Starring: Paul Newman
Director: John Huston
Mood: If you’re tired of people overusing the word ‘random’ and want to watch a Western that is so totally random it will renew your belief in the true meaning of the word.
It’s not often a Western leaves me completely baffled, but The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean did exactly that.
When it ended, I had NO f*cking idea what I just watched. Sometimes it was funny. Sometimes it was sad. And sometimes it was just plain weird, as if the script was an inside joke but the audience wasn’t welcome. The plot is less of a story and more of a series of bizarre events with only Judge Bean himself tying them together.
The real Judge Roy Bean was quite the scoundrel and known for his “unusual” verdicts, and it seems like this movie wanted to evoke his nefarious and unpredictable nature by being completely chaotic in its narrative.
At times the zaniness is fun, and there’s some highly entertaining acting here. But overall, the lack of purpose leaves you disinterested in the characters and the outcome. Still… at least you get to watch a Western where Paul Newman is upstaged by a bear.
The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean opens with Judge Bean (Paul Newman) arriving in a little border town, getting robbed and left for dead, then killing all of the men and women who robbed him and proclaiming himself “the law west of the Pecos.”
Bean has a shady past and questionable morals, and so he hires a gang of outlaws as his deputies. Their gig is coming up with “legal” reasons to rob and hang anyone who crosses their path. This goes on for quite awhile, introducing a variety of colourful characters including Reverend LaSalle (Anthony Perkins), trapper Grizzly Adams (director John Huston), outlaw Bad Bob (Stacy Keach), and slimy lawyer Frank Gass (Roddy McDowall).
Meanwhile, Bean is obsessed with actress Lily Langtry (Ava Gardner), and plasters posters of her all over his saloon, which is called The Jersey Lily. He also takes in a charming young Mexican woman (Victoria Principal faking with a fake accent) from the poor local town, and she of course immediately falls in love with him because that’s what all gorgeous young women do when confronted with a grumpy old white guy with literally no redeeming qualities.
But the West is changing and Bean’s type are a dying breed. Which, by the end of the movie, you kind of feel is a good thing.
The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean manages to deliver quite a few memorable performances despite its plethora of shallow, unexplored characters.
- Anthony Perkins steals the show as the sly and curiously effeminate Reverend LaSalle; his part is so small that all it says of his existence in Wikipedia is “a traveling preacher, LaSalle, buries the dead” – but Perkins makes every moment worth watching
- Stacy Keach is hilarious as the albino Bad Bob, and again, you’re left hungry for more of that character
- Roddy McDowall is fully on-brand as a simpering, nervous character with a vast array of facial expressions
- The bear, who starred as the title character in Gentle Ben, is pure comedy gold even though the last thing any Western needs is a horribly mismatched couple with zero chemistry pushing a bear on a swing to easy listening music
- I can’t tell if Paul Newman is any good because the role is so uneven and nonsensical that it’s hard to know what’s him and what’s the script
The key problem seems to be that the movie John Huston made is not the movie screenwriter John Milius created, and that Huston was merrily building the plane as he flew. Although Milius was on set every day and they got along well, Huston was apparently constantly rewriting scenes as he shot them to suit his whims and Milius hated the final product.
What Milius says he wrote is a darkly funny Spaghetti Western about greed and power with a reprehensible man at its core. What he says we got, according to an interview with Quentin Tarantino, is “a poor man’s Butch Cassidy” that’s “kind of fritzy, almost I hate to say it, a Beverly Hills Western.” It’s not a successful Revisionist Western driven by a powerful antihero that flips the genre on its head, but it’s also not charming or clever enough to be a good comedy.
You have a cast stacked with two Oscar winners (Paul Newman and Huston himself) and four nominees (Ava Gardner, Richard Farnsworth, Anthony Perkins, and Ned Beatty) and somehow you still come away with nothing.
The frustrating part is that the real Judge Roy Bean did SO MANY things that were prime movie material and should easily have made for a great story. This guy seemed to thrive on illegal activity like cattle rustling, stealing lumber, watering down milk, or inventing fines for nonexistent offences and keeping the money. Reading about him online is significantly more entertaining than his character in the movie, which shouldn’t be the case with a budget that big and such a great cast.
But The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean must have stuck at least some people’s fancy, because there’s a pub in Dublin called Judge Roy Beans – and until 2019, there was a nightclub upstairs called Lillie’s Bordello.
Milius wanted Warren Oates to take the lead and felt that Newman was too “cutesy.” Lee Marvin might have gotten the part if he hadn’t passed out drunk reading the script with Newman nearby on set, ready to pounce.
But would a different lead have made a difference, with Huston still at the helm? It’s hard to say. But like I said, at least we’ll always have Paul Newman being upstaged by a bear.