The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972) stars Paul Newman as an unkempt outlaw called Roy Bean who establishes his own brand of justice in Vinegaroon, West Texas. After a series of absurd but brilliant adventures, the success of the self-proclaimed judge is threatened. John Huston’s film is a magnificent elegy to a hero out of his time.
In response to a robbery attack that almost kills him, the outlaw Roy Bean (Paul Newman) seizes the West Texas city of Vinegaroon, which means in Mexican “whiptail scorpion, mean as hell.” He renames the town Langtry, in honor of the actress Lily Langtry (Ava Gardner) whom he deeply admires, and establishes his own frontier justice. Thanks to a group of outlaws who become his deputies, he robs the strangers that come by and hangs them in the name of the law. Judge Roy Bean’s city prospers but, soon, he remarks that “The country is changing.” He must eventually leave his town because of the law representative Frank Gass (Roddy McDowal) and the disloyalty of his deputies, convinced by their wives not to accept Roy Bean’s authority. But Judge Roy Bean is a hard nut to crack…
Inspired by the real life of the outlaw who becomes a Judge, Roy Bean, John Huston imagines Bean’s entire life from his settling in the West to the memory of his power after his death. Also known as a sincere fan of the British actress of the 1880s Lillie Langtry, spelled Lily in the US, the devotion of the so-called Judge to her is a main theme of the movie even if they never meet each other. The opening sentence, “Maybe this isn’t the way it was… it’s the way it should have been,” sets the tone of the film and introduces Bean’s story as a myth.
In order to tell this myth, Huston splendidly uses the code of the Western: the first scene opens in a huge desert that symbolically represents West Texas (Huston shot his film in Arizona); the hero is a sunburnt virile outlaw who is perfectly embodied by Paul Newman; and Huston does a great job in his use of the traditional western costumes to symbolize the evolution of the characters. Maria (Victoria Principal), Bean’s Mexican lover, first wears a nude simple dress, but when she gets to live with Roy Bean, she wears a complicated white dress. The change of her clothes marks her social integration as a lady. The same play on costumes concerns the prostitutes who change their frivolous clothes for strict lady dresses.
In a series of absurd episodes that are disconnected from the main plot, John Huston features caricatured characters such as the mountain man Grizzly Adams (John Huston) and the gunslinger Bad Bob (Stacey Keach). But while the characters are caricatures, the plot, on the contrary, is hilariously revisited. The appearance of the overacted mountain man is only a way to introduce Bean’s new pet: a bear. The animal lives in the house just like his own child. With Bad Bod, the duel scene is also revisited in a humorous tone. The black hat enemy is destroyed with heavy artillery.
As the American society changes, the humorous tone gives way to an increasingly tragic tone. The outlaw is chased out of his town but also out of his time. The transcontinental railway and the first cars replace horse riding –or almost, for an incredible fight will oppose Judge Roy Bean on a horse to a businessman in a car. The closing of the frontier, and with it the passing of the legendary outlaw, is a major theme of the movie. This idea is also emphasized by the lack of dialogues. The hero often remains silent as if his opinion no longer fits the time he is living in.
The music of Maurice Jarre is the perfect embodiment of the duality of the movie between farce and tragedy. The light tone of “Marmalade, Molasses and Honey” sung by Andy William, and the humming of the “Yellow Rose of Texas” by Newman, contrasts with the strong shrieking dissonance of the Roy Bean theme, which sounds like a warning to the outlaw self-appointed judge.
John Huston perfectly uses tragi-comedy to feature The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean. The film is an original and successful fantasy of the myth of the outlaw setting his law West of the Pecos.
The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972)
Paul Newman… Judge Roy Bean
Ava Gardner… Lily Langtry
Victoria Principal… Maria Elena
Jacqueline Bisset… Rose Bean
Stacy Keach… Bad Bob
John Huston… Grizzly Adams
Roddy McDowal … Frank Gass
Running time: 123 minutes