Saturday, April 04, 2009

REVISITING SAM PECKINPAH'S CONVOY


UPDATED April 6, 2009!!!


A few weeks ago, the day after the coronation of Sean Penn, Kate Winslet and Slumdog Millionaire as this year’s Oscar champs, I posted a sort of Oscar palate cleanser in the form of a few smart-ass comments about the much-derided Sam Peckinpah action vehicle Convoy. And then, by sheer coincidence, Convoy ended up featured on the wonderful MGM HD channel just two days later. I made a point to sit down and watch it all the way through, my memory of it being derived from a crappy cropped VHS cassette and a similarly bleary-looking HBO screening I saw nearly 20 years ago, neither of which I made it all the way through. The high-def showing was probably the best chance I’d have to judge the movie on its merits alone, divorced from the notoriety of its cocaine-and-madness-fueled production history and its insistent reputation as the nadir of a once-great director’s career, the penultimate act of an artist desperately slumming for a hit. (My nominee for that honor would go to the film Peckinpah made previously, The Killer Elite.)

I wish I could say that Convoy is a movie misrepresented, like Mandingo, by a critical community blinded by conventional wisdom, one worthy of a complete reappraisal and repositioning within Peckinpah’s oeuvre. Alas, it is not a masterpiece. Many of Convoy’s dialogue scenes are marred by atrocious overdubbing and indifferent staging, and even some of the hand-to-hand action, like the truck-stop fistfight that opens the movie—Peckinpah’s bread and butter a mere decade earlier—are hampered by a deliberate editing scheme that looks pawed over, slapped together, with little regard for fluency. (There is a good joke in there, though, involving Franklin Ajaye as a trucker named Pigpen-- guess what he’s hauling-- who draws first blood in the fight, a broken ketchup bottle which shatters over someone’s head and draws immediate comic commentary on the director’s reputation amongst lazy critics as an indiscriminate letter of blood.) The movie, based on C.W. McCall's novelty top-40 hit, was a huge hit, especially on the drive-in circuit, though Peckinpah’s on-set antics ensured he wouldn’t work again for nearly five years. No, it’s not a maligned work of genius, but it is damned entertaining despite its many glaring flaws, mainly because, in trolling for box-office gold by exploiting the then-popular CB craze, the director manages to pump a goodly amount of nihilistic steam into the idea of a political movement, a trucker’s protest convoy which gains populist momentum without anyone-- least of all its ostensible leader, Rubber Duck (Kris Kristofferson)-- seeming to have any coherent agenda or ability to agree on what it all means. For Rubber Duck, and for Peckinpah, the director desperate to shoot film who increasingly lost his grip on the reality of what to shoot and why, the only act with any meaning at all is the simple act of forward movement.

And forward movement through vividly rendered space is something Convoy does quite well. This is one of those wonderfully tactile films from the ‘70s, like Charley Varrick or Electra Glide in Blue, that seems kinetically, electrically connected to the landscapes on which its dramas take place. The soaking up of the spectacular Panavision vistas, deepened by darkening clouds, a line of trucks skating across the bottom of the frame silhouetted in the dusk, is as dramatic as any action set piece in the movie, many of which are shot and edited with an identifiable precision and poetry that is clearly derived from Peckinpah’s sensibility (this despite testimony to the effect that James Coburn and others were called in to direct shots and sequences when Peckinpah arrived on set too drunk and/or deranged to do the job himself). Convoy is a pedal-to-the-heavy-metal, meat-and-potatoes Hal Needham action flick directed by an artist, or a man still enough of one to elevate even its deadliest, hoariest conceits-- Ernest Borgnine’s mustache-twirling devilry as evil sheriff Dirty Lyle, who rides Rubber Duck’s ass straight to hell; Rubber Duck’s populist-Christ resurrection that occurs five minutes after the movie should have ended; and the entire nostril-flaring presence of Ali McGraw-- into classifiably forgivable sins, so spectacular is the movie’s milieu, its dusty testimony to the desperate beauty of the road, of trucks, of desperate, disillusioned men. Do yourself a favor—keep your eye on that MGM HD schedule, and if it ever comes around again see Convoy in this format. The German DVD I have is a not-even-close second, and the cropped versions of the olden days are simply unacceptable. Until MGM issues a proper domestic DVD (an event with little economic motivation, it would seem), this will remain your best chance to see everything that is up, and down, about this flawed Peckinpah gem.

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UPDATE Monday April 6, 2009
As reader Robert Fiore has noted in the comments column below, it was my delight to have discovered this past Saturday morning, and to share with you now, that this post has been honored by none other than Vanity Fair’s James Wolcott, who linked to it with his comments on my thoughts (complete with a nice, extended quotation) in elaborating on Convoy and his own first-hand observations on the set. Mr. Wolcott has even come up with a keen Bizarro-world name for this very blog (“Sergio Valente and the Ground Rule Double”)! Now, that’s an honor!

And it’s not the first time the VF columnist has been so kind—the most recent of four of five other such links to this humble outpost came only last week, when Mr. Wolcott linked to my brief discussion of Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory’s (and Louis Malle’s) My Dinner with Andre. My most sincere thanks to Mr. Wolcott for his attention and his support, and for the great blog name, which I will use forthwith whenever signing into a hotel incognito.

(You can find other past mentions of Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule by Mr. Wolcott right here.)

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5 comments:

Robert Fiore said...

If you are not already aware, you have been linked to and copiously quoted in James Wolcott's blog at the Vanity Fair website, right next to the Giselle Bundchen cheesecake picture.

Another notable coming attraction on MGM HD is the Altman Thieves Like Us. On my cable however the ongoing MGM HD feature is still the silent epic Othello in the Dark.

Robert Fiore said...

On Convoy itself, I think you have to consider anything that helped achieve the final goal of ending Kris Kristofferson's acting career, no matter how arduous it might have been in itself, was worthwhile in the end. Sort of like the landing at Tarawa.

Larry Aydlette said...

Hey, I love Kris!

Marc Edward Heuck said...

A further complication is that MGM does not control DVD rights to CONVOY - those belong to StudioCanal. So maybe it could pop up via their deal with Lionsgate, but if they didn't yield it up during their previous deal with Anchor Bay, especially when AB gave the deluxe treatment to Peckinpah's THE OSTERMAN WEEKEND, it seems unlikely to surface anytime soon.

Patrick Murtha said...

Pauline Kael's spirited appreciations of Convoy and The Killer Elite, partly explicable in the light of her close friendship with Peckinpah, are very much worth reading. All her writing on this director is stimulating (including her famous kind-of-pan of Straw Dogs as a "fascist classic") and shows her at her most interesting (instead of at her frequent unbearable worst -- I generally find Kael less readable as I age). One wishes she might have done a book on Peckinpan, gathering reviews and later thoughts, like Ebert's book on Scorsese (which was a great idea on Roger's part).