Stars – James Robards, Per Oscarsson, Olivia de Havilland, Theodore Bikel, James Caan,
Robert Duvall, Burt Young, Bo Hopkins, Mako, Gig Young, Arthur Hill,
Director – Sam Peckinpah
Released by Twilight Time
Limited edition of 3,000 units
Available at screen archives.com
Reviewed by Steven Ruskin
A typical clash of expectations is in store for Sam Peckinpah fans – one that you wish would be better than it is and one that you never thought you’d be able to see that is just incredible. Peckinpah was capable of greatness and disappointment and you get both in this new release. However the chance to finally see Noon Wine is cause for celebration for followers of Peckinpah. Let me just make it abundantly clear that it was well worth the wait.
Just imagine a cast with James Caan and Robert Duvall as rogue CIA agents fighting a team of Ninjas in San Francisco helmed by Sam Peckinpah. That was the hype on Peckinpah’s publicized return to form with a rip-roaring martial arts action film, The Killer Elite. Sam’s last film was Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia which did not exactly make anyone rich. He had at that point alienated most of the people who could okay a film in Hollywood. Through an apparent divine intervention he was given a shot at this one. Stirling Silliphant may have written the script for the acclaimed film, In the Heat of the Night (1968) but this one is pretty terrible. Silliphant had at one time studied with Bruce Lee. Perhaps that is why he was considered for this script. It does not fully exploit the expected martial artists vs. western mercenaries encounters one would have hoped for. It is also dull and plodding, not exactly the kind of material that would drive a blockbuster action vehicle. It was a disappointment the first time I saw it yet each time I see it I expect it to be better than it was. It never is.
The film begins with Duvall and Caan showing a real chemistry after a job. Duvall is very engaging, lots of fun. A few moments later Duvall shoots his partner of many years in the kneecap effectively retiring him from the business. We spend the next half hour or more watching Caan go through arduous rehab. This section goes on entirely too long. He moves into an apartment with his attractive rehab nurse. There are scenes with Caan practicing some Karate in a dojo and on a rooftop that look very realistic. Caan shows a real flair for the moves. There are some bloated scenes with Gig Young and Arthur Hill as the aging behind the scenes handlers. Eventually Caan gets his moves back and accepts a job protecting Mako. The real reason he got the job was so he could get even with Duvall who has an assignment to kill the Asian client. But this is all a set up. Bo Hopkins is on board as a weapons expert that is so crazy no one will work with him, just like Peckinpah was then. Hopkins is great in the role though. The one action sequence in the whole film that works well is the siege on a building in the city that Caan and his crew must evacuate Mako and his people from. The editing is crisp and the blocking of the action is solid. More like this would have really improved the picture.
The climatic fight on a huge freighter ship has a horde of poorly choreographed Ninjas being easily shot to pieces by Caan and his small team. At one point Burt Young grabs one of then, lifts him over his head and chucks him overboard. So much for the legendary skills of the deadly Ninja. There is a set piece battle with Mako and real life martial artist Tak Kubota engaging in a samurai sword duel with Ninja styled Katanas. The moves are lackluster and the whole scene on the boat is a let down.
Duvall and Caan work so well together it’s a shame the script has so few scenes with them. In the extras we learn that Stirling Silliphant insisted on inserting his wife into the film as the daughter of actor Mako. Tiana Du Long wears long pigtail braids and is costumed just like Angela Mau Ying was in Enter The Dragon. She is even given a few leg movies that echo the famed “Deadly China Doll” but she is just not up to it. This film marked the last time that Peckinpah would work with his long time partner composer Jerry Feilding. Noon Wine on the other hand marked the first time they would work together.
After Peckinpah came off of Major Dundee (1965) he was finished, as would happen repeatedly in his career. He was given a chance to direct an episode in a TV series called ABC Stage 67 by someone who believed in the man who directed the extremely well received Ride The High Country (1962). Sam adapted the short novel written by Katherine Anne Porter in 1937. The man could really write. Peckinpah’s script is economical yet has so much feel for people and what they truly need from each other. He works the theme of co-dependence into these characters well. Peckinpah knew pride and he weaves the worst side of into one of the characters like poison in his blood. To be sure Porter’s original work was very strong but adapting it to a one hour TV episode which was actually 51 minutes of screen time was a difficult task. Word came down that Miss Porter was very pleased with his script.
The time is the 1890s, the tail end of the old West. Jason Robards tends a dairy farm which he tells us in a voice over is really not man’s work but he is stuck with it since his wife is now an invalid. He tells us it was she that she wanted it in the first place as he sits down to take a break. A large hulking man played by Per Oscarsson comes by. Helton is a Swedish guy looking for work. He wants a dollar a day but quickly takes Robards’ offer of seven dollars a month. He is a great worker and helps make the farm a success. Peckinpah uses montage to great effect here. Helton is quiet and plays his harmonicas at night. Robards has two sons. When the kids mess with Helton’s harmonicas, he gets really upset and shakes them. That little incident passes and life settles back to normal. Into this nice arrangement comes a man asking Robards if he has seen a big Swedish guy. This is a very dramatic and powerful tale. I’ll not spoil any of the developments.
It was said that Robards thought this was his best role. He is so relaxed and affable here. We instantly like him and get a feel for what makes him tick. That closeness is used to a very dramatic effect. Peckinpah shoots close to him, letting us sit down with him at the dinner table and when he relaxes. Robards has a great smile that features well in several montages. Peckinpah clearly understands what makes this deceptively simple tale work so well. For a man whose reputation seems to spring solely from the extreme violence in his films this is yet another reminder of just how caring a man he could be. He worked with Ben Johnson and L.Q. Jones here in the first of what would be many films together. Jerry Fielding’s musical contribution not only sets the time and the place, he compliments the emotions without over stating anything. He and Peckinpah were a great match.
This TV show was thought to be long lost. Noon Wine was but a single episode of a long forgotten and not very successful TV series. Fans of Sam Peckinpah who have read his biographies and critical papers have heard what a wonderful piece this was. It figures strongly in how we see this guy. The macho-boozing cocaine fueled Peckinpah seems to get so much attention. Yet the man who could write very well and apparently had an ability to sit beside your soul found very few outlets for that side of his person. Maybe it didn’t fit his impression of himself. Maybe he thought it was a weakness. Maybe no one was all that interested in seeing anything from him that wasn‘t from the heroic Bloody Sam. Noon Wine plays very much to Peckinpah’s strong hand. After hearing about this one for so many long years to be able to finally catch up with it, and own it is a real treat. And how cool it is that Noon Wine lives up to that exalted reputation! It flows nicely to revisit the other work he did with Jason Robards, The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970) after seeing this one. Sam apparently had a real heart. Don’t let that get around lest you spoil his reputation.
Video – Killer Elite – 2.35:1
This one looks okay to good. The darker scenes do not offer a great amount of detail often succumbing to a murky muddy look. There is a graininess that is pleasing in many of the brighter outdoor scenes. It is fine and entirely watchable but does not exhibit what you’d consider a strong picture.
Noon Wine 1.33:1
This was shot for TV and thought long lost. We are lucky to be able to see this one at all. It is not a strong visual but again it is entirely watchable. Any shortcomings are vastly eclipsed by the performances. Any weakness in the color, even in the montages is acceptable. The B/W publicity stills used for this review do not reflect the quality of the show which is in color.
Audio – Killer Elite – 1.0 DTS with subtitles offered in English SDH
Everyone is easily understood. The music and effects track are all mixed well. While there is nothing exemplary in the track, there are no problems of any note either.
Noon Wine – 1.0 DTS
From the moment this starts Jason Robards’ gentle voice takes a firm hold of us and never really lets go till the end. We can understand everyone fine in this simple one channel track that was intended for a single speaker smaller than an ashtray.
Extras – Killer Elite – Twilight Time’s signature isolated music track, trailer, commentary with film historians Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons, and Nick Redman. Passion and Poetry: Sam’s Killer Elite, Promoting The Killer Elite, TV Spots.
The interview with Bo Hopkins in the featurette is nicely revealing.
Noon Wine – Commentary with film historians Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons, and Nick Redman
On a scale of Poor, Fair, Good, Excellent, Classic:
Killer Elite – Good
Noon Wine – Thank you!
Killer Elite – Fair
Noon Wine – Classic