is a little analogous, if not hardly as impressive, as his role in Budd Boetticher's Seven Men from Now. He's an antagonist who relishes the chance to antagonise - only in Fleischer's film, Marvin preys upon his victims more slowly. Spikes is a snake who tricks the three young men into admiring and trusting him, and subsequently uses them for his own benefit. Though he's billed as the lead and was winding down as a major star at the time, Marvin doesn't have as many minutes on screen as the three young actors but he makes the most of when he's there. Even when he's doing little more than phoning it in, Lee Marvin is reason enough to see a film. His turn here, working with Fleischer for the first time since his memorable role in Violent Saturday, elevates it from a youth-oriented western steeped in tragedy to a more legitimate story about broken ideals and reckless consequences.
At first glance, The Spikes Gang can seem rather rudimentary. There's a by-the-numbers aspect struggling to be broken at the seams. The young actors are all perfectly fine, but do seem on the verge of being a distraction in their dullness. Only Grimes really has anything of interest to do (and I wonder what has happened to him). His character almost seems like a torchbearer to Marvin's Spikes at times, but the struggle between morality and survival proves to be decisive. The film really comes alive in the last few minutes when Grimes has to face off against Marvin and we're given an ending that's pretty far removed from the western heroism audiences expect. I think it elevates Fleischer's film from being merely an okay and basic western to occupying a higher ground as something that's at least pretty good and probably more interesting than it gets credit for being. There's no real need or demand for its reputation to be boosted, but given its previous unavailability on home video, one wonders how many people even know the movie exists. Such a dismissive fate isn't deserved, and hopefully a renewed interest will further allow Fleischer's star to rise above the likes of Soylent Green and Mandingo.
Optimum has pretty much given fans of The Spikes Gang a backwards toss. If you purchase the disc you get the movie and that's it. No trailer or bonus features. No spruced-up transfer. It's the basic approach to releasing the film, which isn't without merit. The R2 PAL disc is single-layered, and the image is presented in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio, enhanced for widescreen televisions. The transfer is progressive, but doesn't look to be cleaned up much, if any. Speckles and digital noise show up on occasion. There's also some light visible grain here and there. The colours look mostly fine and sufficient. Marvin's skin is often exceptionally red, but no one else has that same tone so it was probably just how the actor appeared at the time. Detail is maybe a bit lacking, but it's definitely very watchable and sharpness is adequate to good for a film this age.
Audio sounds flat and is presented only in an English Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track. The volume is a tad low and dialogue sometimes gets lost in the mix, though there aren't any problems with the clarity of the audio itself. A few gunshots late in the film make their presence known, but it's otherwise a casual effort. Subtitles are not offered for any language, though they would have been nice at times.
No extra features at all. The disc menu offers only an option to play the film or go to some scene selections.