Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid

"The Great Northfield, Minnesota Raid" (Philip Kaufman, 1972) Genre-busting western (following two years after the similarly revisionist "Little Big Man") by Philip Kaufman back in his wild indie days about the splintering of the Younger-James Gang, due to their most notorious crime, the theft of Northfield's First National Bank, "the biggest bank west of the Mississippi." Starring Cliff Robertson and produced by Robertson's production company, the film was obviously massaged as a vehicle for Robertson, if not for the fact that Robert Duvall makes the most of the weirder, more psychotic role of Jesse James, cutting through his scenes like a murderously sharp scythe through prairie wheat. By comparison, Robertson has the more central, but goonier role of Cole Younger—distractedly visionary outlaw cursed with an eye toward "wonderments" and other bright objects that tended to throw him off-task.

The world is on the cusp of change—one of those "wonderments" is a steam-powered organ that proves to be both a blessing and a curse to the Younger-James Gang's ability to fight authority, rob banks, and line their pockets in the process. Jesse can't be bothered with "wonderments;" they get in the way of his "visions" for their exploits, which come upon him in nearly incomprehensible rants. Cole, however, always wonders how the outskirts of the Industrial Revolution can make their burgling business a little easier (he sports a brine-soaked leather vest to protect him from bullets).* Pretty soon, they'll move from banks to trains and the stakes will get that much higher. But for the moment, their targets are stationary, and their tactics not unknown to today's white-collar criminals.**

That it was also the beginning of the end for the gang, with Northfield's populace turning on the bandits during the course of the prolonged robbery, ending their "Robin Hood" reputations, and leaving a couple of the gang dead in the street, shot by civilians. The romance with the criminals would go on (so long as they were dead and not stealing town-folks' money anymore) in fictional pulps (and Cole Younger would survive and go on the lecture circuit...yes, really), but the West changed around them as so many of these "sunset" Westerns of the 70's were showing, making them legends...and you have to past your prime (or dead) to be that. Kaufman
's take on it is intermittently fun, long on ideas, but short on entertainment.

* Jesse could be seen as the evangelical, and Cole the scientific , world-views. No wonder they broke up. Jesse died 2 1/2 weeks before Charles Darwin died.

** Before the raid, they prime the pump by encouraging stories of the bank's safety, driving up deposits to ensure they make away with a huge haul. They could work for Enron!

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