Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Cactus Jack [aka The Villain] (US, 1979); Dir. Hal Needham

Sometimes you want to go right back to the beginning; before it became complicated, before all the doubts, disappointments and cynicism. When every day felt new and different yet comfortingly the same.

Although I was born in London my earliest memories are of High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire. I can just about recall standing with my mum beside my sister's cot when I was two years old, nearly three. Gradually the impressions grow more substantial; Christmases and birthdays, my first day at school (what a miserable old git that headmaster was), climbing to the top of the apple tree in our back garden, finishing third in a race on sports day because, while in the lead, I'd stopped to watch my fellow competitors!

It feels so vivid and real compared to later years and perhaps a part of me died when we moved away the summer before I turned eight. I know I'd never feel quite so sure of myself again.  Maybe that's why I've felt the urge to revisit it a couple of times in the last few years, to recapture that earlier idea of myself.

What a strange sensation to rely on the memories of a quarter century earlier to retrace old routes; the walk from the station to our old street was disrupted by a new housing development where once there had been a furniture factory (High Wycombe was the original home of G-Plan). On the other hand I wasn't sorry to see that a footpath where my mum had been assaulted on her way home from a PTA meeting was now blocked off. Revisiting the school (okay, trespassing) it was reassuring to find that some concrete playground equipment I'd remembered being installed so many years before remained intact.

Half lost in revelries of things past, like George Bowling in Orwell's Coming Up for Air, yet feeling oddly displaced and vagrant like a character in a seventies Wenders film, I wandered and wondered about those childhood haunts. At one point I fancied I might have seen a girl (now woman) I went to school with. I knew she still lived in our old street as our families continued to swap Christmas cards. Funny how one speculates; if fate had been different and we'd not moved away I'd often thought perhaps we would have become sweethearts. Diana Witham, whatever you're doing now, if you should happen to read this, I send you a virtual kiss.

But I've digressed indulgently. I wanted to tell you about my first ever trip to the movies...

I was five years old. It was a Saturday lunchtime and my dad, having just returned from working a night shift in London, asked me if I'd like to go to the cinema. There was a Spider-Man film playing -  actually a feature length episode of the Nicholas Hammond tv series that was given theatrical distribution, although clearly I wasn't au fait with the particulars at the time - and I jumped at the chance of this new and exciting experience.

So off we went. In the foyer my dad bought me a large bag of jelly gums and we settled down in the darkness of the auditorium, close to an exit, for the presentation.

But here's the thing: it swiftly became clear that the film we were watching wasn't Spider-Man; not unless the web slinger had swapped his blue and red spandex for a stetson and spurs. You see it was actually a double feature, the first half of which was a slapstick comedy western in which a black-clad villainous cowboy was continually thwarted in his attempts to stop a young couple travelling cross-country in a wagon. I wasn't disappointed and found it quite entertaining, although perhaps my enjoyment wasn't that apparent as my dad kept checking if I was alright.

When the second Spider-Man feature finally began it seemed dull by comparison and I don't think we stayed more than fifteen minutes, with me carelessly leaving the bag of sweets behind (seriously, that's caused me guilt ever since). Looking back I wonder if my father had expected Spidey to be on first and decided by that point I'd probably had enough, but I've never asked him and not being the sentimental type I doubt he has a strong recollection of the experience.

Now for years afterwards I had no idea about the identity of this film. Then, during my final year at university I happened to mention it to a housemate and fellow film student who was a few years older. Remarkably he could recall this very double bill doing the rounds and informed me it was a comedy known over here as Cactus Jack...


If thirty years ago I'd tried to explain how, on deciding on a whim to watch this film again, I could summon it through the ether after a few taps on my keyboard, then thirty minutes later transfer the video file onto a tiny data stick and play it on my tv it would have been conclusive proof of my insanity. The passage of time has been generous to cinephiles, enabling us to revisit works would have once been consigned to oblivion (or at least the vaults). The same cannot be said of Cactus Jack and  watching it again I begin to understand why my dad hadn't felt inclined to linger around long after.

Frankly it's a terrible attempt at comedy, more notable for the stars involved than any artistic merit. The thin storyline was much as I recalled; Cactus Jack (Kirk Douglas) is a cartoon villain in the old West who's hired to steal money that the ravishing Charming Jones (Ann-Margret) is taking back to her father under the guard of a Handsome Stranger (Arnold Schwarzenegger).

During the course of their journey Cactus Jack is repeatedly foiled in his wild and and ingenious attempts to curtail their progress in a style that deliberately recalls Wile E. Coyote in the Road Runner cartoons. He's flattened by boulders, falls from great heights, gets hit by a train and - the gag that I still recalled from all those years before - watches incredulous as Charming and Handsome Stranger's wagon travels through a false tunnel which he'd painted onto a solid rock face.

I can understand why these innocent laughs would have appealed to the five year-old me but to the older viewer they soon grow tedious and there's very little else to recommend here. None of those involved are particularly gifted comedians, although Douglas makes a game attempt to ham it up as the buffoon villain and, for a man who was by then 62, had kept himself in impressively good shape to withstand the pratfalls.

The allure of Ann-Margret's Charming was understandably lost to me the first time around and I couldn't help but reflect how we make sense of a film relative to our own experiences. When I first watched it I'd assumed she and Handsome were a couple yet to worldlier eyes her character is clearly something of a slut who spends much of the time unsuccessfully trying to seduce Arnie's naive hero.

As for Mr Schwarzenegger the obvious remark is that few could have imagined this stilted performer with his thick accent would a decade later be the biggest star in movies. Truth be told he's really no better or worse than the other leads and at least offers something a little bit different from the generic norm. Schwarzenegger's entire career was built on canny choices which allowed him to work within his limitations. Only the most pompous snob can deny his screen presence.

And really that's all there is to say, except that one surmises the only way this lacklustre effort could have ever got a release is as a support feature. Yet that distant past where a little boy first discovered the silver screen really is a foreign country, the film I watched then was a quite different one.

In the words of Thomas Wolfe you can't go home again.