Wednesday, August 29, 2007

A Different Kind Of Role

Recently I was re-reminded of how important the DVD format is. Since its brief 1969 release the Elvis Presley film CHARRO has only been available in one of the most horrendous pan and scans jobs I have ever seen, and typically in a cut tv print. Partially because of this, the film has long been thought of as one of Presley's weakest, a final nail in the coffin of his film career if you will. The striking new Widescreen transfer that has just recently released on disc shows a film much better than anyone, even a die hard Elvis fan like me, would have ever thought.
One of the great unspoken truths about the film career of Elvis Presley is that the formula trap that he found himself in by the mid sixties had been escaped from with the 1968 film LIVE A LITTLE LOVE AT LITTLE. The relative disappointing showing of SPEEDWAY, a film which had been hoped to bring in the kind of numbers VIVA LAS VEGAS had, caused the studio and Presley's manager to finally release their tight grip a bit, and in his final few films Elvis Presley was given a small chance to shine again as an actor.

The four films in question, all released in 68 and 69, that fell very much out of the formula Presley films were the aforementioned comedy LIVE A LITTLE LOVE A LITTLE, THE TROUBLE WITH GIRLS, CHANGE OF HABIT and CHARRO. There were still some songs, there were still some girls but all four of these films differed greatly from the poor quality productions Presley had been given just a couple of years earlier in films like DOUBLE TROUBLE and EASY COME EASY GO.
CHARRO isn't a great film by any means. It suffers from a lazy script by director Charles Marquis Warren, under-developed characters and a couple of notably poor supporting performances. These flaws have been apparent since it first came out but what hasn't been apparent is just how striking looking the film is, how amazing the Hugo Montenegro score sounds and just how good Elvis Presley is as the reformed outlaw Jess Wade.
Warren's film is one of many Hollywood productions in the Late sixties that was very deliberately copying the Italian Western that had become such a big industry. Elvis, who counted Clint Eastwood as one of his favorite actors, plays a 'man with no name' like character who has been falsely accused of stealing a canon by a group of outlaws he used to run with. The plot of CHARRO has been seen in hundreds of Westerns so going into detail on it is a bit useless. The things about the film that should be noted is the look, sound and Presley's surprising turn as the bearded outlaw trying to make right.
One thing I noticed upon viewing this dvd is how sharp, at times, the veteran Warren's direction is. CHARRO would be the final feature from the, at the time, near sixty year old Warren. His career wasn't overwhelming distinguished as it was mostly made up of tv work and B westerns but his underrated work on films like ARROWHEAD (1953), SEVEN ANGRY MEN (1955)and the strange BACK FROM THE DEAD (1957) are all worth a second look. Warren's direction of CHARRO is quite nice, the framing of certain shots stand out and seem well organized and carefully considered. Often having three or more characters in the frame with Presley seemingly trapped in the middle is a nice touch and he handles the film's exciting action scenes very well.

Even more striking than Warren's direction is the cinematography by Ellsworth Fredericks. The photographer of Kazan's masterful WILD RIVER (1960) really brings a lot to CHARRO and it is lit and shot very memorably with special mention going to the colorful interior work in Ina Balin's brothel. Also worth noting is the film's set decoration by Charles S. Thompson who had just finished up some really delightful work on the charming DON'T MAKE WAVES just a year before.
Composer Hugo Montenagro's western work is often thought of as basically Morricone Lite but his work on CHARRO is splendidly inventive and at times very eerie. The film's one song is also fantastic and is sung by Presley over the main credits. I would love to see a full soundtrack release for this film as it is one of the elements of the newly re-mastered dvd that really stuck with me.
The supporting cast is mostly good with a couple of exceptions. Lovely Ina Balin really stands out as Wade's former girl Tracey and Victor French is always solid. His ruthless Vince Hackett is particularly strong. The film belongs to the 33 year old Presley though and he comes through with a solid and intense performance as the damaged Jess Wade.
Presley was never more beautiful than he was in 1969. I would argue that there has never been a better looking man than Elvis in this period and he is really breathtaking to watch in CHARRO. He is at his best when the script calls for him to just be silent, Presley from some of his earliest roles like LOVE ME TENDER (1956) and KING CREOLE (1958) was always good at portraying a silent internal turmoil and he was never better at it than in CHARRO. Unfortunately the script's dialogue often lets him down and it is a shame that the studio didn't give it a thorough rewrite as this could have been something really splendid. Still, there are certain moments in this film where you can really see the actor Presley could have easily become and CHARRO (along with CHANGE OF HABIT) is a sad little postscript to one of the most 'if only' film careers in Hollywood history.

CHARRO opened in the spring of 1969 to lukewarm business and weak reviews for the few critics who bothered to watch it. It made its way to television in the seventies losing some of its violence and an Ina Balin nude scene before hitting the dreaded public domain market in the eighties. The new DVD is unfortunately still trimmed of some of the violence (the film is quite brutal at times and it should be noted that Presley performed many of his own stunts) and Balin's nude shot is also still not here, but otherwise the DVD is incredible in how great it looks. Outside of some trailers and collectible cards, no extras have been given the release which is a shame.

The two songs recorded for CHARRO (one, LET'S FORGET ABOUT THE STARS was never used) are both fine, still available and recommended. The brooding and haunting title track is particularly memorable and is one of the more underrated sixties tracks from Elvis.
Apparently among the many films that Colonel Tom Parker stopped Elvis Presley from doing over the years was MIDNIGHT COWBOY in 1969. One can only imagine what the role of Joe Buck would have done for not only Elvis Presley's career but also his spirit. CHARRO, outside of two spellbinding concert films, was along with CHANGE OF HABIT the last time audience's would see ELvis Presley on the big screen. Thanks to the greed and short sightedness of a artistically challenged manager, he would never work as an actor again.
CHARRO is among the most surprising dvd releases of the year. Despite some noticeable flaws, I highly recommend it it to anyone who might have seen one of those washed out pan and scan transfers years ago, or to anyone with even a passing interest in being reminded of how good Elvis Presley the actor could have been.


Rogue Spy 007 said...

I've only recently begun to watch some Elvis movies. So far my favorites have been Viva Las Vegas, Clambake, and Speedway. Maybe not Oscar caliber work, but something fun to watch. I didn't know Elvis had done any westerns. That might be neat to see. I'll have to give this one a try.

Jeremy Richey said...

Hey Keith,
Check out "King Creole", "Flaming Star", "Wild In The Country" and "Follow That Dream" for some of Elvis' best performances.
For sheer fun may I recommend, "Jailhouse Rock", "Kid Gallahad" "Tickle Me", "Girl Happy" and "Live A Little Love A Little".
For some real surprises check out this film and "Change Of Habit"...good luck and thanks for the comments...

Pam Dyson, MA, PLPC said...

Jeremy, I really enjoyed your comments on Charro. So many Elvis fans love this movie but it never gets the accolades it deserves. Thanks!

cinebeats said...

Great review! You made me want to see this film again. I've only seen it once many years ago on TV and I'm sure it as cut up and of course presented in awful "pan and scan." Sadly I can't remember it much either, but I did think Elvis looked really cute as a scruffy outlaw.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks Pam,
I appreciate you stopping by and leaving comments.

Hey Kimberly,
Like I said it has some problems but I highly recommend the new dvd for you. It really is like watching a new film if you have only seen those old P&S versions...thanks for commenting

Rogue Spy 007 said...

Thanks Jeremy for the recomnendations. I'll definitely have to check all those out.

Neil Sarver said...

Thanks for the write-up. Oddly, this must be the only Elvis western I haven't seen, which is odd, since it's the most appealing looking to me. And Kimberly is right, he is kinda cute... damn sexy even... in that scruffy beard and such. I'll have to check out this DVD very soon.

Jeremy Richey said...

No problem Keith,
Hope you enjoy them.

Thanks Neil,
I think "Flaming Star" is probably the best of his westerns but this one, despite its flaws, is well worth a look. And to reiterate what both you and Kimberly said, Elvis is truly astonishing looking in this role. To paraphrase the great Jerry Reed, "Damn, Elvis was better looking that most women."

Neil Sarver said...

I watched it over the weekend. It's definitely not bad, and, as with several others, Elvis shows a lot of potential as an actor, but never quite shines above that. I enjoyed it, actually especially the particularly wicked Victor French and the wacky James Sikking. But, yeah, it's attempt to blend a Spaghetti Western type story with the cheesy simplistic morality of mediocre westerns of the past never quite resonates.

I'm glad I took the chance to watch it. Thanks for reminding me.