John Sturges directs Joe Kidd, a 1972 western featuring a screenplay by the one and only Elmore Leonard. This is a frank, uncomplicated sort of film. It features Clint Eastwood as the titular character and that’s the main selling feature. Eastwood is his typical self, a laconic sort who can’t muster up emotion about anything but still manages to stand on some sort of principle.
The cinematography of Bruce Surtees opens up the interminable deserts and bunched townscapes of the 1900s with a sort of dusty sense of scale. It does the usual western trick of both clouding any motivations and insisting on a kind of two-fisted wholesomeness, like the land itself is a character in this scenario.
The audience is introduced to Eastwood’s Kidd as he in the slammer for hunting on Indian land. He’s also up on disturbing the peace charges because he said he would piss on the courthouse. When a group of Mexican bandits led by Luis Chama (John Saxon) takes to the courthouse as part of a revolt, Kidd is caught in the middle.
The wealthy Frank Harlan (Robert Duvall) saunters into town and tries to hire Kidd to join his posse to track down Chama. The protagonist refuses at first, but joins up after it turns out Chama has raided his own ranch and roughed up one of his workers. Kidd goes along with Harlan and his gang for a spell, but when things turn particularly ugly he has another change of heart.
This is an interesting entry in the Eastwood canon because it lacks the grand legend status of the Dollars trilogy and doesn’t have the vehement get-up-and-go of his pairings with Don Siegel, but it does have a laidback style all its own. For all the shoot-em-up moments in Joe Kidd, there’s something about Sturges’ western that still feels remarkably small.
Some have complained that there is little information pertaining to Eastwood’s character, but this isn’t the case. He is known in the New Mexico town of Sinola, where most of the fun takes place. He is acquainted with many of the Mexicans and he seems to have some sort of prodding relationship with the authorities, demonstrated by their manner of administering justice.
Kidd also has a ranch outside of town somewhere, but not much is known about that. He has workers of the Mexican persuasion and values them, although there isn’t a lot of time spent on his ranch and it mostly proves as an excuse to roll Eastwood’s character back into the main plot. That’s okay.
Leonard’s screenplay is the stuff of dusty efficiency. He means to get to the point and then some, driving the action forward with a kind of ruthless momentum. He doesn’t spend much time clarifying little details or delving into the politics of Chama, who was apparently inspired by Chicano Movement figurehead Reies Tijerina.
Duvall’s gang is the main focal point, with the wealthy landowner going to great lengths to hunt down the pesky Chama. His posse is comprised of several fine hunters, with advanced weaponry and sadistic natures. At one point, Harlan and his gang sets up in a Mexican village and threatens to murder five people at a time if Chama doesn’t get his ass down out of the foothills.
This moment is the pivot for Eastwood’s departure from moral obscurity, of course, and it works like a charm. Kidd is fired from Harlan’s gang after he’s outlived his worth and he begins what could best be termed a revolution of his own, complete with a hilarious sequence involving a swinging pot and a luckless bad guy. Kidd also maintains a rivalry with Lamarr (Don Stroud), who has a neat gun.
Joe Kidd isn’t the sort of western to move mountains, but it is an entertaining picture and it doesn’t overstay its welcome. Sturges gets in and out in a matter of 88 minutes, pulling his hero through some wild paces that includes blasting a train through a saloon and laying waste to an entire posse. Now that’s a kick.