Sunday, May 15, 2011

Richard Farnsworth as The Grey Fox [1982]

The Grey Fox, a Canadian production released in 1982, with direction by the late Phillip Borsos, script by John Hunter--has become a cult film over the years, appealing to an underground audience of sorts. Both Richard Farnsworth, the star of the film, and the female romantic lead, played by Jackie Burroughs, are now deceased. An Australian by birth, Borsos only lived to make a handful of films, passing away (of leukemia) in British Columbia at age 41 in 1995. Grey Fox, his first feature, was made when he was only 27.

That a director should have so much success in his first important effort is unusual, to say the least. Directorial debuts are typically minor efforts. Citizen Kane was Orson Welles's first feature film, but that kind of triumph is almost unheard of. How to explain Borsos's fresh and original effort?

To make it even more improbable, its star, Richard Farnsworth, had never had a significant acting role in his life, having spent the previous 40 years working as a Hollywood stuntman--principally in Westerns, where his rugged, crusty good looks worked to good advantage. So at age 61, he made his debut as a lead in an obscure, off-beat dramatic comedy set in the Canadian Northwest at the turn of the 20th Century.

To understand the appeal of Grey Fox (and Farnsworth), you have to have some feel for the world in which it's set. The Canadian Northwest was one of the last parts of the North American continent to be settled by whites, and its wild character--and cold, wet climate--kept it pure and largely unspoiled well into the 20th Century. The primary industries were extractive--logging and mining--and life in the frontier towns was rough. Stories set in this terrain would be considered "westerns" if made in typical Hollywood-style. But Borsos peels away the clichés, and presents a narrative portrait that feels as genuine as one could expect.

Outwardly, the plot involves the release of an old-time stage-coach bank-robber from San Quentin Prison in 1901 after 33 years of incarceration. Expelled from the time-warp of prison life into a transformed world, Bill Minor is predictably disoriented and dismayed at how everything has changed. Stagecoaches have been replaced by trains. The wild West has become more civilized. Unable to accommodate himself to the tame pace of a harmless post-incarceration role, he slips across the border from Washington into British Columbia and finds work in a played-out mining operation, while he plots to resume his former life as highway robbery-man. Though he's now no longer young, the spirit of rebellion is still the only role that makes him feel alive and whole. Farnsworth's innate charm and rustic bearing help us to identify with him, even as we see him edging inexorably back into the evil world of his past. This foreboding is balanced by the comic absurdity of his trying to recreate a world of derring-do and hardened criminality--the past can't be recaptured.

He meets and falls in love with a local lady of a singularly independent and liberated turn of mind.* In due course, Miner teams up with a pathetic little runt named Shorty Dunn, robs a train, not very well, and eventually is caught in a cross country tracking sequence by the Canadian police. At movie's end, Miner is seen slogging through a swampy terrain, with a text-over informing us that his successful escape from his second incarceration will enable him to live a life free of crime. Despite the bad-man-makes-good trope, we feel an enormous sense of release, as if some kind of poetic justice has been done.

Farnsworth would go on to several more acting successes, including in The Natural [1984]. His handlebar mustache and relaxed manner are so engratiating, he hardly seems to be acting at all, but simply "aw-shucksing" his way through, much in the manner of Gary Cooper, or Warren Beatty. In an imaginative sense, Farnsworth's long experience as a stunt-man was almost a metaphor for the part he played in this movie. For decades the shadow body-double stand-in for the "face" of Hollywood adventure genres, his flowering as an actor was a verité take on the cowboy persona itself. Farnsworth emerges into the limelight at the "end" of his career in the same sense that Bill Miner is released into the 20th Century after 33 years in prison. Both events are liberations. Other stuntmen have made it as actors. John Wayne began as a cowboy stuntman.

The Grey Fox hasn't been released on DVD, but you can still find it on VHS video. For my money, it's several times better than Clint Eastwood's pretentious late efforts, and it's quietly entertaining on several levels. And for verisimilitude, it can't be beat.


*The part of Kate Flynn is played by Jackie Burroughs, one of acting's most original and down-to-earth ladies. She died last September after a long and varied movie career. Her homely sweetness rings completely true here.

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