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the-jackals

D: Robert D. Webb / 96m

Cast: Vincent Price, Diana Ivarson, Robert Gunner, Bob Courtney, Patrick Mynhardt, Bill Brewer, John Whiteley

The mid- to late Sixties were a strange time for Vincent Price’s career. Prior to making The Jackals, the actor had teamed with Roger Corman to make a series of gothic horrors based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe, made a handful of TV appearances in the likes of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, showed he could do camp as well as anyone else in two movies as Dr. Goldfoot, and proved especially hammy (though to good effect) with occasional appearances as Egghead in TV’s Batman. And then he made this: a Western filmed in South Africa – and possibly the oddest movie in his filmography.

A remake of Yellow Sky (1948), which starred Gregory Peck, Anne Baxter, and Richard Widmark, The Jackals begins with shots designed to establish its South African setting. We see zebras and elephants, and other animals, while a drum- and xylophone-based music score stands out awkwardly in the soundtrack’s foreground. We also see some snippets of tribal dancing until a group of cowboys are shown riding through the South African countryside. Soon they reach a small town, where they rob the bank. In the getaway, one of them is shot and killed. The group’s leader, Stretch (Gunner), persuades the rest to traverse an inhospitable desert area as a way of losing the posse chasing them. When they get to the other side, they find a ghost town, and the two remaining people who live there.

One is a young woman, Willie (Ivarson). She wants the men to go, but her grandfather, Oupa (Price), invites them to stay for as long as it takes for their horses to be well-rested. The men soon learn that Oupa is a prospector and has been working a nearby gold mine. At first, they intend to steal everything that the old man has accumulated, but Stretch’s attraction for Willie leads to his having a change of heart, and he strikes a deal with the old man that is meant to avoid any bloodshed. But two of Stretch’s men, Dandy (Courtney) and Gotz (Mynhardt), have their minds set on taking all the gold, and having their way with Willie. The longer they stay, the more that tempers flare, and Stretch’s command is called more and more into question, until Dandy can’t wait any more – and tries his best to remove his “competition”.

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Why Price made this particular movie isn’t known. It’s likely he signed on because it meant a chance to visit South Africa, it’s also likely it was because it meant a change of pace and character for someone who had become somewhat typecast as a horror star (it didn’t help that he went from this to making Witchfinder General (1968) for Michael Reeves). Whatever the reason, the finished product is not one of his best; though he is the best thing in it, by a longshot. With a twinkle in his eye, and a laugh not too far from his lips, Price plays Oupa like the kindly old man he was in real life. He’s the only member of the cast who appears to be behaving normally (given the circumstances), and the only actor who can speak his/her lines without sounding like they’re still learning them.

But Price, despite being top-billed, is actually playing a supporting role. Off screen for much of the movie, Price has to leave the heavy lifting to contract players Gunner and Ivarson. Alas, neither of them are particularly convincing, especially as a romance develops between their characters and they’re required to look as if they’re attracted to each other. Gunner went on to make one more movie, playing the astronaut Landon in Planet of the Apes (1968), while Ivarson made three more movies before leaving the business. It’s easy to see why both actors didn’t have longer careers; Gunner looks tense and uncertain throughout, and makes hard work of his dialogue. Ivarson spits out her lines with venom, mistaking her character’s insecurity for hatred, and her performance is maddingly one-note as a result. Watching them both, you just wish and pray that they’ll loosen up at some point; sadly, they don’t.

They’re not helped by the vagaries of the script, a combination of Lamar Trotti’s 1948 screenplay and Harold Medford’s undistinguished update. The characters have all the traits of often-seen stereotypes, from Courtney’s scheming Dandy (the only one who looks as dapper as his name), to Brewer’s good-natured oaf, and on down to Whiteley’s callow youth. And with lines of the calibre of, “I just wanted to show you how safe you’d be if I really wanted to get rough” (spoken by Stretch after he forces himself on Willie), the movie strays too close to misogyny for comfort – and not just the once.

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In the director’s chair, Webb adopts a tired, bare minimum approach that doesn’t help either. Scenes come and go in a perfunctory manner, as if most of them were assembled from first takes (there are a lot of continuity issues here), and lack the vitality needed to keep the audience involved with the material. Even the final shootout, usually the one aspect of a Western that most directors manage to get right, is so flatly choreographed and shot that by the time it’s over, it’s as much a relief for the viewer as it is for the characters. This was Webb’s last outing save for a couple of documentaries, and as swansong’s go isn’t one that can be recommended. As well as being unable to extract decent performances from his cast, he’s unable to elicit good work from his DoP, David Millin, or rescue the movie with his editor, Peter Grossett.

There’s too much that doesn’t work in The Jackals, and the whole thing is saddled (no pun intended) with a score that is completely South African in flavour and style, and which never matches the content or the mood of the narrative. All it does is remind the viewer that they’re watching a Western that’s been made in South Africa, and even though it’s a 20th Century Fox movie, it’s clear that concessions were made in order to get the movie agreed to and completed. As a further consequence of the movie’s low budget and scaled-back production values, it all leads to the realisation that whenever anyone is walking or running, it’s not footsteps that appear on the soundtrack but the sound of hoofbeats instead.

Rating: 4/10 – pretty meagre stuff, with poor performances from everyone except Price, and ineffectual direction from Webb, making The Jackals a disappointing experience from start to finish; as a curio it has a certain caché, but unless you’re a fan of Price there’s very little here to reward the casual viewer, and even less for regular Western enthusiasts.

NOTE: At present there is no trailer available for The Jackals.

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