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Billy Two Hats DVD Review

Billy Two Hats (1974) movie poster Billy Two Hats

Theatrical Release: March 20, 1974 / Running Time: 100 Minutes / Rating: PG

Director: Ted Kotcheff / Writer: Alan Sharp / Producers: Norman Jewison, Patrick Palmer

Cast: Gregory Peck (Archie Deans), Desi Arnaz Jr. (Billy Two Hats), Jack Warden (Gifford), David Huddleston (Copeland), Sian Barbara Allen (Esther), John Pearce (Spencer), Dawn Little Sky (Copeland's Squaw), W. Vincent St. Cyr (Indian Leader), Henry Medicine Hat (Indian), Zev Berlinsky (Indian), Antony Scott (Indian)

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The 1974 western Billy Two Hats pairs up Academy Award-winning actor Gregory Peck (To Kill a Mockingbird) and sitcom royalty offspring Desi Arnaz Jr. (the son of Lucille Ball and, you guessed it, Desi Arnaz).
Peck plays Scottish outlaw Archie Deans and Arnaz Jr. is his half-Indian titular partner, Billy Two Hats. These are criminals on the lam, but they're the good guys and the movie wants to make sure you know it. And so, we don't see the deadly bank robbery they recently pulled off which has the law on their trail.

The film opens with young Billy's capture by Sheriff Henry Gifford (a Yosemite Sam-ish Jack Warden). Gifford isn't all bad, but he's not huge on due process, offing their accomplice in the melee. The marshal brings handcuffed Billy to the residence of friend and saloon owner Copeland (a solid David Huddleston, The Big Lebowski) and his Indian wife (Dawn Little Sky). The following dawn, aging but sharp Arch shows up and frees his friend, shooting Gifford nonfatally and getting shot long-distance in the getaway.

Notorious outlaw Archie Deans (Gregory Peck) comes to the rescue of his arrested friend Billy Two Hats. Billy Two Hats (Desi Arnaz Jr.) thoughtfully drags his injured old partner along with him.

While pursued by Gifford and his newly sworn-in deputy Copeland, Billy and Arch try to avoid capture, with the wounded latter dragged in a perambulator. The fugitives run into a threatening band of Apaches and then agree to get a wagon ride to safety from a shrewd rancher named Spencer (John Pearce).

Billy Two Hats takes steps to ensure your sympathy stays with Billy and Arch, giving other characters pronounced racist and sexist attitudes. Half-breed Billy's mixed ethnicity reduces him to second-class status and Gifford only calls him "breed." Meanwhile, Copeland doesn't respect his squaw (even giving away their "breed" son) and Spencer is even worse, hitting his wife Esther (Sian Barbara Allen, John-Boy's first love on "The Waltons") when she stutters. We later learn that she was bought in St. Louis for the same fee Spencer is charging Arch for a ride.

The design excuses any wrongdoing by Arch and Billy, who only act in self-defense as far as we see. Unfortunately, the film is pretty transparent in its manipulations and doesn't give us much reason beyond process of elimination to sympathize with Arch and Billy.

With his mind clearly elsewhere, Marshal Gifford (Jack Warden) nonchalantly swears in eager deputy Copeland (David Huddleston). Spencer (John Pearce) has a really nice way of treating the stutter of his purchased wife Esther (Sian Barbara Allen): he hits her in the face.

Twenty years old during production, Arnaz Jr. came primarily from television, specifically playing his mother's son on the first three seasons of "Here's Lucy", Ball's third sitcom by chronology and popularity. That background may excuse his unpolished and inconsistent performance, although he did precede this film with the lead role of the Marco Polo biopic Marco.

On the other hand, Peck wasn't lacking experience, with thirty years of film acting to his name. That may be the problem. Offers and/or interest seemed to have been drying up for the 57-year-old consummate professional, with this being his first screen appearance in three years.
Peck assumes a Scottish accent with little conviction and it is more distracting than anything else. His heart doesn't appear to be in it and yet Arnaz doesn't even meet him halfway to give their two leads the chemistry sought.

While the film is passable but slow for much of its runtime, its conclusion decidedly disappoints, insulting intelligence with its misjudged turn-of-events. Even so, the film's offenses and adequacies alike are swiftly forgotten.

Perhaps then it is no surprise that the DVD format has existed for fourteen years without Billy Two Hats gracing it in the US. That recently changed when the movie became part of MGM's Limited Edition Collection, one of the growing number of made-to-order programs that have movie studios seeking to cut retail costs and standard touches to turn profits on largely unloved catalog fare. Like the pioneering Warner Archive Collection, MGM and distributor 20th Century Fox have released this movie on a DVD-R, charging a bit more for a slightly lesser presentation.

Billy Two Hats DVD cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com DVD Details

1.66:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Dolby Digital Mono 2.0 (English)
Subtitles: None; Not Closed Captioned
Release Date: March 15, 2011
Single-sided, single-layered DVD-R (DVD-5)
List Price: $19.98
Black Keepcase
Also available on Amazon Instant Video

VIDEO and AUDIO

Par for manufactured on demand product, the disc's unskippable opening disclaimer preps you for the worst: "This film (sic) has been manufactured using the best source material available." And yet, Billy Two Hats doesn't look all that bad here.
It is presented in 1.66:1 widescreen and enhanced for increasingly standard 16:9 screens. The picture is darker than desired and it doesn't have the sharpness and detail of modern DVDs. But compared to, say, a turn-of-the-millennium studio effort, the presentation is acceptable. The film's pale, faded look is not uncommon for its era and genre. For the most part, the element itself remains pleasantly clean. If the American West looks a little different than you've seen it elsewhere, that could be because the movie was shot in Israel.

Sound is expectedly offered in basic Dolby 2.0 mono. It is sufficient, no better or worse. There isn't a great deal of action and music to enliven the film, but most of the dialogue is perfectly intelligible. Unfortunately but not unusually, neither subtitles nor closed captions are offered here.

A shirtless 20-year-old Desi Arnaz Jr. has a gun pulled on him in the title-displaying theatrical trailer. Your options are limited on this MGM Limited Edition Collection DVD's main menu.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS and PACKAGING

The DVD includes Billy Two Hats' overlong original theatrical trailer (3:56). If you're going to offer just a single extra, this is the right one. It's enhanced for 16:9 screens, to boot.

The disc's only menu displays cover art and two options, "play movie" and "trailer." As it explains, you can use the chapter skip buttons to navigate the movie in 10-minute intervals. As I see it, timing chapter stops to fadeouts and creating scene menus would have required little time and even less effort.

The standard keepcase's artwork is plainer than general retail product, as is the disc's simple text on gradient label. Both are noticeably different from the usual, but are professional enough.

Handcuffed to a stake, Billy (Desi Arnaz Jr.) patiently awaits his freedom. Wounded or not, here come the bullets of Archie Deans (Gregory Peck). Blau!

CLOSING THOUGHTS

My interest in Billy Two Hats lied not in the genre and not in Canadian director Ted Kotcheff (who would go on to direct Rambo's introduction First Blood and Weekend at Bernie's), but in Gregory Peck, an actor I greatly admire for a few great films I've seen him in. There isn't much to celebrate about Billy Two Hats or about Peck's performance in it. I'm sure there are far worse 1970s westerns, but this third-rate production is not remarkable or memorable in its own right. If you disagree, and this Peck-Arnaz Jr. flick holds a place in your heart, you won't be too disappointed by MGM's made-to-order DVD. The quality and playback features are lesser and the price higher than they would be in general retail. But the serviceable 16:9 presentation will suffice those long hungry to revisit this film.

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Reviewed April 28, 2011.



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