The Indelible Mr. Duvall

The Indelible Mr. Duvall

Posted by Mike Finnegan on Jan 5th 2019

In The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, historian David Thomson ruminates that “Robert Duvall has worked harder than any of his star contemporaries. He seems likely to remain a treasured support, but on occasions his prominent forehead and his possessed gaze have conveyed an anguish or obsession that might be more worthwhile than moody glamour. [But] Duvall’s good-natured persistence is one of the more comforting things in contemporary film.” Turning 88 today, the San Diego native most recently provided the aforesaid treasured support as the corrupt and bigoted Chicago alderman Tom Mulligan, a kind of political “don” figure evoking memories of the first two Godfather movies that elevated him to the front rank of character actors, in the acclaimed, star-ensemble heist thriller Widows (2018). 

He has worked hard – and memorably – often in the company of top-notch actors, directors and writers, in 85 feature films, four of which are a proud part of the Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray library. For The Chase (1966), director Arthur Penn’s scalding and contemporaneously misunderstood expose of a small Texas town’s hypocrisy and violent gun-toting tendencies inflamed by the prison escape of an unjustly jailed native son, he plays a put-upon bank vice-president beset by an unfaithful wife and chilled by the prospect of the fugitive returning to settle an old score; he holds the screen in sturdy fashion alongside the likes of his future Godfather capo, Marlon Brando, plus Jane Fonda, James Fox, Robert Redford, Janice Rule and E.G. Marshall. His role in the gritty, Manhattan-set police procedural The Detective (1968, directed by Gordon Douglas), opposite the authoritative and world-weary Frank Sinatra, is a stark contrast to his Lone Star milquetoast: a hot-headed fellow precinct officer whose penchant for hot-headed, abusive anti-homosexual behavior taints a controversial murder investigation and triggers the normally calm and deliberative Sinatra to land a gut-punch of his own. 

Three years later, he was the quarry of another justice-seeking badge brandisher, played by granite-hard Burt Lancaster, in director Michael Winner’s blistering Western Lawman (1971), also starring Robert Ryan and Sheree North. Duvall’s Vernon Adams is one of five hangdog hired hands (working for wealthy ranch owner Lee J. Cobb) whose drunken gunfire discharge accidentally killed an innocent bystander months before in a nearby town; by-the-book Lancaster has arrived to enforce the law and arrest the malefactors...or have it out with them in lead, one by one. Duvall barely survives Lancaster’s avenging force, and after subsequently riding the range in his personal-favorite role triumph in the TV miniseries Lonesome Dove (1989), returned to the Western frontier older, wiser and as robust a screen presence as ever, alongside Jason Patric, Wes Studi, Matt Damon and long-time pal Gene Hackman in director Walter Hill’s epic autumnal biopic Geronimo: An American Legend (1993). Portraying real-life Apache campaign Army Chief of Scouts Al Sieber, he was instrumental in getting the film made via his Butcher’s Run Films production shingle, and his performance as a man who weighs duty and conscience equally is one of the many treasures of the beautifully scenic John Milius/Larry Gross-scripted adventure that Quentin Tarantino considered “a really great classic Western.” The designation “really great classic” also refers to birthday honoree Duvall, who memorably amplifies the talented company he keeps on these four dazzling TT discs.