Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Heath Holland On...Little Fauss and Big Halsy

by Heath Holland
Robert Redford doesn’t want you to see this movie.

Until recently, I’d never heard of the movie Little Fauss and Big Halsy. Allow me to digress: a couple of years ago, I got Columbia’s gigantic box set of Johnny Cash albums for Christmas. The mammoth release contains 63 discs of Cash’s country/pop/Americana goodness, and if you’ve been reading the stuff I contribute here for any length of time, you know that I have this anal obsession (I should rephrase that) to tackle things in chronological order. That means I can’t very easily watch Live and Let Die without my crazy OCD insisting that I start with Dr. No and work up to the movie I wanted to watch in the first place. It’s a problem. It’s getting better, but it’s still a thing. So I tackled all those Johnny Cash albums chronologically and—understandably--got bogged down around disc 23. Not long ago, I dug the box back out and picked back up where I had left off, so it was only then that I hit disc 26, which is Little Fauss and Big Halsy: The Original Soundtrack Recording. I’d never heard of the movie that this soundtrack accompanied, but the disc clearly states that the music performed by Johnny Cash also featured the involvement of Carl “Blue Suede Shoes” Perkins and Bob Dylan. I had to find this movie.
A little digging turned up just a few meager facts. Little Fauss and Big Halsy is a motorcycle film made in 1970 by director Sidney J. Furie, a man who will probably best be remembered as the guy behind the Iron Eagle series from the 1980s and for helming the disappointing Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. During the 1960s, he had been an exploitation director responsible for a few kitschy horror films and a western, and I have no doubt that Little Fauss and Big Halsy was conceived to exploit the success of the 1969’s biker odyssey Easy Rider. It stars Robert Redford as Big Halsy and the diminutive Michael J. Pollard as Little Fauss.

Robert Redford chose this role following the success of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid because he reportedly wanted something grimy to counter his polished appearance in the smash western. And grimy it is: Redford is a real sleaze in this role as a drifting biker who travels from race to race and doesn’t allow himself to get tangled up in anything or with anyone. He uses women, manipulates men, steals and lies to put food in his mouth, and sleeps wherever and with whomever that he finds himself each night. It’s unclear if anything he tells anyone in the movie is ever the actual truth or simply what he wants them to hear so he can twist them to his own purpose. It’s a real departure for Redford, and I’ve never seen the actor play such a dirty character. This is not the elder statesman that Redford would become; this is a real piece of trash with few redeemable qualities, if any. Thus, this role is very interesting.
Michael J. Pollard is a young, impressionable motorcyclist who ends up being caught in the wake of Redford’s charisma and comes along for at least part of the ride. They’re drifting, wandering from town to town, with no particular destination in mind. In many ways, Little Fauss and Big Halsy is a spiritual kin to Two Lane Blacktop, a similar film about two guys at the dawn of the 1970s dealing with the restlessness and disillusionment that followed the hippie idealism of the late 1960s. Somehow, Little Fauss and Big Halsy manages to be even grimier and meaner. Pollard and Redford apparently didn’t get along or enjoy working together, creating a tense shoot. Helping things a bit is the addition of Lauren Hutton, who joins the two men around the middle of the movie as a hippie trying to come clean from drugs and do something more meaningful with her future. She sees Redford’s Halsy for what he is, a liar and a user, but she still somehow falls for him in spite of herself.

It’s not hard to understand why these people are drawn to him. Redford has a charisma and a free spirit (or the illusion of one) in the movie that you can’t help but gravitate toward. I have to be honest: I’ve never been a fan of Robert Redford. I’ve always found him to be kind of dull and squeaky-clean, and therefore mostly uninteresting. That’s not at all who he is in this movie, and I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if he’d continued to make more films like this one.

Another one of the few facts I uncovered comes from a biography of the actor written in 2011 by Feeney Callan, who revealed that Redford had been a big fan of the script (written by Charles Eastman) and thought it was the best one he’d been a part of bringing to the screen up till then. By 1976, however, Redford told director Alan J. Pakula on the set of All the President’s Men that he had come to view it as a blemish on his otherwise respectable body of work and was unhappy that the film was being shown on television. According to the biography, Pakula responded to his actor that “it was the last unself-conscious revelation of the actor’s real life edge.” Pakula was right; there’s an unvarnished realism to the film—the kind of unapologetic honesty that movies excelled at during the 1970s and abandoned in favor of ‘80s gloss—that seems right at home for Redford. He was a motorcycle enthusiast, after all, and it was during a bike trip from California to Colorado that Redford discovered the land in Utah that he would soon purchase and make home to his Sundance Resort and the eventual Sundance Film Festival. It’s easy to believe that Halsy, even though he’s a total a-hole, is a facet of Redford himself. The best performances draw from reality.
Little Fauss and Big Halsy has been nearly impossible to see for years and years, which is probably why I’d never even heard of it. It’s never been on DVD and certainly not on Blu-ray, and I can’t ascertain if it was ever officially released on VHS at any point, either. I’ve researched and found a few PAL copies outside the U.S., but I don’t think it was ever commercially available in America…ever. This is where rumors began that Robert Redford had killed the movie after the disappointing theatrical run and was preventing it from being released on the consumer or rental markets because it embarrassed him. I have doubts about this for several reasons. I mean, I don’t think any studio would let the opinion of one of their stars keep them from making money, no matter how powerful that star is. I also don’t think Redford would try to suppress something just because he didn’t like it. I imagine the real reason for its disappearing into Paramount’s vaults probably lies with the music rights and royalties. The movie didn’t make much money and the market for this kind of movie is incredibly small, so I suspect there was a lack of willingness to shell out more money for music rights that the movie probably couldn’t recoup. Besides, Redford’s son cites the film as his favorite of his father’s work. If the music royalties really are the culprit, I should note that the soundtrack is fantastic. Johnny Cash’s trademark “Boom-Chicka-Boom” sound makes the perfect accompaniment to this film and keeps it from getting too dull and introverted. It elevates the film, and provides a little levity when things are feeling grim.

Even though the movie isn’t available on disc or even video tape, it has thankfully been added to most of the major pay-to-stream services, including Amazon, iTunes, and Wal-Mart’s VUDU service. You can rent the film in standard definition, but at VUDU, you can actually purchase it in 1080p high definition. Unfortunately, pretty much all the reviews on those streaming sites are taken from the initial release of the movie in 1970, and they aren’t kind at all. I kind of hate that the sites are showing reviews from 1970 with the date “2013” next to them (when the film was made available again), because they didn’t have the perspective that we are afforded today. The common criticisms are that the film is morally superior, dull, and loses itself in the latter half of the movie. I disagree with the first two and begrudgingly agree with the third, but it doesn’t spoil the movie for me in any way. Looking at it now, 45 years after it was first released, offers a glimpse into the disillusionment of a generation, a rare and unrepeated performance from Robert Redford that he later came to regret, and a soundtrack by one of America’s greatest recording artists at the tail end of his creative powers. It’s not a great film, but it’s pretty good, and pretty good’s not bad. If you’re a fan of 1970s filmmaking, location filming in California’s expansive deserts, motorcycles, Robert Redford, Johnny Cash, or the infinite promise of the open road, you could do a lot worse than give an hour and thirty-eight minutes to Little Fauss and Big Halsy.

10 comments:

  1. Really interesting story, I had never heard of the movie as you may of suspected, I am a massive Johnny Cash fan but that 63 disc job is too much for me, ;) I just keeping spinning Live at San Quentin, epic stuff, Personally I kinda liked Robert in Indecent Proposal, not quite sqeeky clean and a little Sleazy, well a lot Sleazy,
    Nice work Heath

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    1. The Johnny Cash box set is fantastic, but I recognize it's a big commitment. It's a physical collector's dream, and a lot of the albums within it have never been on CD before, and were almost completely forgotten. It's almost everything he ever did, all the way up until Rick Rubin helped him reinvent himself in the '90s. Without that box set, I wouldn't have even known this movie existed. I'm now a fan of both the album and the movie.

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  2. I just checked it out and its not cheap neither, I almost had a heart murmur recently when I bought the Scream Factory 10 Disc Bluray set of Halloween for £85 (Just in time for SMM) ;)
    The Johnny Cash set is Around the £200 mark, Big price, im really glad your enjoying it

    I never get Bored of the San Quentin Album, the Man in Black and Folsom prison one too. Do you have some favourites?

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    1. Dennis, I most definitely did not pay anywhere close to that for the Johnny Cash box set. It was a Black Friday deal in 2013 for a little over 100, if I recall correctly. I mean, that's a lot of money, but not for 63 CDs, most of which are almost impossible to find. At the time the set came out, they weren't even offering most of the albums as digital downloads, though I think now they are for some of them.

      As for favorites, I really like The Sound of Johnny Cash album, which has some jaunty versions of really dark songs about crime and murder (like "Delia's Gone,") as well as some lighter stuff. It's a good balance. There's also a disc that has everything he recorded for Sun Records in the '50s, and I play those a lot. I love the prison albums, too, of course.

      I have the limited edition of the Halloween Blu-ray set coming too. I got it for a really good deal, and figured now was the time, as I read that the licensing deal that made it possible ends at the end of the year. It's used, though, and I've had rotten luck lately with used DVDs and Blu-rays not being in the condition they're listed. Fingers crossed.

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  3. Redford can be hit or miss for me, but this sounds interesting enough to try and track down sometime.

    I can empathize with your OCD problem. If you think it's bad with Bond movies, you should try Doctor Who. I've been trying to get through just the first doctor for a couple years now (that includes watching episodes that are only audio and stills).....brutal. :)

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    1. Oh, I'm totally OCD with Doctor Who, too. I blogged about a chronological watch of Doctors 5 and 6 in their entirety. I couldn't imagine watching all that Hartnell stuff back to back in order, though; it's so dull. I mean, it's not bad, but it doesn't compare to what comes later, and it can be REALLY dry...and that's just the ones that still exist and didn't have to be recreated with stills! You should just move on to Tom Baker. Nothing brutal about that. You'll find yourself DYING to watch the next story.

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  4. The first time I ever saw this movie must have been on television. For me, there's another historical part of the film showing where motorcycles were in terms of technology at that time, before scrambles evolved into motocross and speedway and flat track racing were popular. I've unfortunately also known actual persons, male and female, that are twins of Redford's character. Actually, what brought me to this blog was trying to remember the exact lines the characters had as their mottos. Halsey would say something along the lines of "it's where you've been". And Fauss would counter with "it's how well you do." Being quite young when I first saw the movie, it seemed as if each was referring to racing. Now, reflecting it seems it was more a philosophy of life.

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  5. Laura Hutton's character reads Naked Lunch. Seems perfectly seamless from Beats to Hippies. You are too young to understand how much swagger white men still had. Redford's bad boy character was very believable even in 1970.

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  6. Come to think about it, Burroughs was not a hippie. So, Redford's character is very appropriate.

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  7. I've heard of it, it was my first real "job" where I had to get a social security number in order to be an extra. My whole family was there! Some of it was filmed just outside of Phoenix Arizona, Manzanita Speedway (I think was the name of the track). We sat in those stands cheering for hours - got kind of bored. Actually got to speak to Robert Redford. I was 16 years old and in love!

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