Roy Bean (Paul Newman) enters a frontier Gomorrah in a mordant opening that registers Wyler's The Westerner while situating it in the age of El Topo. He's left for dead but returns with head tilted under sombrero and rope burns on his neck, pulverizes a saloon of vermin, declares himself the Law West of Pecos and knights a bunch of ruffians his marshals. Somehow, critics at the time saw it as "revisionist," but John Huston knew better, offering his tale as a spacious carnival complete with guest stars in riotous vaudeville turns. "There's no illegal dying here": A poker game can't be interrupted by the soused outlaw shooting up the walls, though all guns are drawn when he puts a bullet in a portrait of the Judge's muse, Lily Langtry ("Justifiable homicide," it's decreed). Anthony Perkins as the padre and Tab Hunter swinging from the noose are keyed to the lackadaisical timbre, Stacy Keach tears through as a leonine albino and gets a bowling ball-sized hole (freeze-framed, zoomed into) in his stomach; Huston himself pops up in a lambent, long-shot view of bluish dusk, showing the source of Newman's growling accent and dropping off a beer-guzzling pet grizzly. Man's longing for unattainable beauty while settling for earthly angels, the divide between law and justice, the Old West's rattlesnakes against the new century's "generation of vipers" -- John Milius' screenplay is acridly flavorful (Bean's line, "There is nothing worse than a harlot turned respectable," surely left its mark on Polanski and Towne), Huston gives it a mellow reading, told as if around a campfire. An erudite vagabond of a Western, lolling shaggily along till Ava Gardner's good-humored appearance in the epilogue reveals the unexpected grace of it all. With Victoria Principal, Jacqueline Bisset, Roddy McDowall, Ned Beatty, Anthony Zerbe, Steve Kanaly, and Matt Clark.
--- Fernando F. Croce