Farnsworth’s calm dignity key to ‘The Grey Fox’
The 1983 sleeper “The Grey Fox” has long been unavailable in all its peerless beauty, because it was never released on DVD.
Beautifully filmed by cinematographer Frank Tidy (and almost equaling his gorgeous work on 1979’s “The Duellists”), this Canadian chestnut brings together two fascinating figures: Bill Miner and Richard Farnsworth.
Miner, nicknamed “The Gentleman Bandit,” was an American stagecoach-robber in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; he spent several stints in prison and once narrowly avoided being lynched. After a long stretch in San Quentin, Miner moved to Canada and began robbing trains instead. He is credited with originating the phrase “Hands up!”
Farnsworth, by contrast, was for years a Hollywood stuntman, mostly riding horses in Westerns. His stunt resume includes “Gone With the Wind,” “The Grapes of Wrath,” “Gunga Din,” “Mighty Joe Young,” “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “Blazing Saddles,” “Papillon” and “Red River” — in which he doubled Montgomery Clift. And then in the 1970s and ’80s, when he was getting on in years, Farnsworth began assuming larger and larger acting roles, achieving many awards and nominations for such films as “Comes a Horseman,” “Misery,” “The Natural” and David Lynch’s “Straight Story” — in which he had the lead.
In “Fox,” Farnsworth is letter perfect as the aging bandit who is fresh out of prison but finds that he just cannot work for other people. Having pulled off one daring but deadly train heist, Miner flees to British Columbia and does it again, then lies low in the frontier town of Kamloops, where the law closes in even as he falls for a feisty female photographer (Jackie Burroughs).
(This latter character, incidentally, was invented for the film, as was the final European part of Miner’s life described at the end — though he did in fact escape from a Canadian prison.)
Farnsworth imparts a calm and urbane dignity to Miner, whom we like and root for despite his illegal exploits. Fortunately, while we understand why the man does this, “Fox” never glorifies his career; we see some sad fallout from the crimes, especially during one beautifully filmed sequence involving rustled horses and a Canadian Pacific steam train. The scene of Miner’s capture — recounted here pretty much exactly as it happened — is a masterpiece of understated realism; it contrasts nicely with grainy black-and-white footage of shootouts from 1903’s “Great Train Robbery,” shown twice during the movie.
“Fox” also has a counterintuitive but perfectly fitting Celtic score by the famed Irish band the Chieftains.
Released Sept. 8, the new DVD includes a 4K restoration, commentary by filmmaker Alex Cox (“Repo Man”), a restoration featurette and interviews with the film’s producer and composer.
Editor’s note: This review was adapted from Smith’s new book, “The Best Movies You Never Saw,” now available at Amazon.