Pocket Money is the best of the three major films to which Terrence (credited here as Terry) Malick contributed as a writer before the completion and release of Badlands (1973). I’m looking at it here primarily from the angle of his involvement.
First slated for Martin Ritt, it was eventually directed by Stuart Rosenberg (Cool Hand Luke , The Pope of Greenwich Village ) as one of the the flagship productions of the First Artists company formed by Paul Newman, Barbra Streisand, Sidney Poitier and Steve McQueen – an enterprise (which ran until 1980) designed to give these actors greater creative input on their projects. In 1972 alone, Sam Peckinah’s The Getaway, John Huston’s The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean and Irvin Kershner’s Up the Sandbox were all from the First Artists slate.
Based on J.P.S. Brown’s 1970 Jim Kane, Pocket Money is Malick’s only other literary adaptation (alongside The Thin Red Line in 1998) to have so far reached the screen (among other unproduced adaptations is that of Walker Percy’s 1961 classic The Moviegoer). Brown’s entire literary output is devoted to tales of modern cowboy life. Certain of his preoccupations and motifs – outdoor labour, men’s taciturn and laconic way of communicating, the comedy of cross-cultural misunderstandings – anticipate key elements in certain of Malick’s films. In some ways, his adaptation of Brown – disregarding most of its detail but expanding sometimes offhand phrases (such as “He just said that he believed in the old saying that them that has must lose”, p. 54) into the major part of a scene (see below) – is ingenious, and on par with the way he mined Charles Starkweather’s documented confessions in Badlands, or, later, Vachel Lindsay’s poetry in The New World (2005).
In a 2001 interview with American Western Magazine (no longer online), Brown recalls being none too happy upon reading the first draft of the script (possibly the credited “adaptation by John Gay”), but he came to reckon that Malick had retained enough of his book’s flavour to render it satisfactorily. He did, however, find that that the finished film “demeaned the Mexicans. The book wasn’t about that at all”.
Like the other scripts that Malick worked on at the start of the decade, Deadhead Miles (Vernon Zimmerman, 1972) and The Gravy Train (aka The Dion Brothers, Jack Starrett, 1974 – Malick here travelling under the pseudonym of David Whitney), Pocket Money is a deliberately rambling, loosely wound comedy. Its keynote is whimsy (moments of incipient violence are always defused into light farce), and its essential subject is male friendship.
Jim (Paul Newman), a cowboy down on his luck, travels to Mexico on a mission to buy cattle and transport it back across the border to his shady boss, Bill (Martin Strother). Jim’s accomplice in dealing with the Mexicans is Leonard (Lee Marvin), a low-level operator who often finds himself embarrassed by Jim’s inappropriate comments and outbursts. (As a comedy of embarrassment and humiliation, the film anticipates Jon Favreau’s urban crime tale, Made ).
In some sense, the two men never really become friends – as with Kit (Martin Sheen) and Holly (Sissy Spacek) in Badlands, Jim and Leonard form a strange bond through the sheer force of “hanging together”, despite the mutual irritation, incomprehension and non-synchronisation that shapes all their scenes together. Philosophically-minded Malick fans (there are hordes more of them with each passing year!) wheel in, at this point, a weighty reflection, via Stanley Cavell, Robert Pippin and other film-inclined thinkers, on the “unknowability of other minds”.
More knowably, Pocket Money is fascinating as a well-developed, early example of Malick’s particular way with spinning a fiction (which will become especially evident with Days of Heaven in 1978). There are very few events or moves in the story, no surprises or twists, no mounting tension or suspense. The motor of the story unfolds as a successive number of simple questions: Will Jim accept Bill’s offer of work? Will he be able to buy enough cattle in Mexico? Will he get them across the border? Will he be paid? Certain conventionally expected complications and intrigues evaporate almost as soon as they arise: Jim gets out of jail immediately after his trouble with border police; Leonard doesn’t betray him by taking over his business deals; a likely love interest involving the “queen” of the local Mexican community disappears after two scenes.
As in The Thin Red Line, there is only a single narrative set-up – i.e., a plot detail planted so that it can be used at a crucial moment later on in the story – which is the money belt ostentatiously displayed by Bill to Jim in an early scene. The film takes its sweet time with exposition: it is over 20 minutes before Marvin as billed co-star is introduced. At the narrative’s conclusion – after the anti-heroes have meandered to Mexico and back with the horde of animals – we are left suspended, Jim wondering aloud to Leonard, beside a railroad line, whether Bill will be able to pay him and whether he should bother to ring to find out.
Before that, a wonderfully poignant scene introduces us, in an artfully incidental way, to Jim’s ex-wife Sharon (Kelly Jean Peters), who appears only in this exchange. Jim begins talking to a woman who is serving customers at a drive-in diner, and it is only when she mentions alimony that we twig to the nature of their past bond.
Malick is an outstanding writer of screen dialogue – especially between ordinary people, whose depiction he appears to be especially committed. (On the set of The Thin Red Line, Malick told Jim Elliot, a reporter from the James Jones Literary Society: “I like his work. He wrote about people from North Carolina, from Texas. He just didn’t write about people from New York and the East Coast”.) Many of Jim’s lines in the film might have come (with due adjustment) from Kit’s mouth in Badlands: “I don’t know what’s coming next, but I’m not even listening” (later varied to: “I don’t even have to think about what I’m going to say next, which is no”); “We’re divorced, if you want to use the technical term”; “When you’re layin’ all this stuff on some girl, she must know that you’re doin’ it when you’re doin’ it?”; “You just can’t buy your way out of a bad impression” – or Leonard’s classic: “I’m talking about the end look of the thing”.
The dialogue in Pocket Money goes around and around in circles of bemusement, reticence, befuddledness and zany philosophical reflection. It proceeds via much dumb repetition and posing of questions. Jim is one of Malick’s self-made, auto-didact thinkers – and much of the film’s humour comes from his difficulty in ever making himself heard or understood. Jim’s incessant talk often also puts him behind the eight ball of any power play – he invariably talks himself into a position of passivity, as in this early exchange with Bill:
Jim: I met a fella –
Jim: Well, that’s not the end of the story.
Bill: What’s the end of the story?
Jim: Well, you’re a cheater, he says. You’re not all that honest.
Bill: You got an opinion about that?
Jim: Well, I got a private view.
Bill: What is this private view?
Jim: Oh, I think not.
Bill: Why do you ask, then?
Jim: Oh, I don’t know. You gotta trust your first impressions.
Bill: Fine, fine.
Another exchange between Jim and Leonard, picking up the former’s difficulty in ever telling a story successfully, offers a parody of the typical laid-back, night-time, campfire scene beloved of Westerns – only to end in a surreal register typical of Malick’s dialogue inventions.
Jim: Listen, once there was this old man –
Jim: Well, that’s not the end of the story. There’s this old man, and he had an old plough, and an old mule, and an old dried-up prune of a wife, and a little shack … And well, one day that mule just up and died on him. And you know what he said, Leonard? He said: “Them that has, must lose”.
Leonard: Joker, huh?
Jim: No, he was serious. Them that has, must lose.
Leonard: Who do you think he was foolin’?
Jim: He was just expressing a point of view, Leonard.
Leonard: Well, he was a joker, then.
Jim (exasperated): Well, he was there in the scene, Leonard! He’d know what to say!
Pocket Money is essential viewing for Malick devotees but, as a film, it falls far short of his own directorial debut unveiled a year later. Rosenberg’s mise en scène comes to life only in those close, group clinches where embarrassment rules and the characters turn away from each other in little explosions of shame or agony. While Newman’s performance is channelled primarily through language, Marvin’s is more overtly physical, replete with the splendidly ungainly slouching, lunging and gesticulating movements this actor made into his signature.
For the most part, however, Pocket Money has a bland, telemovie ambience – which is not helped by Alex North’s unsubtle “comedy” score, one of the hardest things of all to compose and utilise effectively in narrative cinema.
© Adrian Martin 2002