Classic Film Review: Dunaway, Palance and George C. Scott tangle over “Oklahoma Crude” (1973)

A couple of things stick in the memory about “Oklahoma Crude,” a downbeat Western “action comedy” (lots of shooting and blowing stuff up) from the cinema’s filmmaker of conscience, director and producer Stanley Kramer.

The “boomer” theme music by Henry Mancini was one of the most borrowed instrumentals of the ’70s, used in commercials, TV football highlights shows and the ads for other films. I dare say you recognize it, too.

Neither the stars nor the director are well known for their comedies.

And watching “Oklahoma Crude” anew, you can’t help but remember that movies often had offbeat or even downbeat endings in the Hollywood that “Jaws” and “Star Wars” changed forever — the 1970s.

The director of “On the Beach” and “The Defiant Ones” had a late ’60s/early ’70s run of comedies — not all of them with the pointed messaging of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”

As a kid, I’d tune into the WWII comedy “The Secret of Santa Vittoria” (1969) starring Anthony Quinn, Anna Magnani and Virna Lisa. Italians hiding their stash of wine from the Germans, what’s not to love? I adored Quinn and all the scenery-chewing, larger-than-life actors of that era, including George C. Scott, whose comic turn in “The Flim-Flan Man” (1967) wasn’t great, but he seemed to be having a grand ol’time in a kind of “The Sting Goes to Mayberry” farce. Great car chase, and old confidence man Scott was in his pre-Oscar glory.

Leading lady Faye Dunaway’s comic years would come years later. Neither she nor Scott was particularly light-hearted in this fin de siecle oil fields Western set in 1913. But it’s a generally entertaining curiosity from an era when John Wayne’s Westerns were also about the end of the era (“The Shootist”) and TV Westerns had evolved into “modern” detective shows (“Hec Ramsey”).

Dunaway’s a defiant single woman guarding her drill derrick from all comers in those wildcatting days. If the “message” director Kramer had one in this film, it was about predatory Big Oil and Big Capitalism, crushing the small guy or gal and getting to write history as the heroes of their own villainy.

There’s a bit of what happens in “There Will Be Blood” in this story as trigger-happy Lena empties her Winchester into anybody who approaches her hilltop cabin and drilling rig, even shooting at her feckless father (Sir John Mills). With Big Oil having hired the same murderous son of a bitch that Big Cattle hired in “Shane” (Jack Palance), we see her point. She’s got a right to be nervous.

Dad trolls the hobo jungle where the unemployed roughnecks camp and hires the only man who’ll take the job and the challenge. Mase is a drunk who’d really rather be making his way to Mexico…for a bender. But he needs to eat, so they acquire him cheap firearms and Lena — a loner with no use for men or women save as employees — reluctantly accepts his presence.

Palance is a bowler-hatted menace here, a dapper thug of the type many a coal field of the era would recognize — a man of violence who hires others to join him in crushing the little guy — unionized miners or independent oil prospectors. They didn’t call the bosses of these goons “Robber Barons” for nothing.

What ensues is an infuriating series of provocations and brutal assaults. There is no “getting even,” Mase assures her. But as she’s hellbent on having her well and her revenge, what can he do?

What’s striking seeing this film again after many years is the cavalier level of violence. There are deaths, but the ones early on are mostly off-camera.

Mase, Lena and her father counter attack with rifles and dynamite (the Western movie’s “deus ex machina” courtesy of Alfred Nobel). The scene is epic mayhem, with bombs blowing up villains and shotguns peppering their bums with bird shot. But when you’re firing a Winchester repeating rifle, you’re playing for keeps. There’s no point in trying to keep a body count, as Kramer is intent on keeping it all on a sort of PG-rated good clean fun level.

That’s kind of nuts. As glib as the films of Bruce Willis and others have been about wanton slaughter, “Oklahoma Crude” ventilates or blows up scores, who then get picked up in a pre-triage/emergency room era and dragged off to recover and fight another day.

The chemistry between Scott and Dunaway isn’t necessarily sexual. Not with him wondering if “Maybe you’re the kind who prefers women?” But you have to figure as close as they come to buying it and as much as they depend on each other in matters of life or death, riches or poverty, something might happen.

Scott virtually never played a romantic lead.

The film’s ’70s finale seemed less downbeat then than now, when we’ve come to expect “The Hollywood Ending” almost every time out. But there’s a whiff of “Sierra Madre” in it, grudging respect between bloody foes, because when it’s all said and done, business is business.

That’s Kramer’s message, I think. That buying into getting rich thing is a disease, like gold fever. And with oil, somedays you’re Jett Rink in “Giant,” some days you’re Jed Clampett, and some days you’ve just got yourself a very deep hole.

Kramer’s career wound down in the ’70s, with him dabbling in Vietnam and its aftermath on TV and the big screen, dropping out of the business with a priest/nun murder drama, “The Runner Stumbles,” which did nothing for his reputation and did Dick Van Dyke no favors either.

“Crude” is the operative word for this one. It’s a choppy film with a great sense of its place and time and fine action beats. Anything with this cast is always going to be watchable. But it’s not quite a comedy, not really an action comedy. And the oily Big Eat the Small message is muddled even now. Think of how this must have played during the Arab Oil Embargo, when it came out?

With “There Will Be Blood” still fresh in our minds, I’d say it’s worth checking out just to see George C. Scott chew a little scenery, Dunaway as a fiery brunette and Palance in his pre-lovable Oscar years, one of the greatest sadistic villains the screen Western ever had, even in a West that was drawing to a close by the time “Oklahoma Crude” was a commodities market label of value.

Rating: PG, violence, off color humor

Cast: Faye Dunaway, George C. Scott, John Mills and Jack Palance.

Credits: Directed by Stanley Kramer, scripted by Marc Norman. A Columbia release on Amazon, Movies! many other streamers.

Running time: 1:48

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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