Lee Marvin and Oliver Reed have a grand old time in this comedy-western, now available as a DVD-R.
The Great Scout and Cathouse Thursday seems to have few illusions about being little more than a reasonably entertaining comedy-western. It’s basic, already tread territory buoyed mostly by a good cast and a sense of imminent extinction for its subgenre. The draw is Lee Marvin, here in his final western. This picture marked yet another opportunity for Marvin to embody the withering cowboy character he’d established so well in films like Monte Walsh and The Spikes Gang. The characterizations across these three movies aren’t quite the same but they are of a similar piece. They represent well a kind of seventies take on western heroes. There’s some irreverence, a good deal of independence, and a concession to change. The particular setting here is Colorado in 1908, during the campaign between Democrat William Jennings Bryan and Republic William Howard Taft for President of the United States.
Marvin plays Sam Longwood, the first of the two title characters. He’s more of a legend in his own mind than elsewhere, but perhaps an important man to history nonetheless. The country is changing and Sam’s getting older. His running buddies of co-conspirators are half-breed Joe Knox (Oliver Reed) and old coot Billy (Strother Martin). All three were involved a decade and a half or so earlier with Jack Colby (Robert Culp) in a gold mine deal that paid off but only for the latter, who ran away with the others’ shares. He nicked them for about sixty grand and became a political big shot in the meantime, campaigning for Taft when Sam finally catches up to him. The other dynamic is the latter title character, a young prostitute played by Kay Lenz who feigns being kidnapped to get out from under her madame Mike (Sylvia Miles). By the end of the film our (somewhat) good guys and girls, joined by Elizabeth Ashley as the foul-mouthed wife of Colby, are being pursued by both Colby and his men and Mike and hers.
It’s generally okay that not much of narrative consequence occurs between the opening scenes, which memorably involve a fangless rattler and Joe Knox bragging about spreading the clap to all white men via prostitutes for each day of the week (hence Lenz’s character name), and that climactic chase. Westerns work especially well when they find a groove. For the most part, intricate plotting isn’t required. These entries that also infuse comedy are sometimes even more modest in scope, creating conflict and then settling to rely on the broader characterizations. The Great Scout and Cathouse Thursday was one of the last gasps to try to coast by in this manner. It works, but only marginally and in spite of Oliver Reed’s performance. He’s pretty much doing Native American blackface at times, and there’s a discomfort in watching even if the character is supposed to be partially exploiting his heritage to comedic effect. He also has just a touch of Anton Chigurh about him, albeit only in voice and appearance.
One can’t help wondering if maybe what happened away from the cameras might have been more interesting and fun than the finished film. The two leads, both notorious drinkers, have some quotes about each other out in the ether of the internet that could raise an eyebrow or two. Marvin reportedly once recounted his surprise at first seeing the man he’d heard to be Britain’s hellraiser as instead a “tailor’s dummy in a pinstripe suit looking more like a fucking banker.” Reed facetiously struggled to come up with Marvin’s last name in an absolutely bizarre appearance on Late Night with David Letterman in the mid-eighties where he refused to answer any questions about a possible drinking contest between the men. There were probably many of those 20th century duels but one, according to another source, involved enough tequila to put both Marvin and Reed in the hospital with alcohol poisoning. Only Reed’s performance seems to potentially suffer from the extracurricular activities. He can come off as distant and unmotivated in the film.
If director Don Taylor struggled to rein in his actors it doesn’t otherwise show and this remains one of the more notable entries in his time behind the camera. As an actor in the late forties and fifties Taylor was gifted with a handful of enduring roles despite having little screen presence. He was the younger partner to Barry Fitzgerald sent out in search of a murderer in Jules Dassin’s The Naked City and the POW initially resented for his privileged upbringing by William Holden in Stalag 17. Prominent roles in Father of the Bride and Battleground also deserve quick mention. Behind the camera, Taylor had about the same amount of flair, largely subsisting on television shows and movies made for the small screen. The film’s lone screenwriter Richard Shapiro also was a TV veteran, and would be best known for creating the prime time soap Dynasty with his wife. The Great Scout and Cathouse Thursday was Shapiro’s only feature film writing credit.
Released on a single-layered DVD-R via the MGM Limited Edition Collection, The Great Scout and Cathouse Thursday is cooked to order for about $19.95 through various online retail outlets. It has nice cover art that appears to reproduce the film’s original poster but the back cover design for this line needs some work to make it look more official and less like a bootleg. The packaging is just the burned disc in a regular keepsize which has the “Eco-Box” signifier on the inside spine and feels light in weight.
The best news is easily that the film can now be seen in its original 1.85:1 widescreen presentation, and it’s 16×9 enhanced. I’ve previously seen the Encore Westerns channel play it in fullscreen, which is also how it’s always appeared for streaming on Netflix. Just as exciting for those keen on getting this disc is that the progressive transfer looks very good. The image is pleasantly clean and well-defined, with a natural layer of grain present. Colors appear a tad dull but not unusually so for a western from this time. The disc is single-layered but with little wasted space and a strong bitrate. Hesitate for the price but not the quality of the appearance.
Audio also has a nice and faithful spin to it. Dialogue emits clearly and without issue. The twangy music on the soundtrack sounds better than fine. Really no complaints here other than the lack of subtitles.
Don’t expect any extra features, though, as there are none to be found.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum