THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JUDGE ROY BEAN: Blu-ray (First Artists, 1972) Warner Archive
John Huston’s The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972) is at once an imperfect, yet absorbing western that, with varying degrees of success, manages to make something out of the curiously awkward performance of its star, Paul Newman – stepping out of his usual ‘pretty boy’ persona with both actor and director doing their damnedest to make this titular character, morally ambiguous, occasionally even ugly and thoroughly misguided. That Newman succeeds more oft than he stumbles through this performance is a credit to his chutzpah and, of course, his acting chops. But the movie suffers from a very strange disconnect between character motivation and Newman’s own Teflon-coated personality that, at times, goes against the grain of his alter ego. There is also Huston’s shameless attempt to recapture the glory of 1969’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’s musical interlude, ‘Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head’ with the ever so coy and cloying ‘Marmalade, Molasses and Honey’ – a ditty co-written by Maurice Jarre, Marilyn Bergman, Alan Bergman. Although this latter effort was nominated for an Oscar, it really does stop the show in the worst sense of that tired old cliché. And then there is the debut of Victoria Principal as the Spanish ‘hussy’, Maria Elena; Principal, undeniably sexy, but very much out of her element as she feigns a fractured accent, sounding more vaguely European than anything else and, in her stately white gown, looks ever more the porcelain figurine than earthy and tan-skinned Mexicali rose.
Huston has some difficulty getting his plot off the ground, chiefly because he is hellbent on running the gamut in Michael Todd-styled cameos during the first third of his picture, beginning with Anthony Perkins’ Reverend LaSalle, and culminating with Roddy McDowall’s brutally ambitious Frank Gass. Between these, crop up Tab Hunter as Sam Dodd, hanged (along with a good many others) by Bean’s posse, simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and, Huston himself – doing less than two minutes of mugging by moonlight as the codger, Grizzly Adams, who lets his black bear loose on Bean and Maria Elena in the hopes to stir up a little chaos after Bean denies him a settlement in his town. Instead, the bear follows Bean and Maria home, becoming their boozy pet and protector. The other oddity is the casting of megastar, Eva Gardner as Lillie Langtry – Bean’s idealized ‘perfect woman’ whom he never meets, but builds a shrine to in the outpost saloon he eventually converts into a ‘sort of’ courthouse. We spend almost 2 hrs. waiting for Gardner’s toast of Broadway to appear, and when she does, her arrival in this all but forgotten ramshackle of Vinegaroon makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. Lost in the shuffle too are Ned Beatty, as Bean loyalist, Tector Crites – who inherits Lillie’s shrine after Bean’s passing and, Jacqueline Bisset, as the judge’s illegitimate daughter, Rose.
What is most frustrating about The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean is how callously Huston seems to bandy about a lot of A-list talent on a narrative that repeatedly stalls, or rather, becomes isolated into oddly framed vignettes. Perkins’ LaSalle, as example, addresses the audience with a full-on camera narration, spends a whole of six minutes aiding Bean in his burial of ‘the dead’ and then makes a flippant departure, never to be heard from again. Later, McDowell’s Gass performs a similar address with an infinitely longer stay in town as Bean’s arch nemesis and legal heir to the land on which Bean has built his modest empire, soon to become a den of iniquity after oil is discovered on the land. Originally scripted by John Milius, who equally possessed ambitions to direct the film, the project was wiggled loose from his grasp by producers, eager for Huston’s participation, and paying through the nose to get it: a whopping $300,000 for Milius to step aside. Begrudgingly, he did, and forever thereafter regretted his decision, believing Huston’s tinkering with the plot and Milius’ original plans to cast Warren Oates as the star, conspired to ruin ‘his’ picture. Producers originally sent the script to Lee Marvin, then shooting Pocket Money with Newman. Instead, Newman liked what he read and presented himself as a viable contender for the lead, his cache in Hollywood practically ensuring he would get the part.
Milius’ objections were duly noted and virtually ignored. He accused Huston of making ‘a Beverly Hills Western’, totally at odds with his original vision of Roy Bean as ‘an obsessed man’ whose recalcitrant notions of law and order were visionary and yet myopic. “I love those kind of people…who built this country! That’s the American spirit! And they say, 'What you’ve created is a reprehensible man. We’ve got to make him - cute.' So, they changed it from a Western about royalty and greed and power to a western where Andy Williams sings a song in the middle of the movie and the judge and his girl and a pet bear go off on a picnic. It’s incredible. He goes on a picnic and sits on a teeter-totter. It’s a movie about Beverly Hills people. About John Foreman and John Huston and Paul Newman.”
As though to compound this insult, Huston took Milius into his confidence along each step of this repurposing, reasoning his way through the production, as though to simultaneously torture Milius, as he watched his brainchild mutate into something quite different, but also, defend his own creative decisions. One may argue, the singular plus of this exercise was that it prompted Milius to become a director, thus to assume total creative control over his own genius for storytelling thereafter. Despite Milius’ strenuous objections over Paul Newman, Huston embraced his star with genuine affection. “My God he is a good actor,” Huston would comment, “…just marvelous…he’s caught something unique and original…there’s something uniquely American about the judge!” Huston went on, “I think we've got a hell of a picture. I think it will be very popular. Of course, I've been wrong before, but there’s a grand sort of thing about it. The wind blows through it. The story is a complete departure from reality, a pure fantasy.” A grubby little fantasy, at that! The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean is an oddity in the western milieu straddling a chasm later taken on full tilt into farce by Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles (1974). The escapist quality of Huston’s effort is queerly off; the opening sequence, depicting Bean beaten to a pulp and nearly hanged, dragged along the dust with a broken collar bone by a wild horse, leans too far into the uber-violence of The Wild Bunch (1969) – ditto for Bean’s day of retribution, as he and his posse assassinate Gass and his police force, torching to the ground Gass’ empire of oil derricks – to be offset by extracts depicting Bean as a naïve, knocked unconscious by crooks outside a San Antonio theater, or feeding bottle after bottle of hard liquor to a black bear, only to eager to indulge.
The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean begins with Bean’s arrival in the Texas outpost later to be rechristened Vinegaroon by him. The opium-smoking and booze-soaked clientele he encounters inside the saloon – the only building in town - pretends to cater to his needs for strong liquor and women. Promptly, however, they beat him to a pulp, steal his satchel, tie a noose around his neck and have his horse drag him, presumably to his death. Awakening hours later in the care of Maria Elena, Bean recovers from his wounds, regroups and promptly returns to the saloon, murdering every last patron who done him wrong in a hellish bloodbath. Virtually making up the rules as he goes along, Bean appoints himself ‘judge’ – the only ‘law’ west of the Pecos. As the bodies strewn about the place have been left to rot in the sun, the arrival of a traveling preacher, LaSalle is most welcomed. LaSalle helps to bury the dead, reading Biblical passages over the graves before departing. Bean rechristens the saloon The Jersey Lilly and hangs portraits of the noted actress and singer, Lillie Langtry to ‘dress up’ the place. For a brief wrinkle in time, Bean and Maria live humbly and alone; their solitude intruded upon by Big Bart Jackson (Jim Burk) and his outlaws, including Nick the Grub (Matt Clark), Fermel Parlee (Billy McKinney), Tector Crites, and, Whorehouse Lucky Jim (Steve Kanaly). Outnumbered, and no fool, Bean makes the impromptu decision to swear the men in as his deputies. Together, they will administer ‘the law’ – such as it is according to Roy Bean.
The boys dispense with a murderer, Sam Dodd and share in his loot. But Bean’s idea of frontier justice is more than a tad perplexing. He abides several drunks who shoot up his saloon; all, except for one who accidentally fires his pistol into the poster bosom of Lillie Langtry and is immediately shot dead for this effrontery to the ‘great lady’ by Bean. The plot trips along through a series of disposable sketches. A pimp (Jack Colvin) with a carriage full of whores (Karen Carr, Lee Meza, Dolores Clark, Francesca Jarvis) is hung by Bean. Shortly thereafter, Bean parcels off ‘these ladies’ to his men who wed to make them respectable. But Bean’s attempt to take one of the prostitutes for his own is intercepted by Maria Elena. She jealously pursues the whore at gunpoint. An albino, Bad Bob (Stacey Keach) rides through town in a hailstorm of bullets, bringing momentary havoc to this burgeoning outpost until Bean also shoots him dead with his rifle from a hay loft. Maria Elena occupies a special place in Bean’s heart. She is afforded some fine clothes ordered from the Sears-Roebuck catalog. Bean further promises her she can have anything she desires. Elena’s rather simple request for a music box will eventually be fulfilled by Bean, but not before tragedy strikes at the couple. In the meantime, mountain man, Grizzly Adams and his black bear, ‘Zachary Taylor’ arrive in town. Adams is looking to settle down. But Bean denies him this luxury. Willfully, Adams frees his bear. However, instead of attacking Bean, the animal becomes his pet. Adams departs for the open plain, leaving Zac behind.
Not long thereafter, attorney at law, Frank Gass pulls in with a bill of sale, claiming all rights to the land grant currently occupied by Bean and Vinegaroon. Not about to surrender the town, Bean instead has Gass locked up with the bear until the terrorized lawyer begs for mercy. Thereafter seen to reason, Gass begrudgingly accepts Bean’s invitation to practice law in Vinegaroon. His work generates respectable profits and with this affluence, also influence Gass steadily used to erode the town’s confidence in Bean as their patronne. Meanwhile, learning from the papers Lillie Langtry is set to perform at a theater in San Antonio, Bean departs for the big city in his newly purchased tuxedo, leaving Maria Elena, already eight months pregnant with his child, in the care of her family. Alas, unaccustomed to the finer points of social etiquette, Bean is easily spotted as a rube in a three-piece suit by the locals. Nobody takes him seriously. After discovering Langtry’s theatrical engagement has been sold out for months, Bean offers to bribe several patrons with a wallet-full of money for their tickets. Instead, he is taken advantage of by a pair of cons (Anthony Zerbe, John Hudkins) who lure him to the alley behind the theater with the promise of a backstage pass. The pair knocks him unconscious and steals everything.
Returning to Vinegaroon without ever having seen Miss Lillie perform, Bean is informed by his men that Maria Elena has had a particularly difficult birth. The child – a girl, later named Rose – survived. But Elena is on her deathbed. Bean fulfills his promise of the music box. But Elena dies in his arms shortly thereafter, leaving Bean shell-shocked and grief-stricken. Departing the saloon, Bean is confronted by Gass, only too gleefully ready to inform him the town council and his own men have elected him mayor of Vinegaroon. Gass’ first order of business is to strip Bean of his title as magistrate. Disgusted by this turn of events, Bean mounts his horse and rides off, presumably never again to return. In the interim, Gass fires Bean’s marshals; the men, forced to take up serious work and faring poorly in their newly chosen professions. Tector inherits the saloon and rears Bean’s daughter, Rose, the girl growing up in the midst of Gass’ oil boom town; transformed from a simple and God-fearing little outpost, into a ‘progressive’, though sin-ridden hamlet where money is the only thing being worshipped. The adult Rose is ordered to get out of town by Gass. She refuses. Unexpectedly, Bean returns to Vinegaroon. Determined to take a last stand against Gass the judge, now elderly, regroups his men. On the eve Gass orders his police to descend on the saloon and evict Rose, Bean leads a nightmarish charge on the town. In a blaze of glory and gunfire, Gass’ Vinegaroon is burned to the ground.
The desert reclaims the land, leaving Bean’s original saloon the only standing structure in the middle of nowhere. Time passes. We are never told what became of Rose or the men who survived this terrible night. As the railroad has long since come through, by a curious twist of fate, Lillie Langtry arrives in town and is shown into Bean’s archived shrine by Tector; explaining to Langtry how the judge – who has since passed on - dedicated his whole life to the preservation of her career and memory. Langtry, a genteel flower in the truest sense, and exactly as Bean has imagined her – pure of heart and stunningly handsome – is deeply moved by this altar built by a man whom she never met, but has ostensibly worshipped her from afar. Tector presents Lillie with the impassioned letter Bean wrote, but never quite had the guts to mail to her so very long ago. As Lillie reads Bean’s glowing praises the light begins to dim; the time between them, having already set as the sun.
The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean is an oddly structured western at best. Its last act is rather poignant, but unbelievable; the judge, reclaiming ‘his’ land, and bringing about an end to Gass’ ambitious plans to be an oil baron, more mythologically satisfying than based in any sort of perfectly formed make-believe. Lillie’s long anticipated discovery of Bean’s idol worship is also too conveniently dispatched. Given her prominence in Bean’s heart, it is more than a little off-putting Eva Gardner’s role in the picture is reduced to a mere cameo at the end. Uniformly speaking, the performances given throughout the picture are solid, if unprepossessing. None of the characters who populate Vinegaroon make much of a splash. Roddy McDowell’s villain is weakly defined. His ruination in the end satisfies the plot but is otherwise unfulfilling as Gass has always been unworthy of Bean’s time and energies. Undeniably, John Huston is having a great deal of fun poking at the balloons of hypocrisy regarding class and social status, nowhere more humorously than when Bean’s men implore the judge to speak kindly to their wives, who have taken it into their heads since marriage they are somehow more respectable than Maria Elena, never ‘officially’ made Bean’s wife. In one of the most hilarious back-handed apologies ever conceived, Newman’s low-keyed Bean delivers the following salutation: “I understand you have taken exception to my calling you whores. I'm sorry. I apologize. I ask you to note that I did not call you callous-ass strumpets, fornicatresses, or low-born gutter sluts. But I did say whores. No escaping that. And for that slip of the tongue, I apologize.”
The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean arrives on Blu-ray via the Warner Archive in a transfer that is intermittently problematic. For the most part, the image has been stabilized with a bright palette of colors. Flesh tones appear too orange or piggy pink. On occasion, the entire palette also suffers from momentary muddiness; close-ups looking refined with a light smattering of film grain indigenous to its source, interpolated by medium and long shots looking duller with a noted amplification of grain. Overall, there is a residual ‘softness’ that creeps into Richard Moore’s cinematography, and at least one instance where close-ups of Newman’s Bean look as though they have been sourced, either from a badly produced blow-up or ‘second generation’ prints cut into the original camera negative. Odd. When the image is crisp, it looks very good indeed – the arrival of Grizzly Adams, at dusk, superbly rendered, as is the simply gorgeous desert landscape at sunset as Maria Elena asks Bean to bring her back a music box that plays ‘The Yellow Rose of Texas’. I suspect virtually all of the aforementioned inconsistencies in the image are a flaw inherent in the source materials and not caused by faulty 1080p mastering. The audio is 2.0 mono and adequate. Occasionally, dialogue can sound a tad muffled. On the whole, the track is solid. Apart from a badly worn theatrical trailer, there are no extras. Bottom line: The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean is for Newman or Huston completionists only. All others can easy forgo its curiously leaden blend of light comedy and darkly purposed action and drama.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)