Sunday, 1 April 2012
The Devil and Miss Sarah (1971) Michael Caffey
The western has never been a genre that particularly entices me, and as a consequence I have seen little more than ten or so of them, though in recent years I have become marginally more interested, the deserts and open skies an apt contrast to the struggles and deep crevasses of man. I have on the other hand been somewhat noted as a horror fan by those that know me, and have in that regard always been a fan of films mixing horror and any other genre. This interest led me to The Devil and Miss Sarah, a film that while of no great import as horror (being chiefly a western with supernatural overtones), is still a rather fine watch and thus worthwhile to the more eager of genre fans. The set up is simple, farmer Gil and his wife Sarah encounter a wounded Marshall escorting a particularly tricky prisoner by the name of Rankin, a gentleman suspected by the local American Indians to be the Devil himself. When the sheriff expires Gil takes it upon himself to take Rankin to his intended destination, despite the better judgement of his wife who possesses powers of premonition and suspects Rankin may indeed be more than the average outlaw. And so begins their trek, and combat of wills, which by the by is joined by a couple of businessmen who take a rather more pragmatic outlook than the driven Gil. It's rather slim stuff truth be told, lacking any grand revelations or especially macabre manifestations, a low key and ambiguous piece that relies on its players and well spun writing. James Drury makes for a good stolid hero, a small man and aware of it, and a reasonable one too, even though the metal he finds inside to keep him on his mission is just a little iron. The lovely Janice Rule is subdued but powerful as his wife Sarah, conveying the right sorts of far off dimensions of soul. Gene Barry is really the star as Rankin though, charming as much as cunning, menacing but not malicious, sinister yet rakishly likeable in his way. He knows just when to be soft and when to put weight into his lines, when to be quiet and when to let invigoratingly loose. Donald Moffat and Logan Ramsey are somewhat less effective as businessmen Holmes and Appleton, but they provide the necessary counterbalance well enough. Long running TV regular Michael Caffey directs well, pitting the splendid isolation of the Utah desert and overwhelming sky against well handled facial close ups, the lines of time and effort etched into his characters a tiny mirror of the rugged terrain. Sadly the script does not often go the for psychological jugular and the action is pretty restrained until the exciting two punch finale, but things move along pretty nicely with only a couple of lapses in interest. No blood, gore or nudity on account of it being made for TV, but the film never feels bland or lacking, its ambiguities are intriguing enough and its characters bear them well. I doubt this is a film that will really impress many, but personally I found it a very solid affair, and for those who can deal with restrained and classy approaches to their genre fare this is definitely worth a look if you have a dull afternoon to spare.