Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Casey’s Shadow (1978)

          After scoring a hit by playing the coach of a misfit Little League team in The Bad News Bears (1978), it was inevitable that Walter Matthau would make more pictures costarring loveable urchins, and luckily, the first such movie is pretty good. Directed by the venerable Martin Ritt with his customary sensitivity, Casey’s Shadow is an old-fashioned story about a bottom-rung horse trainer named Lloyd Bourdelle (Matthau). The single father of three children, Lloyd lucks into possession of a promising foal fathered by a champion stud. Then Lloyd’s youngest son, Casey, bonds with the horse but runs it before its bones have fully grown, creating a permanent imperfection in one of the animal’s legs. Nonetheless, Lloyd nurses the horse, Casey’s Shadow, back to health and pins his hopes on winning a race with a $1 million purse. As word spreads about the horse’s promise, Lloyd gets offers for the animal from a pair of big-time horse breeders; trouble brews when one of the breeders employs devious means in order to eliminate potential competition. Lloyd even feels pressure from his children, who worry that Dad’s lust for a big paycheck might blind him to the danger Casey’s Shadow faces by running on its dodgy leg.
          As scripted by Carol Sobieski (Fried Green Tomatoes), Casey’s Shadow has an easy authenticity, from the colorful idioms of the Louisiana-bred protagonist to the racing jargon that’s expertly layered throughout the movie. Ritt shoots the picture with a loose touch that meshes staged interactions and documentary-style vignettes of life in the grandstands and paddocks, so even though the picture’s goal is to tug at viewers’ heartstrings, the filmmaking never feels cloying. The storytellers restrict manipulative bits of Casey weeping to a few key moments, and even though Lloyd’s characterization is inherently sentimental, the tasteful writing and Matthau’s cantankerous personality put the characterization across in an effective manner. It’s easy to believe that Lloyd is fundamentally decent, since he successfully raised three kids on his own, but he’s got an edge because that the filmmakers show him making a series of poor decisions. The young actors playing Lloyd’s kids are solid but unremarkable, and reliable utility players Whit Bissell, Harry Caesar, Murray Hamilton, Alexis Smith, and Robert Webber contribute fine work as various racing-world characters. It’s mostly Matthau’s show, however, and the contrast between his ornery vibe and the sweetness of the story gives Casey’s Shadow a highly watchable vitality.

Casey’s Shadow: GROOVY

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