Classic Film Review: Faye Dunaway and Stacy Keach dirty up the Old West in “Doc” (1971)

Viewing the Doc Holliday Western “‘Doc'” cold is quite an eye-opener.

You see the cast, wonder why any picture with Faye Dunaway at her post “Bonnie & Clyde” peak isn’t more notorious and note the other novelties in the credits.

New York newspaper columnist Pete Hamill, dabbling in screenwriting in the early ’70s when he was journalism’s hottest comodity, scripted it. He wrote fiction and a couple of other screenplays over his long career, most famously Abel Ferrara’s “King of New York,” a gangster picture starring Christopher Walken. Songwriting legend Jimmy Webb (“By the Time I Get to Phoenix,””MacArthur Park”) did the score.

That kind of fits the MO of little-remembered director Frank Perry, whose most famous films were “Mommie Dearest” and “David & Lisa,” but who regularly assembled pictures out of disparate talents from other fields. “Rancho Deluxe” had quirky novelist Tom McGuane scripting his own offbeat “modern” Western, with singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffett conjuring up a score and the unlikely pairing of Jeff Bridges and Sam Waterston (playing a Native American) in the leads.

Perry made a lot of movies that seemed like better ideas on paper, cult films almost to a one.

“‘Doc'” himself is a rare Western turn by an actor I remember labeled, in a ’70s magazine profile, as “America’s best ‘Hamlet,'” stage legend turned “sensitive” big screen tough guy Stacy Keach. Keach all but stole John Huston’s “The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean” a year or two before this film, turning a tiny role as outlaw hellion Albino Bob into the most memorable character in the film. He later co-wrote and co-starred in one of the greatest Westerns of them all, Walter Hill’s James Gang epic “The Long Riders.”

Perry stirs this curious brew into another quixotic film on a resume littered with such outings. What stands out 50 years later is the grit he went for, how unwashed, nicked-up and smelly looking everybody is on the trail, away from town, and how unsanitized-for-your-protection these “legends” of the Old West come off.

‘Doc’ Holliday is not John Ford’s drunken tormented, tubercular gentleman gambler, quick to anger, quicker with a gun. He’s a coarse, crude play-the-angles hustler, longing to reconnect with his old pal Wyatt Earp in Tombstone, but not above playing cards for “possession” of the prostitute Kate Elder (Dunaway).

Elder was Holliday’s longtime companion, a Hungarian immigrant named “Big Nose Kate” in Western lore and in screen Westerns (“Wyatt Earp”) that lean on the facts when taking us toward The OK Corral. The John Wayne Western “The Sons of Katie Elder” might have had pretensions of playing around with her legend, in earlier drafts of the screenplay. Dunaway has a little fun with her.

“When I want preaching, I’ll go to church. But for the moment, when I’m on my knees, it ain’t in prayer.”

Doc “wins” Kate away from Ike Clanton (Michael Witney) in a seedy cantina in the middle of nowhere and finds himself obligated to drag her along to Tombstone. That’s where Earp (the formidable Harris Yulin) and his brothers have set up shop, corrupt “lawmen” looking to get rich by controlling crime and gambling in another boom town. Doc has been summoned to “run the gambling.”

The striking locations and screen compositions and sometimes-looped sound suggest “Spaghetti Western,” a style a lot of filmmakers/studios were dabbling in after Sergio Leone and Eastwood made them iconic and respectable. Like Leone’s films, it was shot in Spain by MGM, which spent a lot of its European profits there in the ’60s and ’70s.

But Perry was no slouch at shot compositions in his own right, so he wasn’t just mimicking Leone in where he placed the camera. And the tone and themes of the “‘Doc'” fit neatly into Perry’s fascination with sexuality outside the big screen norm. The way Doc and Wyatt lock eyes, especially that first and second time, that’s ’70s cinema “homoerotic” at its most overt.

“‘Doc'” is most interesting, all these decades later, not for any “Brokeback Tombstone” subtext, but for the performances — Dunaway, brassy, sunny and sassy and on the cusp of asserting her power as a star of the era, Yulin brooding and nicely paired with Keach.

Keach lets us see the scheming behind Holliday’s eyes, the amoral drifter playing down his reputation as both a survival strategy and a means of not getting run out of town.

“There’s gonna be trouble Mister Holliday!” The Kid (Denver John Collins) warns.

“Not with me there isn’t!”

Keach makes every card game interesting and even the obligatory “teach me to shoot” scene realistic and riveting. When the hanky comes out and is bloodied, as it always does in depictions of the Holliday and his affliction, Keach makes us believe this is a man who curses his fate, but accepts it.

This Doc Holliday, like all the rest, has a fatalism about his limited future. And there are hints of the moral decay accompanying the physical one, as in every other credible Doc Holliday on screen. A college-trained dentist who left post-Civil War Georgia after contracting tuberculosis, he wouldn’t have troubled “a lady” with his doomed attentions. A prostitute who had nowhere to go but up? Sure. Why not?

“‘Doc'” never quite rises to the novelty of “cult Western,” as its virtues run up against pacing problems, a scattershot script — just a few great snatches of dialogue — colorless supporting players and the sheer over-familiarity of the story undercut the film’s potential.

Keach and Dunaway have long been among my favorite actors of that era. I had one chance to interview her, still regal and every inch the diva when “Don Juan de Marco” came out. And Keach I got to meet and chat up when he tried out the play “Flowers & Photos,” playing photographer Alfred Stieglitz to Margot Kidder’s painter Georgia O’Keefe, and later when Keach all but stole “Nebraska” from Bruce Dern. Fascinating guy, from TV’s “Mike Hammer” to Cheech and Chong’s “Sgt. Stadenko,” he meandered through a very odd and sometimes troubled career.

And any Western with Keach and Dunaway, with hints that Dunaway might not be the hero’s first choice as a bedtime companion, is worth a look.

MPA Rating: R, violence, sexual situations, profanity

Cast: Stacy Keach, Faye Dunaway, Harris Yulin

Credits: Directed by Frank Perry, script by Pete Hamill. An MGM release.

Running time: 1:36

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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