Directed by Philip Borsos; produced by Peter O’Brian
At the beginning of the twentieth century, Bill Miner (Richard Farnsworth) is at last released from prison, having served a long sentence for a series of successful stage-coach robberies. At a loss as to what to do, and feeling out-dated in the rapidly changing modern world, Miner is nonetheless curious about new things. Stopping to watch a moving picture - The Great Train Robbery - he is inspired to match his old skills to a novel environment. Following a first, failed railway hold-up in Washington, he flees to Canada, and there meets his criminal and personal destiny.
Almost immediately, the viewer sees a small mistake: narration cards explain that Miner started robbing in 1863, continued for eighteen years, and then went to prison, being let out in 1901, after thirty-three years behind bars. Either the total is an error, or he served his time intermittently, between crimes. A little flaw; if The Grey Fox has any more, they are just as insignificant. Based on the adventures of a real person, this is an excellent, almost lyrical movie, charming, if one can use the term when describing a western about thievery and lawlessness.
Most of the charm is attributable to the film’s star. Farnsworth started in movies as a stuntman; his first job was in the Marx Brothers’s A Day at the Races (1937). He acted in small bits; the roles growing, until he was nominated for an Oscar for Comes a Horseman. The Grey Fox was his first starring role.
Here he is extremely winning, a ‘gentleman bandit’, who uses firearms but has never killed anyone; tough as leather but sensitive; selfish enough to enjoy his crimes but empathetic enough to understand the crimes of others. In short, this all-rounded, well-written character is as well played.
It is easy to see how other characters become Miner’s friends, a feminist (Jackie Burroughs) in the small British Columbian town where Miner finds refuge, the local policeman (Timothy Webber), even the expression on the face of Miner’s ruthless, self-serving ally (Ken Pogue) in a courtroom scene shows how well-liked the robber is. These roles are filled by capable actors who, however, don’t have much screen-time without Farnsworth.
The direction fits the slow, easy-going atmosphere of The Grey Fox. This was Borsos’s directorial debut, made when he was 27; he, alas, died just fourteen years later. There are bursts of violence, startling in their suddenness, and their brevity, but the action is usually as methodical as Miner’s crimes.
The scene from the film most commented upon by others shows Miner watching The Great Train Robbery. But what isn’t always mentioned is how Farnsworth acts during it. There is a hint of a grin on his deeply lined face when he approves of what he sees the cinematic thieves doing; then, his mouth moves as if remarking to himself about how he would do things differently. It’s a wonderful scene, due to the direction and the acting. Also to be noted is the scene with a herd of horses pounding down a slope to avoid an oncoming train.
There is a beauty to the film, too, which isn’t surprising, as it was photographed by Frank Tidy, responsible for similar duties in The Duellists, reviewed on this blog in April. Borsos allows Tidy’s images to help set the mood, which is one of autumn, with browns and golds and dark yellows complimenting Miner’s age, the expansive fields and woods and mountains matching his energy.
The Grey Fox is not a western for those who must have gun-play, Indian attacks and show-downs at high noon. It is a character-driven western, the story of a man faced with a changing world who decides to change as well, but on his own terms, keeping to what he believes and is. It is slow in places, but never dull. The action is limited, but decisive. Whatever its characteristics, it is a lesser-known movie that deserves to be included in a list of the best of its genre.