Friday, August 24, 2012

Comic Relief: The Villain

When Kurt and I were dating we wanted to go to a movie, so we pulled out the newspaper to see what was playing. (Remember those days?) We selected a film starring Kirk Douglas, and drove to the theater expecting a serious western. Much to our surprise and delight, The Villain turned out to be a comedy. Neither of us had ever seen Kirk Douglas in a comedic role, so maybe it was the unexpected that tickled us so much, but we laughed until we hurt.

Here's an essay I wrote about the film...

            What do you get when you mix the cartoon-like antics of Wile E. Coyote with a western genre film? You get The Villain! It has elements of a typical western—open space of the western frontier, good guys in white hats, bad guys in black hats—but the moment Cactus Jack Slade (Kirk Douglas) jumps from a rocky ledge to rob a moving train and misses the train altogether, the viewer realizes this is not a typical western. The film relies heavily on slapstick comedy to generate laughs. Slapstick is “…comedy with broad, aggressive, physical, and visual action, including harmless or painless cruelty and violence” and “horseplay” (Dirks). Painless violence and horseplay give The Villain its comic climate.
            The character of Cactus Jack is involved with numerous pranks that could easily cause bodily injury, and other stunts that would bring certain death, but walks away unharmed with only a bruised ego. Evidence of painless accidents is plentiful in the film, beginning with the aforementioned attempted train robbery. As the train approaches, Cactus Jack pulls his neck scarf over his nose, bandit style, and prepares to jump. Then he leaps into the air. The viewer sees the train move on by and then sees him still falling. Cut to Cactus Jack lying face down in the gravel and dirt between the rails. He lifts his head, looks at the back of the train, pulls his scarf down, and softly swears. He survived a horrendous fall and is unharmed.
            In the film, Handsome Stranger (Arnold Schwarzenegger) escorts the beautiful Charming Jones (Ann-Margret) providing protection for her and her father’s money. As Cactus Jack attempts to rob Handsome Stranger (named after his unknown father) of both the girl and the money, he pulls stunts similar to Wile E. Coyote trying to catch the Road Runner. Wile E. Coyote often referred to instruction manuals from ACME, and Cactus Jack often refers to a manual titled: Badmen of the West. Following the advice in the book, Cactus Jack sets a variety of traps to stop Handsome Stranger and Charming Jones. In one classic cartoon-like stunt, Cactus Jack paints a huge black tunnel on the side of a cliff, and then turns the road sign to point that direction. He hides in the bushes and snickers as he watches the wagon approach the fake tunnel. However, the wagon enters into the tunnel as if it were real. The astonished bandit runs to the tunnel entrance and smacks into the solid rock. 
All his robbery attempts go awry, and like Wile E. Coyote and slapstick comedy, Cactus Jack lives on to try yet another scheme. For instance, he ties a rope to a huge boulder then drops the rope over a cliff and repels down to the road where the wagon will soon pass. The boulder rolls over the cliff and lands on Cactus Jack. In reality, that would kill him, but in this slapstick comedy, the viewer sees his hand emerge from beneath the rock and hears his muffled cry for his horse, “Whiskey!”
“Horseplay” is another term used in describing slapstick (Dirks), and in The Villain that term seems literal. Cactus Jack’s horse is indeed a part of the comedic climate in the film. Well-trained and strong-willed, Whiskey is easily offended. In an early scene, Cactus Jack tells Whiskey his plan to rob a bank. The horse shakes his head “no” and his owner says, “Ah, what do you know.  I’m the boss!” Whiskey then bucks him off, but when Cactus Jack threatens to go it alone, the horse follows him, and nudges him as though apologizing. Shortly afterwards, when Cactus Jack is trying to escape the foiled bank robbery, he jumps on the horse and Whiskey purposely sits down, showing who is boss, allowing the capture of Cactus Jack. In another humorous scene, Cactus Jack enters the saloon and demands a drink, “Whiskey.” The horse enters through the swinging doors and whinnies. Cactus Jack turns, “Not you. Stay outside.” The horse slowly backs up through the saloon doors.
The numerous ill-fated robbery attempts that never cause bodily harm, as well as the comedic and literal use of “horseplay,” define The Villain as a slapstick comedy. Like Wile E. Coyote, a boulder smashes Cactus Jack, a gigantic stone rolls over him, he glues himself to the railroad tracks, he freezes in mid-air before falling, smacks into a fake tunnel, and crashes into the mountainside while swinging from a rope. Yet, he lives on to continue his quest. However, unlike the Coyote, Cactus Jack Slade actually wins out—he gets the girl and the money! Perhaps Wile E. Coyote should toss his ACME manual and take notes from the villain, Cactus Jack Slade.

NOTE: I have the citation references, but opted not to publish them along with this post (hopefully making it more difficult to plagiarize in full).  If you would like to know a specific source, please ask, and I will gladly provide the information.

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