Billy Two Hats
by Jef Burnham
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Gregory Peck (To Kill a Mockingbird) and Desi Arnaz Jr. (The Mambo Kings) star in this obscure western currently available on on-demand DVD from the MGM Limited Edition Collection. Billy Two Hats is directed by Ted Kotcheff (First Blood) and produced by Norman Jewison (director, In the Heat of the Night). Peck stars as Arch Deans, a Bible-quoting Scotsman who, along with his half-breed Native accomplice, Billy Two Hats (Arnaz), flees toward the Mexican border after a botched robbery leaves a man dead. With Sheriff Henry Gifford (Jack Warden, Being There) hot on their trail, a broken leg for Arch forces the pair into a series of desperate situations involving, what else, gun fights and romance.
As the film opens shortly after the robbery has taken place, Arch and Billy’s flight from the law constitutes the majority of the running time. It is, as a result, an incredibly simple film. This works remarkably well in the opening of the film, in which the minimal score drops out after the titles. The absence of the score throughout the subsequent scene, in which the earliest to rise in a western town are only just beginning to stir, establishes the film in a believably realistic setting. Thereafter, the relative absence of a score maintains this impression throughout the majority of the film. When the score does chime in, however, it is awkward and incongruous. It would have been better, no doubt, if the score had been omitted altogether.
But there are notable instances in which the film’s simplicity works against it, usually leaving us feeling alienated from the characters and their motivations. For instance, neither Peck nor Arnaz speak for the first 17 minutes of the film. While it is indeed an interesting artistic choice, the result of it is ultimately the thin characterizing of our two protagonists. For the filmmakers then devote those same seventeen minutes to interactions between the film’s antagonists. Thus Billy Two Hats’ antagonists are more fully fleshed out than the protagonists are.
As for the quality of the release itself, the quality of the picture is quite high, especially considering the requisite disclaimer at the beginning of these on-demand releases regarding the quality of the source material. In my experience with the Limited Edition Collection, this disclaimer is hardly necessary. Here, aside from barely noticeable specks and debris, there is but a single wobbly shot marring the picture. On the production end of the film, however, it may be noted that the cinematography falls flat during some of the exterior “night” shots. In this regard, Billy Two Hats boasts some of the least convincing day-for-night photography you’re apt to ever see in a western— or any other genre film for that matter.
Jef Burnham is a writer and educator living in Chicago, Illinois. While waging war on mankind from a glass booth in the parking lot of a grocery store, Jef managed to earn a degree in Film & Video from Columbia College Chicago, and is now the Editor-in-Chief of FilmMonthly.com.
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