Harry Tracy (111 minutes) 1983/Rated PG – starring Bruce Dern, Helen Shaver, Michael C. Gwynne, Gordon Lightfoot, Jacques Hubert, Daphne Goldrick, Lynne Kolber, Alex Willows. Directed by William A. Graham. Originally released through Vestron Video.
“I never drew down on another man unless he had a fair chance,” the outlaw says to the nervous citizen. About how many westerns have you watched where you heard a line like that? Have you got a digit in your head? Now multiply that figure by 500 and you’ll know the number of times throughout the course of watching “Harry Tracy” where you’ll be able to spot the next cliched scene or piece of dialogue coming around the bend.
First of all, who is Harry Tracy? The film tells us he was a gentleman outlaw who robbed banks and trains and wound up dying somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. As played by the Mr. Sardonicus-smirking character actor Bruce Dern, Tracy comes across as an oddball hobo instead of the charming bandit the filmmakers would like you to see him as. To put it in perspective, picture yourself standing in a bank line today and in walks Dern waving a gun. The first thoughts to spring into your head as he sweet-talked you would not be, ‘oh, what a lovable, crooked-smiling thief with a heart of gold,’ but instead you’d scream, ‘somebody get a bead on this friz-haired, psycho-grinning nutjob before he does a creepy ‘Coming Home’ flashback and empties his carbine into the old guard’s temple!’ Needless to say, the casting choice of Dern, however admirably against type, does not serve the movie well.
When the film gets underway, in 1899, Harry is on the lam from a vigilant federal marshal. He falls mysteriously, head-over-heels, in love for a society woman (Helen Shaver), whom he follows and eventually beds in the forests of Oregon. Their romance is supposed to tenderize our heartstrings, but it feels as if the damp northwest woods, through which they flee the law, would provide more sparks than anything Dern and Shaver espouse to each other on the screen. Along the way, they pick up Dave Merrill (Michael C. Gwynne), a painter-turned-Harry-Tracy admirer, and with no other purpose than to fill space in a three-shot — a character so devoid of a goal — Gwynne keeps himself occupied by trying to outcreep even Dern.
Canada’s Bob Dylan, folk-rock performer Gordon Lightfoot, takes to the screen in the role of the marshal. Having scored a number one album in June 1974 with “Sundown” and acclaimed for his 1976 true-life chronicle “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” Lightfoot’s career around the time of “Harry Tracy” was in a dry period. As a lawman who knows his nemesis well enough to chat with him like old chums, Lightfoot, unfortunately, was not written a dynamic role that effectively spotlighted this unique relationship with the bandit. With monotone delivery and very stiff body language, (I’m not sure I even saw his head tilt or turn) there’s arguably more animation in a single cell of “Steamboat Willie” than in Mr. Lightfoot’s performance for this film.
Although Allen Daviau’s photography is impeccable with its vistas of snow-laden mountain terrain and fog-shrouded woodlands (mostly filmed in British Columbia, Canada), the famed cinematographer of “E.T.,” “The Color Purple,” and “Bugsy” can’t breathe life into a script that is uneven and wholly routine. The tone for the piece is appropriately dour by the time Tracy meets his demise, but up until that point, it’s gratingly slapstick in an unsophisticated, distracting manner (unlike the masterful shifts in tone found in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”). Cartoony shenanigans such as Dern making a quick change of clothes, and calling out to the bumbling railway guards that the bandits went ‘that-a-way,’ bring the cornpone action, with its requisite jew’s-harp twanging score, down to the level of “H. R. Pufnstuf.” Which, of course, is not too far off the mark. ‘Pufnstuf’ creators Sid and Marty Krofft executive-produced this scrappy tale of an outlaw I still don’t know very much about.
© 2000 Ned Truslow
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