John Huston and Paul Newman are cinematic icons, so it’s a crying shame that 1972’s The Life And Times of Judge Roy Bean doesn’t get as much love as it deserves. The feature is currently available via Warner Archive, and the images (it went through a 2K restoration) look absolutely clean. As for the five reasons, I love the film . . .
1. It’s A Completely Unexpected Role and Performance From Paul Newman
Judge Roy Bean was a real life man who didn’t stop his brand of law to affect his own business interests, and Gary Cooper played Bean in director William Wyler’s 1940 feature The Westerner. With two acclaimed Westerns under his belt (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Hombre), Newman probably wanted a character that wasn’t as likable or as Butch Cassidy or John Russell, and he thankfully he didn’t have to look past Judge Roy Bean.
Initially left for dead by a band of criminals living in a ramshackle outpost, Bean is saved by Maria Elena (Victoria Principal, in her film debut), a young girl who plays a pivotal role in our protagonist’s twisty journey of corruption and possible redemption.
Although a ton of time passes in the film, and the project is, at least theme wise, focusing on the inevitable end of the Wild, Wild West, Judge Roy Bean is rarely introspective. We rarely get to peek into his soul, but when we do it gives this comedic Western a welcome level of emotional gravitas.
That being said, Newman has a ton of fun things to do in the film, but as a character, Roy Bean isn’t as fully fleshed out as some of his best roles. Still, it’s a truly engaging character, and it’s great to see Newman play a man who essentially takes everything at face value.
2. The Cameos Are Worth The Price of Admission (Or A Blu-ray Purchase!)
If you loved The Coen Brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, then you’ll probably dig the episodic, anecdotal nature of The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean. A healthy share of memorable cameos are sprinkled throughout the tale. Anthony Perkins plays a devoted but eccentric preacher who influences Bean in their relatively short meeting, Tab Hunter is a criminal who ends up the recipient of Bean’s brand of justice (aka hanging!), and Roddy McDowell is a shrewd businessman who may beat our hero at his own game. Director John Huston is also amusing as Grizzly Adams, but the cameo award goes to Stacy Keach as the albino gunslinger Bad Bob! Along with a Victoria Principal clip you’ll see later in this post, Keach’s scene is the feature’s funniest moment.
Ava Gardner also stars as Lily Langtry, an actress whom Judge Joy Bean holds in high regard. She appears during the movie’s final chapter, and since Gardner was one of Hollywood’s most popular sex symbols in her day, it brings an extra level of authenticity as Bean’s idea of the perfect woman.
3. Bruno The Bear Meets Marmalade, Molasses & Honey
Bruno the Bear is best known for his work on the TV series Gentle Ben (which starred Dennis Weaver), and he also becomes best buds with Bean and Maria Elena. The track “Marmalade, Molasses, & Honey” received an Oscar nominee for Best Song. Check out how that song is used in the movie in the above video, as this sequence featuring the seemingly mismatched trio exemplifies the movie’s unabashed eccentric flair.
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4. Victoria Principal Makes A Mark With Her Own “Life & Times”
Having Jacqueline Bisset co-star as Bean’s daughter Rose was a wonderful touch, and a year later she starred in 1973’s revered Francois Truffaut feature Day for Night. She and Ava Gardner are essentially Hollywood royalty, and though both of them had their moments in the tale, the heart and soul of the picture is Maria Elena, and Victoria Principal absolutely delivers in her screen debut. Obviously a beauty in her own right, Principal infuses Maria Elena with a knowing sense of fortitude, grace and a little sass. It remains a mystery, at least to me, why Bean pined for a distant vision (in Lily Langtry) when all that sexiness and humor was right before him.
5. It’s Written By John Milius!!
Apocalypse Now, Big Wednesday, and Conan the Barbarian are just several of John Milius’ screenwriting credits. Along with being the subject of a documentary (Milius) and inspiration behind The Big Lebowski’s Walter Sobchak (played by John Goodman), Milius is as talented as they come. Case in point, the same year of The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean’s release came the success of Jeremiah Johnson (which starred Robert Redford). So in 1972, Milius wrote two first class Westerns that easily transcended the genre and carved out a new path for moviegoers to explore. A bear also plays an integral role in Jeremiah Johnson, so there’s that!
For deeper insight on The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, check out this awesome clip from Trailers from Hell as well as a review by Glenn Erickson.
The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean is available at www.wbshop.com/warnerarchive and various online retailers.