The Scalphunters Sydney Pollack

It's not saying much to declare something Sydney Pollack's best film, but there's no denying that this early Western effort is miles ahead of anything he's done since. Burt Lancaster plays an illiterate fur trapper who's traded his pelts — at sword point — for an educated slave (Ossie Davis) he doesn't want. But when he tries to steal his booty back from the Indians who nabbed it, he's beaten to the punch by some scalping outlaw swine led by Telly Savalas. The pelts, of course, are the convenient MacGuffin for Lancaster and Davis to have a tête-à-tête on the subject of race, with the wrinkle being that the slave is smarter than the would-be master. And once Davis allies himself with the gang's caravan to Mexico, and thus freedom for slaves and outlaws alike, things become rather complex. Don't expect miracles from this movie, which top-bills Lancaster even though Davis gets more screen time and insists on the leads' equality in intolerance in order to get white liberals off the hook. Still, it gives Davis a more central role (and a less patronising one) than he normally would receive and can be fairly inventive on the script level, especially when pitting the "out of his element" city slave with the pointlessly tenacious bush hunter. Unlike other Pollack efforts, it lets the action do the talking rather than the speeches and doesn't pound you over the head with the message, leaving you to draw the arrows and conclusions yourself. And with its refusal to equate blackness with ignorance and whiteness with intelligence, it's pretty damn good for 1968 and, depressingly, even better for now. (MGM)