“A professional always specializes.”
By all accounts, Bill Miner was a man who took pride in his work. A stagecoach bandit during his younger years, he was known to be incredibly polite while robbing those who crossed his path. Always a gentleman, he would tip his hat to the ladies, was known to do a good turn from time to time and instructed those who worked with him to shoot only as a last resort and never to kill any of their victims. However, he was far from perfect where his chosen profession was concerned as he spent more than his fair share of time behind bars, one stint being over 30 years, a stretch that makes him a man out of time when he’s released at the dawn of the 20th century. His professional specialization, like his youth, is in the past. He’s forced to change, adapt in an age of technological innovations he neither understands nor recognizes, a move that leads him to places, both personal and professional, he could not anticipate.
Phillip Borsos’ “The Grey Fox” eschews the conventions of the western in recounting Miner’s story. There’s no mythmaking at play here but rather a modest yet compelling character study of a simple man who opts for expedience over direction where his life is concerned. This 1982 sleeper, beautifully restored by Kino-Lorber and available for home streaming at musicboxtheatre.com, is a throwback to a formal classicism seldom seen in cinema today. Stripped down of all artifice, Borsos uses the Canadian location to great effect, the snowcapped mountains and dense forests giving the film a subtle sense of grandeur, a virgin territory brimming with possibilities, perfect for anyone looking to reinvent themselves. This is matched by the work of Richard Farnsworth in the titular role, a longtime bit player who finally got his chance in the spotlight, delivering a nuanced, poignant and moving performance.
Miner is a man adrift after having been released from prison after 33 years. Living with his sister and disapproving brother-in-law, toiling in a menial job, he searches for an alternative to his former line of work. However, he wanders into a moving picture show, sees Edwin S. Porter’s “The Great Train Robbery” and sees his future. Inspired, he decides to try his hand at this simple, risky vocation, yet stumbles his first time out, so much so that he decides to leave Oregon for Canada. He persists, takes on a partner (Wayne Robson) and becomes something of an expert at this distinct brand of vehicular thievery. He also meets Kate (Jackie Burroughs), a free-thinking photographer, and falls in love. Foolishly, he begins to think of settling down with her, just as the authorities start to close in.
Farnsworth’s unassuming performance is a wonder to behold, a showcase of film acting at its finest. Having knocked around Hollywood in bit parts since 1937, the actor finally began getting supporting roles in the late ’70s. He managed to catch Borsos’ eye, and his casting of the actor couldn’t have been more apropos. The fact that Farnsworth was not an established star allows us to identify more readily with this modest man. Like any good film performer, he learned that less is often more on the big screen, conveying a well of emotions with a simple gesture or glance. Watch as he reacts to seeing a motion picture for the first time or the way he instinctively reaches out to caress a leaf from a fern while waiting in an office. These are instinctual reactions few actors master that allows them to create genuine characters. That he’s a charmer doesn’t hurt either, a quality the film itself possesses that makes it worth revisiting after all of these years.
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