I’ve only rode on a motorcycle a few times in my life. All of those times were when I visited a small island called Selat Panjang. It’s a part of Indonesia and there are no automobiles there. So, everyone gets around via motorcycle, bicycle, or ricksha. There’s also a lack of traffic laws,so being the passenger on the back of a motorcycle, piloted by a 15-year old, dodging chickens and other livestock was quite an adventure. I don’t know that I could ever bring myself to being a motorcycle enthusiast along the lines of the characters in today’s film. It’s probably one of the most overlooked films in Robert Redford’s career…1970’s Little Fauss and Big Halsy.
Redford plays Halsy Knox, a motorcycle racer who travels around the southwest looking for the big payoff. At one race, he meets up with a timid man named Little Fauss (Michael J Pollard). Folks just call him “Little” for short. Little is quite handy when it comes to fixing bikes, but is not quite as skilled at riding them, though he desperately wants to be. After Halsy tricks Little into fixing his bike for free he proposes an arrangement where the two would hit the road together. See, Halsy has been banned from racing due to an alcohol-fueled incident, but he figures he can race under Little’s name and all will be well. Despite the objections of Little’s parents, Little heads off with Halsy.
The two end up doing quite well for themselves on the racing circuit. However, Halsy doesn’t exactly treat his loyal mechanic in the nicest fashion. The relationship is tested, though, when a third party enters the group, a lovely lady named Rita Nebraska (Lauren Hutton). Eventually Little decides to return to his parents’ home and starts training to become a racer. Meanwhile, Halsy must deal with responsibility as Rita ends up pregnant. It all leads up to a showdown between Little Fauss and Big Halsy in a big race.
To be honest, there’s not a lot that happens in Little Fauss and Big Halsy. The film kind of meanders along for most of its 99 minute running time, but I still found it to be a very engaging film. Both Redford and Pollard turn in excellent performances. In most of Redford’s films he usually comes off as a likable guy, even if his character is not exactly a nice guy. Here he’s just a jerk. There’s nothing likable about him, but the performance really sucked me in. Pollard, on the other hand, is often cast as lovable losers. He certainly starts this film like that, but his character goes through a big change as the film moves forward. By the end, Little has become a very strong and confident character. It’s a nice change of pace to not have Pollard spend the whole picture hanging his head and half-whispering his lines.
Beyond the acting, those who do take a big interest in things with wheels and motors will find a lot to enjoy in this film. The race scenes are both well crafted and yet appropriately rough around the edges. Director Sidney J Furie strikes a nice balance between the drama and the motorcycle action. In some ways the film feels like it should’ve come out of a studio like American International Pictures, but the performances are way stronger than most AIP efforts. Along the way we get to see a variety of different types of motorcycle races, including sidehacking, which I only knew about prior to this because of an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 which featured a film called The Sidehackers.
Another highlight of the film is a down and dirty soundtrack album spearheaded by none other than Johnny Cash. If that’s not impressive enough, several of the songs were written by Carl Perkins. I’m actually streaming the via Spotify as I write this. It’s definitely worth a listen.
On a whole, Little Fauss and Big Halsy has been one of the nicest movie surprises I’ve had this year. It’s got a simple little story with intriguing characters brought to life through some skillful performances. Yet that biker film vibe is never lost. I guess you could call it a bike-sploitation flick with a heart of gold.
Note: Little Fauss and Big Halsy was recently released on DVD and Blu Ray by Olive Films. Thanks so much to them for letting us check out the film.