HEARTS OF THE WEST (1976 review)

From Monthly Film Bulletin, June 1976 (Vol. 43, No. 509). — J.R.

Hollywood Cowboy

U.S.A., 1975
Director: Howard Zieff

Cert–A. dist–ClC. p.c–MGM. A Bill/Zieff production. p–Tony Bill. p. manager–Clark L. Paylow. asst. d–Jack B. Bernstein, Alan Brimfleld. sc–Rob Thompson. ph–Mario Tosi. col–Metrocolor. ed–Edward Warschilka. a.d–Robert Luthardt. set dec–Charles R. Pierce. m-Ken Lauber. m. sup–Harry V. Lojewski. special musical artists–Nick Lucas, Roger Patterson, Merle Travis. cost–Patrick Cummings. choreo--Sylvia Lewis. Titles/opticals–MGM. sd–Jerry Jost, Harry W. Tetrick. sd. effects–John P. Riordan. l.p–Jeff Bridges (Lewis Tater), Blythe Danner (Miss Trout), Andy Griffith (Howard Pike), Donald Pleasence (A. I. Nietz), Alan Arkin (Kessler), Richard B. Shull (Stout Crook), Herbert Edelman (Polo), Alex Rocco (Earl), Frank Cady (Pa Tater), Anthony James (Lean Crook), Burton Gilliam (Lester), Matt Clark (Jackson), Candy Azzata (Waitress), Thayer David (Bank Manager), Marie Windsor (Woman at Nevada Hotel), Anthony Holland (Guest at Beach Party), Dub Taylor (Nevada Ticket Agent), Raymond Guth (Wally), Wayne Storm (Zyle), Herman Poppe (Lowell), William Christopher (Bank Teller), Jane Dulo (Mrs. Stern), Dave Morick (Cameraman), Jacques Foti (Musical Director), Stuart Nisbet (Lucky), Tucker Smith (Noodle in Pith Helmet), Richard Stahl (Barber), Linda Borgeson (Western Ingenue), Titus Napoleon (Native Drummer), Barbara Brownell (Nietz’ Girlfriend), Granville Van Dusen (W.W.l Pilot). 9,242 ft. 103 mins.

Original U.S. titleHearts of the West

The early 1930s. An aspiring Western writer, Lewis Tater leaves his native Iowa for Titan, Nevada, after receiving a letter of acceptance from an alleged university there. After learning that the ‘university’ is only a correspondence course run by two hucksters — one of whom tries to rob him — Lewis flees in their car until the petrol runs out, then extracts a strong-box from the boot and continues on foot, eventually encountering a team of Western movie-makers who offer him a lift to Los Angeles. Befriended by cowboy extra Howard and script-girl Miss Trout, he soon leaves his dishwashing job at the Rio Café to work as an extra for their film company, Tumbleweed Productions, finally impressing the director Kessler sufficiently to be offered a lead part — and then being fired for demanding too much money — while completing his novel Hearts of the West in his spare time. On the advice of Miss Trout, he takes the novel to Howard for comment, later discovering that Howard is in fact one of his favourite Western authors, Billy Pueblo. After learning that he can gain an introduction to a publisher, A. J. Nietz, if he can supply $2,000 needed by a producer as a guarantee against running over budget on a serial, Lewis uses cash and money orders he has found in the strong-box to start an account and furnish a cheque. But after submitting his novel to Nietz, he discovers that Howard has submitted the book under his own name, and leaves them both in disgust. The hucksters fromTitan, who have meanwhile been on Lewis’ trail to recover their money, finally track him down. After Lewis is shot in the elbow and leg, Howard suddenly appears in full Western regalia, and overwhelms the crooks by shooting blanks. The pair are arrested, and Miss Trout accompanies Lewis in an ambuiance after Howard has intimated that Lewis’ novel will be published under his own name.


A modest if charming lark of a movie, Hearts of the West — inexplicably retitled Hollywood Cowboy for English consumption — treats the Western myth exclusively as an occasion for celebrating the gentle innocence of a Midwesterner’s appreciation of it. If Lewis Tater’s enthusiasm for the genre immediately evokes the “Arizona Jim” of Renoir’s Le Crime de Monsieur Lange, this may not be too weighty a reference to apply to so light a movie, because the essence of Lewis’ pleasure in the myth is his sense of style — not the fact but the appearance, the drama of the phrase rather than of the actual event.

After expanding his simulated death throes into an extravagant display In his first stint as a cowboy extra, he is advised by an old pro, “Just die natural — anyway, you might pull a muscle”. And although by the end he has received real bullets in his elbow and leg, it is ironically his fancy flights of “Western prose” delivered afterwards to a crowd from a stretcher that turn the event into something real, just as the villains are swiftly overcome by only a costume cowboy- movie actor Howard (Andy Griffith), complete with blanks in his gun which function more graphically (hence more ‘realistically’ and memorably, in movie terms) than the real ammunition pumped into Lewis’ flesh. As in Bande à part, the fake showdown carries more conviction than the real one because the former leaves more room for imaginative filigree — Lewis’ overall specialty — and Howard remains his master here as elsewhere. If the contrivances of Hearts of the West were acknowledged as gracefully as the implied need for them, the film would work even better than it does, but as with Lewis’ literary ambitions — to judge from samples of his prose — the movie shows to better advantage in flashes than in stretches of sustained narrative. Certain signals to the audience (such as the ‘unWesternness’ of Titan, Nevada, and the ticket agent’s unfriendliness) are needlessly fussed over, the villains’ search for the hero is improbably protracted, and when the movie strays into the wealthy domain of the eccentric A. J. Nietz (Donald Pleasence, sporting his usual mannerisms), it begins to look as out of place as its hapless hero. What keeps the fllm happy and hopeful through such rough spots — apart from a successfully muted sense of period décor — are its quieter virtues, all geared round cheerful connections between characters and performances: a rusty old-timer sporting his ‘true’ Western profile in a flush of bashful vanity; a campy barber protesting when Lewis orders his hair to be cut exactly like Zane Grey’s; Alan Arkin, as the excitable director, jerking the chair he’s seated on across an office floor in a kind of prolonged manic stutter.

But more essentially, the movie belongs to its two stars, who can come up with delightful surprises regardless of what the script throws at them: Jeff Bridges, mouthing his cowboy clichés with a relish that makes them indelible; and Blythe Danner, triumphing over a conventional Girl Friday part so that she not only looks entirely different from the way she did in Lovin’ Molly — slimmer, smarter, sharper and cooler — but takes on a fresh aspect in each successive scene, a chameleon running changes round the equally likeable stasis of Bridges.

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