Monday, September 20, 2010

Knowing when to hold 'em

A Big Hand For The Little Lady (1966) presents itself as a comedy Western about gambling, specifically poker. But in fact ***SPOILER ALERT*** the film is in fact a con movie, one of the earliest I am aware of to deal with a long, or at least semi-long con with a sympathetic point of view for the cons. (Until then, most films about con artists were police procedurals.) The trickiest thing about a really fine con film is that there must be at least one con reserved for the audience. This gets harder as the years go by.

Back in 1966, the mere fact that you were witnessing a con without your prior knowledge was a pretty satisfying twist. Today I would guess most movie fans would guess that at about the halfway mark. (There's a large and improbable turning point which is a tip-off.) One still doesn't know the extent and the shape of the con, so there is still fun to be had. And back then, having sweet old Henry-Abraham-Lincoln-Mister-Roberts-Eagle-Scout-Fonda as one of the cons was fun in and of itself. (This was three years before Sergio Leone cast Fonda as a psychopathic mass killer in Once Upon A Time In The West.)

Today in the post-Sting age, when everyone has plumbed the depths of The Sting's source work, David Maurer's 1940 book, The Big Con, it takes a lot more to completely sandbag the audience. (I confess, Matchstick Men did that for me, and I've gotten pretty good at these things.) The key, usually, is in character. Think about who would want to con who--and remember, there's probably someone you've forgotten or overlooked.

In this case, the marks (as in the best con films) really deserve it. Jason Robards blew his charm wad in A Thousand Clowns, and for the rest of this film career specialized in scowling. Charles Bickford contributes his own 50 years of experience in scowling, John Qualen is having a rare turn as a non-Swede and Kevin McCarthy uses that beautiful voice to contribute some super smoothness that might deceive you. You could overlook Burgess Meredith and I completely missed Chester Conklin (was he wearing his moustache?), but the film is most remarkably a fine vehicle for Paul Ford, who gets to play an actual human being rather than the human foghorn he plays in The Music Man and The Russians Are Coming! If you recognize at least a few of those names, this is a film you appreciate.

Finally, the strangest credit, director-producer Fielder Cook, not known for Westerns--in fact, he was a specialist in live television drama and later in making films based on plays. This seems strange during the opening 10 minutes of the film, until the picture arrives in the single room in which it will spend at least 75% of the balance of the movie. One of these days I might try to compile a list of Westerns set in a single room. (And wouldn't you like to see Clerks remade as a Western? I would.)

What about Joanne Woodward. She's just fine, as would be a few dozen competent professional actresses. Good thing she didn't co-star with husband Paul Newman in this film, or it would have given away the trick right away!

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