Thursday, April 17, 2008

'Will Penny': The brooding loner, unable to love

Curiosity got the better of me.

After reading in all those tributes last week to Charlton Heston that he considered "Will Penny" to be his best role, I surfed over to Netflix and moved the late '60s western to the top of my queue. Watched it last night after work and I must say it's quite an interesting picture.

It's a rather quiet western in a curious way and, if you overlook the cliches and all-too-cute plot devices, not a bad movie. Heston plays an aging, solitary cowboy who never has stopped long enough to form any meaningful relationships and can't seem to rise above his personal limitations as a man.

Will Penny is leaving a cattle drive and looking for winter work when he and two cowpunchers (Lee Majors and Anthony Zerbe) run into nefarious preacher Quint (Donald Pleasence) and his crazy family. The Quints shoot Zerbe over an elk and promise further trouble, which they manage to deliver at inopportune times throughout the film.

Penny eventually breaks with the cowpunchers and finds work on the Flat Iron Ranch, where he bumps back into Catherine Allen (Joan Hackett) and her son Horace (Jon Francis). Penny says he's going to have to report the Allens, who are squatting in a cabin on the Flat Iron, to the foreman (Ben Johnson). But, as these things go, he develops an attachment to mother and son and finds himself falling in love with Catherine.

But the Quint family shows back up to cause trouble, Penny is unsure of himself and in the end, he makes a choice. And it's that choice, and the final moments of this film, complete with echoes of "Shane," that make it memorable.

Hackett was the perfect choice to play the female lead. The producers wisely opted against a Hollywood bombshell in favor of a meaty actor who could play this role with a heightened sense of realism.

Anytime Ben Johnson shows up in a film is a good thing, and Pleasence plays the heavy with his typical elan. Ratty Bruce Dern is along for the ride, too. Writer/director Tom Gries peppers his script with witty dialogue and moments that seem, well, real.

As is the case with most of these type of westerns, the plot is full of circumstantial twists that wouldn't happen in a million years. But as a character study, "Will Penny" surely stands out in the long history of Hollywood oaters.

Heston almost rises above his limitations as an actor, delivering as nuanced a performance as he was able to give. And, for better or worse, I found a lot of myself lurking beneath the brooding exterior of Will Penny, which I guess gave me plenty of other things to think about.

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