"The Grey Fox," an award-winning Canadian production opening today at units of the Circle MacArthur and K-B Cerberus, should come as a welcome sight to moviegoers who cherish the scenic, historic and mythological powers of the Western.
"Fox" is the first feature from a promising director named Phillip Borsos, 30, a Canadian whose parents migrated from Australia to British Columbia when he was 5.
Evidently, legends of the protagonist of "The Grey Fox," Bill Miner, were still common currency in the Pacific Northwest when the filmmaker was a boy. This movie attempts to endow the man behind the legends with an appealing cinematic myth, the glamor of a personable and sneakily irresistible outlaw, a confirmed badman who can't settle for pursuing an honest living but abhors bloodshed and embodies a certain integrity.
This somewhat dubious conception is made easy by the casting of a serenely cagey presence, the fine American character actor Richard Farnsworth, as Miner. A former stuntman (he doubled as a jockey in the Marx Brothers' "A Day at the Races," among other assignments), Farnsworth turned to acting late in his career and won an Oscar nomination a few years ago as the ranchhand in "Comes a Horseman." He was one of seven people associated with "The Grey Fox" who won "Genie" awards when the picture dominated the Canadian Film Academy's 1982 awards competition. The movie's elegaic tone is predicated on the ingratiating glow of Farnsworth's image, an apparently natural embodiment of softspoken, weatherbeaten dignity and wisdom.
The movie depicts the second stage of Miner's criminal career. A renegade Pony Express rider, he specialized in stagecoach robberies as a youth and ended up serving 33 years in San Quentin for armed robbery. We're introduced to Miner upon his release in 1901, at the age of 54. He finds temporary shelter with a married younger sister in the State of Washington. Brief attempts to go straight prove futile, since Miner considers himself cut out for braver occupations than oyster-gathering or barrel-making. Inspired by seeing William S. Porter's pioneering Western "The Great Train Robbery," released in 1903, Miner decides to adapt his skills to the new technology. After one false start, he succeeds in recruiting a trustworthy, if feebleminded, confederate, and they stick up a train and escape with an estimated $7,000 in cash and gold dust.
Crossing the Canadian border, Miner and his sidekick Shorty (Wayne Robson) seek refuge in Kamloops, a mining and ranching community in British Columbia. The local hotel is operated by an old criminal acquaintance, Jack Budd (Ken Pogue), who conceals various capers behind a legit front and agrees to pass off the fugitives as mining engineers in his employ.
Miner is attracted to a resident social outcast of the opposite sex--the distinguished Canadian theater actress Jackie Burroughs as an invented character named Kate Flynn--an argumentative feminist spinster who earns her living as a photographer. An autumnal romance blossoms, but the law closes in relentlessly in the person of an arrogant, astute Pinkerton detective played by Gary Reineke.
A mixture of fact and fabrication, this sequence of events may suggest more in the way of tension and character interplay than the movie itself is calculated to supply. Borsos emphasizes a suggestive rather than dynamic form of presentation, so Miner's escapades and flight to Kamloops generate less narrative excitement and character development than one tends to anticipate in a Western context. There's an inhibiting element of vanity in the film's pictorial beauty: "The Grey Fox" is inclined to become texture-proud and perhaps texture-cautious, content to let the undeniably impressive settings and the evocative period props and details impose themselves at the expense of adequate storytelling.
For example, one is obliged to be content with introductions to the characters and their relationships, because the screenplay doesn't venture beyond fleeting acquaintances. The nature of the attachment between Miner and Shorty seems skimped, devoid of the persuasive ties of loyalty essential to outlaw sagas like "The Long Riders" or Arthur Penn's "The Left-Handed Gun" and "Bonnie & Clyde." Even worse, the romance between Miner and Kate turns out to be drastically foreshortened. What begins as a savory variation on the Bogart-Hepburn affinity in "The African Queen" is suddenly lyricized out of a necessary development stage.
This development is made to appear a casualty of cleanliness. In the bathtub Farnsworth croons a lovely rendition of "Sweet Betsy From Pike," which is then exploited as a musical backdrop for rapid glimpses of a courtship in progress. Unfortunately, this capsulization degenerates into the costliest robbery seen during "The Grey Fox," since it ultimately robs us of the pleasure of watching a romance between proud, fascinating misfits mature at a satisfying pace. Shortcutting this material in an otherwise leisurely movie leaves one with the curious impression of having slept through a reel somewhere in the middle.
While there's no reason to doubt that "The Grey Fox" earned its seven Genie Awards, one key collaborator, cinematographer Frank Tidy, was not among the winners. Since his lighting may be the film's most persuasive claim to greatness, this omission seems awfully capricious.
Thanks in considerable measure to composition, the movie often works in symbolic terms, suggesting volumes about the period in a single image or contrasting the movements of huge, polished, smoking trains with the stillness of the cunning old gent who aims to rob them. Superlative imagery can't compensate for every dramatic defect, but it comes close in "The Grey Fox."