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The Spikes Gang
(1974)

Director: Richard Fleischer          
Cast:
Lee Marvin, Gary Grimes, Ron Howard


It's funny how there are a lot of movies that you think would have received a release on video or DVD by now, but haven't. Sometimes a little Marvin patches himself after being hit by Michelle Triola's palimony suitinvestigation reveals that what's holding up such releases is a legal dispute behind the scenes, often being an issue with the music rights. There are also a few instances where the copyright holder is having no luck finding a print of the movie pristine enough for a transfer. Though on other occasions, investigation will reveal that there is seemingly nothing holding up a release, and it can be really puzzling at times. For instance, I have no idea why 20th Century-Fox has never released Fire Sale to the open market. Judging from the amount of e-mail from fans of the movie I've received, it would seem impossible for the studio to at not least make a small profit if it were made available for purchase. But the studio didn't even try, even in the early '80s when video stores were especially desperate to build up their libraries with anything even remotely commercial. On the MGM side, it's a puzzlement why they never released The Spikes Gang on video. At any time, they could have sold it to video stores by promoting the famous actors in it. Not just superstar Lee Marvin, but Ron Howard (Happy Days), Gary Grimes (of Summer of '42 and Class of '44 fame), and even Charles Martin Smith (American Graffiti and Never Cry Wolf.)

Some might say it's because The Spikes Gang isn't a masterpiece. Well, I can't deny that, nor can I deny it doesn't even qualify for the label of "great", or even straight out "good". But I might point out the obvious fact that there have been a lot of movies far worse than it that have been released on video, some of which also had Marvin in them (The Klansman, anyone?) The Spikes Gang is definitely not that low. The best way to describe it would be an average movie, albeit one with a few interesting features that bubble up every so often so the movie never gets tedious to watch. Like a number of westerns in the '70s, it involves young protagonists (like Bad Company), and also like others of the period, it has a less romantic view of the wild west. Near the Mexican border, three teenagers - Will (Grimes), Les (Howard), and Tod (Smith) - stumble across a wounded and dying man (Marvin) in the countryside. Though they quickly figure out he's a wanted man, they decide instead to hide him and help him recover. Once recovered, the grateful man introduces himself as Harry Spikes, a bank robber wanted in several states. Touched by their kindness, before riding off he lets the boys know he'll repay them one day. Later, Will's father beats him when finding out they helped Spikes, driving Will to run away, with his two friends following. But broke and unable to find work, the boys soon become lawbreakers themselves, and in short notice need to flee into Mexico to escape the law. While there, they bump into Spikes...

It should come as no surprise that even though the movie is really about the various adventures the three boys go through, it is the character of Harry Spikes Grimes wakes up after being haunted by revelations of The Ghost Of Career Futurethat proves to be the most interesting in the movie. One obvious reason is the casting of Marvin in the role, and once again he gives a classy performance. He brings in here the usual tough and rough (yet magnetic) edge he gave in other movies, but here gets to do a little more than usual. Though Spikes is a rough desperado, he's not a one note character, nor is everything about him bad. He can be a charming fellow, like how he mesmerizes the boys with various colorful tales as he recovers. When he learns of how the boys have gone to the trouble to heal and hide him, he's shocked but still very thankful, even offering right there and then to reward the boys - showing he still has a sense of honor and a desire to show appreciation. Indeed, in Mexico, he freely pays his debt with interest when he sees the trouble the boys are currently in. Yet at the same time, there is a dark and troubling side to Spikes. As you might have guessed, the boys eventually join with Spikes to form a bank-robbing gang. But there are hints that Spikes may have secretly been pushing the boys to join with him instead of them coming up with the idea on their own. For example, after he helps them out, he leaves town for several weeks for reasons he won't discuss - leaving the boys to make a living with dirty and back-breaking work. When he comes back, the tired and frustrated boys are more than ready to listen to the proposal he "just happened" to come up with.

It is possible that maybe Spikes was indeed busy at the time, and did have to go out of town on business of sorts. But he does some other suspicious things later on, like when he takes the boys on a shopping spree and spares no expense in getting the overjoyed boys the best in cowboy clothing and guns. Or later on, when the boys are riding high and proud with Spikes, and he compliments them by saying how much happier and confident they look than when he first saw them in Mexico. Still could be a coincidence, but there is definitely still a dark side to Spikes, every so often sneaking in unexpectedly to have the effect of a slap to the face. Take the time when the four are joking around the campfire, and Spikes starts telling what seems to be pleasant memories from his past - but with an ending decidedly unpleasant. Then there is another time when the quartet bump into an aging robber (Arthur Hunnicutt, The Red Badge Of Courage) who desperately wants in, and Spikes reacts to this in a way not previously seen. Seeing his reaction, one can't help but think of the previous scene, where Spikes back from scouting in town throws a bag of cinnamon buns at the boys, saying they are "too young to smoke and drink." He says it in a jokey manner, but considering he seems to think they are old enough to rob banks, you start to wonder if he is really using the opportunity to show some feeling of contempt.

We don't know of his true feelings until near the end of the movie, and the mystery of that adds yet another thing to what makes Harry Spikes a character that really grabs your attention any time he gets involved in the "If one more person calls me 'Toad'..."various events the boys find themselves in. It is really their story, even though Marvin gets top billing, and it's a real disappointment that so little is done with these characters to make them real and compelling. To begin with, the three young actors give performances that can be considered mediocre overall, with Grimes (what ever happened to him?) marginally coming across the better of the three only because he's given more to do. That in itself really explains what went wrong with this part of the film, especially since other movies all three made in this period show them already possessing acting talent. Every opportunity to make Will, Les, and Tod proper characters is blow. We don't learn anything about their lives before Spikes comes; the first scene has them silently walking in the countryside and stumbling across the wounded Spikes. In fact, we learn precious little about them after they take Spikes in, not just why they decide to shelter him instead of alerting the law. We don't know their perspectives, feelings on things, or even how they regard each other. We don't even learn their names until they've run away from home. With such plain characters that make decisions more convenient to the screenplay than themselves, it's no wonder Grimes et al seem unsure of how to play their roles.

One aspect is given to Grimes' character that does make him stand out a little from his peers, and that's his relationship with his father. It provides some powerfully emotional scenes, starting right after he gets that beating. When Will wakes up from the beating the next morning, he looks outside the window and sees his father at work. A ghastly expression forms on Will's face at seeing his father in a new light, and from that expression alone we know he's been so wounded emotionally - a fantastic bit of acting done in complete silence. It leads to some effective daydream sequences where he imagines trying to converse with his father. It's all powerful and very real at the same time. There are other realistic touches like this in other parts of the movie, though such moments are typically seen in characters seen in passing. Take the time when the boys, not long after starting their journey, are confronted by a stranger-hating sheriff (Robert Beatty) in a town they are passing through. He starts off as the typical one-note mean and unsympathetic sheriff, and when the boys get upset by him and lash back a little, you expect him to suddenly lash out with great force. But you see something inside the sheriff stop him at the last millisecond, something that while doesn't get him to stop regarding the boys with great contempt, gets him to realize he really doesn't want to have to hurt them. Much more believable.

While such touches provide some nice moments, they seem to come more from the screenplay and the actors themselves rather than from the direction. From what I Howard counts the days until he is free to directhave seen of other Richard Fleischer movies, he seems to be like Michael Ritchie, in that he's only as good as the material that's provided to him. There aren't that many scenes in the movie that suggests he spent a good deal of time planning. The movie has a curiously flat look, at times resembling a made-for-TV movie of the time. Although the movie was filmed in Spain, you wouldn't know it, since Fleischer shot the outdoor scenes in remarkably drab locations that all look the same. And there is a breakdown in the natural flow of the story in the last twenty minutes, becoming more like a series of vignettes with little tying them together. It's therefore surprising the few times Fleischer breaks out of his mediocrity and puts in some effort. Will's beating comes across as so cold and cruel that you can't help but cringe at the sight. The action scenes, though few, are very memorable. During the gunplay, you not only really feel the fear and desperation of the boys, you can never tell if they'll manage to get out of their present predicament. This action is never glamorized, by the way, nor are the boys' various crimes. This is a cruel world, but one closer to the truth than many other westerns. While The Spikes Gang could easily have been a better movie, at the very least it will make you thankful to be living in this day and age.

UPDATE: It's now available on DVD!

Check for availability on Amazon (DVD)
Check Amazon for source novel, "The Bank Robber", by Giles Tippette
Check Amazon for Richard Fleischer's memoirs

See also: Bad Company, Monte Walsh, Survival Quest

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