Deep Focus: Rancho Deluxe and the Forgotten Frank Perry

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[In a new weekly feature for Country Life, James Cathcart, DJ, cinephile and now programmer of Third Man Records' new Light and Sound Machine film series, shares finds from the dusky celluloid recesses and online frontiers of cinema.]

To expand on last week’s post concerning Dusty and Sweets McGee and the neglected oeuvre of Floyd Mutrux, this week Deep Focus sheds some light on a highpoint from the career of another overlooked name from the New Hollywood heyday — Frank Perry’s Rancho Deluxe.

Perry came into notoriety in the early '60s with David & Lisa, an independently produced sensation that enjoyed out-of-nowhere critical and financial success. It not only netted Perry an Oscar nomination for his direction, it secured a nod also for his chief collaborator, his screenwriter wife Eleanor Perry. They became a Hollywood power couple, spending the rest of the decade making provocative, emotionally penetrating films like The Swimmer and Last Summer.

That ended with their bitter separation in the early '70s. Using thinly veiled fiction, Eleanor would document the twilight of their marriage and her career-derailing struggle with the movie industry's patriarchy in her 1979 novel Blue Pages. Frank, meanwhile, continued making films, though perhaps not of the same caliber. He did manage, however, to make a handful of great pictures in the '70s — including Rancho Deluxe.

Like Dusty, Rancho was shot by William Fraker, this time training his lens on the big sky and rolling mountains of modern-day Montana, giving the landscape the mesh-like grain of a vintage postcard. But those acquainted with novelist/screenwriter Thomas McGuane’s sardonic take on the taming of America’s outlaw territories will know not to expect the usual saddle opera. Jeff Bridges and Sam Waterston are Jack and Cecil, cattle rustlers more by hobby than by necessity; Harry Dean Stanton and Richard Bright are Curt and Burt, their inside men at the B-Bar Ranch; and Slim Pickens is the deceptively decrepit man hired to catch them.

If that list of names isn’t enough to make you stop reading this and go watch the film immediately, I’ll throw in Joe Spinell (bizarrely passed off as an American Indian) and a highly coked-out performance by Jimmy Buffett, featuring an incognito Warren Oates on harmonica. Go on, you can finish reading this later.

At its heart, Rancho is a film about the boredom of life in the no-longer-Wild West. Jack and Cecil plot elaborate schemes to steal cattle primarily as a way to pass the time. The war waged against them by their foes — wealthy upstate New Yorkers turned ranchers — is done so largely for the same reason. With no more land left to buy or state-fair ribbons to be won, the public theater of law and order becomes a last-ditch form of entertainment.

Some of the humor lands a bit awkwardly, and the narrative sometimes feels piecemeal: there’s a fledgling attempt at backstory for Jack which lasts the duration of a cringeworthy family meal. But a sense of melancholy permeates the whole film, lamenting a bygone era when the freedom of frontier life was more than a commodified ideal. The result is the kind of freewheeling film that’s somehow greater than the sum of its purposefully ramshackle parts. You first love it in spite of its flaws, until those imperfections become endearing in their own right on repeated viewings. Rancho Deluxe may not be Frank Perry’s best film, but it’s certainly one of several highlights from an underappreciated filmmaker who's overdue for reappraisal.

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