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September 14, 2021

Macho Callahan

macho callahan.jpg

Bernard L. Kowalski - 1970
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

I am not sure who should take the credit, the director, or the cinematographer, Gerry Fisher. Whatever faults it has, Macho Callahan is, if nothing else, Bernard Kowalski's visually strongest film. There is care placed in framing the actors, whether in tight close-ups or in group shots. While I do not care much for the zoom in shots, there are the sweeping crane shots and upward tilts of the camera. Less care seems to be placed in crafting a coherent narrative where motivation is questionable at best and absent at worst.

The film takes place in 1864. The opening screen is at a Confederate prison camp, a partially destroyed stone fortress. The Confederate soldiers are grubby, battle fatigued and bored. We see a couple soldiers cooking offal from the entrails of a horse. The Union soldiers that are not locked in cells too small for confinement also bind their time in this open air prison. Kowalski cuts to a close-up of one large and greasy rat. There appears to have been good attention to period detail to make the scene look as authentic as possible. Macho Callahan is released from his confinement, punished for trying to escape, only to successfully engineer a new escape, eventually making his way to New Mexico. With Callahan out of prison, the film tentatively takes on the trappings of the revisionist Westerns that appeared in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Callahan takes revenge on the man who tricked him into enlisting in the Union army. He also shoots a man over a dispute regarding a bottle of champagne. There is a price on Callahan's head which nonetheless does not keep him out of Texas, a Confederate state at the time. It is never explained how Callahan got to be named Macho. Callahan's amorality is such that when he becomes a more sympathetic character, it is incongruous with the first half of the film. That the film has three editors listed in the credits also suggests that there was a bit of post-production tinkering prior the final release version.

David Janssen appears to have fully committed himself to being cast against type as an anti-hero. Never once seen clean-shaven, his beard his flecked with white hairs. As Callahan, Janssen looks like a man who has lived a hard life. What is shocking is to realize that Janssen was not even 40 at the time he made the film. Jean Seberg appears as a widow initially seeking revenge following the death of her husband by Callahan. As it turned out, Macho Callahan was Seberg's last Hollywood production after being victimized by disinformation from the FBI for her political activity. Also in the cast, albeit sometimes too briefly, are Lee J. Cobb, Bo Hopkins, David Carradine and Diane Ladd. Pedro Armendariz, Jr. has an unusually large supporting role as Callahan's partner-in-crime, the most sympathetic character in the film.

Alex Cox uses the term neo-Western to describe Macho Callahan in his commentary track. These would be the Westerns produced by Hollywood that upended many of the traditional tropes in a period bookended by two films by Sam Peckinpah, The Wild Bunch and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Cox points out the Mexican locations as well as the overviews on the careers of the primary cast and crew. The lapses in the narrative are criticized as well, with what appears to be the choice of the writers to place convenience over logic. Even with its faults, Macho Callahan is one of the more interesting examples from a time when experimentation in form and content briefly brought new life to a fading genre.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at September 14, 2021 05:08 AM