Thursday, July 5, 2007
Even though it contains the only screen teaming between two of the biggest stars in Hollywood history, George Seaton's 1973 feature SHOWDOWN has been largely forgotten. Starring Dean Martin and Rock Hudson, SHOWDOWN has been unjustly neglected since it opened and closed quickly back in June of 1973.
Seaton had been directing since the mid forties when he shot SHOWDOWN in 1972, and it would turn out to be his final feature film as director. A talented, if undervalued director, Seaton is probably most famous for the original version of MIRACLE ON 34th STREET. Other credits include the searing Clifford Odets adaptation, THE COUNTRY GIRL, the charming TEACHER'S PET and the best picture winning AIRPORT. A two time Oscar winner, Seaton would sadly die of cancer just a few years after finishing SHOWDOWN.
SHOWDOWN would mark one of the last major appearances by Dean Martin, who was said to be unhappy during the shoot due to the death of his favorite horse. SHOWDOWN also marked an end to the great Rock Hudson's prolific run of films that had started in the fifties and he would just work sporadically after 1973.
SHOWDOWN was a bit out of step for the early seventies. Directors like Sam Peckinpah and Monte Hellman had totally transformed the American Western and the fairly subdued and elegiac SHOWDOWN didn't stand much of a chance in mid 1973.
Seaton's film tells the fairly simple story of two men, Chuck and Billy, who grew up together but went very separate ways in their lives. Rock Hudson's Chuck settled down and became a lawman while Martin's Billy chose a life of crime. It is a story that had been told a countless number of times before and since but there is something so weary and sad about SHOWDOWN that I think it stands apart from them.
With it lovely, and at times, haunting score by David Shire and wisely shot 2.35 compositions, SHOWDOWN is a very effective film throughout it's fairly short running time of 99 minutes. There is something positively epic in this little film about two friends who chose the most different of lives but never stopped caring for each other or forgot where they came from.
The acting is fine throughout with Martin and Hudson surrounded by many top tier character actors including Donald Moffat and Ed Begley, Jr. in a smaller role. Susan Clark does a good job as Chuck's wife Kate but I always think of Tuesday Weld when I watch the film and can only imagine the multi-layered performance she would have given in the part. Hudson is at the top of his game here, middle aged and exhausted looking but still beautiful. He does a brilliant job at playing a man who has a job to do that he knows will ultimately ask him to make the hardest decision of his life. Martin is excellent as well and it is a performance that improves as the film goes along. At first it appears Dean will be giving one of his patented comic and winking performances but he does some really remarkable heavy dramatic work here as a man who knows what his destiny holds and that there isn't any escape from it.
Shot by prolific cinematographer, Ernest Laszlo, SHOWDOWN is gorgeous to look at and his photography is particularly good in the films many flashback scenes to the boys youth, when they were the closest of friends.
SHOWDOWN isn't perfect, I don't think that anyone working on it realized that they had what was close to being a really great film on their hands. It could do with being about thirty minutes longer as more characterization is needed, especially with Kate and Chuck. It feels edited a bit tight also, although the cutting by DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER editor John W. Holmes is mostly well done throughout. SHOWDOWN feels like a film that the studio expected to fail but that somewhere along the way, Seaton and crew realized they might have a winner on their hands. I think had that thought been there at the beginning, SHOWDOWN would have turned out to be a small masterpiece. As it is, it is a solid and moving good film with more great moments than anyone might expect.
SHOWDOWN does indeed reach greatness in its final few minutes where we see both men reaching their individual destinies. There is a particular flashback scene and a line speaking of "the world spitting at you" that brings a tear to my eye every time I watch the film and the look on Rock Hudson's face at the end of this movie is the work of a master giving one of his last truly great performances.
SHOWDOWN would open and close quickly with very little critical or popular attention given to it. For most in the Summer of 1973, it was a product of a time that had slipped away. Ironically it was about two men who themselves were living in a world that had passed them by. SHOWDOWN would appear briefly on VHS in the mid nineties but has never been released on DVD. It is currently missing in action and is rarely mentioned in film circles.
SHOWDOWN reminds me of some of Jean-Pierre Melville's films. It, of course, doesn't achieve the greatness of Melville but in its own small way it has some of the same emotional resonance as the great French master's films.
Late in his life, Dean Martin was said to get great pleasure from watching old westerns on tv. I often think about the lovely man, sitting in his chair smoking, with perhaps a drink, and watching the flickering memories of his youth. I sometimes wonder if he ever happened to stumble across SHOWDOWN during one of those Western marathons he so enjoyed. Would he have flipped quickly by or would he have stopped, if only for a brief moment, and smiled at a film that is a lot better than anybody has ever given it credit for? There is no telling, we lost Dean as well as Rock years ago and I suppose in a way it is fitting, even if it is unjust, that SHOWDOWN has in its own way all but been lost to time also.