Sunday, April 30, 2017

The Marcus-Nelson Murders (1973)

          Significant as the first appearance of Telly Savalas’ popular TV crimefighter Lt. Theo Kojack, whose last name was altered slightly once the character earned his own series a few months later, The Marcus-Nelson Murders works well as a stand-alone story about the complexities of police work. Extrapolated from a real-life case that informed the Supreme Court’s famous Miranda ruling, The Marcus-Nelson Murders depicts the callousness with which the NYPD railroads an innocent man who makes an easy patsy for a high-profile crime. The Miranda ruling stipulated that suspects must be informed of their rights at the time of arrest, but the young man at the center of The Marcus-Nelson Murders gets arraigned on murder charges before he even realizes what’s happening. As written by the highly capable dramatist Abby Mann (an Oscar winner for 1961’s theatrical feature Judgment at Nuremberg), this adaptation of Selwyn Rabb’s book Justice in the Back Room has the flavor and toughness of Sidney Lumet’s myriad New York crime films, right down to the varied shadings of morality.
          The story begins with a mysterious attacker invading a Manhattan apartment. Two of the women who live there are brutally murdered during the home invasion. Public attention compels the police to throw enormous manpower onto the case. Among the investigators is Kojack. He mostly lingers on the sidelines for the first half of this long film, though director Joseph Sargent periodically features domestic interludes between Kojack and his on-again/off-again lover, Ruthie (Lorraine Gary). After cops in Brooklyn arrest a simple young black man, Lewis Humes (Gene Woodbury), on an unrelated charge, they become convinced Humes was responsible for the murders. The Brooklyn cops coerce a confession with a toxic combination of charm and violence. Kojack moves to the foreground after Humes is indicted, and the detective senses something isn’t right about the evidence incriminating Humes. What follows is the meticulous process by which Kojack and crusading lawyer Jake Weinhaus (José Ferrer) pursue the truth. Along the way, thorny issues (institutionalized racism, police procedure, unreliable eyewitness testimony) make it difficult for the heroes to see daylight, even as Humes rots in a cell.
          The Marcus-Nelson Murders covers a lot of ground, so at times it feels more like a miniseries than a movie. Some supporting characters resonate, including aggressive Brooklyn prosecutor Mario Portello (Allen Garfield), while others get lost in the shuffle. The picture also has false notes, such as casting B-movie stalwart Marjoe Gortner as a Puerto Rican. Nonetheless, the overarching theme—how the pursuit of justice intersects with the rights of the accused—comes through powerfully. Excepting the jaded narration he provides, Kojack is not the film’s most interesting element, so it’s no surprise producers overhauled the character for his weekly series, transforming the rechristened “Theo Kojak” from a principled observer to a wisecracking rulebreaker.

The Marcus-Nelson Murders: GROOVY

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Summer School Teachers (1974)

          Summer School Teachers is yet another ensemble piece from New World about three young women whose sex lives are intertwined because they work at the same place. Specifically, twentysomething Midwesterners Conklin (Candice Rialson), Denise (Rhonda Leigh Hopkins), and Sally (Pat Anderson) accept temporary jobs teaching in the summer program at a high school in California. Each character has a separate subplot, and each subplot has a different tonality, so while the overall vibe of the picture is gentle drama, some scenes veer into comedy while others venture into thriller terrain. Featuring an unusually strong distaff presence behind the camera (producer Julie Corman, writer-director Barbara Peters), the picture integrates feminist ideals into many scenes, though that doesn’t stop Summer School Teachers from delivering a showcase topless scene for each of its leading ladies. Thanks to a coherent script and some passable acting, this is somewhat more respectable than the usual drive-in sleaze, but it’s still intended primarily to titillate. De facto leading lady Rialson is as charming and feisty here as she is in the outrageous sex comedy Chatterbox! (1977), and B-movie icon Dick Miller lends his cantankerous presence as her character’s sexist nemesis. Their scenes are the best parts of the picture.
          Conklin teaches physical education, so she clashes with the school’s football coach (Miler) upon accepting the challenge to form a girls’ football squad. Concurrently, she breaks one of her own rules by dating a fellow teacher. Meanwhile, Denise teaches chemistry, imprudently becoming involved with a juvenile-delinquent student, and Sally courts controversy by allowing erotic work in her photography class. Outside school hours, she dates a number of men including a former rock star now working as a grocery-store clerk. The Conklin story is fairly enjoyable and also the most effective delivery system for the picture’s equal-rights sloganeering. However, the Denise storyline is blandly melodramatic, and the Sally storyline is silly. In the movie’s goofiest scene, two old biddies listen through a wall while the rock star prepares a meal for Sally with such bizarre techniques as throwing a head of lettuce through the strings of a harp to shred the leaves. The biddies get aroused by misinterpreting what they overhear (“The only thing better than my meat is my sauce,” etc.). Although the scene doesn’t work, at least it represents an attempt at ribald wit.

Summer School Teachers: FUNKY

Friday, April 28, 2017

Crash! (1976)

One of my all-time favorite bitchy movie reviews suggests that Paul Verhoeven interpreted the title of his 1995 opus Showgirls as a command: Show girls! A similar critique could be made about Crash! At regular intervals throughout the movie, cars crash. Never mind that the story actually concerns a deranged older man’s efforts to murder his young wife, whom he blames for an accident that left him confined to a wheelchair. And never mind that the central gimmick of the movie is a weird supernatural keychain (yes, really) that somehow draws the woman into periods of demonic possession. Crash! is one of those bad movies that lacks the depth and imagination to properly service any single plot, so it overcompensates by tossing in several other plots, as if a steady barrage of vaguely connected story events will compensate for the lack of a central narrative. For viewers willing to embrace Crash! as an exercise in craptastic camp, the scattershot storytelling might work. For viewers seeking proper cinema, not so much. Embittered Marc Denne (José Ferrer) wants to get rid of his sexy wife, Kim (Sue Lyon). She’s not too fond of him, either. After she buys the demonic keychain at a flea market, Kim has a terrible car accident that leaves her amnesiac and disfigured. Enter studly Dr. Gregg Martin (John Ericson), who takes more than a professional interest in his new patient. Meanwhile, a driverless car roams local highways, killing people by causing fiery automotive wrecks. Eventually, these narrative threads converge thanks to ridiculous plot twists, leading to an entertainingly absurd climax: As the possessed Kim writhes in a sauna, she telepathically commands the driverless car to attack Marc, who zooms around his driveway in a wheelchair while blasting at the car with a shotgun. For a few laughable moments, Crash! is nearly as giddily dumb as another driverless-car shocker released the following year, The Car (1977). Until then, the movie remains stuck in neutral.

Crash!: LAME

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Mule Feathers (1977)

A ghastly attempt at post-Blazing Saddles frontier hilarity, Mule Feathers compounds incoherence with insanity. The incoherence stems from the main storyline, which concerns a Wild West con man (Rory Calhoun) drifting into a gold-crazed town while dressed as a preacher. One suspects the picture was filmed hastily and slapped together carelessly, because the narrative is virtually incomprehensible, the protagonist disappears for long stretches of screen time, transitions are almost nonexistent, and the weak visuals are juiced with stupid audio flourishes (cartoony FX, overwrought music, sloppy dubbing, etc.). The filmmakers can’t decide whether they’re making a squeaky-clean family farce or a raunchy oater for the Mel Brooks crowd (note the jokes about a whore who “can’t even give it away”). Either way, everything looks cheap, from the drab sets to the terrible fake beards to the ugly cinematography. And now we reach the insane aspect of Mule Feathers. The picture opens with an animated vignette of a jackass, voiced by Don Knotts, roaming through the desert. Afterward, the film segues to a live-action scene in which Knotts’ voice emanates from the protagonist’s donkey companion. The animal’s lips don’t move, and nobody else can hear the creature talk, so is Calhoun’s character deranged? Even more disturbing questions are raised when Knotts says things like, “Oh, the tenderness that a man and his mule can feel for each other.” And when Calhoun’s character meets a woman, the donkey whines, “She can never be what I’ve been to you!” Yikes. Fair warning to curious Knotts fans: He never appears on camera, and his voice is featured in perhaps 20 of the movie’s 79 atrocious minutes.

Mule Feathers: SQUARE

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

A Name for Evil (1973)

          A line spoken early in A Name for Evil sets the tone for what follows: “Let’s explore our truth so we don’t wreck each other.” The line is so infused with hippy-dippy ’70s sensitivity, and yet also so laden with portent, that it symbolizes A Name for Evil. The picture wants to be hip and sensual, but it’s overwrought and sleazy. The film also wants to be mysterious and terrifying, but it’s a bewildering exercise in self-parody. Some bad movies run off the rails. This one runs off the rails, soars over a cliff, spirals into a ravine, and drills straight down to the molten center of the earth. Simply dismissing A Name for Evil as a misguided attempt at supernatural horror doesn’t do the picture justice. A Name for Evil is so completely off the mark, in every conceivable way, that it should be registered as a controlled substance. (Not one of the fun ones.)
          Fed up with the 9-to-5 grind, big-city architect John Blake (Robert Culp) uproots his semi-estranged wife, Joanna (Samantha Eggar), and moves to a lakeside mansion in the Deep South. Once owned by John’s ancestor, a Confederate major, the sprawling house is in horrible disrepair, so Joanna wants out immediately. For no discernible reason, John insists on staying, even as creepy apparitions suggest the place is haunted, and the narrative becomes more and more fragmented as it toggles between hallucinations and reality. How weird does the movie get? Try this on for size. John repeatedly spots a white horse roaming around the mansion grounds, and a caretaker claims that the horse belongs to John’s ancestor, who has been dead for decades. One evening, John leaps onto the horse’s back, rides the animal through the countryside, and continues riding it through the front entrance of a honky-tonk. When John stumbles off the horse, the patrons react as if nothing out of the ordinary happened. Then the patrons compel John to join in some feast/hoedown deal, where the evening’s culinary fare includes giant plates of spaghetti delivered from the honky-tonk’s basement. Next, the local mechanic/priest (!) hooks John up with a compliant chick named Luanna (Sheila Sullivan) while a singer serenades the crowd with a Summer of Love-style pop song. John and Luanna participate in a line dance that suddenly transforms into something resembling an all-nude occult ritual. Finally the scene shifts to a forest clearing, where John and Luanna have epic sex. Cut to the next morning. As John dresses, he casually asks Luanna if she saw where he left his horse.
          Not every scene reaches this level of incomprehensible trashiness, but A Name for Evil is spellbindingly weird from start to finish. Scenes stop and start without explanation, continuity shifts in bizarre ways, and dialogue runs the gamut from opaque to pretentious. Behavior is mystifying, though John’s insatiable sex drive is a constant—in one scene, he and Luanna screw underwater with such intensity that the ground beneath them starts to glow as if it’s become radioactive. Or maybe not. In trying to put across the notion that the mansion and/or the spirit of its previous occupant has possessed John, writer-director Bernard Girard destroys the boundary separating fantasy from reality, and not in a good way. The movie’s “hidden secrets” are laughably obvious, while basic facts, such as whether Luanna actually exists, remain unknowable. A Name for Evil is such a chaotic piece of filmmaking that the only clues it’s a fright flick, at least until the ending, are the spooky textures of Dominic Frontiere’s excellent score.
          It appears this misbegotten movie began its life in 1970, when MGM financed the film but shelved the disappointing final product. Three years later, the film-production wing of Penthouse magazine acquired the picture, amped up the horror angle and the sex stuff, and unleashed A Name for Evil on the world. Clearly, the dark forces lurking within the very celluloid of this deliciously rottten film would not be denied.

A Name for Evil: FREAKY

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Pussycat, Pussycat, I Love You (1970)

Apparently conceived as a sequel to the 1967 hit What’s New, Pussycat? (starring Peter Sellers and written by Woody Allen), this dreadful sex comedy lost nearly all connection to the earlier film during the development process—and it must have lost many other things, as well, presuming they were ever there. Among other shortcomings, Pussycat, Pussycat, I Love You lacks appealing characters, a tangible plot, and viable jokes. Loud, stupid, and tacky, the flick is a pointless compendium of situations leading nowhere, held together by the presence of a borderline repugnant protagonist and infused with such idiotic running gags as a dude in a gorilla suit whose presence causes the protagonist to experience a weird form of gay panic. Set in Rome, the picture stars Ian McShane—a fine dramatic actor unfit for light comedy—as Fred C. Dobbs, an American living in Italy. Never mind that McShane is British, and never mind that his character is pointlessly named after Humphrey Bogart’s role in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). After a truly filthy opening song (“I wanna move and groove and fill you with my love”), the picture explores Fred’s sexual exploits and hangups. He sleeps with seemingly every woman he meets, then complains that life with multiple lovers is too complicated. He also suffers recurring nightmares about a horny gorilla. Various desperate attempts at jokes include the use of the theme song for Mission: Impossible, a would-be farcical visit to the set of a spaghetti Western (where extras dressed as Indians eat plates of spaghetti), and a hideous subplot featuring offbeat character actor Severn Darden in a bizarre red wig. At one point, an onscreen title reads, “This is a time lapse.” Enervated and sluggish despite posh production values, Pussycat, Pussycat, I Love You is so formless and misguided and vulgar that it drains the viewer’s will to live.

Pussycat, Pussycat, I Love You: LAME

Monday, April 24, 2017

The Resurrection of Zachary Wheeler (1971)

          While it’s difficult to understand why this picture earned a theatrical release, seeing as how its small-scale approach to sci-fi/conspiracy thrills resembles that of some routine telefilm, The Resurrection of Zachary Wheeler is mildly interesting for deliberate and unintended reasons. On the plus side, the loopy plot involves mad doctors and scheming government officials, with an intrepid reporter endeavoring to discover the truth. On the minus side, the script is way too talky, and it’s always difficult to take Leslie Neilson seriously upon discovering one of his pre-Airplane! dramatic performances. One is especially challenged to stay with The Resurrection of Zachary Wheeler during the climax, when Nielsen shares the screen with a blue-faced automaton that stumbles around like some monster in an old Universal Studios shocker. Anyway, the story begins with iconoclastic TV journalist Harry Walsh (Nielsen) rushing to the scene of a car accident. Discovering that one of the victims is Senator Clayton Zachary Wheeler (Bradford Dillman), Walsh follows Wheeler’s ambulance to a nearby hospital. Unbeknownst to Walsh, creepy scientists abscond with the unconscious senator, then instigate a cover-up. Told that Wheeler was never admitted, Walsh endeavors to prove he saw what he saw.
          Meanwhile, Wheeler awakes in a remote facility operated by Dr. Redding (James Daly) and his associate, Dr. Johnson (Angie Dickinson). Redding explains that he performed experimental surgery by making a clone of Wheeler, then harvesting the clone for organs. What ensues is the usual potboiler stuff, with Walsh following clues while Wheeler appeals to Johnson’s humanity for help in escaping the madhouse. Executed with more zing, the story could have made for an entertaining lark, but the pacing is terrible, the production values are cheap, and the endless chitty-chat is interminable. So while The Resurrection of Zachary Wheeler isn’t a complete dud, it’s a wimpy version of something that could and should have been provocative. Later films with similar themes, including Coma (1978) and Parts: The Clonus Horror (1979), are much more enjoyable.

The Resurrection of Zachary Wheeler: FUNKY

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Queen of the Stardust Ballroom (1975)

          A lovely story about aging, identity, and romance, offbeat telefilm Queen of the Stardust Ballroom features a multidimensional leading performance by Maureen Stapleton, as well as a touching supporting turn from Charles Durning. Both were nominated for Emmys. Tracking the experiences of a woman in late middle age who struggles to build a new life after the death of her husband, Queen of the Stardust Ballroom explores the tender theme of how difficult it is to reconcile the disappointments of life with the desire to live happily, especially when the passage of time creates limitations. The central conceit involves dance, because the widow discovers new joy by visiting a ballroom where old songs provide the soundtrack, so there’s a certain innate elegance to the piece—among other things, the movie revels in the irony that heavyset Durning was light on his feet. Had the filmmakers presented their story without extraneous adornment, Queen of the Stardust Ballroom would have been a near-perfect gem. Alas, the filmmakers elected to make Queen of the Stardust Ballroom into a musical, with characters talk-singing several original tunes by the songwriting team of Marilyn and Alan Bergman. The songs are fine in and of themselves, but they diminish the movie’s verisimilitude instead of adding, as was undoubtedly the intention, to the story’s magic.
          The narrative begins with Bea Asher (Stapleton) losing her husband and beginning a lonely new life in her empty house in the Bronx. Her adult daughter lives in the suburbs, and her adult son relocates to Los Angeles. Determined to stay in the house where she’s lived for decades, Bea opens a junk shop but remains desperately lonely until a friend recommends she visit the Stardust Ballroom. That’s where Bea meets portly mailman Al Green (Durning). They connect through dancing and eventually become a couple, but problems—including judgment from Bea’s relatives—soon challenge their happiness. Through it all, writer Jerome Kass emphasizes the combination of excitement and fear Bea experiences every time she steps outside her comfort zone. Yet Queen of the Stardust Ballroom isn’t some manipulative piece about being young at heart; rather, it’s a bittersweet meditation on finding fulfillment no matter what compromised form it takes.
          Director Sam O’Steen, an Oscar-nominated film editor who helmed a handful of projects for the big and small screens, applies an unobtrusive style to the film’s storytelling, keeping the focus during dramatic scenes on the expressive faces of his actors and letting wide shots during dance scenes display figures gliding across the ballroom floor while lights bounce off the facets of a glitter ball. More than anything, Queen of the Stardust Ballroom is an actors’ piece, with the deep humanity that Stapleton and Durning bring to their roles infusing every scene. As for the songs, some are more jarring than others, though, to the Bergmans’ credit, Stapleton’s first number, “How Could You Do This To Me?”, sets up her character well. The songs are not the film’s best element, but they’re not egregious.

Queen of the Stardust Ballroom: GROOVY

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Goodbye, Norma Jean (1976)

It’s hard to avoid being salacious when telling the Marilyn Monroe story. She was raped, she posed for nude photos on multiple occasions, she traded sexual favors for career opportunities, and so on. The challenge for those dramatizing her life is to integrate sensational elements tastefully—in other words, to avoid the path taken by bottom-feeding hack Larry Buchanan while making Goodbye, Norma Jean. Starring onetime Hee-Haw honey Misty Rowe, this picture is a compendium of titillating vignettes, as if young Norma Jean Baker spent every waking moment of her life fending off unsolicited advances, then took control of her destiny by becoming the equivalent of prostitute, exchanging sex for screen tests until she finally won a legitimate role. There’s a grain of truth in that version of events, but Buchanan’s storyline is so simplistic and tacky as to be profoundly offensive. A sure sign of how little Buchanan cares about historical accuracy is the fact that Rowe has bright blonde hair throughout the movie, even though Norma Jean spent many of her pre-fame years as a brunette. Yet perhaps the saddest thing about Goodbye, Norma Jean is that it’s relatively watchable. The curvaceous Rowe appears naked in many scenes, and the storyline moves along at a brisk pace as Norma Jean leaves home, builds alliances, and suffers through one casting-couch nightmare after another until making her dreams of stardom come true. Moreover, the public’s enduring fascination with Monroe’s tragic life grants Goodbye, Norma Jean the illusion of relevance. Yet this is unquestionably a sleazefest disguised as a biopic, so even though Goodbye, Norma Jean is competently filmed and has the occasional resonant moment, the picture demonstrates that the indignities Monroe suffered did not end with her death; movies like this one prolong an ugly cycle of objectification and violation.

Goodbye, Norma Jean: LAME

Friday, April 21, 2017

Psyched by the 4D Witch (A Tale of Demonology) (1973)

Cinematic explorers who get their kicks finding the worst movies ever made will dig the supernatural-themed sex flick Psyched by the 4D Witch. The movie comprises an 80-minute hallucination, because filmmaker Victor Luminera—who never made another movie—employs so many acid-trip superimpositions, in-camera visual FX, and swirling colors that the picture resembles the background images from a Pink Floyd concert, only with nudie shots thrown in every so often. Had Luminera provided a soundtrack as bizarre as the visuals, Psyched by the 4D Witch might have become a minor landmark in experimental filmmaking. Alas, the voiceover-driven audio tells a linear story that grounds the images in dimwitted salaciousness. Protagonist Cindy, a girl-next-door blonde wearing Mary Pickford curls, complains about sexual hangups until she discovers a magical connection to Abigail, a witch from the fourth dimension who manifests as a pair of free-floating eyes. Abigail explains that she’ll take Cindy into extrasensory realms of carnal satisfaction, with each trip to the fourth dimension triggered by the command, “Let’s fantasy-fuck now!” At first, Cindy is reluctant, hence a line of dialogue that’s disturbing on many levels: “And I’ll still remain a virgin for my daddy?” The fourth-dimension humping scenes feature grody shots of Cindy stripping, guys (and girls) grinding away, and lots of visual noise layered atop the basic imagery, the better to accompany freaky sound collages. Luminera also subjects viewers to several iterations of the film’s atrocious fuzz-rock theme song. Offering an interminable hybrid of smut and trippiness, Psyched by the 4D Witch is nothing but tarted-up sleaze or an amateur film exercise gone horribly wrong, if not both.

Psyched by the 4D Witch (A Tale of Demonology): SQUARE

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Five Days from Home (1978)

          Among the least suspenseful chase films ever made, Five Days from Home stars George Peppard (who also directed) as a congenial convict who breaks out of jail so he can visit his hospitalized son. How congenial? The convict apologizes to people he abducts, keeps a running tab for debts he incurs, and leaves notes at stores he robs promising to reimburse the owners for damages and stolen items. Once the story adds in the notion that the protagonist was once a cop, it’s hard to accept that he was ever convicted for a crime, and the way he constantly evades capture makes the lawmen who are chasing him seem incompetent. Among the filmmakers’ strange storytelling choices is the decision to limit the protagonist’s shared screen time with his son to only one very brief scene. Since viewers are clearly expected to root for the antihero’s compassionate mission, wouldn’t it have made sense to present, say, flashbacks deepening and enriching the father-son relationship? Oh, well. Five Days from Home is pleasant enough to watch thanks to the inherent momentum of the storyline and the presence of a few mildly credible supporting characters. There’s even a cute dog in a few scenes, though the film’s odd poster greatly overstates the pup’s primacy within the narrative.
          The startling opening images promise a very different movie than Five Days Home actually delivers, because during the credits, T.M. Pryor (Peppard) is shown running naked except for boots through rugged bayou country in Louisiana. After clothing himself, Pryor sneaks a ride on a passing cargo truck, escaping the vicinity of his former prison and making his way toward the nearest city. He acquires guns and kidnaps a dumpy young woman named Wanda (Sherry Boucher), who drives him across several state lines. They bond somewhat, though T.M. remains focused on reaching his boy, who was hurt in a car accident. Way too much screen time elapses before the story introduces T.M.’s main pursuer, Inspector Markley (Neville Brand), and his presence never generates much tension. The film’s most colorful passage begins with T.M. and Wanda commandeering a car driven by a sleazy businessman, who is on his way to a tryst with his secretary/mistress. Appalled by the businessman’s immorality, T.M. contrives to humiliate the man without inflicting bodily harm. The ending of the picture is never in doubt, and the portrayal of the antihero as a tight-lipped man of principle rings false. Nonetheless, Five Days from Home moves along at a fair clip, and the friction between the nastiness of Peppard’s screen persona and the wholesomeness of his character creates an interestingly weird vibe.

Five Days from Home: FUNKY

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

MIA: Rare '70s Movies

Greetings, people of Every ’70s Movie! Last month, I wrote a post asking for help finding obscure ’70s flicks for review purposes, and I’m happy to report that intrepid readers helped me track town Boardwalk (1979), The Double McGuffin (1979), Marriage of a Young Stockbroker (1971), Pigeons (1970), Rivals (1972), Stand Up and Be Counted (1972), and Sudden Death (1977). Thank you! (Here’s a very special shout-out to reader Eric R. in Chicago, for service above and beyond the call of duty.) Now it’s time for another list of ’70s movies that have proved elusive. If anyone has access to copies of these films, please share. Information about commercially released DVDs is helpful, since I’m thus far stumped on these titles, and streaming links on legit sites are even better. If by some chance you physically own tapes or videos and can loan or render copies, please e-mail me directly. (It’s my preference to avoid download sites, and I’m aware that some of these titles are available on such sites, so no need to hip me to, say, Thanks in advance, and keep on keepin’ on!

Coast to Coast (1980, US, with Robert Blake)
Country Music (1972, US, with Marty Robbins)
Cry for Me, Billy a/k/a Face to the Wind (1972, US, with Harry Dean Stanton)
The Devil Is a Woman (1973, Italy/UK, with Glenda Jackson)
The Farmer (1977, US, with Angel Tompkins)
Glass Houses (1972, US, with Jennifer O’Neill)
The Jerusalem File (1972, Israel/US, with Bruce Davison)
Joe Hill (1971, Sweden/US, d. Bo Widerberg)
Limbo (1972, US, with Kate Jackson)
The Little Ark (1972, US, with Theodore Bikel)
Mackintosh and T.J. (1975, US, with Roy Rogers)
The Nelson Affair a/k/a Bequest to the Nation (1973, UK, with Glenda Jackson)
Newman’s Law (1974, US, with George Peppard)
Nunzio (1978, US, with David Proval)
Sammy Stops the World (1978, US, with Sammy Davis Jr.)
Shhh (1975, US, with Rita Moreno)
Sidecar Racers (1975, Australia/US, with Peter Graves)
Skullduggery (1970, US, with Burt Reynolds)
Slow Dancing in the Big City (1978, US, with Paul Sorvino)
Story of a Woman (1970, Italy/US, with Robert Stack)
Trader Horn (1973. US, with Rod Taylor)
Two People (1973, US, with Peter Fonda)
The Way We Live Now (1970, US, d. Barry Brown)
Welcome to the Club (1971, US, with Jack Warden)
You and Me (1975, US, with David Carradine)

Lucky Luciano (1973)

          One of myriad mob flicks made after The Godfather (1971) restored the gangster genre to its place in the mainstream, Lucky Luciano is a discombobulated affair. Buried inside the movie’s confusing sprawl is a passable character study of Charles “Lucky” Luciano, the individual credited with establishing the Mafia’s foothold in New York City. Italian actor Gian Maria Volonté renders an adequate portrayal, illustrating Luciano’s descent from a position of remarkable power to life as a marked man. At his best, Volonté sketches a cocksure criminal who deftly employed the media while all but daring authorities and enemies to come at him. Had the makers of this multinational coproduction limited their efforts to describing Luciano’s eventful career in organized crime, the picture would have been more effective. As is, the movie lacks flow thanks to a disjointed timeline, excessive focus on supporting characters, and the failure to clearly define Luciano as an individual before the plot kicks into gear. Throughout the first half-hour, Luciano is so incidental to his own story that it’s difficult to track what the movie’s about. Then, just when it seems as if the filmmakers have found their way, they detour into a pointless informant subplot that features a typically grandiose turn by Rod Steiger. Oh, well.
          After glossing over one of Luciano’s most important milestones, the mass murder of 40 bosses and the subsequent consolidation of power, the picture winds through perplexing scenes about profiteering in post-WWII Italy and vignettes of a Senate investigation. Actors including Charles Cioffi and Vincent Gardenia come and go in meaningless roles before the story proper gets underway. Thanks to a controversial deal with government officials, Luciano receives extradition to his native Italy instead of jail time for alleged crimes. While in Italy, Luciano tries operating his criminal enterprises from afar, but investigators and mobsters close in on him. Some want Luciano behind bars, while others want him dead. The quality of the filmmaking is never superlative. In one bit, a tired-looking Edmund O’Brien spews reams of dull exposition, and in another, a somewhat exciting chase scene gets smothered beneath overly explanatory voiceover. By the time the movie reaches its final stretch, depicting Luciano’s reaction to government pressure and threats from adversaries, it’s difficult to care about his plight or even to parse exactly why things are happening. So while Lucky Luciano has enough in the way of familiar faces and production values to qualify as passable mob-movie fare, it’s a dud from a narrative perspective.

Lucky Luciano: FUNKY

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Stand Up and Be Counted (1972)

          In what should be a standout moment during the feminism-themed comedy Stand Up and Be Counted, ladies meet for a rap session about their encounters with sexism. Participants include Dr. Joyce Brothers (as herself), future Jeffersons star Isabel Sanford, and a nun. Alas, comedic sparks never fly, because like the rest of this flat-footed studio picture written and directed by men, the scene devolves into oversimplifications and slogans. Progressive-minded producer Mike Frankovich and his collaborators, director Jackie Cooper and screenwriter Bernard Slade, seem as if they perceived the women’s-lib movement as a whimsical fad. To a one, the feminists in this movie are portrayed as shrill whiners whose only real accomplishment is alienating the men in their lives. The picture ends on a fairly hip note, so it’s not quite as dunderheaded an affair as the preceding remarks might suggest. Nonetheless, there’s a reason Stand Up and Be Counted is not remembered as a milestone in Equal Rights Amendment-era propaganda.
          Jacqueline Bisset stars as Sheila, a fashion reporter assigned to do a magazine story on the burgeoning women’s movement. To do so, she flies to her hometown of Denver. (The script pathetically explains Bisset’s English accent by saying she spent time in London.) During the flight, Sheila rekindles her romance with an ex, Elliot (Gary Lockwood). In Denver, Sheila discovers that her mother is part of a “Senior Women’s Liberation” organization, and that her ultra-feminist younger sister, Karen (Lee Purcell), wants to hire a man to impregnate her. Torn between new and old ideas about gender roles, Sheila moves in with Elliot, only to discover he’s a patronizing chauvinist. Other threads involve a housewife rebelling against her domineering husband, and a trophy wife demanding respect for the work she does at her husband’s bra factory.
          Stand Up and Be Counted is one of those bad movies that isn’t really a bad movie. In its clumsy way, the film means well, but problems compound problems. Sheila is a hopelessly passive character, thus draining the movie of momentum, and supporting players deliver livelier work than Bisset, causing her presence to seem ornamental. (She’s simultaneously breathtaking and uninteresting.) Lockwood’s performance is lifeless, Purcell is feisty but underused, and minor turns by comic pros including Hector Elizondo, Steve Lawrence, Loretta Swit, and Nancy Walker offer only fleeting relief from the overall mediocrity. FYI, although Helen Reddy’s anthem “I Am Woman” plays during the closing credits, it was not composed for the picture. After releasing the tune a year before, Reddy re-recorded “I Am Woman” for Stand Up and Be Counted, and the second version became a hit.

Stand Up and Be Counted: FUNKY

Monday, April 17, 2017

The Double McGuffin (1979)

          After scoring a major success with the independently produced canine caper Benji (1974), writer-director Joe Camp made two attempts at expanding his film career beyond Benji sequels and spinoffs. First came Hawmps! (1976), a silly lark about cavalrymen using camels instead of horses, and next came this youth-oriented Hitchcock homage. As any good student of the Master of Suspense knows, a “McGuffin” is a plot device that triggers action, such as the key in Notorious (1946) or the microfilm in North by Northwest (1959). Therefore the gimmick behind this movie, as Orson Welles explains during brief narration toward the beginning, is that the plot involves two separate McGuffins. Specifically, a mischievous boy discovers a suitcase filled with money near a sewer pipe, then brings his friends back to the area, where they discover the suitcase has been replaced with a dead body. Thereafter, the lads embark on a mystery-solving adventure that becomes a race against time once clues reveal a plan to murder someone at their school’s homecoming game. Echoing the classic Hitch tradition, the scenario grows more convoluted with each new development, so the kids discover international intrigue as well as hitmen and payoffs. Dogging the youthful investigators is a kindhearted local cop.
          On the plus side, The Double McGuffin is slickly produced, with peppy work by the young leading actors and proficient supporting turns by Ernest Borgnine, George Kennedy, and Elke Sommer. On the minus side, Camp’s writing is not as strong as his filmmaking. Too often, he slips into mawkishness and triviality, and several long scenes of interplay among the schoolchildren are boring. Worse, the film’s pacing is so unhurried and the narrative events are so inconsequential that the film nearly evaporates at regular intervals. One gets the sense of Camp being way too nice behind the camera, since much focus is given to the performance of newcomer Dion Pride, son of country singer Charley Pride. Papa Pride, of course, crooned the theme song for Benji, and Pride the Younger does the honors here. Doing a solid for a pal is lovely, but it doesn’t make for engrossing cinema. And let’s be honest: There’s only so high a juvenile Hitchcock riff can rise when the leading lady is Lisa Whelchel, later to achieve fame as “Blair” on The Facts of Life. One of the great screen sirens she is not.

The Double McGuffin: FUNKY

Sunday, April 16, 2017

1980 Week: Simon

          Following impressive runs as Johnny Carson’s head writer from 1969 to 1970 and as Woody Allen’s writing partner for Sleeper (1973), Annie Hall (1977), and Manhattan (1979), Marshall Brickman launched a brief and only moderately successful directorial career with the sci-fi satire Simon. Starring Alan Arkin in a role well-suited to the actor’s unique gifts, the movie bears obvious traces of Allen’s cinematic style, although Brickman is unable to match his former collaborator on the levels of hilarity, insight, and substance. Simon is mostly sorta-funny and sorta-smart, so the film is only sorta-memorable. Seen today, the movie loses even more potency because so many of the jokes are directed at the extremes of hippy-dippy ’70s scientists—for instance, the picture’s main villain evokes turtleneck-loving ’70s science star Carl Sagan, who deserves better than to be used as the visual reference for a nefarious character.
          Borrowing a gimmick that Allen used many times, the movie opens like a documentary, introducing viewers to the great minds at the Institute for Advanced Concepts, a think tank funded with seemingly unlimited government money. Under the supervision of Dr. Carl Becker (Austin Pendleton), the eggheads at the institute contrive experiments for amusement rather than for higher purposes, for instance skewing Nielson ratings to help the variety show Donnie & Marie become a hit. One day, the scientists decide it would be fun to convince the American public than an alien lives among them. After running data, they identify college professor Simon Mendelssohn (Arkin) as the individual most susceptible to the suggestion that he’s from another planet. Mendelssohn is a low-rent theorist whose desire to make an important social contribution far exceeds his talents, so he’s flattered when he’s invited to join the think tank—and he’s thrilled when Becker and his cronies reveal their “discovery” of Mendelssohn’s true origins. Later, once the eggheads present Mendelssohn to the world, Simon goes rogue, using pirate-broadcasting technology to share his supposedly extraterrestrial wisdom with the people of the world.
          Brickman, who cowrote the film’s original story with Thomas Baum, can’t figure out where to take the outlandish concept, and he can’t sustain a consistent tone. Although the movie never slides into full-on stupidity, various broad jokes diminish the clever gags by association. It’s also distracting that cinematographer Adam Holender so obviously mimics the shadow-drenched shooting style of master DP Gordon Willis, who shot Annie Hall and Manhattan. Arkin scores a few wonderfully silly moments, Pendleton’s performance is quite sly, and leading lady Judy Graubart, as Mendelssohn’s rightfully skeptical girlfriend, is charming in a neurotic sort of way. (The great Madeline Kahn is wasted in a too-small supporting role.) Yet the real problem with the picture is that it’s hard to care what happens to the main character, who toggles between obnoxious and pathetic.

Simon: FUNKY