Sunday, July 19, 2015

The Hunter (1980)

Three months after Paramount released THE HUNTER in theaters, Steve McQueen was dead. He was diagnosed with the cancer that would kill him at age 50 not long after completing production on THE HUNTER, and in some scenes he seems a little shaken.

It was something of a novelty then to see McQueen on the big screen. After 1974’s THE TOWERING INFERNO, he didn’t act in a nationally released film until TOM HORN in the spring of 1980 (Warners buried his adaptation of Ibsen’s AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE). THE HUNTER, McQueen’s final turn in front of the camera, came out a few months later.

THE HUNTER’s small scale and episodic structure seem more appropriate for a television pilot than a motion picture with one of the world’s most popular action stars. The director was Buzz Kulik, who had been working mostly on television movies and pilots at the time (Peter Hyams’ name on the screenplay indicates the CAPRICORN ONE director must have been set to direct at some point). He keeps the action chugging along at an entertaining pace, but nothing feels special about THE HUNTER. If only we could have known it would be all the McQueen we would ever get.

McQueen plays Ralph “Papa” Thorson, a real-life bounty hunter and a colorful personality. Most of us have one or two unusual quirks, but McQueen’s Thorson, as penned by Hyams and Ted Leighton (ELLERY QUEEN: DON’T LOOK BEHIND YOU), is entirely made of quirks. He drives an old car (poorly, in a cute nod to the star’s real racing career), collects old toys, has a pregnant young girlfriend, likes opera, and hosts all-night poker parties in which he never plays. As if chasing criminals for monetary reward wasn’t weird enough.

It would be easy to presume the script was left unfinished when Hyams left the picture, as McQueen basically bounces from one setpiece to the next, occasionally interacting with a character actor you recognize from TV (David Spielberg, Kevin Hagen, Wynn Irwin, Nicolas Coster, Richard Venture). Tracey Walter (MALONE) has more screen time as a psycho named Mason, who stalks and kidnaps Thorson’s girlfriend Dotty (Kathryn Harrold, always a welcome presence) — the only subplot that runs the course of the picture.

Fred Koenekamp’s photography is flat and unappealing, McQueen overplays the humor, and Michel Legrand’s score is one of the strangest ever composed for a major studio action picture. But the chase scenes are pretty great, including one between a Trans Am and a combine in a Nebraska cornfield (actually shot in downstate Illinois) and another on top of a Chicago “L” train that culminates in a car tumbling from the Marina City parking garage into the Chicago River. Adding to the excitement is McQueen, sick whether he knew it or not, doing some of his own stunts, kneeling on a train car.


Russell said...

I saw this when it first came out. I was 10 and loved it!

By the way, been reading your blog for the past couple of years. Great stuff. Keep up the good work!

Mike Doran said...

OK, it's a year late, but this might be of interest:

"Ted Leighton" was the protected pseudonym of Richard Levinson and William Link - the name they registered with the Writers Guild, so that they could take their own names off a botched, rewritten screenplay (most likely Hyams was to blame for that) without losing their royalties.

I learned about "Leighton" from Francis M. Nevins's book The Art Of Detection, about the career of "Ellery Queen" in all media.
The bungled Lawford/EQ pilot was L&L's first pass at the character; later on, when they got control of the production with Jim Hutton, they restored their own names to the property.

Now I step back and see if anyone goes back in time to read these old entries (like I do) ...