Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Squares (1972)

          Aptly retitled Riding Tall for a theatrical reissue and subsequent home-video release, this gentle character piece was part of an early-’70s boom in movies about modern-day rodeo cowboys, and it’s perhaps the least impressive of the batch. Gangly leading man Andrew Prine is slick with sarcastic dialogue, but he doesn’t achieve anything extraordinary here. Similarly, the opposites-attract premise pairing Prine’s character with a Vassar dropout is trite, and the overall storyline is episodic. Dodgy production values compromise certain scenes as well, notably the vignettes of Prine’s character busting broncs—hardly the mesmerizing stuff of Peckinpah’s Junior Bonner, which was released the same year. So why bother giving Squares a moment’s thought? Because the movie’s best moments are charming and specific.
          Prine plays Austin Ruth, a ne’er-do-well sportsman who squanders money as soon as he earns it, which isn’t very often. After a particularly dispiriting defeat, he finds himself hitchhiking on a desert road. Chase Lawrence (Gilmer McCormick), who has fallen asleep at the wheel of a stolen Cadillac, nearly runs him down, so she repays him with a ride, and their flirtation begins. Austin surprises Chase by revealing soulfulness in unguarded moments, and Chase surprises Ruth by revealing grit—she’s been in jail, she’s broken with her conservative parents, and she’s wise beyond her years. Adding friction is the fact that the two rarely want the same thing at the same time, so when she’s feeling romantic, he’s usually feeling adversarial, and so on.
          Screenwriter Mary Ann Saxon, who appears never to have penned another movie, displays a gift for snarky patter, though her story structure leaves much to be desired. Prine, often cast as psychos or as disposable secondary characters, seems to relish playing a grounded lead, so even though he can’t fully overcome the shortfalls of the material, he’s winning in scenes that click. McCormick, who vaguely recalls Stockard Channing, makes a decent foil and conjures an appealing seen-it-all quality in her best scenes. Oh, and seeing as how the movie in general lacks a sense of direction, it should come as no surprise to learn that Squares sputters instead of culminating with a proper ending.

Squares: FUNKY

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