Eastwood report: Joe Kidd

The two hats of Joe Kidd.free stats

The other day I noted the sheer number of Clint Eastwood movies I hadn’t seen, an odd lapse for me regarding a filmmaker I admire so much. So I harnessed the power of the internet and bought an abnormally large number of Clint Eastwood movies. I set my budget at no more than $3 per movie and had no trouble keeping it through Amazon.com. As I stroll through this forest of Eastwoodness, I will report in to my loyal readers.

Joe Kidd hits at an odd place for Eastwood — it’s in between Dirty Harry and High Plains Drifter. The Outlaw Josey Wales, which I think of as Eastwood’s first inarguable masterpiece, is still four years off. It’s directed by John Sturges, but it’s produced by Eastwood and is obviously tailored to fit his established persona — it all but winks at us as it sets up its Eastwoody goodness. It has an "Old Hollywood" Technicolor look about it, with bright, saturated colors (the blood looks like tempura paint) and only occasionally pays attention to light in the way I associate with Eastwood. It’s got Robert Duvall in it (concurrent with The Godfather but after his bad-guy part in the John Wayne vehicle True Grit) as a rich white guy, which makes it feel very modern, and John Saxon as a Mexican, which makes it feel very old-fashioned. It’s got a screenplay by Elmore Leonard, and even bears signs of his leanness of narrative — little is explained in Joe Kidd, and the story is extremely simple.

Joe Kidd is an ex-bounty hunter and assassin who is now trying to re-invent himself as a gentleman rancher. That is, he used to be "Clint Eastwood" but is now trying to get out of the game. In spite of trying to be respectable, he still gets drunk a lot, causes trouble around town and cannot let the smallest affront to his dignity go unanswered. He wears a bowler and a starched white collar in the first act, which indicates that he is trying to be something other than "Clint Eastwood."

This Mexican fella, Luis Chama, comes to town, storms the courthouse, holds the judge hostage and burns the town’s property records, claiming that he is taking back the land that the white men stole from his people. Joe Kidd doesn’t care about the judge, the sheriff or the town’s property records, so he only sits back and smiles as Chama makes asses out of the authorities. When the sheriff asks Joe to help him track down Chama, Joe declines: he’s not "Clint Eastwood" any more, he’s not going to go hunt down a man who hasn’t done anything to hurt him.

Rich White Guy Harlan shows up with a posse of goons — it’s his land Chama wants, and he aims to circumvent the law and kill Chama outright. He, too, asks Joe if he’ll help him track down Chama, Joe being Clint Eastwood and all, but Joe, still wearing his "I’m not Clint Eastwood" hat, again declines (although he does stop off to make a pass at Harlan’s girlfriend). He rides home to his ranch, glad to be quit of these crazy white people and their homicidal property disputes, and finds that Chama has been to his ranch, has stolen his horses and tortured his Mexican caretakers. This offense Joe cannot bear, and the next time we see him, Joe has abandoned his bowler and put on his Clint Eastwood hat. And the viewer says "Oh boy, it’s going to be a Clint Eastwood movie after all."

All this unfolds in an elegant, sure-footed way. Except for an early scene establishing the argument of the story, the screenplay is content to let action and behavior tell us who everyone is, what they think about and how they all relate to one another. We don’t even know that Joe is a rancher until the he rides out of town and shows up at his ranch. We don’t even know it’s his ranch until his caretakers refer to it as such. There’s no introductory scene where the sheriff looks disparagingly at Joe and says "What the hell happened to you, Joe, you used to be a great bounty hunter-slash-assassin, why do you want to raise horses and wear a bowler?"

The "guy who no longer wants to be Clint Eastwood, but finds, finally, he has no choice" is a character Eastwood would play many times — it seems he’s always trying to put his murderous past behind him but, damn it, people just keep forcing him to become Clint Eastwood again. The transition happens at the beginning of Josey Wales, at the end of Act I of Joe Kidd, but waits around until the last ten minutes of Unforgiven. (Eastwood keeps hinting that it will come at the end of Gran Torino, then pulls a fast one on us — I don’t know if Gran Torino makes any sense to anyone not already familiar with the staples of Eastwood’s career.)

Which raises the question, who is this "Clint Eastwood" that Clint Eastwood no longer wants to be? Who is this cold-blooded killer, haunted by his murderous past? My guess is that it’s the "Man With No Name" that he played for Sergio Leone, and yet, even those characters (who all had names, by the way) were already mysterious men with vague, murderous pasts — what were they running from? Rowdy Yates? (Eastwood played Rowdy Yates on 217 episodes of Rawhide. 217!)

(I tracked down a couple of segments of Rawhide on Youtube, to see if there was any hint of "Clint Eastwood" in the character, but found only genial masculinity. On the other hand, I found this segment of an episode of Mr. Ed where Eastwood plays himself, and laughed out loud several times.)

Anyway, so Joe Kidd becomes Clint Eastwood and joins Harlan and his goons on his quest to find and kill this Chama fellow. He isn’t on the trip for very long before he realizes that he’s made a mistake, that he’s not like these men — he wants justice, not revenge, and not cold-blooded murder. This structure means that Eastwood has to bide his time for almost an entire act, as Harlan takes over the narrative and prosecutes his vendetta against Chama, which involves killing some of his associates and kidnapping another (a woman who Joe, we will eventually learn, is romantically involved with Joe). Fortunately, no one bides his time like Eastwood, and as Harlan and his goons practice their sadistic agenda, the viewer counts the affronts and waits for the moment Joe’s inner Eastwood will be unleashed to answer all the insults.

In Act III, Joe, forced into a corner by Harlan, turns the tables, nabs Chama on his own, and force-marches him back to town to stand trial. And so, Joe Kidd briefly becomes 3:10 to Yuma (legitimately so I guess, since Elmore Leonard wrote the original story of Yuma) as Joe and Chama must battle their way through a town full of goons in order to break into the jail. Eastwood actually inverts Yuma in a sense: instead of trying to get the outlaw through the town to the train, Eastwood puts the outlaw on the train and then drives the train through the town, right through a row of buildings and into the goons’ headquarters, where mayhem ensues. The legal system, meanwhile, stands by and watches in horror, impotent and disappointing, as Joe strives to do its job.

What does Joe want? Or, for that matter, what does "Clint Eastwood" want? "Eastwood," I’d say, is a "rugged individualist" who has no use for government, is suspicious of institutions of any kind, has no respect for the law and just wants to be left alone to wander, or perhaps make it on his own as a farmer. He’s no friend of power, and he holds people accountable for their decisions. If you treat him with respect, or simply stay out of his way, he is is polite and even charitable, but if you cross him he’ll shoot you down like a dog. (If the offense isn’t that big, he may merely throw you down a flight of stairs or beat you with an axe handle.) He’s a master at playing the angles and waiting for the right moment to strike, and he doesn’texult in his victories — he just moves on. He’s happiest on his own but will side with the underdog when they are bullied by the powers that be. Eastwood developed this character with such precision and dexterity that his movies from A Fistful of Dollars through Gran Torino form a kind of biography — we watch The Man With No Name go from cocksure, mysterious stranger to haunted, dissipated loner, without ever really grasping the horrors that drive him. (Although with Josey Wales we come close: Wales, we learn, was a bushwhacker in the Civil War — he was a domestic terrorist killing Union troops behind enemy lines. As far as I know, it’s the one time Eastwood’s character is placed into a historical context and given explanation for his anti-government hostility.)


5 Responses to “Eastwood report: Joe Kidd”
  1. planettom says:

    All those mysterious strangers are running from the weird lab technician that Eastwood played in REVENGE OF THE CREATURE (sequel to THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON) with the rat in his pocket.