This ABC-TV production aired only once in 1966. Unavailable everywhere since, unless, like me, you picked up Twilight Time’s recent Blu-ray of Peckinpah’s The Killer Elite, on which Noon Wine is a bonus feature, (with audio commentary by Peckinpah historians, no less).
So, unless you got that Blu-ray and have yet to watch its Noon Wine bonus feature, odds are pretty good you’ll never see this 51-minute teledrama, so I’m not too worried about…SPOILERS…
…but, if you’re worried about SPOILERS, read no further.
My synopsis of Noon Wine:
Struggling farmer commits a really dumb murder, claims self-defense, gets acquitted…
…then insists his wife corroborate his lies in public as he drags her from one neighbor’s home to the next to tell their entire smalltown community the farmer’s ‘side of the story’…
…which only makes him look even guiltier than before and succeeds in driving his wife to a nervous breakdown from moral confusion and guilt. Their two young sons despise the farmer for the trauma he’s inflicted on their hysterical mother.
Struggling farmer goes to barn, writes note to ‘explain’ himself one more time…then commits suicide.
Jason Robards and Olivia de Havilland, respectively, play the struggling farmer and his prim and proper wife. Per Oscarsson is Robards’ hired hand who turns out to be an escapee from an insane asylum, where he’d been confined after pitchforking his own brother to death over a trivial slight. Theodore Bikel plays the asylum’s own bounty hunter whom Robards murders during Bikel’s attempted apprehension of Oscarsson.
Expecting a small-scale, emotionally poignant and powerful character drama, I was shocked to discover how disappointing this show turned out to be.
I can’t think of a single Sam Peckinpah feature I’ve thought less of than this one. Convoy was more fulfilling.
So was this—
–for that matter.
For some reason, Noon Wine‘s highly regarded by Peckinpah fanatics, as evidenced by the disc’s adoring commentary track, but I found the made-for-TV drama to be a colossal bore, just as I found its main character to be.
Robards’ gratingly bombastic interpretation of the main character is easily the worst performance I’ve seen the actor give (maybe we were meant to loathe him?). As evidenced by the dialogue, the character’s in love with the sound of his own voice, not speaking to people so much as shouting at them.
He also has a habit of making really foolish decisions, beginning with his decision to hire a total stranger– who barely speaks and wears an expression of haunted derangement [see photo below]— as a hired hand.
Then, moments later, Robards announces he’s going to town, leaving this weirdo alone with his invalid wife and two young sons in order to make a supply run (from which Robards returns drunk).
When confronted with the information that his hired hand is a fugitive psychotic guilty of a senseless murder, Robards initially refuses to believe it, then stubbornly refuses to cooperate, then intervenes on the looney’s behalf by braining the bounty hunter in the back of the head with an axe.
Though his wife didn’t witness the killing, Robards persuades her to tell the law she did, backing up Robards’ ‘self-defense’ excuse.
From this point on, I just couldn’t get behind any of these characters and their shared dilemma. Once Robards embarked on his self-destructive campaign of social stigmatization, dragging his now-timid wife down with him, I started rooting for their downfall.
I really despised these characters. Robards began as an arrogant, over-compensating jagoff making idiotic decisions, then degenerated into a thoughtless, over-compensating jagoff selfishly wallowing in denial and overbearing pride. His wife’s complicity in his idiotic, self-aggrandizing scheme seemed borne not out of affection for her husband, or loyalty, even, but of weakness.
Character choices often felt forced, as if the time constraints of the TV show’s 1-hour format prompted frequent shortcuts to move the story along. By the time Robards commits murder on Oscarsson’s behalf, I guess we’re meant to feel some heavy bond has formed between the two men, but I wasn’t buying it.
As a result, Robards appears to commit the killing not out of concern for Oscarsson, but due to a personal dislike for the bounty hunter, who’s even louder and more boorish than Robards. The manner in which Peckinpah depicts the bounty hunter almost indicates that we’re meant to cheer Robards on when he finally picks up the axe.
Maybe the story would have played better if Peckinpah had had more running time to work with, if he’d been able to take more time developing the characters and their relationships.
Having never read the original short novel Noon Wine was adapted from, I’m not sure how far Peckinpah may or may not have deviated from the source material. Perhaps the story worked better in prose form.
On the Killer Elite audio commentary, the Peckinpah ‘experts’ spend a good deal of the track trashing the 1975 action flick as a misguided, occasionally interesting failure. And you know what? I tend to agree with that assessment, but at least The Killer Elite‘s entertaining. I’ve lost count of my repeat viewings of it over the last twenty-plus years it’s been in my video collection. It’s sloppy and silly, but it’s fun.
I’ll take Peckinpah’s late-career misfires and duds (The Killer Elite, Cross Of Iron, The Osterman Weekend, and, yes, even Convoy) over the respectably tedious Noon Wine any old day of the week.
It was a little disappointing to finally catch up to Noon Wine, after years of reading how wonderful it was, only to realize it didn’t appeal to me at all, but, hey, I bought the disc for The Killer Elite.
I used to believe I was a diehard Peckinpah completist.
Guess I was wrong.