One of the best parts of my job is having the opportunity to watch movies I would have otherwise overlooked or ignored entirely. ‘Pale Rider,’ director Clint Eastwood’s 1985 return to the genre that jump started his career, is just such a film. Don’t get me wrong, I hadn’t purposefully avoided classic Westerns or the director’s early work per se, I just hadn’t taken the time to sample some of the obscure, lesser known flicks in his directorial canon. Well, after spending an evening with ‘Pale Rider,’ I’ve learned that I really need to start taking advantage of my Netflix account. Sure, the film has some undeniable issues, but I was surprised with the quality of the production as a whole. It not only exposes the groundwork Eastwood utilized to create a genre masterpiece like ‘Unforgiven,’ it stands on its own as a fairly gripping tale of justice and revenge.
Essentially a loose remake of Paramount Picture’s classic 1953 western, ‘Shane,’ ‘Pale Rider’ tells the story of a mysterious preacher (a stoic Clint Eastwood) who comes to the aid of a poor community of pan miners. It seems that the settlers are being harassed by a greedy landowner named Coy LaHood (Richard Dysart) and his cruel son (Christopher Penn) on a regular basis. After disarming a band of thugs, saving a local miner named Hull Barrett (“Law & Order” alum Michael Moriarty), and rekindling the miners’ spirits, the preacher is approached by LaHood and offered a parsonage, money, and anything else it would take to abandon the miners. When the nameless peacekeeper refuses each temptation, LaHood hires a rogue Marshall (John Russell) and his six deputies (including a pre-‘Untouchables’ Billy Drago) to dispose of the preacher and scare the miners off. However, as the preacher prepares to take on the seven gunslingers in a classic, street-level showdown, he must deal with the misplaced affections of a young girl (Sydney Penny) and an attraction to her mother (Carrie Snodgress).
First, the good. Eastwood, Dysart, Moriarty, and Russell deliver equal doses of humanity and emotional complexity in characters that could have easily been testosterone-fueled clichés. Even twenty years ago, Eastwood clearly knew how to helm a cast -- first, through the gravitas of his performance as an actor and, second, through the single-mindedness of his vision as a director -- and his influence can be seen as clearly as the preacher’s. Eastwood also balances an initially male-dominated film with a pair of strong actresses. Snodgrass gracefully shifts through various reactions and moods without skipping a beat, while Penny handles an otherwise thankless and ambiguous role with complete confidence and commitment. I can’t say either character is as well-defined as I would have liked, but the actresses do a fine job of stealing scenes from their male colleagues. To top it all off, director of photography Bruce Surtees imbues the film with simplistic but gorgeous cinematography that bathes every locale and township with harsh light and stark shadows. His visuals nearly steal the show, complementing and enhancing the tone of the film at every turn.
The bad? Unfortunately, the first half hour of Eastwood’s western struggles to gain momentum. The opening raid takes far too long to spool up, quickly grows repetitive, and doesn’t inject enough tension into the first act of the film. The horsemen are evil because… well… they kill a cow and a dog. While it’s certainly justified later in the story (they weren’t trying to kill anyone), it feels like a rather neutered assault when you first see it. Plus, the most compelling villain of the film -- Russell’s haunted Marshall Stockburn -- doesn’t arrive until the beginning of the third act. He’s the perfect counterpoint to Eastwood’s preacher, but only strides into town when the outcome of the conflict is already an inevitability. Just imagine if Gene Hackman’s Little Bill didn’t appear in ‘Unforgiven’ for the first hour and a half. Would the film still be a strong genre titan? I doubt it.
And the ugly? Many supporting cast members are laughably out-of-tune with the rest of the film. Their performances range from bumbling to comical and lack the subtlety Eastwood crams into every other nook of the story. A reluctant miner and his sons are relatively central players in the tale, but they’re portrayed as oafish simpletons who fail to earn our empathy when tragedy eventually strikes their family. Then there’s Chris Penn. While he does a decent job with the material he’s given, his character isn’t developed into anything more than a sneering daddy’s boy. Instead of a well-defined, second tier villain, the character is relegated to aimless interactions that lead to an unsatisfying fate. Finally, the film’s gunplay is pretty tame by today’s standards. Deaths never devolve into chest-clutching pantomime, but the preacher’s swift justice could certainly be more effective if a bit of ferocity was injected into the action.
Even so, the last half of ‘Pale Rider’ redeems the mistakes of its first forty-five minutes as Eastwood eventually nails the film’s tone, dialogue, and direction. It’s interesting to dip back into a director’s early work once you’re accustomed to the self-assuredness of his more recent filmography, but it’s an interesting journey into the mind and development of an artist nonetheless. While ‘Pale Rider’ probably won’t appeal to everyone (particularly fans of more hard-hitting revisionist Westerns), it still delivers a strong story, an intriguing gunslinger (whose character is open to a lot of interpretation), and a sly homage to other ambiguous classics like ‘Shane.’
Harsh shadows and stark, natural lighting aside, ‘Pale Rider’s 1080p/VC-1 transfer is a solid catalog offering that boasts vibrant colors, impressive fine object detail, and an unexpectedly clean picture (especially considering its age). Overblown whites and gritty browns dominate the palette, but bright blues, lush greens, and convincing reds still litter the scenery and craft plenty of attractive exteriors and authentic looking interiors. While a handful of night shots suffer from slight crushing, unresolved black levels, and uneven print wear, the vast majority of scenes are stable, inky, and technically sound. I was relieved to find the film’s textures crisp, the actors’ skin and hair are sharply defined, and long shots rarely suffer from unintended softness. More importantly, I didn’t catch any significant artifacting, source noise, edge enhancement, or DNR that would inadvertently undermine Warner’s efforts.
Sadly, a few additional problems do detract from what would otherwise be an exceptional presentation. Contrast wavering is an intermittent but distracting issue (particularly evident in the first ten minutes of the film), interior shadow delineation is a bit too unforgiving, and several shots exhibit minor print damage (such as vertical lines, patchy color, and a few scratches). Regardless, ‘Pale Rider’ has never looked better. This BD release may not deliver the reference level transfer fans were hoping for, but it does handle an aging print with care while rejuvenating the film’s striking cinematography for a new crop of viewers.
’Pale Rider’ may be limited by the technical trappings of ‘80s sound design, but its remixed Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround track still has quite a few surprises for fans of the film. First and foremost, dialogue is crisp, well balanced, and nicely prioritized in the mix -- even Eastwood’s quiet, mumbled lines are crystal clear. LFE support is also sturdy and resonant. Gunfire doesn’t pack the punch of more powerful, modern effects, but the varying shots sound natural considering the film’s expansive exteriors. Likewise, the rear speakers aren’t aggressive by any means, but they do enhance the soundfield with realistic ambiance and immersive environmental and interior acoustics. Better still, the track features transparent pans, offers decent directionality, and isn’t plagued by dehabilitating hisses or pops.
I did have one substantial issue with the TrueHD track: the musical score is strangely subdued and relatively disjointed from the rest of the soundscape. Perhaps it can be attributed to a problematic source or the design of the era, but the soundtrack’s technical clarity is the only outright weakness I encountered. Ultimately, while I doubt anyone will be blown away by ‘Pale Rider’s sonics, audiophiles should be satisfied with the overall results.
Like its previously-released DVD counterpart, the Blu-ray edition of ‘Pale Rider’ includes no significant special features aside from the film's theatrical trailer.
’Pale Rider’ is a fascinating entry in director Clint Eastwood’s canon. While the film itself isn’t strong enough to be labeled a definitive genre classic, it’s a compelling stepping stone in Eastwood’s development as a filmmaker, one that directly contributed to his western-career capper, ‘Unforgiven.’ Thankfully, Warner’s Blu-ray edition does ‘Pale Rider’ justice with an above average catalog transfer and a technically faithful lossless audio track. I do wish the disc had a few features that explored Eastwood as a western icon and filmmaker, but this release shouldn’t be ignored. Give it a shot and see what you think.