Another day, another Clint Eastwood Blu-ray to dive into.
After the tension and excitement of the Dirty Harry series, Pale Rider and The Gauntlet, it is perhaps a pleasure to step into the more free-wheeling fun and knockabout antics of Philo Beddoe and his ever-reliable orang-utan Clyde in the comedy-action romp Every Which Way But Loose from 1978. Once again, Eastwood surrounds himself with his film-making surrogate family - he does this in much the same way as Civil War avenger Josie Wales does in the earlier classic western - of muse Sondra Locke, director James Fargo, producer and friend Robert Daley, who had been with him since Play Misty For Me, and cinematographer Rexford L. Metz, and this time, ropes in the great supporting actor Geoffrey Lewis, who makes a complete turnaround from his despicable villain in High Plains Drifter to essay the ever-affable and surprisingly brawny role of loyal sidekick.
Stepping down from directorial chores after The Gauntlet, from the year before, Eastwood is happy to play up that winning smile, take his shirt off and flex those sinewy arms. James Fargo is clearly dancing to Eastwood's tune. The film is slight, whimsical and somewhat anachronistic. Who else could get away with having a ginger ape as a fully-fledged co-star as opposed to just a creation for a one-scene gag? Who else could so gleefully send-up his own rock-hewn cinematic persona whilst still battering all-comers in severely bruising slap-a-thons? After all the westerns, all the cop thrillers and the incredible versatility that he had shown behind the cameras as well in front of them, Hollywood's most iconic star was shooting the breeze with a twinkle in his eye and endorsing that ensemble camaraderie that, perhaps, only he could generate. Much more than merely “jobs for the boys”, Eastwood's movie-making familiars were becoming a brand commodity and it was also quite a fun thing to see the various faces switch around good guy to bad, friend to foe. And, like the simple country and western ballads that form the soundtrack for the sunny, episodic saga, the plot for Every Which But Loose merely floats by on the most tenuous of emotions, just a situation drawn lazily along without particular rhyme or reason.
The emphasis was fun. And, after tailing killers like Scorpio, rampaging around a stubbled Spanish wasteland doubling for the Tex-Mex border and carving out an iron-jawed slice of World War II derring-do, Eastwood certainly deserved some uncluttered fun.
Clint's likeable bare-knuckle fighter finds his heart lost to Locke's pixie-like ballad-crooner, Lynn Halsey-Taylor, and a strange fledgling romance ensues. He hears her sob-story and offers some financial assistance, despite the rifle-toting fury of her estranged partner and is shocked and heartbroken to discover that, after his act of charity, she ups and leaves for Denver with only a simple goodbye pencilled on a napkin left behind the bar for him. But, not settling for such a turn of events, Philo takes off her after her, with the unbelievably entertaining and perennial scene-stealing orang-utan Clyde, his wide-eyed, dummy mechanic-buddy Orville (the great Geoffrey Lewis) and his plucked-fresh-from-a-roadside-fruit-stall girlfriend Echo (“What?” “Echo!”) played by the utterly gorgeous Beverley D'Angelo, in bewildered yet adventure-seeking tow. Along the way he incurs the wrath of a gang of belligerent motor-heads as well some cops with a personal vendetta against him and then there is the little matter of the lovelorn Clyde. With fist-fights becoming an almost hourly occurrence and a big scrap with the legendary bone-breaker Tank Murdock (Walter Barnes) looming on the horizon, Philo is going to have to go the distance if he wants to win his guitar-twanging sweetheart back.
Whilst Clyde's bird-flipping rascal is the element that everyone loves, it is the buffoonish band of burned-out bikers, the Black Widows, that the film's comedy tends to centre around. Led by the ogre-faced John Quade who, in other incarnations could appear quite intimidating, this crew of clumsy cretins - some of whom (Dan Vadis, Roy Jenson and Bill McKinney) appeared to give Clint similar grief in The Gauntlet - are the most embarrassing ever to sit astride a hog. Rather foolishly incurring the wrath of the punch-loving Philo, their pursuit of him becomes a thing of 70's legend. Seemingly everywhere they go and whoever they come up against, they will be belittled, beaten and humiliated, their souls and reputations as wrecked as the bikes they lose at every turn. This was quite an inspired twist of conventions, too. Up until Every Which Way, biker gangs had been a thing of violence and intimidation - a device used for vengeance and a complete metaphor for amorality and anti-authoritarianism. With the incredibly long-suffering performance from Quade's rotund and scarf-wearing Cholla - the scarf is a quirky nod to Lawrence of Arabia, whilst his cane-whip and constant consternation can't help but remind you of Captain Mainwaring from Dad's Army - lording over famous scenes of almost Wiley Coyote-style disasters and scheme cave-ins, this menagerie of motorised morons simply devour screen-time. The age and appearance of these goons immediately sets them up for a never-ending cycle of egg-on-face defeat, and the ethic is exactly the same as Boss Hog in The Dukes Of Hazard, Ernest Borgnine's cop in Convoy, Sheriffs J. W Pepper and Buford T. Justice in Live And Let Die and Smokey And The Bandit, respectively. Basically, you never tire of seeing these dorks come unstuck. One of them even looks like Carry On's Jim Dale with muscles and Bill McKinney's Viking-style horned helmet is just hysterical, especially when Philo bends the horns round the wrong way. The idea of a spin-off cartoon featuring these bozos must have occurred to someone at the time.
And if the Black Widows are mere catalogue of cartoon screw-ups, then Ruth Gordon's irascible Ma Boggs is like a throwback to the hillbilly sit-coms of the fifties, albeit with a fouler mouth and more violent tendencies. Crotchety and mean-spirited and with a quaintly harmless dislike of the uncouth simian stealing all her Oreos and leaving smelly deposits all over the house, Ma is one of those terrific larger-than-life oddball characters that must be tremendous fun to play. It's funny how practically all of Clint Eastwood's pre-nineties movies are populated with the most unconventional and unforgettable faces - from the grizzled visages of Leone's Dollars Trilogy up until, say Sudden Impact, with Paul Drake's villainous Joker-mouthed Mick, the star seemed to be surrounded by lopsided countenances, bulbous eyes and downright ugly chops (but enough about Sondra Locke!!!!!) Afterwards, once Clint, himself, became gaunter and more haggard, Hollywood started to buoy-up his movies with far more typical movie-star casts - Charlie Sheen, Dermot Mulroney, Morgan Freeman, Kevin Costner, Gene Hackman, Mario Van Peebles etc - and gone where the days when you could just sit back and admire what amounted to a virtual freakshow whenever an Eastwood flick came along. Obviously, I'm exaggerating. But, then again, you look back at the films he made in the sixties and seventies and you'll see that everyone around him has a memorable or otherwise unusual face. Again, this is another reason why the star's movies are a distinct breed apart, why they stick in the mind more than other, perhaps, much better films from the period do.
Thus, Clint's influence behind the camera, even down to the casting, is all-too evident. The expansive backdrops, the real location shooting, the sheer naturalism of the locales and the denizens populating them - all hallmarks of one of American Cinema's most original visionaries. So, it is easy to see that, although the star was having a ball and just taking it easy with the film, he had already done most of the work beforehand in gathering his most trustworthy clan around him. He knew he could rely on them to ensure that his unique stamp would be all over the production.
Therefore, it is understandable why Fargo directs with such an easy hand. The whole crew is so close-knit a unit that pretty much whatever happens in front of the camera is going to meet with unanimous approval, even if it breaks tonal and narrative traditions quite brazenly along the way. The action set-pieces are extended to breaking point, with the many Black Widow misadventures going on for, perhaps, a moment longer than is strictly necessary. But the fist-fighting is done with panache. The close-in choreography during the first of Philo's officially unofficial bouts - but the second actual skirmish that we see him involved in - features some great combos that Fargo's camera does not blink away from with intrusive editing tricks. The smackdown in the meat-packing factory is equally damaging with some savage body blows and rapid chin-crunchers flurrying in, ten to a second. It seems a little odd these days, with news reports of people being killed by a single, unprovoked punch and accounts of vicious pub, club and car-park kick-fests lamented upon, that such bone-cracking brawls as those depicted in Every Which Way can be so damn entertaining and actually highly amusing. The big scrap in the bar, when Philo unwittingly hurls the plain-clothes cops into a seething maelstrom of bottle-smashing, chair-wielding knuckle-butties is just plain comical and a pure homage to the great saloon set-tos of yore, yet when a kick-off like this really commences, there will be a bodycount afterwards. Love the way the country-and-western singer vengefully clubs someone with his own guitar before then casually picking up a replacement and carrying on with his act. Elsewhere, the meandering knockabout from writer Jeremy Joe Kronsberg stretches into road-movie territory, but Fargo is having great fun with the screenplay, revelling in its increasingly absurdist attitude. The somewhat breezier demeanour to Fargo's entry in the Dirty Harry franchise, The Enforcer (soundtrack and film inclusion in the Dirty Harry BD boxset reviewed separately), seems to have been pointing towards this more casual, colourful and slapdash style of slow-burn characterisation - innovatively we are thrust straight into Philo's lifestyle without any extraneous waffle or exposition - and the set-up isn't the more typical one-off drama that pitches us into the biggest experiences that the principles' have ever had. Rather, Every Which Way But Loose feels like just a few days in the life of Philo, Clyde and Orville - the normal shenanigans that these wayward coasters enjoy.
Of course, the idea was never to be anything other fluffy and disposable. This was a project that was designed as one part feet-up, one part pantomime and one-part ode to the half-asleep, happy-go-lucky ethics that Hollywood had found for the modern-day cowboy in lieu of cattle-trails, Indian wars and gunfights. Fargo drops the ball with the pacing when he allows a third act coincidence followed by a hideous love scene to side-shimmy things, and it is debateable whether or not the whole thing actually does peter out come the long-awaited finale. But the lakeside set-piece as the two idiotic cops close-in on Philo - who doesn't love that Tarzan moment? - is perfectly ludicrous and a final, smirk-inducing travelogue of all the film's characters in various states of ignominy and shame is priceless.
The formula was successful enough to spawn a sequel, Any Which Way You Can in 1980, but this was a dafter and somewhat less refreshing continuation of Beddoe's adventures that sought to up the aping-around and the ridiculousness of the escapades but lost something of the initial cavalier swagger and filmic casualness. Seemingly everyone, except for D'Angelo and director Fargo, returned for the second instalment, in which Phil took on the mob and grindhouse superstar William Smith in a punishing and incredibly lengthy final fight. But, despite even more inept anarchy from the Black Widows, the sequel, more than the first film depended upon the superlative simian Clyde's performance. Every Which Way But Loose remains the better and more fondly recalled movie, though I still can't wait for Any Which Way You Can to arrive on BD.
Great fun to be had here, folks.
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