Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Gravy Train (1974)

Though it possesses many of the qualities shared by the best oddball ’70s movies—brazen tonal shifts, eccentric flourishes, offbeat characterizations—The Gravy Train runs off the tracks very quickly. Among other problems, the film is primarily a comedy but it isn’t funny, and the picture’s main attraction is the buddy-movie dynamic of two characters who aren’t colorful enough to sustain interest, separately or together. So, while it’s very easy to parse the film’s underwhelming content and discern how the material could have been developed into something more worthwhile, the finished picture lacks emotional punch, narrative momentum, and wit; the only real virtues on display are competent technical execution and vigorous acting, but these arent enough to justify the chore of watching The Gravy Train. Alternatively titled The Dion Brothers, the movie is about—you guessed it—the Dion brothers, two schemers from West Virginia mining country. Calvin (Stacy Keach) is a flashy chatterbox who has gotten involved with big-city criminals, while Rut (Frederic Forrest) is a slow-witted bumpkin back in the old hometown. When Calvin joins a crew planning a big heist, he talks his employers into letting him bring Rut aboard—but after the heist goes south and the brothers realize they’ve been double-crossed, they seek out the gangster (Barry Primus) who betrayed them. Along the way, the brothers pick up a screechy floozy (Margot Kidder), who accompanies them through various adventures. Co-written by Terrence Malick (under a pseudonym), The Gravy Train is dull and plodding, from its underwhelming opening—Calvin stages one of the lamest take-this-job-and-shove-it tantrums in movie history—to its stupidly downbeat ending. Despite valiant efforts at creating enjoyable characterizations, Forrest, Keach, and Kidder are undercut at every turn by lackluster writing, and it says a lot that the most amusing moment in the picture involves Keach using a live lobster as a weapon.

The Gravy Train: LAME

Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Boy in the Plastic Bubble (1976)

          A sentimental favorite of many ’70s kids, this made-for-TV bummer fictionalizes the real-life experiences of two young men who were born without functioning immune systems, and were thus forced to spend their lives inside containment chambers. (The storyline features a single composite character.) Much of the picture’s appeal can be attributed to the participation of leading man John Travlota, who was already a small-screen heartthrob thanks to Welcome Back, Kotter; in fact, just a year after this movie was broadcast, Travolta made the leap to big-screen stardom with Saturday Night Fever. Seeing the virile Travolta reduced to emasculating captivity amplifies the movie’s themes of frustration and isolation, and it’s a safe bet millions of young ’70s girls wept during scenes of Travolta’s character suffering anguish because of his unique condition.
          The movie begins with a middle-class couple, Johnny Lubitch (Robert Reed) and Mickey Lubitch (Diana Hyland), celebrating the birth of a son—only to be told by their kindhearted physician, Dr. Gunther (Ralph Bellamy), that young Tod can’t leave his “plastic bubble” until a cure for his ailment is found. After some maudlin scenes of the Lubitches learning to connect with their child, plus a choking incident in which the infant nearly dies, the film cuts to Tod’s adolescence, when Travolta takes over the role. Living in an elaborate enclosure that’s akin to a Habitrail, Tod longs to be with other kids, especially his pretty next-door neighbor, Gina (Glynis O’Connor). He gets his wish, sort of, when he’s supplied with an airtight spacesuit that allows Tod to attend high school. Alas, his desire to breathe free air remains unsatisfied, so the question of how long Tod can suppress life-threatening urges creates a blunt sort of dramatic tension.
          Produced by prolific hacks Aaron Spelling and Leonard Goldberg, and directed by crowd-pleaser Randal Kleiser, The Boy in the Plastic Bubble is absurdly manipulative, a low-budget weepie built around a character who demonstrates saintly personal character. Yes, Tod talks about masturbating and he’s a wiseass during homeroom, but he’s essentially a lonely soul desperate for human contact. As a result, only the anger in Travolta’s performance keeps the piece from being totally saccharine—yet once the movie reaches its fanciful ending, any pretense to dramatic credibility gives way to melodramatic excess. Beyond its iffy virtues as a narrative, however, The Boy in the Plastic Bubble is beloved for its ’70s kitsch factor, from Travolta’s meticulously blowdried hairstyle to the casting of Brady Bunch dad Reed as Tod’s papa. Trivia buffs also note the significance of this project in Travolta’s life—Bubble helmer Kleiser subsequently directed Travolta in Grease (1978), and Travolta embarked on a love affair with costar Hyland, several years his senior, until her death from cancer in 1977.

The Boy in the Plastic Bubble: FUNKY

Friday, September 28, 2012

Midway (1976)

          This old-fashioned combat flick picks up where the great 1944 war drama Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo left off—Midway dramatizes one of the many retaliatory air strikes the U.S. and Japan exchanged following Japan’s initial 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. When the story begins, the U.S. Navy is struggling to replace ships destroyed at Pearl Harbor. When an intelligence officer (Hal Holbrook) intercepts communications suggesting the Japanese are planning to attack U.S. ships stationed at Midway Island—potentially a devastating repeat of Pearl Harbor—various officers spring into action preparing defensive maneuvers. Like 1970’s Tora! Tora! Tora!, this picture cuts back and forth between American and Japanese strategy sessions. In addition to humanizing the enemy, this technique lets viewers see how luck and tactical errors have as much bearing on military success as heroism and leadership.
          For instance, some of the best scenes take place aboard a Japanese carrier, where Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo (James Shigeta) wrangles with doubtful subordinates, resulting in indecisiveness. There’s some great stuff buried in Midway, but, unfortunately, lesser material is given the primary focus—the main storyline involves Captain Matt Garth (Charlton Heston), a strong-willed junior officer whose role in the battle is relatively inconsequential. The filmmakers waste gobs of time, for instance, on the melodramatic romance between Garth’s son and a Japanese-American civilian, which leads to trite discussions about race relations. Plus, once the bludgeoning air/sea battle gets underway, the movie introduces so many characters that text appears onscreen to identify new people.
          Even with these visual aids, however, it’s hard to track which ships are where, whose plane took off from which airstrip, and, for that matter, which side is winning. Still, before things get too hectic, Midway lets a handful of charismatic actors shine in showcase moments. Holbrook is a hoot as the excitable code breaker; Henry Fonda lends authority as the top U.S. admiral; Glenn Ford is effectively stoic as a soft-spoken naval commander; and Robert Mitchum plays an enjoyable cameo as a cranky admiral consigned to bed rest. (Cinema legend Toshiro Mifune essays a small role as Fonda’s Japanese counterpart, but his lines were dubbed into English by actor Paul Frees, the voice of Rocky & Bullwinkle villain Boris Badenov.) While these virtues arent enough to lift Midway out of mediocrity, any American war picture that resists the temptation to demonize the opposing side is inherently admirable.

Midway: FUNKY

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Making It (1971)

          When the lyrics of a movie’s opening theme proclaim, “Everybody’s busy learning yesterday, but I’m into tomorrow—that’s a better way,” you know you’re in for a dated Generation Gap story about a hip kid showing uptight adults what it’s all about, man. And while many movies of this stripe are unwatchable today, thanks to arrogant leading characters and pretentious themes, Making It is more worthwhile than its lurid title might suggest. The hero of the piece is Phil (Kristoffer Tabori), a high-school schemer who’s juggling sexual affairs with Debbie (Sherry Miles), a dim-bulb classmate, and Yvonne (Marlyn Mason), the horny wife of his gym coach. Meanwhile, Phil’s mom, Betty (Joyce Van Patten), is a lonely divorcée looking to start over with bland but reliable businessman Warren (Dick Van Patten), who happens to be married to another woman. The depiction of Phil’s home life explains why he finds monogamy overrated, but as the story progresses, Phil discovers the consequences of cocksmanship—he gets Debbie pregnant, runs into a hassle with Yvonne’s husband, and so on.
          Until his comeuppance, Phil is a self-aware operator who talks the talk of a disaffected ’70s rebel in order to court older women (sample pickup line: “That’s where it’s at, being honest with each other”). Yet the filmmakers ensure that we can always see the naïve young man beneath the swaggering façade. All of this may sound rather ordinary, and, indeed, Making It is a minor film in every way. However, the picture’s acting, direction, and writing are so smooth that Making It ends up exemplifying the entire post-Graduate genre. More importantly, the film follows its storyline to a logical conclusion instead of merely stirring up unresolved ambiguity.
          Tabori, the son of B-movie director Don Siegel, is strong in the leading role, effectively blending innocence with sass, and the supporting players are solid—the cast also includes Bob Balaban, as Phil’s snide crony, and David Doyle, as an exasperated administrator. Prolific character actor Lawrence Pressman is especially good as a teacher who sarcastically challenges Phil’s vision of kids leading the charge for social change: “I propose a new flag,” the teacher says at one point, “no stars, just acne.” A little much, sure, but it gets the point across. Interestingly, the film’s screenplay was penned by then-studio executive Peter Bart, who later gained fame as the editor-in-chief of Variety and as the host of various TV shows about showbiz. Nice to know he made a respectable effort during his brief tenure in the trenches of Hollywood’s creative scene.

Making It: GROOVY

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

          The Man Who Fell to Earth is arguably the climax of the downbeat sci-fi cycle that began with Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), because a year after The Man Who Fell to Earth was released, George LucasStar Wars steered the sci-fi genre back toward lighthearted escapism. Every frame of The Man Who Fell to Earth is depressing and weird, and the film presents a brutally nihilistic statement about the depravity of mankind: Over the course of the picture, an alien filled with noble purpose gets sidetracked by the earthly pleasures of alcohol, sex, and television, eventually becoming a desiccated shell of his former self and the cause of his home planet’s likely ruination. Nicholas Roeg, the cinematographer-turned-filmmaker who spent the first decade of his directorial career exploring bizarre intersections between alienation and carnal desire, takes The Man Who Fell to Earth into some very strange places via surrealistic images and sounds. Furthermore, singer David Bowie, who was cast in the leading role at the apex of his androgynous rock-god reign, delivers a performance so detached that he really does seem like a visitor from another planet.
          Working with screenwriter Paul Mayersberg, Roeg adapted this picture from a 1963 novel by Walter Tevis, best known for telling the story of fictional pool player “Fast” Eddie Felson in his novels The Hustler (1959) and The Color of Money (1984)—go figure. The story concerns one Thomas Jerome Newton (Bowie), an alien who travels to Earth because his own planet is suffering a drought. With an eye toward buying materials for a spaceship that can transport water back to his world, Thomas uses his space-age knowledge to create inventions that make him super-wealthy. However, he gets distracted when he meets a small-town hotel employee named Mary-Lou (Candy Clark), and they embark on a romantic relationship. Soon, Thomas becomes mired in drinking and screwing, so he doesn’t notice that one of his underlings, Dr. Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn), has discovered Thomas’ true identity. Nathan tells the government about Thomas just before Thomas tries to launch his spaceship, so government agents nab Thomas and secure him in a prison cell for experimentation and interrogation. That’s when the story gets really twisted, but the bummer events in the second half of the picture shouldn’t be spoiled.
          Aside from the inherently odd story and Bowie’s ethereal acting (the singer has acknowledged he was coked out of his mind during the whole production), what makes The Man Who Fell to Earth so peculiar is Roeg’s avoidance of conventional storytelling tools. Roeg obscures time relationships between scenes, so we experience the movie in as much of a blur as the characters; additionally, Roeg leaves several major story points unexplained. In fact, the very texture of the picture adds to this disorienting effect. Roeg uses heavy filters and other forms of visual distortion to heighten the strangeness of scenes, and jumpy editing creates an odd rhythm in which, say, a straightforward dialogue exchange might be juxtaposed with a phantasmagoric montage. Roeg also fills the screen with nudity and raw sex scenes, frequently jolting viewers into did-I-just-see-that reactions. Whether all of this gimmickry accentuates the story’s themes—or whether it’s all just impossibly pretentious—is a call for each individual viewer to make. What’s not open to debate is that The Man Who Fell to Earth is unlike any other sci-fi picture of the same era.

The Man Who Fell to Earth: FREAKY

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Support Your Local Gunfighter (1971)

          Recognizing that there was still an audience for the brand of smart-alecky Old West humor he perfected on the 1957–1962 TV series Maverick, leading man James Garner dove back into cowboy comedy with Support Your Local Sheriff! (1969), a harmless romp about an opportunistic quick-draw artist who becomes the lawman in a frontier town, despite his frequent claims that he’s just passing through. The movie didn’t leave much room for a sequel, since the final scene explained how the characters’ lives turned out, so Garner (whose company produced Sheriff and its sequel) took a novel route—he commissioned an entirely new story, with a fresh set of characters, but then used a similar title and much of the original film’s supporting cast, thereby promising audiences they’d get more of the same. This type of quasi-continuation was not unprecedented, particularly in family movies, because Disney used this technique to elongate several of its live-action franchises, and, indeed, Support Your Local Gunfighter is a G-rated trifle in the Disney vein (although it was a United Artists release).
          Garner plays Latigo Smith, a gambler on the run from a romantic entanglement with an overbearing madam. Hiding out in a mining town, Latigo runs various schemes—e.g., posing as the business representative for a gunfighter (Jack Elam) who isn’t really a gunfighter—but mostly he gets into harmless high jinks with colorful locals. The picture is chipper and fast-paced, with wall-to-wall cartoony music, and veteran character players including Henry Jones, Harry Morgan, and Dub Taylor ensure that everything feels safe and predictable. James Edward Grant’s script has a few witty lines, but the jokes are mostly of the painfully obvious variety. Case in point: The local vet (Taylor) indicates that his current patients are donkeys and says, “You got a pain in the ass, you come see Doc Schultz!” Leading lady Suzanne Pleshette grumbles her way through a drab performance as a tomboy, and Elam’s comedy chops mollify the fact that he’s playing yet another amiable cow-town grotesque. As for the star, Garner’s charm is peerless as always. Unfortunately, there’s not much difference between this picture and an average Maverick episode.

Support Your Local Gunfighter: FUNKY

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Electric Horseman (1979)

          Enjoyed for its surface pleasures, The Electric Horseman is a diverting romantic adventure servicing such quintessentially ’70s themes as the dangers of rampant corporate control, the exploitive nature of mass media, the nobility of nonviolent rebellion, and the travails of rugged individualism—it’s a popcorn movie offering ideas in addition to star power and visual spectacle. The title character is Sonny Steele (Robert Redford), a self-loathing former rodeo champion who works as a spokesman for a brand of breakfast cereal. Shuffling through a degrading life of personal appearances, photo shoots, store openings, and the like, Sonny is perpetually drunk and rarely on time or prepared, so he’s on the verge of getting fired from his cushy gig.
          Meanwhile, the corporation that employs him has adopted as its mascot a retired racehorse called Rising Star, which is valued at $12 million. When Sonny arrives in Las Vegas for an event at which he’s expected to ride Rising Star during a garish stage show, he realizes that the magnificent animal has been drugged to ensure compliance, which offends Sonny’s long-suppressed nobility. Strapping on his lightbulb-festooned costume—hence the movie’s title—Sonny climbs onto Rising Star’s saddle and rides the horse right out of a casino and into the surrounding desert, stealing the animal with the goal of setting it free. The purpose of this grand gesture, of course, is redeeming Sonny’s sense of honor and self-worth.
          Yet because this is a Sydney Pollack movie—the fifth of seven pictures the fine director made with his pal Redford—The Electric Horseman also includes a love story. Hallie Martin (Jane Fonda) is an ambitious TV reporter who spots Sonny’s bad attitude well before he steals Rising Star, and then dogs him once his actions elevate Sonny to folk-hero status. Eventually, Hallie joins Sonny on the trail and they evolve from idealistically opposed sparring partners to simpatico lovers. As sometimes happens in Pollack’s pictures, the romantic angle feels forced and unnecessary, partially because it slows the momentum of the main narrative and partially because the script contorts itself to make Sonny and Hallie equally interesting. Although Redford seems completely comfortable in his Western-iconoclast role, Fonda struggles to mesh the authentic and ersatz aspects of her contrived character. Worse, since the real love story in the movie is between Sonny and Rising Star—by escaping the corporate system together, they redeem each other—the Hallie character’s presence is ultimately superfluous.
          Nonetheless, The Electric Horseman is filled with glamorous filmmaking and terrific acting. Redford dominates, naturally, though Fonda seizes strong moments whenever she can, and crusty Western types including Wilford Brimley and singer-songwriter Willie Nelson (in his first dramatic performance) lend credibility. On a fundamental level, The Electric Horseman is hypocritical horseshit—an expensive studio movie railing against money-loving corporations—but somewhere amid the hollow posturing is a sweet fable about freedom.

The Electric Horseman: FUNKY

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Off-Topic: Retro TV Action-Adventure-Thon

          And now a brief message from the larger world of ’70s nostalgia—last weekend (Sept. 21–22), the fine folks at Warner Archive Collection, the DVD-on-demand imprint that’s made hundreds of obscure movies and TV shows available in recent years, held a fun event at the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills. The Retro TV Action-Adventure-Thon featured screenings of rare TV episodes, plus appearances by actors from cult-fave shows. Of special note for readers of this space were sessions with Patrick Duffy and Belinda J. Montgomery (pictured above in a photo by yours truly), who chatted about their short-lived series Man from Atlantis (1977–1978), and Michael Gray, who played Captain Marvel’s youthful alter ego in the Saturday-morning superhero show Shazam! (1974–1977). Others on hand were Ron Ely, of the 1966–1968 series Tarzan, and Clint Walker, of the 1955–1963 Western Cheyenne.
          Man from Atlantis kicked off the weekend. Duffy and Montgomery, both caustically funny, explained they were disappointed by the evolution of the franchise into a campy superhero show once it became a weekly series. (As noted here, the original pilot film is fairly serious in tone, with a plaintive quality absent from the weekly episodes.) While an episode titled “Melt Down” was screening, Duffy and Montgomery laughed broadly and even heckled the screen. After the episode finished, Duffy got onto his hands and knees and made for the door, as if he wanted to crawl away in embarrassment.
          Happily, he stuck and around and chatted with Montgomery and moderator William Keck for about 45 minutes, sharing droll stories about cheap producers, reckless safety risks, and the drudgery of filming a series that seemed fated for cancellation from its first weekly installment. (Only 13 episodes of Man from Atlantis were made.) It was fun to watch Duffy and Montgomery remind each other of colorful memories, since they hadn’t seen each other in 34 years; for instance, Duffy recalled that he often looked to Montgomery for approval after takes because she had years of experience when they made Man from Atlantis, whereas he was a newbie. Plus, what ’70s kid weaned on action shows could resist hearing Duffy discuss the beloved Man from Atlantis swimming style? “It was the most miserable way to swim you could possibly imagine,” Duffy said, adding that because of the contacts he wore to simulate his water-breathing character’s otherworldliness, he couldn’t see anything while performing underwater.
          The following evening, after Ely, Gray, and Walker made their appearances, the Retro TV Action-Adventure-Thon concluded with a screening of the notorious 1979 TV special Legends of the Super Heroes: The Challenge. One of two live-action programs Hanna-Barbera produced featuring DC Comics characters, The Challenge is epic in its awfulness. Adam West and Burt Ward reprise their ’60s Batman and Robin roles while delivering terrible one-liners in a cheap-looking one-hour program (shot on video) that’s half superhero adventure and half sitcom. (The Caped Crusader and the Boy Wonder are joined by the Flash, Green Lantern, and others while battling baddies including the Riddler, played, once again, by Batman fave Frank Gorshin.) Watching The Challenge is a challenge, but the thing is an amazing time capsule from a moment when the variety format ruled the airwaves. For brave souls, Warner Archive has released Legends of the Super Heroes on DVD, pairing The Challenge with The Roast, a spectacularly unfunny costumed-adventurer insult-fest. Ed McMahan hosts, believe it or not.
          In any event, the Retro TV Action-Adventure-Thon was a hoot, and it’s totally groovy that Warner Archive has preserved such esoteric programming for the curious and the nostalgic. DVDs available at include two Man from Atlantis sets (one with TV movies and the other with weekly episodes); a complete-series set of Shazam!; the Legends of the Super Heroes twofer; and sets of other shows featured at the event, from Cheyenne and Tarzan to The Herculoids and Superboy. Keep on keepin’ on, Warner Archive!

The Gore Gore Girls (1972)

Splatter-movie titan Herschell Gordon Lewis’ final flick before a 30-year directing hiatus, The Gore Gore Girls is pure cinematic sludge, leavened only by a lowbrow sense of humor—although the jokes don’t actually justify watching the movie. In the opening scene, a mysterious maniac attacks a stripper in her home, kills her, and then mutilates her corpse. As Lewis’ camera lingers to savor every detail, the murderer decapitates the woman, carves off her face, and pummels the bones and muscles of her skull into a pulp decorated by one intact eye. Since Lewis’ camerawork is as clumsily amateurish as his team’s makeup effects, this scene isn’t so much horrifying as unpleasant; there’s no illusion of reality, of course, but it’s hard to stomach the idea that Lewis thought such atrocities should be filmed. Once the story proper gets underway, attractive reporter Nancy Weston (Amy Farrell) hires aristocratic private investigator Abraham Gentry (Frank Kress) to search out the identity of the killer. Gentry plunges into the world of low-rent strip clubs (all the victims are exotic dancers), so Lewis gets to complement scenes of bloodletting with grungy vignettes of strippers plying their trade. Inexplicably, comedy legend Henny Youngman shows up as a strip-club proprietor, so Youngman delivers crude jokes like this one: “We just got the news that Tom Jones crossed his legs quickly—he’s in critical condition!” (Jokes about Jones’ reputedly impressive manhood were already growing mold by the time The Gore Gore Girls was filmed.) It’s hard to know whom The Gore Gore Girls was meant to please, since the comedy scenes undercut suspense and the murder scenes are so absurdly extreme the movie was originally rated X. However, one hopes Lewis was aiming for irreverence with touches like the title card that appears after the final scene: “We announce with pride—this movie is over!” Would that it had never begun.

The Gore Gore Girls: SQUARE

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Day of the Animals (1977)

          While it has a certain schlocky appeal, Day of the Animals is a significant comedown from director William Girdler’s previous critters-run-amok flick, Grizzly (1976). Whereas the earlier movie is a shameless Jaws rip-off, Day of the Animals is a mishmash of Hitchockian avian terror, eco-themed sci-fi, and generic “something is out there” spookiness. (The movie’s blunt alternate title? Something Is Out There.) The premise is that ultraviolet radiation released via ozone-layer depletion has transformed animals living at high altitudes into killers, which means a group of hikers on a remote mountaintop path become fodder for nature gone wild. The denizens of a town at the base of the mountain also fall prey to rampaging creatures. Day of the Animals features attacks by bears, birds, dogs, mountain lions, rats, snakes, and wolves, but these events are nonsensical—at some points, the picture suggests that animals have formed an army, and at other times, critters simply attack independent of each other. In other words, any old plot contrivance that helps endanger and/or kill a given character at a given time is acceptable to the filmmakers, who couldn’t care less about consistency.
          As with Grizzly, Girdler’s comin’-at-ya jolts and sturdy widescreen compositions ensure that Day of the Animals basically delivers the goods. Nonetheless, the movie runs out of gas far before its 97 minutes are through, although there are a few campy highlights. For instance, the bit in which rats leap from a turkey carcass like tiny acrobats is particularly goofy. The movie’s “best” moment, however, is the climax of Leslie Neilsen’s performance as one of the hikers—crazed with fear and hunger, Neilsen strips to the waist, screams about how he’s the god of his own life, impales a fellow hiker with a walking stick, tries to rape another hiker, and wrestles a bear. Good times. Christopher George plays the rugged leader of the hikers, and his gritted-teeth performance is entertainingly cheesy, while Richard Jaeckel plays it straight as a professor. Also present are B-movie fave Michael Ansara (playing the movie’s resident Native American) and actress/animal handler Susan Backlinie, best known as the skinny dipper in the opening sequence of Jaws.

Day of the Animals: FUNKY

Friday, September 21, 2012

The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover (1977)

          The most startling thing about The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover is that it’s not particularly startling. Presented as an exposé of the legendary lawman who led the FBI from 1935 to 1972, writer-producer-director Larry Cohen’s docudrama compiles a portrait that’s equal parts gossip and history, but never quite commits to a viewpoint. For instance, the movie dramatizes the rumors that Hoover was gay—an explosive revelation if true, given the G-Man’s willingness to blackmail political figures with evidence of their sexual habits—but Cohen never takes a firm position on whether Hoover and his longtime assistant, Clyde Tolson, were lovers, as many suspected. Similarly, Cohen shows that Hoover was merciless in his crusade against communists, to the point of obsessive paranoia, but Cohen also presents giants including Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. as being equally devious. This makes Hoover seem less unique and therefore less worthy of examination. Furthermore, Cohen’s biggest narrative leap—depicting Hoover’s alleged use of material in his “secret files” for blackmail purposes—merely rehashes familiar facts such as the Kennedy family’s association with mobster Sam Giancana. Sure, it took balls for Cohen to make this movie just five years after Hoover’s death, but the lack of a strong perspective makes The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover muddled, even though it’s brisk and entertaining.
          While Cohen’s filmmaking is as sloppy as ever, that’s all to the good in this context; shaky cinematography and ugly lighting create a sense of footage captured on the fly, suiting the spy-game milieu. However, iffy performances dull the intended impact. Star Broderick Crawford, a 1949 Oscar winner for All the King’s Men, was far from his prime when he made this picture. Large and unhealthy-looking, he sometimes seems like he’s being filmed during a rehearsal, because his acting is weirdly disconnected. (That said, he springs to life during a tense scene with fellow veteran Celeste Holm, whose character attempts to seduce Hoover.) Thanks to the film’s choppy editing, tracking the arcs of supporting characters is challenging—people are introduced poorly and then disappear for long stretches—but a couple of actors figure prominently. Dan Dailey is somewhat bland as Tolson, but Michael Parks delivers a colorful turn as Bobby Kennedy, and Rip Torn lends cynical edge as a G-Man who tangles with Hoover. (Others in the large cast include Howard Da Silva, José Ferrer, John Marley, and Lloyd Nolan.) Ultimately, The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover is middling, but it’s noteworthy as the most serious-minded entry in Cohen’s filmography, which is dominated by cheerfully trashy drive-in fare. (Available as part of the MGM Limited Collection on

The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover: FUNKY

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Harry in Your Pocket (1973)

          Nimble ensemble acting and sprightly direction give the character-driven crime picture Harry in Your Pocket humanity and vitality. Exploring the dynamics dividing and uniting a quartet of thieves who roam the U.S. and Canada, picking pockets and living in high style wherever they travel, Harry in Your Pocket is the only movie that Mission: Impossible creator Bruce Geller ever directed, and it’s a shame he never built upon the film’s promise. Particularly when he’s orchestrating tricky scenes, Geller displays great confidence with camerawork, performance, and storytelling. As a result, he creates a cohesive vibe in which every major character presents a surface of self-serving pragmatism in order to hide that greatest of weaknesses in criminal enterprise—compassion.
          Michael Sarrazin, his gangly masculinity as oddly appealing as ever, plays Ray, a small-time pickpocket plying his trade in a Seattle train station. His would-be victim, Sandy (Trish Van Devere), realizes he lifted her watch and then confronts him, but in so doing leaves her purse and suitcase unattended. When those items are stolen (by someone else), Ray feels responsible and offers to pay for her passage out of Seattle—just as soon as he fences loot for the necessary cash. So begins an offbeat romance, with Ray discovering vulnerability through his affection for Sandy and Sandy discovering a rebellious streak through her affection for Ray.
          Eventually, these two learn that a veteran thief named Harry (James Coburn) is looking for assistants, so they meet with Harry and his older associate, Casey (Walter Pidgeon). Harry’s a cocky crook prone to dictatorial declarations, but Ray accepts the humiliating work circumstances because he’s eager to learn from a master. Thus, Ray and Sandy become “stalls” responsible for distracting victims while Harry—the crew’s “cannon”—makes the “dip” (theft) and immediately deposits the “poke” (loot) into Casey’s hands. Because, you see, “Harry doesn’t hold,” and never keeping stolen goods in his hands for more than a few seconds explains why he’s never been arrested.
          Revealing the mechanics of a covert crew plays to Geller’s strengths, so he accentuates the effervescent rhythms of the movie’s script, which was written Ronald Austin and James Buchanan. Plus, the storyline ends up having a smidgen of emotional heft, because while Ray and Sandy grow into their new roles as first-class robbers, Harry’s icy professionalism is compromised by the development of personal connections. The pefectly cast actors dramatize these nuances well, because Coburn exudes macho standoffishness while Pidgeon radiates elegant likeability, with Sarrazin representing hotheaded youth and Van Devere adding grown-up sexiness. One could quibble that Harry in Your Pocket lacks the climactic payoff of a big heist sequence—the denouement is as understated as the rest of the picture—but the movie has abundant charms nonetheless, however humble they may be. (Available as part of the MGM Limited Collection on

Harry in Your Pocket: GROOVY

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Landlord (1970)

          Following his glorious run as an innovative film editor in the ’60s, hippie artiste Hal Ashby graduated to directing with The Landlord, an overly ambitious but thoroughly admirable comedy-drama about race relations. Beau Bridges, effectively blending innocence and impetuousness, plays Elgar Winthrop Julius Enders, a 29-year-old gentleman of leisure living on his wealthy family’s estate just outside New York City. Half-heartedly deciding to form an identity separate from his blueblood clan, Elgar buys an apartment building in a ghetto neighborhood on the verge of gentrification, imagining he’ll boot out the black tenants and create a groovy bachelor pad. Yet upon discovering the tenants’ vibrant community, Elgar becomes more interested in bonding with his new acquaintances than evicting them.
          So begins a sensitive exploration of a dilettante’s journey through white guilt—after recovering from the shock of seeing how poor African-Americans live, Elgar gets involved with two different black women. Elgar’s mystified by the life experiences of Lanie (Marki Bey), a light-skinned exotic dancer ostracized for not being “black enough,” and he’s bewitched by Franny (Diana Sands), a gorgeous hairdresser married to hot-tempered activist Copee (Louis Gossett Jr.). Even as Elgar juggles these romances, however, there’s underlying tension because everyone recognizes that Elgar can escape the troubles of the inner city any time he wants by returning to the comfort of his family’s estate.
          Written by Bill Gunn from a novel by Kristin Hunter, The Landlord is filled with knowing moments, although the story sprawls in such a way that the main themes become somewhat diffused. For instance, the movie spends a great deal of time developing the character of Elgar’s mother, Joyce (Lee Grant), and the most dynamic scene in the picture is Joyce’s drunken lunch with one of Elgar’s tenants, no-bullshit fortune teller Marge (Pearl Bailey). Clearly, Joyce is meant to represent the out-of-touch Establishment against which Elgar is rebelling, but Joyce’s scenes feel tangential.
          Compensating for The Landlord’s storytelling hiccups are terrific performances and a wonderful sense of atmosphere. Working with master cinematographer Gordon Willis, Ashby creates a loose, naturalistic quality in every scene; Willis ensures that the movie is both aesthetically beautiful and convincingly gritty. As for the actors, Bridges gets blown off the screen by costars at regular intervals, but in a way, that amplifies the movie’s message—the world beyond Elgar’s insular experience is so vibrant that he must grow as a person if he wishes to truly belong. The complex resolution of Elgar’s journey underlines that he still has a long way to go on the road to maturity even as the closing credits roll. (Available as part of the MGM Limited Collection on

The Landlord: GROOVY

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Passage (1979)

          Yet another lurid adventure flick set in occupied Europe during World War II, The Passage is mildly fascinating for what it lacks—depth and restraint. The plot is so thin that it can be described in one sentence without excluding any significant details: Members of the French resistance ask a farmer living near the French-Spanish border to help an American scientist and his family reach safety while a psychotic SS officer chases after them. That’s the whole storyline, give or take a couple of incidental characters, and the preceding synopsis also describes nearly everything we learn about the characters. Especially considering that the script was written by a novelist adapting his own work—a gentleman named Bruce Nicolaysen—it’s astonishing to encounter a narrative this underdeveloped.
          Furthermore, director J. Lee Thompson, a veteran who by this point in his career seemed content cranking out mindless potboilers, lets actors do whatever the hell they want. In some cases, as with sexy supporting player Kay Lenz, this translates to bored non-acting, and in others, as with main villain Maclolm McDowell, the permissiveness results in outrageous over-acting. Alternating between bug-eyed malevolence and effeminate delicacy, McDowell presents something that’s not so much a performance as a compendium of bad-guy clichés; he’s entertaining in weird moments like his revelation of a swastika-festooned jockstrap, but it seems Thompson never asked McDowell to rein in his flamboyance.
          That said, The Passage is quite watchable if one accepts the movie on its trashy terms. The simplistic plot ensures clarity from beginning to end (notwithstanding the lack of a satisfactory explanation for the scientist’s importance), and Thompson fills the screen with energetic camerawork, nasty violence, and, thanks to Lenz, gratuitous nudity. It should also be noted that leading man Anthony Quinn, who plays the farmer, invests his scenes with macho angst, and that costar James Mason, as the scientist, elevates his scenes with crisp diction and plaintive facial expressions. (The cast also includes Christopher Lee, as a gypsy helping the fugitives, and Patricia Neal, as the scientist’s frail wife.) Even more noteworthy than any of the performances, however, is the gonzo finale, during which Thompson’s style briefly transforms from indifferent to insane—for a few strange moments, The Passage becomes a gory horror show. (Available as part of the MGM Limited Collection on

The Passage: FUNKY

Monday, September 17, 2012

Leo the Last (1970)

          British filmmaker John Boorman’s early career is dominated by intense action movies, from Point Blank (1967) to Deliverance (1972), but his initial output also includes some pictures so odd they approach surrealism. Leo the Last is the first such Boorman feature. Based on a George Tabori play titled The Prince, the film explores what happens when a modern-day European aristocrat returns to his family’s mansion in London after a long absence, only to discover that the streets surrounding the building have become a ghetto. The broad strokes of the storyline are simple: Prince Leo (Marcello Mastroianni) is a recluse who’s bewildered by the outside world, the craven machinations of his household staff, and the empty affections of his ambitious fiancée, Margaret (Billie Whitelaw). Therefore, Leo spends his days in an upstairs room, watching poor black neighbors though binoculars. Eventually, he develops sympathy for his neighbors’ difficult lives, so he leaves his mansion to offer assistance—an action that, naturally, upsets sycophants who value Leo’s passive status quo.
          While the story is straightforward, however, Boorman’s execution is anything but. Seemingly intent on replicating Federico Fellini’s dreamlike visual style—the presence in Leo the Last of Fellini collaborator Mastroianni is probably not coincidental—Boorman fills the screen with weird imagery. At its most overtly Fellini-esque, the movie descends into a silly orgy scene with grotesque characters mugging for the camera. Similarly, Boorman spotlights a bizarre health ritual involving naked people bouncing up and down in a pool, and the director zeroes in on unattractive, undulating body parts photographed through the distortion of underwater lenses. The excess also manifests in offbeat subplots, with Leo’s mysterious aide, Laszlo (Vladek Sheybal), organizing some sort of militaristic cult in the basement of Leo’s mansion. (Radical politics permeate the film, which can be interpreted as a somewhat trite collectivist tract.)
          Yet the movie’s oddest element is actually the protagonist’s characterization—Leo is one of those inexplicable freaks found only in the minds of overindulgent storytellers. Although Maastroianni’s handsome, healthy appearance suggests otherwise, Leo is portrayed as a terrified innocent who can’t communicate with other people, so Leo spends most of the movie looking perplexed when bad things happen, even whimpering impotently while observing assaults, a heart attack, and a rape. It’s therefore impossible to buy into Leo the Last as a credible narrative. Plus, with all due respect, Boorman’s admirable aspirations to metaphorical heft quickly descend into pretentious silliness. Nonetheless, some find greater virtue in this peculiar film than others; among other accolades, the movie received a Best Director prize at the 1970 Cannes Film Festival. (Available as part of the MGM Limited Collection on

Leo the Last: FUNKY

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

          The saga of horror auteur George A. Romero’s career is filled with copyright disputes, editorial interference, and financial shenanigans, so even the release of his most successful film, Dawn of the Dead, has weird baggage. For instance, Romero first delved into the zombie genre with his acclaimed debut, Night of the Living Dead (1968), an indie success that fell out of Romero’s hands and into the public domain. When he returned to the genre for this film, he wasn’t authorized to create a proper sequel, so made a loosely related follow-up—and whereas Night is a contained thriller with a small cast, Dawn is epic by comparison.
          Ostensibly picking up where Night left off, even though no characters recur from the first picture, Dawn begins mid-action: Frenzied technicians at a Philadelphia TV station cover the story of a worldwide zombie outbreak, because some unknown X factor has caused the deceased to climb from their graves and feast on the living. Eventually, TV staffers Francine (Gaylen Ross) and Stephen (Dave Emge) flee their station. Meanwhile, two S.W.A.T. cops, Peter (Ken Foree) and Roger (Scott Reiniger), survive a horrific raid on a zombie-infested apartment building and join the TV staffers to escape Philadelphia by helicopter. The foursome selects an abandoned shopping mall as a potential fortress, realizing they can barricade the doors, kill the zombies already inside, and then help themselves to abundant supplies.
          The choice of the mall as the film’s principal location is the genius contrivance of this movie, a satirical flourish that separates Dawn of the Dead from lesser gorefests. In trying to explain why zombies flock to the mall, the heroes surmise that the urge to shop is so ingrained in the American character that even death can’t suppress the consumerist call. Furthermore, the heroes go on several “shopping sprees,” usually punctuated with zombie kills, putting a dark spin on the American dream of unfettered materialism. Even the nasty plot twist Romero introduces late in the movie—a gang of vicious bikers invades the mall—feeds into his cruel lampooning of modern-day excesses.
          Speaking of excess, Dawn of the Dead achieved instant infamy during its original release not just for Romero’s ingenious storyline, but also for the outrageous gore that permeates the movie. Makeup man Tom Savini (who also appears onscreen as the leader of the bikers) contrived realistic simulations of beheadings, disembowelments, dismemberments, gunshots, knife wounds, and even exploding heads, filling the screen with enough viscera to nauseate a butcher. Some fans love this stuff because it’s so over the top, but for those not indoctrinated into the cult of bloody movies, Dawn of the Dead is rough going. (To avoid an X rating, Romero released the movie unrated in the U.S.)
          Adding another interesting wrinkle to Dawn of the Dead is the participation of Italian horror-cinema madman Dario Argento, who served as a creative consultant and also provided the film’s twinkly electronic music. As part of his deal, Argento got to re-edit and rename the movie for international release, so his version—much shorter than Romero’s—is called Zombi. In fact, multiple versions of Dawn of the Dead exist, with the longest sprawling across three hours.
          In any event, Dawn of the Dead was a box-office success, so Romero continued his zombie cycle with Day of the Dead (1985) and other sequels. However, Romero’s pictures should not be confused with the spoof Return of the Living Dead (1985) or its sequel, Return of the Living Dead Part II (1988); similarly, 1990’s Night of the Living Dead is merely a remake of the original picture. To make things even more confusing, Dawn of the Dead was remade by director Zack Snyder in 2004, and a sequel to the remake is reportedly in the works—even though Romero is still making follow-ups to the 1978 movie.

Dawn of the Dead: GROOVY