Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Great Scout & Cathouse Thursday (1976)

An idiotic farce set in the Old West, this embarrassing misfire stars two of cinema’s great offscreen drunkards, Lee Marvin and Oliver Reed. Yet while Marvin’s role as a frontier schemer is in the vicinity of his Oscar-winning Cat Ballou wheelhouse, Englishman Reed is embarrassingly miscast as an inebriated Indian, mugging his way through a cringe-inducing performance complete with grotesque body makeup. The overstuffed storyline involves con men Sam (Marvin), Joe (Reed), and Billy (Strother Martin) trying to strong-arm money out of their former partner in crime, Jack (Robert Culp), who hid his criminal past to begin a career in politics, but of course Sam, Joe, and Billy are too stupid to properly manipulate their slick confrere. Hardy-har. For no particular reason, Joe kidnaps a bevy of whores from the titular cathouse, including one he names Thursday (Kay Lenz), and for no particular reason, she falls for the decades-older Sam. The lecherous nonsense eventually leads to a protracted chase scene, with the heroes driving a jalopy across the desert while—oh, who cares? This is one of those “madcap” comedies in the vein of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), with incessant slapstick noise thrown at the audience instead of actual jokes; virtually everyone gets punched in the face at least once, even Elizabeth Ashley, who plays Culps wife. So rather than being amusing, The Great Scout and Cathouse Thursday provides the painful experience of watching actors who deserve better marking time in drivel. One hopes Marvin and Reed at least had fun imbibing their paychecks. (Available as part of the MGM Limited Collection on

The Great Scout & Cathouse Thursday: LAME

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1972)

          Despite having been in movies since the heyday of the studio era, Robert Mitchum delivered several of his most interesting performances in the ’70s, probably because his don’t-give-a-damn acting style meshed comfortably with the naturalistic filmmaking methods that were in vogue at the time. One of the best examples of this synthesis between the right actor and the right moment is The Friends of Eddie Coyle, a soft-spoken crime picture about a sad-sack Boston hoodlum faced with the awful choice of going to prison for an interminable sentence or snitching on his lowlife friends.
          Utilizing the actor’s hangdog face and world-weary carriage to great effect, director Peter Yates employs Mitchum as the visual foundation for a rich portrait of going-nowhere criminality. Character actors Peter Boyle, Richard Jordan, Steven Keats, and Alex Rocco surround Mitchum with vivid performances laced with ambition, avarice, paranoia, and sociopathic violence; Boyle is particularly good as an operator working several self-serving angles at once. So even though the storyline meanders through beats that are familiar to fans of the crime genre, deeply textured acting gives the piece dimension and humanity.
          In one of the best scenes, Mitchum meets with a cocky gun dealer (Keats) in a coffee shop to discuss an illicit arms deal. Bruised by a lifetime of bad experiences, Mitchum brandishes his deformed mitt and explains that making a deal with the wrong guy in the past led to getting his hand broken, thus explaining his reluctance to accept Keats’ overconfidence at face value. Yates shoots the scene simply, with long lenses angled over the actors’ shoulders, creating a level of docudrama realism that’s emulated throughout the picture. As a testament to Yates’ focus on meticulous dramaturgy, the film’s quiet conversation scenes often have as much punch as its highly charged bank-robbery sequences. The action stuff works just fine, however, like the bits in which hoodlums use their favorite trick—holding a bank manager’s family hostage so he doesn’t get heroic ideas during a robbery.
          The Friends of Eddie Coyle has a subtle power that isn’t immediately evident on first viewing, since the plot isn’t clever and the payoff is more logically inevitable than inexorably tragic, but it’s hard to think of another crime film from the same period with as much artfully rendered nuance.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle: GROOVY

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Lovin’ Molly (1974)

          Unlike the two celebrated Larry McMurtry adaptations that preceded it, the melancholy Hud (1963) and the wrenching The Last Picture Show (1971), Lovin’ Molly captures some of the author’s unique style but lacks any discernible narrative momentum. It doesn’t help that both the lead role and the director are miscast. Tart urbanite Anthony Perkins isn’t the least bit persuasive as a simple-minded Texas cowpoke, and diehard New Yorker Sidney Lumet has no idea how to shoot wide-open spaces, resulting in some of the dullest movie images ever made of Lone Star State locations. The rangy story spans 1925 to the mid-’60s, and the filmmakers unwisely use the same actors to play the protagonists in all of these time periods, leading to lots of clunky old-age makeup toward the end.
          When the movie begins, free-spirited Texas girl Molly (Blythe Danner) courts two farm boys, Gid (Perkins) and Johnny (Beau Bridges). Meanwhile, she’s wooed by a third local, Eddie (Conard Fowkes). Molly makes no secret of the fact that she’s sleeping with all of them, which causes consternation for Gid and Johnny: They can’t decide which of them should propose, because neither wants to give up their open invitation to Molly’s bed. While the boys vacillate, Molly inexplicably marries Eddie. Yet even that change doesn’t crimp her style, because while married to Eddie, she conceives children with both Gid and Johnny. And so it goes throughout myriad long dialogue scenes and carnal vignettes, none of which do much to clarify the characters, because the narrative events in Lovin’ Molly comprise a long, monotonous march toward an inconsequential ending.
          The biggest problem is an ineffectual screenplay by Stephen J. Friedman, who produced not only this film but also The Last Picture Show. In his sole screenwriting endeavor, Friedman fumbles at trying to cinematically replicate the delicate rhythms and subtle emotional undertones of McMurtry’s storytelling. As a result, Lovin’ Molly starts awkwardly, since Friedman doesn’t give the narrative enough focus out of the gate, then ambles endlessly, because he doesn’t know how to define the importance of events relative to each other.
          Therefore the only rewarding elements of the film are the utterly authentic frontier jargon, presumably transposed wholesale from McMurtry’s book, and the acting. Despite his miscasting, Perkins puts across a strong petulant vibe that works more often that it doesn’t, and Bridges and Danner are both easy and natural. Among the film’s other players, the strongest is ’50s/’60s TV stalwart Edward Binns, who gives a muscular performance as Gid’s cantankerous father, especially when feasting on crisp monologues filled with crusty aphorisms.

Lovin’ Molly: LAME

Monday, March 28, 2011

Pocket Money (1973)

          So leisurely it frequently abandons momentum in favor of easygoing vignettes, this pseudo-Western starring Paul Newman and the incomparable Lee Marvin is notable as the last screenwriting credit Terrence Malick notched before launching his celebrated directing career. Although Malick is not the sole writer on the picture, Pocket Money strongly reflects his observational approach, most notably in the piquant dialogue of everyday American losers. So, for instance, when Newman boasts that “If anybody cheats me, I'm gonna hit him with a Stillson wrench and shove him in a coal hopper,” the line is not only resonant Americana but also an echo of similar wordplay in a previous Malick-scripted picture, Deadhead Miles (1972). As directed by unobtrusive journeyman Stuart Rosenberg, Pocket Money puts the delicate textures of Malick’s writerly voice front and center, albeit to the dismay of viewers who value a strong narrative over local color—even calling this movie “slight” would promise more substance than it actually delivers, although that’s not meant as a derogatory remark.
          Newman and Marvin play contemporary cowboys whose guilelessness makes them easy prey for a sleazy rancher (Strother Martin, naturally), and the picture tracks the misadventures of the cowboys as they try to earn, cajole, and finally coerce money from their resourceful tormentor. The plot is insignificant, however, because what makes this sleepy piece interesting for patient viewers is the way the leads savor the homespun dialogue. Newman pours on the charm he perfected in his many Southern-fried hits of the ’60s, and Marvin displays the same gift for cornpone comedy that won him an Oscar for Cat Ballou (1965). Martin, though operating well within his self-described “prairie scum” comfort zone, complements the stars nicely as the villain, and M*A*S*H guy Wayne Rogers contributes an unexpectedly randy turn. So while Pocket Money generates very little excitement in the sense of traditional narrative, it offers lots of personality.

Pocket Money: FUNKY

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Valentino (1977)

          The life of silent-screen star Rudolph Valentino would seem ideal for biopic treatment. In addition to the usual rise-and-fall drama associated with any actor’s career, the narrative is infused with sex because Valentino was the greatest heartthrob of his time, driving legions of female fans insane with lust. The same elements that make the story attractive for cinematic treatment invite excess, however, so when producers Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler teamed with flamboyant British filmmaker Ken Russell, they were asking for trouble. Sure enough, Valentino is loud, silly, and vulgar, stringing together real and imagined episodes from Valentino’s life to create an adolescent fantasy about a superstud driven by supersized passions.
          The picture begins at the actor’s funeral, and each time one of his past lovers approaches the casket, the film flashes back to Valentino’s involvement with that woman. And even though Valentino is relatively tame by Russell’s standards, it’s outrageously lurid and stylized compared to any normal Hollywood movie. Using the fashion excesses of the Jazz Age as their inspiration, Russell and his team fill the screen with decadent décor and ridiculous costumes, ensuring that every frame is suffocated in art direction. Some of the sets are spectacularly beautiful, particularly the interiors of mansions toward the end of the picture, but when characters are walking around with capes the length of swimming pools and hordes of native bearers, it’s clear that historical accuracy wasn’t the guiding aesthetic.
          Again opting for style over substance, Russell cast the lead roles brazenly, to the picture’s detriment. The stunt casting at the heart of the film is the appearance of celebrated Russian ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev as Valentino. Appropriately enough for a story about a silent-film star, the gimmick almost works when the character doesn’t speak, because Nureyev is darkly handsome and his physical grace is spellbinding. Russell plays to the performer’s strengths by accentuating Valentino’s origins as a dancehall gigolo, so Nureyev gets to perform in a variety of dance styles, and his movements are wonderful to watch. Yet the spell is broken whenever he speaks, since Nureyev has a thick Russian accent made even more difficult to understand by his weak attempt at mimicking Valentino’s Italian accent. He ends up sounding a bit like Bela Lugosi, which is more than a little bit distracting. Nureyev is also a terrible actor, mugging his way through scenes with bulging eyes and campy hand gestures.
          As Valentino’s first important patron, narcissistic silent-screen star Alla Nazimova, Leslie Caron is equally bad, giving a performance so cartoonish that it enters the realm of Norma Desmond surrealism. Pop singer Michelle Phillips, of the Mamas and the Papas, is marginally better as Valentino’s second wife, Natacha Rambova, a would-be auteur who derails her husband’s career with her megalomania, but Phillips can’t make Russell’s florid style or the script’s purple-prose dialogue seem credible.
          Beyond the bad acting, what really sinks the movie—or sends it into the I-can’t-believe-I’m-watching-this stratosphere, depending on how you get your cinematic kicks—is Russell’s unhinged dramaturgy. Almost pathologically incapable of restraint, Russell turns everything into an excuse for grotesquerie or opulence, if not both simultaneously. The movie’s sex scenes are laughable, like the lavishly choreographed nude romp with Nureyev and Phillips in a desert tent, echoing Valentino’s signature role in The Sheik (1921).
          In the picture’s most outrageous scene, Nureyev ends up in jail on a bigamy charge—but not just any jail, an over-the-top Ken Russell madhouse. As harpy-like hookers claw at Valentino from the next cell, freakazoid inmates including a toothless masturbator stalk him within the cell until he trips and falls into a giant pile of vomit, and then a malicious guard (Bill McKinney) pokes Valentino’s stomach until the actor, who has been denied bathroom privileges, urinates in his pants. Ken Russell: always a class act. (Available as part of the MGM Limited Collection on

Valentino: FREAKY

Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Last Porno Flick (1974)

          If the making of an adult movie strikes you as unlikely subject matter for a PG-rated comedy, then you’ve realized one of the many reasons why The Last Porno Flick isn’t just unwatchably dull, but also inherently pointless. A cheaply made “comedy” about two cab drivers who decide that producing a skin flick will make them rich, this dreary movie is too tame to attempt the raunchy humor its premise suggests, and too sleazy to provide the family-friendly entertainment its rating promises. Really, what audience could there possibly be for a movie about porn without any salacious content? Obviously, the filmmakers didn’t set out to make an unfunny comedy, but if they had any illusions of reaching a broader audience by making vanilla jokes about the porn industry, then they were as deluded as their lead characters, because the jokes are so lame that they barely merit a reaction on first mention, then go on endlessly as the filmmakers beat one dead horse after another.
          For instance, cab driver Tony (Frank Calcanini) tricks his ultra-religious mother-in-law, Mama Theresa (Carmen Zapata), into investing by telling her he’s making a religious movie instead of smut. Soon afterward, Mama Theresa and a gaggle of her equally devout friends go to church, where they chat reverently about Tony’s movie project while the pastor delivers a fire-and-brimstone sermon against pornography. Yawn. Every character in this movie is a demeaning cliché, from the bimbo actress who stars in the porn movie because she’s told it has “redeeming social values” to the queeny camera assistant who flits around the set.
          The acting is across-the-board terrible, with Tom Signorelli’s one-note stoner routine as the porno flick’s hippie-dippie director the only quasi-amusing performance. Although familiar actors like Marianna Hill (Medium Cool) and Michael Pataki (Rocky IV) appear in the cast, they deliver work as uninspired as the material. So in short, The Last Porno Flick lacks laughs, sex, and smarts, making it an even greater waste of film than the never-seen movie-within-the-movie, The Temptations of Synthia—because at least The Temptations of Synthia presumably delivers the goods.

The Last Porno Flick: SQUARE

Friday, March 25, 2011

Satan’s School for Girls (1973) & The Initiation of Sarah (1978)

          Two of Hollywood’s favorite lowbrow fascinations intersect in these craptastic telefilms, both of which depict the troubles that befall coeds whose dorms are fronts for Satan-worshipping cults. College girls and cultists: Two great tastes that taste great together. Produced by schlockmeister Aaron Spelling, Satan’s School for Girls is the real howler of the pair, cramming all sorts of shock-cinema gimmicks and gobs of kitschy ’70s-ness into a runtime that barely reaches 80 minutes; everything about the movie is so goofy that Satan’s School for Girls is a hoot from start to finish. Unlucky student Elizabeth Sayers (Pamela Franklin) enrolls in a private school under an assumed name so she can investigate why her sister killed herself while attending the school, only to discover that sis was a victim of the headmistress and students, who, as the title suggests, shill for Satan. Two of Spelling’s most famous protégés, future Charlie’s Angels beauties Kate Jackson and Cheryl Ladd, are among the students enthralled by the Prince of Darkness, so despite shlocky production values, Satan’s School for Girls offers plenty of eye candy. The ending is also hilariously overwrought, going all the way down the bad-cinema rabbit hole.
          A few years later came The Initiation of Sarah, the story for which was co-written by future Fright Night guy Tom Holland. In this one, pretty coed Patty Goodwin (Morgan Brittany) and her “plain” adopted sister, Sarah (portrayed by the not-plain hottie Kay Lenz), get picked for different sororities, which have been locked in a bitter feud for decades. Patty joins the stuck-up babes at Alpha Nu Sigma, while Sarah ends up with the misfits at Psi Epsilon Delta. Copping plot devices from Stephen King’s then-recent novel Carrie, the story depicts Sarah’s discovery of telekinetic superpowers, then shows what happens when the beeyotches at Alpha Nu push Sarah too far. Meanwhile, PED’s housemistress, Erica Hunter (Shelley Winters), reveals her true identity as a nutjob cultist trying to use Sarah’s powers for revenge against Alpha Nu.
          Lenz’s sad-eyed sexiness and Winters’ gorgon routine are fun to watch, plus it’s enjoyable to see actor/producer Tony Bill and Airplane! guy Robert Hays in early roles. Icy sexpot Morgan Fairchild steals the show, however, with her villainous turn as the queen bee of Alpha Nu. A vision of uptight late-’70s comeliness with her feathered Farrah hairstyle and perfect alabaster skin, she’s entertainingly conniving. Both of these telefilms are unapologetically silly, but that’s exactly why they’re so watchable—and it’s probably why both got remade. The redux of Satan’s School for Girls (with Shannen Doherty!) hit the tube in 2000, and The Initiation of Sarah v.2.0 aired in 2006.

Satan’s School for Girls: FUNKY
The Initiation of Sarah: FUNKY

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Capone (1975)

Producer Roger Corman milked the gangster genre relentlessly with innumerable rip-offs of Bonnie and Clyde (1967), so by the mid-’70s he was still cranking out flicks about Depression-era goons blasting each other with Tommy guns. Case in point: Capone, a mediocre but watchable attempt to blend the rat-a-tat action of old Warner Bros. gangster flicks with a few stylistic nods to The Godfather (1972). As directed by pulp specialist Steve Carver, who knew how to keep things moving even if logic got crushed along the way, Capone presents a string of zippy episodes tracking the ascension of notorious real-life gangster Al Capone (Ben Gazzara) from New York street hoodlum to powerful Chicago crime lord. There’s not much in the way of depth or insight, but the picture is filled with malevolent power plays and violent shootouts as Capone climbs the organized-crime ladder, first working for tough mentor Johnny Torrio (Harry Guardino) and then seizing control for himself. The picture plays lip service to Capone’s growing pains as a gangster, showing his struggle to slap a layer of political sheen over his animalistic nature, but mostly the film bops from one bloody episode to the next. Adding interest is a passable love story between Capone and drunken moll Iris Crawford (Susan Blakeley); it makes sense that ambitious Iris gloms onto someone in whom she sees the potential for underworld greatness, and Blakely is both gorgeous and believably tough. Unfortunately, Gazzara is terrible. So boisterous and bug-eyed that it almost seems he’s delivering a comedy performance, Gazzara makes it impossible to connect with Capone as a real character. The other fatal flaw is the movie’s episodic nature. Still, there’s plenty for fans of the genre to enjoy despite the problems: A pre-Rocky Sylvester Stallone shows up for a sizable role as Capone’s brutal lieutenant, Frank Nitti, and Carver adds style by linking sequences with a cool red-tinted dissolve effect. Capone isn’t particularly impressive, but it’s crudely entertaining.

Capone: FUNKY

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A Wedding (1978)

          By the late ’70s, director Robert Altman had found his stylistic sweet spot, blending downbeat irony and edgy social satire in seriocomic ensemble stories laced with semi-improvised acting. Actors clearly had a field day on Altman’s projects, because the director famously shot with long lenses and multiple microphones in order to capture everything—and then, during editing, the moment-to-moment focus went to whoever was doing the most interesting thing on camera at any given time. As a result, even middling Altman pictures like A Wedding have variety and vitality, with imaginative actors using Altman’s ambling storyline as a springboard for creating interesting behavior.
          The basic plot of A Wedding involves the union of Dino (Desi Arnaz Jr.), the son of an Italian businessman and his American heiress wife, to Muffin (Amy Stryker), the daughter of a self-made American entrepreneur and his dissatisfied wife. Taking place almost entirely at the posh reception held in the Italian’s mansion, the picture is a busy farce weaving together subplots about adultery, alcoholism, death, family secrets, illicit pregnancy, and youthful rebellion. Like most Altman pictures, subplots overlap with each other as the film bounces between short isolated scenes and long interwoven sequences. And like most Altman pictures, some of it works and some of it doesn’t.
          The standout performance is delivered by Altman regular Paul Dooley as the exasperated father of the bride, a corn-fed windbag so infatuated with his favorite daughter, Buffy (Mia Farrow), that he doesn’t realize she’s promiscuous and tweaked. Dooley’s ability to toss off tart dialogue while harrumphing through an uptight tantrum is a joy to watch. Howard Duff is fun as the perpetually inebriated family doctor who gropes every woman he “treats,” blithely shooting people full of feel-good injections. Carol Burnett, while perhaps working a bit too broadly for Altman’s sly style, provides her impeccable comic timing as Dooley’s lonely wife; her scenes of romantic intrigue with a balding oaf of a suitor (Pat McCormick) are silly but enjoyable. Screen legend Lillian Gish shows up for a sharp cameo at the beginning of the picture, adding charm and gravitas.
          Italian leading man Vittorio Gassman is less effective as the father of the groom, partially because his storyline is monotonously gloomy and intense; Altman frequently tried too hard to blend high comedy and high drama, and Gassman’s storyline in A Wedding is a good example of Altman veering too far into bummer psychodrama. Worse, some actors get completely lost—promising characters played by Dennis Christopher, Pam Dawber, Lauren Hutton, Nina Van Pallandt, and Tim Thomerson are introduced well only to fade into the chaos.
          Ultimately, however, the real problem with A Wedding is that it doesn’t go anywhere. Altman forces an ending through the introduction of a deus ex machina tragedy, but the story really just vamps in a pleasant manner for two hours until the narrative stops at a somewhat arbitrary point. Thus, while it contains many interesting things, A Wedding is like so many other second-string Altman pictures: a mostly well-executed trifle.

A Wedding: FUNKY

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Zandy’s Bride (1974)

          Of the many peculiar ’70s subgenres for which I have undying fondness, the revisionist Western is perhaps the most rewarding. Filmmakers in the ’70s went nuts overturning the tropes of a beloved Hollywood genre, using gritty realism to transform Westerns into social commentary. Those highfalutin ambitions go a long way toward explaining Zandy’s Bride, the story of a grudging romance that develops between a son-of-a-bitch rancher and his mail-order bride. While the underlying story is familiar, the sort of thing John Wayne might have made in the ’40s or ’50s, the execution is unsentimental. It’s hard to envision Wayne proclaiming, as the lead character in this film does, that he doesn’t need his wife for sex, because he’s content with “the five sisters,” meaning the fingers of his right hand. Similarly, it’s difficult to picture the Duke ditching his long-suffering spouse every time the local tramp comes sniffing around. None of this should create the illusion that Zandy’s Bride fully overcomes the trite rhythms of its storyline. Rather, these remarks should contextualize Zandy’s Bride as a nasty ride through terrain that, seen previously, might have seemed idyllic.
          Gene Hackman, adding yet another scowling meanie to his gallery of cinematic pricks, is frightening as reclusive rancher Zandy Allen. Eking out a rugged existence on his small California homestead, he sends away for a spouse, expecting nothing more than someone to share his workload and spew children. Matching Hackman’s energy is the formidable Swedish actress Liv Ullmann, who plays Hannah Lund, the woman who accepts Zandy’s overture. She alienates Zandy the moment she arrives, because she’s in her 30s and not the dewy young thing he expected. Having left her old life behind, so she has no choice but to endure his abuse for as long as she can. Once the couple experiences assorted frontier travails together, they fight burgeoning affection, as if warmth is a sign of weakness. Yet the more they fortify their respective emotional boundaries, the more they realize they’re compatible enough to coexist.
          The picture’s evocative portrayal of the natural world makes sense, seeing as how director Jan Troell previously made the acclaimed foreign films The Emigrants (1971) and The New Land (1972), which dramatized the experiences of Swedish people relocating to the American frontier. The film’s dour portrait of life for women in the Wild West also rings true, and vivid characterizations by supporting players Frank Cady, Eileen Heckart, Harry Dean Stanton, and especially Susan Tyrell add to the effect. Though Zandy’s Bride is too long at 116 minutes, the ending pays things off nicely, and the picture is replete with gorgeous images: Cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth creates the palpable sense of a frontier that’s simultaneously liberating and oppressive.

Zandy’s Bride: GROOVY

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Bermuda Triangle (1978)

This misbegotten “thriller” would seem to merit investigation because it was made at the height of public curiosity about the Bermuda Triangle, and because Hollywood legend John Huston plays a leading role. However things like excitement and momentum disappeared during the making of this movie just like the countless planes and ships that have vanished into the mysterious part of the ocean after which the flick is named. The set-up is simple enough: A small ship filled with passengers and sailors drifts into the Triangle, and weirdness ensues. Unfortunately, the “weirdness” is as uninteresting as the passengers and sailors. At the beginning of the picture, a little girl on board the ship discovers a doll in the ocean, which she recovers and then interprets as an omen of bad things to come. If that strikes you as a crackerjack hook for a thriller, then you may be the rare soul who finds something of value in this unwatchable dreck, which substitutes confusing, quasi-psychological tumult for actual scares and shocks. Lazily directed by Mexican hack René Cardona Jr., whose other nautical-themed crapfests include Tintotera (1977) and Cyclone (1978), the movie mistakes meandering underwater photography and occasional glimpses of marine life for special effects, so don’t hold your breath waiting for something provocative or unique. Worse, the narrative wobbles between incoherent and trite; in the rare moments when the murky storyline coheres, it presents pointless melodrama with lots of Mexican supporting actors whose dialogue is dubbed (poorly) into English. Huston, the famed film director and occasional actor, lived during the ’70s near Cozumel, the idyllic Mexican coastal community where this picture was shot, so one can only assume that he liked the idea of earning a quick buck by walking down the beach and reciting inane dialogue. At least he got something out of the enterprise, which is more than can be said for viewers.

The Bermuda Triangle: SQUARE

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Saturday Night Fever (1977)

          Saturday Night Fever is more than just the movie with John Travolta wearing a white suit and dancing to the music of the Bee Gees. It’s also an insightful study of ambition and desperation, and a gritty depiction of life in the working-class neighborhoods of New York City. So while the storyline is melodramatic and some of the musical sequences go on too long, Travolta’s performance is one of the most iconic acting turns of the ’70s, and the movie is filled with moments that have become ingrained into the texture of cinema history. Norman Wexler adapted the script from a New York magazine article titled “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night,” which, ironically, author Nik Cohn later admitted he fabricated, so it’s not as if Saturday Night Fever has any claim to factual accuracy; what the movie offers instead is a palpable sense that its relatable characters are obsessed with scoring on the dancefloor as a means of escaping what they perceive as the suffocating confines of “normal” life.
          Travolta stars as Tony Manero, a twentysomething paint-store drone whose life is headed straight to blue-collar mediocrity except for when he unleashes his prodigious talent for disco dancing. On the multicolored floor of the Odyssey nightclub, he’s a god. Tony’s abilities draw him into a fractious relationship with an ambitious female counterpart, Stephanie (Karen Lynn Gorney), and he’s fascinated by the fact that she’s even better at putting on big-city airs than he is, so he studies with her to improve his dance technique, to polish his faux refinement, and to make time with her in order to prove his Neanderthal manhood. Watching dim-bulb Tony realize that there’s more to life than pretending to be a big shot is compelling, and the subplot depicting Tony’s abusive treatment of a simple neighborhood girl (Donna Pescow) adds dark colors to the characterization. The sequences depicting Tony and his buddies prowling for women are especially vivid, with the streetwise dudes spewing foul-mouthed boasts and indulging impulses so primal that they’re forever walking the line between big talk and big, violent action.
           Travolta gives his career-best performance, matching youthful swagger with genuine pathos, and he’s credible even when the movie gets overwrought. However it’s the dance scenes that make the film legendary, and for the most part they don’t disappoint; director John Badham’s exciting visual contributions include the up-and-down camera moves that follow Travolta’s every gyration during his show-stopping routine set to “You Should Be Dancing.” For the whole Saturday Night Fever experience, by the way, avoid the truncated PG-rated version that Paramount released in 1978 so younger viewers could see the movie, because only the R-rated original has the full impact.

Saturday Night Fever: RIGHT ON

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Someone’s Watching Me! (1978)

Even though the made-for-TV thriller Someone’s Watching Me! debuted in November 1978, director John Carpenter actually filmed the picture prior to making his breakthrough hit Halloween, which debuted in theaters a month before Someone’s Watching Me! reached the airwaves. In nearly every possible way, the telefilm is, at best, a footnote to Carpenter’s storied career. A forgettable suspense flick in the Hitchcock Lite mode, Someone’s Watching Me! bears relatively few of Carpenter’s stylistic and thematic signatures, even though he wrote the script in addition to directing. That said, the project hews to Carpenter’s early-career trope of strong heroines: Model-turned-actress Lauren Hutton plays a woman who realizes she’s being ogled from afar by a dangerous admirer, then fights back. As for the plot, the premise tells the whole predictable story. Stalker notices girl, girl begins to suspect something is amiss, close encounters hint at looming danger, and finally a confrontation happens. Along the way, there’s a whole lot of voyeurism, but because the project was made for television, none of the Brian De Palma-esque kinkiness teased by the setup materializes. Its all quite bland, as is Hutton’s star turn. Occasionally, Carpenter eschews flat camera coverage for imagery that’s outside the TV-movie norm—tracking shots down corridors, vignettes in cramped spaces, and so forth. Better still, Carpenter’s dialogue has flashes of sardonic bite. Yet the realities of the project dim any hopes for bravura storytelling. Adhering to the boxy visual style of ’70s TV prohibits Carpenter from creating his usual widescreen artistry, and its a drag he didn’t score the piece himself, since the minimalistic synthesizer music he composed for his early pictures was a major part of his fearmaking toolbox. As a cinematic experience, Someone’s Watching Me! is thoroughly underwhelming. Yet for the perspective it offers on a filmmaker’s development, the picture is mildly interesting. It was also the first collaboration between Carpenter and actress Adrienne Barbeau, who plays a supporting role. She later appeared in Carpenter’s The Fog (1980) and Escape from New York (1981), in addition to becoming Mrs. Carpenter from 1979 to 1984.

Someone’s Watching Me!: FUNKY

Friday, March 18, 2011

Evel Knievel (1971) & Viva Knievel! (1977)

          For most of the ’70s, real-life daredevil Evel Knievel was a ubiquitous figure in kiddie-oriented pop culture, thanks to death-defying TV appearances, a line of cool toys, and regular ads on the back covers of comic books. A classically American entrepreneur whose gift for hucksterism far exceeded the virtues of the product he sold, Knievel was a circus act writ large, making a small fortune off the public’s interest in whether he could survive doing things like flying a rocket across Snake Canyon. Cinematic tributes were inevitable, because Knievel did visually interesting things while wearing colorful costumes and issuing glib soundbites and outlandish boasts.
          Watched chronologically, the two features made about Knievel in the ’70s show the daredevil’s self-promotional hubris in ascension and decline.
          While not precisely an underappreciated gem, the 1971 release Evel Knievel is so cartoonishly enjoyable that it’s a shame the picture is only currently available via rotten public-domain prints. Co-written by John Milius, the right man for the job given his affection for larger-than-life macho heroes, the sprightly picture plays out like the origin story of a noble warrior whose motorcycle is his weapon for flouting the expectations of conventional society. George Hamilton, putting his superficial charms to great use by playing a character beloved for his superficial charms, portrays Knievel in a present-day wrap-around bit as Knievel prepares for a big stunt, and also in a series of jaunty flashbacks depicting the burgeoning stuntman’s discovery of his gifts. The Knievel in this movie is rebellious ’50s biker who never grew up, so by the time Hamilton dons Knievel’s signature red-white-and-blue jumpsuit for the climax, it’s as if we’ve watched a masked adventurer embrace his fate. Furthermore, Hamilton’s cheerful performance and Milius’ oversized dialogue create the pleasant illusion that Knievel’s odyssey is something inspirational instead of just the evolution of a crass gimmick. (Hamilton even dares to suggest that Knievel got nervous before jumps, giving the story a smidgen of humanity.) And if Evel Knievel is ultimately little more than the equivalent of a fluffy telefilm, it's exactly the right gee-whiz commercial for all that groovy swag Ideal Toys peddled throughout the ’70s.
          The bloom comes off the rose very quickly when one watches Viva Knievel!, however, and not just because the real-life Knievel is a dud playing himself. Paunchy, stilted, and a little bit nasty, Knievel seems less like an adventurer and more like an asshole, which by all reports is closer to the truth—though unquestionably brave and tough, Knievel was also a drinker and a hothead. The sense one gets of unseemly reality showing through a glossy façade is exacerbated by the ridiculous storyline of Viva Knievel!, which portrays the lead character as an international superhero. While traveling to Mexico for a stunt, Knievel defeats a gang of cocaine smugglers who are conspiring to kill him and use his 18-wheeler to transport drugs; inspires a group of orphans by secretly visiting them at night to deliver Evel Knievel action figures; and resolves the family tensions between his alcoholic mechanic and the mechanic’s estranged son. Model-turned-actress Lauren Hutton shows up as Knievel’s love interest, which means she spends a lot of time telling the hero how gosh-darn wonderful he is, and colorful figures including Red Buttons, Gene Kelly, Cameron Mitchell, and Leslie Nielsen round out the principal cast.

Evel Knievel: FUNKY
Viva Knievel! LAME

Thursday, March 17, 2011

St. Ives (1976)

          I’ve done a fair amount of digging over the years into the deepest, darkest corners of Charles Bronson’s ’70s filmography, not only because he was so damn prolific during that decade (23 movies between 1970 and 1979!), but because his projects were all over the map creatively, from his signature meat-and-potatoes action flicks to occasional character-driven thrillers. St. Ives straddles these extremes, so it would be heartening to report that it’s a lost gem. Alas, it is not. Bronson plays against type as Raymond St. Ives, a crime-book author who moonlights as a courier for assorted disreputable types; the character is a sophisticate instead of the usual Bronson savage. Unfortunately, Bronson doesn’t alter his style to suit the character, so his performance is ordinary at best, and the picture itself churns along strictly by the numbers, delivering one uninspired scene after another until tedium rules. Helmed by regular Bronson collaborator J. Lee Thompson, St. Ives had all sorts of potential to become a pithy mystery complete with a smart-ass hero and a smoldering femme fatale (Jacqueline Bissett). Because that potential is squandered, however, St. Ives is merely an action movie bogged down with ineffective dialogue scenes.
          The movie starts promisingly, layering on interesting character details about the protagonist (he used to be a crime reporter, justifying his nonplussed attitude toward crooks), but once the story gets humming, St. Ives gets stuck in the machinations of a confusing and uninteresting plot, endangering the lead character in ways that don’t have much credibility or impact. The story has something to do with St. Ives being hired by a nefarious figure (John Houseman) to recover stolen ledgers containing incriminating evidence, although the filmmakers never quite explain why the bad guys go to the trouble of hiring an outsider for a simple job. It’s novel for while to watch Bronson get into a different kind of trouble, but soon enough St. Ives falls into the actor’s usual violent groove. Worse, the movie completely falls apart when it tries to present a complex pattern of double-crosses that dull the drama and muddy the narrative. So even though the cast is filled to bursting with fun performers (in addition to the leads, the picture features Dana Elcar, Dick O’Neill, Maximillian Schell, even a young Robert Englund), and even though the fabulously dated jazz-disco score by Lalo Schifrin has spunk, St. Ives is a dud.

St. Ives: LAME

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Sorcerer (1977)

          Whereas many self-indulgent films by ’70s auteurs have been injured by time, William Friedkin’s Sorcerer has actually seen its critical stock rise in the intervening decades. There’s no question the director was due for a fall after scoring two blockbuster successes in a row with The French Connection (1971) and The Exorcist (1973), and prior to the release of Sorcerer, he did just about everything necessary to unsure the critical knives were out: He gave overbearing interviews extolling his own directorial genius; he let four years pass between movies; he elected to remake Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear (1953), a sacred text for cinephiles; he let his perfectionist streak run wild, shooting outrageous numbers of angles and takes that put his cast and crew through a long ordeal in rugged South American locations; and he slapped a supernatural-sounding title onto the project even though Sorcerer involves nothing otherworldly, which understandably resulted in confused expectations because of his association with The Exorcist.
          As a result, Sorcerer was eviscerated upon its original release, even though some brave souls immediately recognized the film as a unique piece of deranged artistry. Seen now, the picture is a crazily intense thrill ride that matches the inherent tension of the plot with a probing descent into the psyche of an archetypal character driven insane by circumstance. Roy Scheider stars as Scanlon, an American criminal hiding out in South America and desperate enough for work that he agrees to join a crew driving trucks loaded with unstable nitroglycerin down 200 miles of bumpy jungle roads toward a demolition site. Playing the other unlucky souls sharing the task is an international cast: Frenchman Bruno Cremer, one-named Moroccan Amidou, and Spaniard Francisco Rabal. Crisply explanatory vignettes reveal why each man is a fugitive, but that’s about all the picture provides in terms of character; Friedkin is much more interested in dramatizing whether small men can rise to a life-threatening occasion.
          Sorcerer contains one of the most elaborately filmed suspense sequences in cinema history: The precarious crossing of a hand-made bridge across a jungle river in the middle of a horrific rainstorm. Using a staggering number of camera angles, Friedkin drags the scene out to create an excruciating level of tension, and that cinematic commitment carries through to nearly the entire film. Also noteworthy is the disturbing score by German synth-rock ensemble Tangerine Dream, making their debut in American films. For the last word on Sorcerer, I’ll defer to Stephen King, writing in his nonfiction survey of the horror genre titled Danse Macabre (1981): “I liked that one because there were a lot of close-ups in it of sweaty people working hard and laboring machines; truck engines and huge wheels spinning in soupy mud and frayed fanbelts in Panavision-70. Great stuff.”

Sorcerer: GROOVY

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Great Smokey Roadblock (1976)

          From the title and packaging, you’d think this was a brainless boobs-and-beer action flick, but buried amid the usual scenes of amiable prostitutes and crooked redneck cops is a poignant story about a dying man struggling for dignity. However, if you think 18-wheelers, hookers, and mortality seem like incompatible story elements, you’re absolutely right, based on the evidence of this incredibly erratic movie. Working from a novel titled The Last of the Cowboys (which was also this film’s original title), writer-director John Leone unsuccessfully attempts to cushion the melancholy main storyline with outrageous high jinks, and both elements suffer: The drama feels diminished by the sleazy context, and the comedy feels superfluous.
          At the center of the narrative is “Elegant” John (Henry Fonda), a trucker whose rig was repossessed while he was hospitalized and unable to pay his bills. John busts out of the hospital and steals his rig, heading down the highway to hook up with his paramour, a salty madam named Penelope (Eileen Brennan). Along the way, John picks up a Bible-quoting hitchhiker (Robert Englund) and tries to steer clear of an unscrupulous hustler (Gary Sandy) who wants to sell the stolen truck for illicit cash. For reasons that aren’t exactly clear, Penelope and her girls move into John’s trailer, turning the fugitive’s semi into a brothel on wheels–and for reasons that are even less clear, one of the prostitutes (Susan Sarandon) falls in love with the pious hitchhiker.
          Suffice it to say that the main storyline of John seeking one last adventure before death gets lost in the shuffle, despite Fonda’s valiant attempts to sell crying scenes and testy dialogue exchanges. At one low point, a redneck sheriff (Dub Taylor, of course) arrests John and the women, so the prostitutes claim their cell is too hot and strip, angling to “barter” with the corrupt lawman and his deputy. Taylor cheerfully accepts their proposal, and trust me when I say that you’ll have trouble erasing the image of grizzled old coot Taylor wearing just boxer shorts while he hops up and down and yells, “Where’s that thermostat?!!” Yet a moment later, Taylor delivers genuinely tasty dialogue: When his deputy expresses guilt over having availed himself of the women’s services, Taylor crows, “If that’s the worst thing that ever happens to you in your life, junior, then I’m gonna follow you to the ends of the world, because you’re gonna have remarkable passage.”
          It’s hard to completely dislike any movie containing chatter that colorful, to say nothing of such a robust cast, but there’s a reason this mess of a flick sat on a shelf for two years prior to its release.

The Great Smokey Roadblock: FUNKY

Monday, March 14, 2011

Rape Squad (1974)

          Distaff vigilantism was all the rage in low-rent ’70s cinema, whether the avenger was Raquel Welch pumping hot lead into Old West varmints in Hannie Caulder (1971) or Pam Grier giving inner-city drug dealers what for in Coffy (1973). So it was probably just a matter of time before someone took the genre to a contrived extreme with a movie about a gang of women who join forces to strike back after they’ve endured too much abuse. Thus the tastefully titled Rape Squad (occasionally known by its somewhat more restrained title, Act of Vengeance), in which five ladies who were raped by the same criminal mete out justice when the actions of the local police prove unsatisfactory. Excepting its memorably sensationalistic premise, Rape Squad is a generic product off the American-International Pictures exploitation-flick assembly line, meaning that the acting, production values, and storytelling are rudimentary, and that shameless titillation is the highest priority. For instance, one long dialogue scene features an abuse victim explaining to the five members of the rape squad that she’s frustrated by the police department’s inability to catch her attacker—a conversation that would be easier to take seriously if the members of the rape squad weren’t all sitting naked in a hot tub at the time.
          On one level, the movie is crudely watchable because it’s easy to root for the women when they shame a scumbag him by destroying his apartment and dyeing his privates so he’s “marked” for identification the next time he commits a sex crime. But on every other level, Rape Squad is just plain vulgar. At one point, future Dallas costar Steve Kanaly, playing the boyfriend of the squad’s leader, Linda (Jo Ann Harris), berates her with the Neanderthal taunt, “You’re gonna get killed if you don’t stop trampin’ around like a diesel dyke!” The movie’s main criminal, Jack (Peter Brown), forces his victims to sing “Jingle Bells” while he attacks them, and he’s prone to boasts like, “I’m the honcho of the hump!” Plus, of course, the filmmakers seem to believe that lingering close-ups of breasts are somehow compatible with their theme of trauma stemming from sexual violation. Rape Squad is so brazen that the movie occasionally offers unintended amusement, but it’s impossible to find real virtue in a picture that treats this particular topic so crudely. (Available, under the title Act of Vengeance, as part of the MGM Limited Collection on

Rape Squad: LAME

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Nickel Ride (1974)

          The sort of downbeat character piece that enjoyed a brief but thrilling vogue in the ’70s, this drama about a mid-level crime boss features one of Jason Miller’s only leading performances in a major film. Oscar-nominated for his very first movie, The Exorcist, Miller was a complex figure whose onscreen career was impeded by his literary ambitions (he won a Pulitzer Prize for his play That Championship Season) and by ferocious alcoholism. Furthermore, while Miller was capable of conjuring amazing intensity as an actor, he was just as likely to underplay scenes to the point that his emotions barely registered on camera.
          Both extremes are visible in The Nickel Ride, which is as inconsistent as its leading man’s acting. Based on an original script by future Forrest Gump scribe Eric Roth, The Nickel Ride centers around Cooper (Miller), an ambitious but unlucky crook stuck somewhere in the middle rungs of the L.A. underworld. Cooper has spent years developing a grand scheme called “the block,” a group of warehouses that he hopes the city’s criminal element will use to store and transport stolen goods, but the project is on hold because the cops and criminals arranging protection for “the block” keep stalling. Thus Cooper not only overextends himself but also makes a deadly enemy of Carl (John Hillerman), a crime boss higher on the food chain, prompting Carl to enlist the aid of good ol’ boy Turner (Bo Hopkins), who may or may not have been hired to whack Cooper.
          As directed by sensitive dramatist Robert Mulligan (To Kill a Mockingbird), The Nickel Ride has authenticity and atmosphere to spare. Mulligan generates a quiet mood of everyday normalcy with hints of menace bubbling just beneath the surface, and cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth carefully highlights details and texture to create a strong sense of place in Cooper’s grimy neighborhood. The acting is uniformly good, even with the inconsistent energy level of Miller’s performance, so viewers feel like they’re firmly situated inside Cooper’s sad, small world. However the story isn’t as strong as the resources used to put it onscreen. Cooper comes across like a bystander in his own life until an extended sequence set at a woodsy resort, when gunplay raises the stakes for everyone involved. The narrative’s microscopic focus feels believable, but many sequences seem to meander because plot advancements are incremental.
          Still, there’s something poignant about watching Miller play a man incapable of realizing his potential, since the same was true in the actor’s brief life; by the time he died in 2001 at the age of 62, Miller hadn’t appeared in a major film for nearly a decade.

The Nickel Ride: FUNKY

Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Story of O (1975)

          The 1954 French novel Histoire d’O, written by Anne Desclos under the pen name Pauline Réage, is notorious because some admirers regard it as an erotic exploration of what later came to be known as BDSM (bondage, domination, sadism, masochism), while others disdain it as a vile exercise in sexual objectification. It’s unsurprising that a movie version emerged in the ’70s, when changing social mores allowed for mainstream distribution of films with previously taboo content, and it’s unsurprising that the movie version prioritizes sex over psychology. Corinne Cléry stars as “O,” a Parisian photographer who proves her love for René (Udo Kier) by agreeing to become a sex slave for a group of men living at a country estate; the story then explores how the couple’s relationship changes when René “gives” O to another man, Sir Stephen (Anthony Steel). The film’s director, Frenchman Just Jaekin, previously scored at the box office with another libidinous literary adaptation, Emmanuelle (1974), and he takes a similar approach to The Story of O, combining acres of female nudity with evocative locations, glamorous photography, and insinuating washes of Vangelis-lite synthesizer music.
          The film’s fetishism of the female form and the cast of emotionally blank actors belie the posh presentation, however, revealing that Jaekin’s movie is nothing but soft-core porn with artistic pretentions. The film’s third-person voiceover does most of the heavy lifting in terms of explaining the plot, while also providing lurid commentary like “O wondered why she found her terror so delicious.” In addition to lacking substance, The Story of O flops as erotica, because the innumerable vignettes of men and women fondling, groping, mounting, and whipping Cléry quickly become tiresome. The abuse scenes are unpleasant (especially the branding bit—ouch!), and the movie is so cold that it’s impossible to get caught up in O’s journey. It doesn’t help that most of the dialogue sounds like it was either dubbed or looped. Cléry, who later appeared as a Bond girl in Moonraker (1979), is very beautiful, very naked, and very patient with the people who paw at her privates throughout the film, but even her charms fail to sustain interest once the movie devolves into tedium.

The Story of O: LAME

Friday, March 11, 2011

Smokey and the Bandit (1977)

          Probably the most popular of the innumerable trucker flicks that blazed across American movie screens in the late ’70s, this Burt Reynolds hit was the No. 2 box-office success of 1977, topped only by Star Wars. On one level, it’s not hard to see why audiences embraced the action-packed comedy, because it delivers almost nonstop juvenile amusement through car crashes, cartoonish characters, and curse words—to say nothing of rebelliousness and then-trendy CB jargon. However, laughing at Smokey and the Bandit is a bit like laughing at the bad kid in high school who shoots spitballs when the teacher isn’t looking: You know it isn’t really funny, but you can’t help smiling every so often by reflex.
          The directorial debut of veteran stuntman Hal Needham, Smokey and the Bandit tells the silly story of a quest to illegally transport a truckload of beer across state lines in the Deep South. Bandit (Reynolds) drives a hot black Firebird Trans Am as a “blocker” for his trucker pal, Snowman (Jerry Reed), meaning it’s Bandit’s job to drive so fast that cops chase him while Snowman’s rig cruises by unnoticed. When Bandit picks up a sexy runaway bride, Carrie (Sally Field), he also picks up a persistent pursuer: redneck sheriff Buford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason), father of the schnook Carrie left at the altar. Therefore most of the movie cuts between scenes of Bandit and Carrie getting frisky and scenes of Justice and his idiot son zooming down the highway in a police car that gets demolished piece by piece as the movie progresses.
          Needham’s daring auto stunts are fun for those who dig that sort of thing (cars soaring over rivers, crashing onto the backs of flatbed trucks, and so on), and Gleason aims for the cheap seats with a stereotypical performance (he shouts things like, “Nobody makes Sheriff Buford T. Justice look like a possum’s pecker!”). Gleason’s characterization would be unbearable if the actor wasn’t blessed with such meticulous timing, although it’s a bummer to see “The Great One” saddled with not-great material. Beyond Gleason’s shtick and the highway high jinks, the most appealing aspect of the movie is the easygoing dynamic between Field and Reynolds (who were an offscreen couple at the time), and the similarly loose buddy-movie vibe between Reynolds and country-singer-turned-actor Reed.
          Plus, there’s no denying that when he made this picture, Reynolds epitomized a certain ideal of über-’70s macho swagger—he’s like a never-ending party crammed into a lean, 5’ 11’ frame. After the huge success of Smokey and the Bandit, Reynolds’ comedies mostly devolved into uninspired variations on a theme (like 1980’s awful Smokey and the Bandit II), so it’s interesting to study this flick as the moment when he simultaneously perfected his good-ol’-boy act and began squandering audience goodwill by generating lackluster product that was probably more fun to make than it is to watch.

Smokey and the Bandit: FUNKY

Thursday, March 10, 2011

McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)

          Robert Altman’s bleak Western has an enviable reputation, but its stature stems as much from the movie’s novelty as from its content. Instead of the cowboy romanticism that pervaded other revisionist Westerns of the era, McCabe offers frontier nihilism, presenting a grim view of life in a tiny settlement on the verge of becoming a town. Warren Beatty stars as John McCabe, a slick but uneducated gambler who drifts into the settlement and quickly becomes its leading citizen by opening a grungy whorehouse. Julie Christie plays Constance Miller, a crass but savvy prostitute who persuades McCabe to offer his wares in a cleaner establishment with higher prices. McCabe’s success draws the attention of unscrupulous developers who try to buy out his interests, and his nervy refusal of their offer makes him a target for hired guns. The imaginative story, based on a novel by Edmund Naughton, gives Altman a framework for his singular style of creating dense atmosphere through lived-in locations, overlapping dialogue, and peculiar people.
          The principal outdoor set is amazing, creating the illusion of a hand-wrought town that emerged organically out of snowy terrain, and the photography by Vilmos Zsigmond is justifiably celebrated. Zsigmond lit the picture to simulate available illumination sources like moonlight and candles, then “flashed” the film by exposing it to light before processing in order to create a unique washed-out quality. Many of the usual suspects from Altman movies show up in the cast, with Rene Auberjonois, Keith Carradine, Shelley Duvall, and John Schuck adding their individualistic qualities of naïve pathos, so it’s easy to lose the soft-spoken leading performances in the colorful surroundings.
          Beatty gets points for downplaying his charm and handsomeness with a disagreeable temperament and a thick beard, though much of his performance his gimmicky, like the awkward soliloquies in which he articulates his motivations. Christie is equally bold playing an overbearing opium addict. However the quasi-romance between the two characters never really clicks, and the film is unnecessarily dreary, from the various pointless murders in the storyline to the Leonard Cohen dirges on the soundtrack. So while McCabe & Mrs. Miller is gorgeously wrought and virtually unlike any previous Western, its narrative intentions are opaque.

McCabe & Mrs. Miller: GROOVY

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Good Guys Wear Black (1978)

          Considering that Chuck Norris achieved fame as a karate champion and as one of Bruce Lee’s most formidable onscreen sparring partners, it’s surprising that his first significant starring role was not in a martial-arts flick. Instead, Good Guys Wear Black is a quintessentially ’70s conspiracy picture, complete with nefarious politicians ordering hits on the commandos who participated in a Vietnam-era covert op. Norris gets to unleash his signature roundhouse kicks in a few combat scenes, but for the most part he treks from one location to the next, accompanied by an alluring mystery lady (Anne Archer), as he investigates the identities of the Washington, D.C., power players who targeted him for elimination. Yet even though Good Guys Wear Black has a bit more ambition than the usual grindhouse thriller, it’s not particularly good.
          The photography and production values look cheap, especially during the prologue of a nighttime raid in Vietnam, the star wattage is low (Gilligan’s Island costar Jim Backus gets special billing for a pointless cameo as a doorman), and Norris is wooden. In fact, he’s the virtual poster child for athletes trying to become movie stars; he cuts a solid figure but can’t deliver dialogue smoothly, so director Ted Post wisely restricts Norris to a flat monotone in most scenes. Furthermore, the less said about Norris’ attempts to express emotion, the better. Archer, who looks fantastic, fares somewhat better but not by much, and she and Norris benefit from the grown-up dialogue that was presumably contributed by co-screenwriter Mark Medoff (the playwright of Children of a Lesser God). James Franciscus has fun chewing on his role as a Machiavellian politician angling for a job as Secretary of State, although his big speech at the end is filled with movie-villain clichés.
          As for the action, it’s solid but sporadic—Norris’ extended brawl with an assassin at an airport is the only scene that delivers the sort of elaborate, high-kicking whammies the leading man’s fans might expect. Ultimately, Good Guys Wear Black is not exciting enough to work as an action picture, and not smart enough to work as a thriller—but it’s still is a watchable misfire, because the filmmakers deserve some small credit for trying to deliver dramatic heft within the action genre’s limited parameters.

Good Guys Wear Black: FUNKY

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Island of Dr. Moreau (1977)

          H.G. Wells’ horrific story about a mad scientist who gene-splices animals with men on his own private island was first filmed in 1932 as the extraordinary Island of Lost Souls, which boasted disturbing atmosphere and a perverse performance by Charles Laughton as medical maniac Dr. Moreau. Four decades later, schlock merchants American International Pictures produced a remake with a lot more action but a lot less artistry. Directed with typical indifference by Don Taylor, The Island of Dr. Moreau stars Michael York as an English seaman who survives a wreck and washes ashore on the titular land mass. Burt Lancaster plays the not-so-good doctor, but his stilted intensity fails to capture the unhinged majesty of the Moreau character, and York isn’t much better, substituting eye-bulging breathlessness for convincing terror. In one of her first major films, Nicaraguan model-turned-starlet Barbara Carrera is sultry as York’s love interest, although her presence is purely ornamental. In all versions of the story, the jungle surrounding Moreau’s compound is filled with examples of the doctor’s experiments, animals converted into hirsute bipeds whose innate bloodlust is (barely) kept in check by Moreau’s brutally enforced laws; tension arises from wondering how long these “manimals” will tolerate Moreau torturing them in his lab, which the creatures refer to as “the House of Pain.”
          The team behind the ’70s version unwisely depicts the manimals through the use of waxy-looking masks that are filmed in garishly bright lighting, so the sight of genetic aberrations roaming through the jungle is mundane instead of horrifying. Making matters worse, the story frequently degrades into clunky thriller scenes, like chases through the jungle and comin’-at-ya monster attacks. This lowbrow approach is a hell of a comedown from Island of Lost Souls, but for those who’ve never seen the original version (or read the Wells novel), The Island of Dr. Moreau is passable escapist junk: The production looks and feels like bad episodic television from the ’70s, with blandly utilitarian camera setups and twinkling music straight out of a Fantasy Island installment, and the climax is amusingly overwrought, right down to the endless final duel between the surviving major characters and a persistent manimal. The picture’s epilogue, unfortunately, is a complete cop-out.

The Island of Dr. Moreau: FUNKY