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FROM THE COLLECTION: JOHN CASSAVETES’S A PAIR OF BOOTS (1962)

May 28, 2014  |  Collection & Exhibitions, Film
From the Collection: John Cassavetes’s A Pair of Boots (1962)

New York–born actor/director John Cassavetes (1929–1989) began working in early episodic television while directing his first feature film, Shadows, which officially opened in March 1961 in New York City. Concurrent with the production of Shadows, Cassavetes starred in and directed 27 episodes of the early television crime drama Johnny Staccato (which was filmed in Los Angeles but set in a Greenwich Village jazz club), in which he played the title role, a jazz pianist/private detective. Johnny Staccato ran from 1959 to 1960. While MoMA’s Department of Film does not actively collect works made for television, we are interested in selectively representing in the collection key broadcast works by artists whose career was primarily forged in the cinema. For this very reason, a 35mm print of A Pair of Boots was acquired for the collection in 1994.

In the early 1960s Cassavetes directed two episodes of The Lloyd Bridges Show: A Pair of Boots (1962) and My Daddy Can Lick Your Daddy (1963). This series, produced by Aaron Spelling, ran from September 1962 through May 1963, with Bridges appearing as Adam Shepherd, a journalist who becomes the main subject of each inventive episode. In A Pair of Boots, on a visit to a historical society to view objects of Civil War ephemera, Shepherd starts a conversation with a school boy who is staring at a pair of cavalry boots. The boy, wearing a cap with a confederate flag emblem, tells Shepherd that his own father is suffering terrible foot pain from all the walking he did in World War II. There was never any rest, he goes on to say, before being pulled away by his teacher. Shepherd becomes fascinated with the pair of gleaming boots, repeating “no time for rest…no time for rest…no time for rest…” as, in quasi–Twilight Zone style, squiggly white lines on the screen and Theremin-like music signal that we are now being taken into a realm of the unknown.

In a scene clearly shot on a sound stage, we meet a ragtag group of Confederate soldiers huddled behind a split-rail fence while just a few feet away, crouching in a ditch, is an equally fetid-looking Union company, both sides having agreed to a temporary truce in order to pick up their wounded and dead. Bridges convincingly plays Otis, a Southern schoolteacher who has taken up a rifle for the Confederacy. Otis and his compatriot Jonas scout the field and mercifully give water to a dying Yankee. Jonas, who has extraordinarily large feet and has been asking the quartermaster for new boots, notices the boots on the mortally wounded Yank, and wants to try them on. Otis pushes him away and says no because the boots are too small and, more importantly, it would violate the unwritten code of conduct among soldiers that frowns upon stealing from the wounded and insists that you take only what you need from the dead. Otis returns the dying soldier to his Union compatriots and there is an exchange of thanks among enemies. Night falls and the two parties agree to an overnight ban on shooting as they are all exhausted, having not had uninterrupted sleep for weeks. A Union soldier offers to trade his ration of coffee to someone on the Confederate side for tobacco.

In these small moments of action and discourse, Cassavetes, who is best known for his intimate work with actors, extracts detailed and humanity-filled passages. A transitory comment about Otis’s past as a teacher establishes why the other men in his troop—mainly illiterate farmers and boys—hold him up as a leader. In another rich moment, a grizzled Confederate soldier has nothing to offer in a trade for tobacco other than a knife. The Union soldier asks him if he ever killed a Yankee with the weapon. Despite being desperate for a smoke, the Confederate admits that he had, and walks away. This subtle and wretched conversation reveals a depth of truth, emotion, and personal history, without adding much verbiage to the script. Cassavetes was masterful in the quiet moments of the many films he directed, where the pauses between the words were just as powerful as anything written in the script.

John Cassavetes (left) with Peter Falk in Mikey and Nicky. 1976. USA. Written and directed by Elaine May

John Cassavetes (left) with Peter Falk in Mikey and Nicky. 1976. USA. Written and directed by Elaine May

The episode continues with a desperate Jonas crawling across the battlefield one night on a pitiful mission to steal a pair of gleaming, handmade boots he spied on one of the Yankees—the man had earlier rebuffed Jonas’s offer to trade a silver picture frame containing a photo of his sweetheart. The Yankee laughed off the offer, joking that he might consider it if the lovely young lady were part of the deal. With his diminished pride, aching feet, and irrational mind working overtime, Jonas ambushes the Yankee and kills him for his boots. As he makes his way back to his camp, Jonas is discovered and the truce ends. Gunfire erupts and there are many casualties. A father (played by Seymour Cassel—a longtime member of Cassavetes’s acting coterie) and his son (Beau Bridges), both part of the Union company, immediately engage in the gunfire. The father rushes toward the battle and the son is struck by a bullet. Only moments before, during the truce, when the boy was talking across the field to a Confederate playing the harmonica, we had seen how young, childlike, and unsullied the boy was in spite of the war. Cassavetes’s precision as a director draws you into these unpretentious histories that may at first seem like inconsequential bits of information, but reveal themselves to be the building blocks of a complex narrative.

‪Lelia Goldoni and Anthony Ray in Shadows‬. 1959. USA. Written and directed by John Cassavetes

‪Lelia Goldoni and Anthony Ray in Shadows‬. 1959. USA. Written and directed by John Cassavetes

A Pair of Boots is indeed an allegory for the madness of war. When Otis pulls the dying Jonas over to a clearing, the audience is shown the sole of the boots and they are worn through with holes. The squiggly white lines and Theramin music return us to Adam Shepherd in “real time” at the Civil War exhibition. He is about to pick up the boots to check their soles but, shaking his head, he sets them down and walks away.

One year later John Cassavetes directed a second episode of the Lloyd Bridges show, My Daddy Can Lick Your Daddy, written by Robert Towne (the screenwriter of 1974′s Chinatown) and starring Bridges and Lelia Goldoni, who went on to costar in Shadows (pictured at left).

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