Little Big Man (1970, Arthur Penn)

Little Big Man is episodic. It has to be. Director Penn knows he can’t reveal the tragedy of the film right off because it’d be unbearable but he also can’t avoid it. The film starts in a bookend with an incredibly aged Dustin Hoffman beginning to recount the story; he do so out of anger. It prepares the viewer, but then John Paul Hammond’s music starts and the film starts defying all expectation.

Hammond’s score is more modern Country/Western than the nineteenth century setting. It’s playful, amplifying the humor in the film. Why does the film, a considerable tragedy, need humor? Because Penn’s telling the traditional American Western movie from the Native Americans. Only, it’s not supposed to be actual, it’s still supposed to be Hollywood, still supposed to be a Western. At least until Hoffman’s performance develops more as the film progresses.

Penn takes the film–which is an epic American story on an epic scale–and makes it small. He doesn’t let the viewer indulge in the production value. He hurries past the artificial, opening up in the locations. Wonderful photography from Harry Stradling Jr. but truly exceptional editing from Dede Allen. Man moves beautifully, with Penn keeping the camera tight on the personal action. The genre commentary needs the story and vice versa.

Great “guest starring” turns from Faye Dunaway, Martin Balsam, Jeff Corey. Richard Mulligan’s Custer is bewildering, amazing.

But it’s Chief Dan George and Hoffman (and Penn) who make Man sore like a hawk.

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