Robert Redford and Robert Blake star in TELL THEM WILLIE BOY IS HERE, directed by Abraham Polonsky for Universal Pictures.

Tell Them Willie Boy is Here (1969, Abraham Polonsky)

Is that the one where Katharine Ross plays an Indian?

Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

Tell Them Willie Boy is Here starts incredibly strong. It gives a real sense of building towards something, but when that something arrives–Robert Blake and Katharine Ross on the run from a posse–it’s handled so poorly, the film falls apart. Maybe it doesn’t fall apart, maybe it just ceases to be good and interesting. The relationship between Blake and Ross, which started as interesting, turns into propaganda. It’s fine, it’s for a good cause, but their scenes lose all sense of importance in terms of character development, motivation… any attempt at honesty. Actually, Willie Boy starts to fall apart earlier. Polonsky cannot handle, as a director, a lot of shots. The essential scene, the crime Blake commits to have to go on the run, is incompetently shot. It’s not until later, with the Dave Grusin score going non-stop, it becomes clear Polonsky had seen The Shooting and was aping its style. It’s not even a bad job of aping, it’s just Polonsky also seemed to think he needed to ape The Shooting‘s copout, indie-friendly ending.

For the first twenty or so, everything’s good in Willie Boy, then the Blake and Ross stuff falls apart, but there’s the excellent, complicated Robert Redford and Susan Clark story going to maintain interest and actually make important observations on the human condition. Except, it’s not propaganda, so Polonsky drops it and that story is the most important–most unique–part of Willie Boy. At the end, when he has a chance to reclaim it, he instead conjures some malarky about Redford the sheriff surrounded by people who think it’s still the old days being the alter ego of Blake, the Indian wrongfully on the run. It’s a bunch of crap and it’s really unfortunate, considering Redford’s excellent work in the film. Blake is okay, but his performance is identical to Charles Bronson’s performances in the early 1960s. Almost no different really.

As a conflicted Native American schoolteacher, Ross is silly sometimes and okay sometimes. When she’s quiet–actually, besides the scenes with Clark and Redford, everything is better when it’s quiet in Willie Boy. Clark’s fantastic and she and Redford deserved a lot of better of a project to work on together.

I don’t think there’s much else to say about the film, other than it being less an incredible disappointment than an unfortunate failure. Polonsky was screenwriter and a more understanding, more capable director would have turned out a far better, far less pretentious product… almost any director, really. Redford would have done wonders.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Abraham Polonsky; screenplay by Polonsky, based on the book by Harry Lawton; director of photography, Conrad L. Hall; edited by Melvin Shapiro; music by Dave Grusin; produced by Philip A. Waxman; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Robert Redford (Coop), Katharine Ross (Lola), Robert Blake (Willie Boy), Susan Clark (Dr. Elizabeth Arnold), Barry Sullivan (Ray), John Vernon (George Hacker), Charles Aidman (Benby), Charles McGaw (Sheriff Wilson), Shelly Novack (Johnny Finney) and Robert Lipton (Charlie Newcombe).


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