From Noon till Three: Charles Bronson and Jill Ireland bring their endearing real-life chemistry to this delightful rom-com Western

From Noon till Three (1976) is an amusing romantic comedy set in the old-west. The film, directed by Frank D. Gilroy from his own novel, stars the real-life husband & wife team of Charles Bronson and Jill Ireland.

Charles Bronson and Jill Ireland met for the first time in 1963 when Bronson was filming “The Great Escape”; at the time, Ireland was married to Bronson’s costar and best friend, David McCallum. Bronson was immediately smitten with Ireland and even bragged to McCallum that he ‘will marry his wife’ someday. Bronson’s prophesy came true in 1968 when Ireland divorced McCallum and married Bronson. Together they had a daughter, Zuleika, and adopted a daughter, Katrina. Apart from these two, they had five other children from their previous marriages. Bronson and Ireland were one of the most devoted couples in Hollywood- both on and off screen; they made 15 films together and stayed married till death stole Ireland from Bronson. Ireland was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1984, and she would die in 1990. She was cremated and her ashes were placed in a cane which Bronson had buried with him at Brownsville Cemetery when he died in 2003. Of all the fifteen films they made together, the 1976 film, “From Noon till Three,” is the most special; mainly because in most of their films together Bronson holds the center stage; Ireland played mainly supporting (or even bit) roles; someone whom Bronson falls in love with while on a break from all the shooting, fighting and killing- which is what he was called onto do in the majority of his films; but in this film, not only are they playing a full-fledged romantic couple with the film totally revolving around them, but Ireland also has the more important role; Bronson is not exactly a supporting character, he’s still the hero, but Ireland’s role is the one that drives the film. Obviously, the film was a loving gift from Bronson to Ireland, and I don’t think Bronson would have done this film if any other actress was playing the female lead.

The film is also very special for portraying Bronson in a never before (or never since) seen avatar as well. Bronson, one of the greatest macho action stars of all times, is presented as a romantic comic actor, and as it turns out, Bronson is really good at being a whimsical romantic. The film takes place in the old-west, and Bronson plays bank robber, Graham Dorsey. But unlike other Western outlaws that Bronson has played in his career, Dorsey is a coward and a cad. The film begins with Dorsey having a nightmare in which the gang he’s riding with is wiped out during the robbery attempt. This scares the hell out of him and, the next day, when he and his gang actually set out to rob the bank in the town of Gladstone, Dorsey is seriously looking for a way out of this ‘operation.’ To his good fortune, his horse comes up lame. As a result the group continue on their way with him riding double until they get to a large mansion an hour or so from the town. The mansion is occupied by a stately young widow named Amanda Starbuck (Jill Ireland); and when the gang inquires about buying a horse from her she politely tells them that there are no horses in the stable, only cows. Doubting her response, the gang sends Dorsey out to check the barn. Dorsey finds Amanda’s pet horse in the stable, but since he is no mood to join the gang in the robbery, and he’s already smitten with Amanda, he comes back and reports to the rest that the noise they heard was indeed that of a cow and there are no horses in the stable. Since Dorsey cannot come with them, the gang decides to leave him at Amanda’s mansion with the intention of robbing the bank and returning in a few hours.

Amanda is relieved and indebted to Dorsey for backing up her lie in front of his gang. She believes he did it out of chivalry and invites him inside. But once inside the house, Dorsey’s real nature surfaces, as he forces himself on Amanda. Amanda responds by lying still in the bed fully clothed, neither resisting him nor participating in the lovemaking. A defeated Dorsey tries another ruse: he pretends that he has been impotent since his wife’s death and after meeting Amanda he has started developing ‘feelings’ again. The ruse works and Dorsey and Amanda ends up making love; at the end of which Amanda seems to have fallen in love with him. And as time passes, they get closer and closer; they go out and have a picnic in the meadows; then return to have a sumptuous dinner; and then dance to Amanda’s music box, with Dorsey wearing Mr. Starbuck’s old tuxedo and Amanda dressed up in a regal red ballroom gown. Now totally in love with Amanda, Dorsey makes plans to go straight and get into banking business. Amanda is originally from Boston, and now she proposes that she and Dorsey move back there- which Dorsey accepts.

But their idyll is soon broken when a local boy comes with the news that bank robbers from Dorsey’s gang were caught and were going to be hanged in town that afternoon. Amanda begs Dorsey to ride out to town and save them, but Dorsey, who’s too much of a coward to continue with this outlaw life and has been trying to get away from the gang, thinks this is a way for him to be able to stay with her. But Amanda, who is under the illusion that she has fallen in love with a daring and dashing outlaw who’s staying with her only out of love for her, continues coercing Dorsey to rescue his comrades. Finally, after much coercion, he decides to play along and rides out, intending only to have a long nap in the meadow. But his plans are shattered when he rides headlong into the posse that’s come looking for him. Dorsey eludes them when he comes upon a traveling dentist, Dr. Finger, exchanges clothes with him at gunpoint, and steals his horse and wagon. The unfortunate Dr. Finger is taken for Dorsey and shot dead. The posse, recognizing Mr. Starbuck’s horse and tux, bring the body back to the Starbuck ranch. Amanda, seeing what she thinks is Dorsey ‘s body faints. But Dorsey does not get away clean: it turns out Dr. Finger was a quack, and the first person Graham encounters after his escape was one of Dr. Finger’s dissatisfied customers. He is put into prison on a year-long sentence for Dr. Finger’s crimes.

Meanwhile, Amanda is ostracized by the townsfolk for colluding with Bank robbers, but an impassioned speech in the town square by her – declaring her true love for Dorsey- turns the townsfolk in her favor. Not only that, the Graham Dorsey – Amanda Starbuck love story spreads far and wide; they become as legendary as “Rome & Juliet” with novels, plays and even songs (set to the tune of Amanda’s music box.) written about them and their great unrequited love. Amanda herself participates in writing a book – named “From Noon till three”; indicating the time Dorsey and Amanda spend together – about their eternal love in which she exaggerates their characteristics and the events surrounding their courtship. Dorsey reads the book while in prison and is quite amused to see himself portrayed as a tall, handsome, daredevil Southern gentlemen. After he is released from prison, Dorsey goes back to Gladstone, and is surprised to see that the obscure town has now become a hot tourist destination. Tourists coming from outside are given guided tours of Amanda’s ranch; where Amanda warmly receives the visitors and sign copies of her book. Dorsey takes one of these guided tours and lands up at Amanda’s doorstep. Amanda does not recognize him, and even after Dorsey narrates intimate details of their affair, she refuses to acknowledge him- saying that he got all those information from the book. Finally, Dorsey ‘pulls out’ something she did not mention in the book, and Amanda is stunned to realize that Dorsey is still alive. Dorsey wants to immediately go to Boston and start their life together- exactly the way they had planned before. But Amanda has other ideas: the romantic that she is, she has totally fallen in love with their legend, and is now determined not to destroy it at any cost. A tense standoff ensues between the sly bandit and the determined lady, which leads to an unexpected twist worthy of “Romeo & Juliet.”

“From Noon till Three” could be considered a whimsical cousin of “The Man who shot Liberty Valance.” In that dark, revisionist Western, director, John Ford, proudly proclaimed that “This is the West, When legend becomes fact, print the legend.” In this film, writer\director, Frank D. Gilroy builds an elaborate satire on how ordinary folk were transformed into folk heroes & legends in the old-west; and the extend to which these people would go to preserve that legend. Gilroy was a Pulitzer prize winning dramatist and novelist, and the film is based on one of his own novels. It’s very rare that a novelist gets to direct a film adaptation out of his own novel (apart from Michael Crichton, i don’t think anybody else got to convert a lot of their novels into films). A novelist directing a film version of his novel is both an advantage and a disadvantage- and both are very visible in this film. First the downsides: since the novelist-director is more script\word-oriented, they often lack a keen visual sense and technical expertise to realize the full ‘movie’ potential of the novel. You could see here that the direction is very basic: just placing the actors in the middle of the frame in long static shots; there is hardly any interesting framing, or much texture in the visuals. Therefore, the film looks like a staged play or an episode from a cheap western TV series (the film was completely shot on standing sets on the Warner Bros. studio lot, so that also contributes to that). A really good director would have made this film fly on all fronts; the film – part romantic-fantasy, part Western-farce – provided immense possibilities for using innovative visual language in telling this story, but the quality of the filmmaking remains average to below-average throughout. This is despite the fact that the film is photographed by the great (Sam Peckinpah regular) Lucien Ballard; he does his best to bathe the film in rich colors and give it a dreamy feel, but the filmmaking is really flat and there’s nothing he can do to overcome that. Apart from that Gilroy lacks discipline in condensing his material to fit the conventional structure of a movie. As he’s also the novelist, he’s too much in love with his words, and just doesn’t know when to let go. The prologue and, especially, the epilogue goes on too long. The final scenes of the film, especially after that one big final twist, depicting Dorsey’s continued frustration at not able to reclaim his identity, are a slog. That kind of writing is fine in a novel, but on screen it looks very repetitive. At least, The film is blessed with a terrific score by (the great Western music maestro) Elmer Bernstein, who manages to mix the romantic and farcical elements of the story into a traditional Western score. The score manages to pep things up when the narration lags.

Now for the upside: the literary value of the novel is not drained, and the essence of the novel as well as its complicated structure with its tightrope walk between a rom-com and a farce, is well transferred to the screen. Also, the novelist who wrote a novel named “From Noon till Three” converting it into a movie of the same name in which the heroine writes a novel named (yep!) “From Noon till three” in which her love story is immortalized in a hyperbolic way adds a nice ‘meta’ dimension. The characterizations and the performances of the actors also turns out to be really good- which I believe is on account of the novelist being the one constructing the screenplay and he’s right there with the actors to guide them through their characters and answer any questions. This accomplishment is particularly noteworthy because Gilroy is working with actors like Bronson and Ireland who have a reputation of being stiff and wooden. Bronson has done his share of strange, oddball films\characters: from “House of Wax” to “The White Buffalo.” But this must be his oddest: he’s at his funniest and most charming here, delightfully sending up his macho western\action-hero image; he gets to be a coward, a cad faking impotency, an imposter losing his identity, and finally landing up in a mental asylum; It’s a great commentary on the disconnect between how people\actors\stars are in their real-life and how they are portrayed in literature & film. Also, the usually stone-faced, taciturn actor talks a lot, expresses himself freely and get to do the waltz; he even dresses up in a tailcoat, top hat and a cane à la Fred Astaire- a sight to behold. Ireland is also up to the challenge of playing Amanda Starbuck, who is a cross between ‘Miss Havisham’ from Dickens’ “Great Expectations” and ‘Norma Desmond’ from Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard.”- She starts out as a young widow living in a Victorian mansion in the middle of nowhere surrounded by articles of her dead husband, and ends up as a women driven to madness in her attempt to protect her legend.

Obviously, the best moments in the film are the scenes between Bronson and Ireland; Since most of the film is a two-character piece, the film depends completely on the chemistry of these two actors. Both Bronson and Ireland glows and grows in each others company. I really think that it’s because they were acting with each other that they could give such full and expressive performances. Their real-life affection and devotion for each other spills onto the screen in every frame they are in. Ireland looks gorgeous in those period costumes, and she has no problem carrying the film on her shoulders, with Bronson providing ample support. But film audiences in 1976 were in no mood accept Bronson in this avatar , or this oddball film. The film released just a couple of years after “Death Wish” turned Bronson into a superstar in America, and audiences were expecting more shootings & killings from Bronson, not whimsical comedy. The film is one among a series of Westerns that Bronson made in the 70s, starting with “Red Sun” and ending with “The White Buffalo.” This film was also part of a bunch of films that Bronson made in the mid 70s in which he tried to experiment with his screen roles and take his career into a different direction; but all these films were commercial failures, and he was back to doing what the audiences wanted him to do. Still, “From Noon till Three” is a little gem that demands revisiting & repeat viewings, especially for its ambitious storytelling and the performances of it leads.

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