For this Western Night Movie session, I chose WILL PENNY (1968) starring Charlton Heston in what he called one of his best films as well as his personal favorite.
Tom Gries, who wrote and directed the film, expanded an episode of the tv series THE WESTERNER called “Line Camp” that he had also written and directed several years earlier, turning the story of an older, illiterate cowboy into a look at life in a hard and unforgiving American West. Penny has only himself and his good sense (both rough around the edges) to rely on. He’s put to the test when he takes a job as a lineman on the outskirts of a large cattle ranch as winter bears down and quickly finds trouble. The cabin he’s supposed to stay in has squatters living in it, namely Catherine Allen (the excellent Joan Hackett) and her young son, Horace. And there’s a crazed preacher (Donald Pleasance), his strange mute woman (Quentin Dean), and his two vicious sons (Bruce Dern and Gene Rutherford), whom Penny tangled with earlier, leaving the family hankering for revenge.
It’s a film that draws you in and holds fast with brutal moments, tender moments and even a few moments of surprising shyness. (There is one very convenient plot point near the end; fortunately, it doesn’t upend the film.) Also, the wintery California Sierra Nevada Mountain locations were sharply photographed by Lucien Ballard, who would next shoot THE WILD BUNCH for Sam Peckinpah.
But back to Heston. Despite his high regard for the film, there are the vagaries of Hollywood. Prior to WILL PENNY’s release, Paramount Pictures, which produced it, had named Robert Evans the new head of the studio and, as often happens, the in-coming management did little to promote the previous management’s films.
Another possible timing problem resulted in Heston competing against himself. The week before WILL PENNY opened, 20th Century-Fox Studios released PLANET OF THE APES which became an immediate critical and box office hit. Conversely, WILL PENNY opened to mixed reviews and poor box office.
With a running time of one hour and 48 minutes, WILL PENNY is available on Blu-ray, DVD and Amazon Prime.
Our group includes Johnny D. Boggs, record nine-time Spur Award-winning author and Owen Wister Award winner whose work includes A THOUSAND TEXAS LONGHORNS, Kirk Ellis, Emmy-winning screenwriter and producer of HBO’s JOHN ADAMS and TNT’s INTO THE WEST, Kirk’s wife, Sheila, David Morrell, award-winning author and New York Times best-selling author of FIRST BLOOD, the novel that introduced the character Rambo, and Robert Nott, award-winning journalist and author of several books on Western films, including his most recent THE FILMS OF BUDD BOETTICHER.