Hands up: The Grey Fox (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 30, 2020)

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What were the odds? A couple weeks ago, I Tweeted this:

I hadn’t thought about The Grey Fox in years; it’s one of my favorite 80s sleepers. Something about Senator Kaine’s “gentleman bandit” couture made the film suddenly pop into my head.

Flash-forward one week: I receive an email alerting me that Philip Borsos’ 1982 gem has undergone a 4K restoration and was premiering May 29th for a limited run via Kino-Lorber’s “Kino Marquee” platform (small world!) The studio distributes to a network of select cinemas nationwide, giving movie fans a chance to buy “tickets” and support their shuttered local art house venue by streaming through that venue’s website. Here in Seattle, the film is playing via the Grand Illusion theater’s virtual screening room; for other cities / venues click here.

Filmed on location in Washington State and British Columbia, Borso’s biopic is a naturalistic “Northwestern” in the vein of Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller. The film is based on the real-life exploits of “gentleman robber” Bill Miner (who may or may not have been the progenitor of the venerable felonious command: “Hands up!”).

The Kentucky native was a career criminal who spent about half his life as a guest of the State of California. First incarcerated in his early 20s, he was released in 1880 and resumed his former activities (robbing stagecoaches). The law caught up with him and he did a long stretch in San Quentin. When he got out of stir in 1901, he was in his mid-50s.

The Grey Fox picks up Miner’s story at this point, just as he is being “released into the 20th-Century” from San Quentin. Miner is wonderfully portrayed by then 60-year-old Richard Farnsworth. Farnsworth (who died in 2000 at 80) brings an uncanny authenticity to the role; not only because of age-appropriate casting, but thanks to his rugged countenance (undoubtedly stemming from his previous three decades as a stuntman). Farnsworth literally looks like he stepped directly out of the 19th-Century and walked right into this film.

John Hunter’s screenplay weaves an episodic narrative as spare and understated as its laconic and soft-spoken protagonist. Miner gets out of prison and heads north to Washington state, where he lodges with his sister and her husband and finds work. The straight and narrow wears thin on the restless ex-con. He talks a dim-witted fellow worker (Wayne Robson) into traveling with him up to Canada to be his partner-in crime. As stagecoaches are a thing of the past, Miner (not unlike Butch Cassidy) intuits a bright future in robbing trains.

Eventually Miner has to cool his heels, as a dogged Pinkerton man (Gary Reineke) is hot on his trail (he’s noticed that the perpetrator of a string of train robberies in Canada has a suspiciously similar M.O. to Miner’s past stagecoach robberies in California). He and his cohort settle in a small town in British Columbia, where Miner (now living under an alias) meets and develops a relationship with a feminist photographer (Jackie Burroughs). Do Miner’s bad, bad ways catch up with him again? That would be telling.

Borso paints an elegiac portrait of a turn-of-the century “west” that is making an uneasy transition into modernity (along the lines of Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country or Richard Brooks’ Bite the Bullet). The 4k restoration is gorgeous, highlighting DP Frank Tidy’s fabulous cinematography (he also shot Ridley Scott’s debut 1977 feature film The Duellists, one of the most beautiful-looking films this side of Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon). This is a film well-worth your time, whether this is your first time viewing or you are up for a revisit.

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