Let’s Go to the Drive-In with Charles Bronson in BREAKOUT (Columbia 1975)

Charles Bronson  finally achieved superstar status in the 1970’s after years of toiling in supporting parts thanks to drive-in fare like THE MECHANIC, MR. MAJESTYK, and the DEATH WISH films. 1975’s BREAKOUT had a bigger budget, a better than average cast, and major studio support, but at it’s heart it’s still a drive-in movie, albeit a cut above the usual action flick.

Bronson casts aside his normal stoic, stone-faced screen persona as Nick Colton, a somewhat shady pilot/mercenary who’ll do anything for a buck. Charlie’s quite a charmer here, displaying a sense a humor and talking a lot more than usual. He’s in rare form, getting to display his acting chops, honed through over two decades in the business, and is obviously having a good time in the role.

Nick is hired by Ann Wagner to rescue  her husband Jay, framed by his own grandfather and sentenced to a ruthless Mexican pennitentary. Seems Jay’s been stepping on some special interest toes South of the Border, including the CIA. Nick and his partner Hawk make several attempts to free Jay without success, and now it’s become personal. After all, he’s got a reputation to uphold!  Nick finally figures a way to pull it off by creating a diversion and landing a helicopter in the middle of the prison courtyard, and flies away, only to encounter trouble at customs with Grandpa’s murderous agent Cable in the film’s exciting conclusion.

Bronson’s actress wife Jill Ireland plays Ann in their 10th of 17 films together. They may not be Bogie & Bacall, but the couple did have good chemistry onscreen and off, and their marriage lasted until Ireland’s death from breast cancer in 1990. Ann’s husband Jay is Robert Duvall , another actor who came up through the ranks and hit it big in the 70’s starting with THE GODFATHER. Veteran director John Huston pulls the strings as grandfather Harris Wagner in what amounts to a glorified cameo. Another actor/director, Mexico’s Emilio Fernandez, plays the brutal prison jefe. A pre-legal woes Randy Quaid is Nick’s partner-in-crime Hawk, even getting to dress in drag at one point (and you haven’t lived until you’ve seen Quaid in drag!). Sexy Sheree North still looks hot as she did in her heyday as Myrna, part of Nick’s diversion scheme. Other Familiar Faces in the cast are Sidney Clute, Roy Jenson, Paul Mantee (ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS), Alejandro Rey , and Alan Vint (MACON COUNTY LINE).

BREAKOUT’s director Tom Gries isn’t a household name, but he made some good films, including the classic Western WILL PENNY with Charlton Heston,   100 RIFLES, LADY ICE, and BREAKHEART PASS (also starring Bronson). He was a prolific TV director, helming the TV movies THE GLASS HOUSE (another prison drama that won him an Emmy), the sci-fi saga EARTH II, and HELTER SKELTER, a two-parter about the Manson murder trial. Gries was also the creator of the 60’s WWII series THE RAT PATROL, starring drive-in favorite Christopher George.

BREAKOUT has no pretensions about it’s place as a drive-in movie, despite the cast and budget. In fact, that’s where I first saw it, at a local drive-in in Fairhaven, MA back in the day. It’s one of my favorite Charles Bronson films, and the star looks like he’s enjoying it as much as I did. I think you will, too!

 

Screwball Comedian: Joe E. Brown in ALIBI IKE (Warner Brothers 1935)

We’re about a quarter of the way through the baseball season, so let’s take a trip to the ballpark with Joe E. Brown in ALIBI IKE, a 1935 comedy based on a story by Ring Lardner, one of the best baseball writers of the early 20th Century. Brown, known for his wide mouth and comical yell, is an admittedly acquired taste; his “gosh, golly” country bumpkin persona is not exactly what modern audiences go for these days.  But back in the 30’s he was one of Hollywood’s top box-office draws, specializing in sports themed comedies  revolving around wrestling (SIT TIGHT), track and field (LOCAL BOY MAKES GOOD), swimming (YOU SAID A MOUTHFUL), polo (POLO JOE), football ($1,000 A TOUCHDOWN), and racing (boats in TOP SPEED, airplanes in GOING WILD, bicycles in SIX DAY BIKE RACE).

ALIBI IKE is the final chapter in Brown’s “baseball trilogy”. The first, 1932’s FIREMAN, SAVE MY CHILD, found him as a player for the St. Louis Cardinals who doubles as a fireman and part-time inventor. 1933’s ELMER THE GREAT has Brown as an egotistical rookie for the Chicago Cubs. In ALIBI IKE, he’s back in a Cubs uniform as Frank X. Farrell, a hick-from-the-sticks with an unorthodox pitching style and a blazing fastball. His teammates nickname him “Alibi Ike” for his proclivity to come up with an outrageous excuse for everything, but his raw talent sets the league abuzz, raising the hopes of the Cubs long-suffering manager Cap (played by Fred Mertz himself, cranky William Frawley).

The rube’s never been interested in women until he meets Cap’s sister-in-law Dolly, who thinks he’s “cute”. This was movie audiences first glimpse at a 19-year-old actress who definitely had a future before her… Olivia de Havilland ! Olivia had already filmed A MIDSUMMER’S NIGHT DREAM (also featuring Brown) and THE IRISH IN US, but ALIBI IKE was released first. She’s pretty darn “cute” herself as Dolly, and has great chemistry with Brown. Later that year, Olivia would costar with Errol Flynn in CAPTAIN BLOOD , becoming half of one of the screen’s most romantic couples.

Ike is paid a visit by the president of “The Young Men’s High Ideals Club”, which he soon finds out is a front for a gambling ring that threatens him to throw some games or else! When Dolly breaks up with him over a misunderstanding, the lovestruck hurler loses his first game. Through circumstances, Cap and the team’s president think he’s in with the gamblers, and on the night of the big pennant deciding game against the Giants, Ike is kidnapped! Of course, you just know he’ll escape and wind up winning both the game and the girl, right?

The only quibble I have with ALIBI IKE is the big night game is played on the Cubs’ home field, which as all us baseball fans know didn’t get lights for night games until 1988! Otherwise, this is one of the all-time great baseball comedies, with actors that actually look like ball players for a change. The cast includes Familiar Faces Ruth Donnelly (as Frawley’s wife), Roscoe Karns, Jack Norton  (sober for a change, as a reporter!), Frank Coghlin Jr (Billy Batson in the serial CAPTAIN MARVEL), and Fred “Snowflake” Toones. Hard-core baseball enthusiasts may recognize former old-time players Gump Cantrell, Cedric Durst, Mike Gazella, Don Hurst, and Bob Meusel, as well as Jim Thorpe, whose life story was made into a 1951 biofilm starring Burt Lancaster.

William Wister Haines adapted his screenplay from Lardner’s story, giving Brown plenty of comic opportunities, and director Ray Enright ( PLAY-GIRL , ANGELS WASH THEIR FACES, GUNG HO!) keeps things moving along at a brisk pace. ALIBI IKE is a wonderful place to start if you’re not familiar with Brown’s work, classic movie lovers will want to catch it for Olivia’s screen debut, and baseball fans for the sheer joy of it. Honestly, I think even non-baseball fans will get a kick out of ALIBI IKE. Now let’s play ball!

 

The Legend of BILLY JACK Continues! (National Student film Co 1971, re-released by Warner Brothers 1973)

When last we saw Billy Jack, he was dismantling a brood of outlaw bikers in BORN LOSERS . This time around, he’s taking on a whole town’s worth of rednecks as Tom Laughlin’s half-breed ex-Green Beret returns in BILLY JACK, the wildly popular film that combines action with social commentary, and helped kick off the martial arts craze of the 70’s.

BILLY JACK almost never saw the light of day, as Laughlin’s financing was shut off by American-International Pictures. 20th Century-Fox then picked it up, but didn’t think it deserved to be released, so Laughlin went the indie route, under the banner of National Student Film Co. in 1971. Poor distribution and poor reviews caused the film to tank, but the good folks at Warner Brothers saw something in it, and gave it a national release two years later. Young audiences of the day flocked to it in droves, cheering as Billy Jack took on the establishment and kicked their asses, and the studio had an unexpected hit on their hands!

The movie begins as local bigwig Stuart Posner and his boys, including Deputy Mike, conduct an illegal wild mustang hunt for a dog food company on Indian land. Here comes Billy jack, defender of the land, animals, and the downtrodden, astridehis horse and toting a rifle. “When policeman break the law, there is no law”, he says, “only a fight for survival”. The group of poachers back down, because he’s Billy Jack, and they’re not!

Mike gets home to find his wayward daughter Barbara has been retrieved from running away to Haight-Ashbury (where all them damn hippies live!). Not only is she pregnant, she doesn’t know who the father is, so loving dad Mike gives her a punch in the face! She runs away again, passes out in the woods, and is naturally found by Billy Jack, who takes her to the Freedom School, run by progressive pacifist Jean Roberts, where the kids learn to develop their passions for music, poetry, and acting.

Some of the kids head into town, and are harassed at the local ice cream parlor by bunch of toughs who pour flour on the Native Americans, turning them white. Guess who happens to show up? If you said Billy Jack, give yourself a hand! This is a great scene, with Billy Jack doing a real slow burn, his anger building, finally kicking the crap out of the bullies. One of the punks is Posner’s snotty kid Bernard, and the rich father sends his goons after Billy, who gets to strut his Hapkido stuff, including this…

…kick to Posner’s face (doubled for this one kick by Master Bong Soo Han of KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE fame). But the odds are against him, and Billy Jack takes a beating by the thugs until the sympathetic town sheriff puts a stop to it. Tensions mount, and the Freedom School students attend a City Counsel meeting in a rowdy, rambunctious Town Hall scene that features an 11-year-old reading a speech on law and order given by Hitler in 1932, a fiery debate on constitutional rights, and insults hurled between the establishment and the kids (Councilman: “When was the last time you cut your hair?” Student: “When was the last time you brushed your teeth?”). It’s like something straight out of today’s cable news!

Now comes the Ceremony of the Snake scene, in which Billy Jack has to endure being bitten repeatedly by a rattler in order to receive a vision from his ancestors in the spirit world. Yeesh! Creepy Bernard takes the gullible Miss False Eyelashes for a ride to the lake in his $6,000 Corvette, then tries to molest her while digging for info on Barbara’s whereabouts. You guessed it, Billy Jack shows up (the man is everywhere!), and gives Bernard a choice – get your ass kicked or drive that ‘Vette into the lake! Cowardly Bernard chooses the latter, but gets his revenge by tying up and raping Jean in a brutal scene.

Jean confides in student Cindy, but makes her promise not to tell Billy Jack for fear of a violent reprisal (“Damn your pacifism!”, says Cindy). Barbara gets injured in a horseback riding accident and loses her baby, then Posner, Mike, and company kidnap passive Indian Martin, who they suspect is banging Barb. Cindy brandishes a shotgun and helps him escape, but the rednecks grab her. Yup, Billy Jack pops up out of nowhere and saves her! Martin is hunted down and killed by Bernard, and now Billy Jack, having ferreted out the truth from Jean, is out for blood. Jean tries to stop him, but Billy’s having none of it:

Billy: “You worked with (Martin Luther) King, where is he?”

Jean: “Dead.”

Billy: “Where’s Bob and Jack Kennedy?”

Jean: “Dead”.

Billy: “Not dead, their head’s blown off, because your people (the whites) wouldn’t even put the same controls on their guns as they did on their dogs, their cats, their bicycles!”

And with that, Billy Jack goes into action, catching Bernard in bed with an underaged girl, taking a  gunshot in the abdomen, then icing the punk with one swift karate chop. Deputy Mike comes after Billy, and receives a bullet in the head! Now Billy Jack holes up in an old church as local and state police arrive, along with the requisite media circus. There’s a violent shootout as Billy holds the cops off, but Jean, the sheriff, and a sympathetic local doctor (there’s ALWAYS a sympathetic local doctor in these type of films, isn’t there?) finally persuade him to give himself up. In return, Billy asks for certain conditions to be met regarding the school and the Natives. As our hero is cuffed and led away, the kids all raise their fists in the “Power to the People” salute as the theme song plays in an emotional final scene.

Star Tom Laughlin, director T.C. Frank, and co-writer Frank Christina are all one and the same person. Co-writer Teresa Christina is Laughlin’s wife Delores Taylor, who plays the pacifistic Jean. Even the couple’s daughter Teresa gets into the act as a student who warbles a bizarre tune called “My Brother’s Dead”. Of note in the cast is 50’s sci-fi stalwart Kenneth Tobey (THE THING ,  BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA ) playing Deputy Mike.  As opposed to his creature feature heroics, Tobey’s a real S.O.B here. Most of the rest of the cast isn’t well-known, except Bert Freed (Posner) and Richard Stahl (council president). The improv group The Committee (with a young Howard Hesseman, billed as Don Sturdy) play members of the school faculty and engage in some skits.

Say what you will about BILLY JACK: it’s dated, its politics is reactionary, it’s platitudes are self-righteous. Makes no differences to me, I freakin’ LOVE this film! Tom Laughlin scored a bull’s-eye for many moviegoers with BILLY JACK, stating sometimes you have to fight fire with fire. It’s a bold statement, and one that’s not very popular with some, but BILLY JACK is the little exploitation film that made good because it struck the right chord with its audience ( including yours truly), perfectly capturing the zeitgeist of the times. Plus I’ve always wanted to use the word “zeitgeist” in a post!

Fashions and hairstyles may have changed, but people are still politically polarized, the establishment still holds all the cards, young people are still as disaffected as ever, and Town Hall meetings are still rambunctious. The more things change, the more they stay the same, and there’s no one willing to stand up  and fight for the little guy anymore.

 

Where are you now when we need you, Billy Jack?!?!

Another Milestone: Who Knew?

When I posted today’s “One Hit Wonders #2: “One Tin Soldier (Theme from BILLY JACK)’ , I had no idea until now it was my 500th post here on Cracked Rear Viewer! Time certainly flies when you’re having fun, and I thank you all for making this blog well worth my time and effort. Tune in tomorrow for #502, my review of BILLY JACK, the movie! And if you’re on Facebook, please like and follow Cracked Rear Viewer’s page for extras on film, music, and more!

One Hit Wonders #2: “One Tin Solder (Theme from BILLY JACK)” by Coven (1973)

The theme song from Tom Laughlin’s BILLY JACK has quite a history behind it. First recorded by Canadian band The Original Caste in 1969, it became a #1 hit… in Canada! When Laughlin was making his picture, the song was re-recorded in 1971 by singer Jinx Dawson of the psychedelic occult-themed proto-metal group Coven. The Dennis Lambert/Brian Potter penned tune made it to #26 on the U.S. charts, but the film itself was poorly  distributed. Warner Bothers picked it up two years later, then Jinx and the band re-re-recorded the song, reaching #79 in 1973:

Coven made their debut with the 1969 LP “Witchcraft Destroys Minds and Reaps Souls”, featuring songs like “For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge”, “Dignitaries of Hell”, and the 13-minute opus “Satanic Mass”, which consists of ominous chanting and prayers to Satan in Latin! Coven is credited with introducing the “devil’s horns” sign to rock, later appropriated by virtually every heavy metal musician ever. Jinx and Coven are still around, having developed a cult following among metal maniacs via the Internet:

Rock on, Jinx!

(BTW, tune in tomorrow for a look at the movie BILLY JACK!)

Something Wilder: THE ADVENTURE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES’ SMARTER BROTHER (20th Century-Fox 1975)

The late Gene Wilder was well loved by filmgoers for his work with Mel Brooks, his movies alongside Richard Pryor, and his iconic role as Willie Wonka. Wilder had co-written the screenplay for Brooks’ YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, and now branched out on his own as writer/director/star of 1975’s THE ADVENTURE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES’ SMARTER BROTHER.

The zany tale, set in 1891, finds Sherlock’s jealous brother Sigerson (Wilder, who derisively calls his more famous sibling “Sheer-Luck”) assigned to the case of music hall singer Jenny Hill (Madeline Kahn) who’s being blackmailed by opera singer Eduardo Gambetti (the enormously funny Dom DeLuise ). Assisting Sigerson is his own Watson, the pop-eyed Sgt. Orville Stacker (Marty Feldman), blessed with “a photographic sense of hearing” that he can only access by whacking himself upside the head. The plot thickens as Sigerson learns Jenny’s a practiced liar (who only trusts men when she’s sexually aroused), she’s actually the daughter of British Foreign Secretary Redcliff… which is another lie; she’s Redcliff’s fiancé, and has handed over an important document to Gambetti, who’s about to sell it to none other than the infamous Professor Moriarty (Leo McKern)!

Wilder displays a keen eye for film in his directorial debut. Like his friend Brooks, he’s obviously a student of the medium, and the film is a visual delight. There’s plenty of laughs to be had, like the scene where Sigerson and Sacker are trapped by Moriarty and Gambetti in a tiny room menaced by a buzzsaw, and escape by the seats of their pants… literally! The comic highlight is “A Masked Ball”, an opera parody starring Gambetti and Jenny invaded by Sigerson, Sacker, and Moriarty’s henchman (Roy Kinnear) where the document is passed around, all with expert comedy timing. Following this is a swashbuckling sequence with Wilder taking on the dastardly McKern.

Wilder, Feldman, and Kahn are all reunited from YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, while McKern and Kinnear were previously paired in The Beatles film HELP! Douglas Wilmer, who starred as Sherlock in the 60’s BBC TV series, donned the deerstalker cap once again; his Watson is Thorley Walters, who essayed the part in three Holmes films. And yes, that’s the voice of Mel Brooks behind the door in a parody of “The Lady or The Tiger?’.

There are plenty of musical sequences in the movie, including the bizarre “Kangaroo Hop”. THE ADVENTURE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES’ SMARTER BROTHER is a madcap romp, but just a notch below Wilder’s films with Brooks. He’d go on to write and direct three more films; THE WOMAN IN RED was his most popular, though I prefer his silent era spoof THE WORLD’S GREATEST LOVER (let’s not talk about HAUNTED HONEYMOON). Still, it’s a solid first effort for Wilder in the director’ seat, with a sterling cast of comic pros, and if you like Mel Brooks’ brand of buffoonery, you’ll definitely enjoy this film, too.

 

Creature Double Feature 3: THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD (UA 1957) & THE GIANT CLAW (Columbia 1957)

Welcome to another exciting edition of Creature Double Feature, a fond look back at the type of weird and wonderful monster movies that used to be broadcast Saturday afternoons on Boston’s WLVI-TV 56. Today we’ve got twin terrors from 1957, one beneath the sea, the other above the skies. Let’s dive right in with THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD, a soggy saga starring former cowboy star Tim Holt and a monstrous giant sea slug!

An earthquake has released the beast in California’s Salton Sea, and when a Navy parachutist and a rescue crew goes missing, Commander “Twill” Twillinger (Holt) investigates. A mysterious, sticky white goo is found on board (no “money shot” cracks, please!), and a sample is taken to the lab of Dr. Rogers (Hans Conreid). Rogers analyzes the substance, a “simple marine secretion” (again, no wisecracks!), later discovered to be radioactive.

Rogers’ secretary Gail (Audrey Dalton) and Twill get off on the wrong foot, so you know their destined to fall in love. That’s just the way it goes in these films. Anyway, Twill and the local sheriff (Gordon Jones, THE ABBOTT & COSTELLO SHOW’s Mike the Cop) pay a visit to the coroner, who tells them the bodies have been “drained of blood and water”, then offers them a sandwich from his cold-storage unit (they politely decline!). Meanwhile, the beaches have been temporarily closed, but some foolish young lovers decide to take a swim, and of course become the monster’s next victims.

Twill decides to “investigate the bottom of the sea”, and some fine underwater photography finds the divers discovering some giant six-foot eggs! One large egg is hauled up by net, pissing Mama Monster off, and she goes on the offensive. Dr. Rogers does his analyzation thing, and proclaims the giant slug is a descendant of none other than the legendary Kraken! A local historian named Lewis Clark Dobbs, played by marvelous Milton Parsons , finds a map of underground waterways, and the Navy blows up the nest. But that egg in the lab hatches thanks to Gail’s daughter Sandy, and terrorizes the girls until Twill arrives, brandishing a fire extinguisher and a steam hose to subdue the menacing mollusk long enough for the forces of good to shoot it down in a hail of bullets.

Holt had been off the screen five years before this film, and he’s looking a little paunchy, but still makes a believable hero. The actor was typecast as a ‘B’ cowboy, rarely getting his chance to show his acting chops (except in THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS and TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE). The rest of the cast is fine, and I enjoyed the bit by horror vet Parsons (is his character’s name an homage to TREASURE’S Fred C. Dobbs? Only screenwriter Pat Fielder knows for sure!). The monster itself is more cute and cuddly rather than creepy, but on the whole the movie’s an okay if by-the-book entry in the giant monster sweepstakes. Director Arnold Laven and producers Arthur Gardner and Jules Levy later had greater success as the team behind TV’s THE RIFLEMAN and THE BIG VALLEY.

Now it’s on to THE GIANT CLAW, a much-maligned film from the King of Schlock Sam Katzman ! This one features one of the most laughable-looking monsters in genre history, a puppet resembling a giant prehistoric turkey! Shades of BLOOD FREAK ! The film follows the formula closely, with sci-fi stalwarts Jeff Morrow (THIS ISLAND EARTH, THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US), Mara Corday (TARANTULA, THE BLACK SCORPION), Morris Ankrum (INVADERS FROM MARS, EARTH VS THE FLYING SAUCERS ), and Robert Shayne (THE NEANDERTHAL MAN , TV’s ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN) all on board for a quick, enjoyable romp loaded with unintentional laughs.

Aeronautical engineer Mitch McAfee (Morrow) spots what he thinks is a UFO while flying the wild blue yonder in the Arctic. Mathematician Sally (Corday) scoffs, and the two are quickly at odds. You already know they hook up, right? While on reconnaissance, their plane crash lands, and they’re rescued by an actor with a terrible French-Canadian accent going by the original moniker of Pierre. McAfee and Sally recuperate at the bad-accented guy’s farm, when he hears trouble outside. Pierre is horrified by a sighting of what he thinks is La Carcagne, a mythical beast with “the face of a wolf and the body of a woman… with wings!”.

It’s really a giant turkey from outer space. The bird that is, not the movie! McAfee discovers the bird is flying in a concentric circular pattern, and Big Army Brass (sorry, wrong movie!) gives the order to shoot it down. But planes can’t stop it, “machine guns, cannons, rockets” don’t faze it. “It’s just a bird!”, screams Gen. Buskirk (Shayne), who keeps repeating “guns, cannons, rockets” like he’s shell-shocked! Scientists determine the bird is from “an anti-matter galaxy billions of light years from Earth. No other explanation is possible” because of course there’s not.

The “feathered nightmare on wings” is spotted around the globe, and Earth is in panic mode. A nest is discovered on Pierre’s farm, and McAfee and Sally shoot the egg, naturally pissing the bird off (just like our previous crustacean creature). Pierre becomes bird food, as do some dumb local teenage joyriders. There’s some scientific double-talk about “masic atoms” leading to the creation of a weapon powerful enough to breach the bird’s anti-matter shield. Meanwhile, our giant turkey monster is wreaking havoc in the Big Apple, attacking the UN building and the Empire State Building. That tremor you just felt was KING KONG rolling over in his grave! McAfee and the team commandeer an Air Force jet equipped with the new weapon, and pierce through the bird’s force field, enabling them to destroy the turkey with conventional rockets. Yay, team!

Ray Harryhausen was originally scheduled to handle the special effects, but when his price was deemed too high, the ever-frugal Katzman contracted the work to a Mexican outfit that created the silly looking bird puppet. Despite the fact that the monster is so ludicrous, I really enjoyed THE GIANT CLAW. It’s fast-moving and fun, with nary a wasted minute thanks to El Cheapo Katzman. The likable cast play their roles earnestly, and a good time is had by all. Except for the bird, of course!

Tune in next time for more madness on CREATURE DOUBLE FEATURE!

And check out previous entries in the series:

  1. THE BLACK SCORPION & THE KILLER SHREWS 
  2. IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA & 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH