By the 1950s, the western genre was beginning to fade, slowly but surely taking those same western stories of exploring an unknown frontier and setting them in the truly unexplored frontier – space, which would eventually create the sci-fi genre. By the 1960s though, the western was essentially dead in Hollywood (though not so much in Italy with Sergio Leone reinventing the genre). It had become a tired genre filled with cliches of cowboys roaming a land that had already been conquered, so Hollywood needed to do something new to keep the genre alive. And you can’t say that they didn’t try with “Cat Ballou,” since it gave us one of the most memorable performances in a western with Lee Marvin’s drunk stumbling turned into an art form here.
“Cat Ballou” takes many of those tired Western cliches and turns them on its head – a female lead (Jane Fonda), bandits who actually want to be helpful instead of selfish and greedy, a town that loves its criminals more than its heroes, a savior who actually can’t do anything unless he’s drunk as a skunk. It plays with some of these effectively enough, though the best part of the movie is certainly Lee Marvin who shows that he has the slapstick comedy timing of Charlie Chaplin and the intensity of John Wayne. It gets even better since Marvin plays two roles, the bumbling hired gun who becomes surprisingly articulate once he’s got some booze in him, and a quiet assassin with a piece of silver over his nose, with Marvin making each of them his own man. But beyond this, there isn’t much to “Cat Ballou.” It has a few laughs, but despite trying to buck with the western cliches, it falls into many of the same trappings as before, only usually saved by Lee Marvin giving one of the best performances of his career.
Final Grade: C+