A petty gangster rats out his accomplices and goes into protective custody with his new-found penchant for books and thought, until one day retribution arrives in the form of two assassins. The gangster, now a philosopher who claims he is ready for death as just another step in the progression of life, is taken for a long ride across Spain so that the crime boss he ratted out can witness vengeance inflicted.
Talk about your minor masterpieces! This has long been one of my favorites ever since I stumbled across it on one of the premium cable movie channels many years ago.
It's hard to put my finger on just what it is, exactly, that makes this movie great. One can hardly point to substantial character development, because the characters (with one exception) never really become true flesh and blood to us. The plot meanders, truth be told. The dialog is clever but rarely brilliant. So what is it? Certainly the locations and the music, the general ambiance, add a lot to the movie. The car, the clouds of dust, the brilliant Spanish sun, the arc of azure sky, the arid hills, the sultry guitar: these things alone can turn a marginal movie into a good one. Exterior shots predominate, and with good reason. The director knew how to combine simple, pure elements--strong, bold colors, bright sunlight, stark images, and exactly the right sounds--in ways that seem to speak of things larger than themselves.
But I don't mean to make the rest of the movie sound marginal. The characters aren't terribly well fleshed-out, but they are interesting nevertheless. Hurt's character, the silent, wary predator, comes across as a bit stilted, but he makes it work with his craggy face, his angular body, his croaking voice, and especially his eternally weary eyes. (Few characters could have taken on this role without looking ridiculous.) Stamp is also stilted yet convincing as the amateur philosopher and erstwhile rogue at peace with himself and his fate. Roth, even more constricted in his role, also manages to put across a convincing if thoroughly unsavory persona. These actors don't have much to work with, and yet none of them ever slips into crudely cartoonish performances. They remain genuine, to the degree their characters allow.
The real surprise is the girl, Laura del Sol. Her obvious physical charms, barely stuffed into a very small dress, lead the viewer (the pop-eyed male viewer, anyway) into writing her off as mere eye candy, until the confrontation between her and Hurt, and the cruel, angry glow in her eyes, brings it home that here perhaps is the highest talent in this cast. It is she alone who stands out, at the end of the movie, as someone we can recognize and identify with; someone who isn't a mere cypher. What a pity that she has done so little else in English-speaking movies.
Whether you find the ending of this movie satisfying probably says something about your own personality, and how you view concepts like loyalty, crime, vengeance, and justice. I won't go into my own reactions. I'll only say that, when the movie is over, you'll find that, not only have you watched an absorbing movie, but you probably have things to think about.