Big Jack (1949)

BIG JACK (1949)
Article #1331 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 11-5-2004
Posting Date: 4-4-2005
Directed by Richard Thorpe
Featuring Wallace Beery, Richard Conte, Marjorie Main

In the early nineteenth century, the head of a band of outlaws rescues a doctor (who was about to be hanged) to get him to fix a leg injury.

Fantastic aspects: For a good twenty minutes or so I was wondering when the fantastic aspects of the story would manifest themselves. Eventually, you find out why the doctor was being hanged; he procured research subjects via grave-robbing, which nudges the movie a tiny bit into horror territory.

IMDB describes this movie as a western, and I suppose it is to some extent; despite the one horror element, it’s certainly not a horror movie. Still, the “western” shoe doesn’t quite fit to these eyes; it’s more of an historical comedy-drama. Still, however you try to pigeonhole this one, it’s one strange movie, and the fact that it doesn’t even appear to know how strange it is just makes it all the stranger. Richard Conte’s doctor is the hero of the story; the movie is firmly pro-science, and treats his grave-robbing as a necessity to the growth of his medical knowledge and a necessary evil in an unenlightened age. It’s tempting to call Wallace Beery’s Big Jack Horner the villain, but he’s more of an anti-hero. Despite being a robber and a murderer, he’s almost a child in the way he looks at the world (he’s fascinated by the doctor’s desire of making a “window” in the human body), and like a child, he doesn’t handle well not getting what he wants. The main villain of the story is probably the jealous barber / doctor who ends up resenting the intrusion of a new doctor in the community.

All in all, I consider this one a black comedy, though once again, the movie remains firmly unaware that it is; it’s dark comic aspects seem the result of innocence rather than cynicism. It is also quite funny at times. My favorite sequence is when Big Jack concludes that the doctor’s desire to escape from his band of outlaws arises out of his loneliness due to a lack of female companionship, and so kidnaps a young woman to keep him company. As he and his own woman (Marjorie Main) listen to the struggle between the surprised doctor and the feisty kidnap victim (who are locked in a cabin together), they muse sentimentally on their own courtship. This would be Wallace Beery’s final movie.

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