“I’ll getting too old for this.”
Steve McQueen’s reputation rests on a handful of films made in the late 1960s and early 1970s — titles such as The Cincinnati Kid (1965), The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), Bullitt (1968), The Reivers (1969), Junior Bonner (1972), and Papillon (1973). After The Towering Inferno (1974), he disappeared from the screen for five years before appearing in three final films. Toward the end, he was diagnosed with a form of lung cancer linked to asbestos exposure, and he died of complications from cancer surgery in late 1980. He was only 50 years old.
His final film — The Hunter — has now been released on DVD by Paramount.
Ralph “Papa” Thorson is a modern day bounty hunter who spends his time traveling about the country to capture various fugitives who have skipped bail and return them to their home jurisdictions. At those times when he is home in a rambling house in California, he has to contend with his live-in girlfriend Dotty who is in a state of advanced pregnancy and trying to get Thorson to take a more active role in Lamaze classes. At the same time, a psychopath seeking revenge for being captured in the past is now stalking Thorson with the intention of killing him.
The best thing about this disc is the theatrical trailer. Why? Because its collection of highlights from the film is about as organized and comprehensive as the film itself and it’s over in a minute or so, whereas the film takes 97 minutes and you’re none the wiser for all the extra time.
It’s rather sad that Steve McQueen’s career had to end with this turkey of a film — an effort that’s poorly written, directed with no flair whatsoever, and acted by the numbers.
There’s no narrative flow to the story. It’s just a collection of action vignettes of McQueen capturing various fugitives. Between each vignette, he returns home where Dotty (who’s definitely not “dotty”) becomes increasingly frustrated with Thorson’s attitude toward her and her pregnancy. Meanwhile, an incomprehensible collection of individuals seems to spend their time playing cards in Thorson’s living room. Who they are and why Thorson puts up with them as long as he does is never properly explained. Then there’s the psychopath who’s stalking Thorson. Who is he? What’s the background? When McQueen finally dispatches him, it’s strictly a matter of ho hum — “he blowed up real good.”
In general, most of the action sequences are unexciting and McQueen looks rightly bored by and tired of it all. To be fair, however, a couple of the vignettes do hold some interest. On one occasion, there’s an inventive chase in a cornfield involving two fugitives in a Firebird Trans-Am and Thorson in a large thresher (although the fact that the Trans-Am manages to maintain traction with its low clearance and rear-wheel drive is somewhat questionable). On another, Thorson is trapped on the roof of a subway car — no novelty these days, but fresher in 1980.
There’s little thespian glory to be found across the entire cast. As already mentioned, McQueen looks distinctly tired of the whole thing (and in reality, probably was struggling with his advancing ill health). The usually reliable Eli Wallach has a small role as a bail bondsman, but he plays the part as a caricature. Old pro Ben Johnson is wasted in a brief role as a sheriff, as is LeVar Burton playing a first-time offender whom Thorson tries to rehabilitate.
Given all that, it’s a pleasure to report that Paramount gives the film its usual bare-bones treatment. Too often, the bad films get undeserved supplements that your obedient reviewer is obliged to wade through. No such misfortune here — just a theatrical trailer (see above). The image transfer (1.85:1 anamorphic) is fine. It seems to have been struck from fairly clean if slightly faded source material (a common occurrence for colour stock of the time) and conveys the proceedings without much in the way of distraction. Edge enhancement is minimal, for example. The audio is the original mono and again it’s quite sufficient for the quality of the film. An aggressive sound mix wouldn’t have saved this title.
The Hunter is a film to avoid and so represents another fine money-saving special. Paramount has probably done as well as could be expected with its transfer of this film. The issue, though, is why they bothered. Decisions on titles to make available on DVD continue to mystify me.