Friday, June 05, 2009


David Carradine, who died Thursday in Bangkok, Thailand under circumstances that are still under investigation and subject to conflicting reports, will be mourned and eulogized this week with sadness and eloquence, and remembered for his understated work in films like Bound for Glory and Kill Bill Volume 2, and of course for his role as Kwai Chang Caine in the popular early ‘70s TV series Kung Fu. He appeared in Boxcar Bertha, alongside one-time partner Barbara Hershey, for Martin Scorsese, and had a cameo in the director’s signature breakthrough film Mean Streets. And Carradine’s last, most memorable performance may not have even occurred on film (though parts of it undoubtedly exists somewhere as pixels on a digital camcorder or cell phone)—his testy wrangle with cinematographer Haskell Wexler on a panel after a screening of Bound of Glory this past spring at the American Cinematheque in Hollywood was legendary from almost the minute it concluded. (The dust-up was well and entertainingly documented by Chris Willman.)

But for as many of these memorable roles as Carradine could claim (and as many roles in routine or even terrible films that he might have liked to have forgotten, as many of us probably already have), two in particular will always define Carradine the actor in my mind. First, the unmovably cynical Frankenstein in Death Race 2000 (1975), carrying out a covert political revolution while literally playing the establishment game of televised road rage, was a nice twist on the Zen-infused Caine persona and a chance for the actor to play a little looser (all things being relative) with his acting style. But most important for me is Carradine’s contribution to the century-and-a-half-old work-in-progress that is the legend of Jesse James, as Cole Younger in Walter Hill’s elegiac, muscular and lyrical western The Long Riders (1980). Never an uptight actor, Carradine seemed to really enjoy inhabiting the melancholy of Hill’s vision with customary sly humor and straightforward grace. It was a role that allowed him to highlight his lithe physicality— the knife fight with James Remar as Belle Starr’s Indian boyfriend is a spectacular bit of choreographed hand-to-hand violence in which the adversaries are kept within slashing proximity by clamping a belt between their choppers— as well as his extraordinary and enveloping sense of comfort with his fellow cast members. Much was made at the time of the movie’s release about the casting of the real-life Keach, Carradine, Quaid and Guest brothers as the familial pillars of the Jesse James legend, but I think just as memorable are Carradine’s scenes with Belle Starr, played by Pamela Reed with a sense of strong-willed sexual entitlement and a world-weariness to match. The two of them luxuriate in their physical encounters, yet are remarkably frank in assessing and understanding their roles—especially Belle’s—in a post-Civil War social order still largely defined by the masculine prerogative. Their brief scenes together, highlighted below, are one of the many things that makes Hill’s movie remarkable, and Carradine, in Cole Younger’s skin, seemed particularly lived-in. The actor deftly mixed vulnerability, paranoia and even an edge of imperiousness with a surprising grace that perfectly complements the emblematic richness of Hill’s amoral vision just as did the long flowing dusters worn by the James-Younger gang, or even Ry Cooder’s beautiful score, itself haunted by the same ghosts of the Confederacy that pervade the movie. Yes, it is his Cole Younger that I treasure most from David Carradine, and remembering the joy I’ve taken from that performance over the 20 or 25 times I’ve seen the movie since its release in 1980 has been great comfort in the days since his death was revealed.

David Carradine and Pamela Reed in The Long Riders (1980)



Paul said...

I’m a Bangkok blogger at the hotel where Carradine died. My blog is

The announcer for the BBC breaks the story on TV. David Carradine was found dead in the Swiss Hotel on Soi Nailert. The film star was found in the closet of his room bound by curtain rope around his neck, and the inference is that his genitals were bound as well. The news ran through the Bangkok film colony like a forest fire.

I consult investigative journalist David Walker. He is also a screenwriter and author of the cult classic book, Hello My Big Big Honey. Walker is at the hotel. He has already led a CBS crew to legendary film producer-director David Winters penthouse office. Winters is a dear friend of Carradine from their glory days in Hollywood. Walker wants to see the surveilance tapes. No chance Bagger Vance. Dr. Pornthip, a colorful Thai forensic scientist is on the scene at the hotel. Walker says Pornthip, who is famous for sporting many hued punk hair styles and is a bit of a celebrity,delares the case to be death by auto sexual strangulation.

I roll up to Winters penthouse office. He is devastated by the tragic loss of a dear friend. He has not slept. CBS and People Magazine have already come by to solicit intelligence. David is shocked by the tawdry inferrences. He has spoken to 3 of Carradines agents. The agents declare that Carradine was on the roll of a lifetime. Quentin Tarantino redefined the 72 year old actor in Kill Bill. Carradine recieved a Golden Globe nomination for his work with Tarantino. The actor of the classic cult TV series Kung Fu had starred in 13 motion pictures since Kill Bill. His salary was in the stratosphere.

The strange circumstances of the verdict by auto- sexual strangulation trouble Winters. It takes two to tango. Why indeed would a man of his talent take his own life alone. Bangkok is known as a city with love for sale. Film people come here to shoot and avail themselves of the pleasures to be found in the gilded city of sin. Kinky sex is no big deal. Could this be a coverup for a sex robbery murder. The Royal Thai Police have shut the door on this case all too quickly. The tourist industry has been severely damaged by the recession and political instability. The murder of a famous film star would be a final nail in the coffin of the tourism industry. Winters says that Carradine, son of John , iconic members of an American cinema dynasty were above the fray. David Carradine was according to Winters a consumate gentleman, a brilliant actor, and a man for all seasons.

I run into local film producer Tom Waller at a reception hosted by the Italian Embassy. Tom does not believe in the verdict of death by auto-sexual strangulation. He concludes that it was a sex robbery gone wrong, and that to cover the motives the body had been arranged to fit the profile of death by auto- sexual strangulation, a theory once confined to the genre of novels classified as psychological thrillers. The denizens of the film colony in Bangkok are incredulous at the grisly circumstances of the sad demise of this brilliant talent.

More at

le0pard13 said...

Dennis, you've posted a remarkable requiem for the actor. Your analysis of his career and personality is keen and spot-on. And I'm so happy, through my sadness of his death, that you've so eloquently discussed a favorite western of mine, Walter Hill's The Long Riders. David Carridine's role of Cole Younger and his scenes with Pamela Reed's Belle Starr are easily the best and most intriguing in this underrated film. Hell, it's the reason TLR rises to the level of excellence that it does. I have nothing but praise for your examination of their contribution in the film. Thank you, Dennis, and my David rest in peace.

Bob Westal said...

For some reason, both times I've seen "The Long Riders" it's pretty much instantly evaporated for me...the last time wasn't so long ago. We obviously disagree, but I guess there isn't quite enough "there there" in the story, or something, for me. However, you're right that Carradine was A-1 in it, maybe better than he's been in any other movie I've seen him in (and I've seen most of the big ones, though "Bound for Glory" deserves another look, and boy it would have been interesting/terrifying to have been at the Aero that night). I wonder if it wasn't the sibling rivalry aspect of it.

The Fan With No Name!!! said...

A really nice Blog Entry on David Carradine Dennis (I was hoping you would write one up though I'm sure you wish you didn't have to for sad reasons.)

THE LONG RIDERS is probably my favorite Walter Hill film and certainly David Carradine is in top form playing Cole Younger!

Loved the clips you posted. Ever since my Dad saw TLR he's gone around quoting the "You're a whore..." lines (!?!!) - Carradine's delivery of them is so 'laugh-out-loud' funny & phrased so perfectly.


MovieMan0283 said...

I am making the rounds to remind everyone about the "Reading the Movies" exercise I started. I'm going to compile everyone's lists into one master list in a week or two, so jump in! The original post can be found here:


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