Two years after his first foray into direction, Scalawag (a comic adaptation of Stevenson's Treasure Island), Kirk Douglas came up with this grim political western about an ambitious lawman who thinks the arrest of notorious outlaw will pave his way to Washington.
Douglas is US Marshall Howard Nightingale, who has assembled an elite posse to track down bank robber Jack Strawhorn (Bruce Dern) and his gang. He has selected and trained the posse members personally, and turned them into hardened killers. In the film's opening scene, we witness how the gang's hideaway in the mountains is sieged by Nightingale and his men. The cabin is set ablaze and all gang members are mercilessly killed, but Strawhorn himself escapes. With the credits rolling over the screen, we see Nightingale holding up a wanted poster, saying:
"If I don't get him, I don't get elected."
Strawhorn is arrested a little later and shown, triumphantly, to the people of Tesola, whose money he had stolen. There's no longer any doubt that the townspeople will vote for Mr. Nightingale, so it's time for a speech and a party. But once again Strawhorn escapes and this time he manages to turn the odds completely ...
Douglas being a long-time liberal, many have interpreted Posse as a post-Watergate movie; the reading seems to impose itself, but there are a few problems. Nightingale is presented as an opportunist who uses the arrest of a notorious criminal to further his political ambitions; he's ruthless, but in a strict sense he's not doing anything illegal. In the end Posse is more a morality tale than a political allegory: Nightingale is a hypocrite, but not a criminal, and his biggest 'sin' seems to be that he's over-ambitious (1). When Douglas made Posse, he was in a bad mood; he had played Randle McMurphy in the stage version of One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, but the production company decided that he was too old for the role in the screen version that was produced by - of all people - his own son Michael (2). After this frustrating experience he decided to direct, produce and star in this cynical western instead; there's some reason to believe that the morality tale about the rise and fall of a would-be politician, is as much about his own frustrated ambitions (3).
It might also have been a deliberate choice to do a western. The genre had its last upswing in the first half of the Seventies with a series of revisionist westerns, most of them set towards the end of the West. In many ways Douglas' Nightingale is similar to Henry Fonda's Frank (a gunslinger who wants to become a businessman) from Once Upon a Time in the West: Like Frank, Howard Nightingale fails to make the transition to a new era and a new world. All possible political subtexts put aside, Posse is also a movie about an aging man who's beaten by a shrewd young man who doesn't want to be the sacrificed pawn in Nightingale's political chess game.
Dern was asked by Douglas to think of himself as a kind of Gary Cooper while playing the bank robber, that is: as if he, the outlaw, were the hero of the movie. It's in this reversal of roles that the movie works best, thanks to an intelligent script and the strong performances by the two leads. Douglas is very convincing as the scheming would-be politician, a man reaching for the sky, but like his movie character, he has to acknowledge the superiority of Dern, who is brilliant as the effervescent, astute outlaw. The script, based on a short story by Christopher Knopf, was written by Knopf himself and William Roberts, best known for turning Kurosawa's Seven Samurai into The Magnificent Seven; it's cleverly plotted and has a nice circular character, with Strawhorn using Nightingale's every possible weakness (his pride, his aspirations, his disturbed relationship with his men, who fear to be dumped when their boss goes to Washington) to turn the tide; the ending is particularly fine, with Nightingale's posse members becoming Strawhorn's gang members, that is: replacing the men they have slaughtered in the opening scene.
Posse isn't perfect; the first half hour is fast moving - and surprisingly violent - and the finale is most certainly different, but the mid-section plods and visually it's a rather bland affair. Douglas asked his screenwriters to create a role for James Stacey, a young actor who had lost an arm and a leg in a motorcycle accident; it's a sympathetic gesture, but the character of the skeptical newspaper man seems no more than a gimmick. Otherwise the supporting actors are well-cast, with Luke Askew, Bo Hopkins, Bill Burton, Louie Elias and Gus Greymountain forming one hellova posse.
(1) Vincent Canby, Genial Posse: Witty Western, Favors Outlaw, The New York Times, June 5, 1975: "It's one of the ironies of this country, where tremendous ambition is as essential as money in the achievement of political success, that we should automatically consider ambition to be a sin. It's as if we wished that Presidents could be brought by storks."
(2) Turner Classic movie Reviews: Posse, by Frank Miller
(3) The experience was even made worse by Kirk's other son Joel, who would be his assistant-director on Posse, left the project to join Michael's production of One flew over the Cuckoo's Nest.