While many times I just grab a quote that I find to be funny, poignant or cool as it relates to a movie, there is the rare treat of one of the pieces of dialogue perfectly summarizing everything about the film, unfortunately for Pocket Money the quote above reminds me of the ways in which Pocket Money fails. On paper, it should be absolutely perfect. First, it stars Paul Newman who is a brilliant actor and certainly puts on a show here. Second, it is directed by Stuart Rosenberg who I will always adore for creating my second favorite film ever Cool Hand Luke. Finally, if these two high selling points were not enough the film was the result of a screen play by Terrence Malick, then simply known as Terry Malick. You would think given my adoration for Malick (I thoroughly enjoyed To The Wonder and hope to review it come June) that it would be a selling point, especially since like Lynch, Malick has a way of capturing the midwest, as it is envision in this pseudo-modernist western. All of these pieces would fit together brilliantly were it not for the tragic flaw in the execution of this film. While Malick's script is clearly interjected with a degree of humor, it is not, I would argue, intended to be played out so comedically and Pocket Money, for all intents and purposes, is expressly a comedy. Much like Badlands, the humor that pops up throughout is intended to highlight the ignorance of the young couple attempting to make it on their own in the vast wild world. What is funny is only so because if viewers are not to laugh they will be forced to deal with the crippling tragedy of the innocence lost and decaying of American identity. Much the same Pocket Money should not have been played so heavy-handedly for its laughs, instead allowing viewers to come to each encounter by way of self-reference and poetic simplicity. Malick, Rosenberg and Newman could certainly have provided viewers with such a film and it would easily have been heralded as a great cinematic gift, perhaps even trumping each of the respected artists other works. Yet, this is not the case and Pocket Money goes the way of traditional comedic structure, making the critiques of modernity invading lower class America and the false notions of transparent borders seem absurd, when, in fact, the tragedy is so great that to laugh would also mean to share in a defeated agreement.
Pocket Money focuses primarily on the experiences of Jim Kane (Paul Newman) a cowboy and rancher whose recent trouble with a set of horses from Mexico has led to him becoming twisted in debt and looking for any means to escape with his head still attached. Knowing full and well that he must take money from any avenue possible, Kane agrees to become involved with some under-the-table cattle purchasing for the slimy, drawl Bill Garrett (Strother Martin) and his lackey Stretch Russell (Wayne Rogers). Given a wad of cash and the promise of reimbursement for expenses the men send Kane to Mexico to purchase a large head of cattle and ship them inconspicuously back through the American border while avoiding quarantine checkpoints and the like. Upon arrival to Mexico Kane meets up with Leonard (Lee Marvin) whose presence seems almost absurd as he is, at best, a pseudo-ranch hand with his wide ties and hat more reminiscent of a fedora than a cowboy hat. The two, nonetheless, work beautifully together knowing the magic of bartering often playing off of one another for their respective strengths to get proper deals. Yet even as the two seem flawless at their jobs a variety of issues get in the way, mostly as a result of language barriers and disgruntled employees, leading to various issues, primarily Kane's brief arrest as a result of fighting a former worker whom Kane fired for his flippant attitude and lazy work habits. Nonetheless, after scraping enough money together and getting the cattle to the border, Kane and Leonard manage to get them on an train and then on trucks to the meet-up point, of course, cheating their way out of having to pay considering that they have exhausted all resources and have yet to hear back from their employers. Yet, a chance encounter with Stretch allows for Kane to get some of his money back, as well as discovering the location of Garrett's hotel. Kane exacts some justice to get his money back, although it proves a bit futile because Garrett too has taken a hit due to quarantine regulations. Ultimately, the pair of Kane and Leonard are shown awaiting a train to return home, defeated and broke, embracing what very little hope they have entirely in the strength of their relationship.
So while I am not overly thrilled by this movie and am quite frustrated by its genre execution, I am quite adoring of the commentary it is trying to bring forth, primarily the manner with which modernity has alienated the cowboy identity. Kane is a person who expressly explains his own ignorance, often shying away from lengthy talks or shuffling about his engagements with brokers. We are shown Kane engaging with a bank executive with such shyness and awkwardness one is led to believe that, psychologically speaking, Kane might be suffering. Of course, he proves later to be rather adept and quite smart, it is simply a fear for the modern and non-traditional that troubles him. This is further explained in his his encounters with the livestock auction. Kane's unable to sell his horses because of some unusual blood issue that has resulted in their being quarantined, although the narrative seems to suggest that they will be fine upon release it is simply a precaution, if an excessive one at that. The notion of modernity slips in here because Kane, a man who seems to come from a world of bartering and handshakes is baffled by such an precaution, especially since everything seems to suggest that the horses will be fine, perhaps only a decade earlier such paranoia would not have led to their unnecessary quarantine, instead; an agreement to take the horses on loan would have been worked out until they were healthier. Furthermore, Kane clearly moves through a modernized world of drive-thrus and hotel swimming pools as an outsider, beautifully composed shots of Kane in the foreground, donning his sweat drenched cowboy hat are juxtaposed with children jumping in and out of a pool, Kane's refusal to move into this world, literally marking him as different and suffering as a result. Of course, this is not to suggest that all of Kane's attachment to the past is to be embraced, in fact, his traditionalism also seems to afford him a belief system that degrades and others the Mexican community he encounters, talking in a foolish form of Spanglish and rejecting the food offered to him by a group he deems fit to dismiss. In this case modernity has allowed for the advancement of a people and a huge boost in their own self-worth wherein Kane's refusal to adapt is ignorant and self-involved. Perhaps the best moment of proper rejection on Kane's part comes after his semi-beatdown of Garrett. Kane understands that no amount of traditional talk will allow him to get to Garrett's wallet, therefore, he chucks the hotel television out the window, both a rejection of technology, as well as the reliance on such devices that Garrett and others seem to have. Finally, it is implied at both Kane and Leonard, in all his city slicker glory, are the last vestiges of traditional western identity and as such desire to ride off into the sunset, but as the closing suggest modernity demands that they wait on a train in order to do so.
Key Scene: The hotel beatdown is fun and one of the few moments that is acceptable as being played comedic.
I would discourage you from seeking this film out, despite its set of excellent elements they simply do not add up to what one would assume to be brilliant filmmaking. There are other westerns, other Newman performances and certainly other Malick films well worth checking out instead.