First off, I could sell this movie by describing a singular moment: Paul Newman and a bear get drunk together in a saloon. If that is not enough to convince somebody that this film is anything but extraordinary I would go on to suggest that it is in all likelihood also the most accurate consideration of how modern Texas came into existence...even if it is a comedic oriented version of the western it just goes to such lengths to exist in the inconceivable that it could only have existed in the narrative space of Texas, not to mention that it involves a lot of hangings, making a clear connection to death penalties in the grand and problematic Lone Star State. Now to be fair, John Huston, a well established director at this point made The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean well before either Bush took office and although Texas was certainly far from the Rick Perry, gun toting madness it has become signified as today. The film being made in the early seventies probably considers more a general state of America leading up to its imminent bicentennial than a historicized devil-may-care vision of Texas, especially since the film does narratively extend itself and pull in characters from other parts of the country, and to some degree, the world. Considering all this, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean is nothing short of wonderful, the acting delivered by Paul Newman is perfectly bombastic, yet mellow and incredibly emotive when necessary and the directorial choices made by Huston not only reconsider the western as a genre, but also his entire oeuvre as a filmmaker. Going into this blindly, I fully expected this to be a rather droll and uninspired mid-grade western, especially considering its just under "good" ratings on popular movie sites. However, if my string of excellent viewing experiences continues into the remainder of this western film month, I am a bit worried that my top hundred films will turn western heavy. Either way, what initially started as an uncertain endeavor is quickly proving to be a rewarding navigation through one of my personally overlooked genres as well as one of the genres in desperate need of a return to a consistent Hollywood output.
The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, begins with the title character Roy Bean (Paul Newman) entering an off-the-map whorehouse after yet another successful robbery. High on his pride, Roy mocks the people of the whorehouse who are varying degrees of reprobates an act that quickly leads to his being attacked and tied in a noose, only to be drug out of town by a horse and left for dead in the desert. Fearing for his life a young Mexican woman named Maria (Victoria Principal) offers Roy water that proves to be his second wind, so much so that the takes it upon himself to personally exact revenge upon the whorehouse and reclaim the area for his own. This act, leads to his self-appointment as judge of the town and makes himself a courthouse/saloon called the Jersey Lillie in honor of famous actress Lillie Langtry. Having absolutely know regard for textual law, Roy takes it upon himself to enact justice as he sees fit, even hiring a set of gunslingers on as his appointed marshals, although they clearly concern themselves with making sure a steady flow of money comes to the town, by any means necessary. Eventually, Roy's shrewd methodology results in his town prospering considerably and becoming the envy of both tycoons and outlaws alike, whether it be the attempts to buy the land by wealth lawyer Frank Gass (Roddy McDowall) or an unannounced shootout involving the albino gunslinger Bad Bob (Stacy Keach). At one point after a run-in with a distraught Grizzly Adams (John Huston) Roy also comes into custody of a bear who he, as noted earlier, drinks beer with. Eventually, Roy and Maria becoming seriously involved and after much turmoil in the town and the loss of the bear, she informs Roy that she is pregnant. Yet, it is during this time that Roy is afforded a chance to meet Lillie Langtry in San Antonio, an endeavor that ends with dire results, leading to Roy's realization that his own idealized community, while nice is far from the truth. This smack with reality is worsened when he returns to discover that Maria is on her death bed after birth complications. When she dies, Roy flees town, only to return years later once his daughter Rose (Jacqueline Bisset) has grown to help defend the town from the now wealthy Gass and Texas police. During this explosive shootout Roy dies in a fire. The film, however, closes in the future with a visit by the aged Langtry (Ava Gardner) who is told by surviving marshals of the glory of the late Roy Bean.
This film does the exact opposite of pretty much every film I have reviewed up until this point. Where as main characters often are concerned within the western as being righteous and enactors of justice, Roy Bean is a man who finds the very thought of justice to be absurd and assumes that a profit oriented worldview will suit him. Yet as a man with notions about the world, Roy is far from above creating laws, his just happen to orient themselves around embracing decadence and vice, and absolutely do not allow for any ill-will to be directed at the image or name of Lillie Langtry. Roy is a man who is quick to enact a hanging upon a person, but it is often as a result of the individual and their belligerent behavior. For example, he hangs one man not because of his shooting of a poster of Langtry per se, but more so because he was foolish enough to get stumbling drunk and fire off his gun in a bar repeatedly. Furthermore, Roy clearly has no stomach for truly terrible people, particularly a man who is willing to kill an elderly woman for a jar of money, regardless of whether or not her racial identity was deemed less than human, a notion Roy openly rejects. Roy has a distinct worldview and it is one that he certainly forces others to adhere to, although when they do commit to his idea it is often to their benefit, yet his tight control even if in a friendly and non-threatening manner, has its downsides. For example, he rejects any heavy degree of monogamy with Maria and actively avoids embracing the child she is to have, aside from hoping it is a boy, even leaving her bedside to attempt a meeting with Lillie Langtry. His assumptions that helping criminals will result in their being forever indebted to him also blows up in his face when he refers to a group of married women in the town by their former job descriptions. Roy even shoots a man in the back to assure his safety and survival, an act that leads to multiple questions from his marshals about fairness. These actions do take their consequences on Roy particularly considering that he is abandoned and alone by the film's closing and dies as such, even if it is in a literal blaze of glory. Fortunately, what Roy does share with some of the previous films' characters is a degree of mythology and his is easily the most grand yet.
Key Scene: Hearing Paul Newman throwing down an absolutely insane Texas accent while saying "drink your beer bear" is easily one of the greatest cinematic gifts I have ever encountered.
The DVD is a bit pricey and understandably so, I imagine this film only has a devoted cult following, so considering I would suggest renting the film before buying it, although I promise you will want to immediately after the credits roll.