Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Reward (1965)

“If you are looking for the latest news, Señor, you're out of luck. News reaches us like light from the stars - it takes a long time.” -- Gilbert Roland as Captain Carbajal in Serge Bourguignon’s The Reward.

I’m not going to deny that Serge Bourguignon’s The Reward is an odd film in many respects; it’s often classified as a Western, which it isn’t, despite the fact that most of the film was shot in Death Valley, and the film has a definite Western edge to it, with much of the dialogue spoken in Spanish with no translation. Produced as a West German/French/ English co-production, the film seems to exist in no man’s land, a zone in which no nationality is dominant. Indeed, English is very much a second language here, and the equally eccentric casting of the film drives this home even further.

Top lining the film is Max von Sydow as Scott Swenson, a down-on-his-luck crop duster whose plane isn’t even his own; as the film opens, Swenson is making one last flight for some much needed cash, but his plane crash lands after hitting an exposed pipeline, taking out a water tower and utterly destroying the aircraft. Crawling from the wreckage as the plane explodes behind him, Swenson coolly surveys the damage, and then walks to a local cantina, where he uses his last few dollars to buy some drinks. All of this is shown with almost no dialogue, and Bourguignon’s smooth CinemaScope framing makes the desert seem arid, endless, and infernal, a living Hell for all who inhabit it.

The only music in the film comes from a beat up jukebox in the cantina that still plays 78 rpm records, blasting mariachi tunes without a volume control (Swenson tries to get the owner to turn the machine down, but it seems that the control knob is broken; it thus has only one sound level, full volume), and there’s a kind of timelessness to the film - a lot has happened, but no one really seems to care. Swenson seems to realize that his situation is hopeless, but doesn’t do much about it, until he exits the bar and accidentally sees falsely accused child murderer Frank Bryant (Efrem Zimbalist Jr., interestingly cast against type) and his girlfriend Sylvia (Yvette Mimieux) drive by in a convertible, on the run from the law. Again, this meeting seems almost existentially arranged; Bourguignon frames von Sydow in a tight close-up, with empty space on either side, as he recognizes Bryant, but there’s no back story to it; Swenson later tells corrupt police official Captain Carbajal (Gilbert Roland) that he and Bryant “met once,” but that’s about it.

As Swenson watches Bryant and Sylvia drive off, he’s summarily picked up by the equally corrupt Sgt. Lopez (actor/director Emilio Fernández, four years before his role as the brutal tinhorn dictator General Mapache in Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch) and dragged off to jail, where he meets Captain Carbajal for the first time. Lopez and his cohorts in the jail speak only Spanish, and again, none of this is translated for the audience, so it comes as something of a relief when Carbajal strides into the room and addresses Swenson in English. But the news isn’t good; somebody has to pay for the water tower that Swenson destroyed when he crash landed, and since Swenson has no money, and no insurance on his plane, Carbajal decides to hold him until Swenson can somehow come up with the cash. But while waiting for Carbajal to question him, Swenson has idly filed through some old newspapers in the jail’s main office, and found a fairly recent issue with Bryant’s face on the front page, offering $50,000 for his capture, dead or alive. Swenson quickly makes a deal with Carbajal to split the reward for Bryant’s capture, and the two men, along with Lopez and his sidekicks, take off in a beat-up pickup truck in pursuit.

All of this is staged with an air of fatalistic ennui, shot through with a sense of miraculous coincidence; there’s no real reason Swenson crashed here, there’s no real reason he had to run into Bryant, there’s no real reason that Carbajal decides to hold him (after all, the plane crash was an accident, for which the pipeline company is responsible, if anyone is), and absolutely no reason why Swenson so fortuitously stumbles across an old newspaper advertising the $50,000 reward for Bryant’s capture. It all just happens, in a very matter-of-fact, undramatic fashion, as if Bourguignon has willfully decided to strip away any sense of suspense, or even narrative logic, to create a psychic wilderness in which people and events collide without logic or meaning.

On their trip to apprehend the unjustly-accused Bryant - and tellingly, the details of Bryant’s supposed crime are never really spelled out - one of Lopez’s underlings casually throws an empty beer bottle in front of the pickup, which smashes to bits in the road, and immediately causes a flat tire. Carbajal is justifiably annoyed by this, and orders Lopez and his sidekicks to change the tire, which takes an eternity, but again, all of this random waiting and waiting seems part of the world in which all of these trapped characters inhabit - there’s nowhere to run, no escape, no way to get out of the Hell in which they're all trapped.

Carbajal has been keeping Lopez in the dark about the reward, and with good reason; fat, lazy, and utterly ruthless, Lopez is as greedy as he is indolent. The group finds Bryant’s abandoned convertible, and switching to horses, continues the chase, while Carbajal begins to crumble from the lingering effects of malaria, “ the reward for service in this region,” as he tells Swenson. Eventually, the group catches up with Bryant, who has gone off “on a road that leads nowhere,” as Carbajal puts it, and captures him without resistance. Bryant pleads innocence, but then Lopez accidentally discovers that there’s a price of $50,000 on Bryant’s head, and immediately demands a share of the reward.

At this point, Joaquin (noir veteran Henry Silva), one of Lopez’s sidekicks, who has been more or less hanging around at the edges of the frame and not really involved in the main narrative, steps forward to stop Lopez, but Lopez summarily murders both Bryant and Joaquin, and then Luis (Nino Castelnuovo), another of Lopez’s sidekicks, is killed trying to stop the group’s horses from stampeding. The group continues on, with Lopez tunelessly and unceasingly strumming his omnipresent guitar, while at the same time trying to make time with Sylvia, all to no avail. In time, Swenson eventually makes his move, and tries to stop Lopez from taking Bryant’s dead body in for the “dead or alive” reward on the back of a horse. But the horse runs off, leading Lopez on a fruitless pursuit through the desert, from which he never returns. Carbajal has now become delirious from the effects of malaria, while Scott and Sylvia leave him, and try to make their way back to civilization.

The utter hostility of the climate in which The Reward is shot becomes a major character as the film unreels; since much of the dialogue is in Spanish, for English speaking viewers, a good deal of what transpires remains a mystery. The motivation of one and all is greed, pure and simple, but the innocence and/or guilt of Bryant is never clearly established, nor are the details of his supposed crime, or even his background. Zimbalist does his best with the role, clearly uncomfortable as a heavy (after all, this is the man who spent much of his career on television as a major cast member of 77 Sunset Strip and later, The FBI, as a bastion of law and order), while Mimieux is less a character than a situation; the damsel in distress. Gilbert Roland is properly one-dimensional and professional as Captain Carbajal, but in the end, it is Emilio Fernández who gets the most screen time, and who eats up the screen with a performance every bit as rapacious as the character he plays. Lopez is a juicy role, and Fernández ultimately dominates the film, as the power balance shifts in his favor, until the final scenes.

What sets The Reward apart from other films of its kind - like Anthony Mann’s superb noir western Winchester ’73, for one example - is not only the resolutely international cast, with von Sydow grimly convincing as the drifter who knows that life often promises much and delivers nothing, but also Bourguignon’s leisurely direction, in which the sun, and during one drenching interlude, the rain, play an elemental role in the drama. There’s a compelling sense of endlessness to the film; endless searching, endless scheming, endless hardship, as conditions deteriorate for all the characters as the film unreels. Indeed, the only hopeful thing that one can take away from the film is Scott Swenson and Sylvia’s probable - just probable -- survival; but survival for what? An overwhelming sense of directionless, aimless existententialism is ultimately the defining characteristic of The Reward, in which the law, vigilante justice, and greed all are on ritualistic display.

Not available on DVD, and shown only occasionally on Fox Movie Channel in a horrific pan and scan version that utterly destroys the superbly composed setups devised by Bourguignon, The Reward is yet another of those lost films that cross generic boundaries to create a terrain of their own, only to be abandoned by commercial interests as being something indefinable, and therefore impossible to merchandise. The Reward is truly a one of a kind film, which clearly deserves a DVD release in its proper aspect ratio, something, however, that will never happen. This, of course, is one of the lessons of the film; you can hope for something, but the likelihood of that coming true - well, that’s another prospect altogether.

Written by Wheeler Winston Dixon

About the Author: Wheeler Winston Dixon is the James Ryan Professor of Film Studies, Coordinator of the Film Studies Program, Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and Editor in Chief, with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, of the Quarterly Review and Film and Video, and the author of numerous books, including Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia.


  1. Once more you rub our noses in a film we're unlikely to ever see... (and you seem to quite enjoy doing so, with your unequivocal "something, however, that will never happen"). You're definitely starting to tick me off. I imagine most people who sign up for your emails are eager to be tipped off to films they can actually seek out and WATCH.

  2. not sure of your point. This isn't Netflix... nor do we sell DVDs. We talk about movies.

  3. Max Von Sydow and gorgeous Yvette Mimieux in a south of the border noir? The Reward does indeed sound tantalising.
    I visit this and the equally brilliant Greenbrair Picture Show site daily to learn about the history of cinema, which surely includes those films lost to us as well as those readily available.
    Steve's comment reads as a bitter challenge to the studio to pull their finger out and release the film properly.
    And with the print on demand service offered by the likes of the Warner Archive and others who's to say a fairly obscure movie like this won't pop up eventually if a few of us keep shaking the tree?
    Keep up the great work mate.
    Best, Chris


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