By Brian Lafferty
August 24, 2011 (San Diego) – Hearts of the West, available from the Warner Archive Collection, is a film about westerns that was released at an inopportune time. The year was 1975, a time in which the western genre was falling out of favor with audiences and studios alike. Over the three-plus decades since, there have been some notable exceptions, such as Unforgiven. But the genre has been nowhere near as popular as it was from the 1930s to the 1960s.
It’s too bad that Hearts of the West was a victim of such bad timing. It’s a smart, intelligent, and funny film about moviemaking in the 1930s. It doesn’t have what I would consider an all-star cast, but it certainly has a number of recognizable names. It’s an overlooked classic that deserves to be seen and now you can, thanks to the Warner Archive Collection.
Jeff Bridges is Lewis Tater, a neophyte writer of western literature. He takes a correspondence course in writing, which he discovers is really a scam. After he escapes with his life from the two crooks, a veteran actor (Andy Griffith) on a movie shoot takes him in. Initially wanting only to soak up the western genre as research for his novels, he goes from stuntman to leading man. Meanwhile, the two crooks spend most of the film pursuing Lewis, who also made off with their ill-gotten gains.
Cinematographer Mario Tosi’s photography benefits a lot from the remastering job by the Warner Archive. Tosi shoots with very soft, high-key lighting. This soft approach parallels the light tone of the material. He also chooses to make the light in interior scenes directional. Many times all the lighting comes from the same source, which helps guide our eyes to the proper place.
The remastering also enhances the brown, gold, and yellow color scheme. This palette is instrumental in establishing the 1930s during which the story takes place. Since the film is set during the Great Depression, everything in each scene - including the lighting, set design, and color palette - is appropriately rusty, worn-out, and impoverished.
Ever since the 1920s, people imagine Hollywood as full of glitz, glamour, and wealth. Director Howard Zieff infuses none of that in Hearts of the West. The actors, directors, and producers aren’t wealthy and elite. Everybody isn’t doing what he or she does for the fame and glory. They do it because they need to work during the United States’ worst economic hardship.
The movie couldn’t have worked without the performance of Jeff Bridges. He’s so naïve and such a neophyte in both acting and writing that it’s hard to not feel sorry for him when he’s given bad advice or being taken advantage of. Screenwriter Rob Thompson shies away from making him turn egotistical. He sticks to his Colts and writes Bridges as a reluctant and accidental rising star.
The film’s only weakness is the scenes featuring the two crooks. While Hearts of the West is a comedy, these scenes in particular are too madcap in tone compared with the others. One scene is when the crooks’ car is unable to go up a hill. It falls back and crashes off-screen. Even though many of these of these scenes don’t try as hard for laughs as this one, they nonetheless feel like they belong in a different comedy. The leitmotif, which telegraphs the madcap, doesn’t help.
But so what? It stars Jeff Bridges, Andy Griffith, Blythe Danner, Alan Arkin, and Donald Pleasance. It’s funny. It’s unique. It has a lot of fun with the western genre. And did I mention is stars Jeff Bridges?
Hearts of the West is only available through manufacture-on-demand from the Warner Archive Collection. You can order it here.