Playing Fri April 13 at 4:30* and Mon April 16 at 8:00 at Museum of Modern Art [Program & Tix]
*Intro by Philip Kaufman
MoMA tips their hats to Philip Kaufman in a “Filmmaker in Focus” retrospective, April 11-16. Kaufman will be on hand Wed-Fri to introduce a selection of his films.
The Daily Show’s Elliott Kalan recently programmed the film for his monthly series at 92YTribeca and wrote a feature on his love for it, for Alt Screen:
Northfield infuses the pastoral stateliness of the post-classical Western with the anarchic energy and abrupt left turns of a Looney Tunes short, rushing forward at such a headlong gallop that it occasionally runs right off a cliff. The peculiarly patchwork style of low-budget film — a quickly shot succession of setup-action-reaction shots slapped together with post-dubbed dialogue — extends to the very story of Northfield, which cuts loose from all the stodgy conventions of Hollywood storytelling to swing exhilaratingly from jokes to bloodshed, voodoo to baseball. Kaufman writes and shoots as if he doesn’t know what’s going to happen next — a rare quality in a genre experiencing its last throes of vibrancy before ossifying into a sepia-toned museum piece.
Northfield is a film that’s both more and less than the sum of its parts. A blogger wrote something about the film that was both dead on yet mistaken: “the whole thing has a slightly cheap look, which is odd since he almost perversely manages to evoke an authentic sense of time and place.” The film does have a cheap and tawdry feel to it, the boxed air of a TV movie, but I wonder why it didn’t occur to the blogger that this very cheapness is exactly why the film feels authentic. That a story about towns built on the cheap made towns where people lived cheaply: an ersatz existence on the edge of society, where people’s clothes don’t look nice because they aren’t nice. In a way, Northfield’s greatest strength is its cheapness, because that’s where its authenticity lies. Not the authenticity of “real history”, but the authenticity of lived environments and world-weathered people. For all the beauty of director Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James (2007), the film’s sumptuous romanticism and precious Americana are tainted with an almost spiritual ugliness, guilty of rendering the death of a violent thug like a matyrdom out of the gospels. Despite its endearing, come-one-come-all narration, Northfield refuses to dress up cheap and tawdry pulp as if it were glorious history.
It may not tell the events like they happened in exacting historical detail, but it tells it like it is. Northfield refuses to make the error of striving too hard for respectability, doing too much to prove this stuff is important. The body armor so many filmmakers think protects them from criticism and condescension only stiffens them into an unnatural posture of false “dignity”. Better a loose, goofy, bloody, patchy, imperfect, uneven piece of work than bland prestige. Sure, the critics may repeat the accusation Frank James levels at Charlie Pitts’s superstition: “That don’t mean anything.” But messes like Northfield can shoot back Charlie Pitts’s rejoinder: “It’s a truth. It don’t have to mean anything.”
Stephen Farber for Film Comment (Jan/Feb 1979):
I had never heard of Philip Kaufman when I went to see The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid at a studio screening early in 1972. I debated about driving out to Universal when I got the invitation. It sounded like an utterly routine western, but movie freaks are insatiable gluttons for punishment, and I had nothing else to do that evening. Northfield turned out to be one of the happiest surprises that I have encountered in all my years of moviegoing. By the end of the film – a rich mother lode of Americana, with a vivid gallery of characters worthy of Dickens or Twain – I was exhilarated by the audacity and range of Kaufman’s talent. I was so enthusiastic that I called Kaufman the next day to find out why Universal was burying the movie.
His spirit born in independent filmmaking still survived in Northfield – in the iconoclastic re-evaluation of American movie heroes like Jesse James, and in the film’s sly, poignant vision of the perennial battle between outlaws and upright, respectable citizens. The studio wanted another Butch Cassidy, and the executives were bewildered by the film’s mixture of humor, violence, and lyricism; they dumped the movie without giving it a chance to find an audience. More important is his feeling for character; he has a geniune gift for creating oddballs and eccentrics. Although there’s nothing sentimental or soft-headed about Kaufman’s films, he’s a humanist who believes in fragile communities of misfits and mavericks.
Fernando F. Croce for Cinepassion:
Grimness is de rigueur in ’70s revisionist Westerns, but Philip Kaufman insists on a joshing tempo and delivers a Preston Sturgesian portrait of myth. The tone is plaintive and mocking, established early on by leapfrogging from a Peckinpah ambush to a vision shot through crossed eyes. Jesse James (Robert Duvall) is introduced sitting with brother Frank (John Pearce) in the outhouse, Cole Younger (Cliff Robertson) is outside savoring his pipe and his legend, wowing the crowd with the bulletholes in his leather vest. The outlaws are populist heroes, the Missouri state legislature promises amnesty but then accepts money from railroad bosses so mustache-twirler Pinkerton (Herbert Nelson) can hunt the men down. Corruption flows freely in a divided system — “Seems they left out a whole civil war,” one Southern gunslinger says of the centennial banner hailing “100 years of union” — and Younger is ready to adapt, seeing the robbery of Northfield’s bank as a withdraw for funds to buy their freedom from crooked authorities. “Blinkey-eyed bastard” Jessie James is still on the warpath, however, and for him the purpose of the raid is to level this “Yankee Gomorrah.” Arthur Penn’s influence (The Left-Handed Gun, Bonnie and Clyde) is clearly delineated, even as Kaufman’s absurdism anticipates The Missouri Breaks: When baseball is heralded as the new national sport, Younger begs to differ and applies his carbine to the scorecard. Among the “wonderments” that beguile the outlaw are horseless buggies, steam-powered calliopes, a handlebar stache improvised out of mule-tail hair to camouflage a mauled jaw; others include Duvall’s bravura rendition of psycho-charlatan zeal and Kaufman’s sketch of a vengeful posse storming a brothel and leaving its customers dangling from a tree with trousers down. Younger is caught in a hail of gunfire but survives into the 20th-century, a rascal who, like Kaufman’s astronauts, understands the nation’s need to believe in heroes.
Vincent Canby for The New York Times:
A lovely, odd sort of middle Western. That is, it’s neither conventional Western fiction nor completely documented fact, although it makes full use of history and is as crammed with the artifacts of 19th-century America—everything from dolls to a working calliope—as an especially splendid. Third Avenue Shop. The attempt of Kaufman, the film’s young writer-director, to rescue the Jameses and Youngers from that timeless movie limbo they share with such other creatures of legend and literature as Frankenstein’s Monster, Sherlock Holmes and Hercules.
The film is funny and cruel and, in a couple of instances, technically awkward. Kaufman is not the world’s greatest stager of crowd scenes and gun fights. But the places and people look right and the talk is not the slave of melodrama. It is full of quiet surprises, like the moment in the whorehouse when one of the bandits, feeling very guilty and low, says: “I’d rather gone frog-gigging.”
Richard Schickel for LIFE:
The film has abut it a wonderfully fresh air. Scenes that begin conventionally enough twist off into unexpectedly humorous or brutal paths, characters that seem familiar enough at first glance develop odd wrinkles. Even scenery and decor that we’ve all seen too many times is glimpsed in a new light, from new angles. The Great Northfield, Minnesota Raid may remind us as times of many movies, which is okay; in me, the most important memory it rekindles is of Sam Peckinpah’s first western, Ride the High Country, a memory of the excitement we feel when new talent brings new energy and new insight to a subject on the point of exhaustion.
Glenn Heath, Jr. for Match/Cuts:
Kaufman’s film, as with many revisionist westerns of the time, references ironic twists audience members can pick up on, representing a sense of fate for the Younger/James gang. Since the purported history of their exploits is well known, Kaufman wants to undercut the familiar Old West iconography with grimy, bloody incarnations of a darker version of genre. The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid jumps from tone to tone, at once funny, playful, sadistic, and satirical, however it’s the persona of Duvall’s weasel version of James that stands alone. Often pushed to the side by Cliff Robertson’s powerful Cole, Jesse, with panache and smarts, knows when to kill and when to ride. It’s no surprise Kaufman has him murder a nice old lady and steal her clothes to get away from the posse, yet the horrifying nature of the act reminds of Lawrence, where discretion died along side all of the Jayhawkers caught in Quantrill’s wrath.
Roderick Heath calls the recent The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford “a virtual sequel” to Kaufman’s film, for Ferdy on Films::
Kaufman’s drowsy, drizzly work studied with moody anti-romanticism the final raid conducted by the James-Younger gang, now long notorious and hunted on all sides. Jesse James, as portrayed by Robert Duvall, was a quick-draw psycho still fighting the Civil War using bushwhacker rules. The film concluded with Cole Younger (Cliff Robertson) dead, the gang dispersed, and the James brothers fleeing south to Missouri to form a new crew. Duvall’s James squarely plugs his myth between the eyes when he shoots an unarmed civilian for no reason, whilst mouthing off his guerrilla war justifications, to make it clear he’s just a psycho with a gun.
Alan Bacchus for Daily Film Dose:
Kaufman’s dank and dirty environment replete with muddy outhouses, a grim and psychotic depiction of James by Robert Duvall and the especially bloody treatment of the violence positions the film in the revisionist subgenre of Westerns. Part Altman, part Peckinpah, part (Arthur) Penn, it’s a conscious and admirable attempt by Kaufman to show us another side of the mythologized James gang. Cliff Robertson who is fantastic as Cole Younger, and so it was no surprise to see he was one of the producers, and thus, likely a passion project for him. The actual Raid sequence is superbly directed, Kaufman’s use of the plummeting rainstorm echoes the famous waterworks in Akira Kurosawa’s ‘The Seven Samurai’ climax. Essential viewing as a decent benchamrk in the evolution of the Western.
Kaufman to Alex Simon, for The Hollywood Interviews:
The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid painted a very documentary-like portrait of the old west.
Yeah, I thought it was important to do a more realistic portrait of Jesse James as a really scary, murderous guy who led certain members of his gang, like the Youngers, down the wrong path. It was the antithesis of the Tyrone Power version, which was very romanticized. In many ways, the Marquis de Sade was the same sort of person in Quills. Both he and Jesse are the most charismatic, likable people in the films in many ways. They are also potent and dangerous and can have a strong influence over people.
Richard Corliss for TIME:
In this 1972 film, Duvall’s Jesse is a sulfur-eyed, sociopathic evangelist of theft, and you can count on his gang (and the movie) borrowing liberally from the epochal seediness of The Wild Bunch. This is writer-director Kaufman in fine form, a decade before he created an anti-James gang, a posse of heroes, a mild bunch, in The Right Stuff.
Barbara Bannon for the Sundance Institute:
Our first Images of outlaws Cole Younger (Cliff Robertson) and Jesse James (Robert Duvall) in The Great Northfield, Minnesota Raid are telling: Younger expansively recounting his miraculous escapes to a rapt audience; James plotting in the confined, dark interior of an outhouse. It is 1876, and as the James Younger gang prepares for one last raid on “the richest bank west of the Mississippi,” the West stands poised on the threshold of anew era. Although Kaufman’s use of documentary techniques like voice-over narration creates an aura of historical realism, it is studying the impact of this change that interests him. The bear like, sociable Cole is open to this world and its novelties: baseball, steam engines and calliopes (his favorite phrase is “Ain’t that a wonderment!”); the fanatical, sociopath Jesse is mired deeply in the past.
Nothing, of course, goes as planned; the bank doesn’t even have enough money to rob until the robbers concoct a scheme to salt it. The film ‘s full of these delicious ironies, and its sudden shifts from comedy to disaster, and heroic to satirical, reveal Kaufman’s ability to transform a genre. He may destroy old myths, but he creates new ones in the process.