Royal Flush: THE CINCINNATI KID (MGM 1965)

There are movies about the high-stakes world of poker, and then there’s THE CINCINNATI KID. This gripping look at backroom gambling has long been a favorite of mine because of the high-powered all-star cast led by two acting icons from two separate generations – “The Epitome of Cool” Steve McQueen and “Original Gangster” Edward G. Robinson . The film was a breakthrough for director Norman Jewison, who went after this from lightweight fluff like 40 POUNDS OF TROUBLE and SEND ME NO FLOWERS to weightier material like IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT and THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR.

The film revolves around a poker showdown between up and coming young stud Eric Stoner, known as The Kid, and veteran Lancey Howard, venerated in card playing circles as The Man. This theme of young tyro vs old pro wasn’t exactly groundbreaking, having been hashed and rehashed in countless Westerns over the years, but screenwriters Terry Southern and Ring Lardner Jr’s changing the setting from a dusty cowtown to a five-card stud table for that inevitable showdown makes all the difference.

THE PLAYERS

Steve McQueen as The Kid

McQueen was at the top of his game after starring in hits like THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN and THE GREAT ESCAPE, and his intense underplaying as The Kid captures the zeitgeist of mid-60’s cool like no other.

Edward G. Robinson as Lancey, “The Man”

Eddie G. had burst into screen history as bombastic Rico Bandello in LITTLE CAESAR 35 years earlier, but his performance here is both shaded and subtle. Robinson SHOULD’VE won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, but wasn’t even nominated – Yet Another Oscar Crime (in my humble opinion)!

Ann-Margret  as Melba

For my money, nobody did onscreen sluttiness  better than Annie, and here she’s at her steamy best as trampy Melba, wife of game dealer Shooter.

Karl Malden  as Shooter

Malden excels as the cuckolded, compromised dealer, saddled with both a loveless marriage to Melba and huge debts to rich gambler Slade. Like Robinson, Malden should have been at least considered for an Oscar nom.

Tuesday Weld  as Christian

The criminally underrated Miss Weld turns in a fine performance as The Kid’s sweet but slightly dimwitted girl Christian. Tuesday had previously costarred opposite McQueen in SOLDIER IN THE RAIN, and the pair work well together.

Joan Blondell  as Lady Fingers

Another 30’s icon, Our Girl Joanie is at her best as the boisterous, been-there-done-that relief dealer Lady Fingers. Blondell and Robinson were reunited here for the first time since 1936’s BULLETS OR BALLOTS, and watching these two old pros together again is a joy!

Rip Torn  as Slade

The late, great Rip Torn, who passed away a few short days ago at age 88, plays Slade, the bad guy of the piece. He’s the embodiment of Southern decadence, and is always worth watching (for more Rip Torn performances, watch his Judas Iscariot in KING OF KINGS, writer Henry Miller in TROPIC OF CANCER, country singer Maury Dann in PAYDAY, and of course Zed in the MEN IN BLACK movies. Rest in peace, Rip).

Jack Weston as Pig

Weston doesn’t get much attention these days, but this marvelous character actor graced us in movies ranging from THE INCREDIBLE MR. LIMPET to WAIT UNTIL DARK, CACTUS FLOWER to GATOR, HIGH ROAD TO CHINA to DIRTY DANCING. His role is small here, but Weston always manages to shine.

Cab Calloway as Yeller

Like Weston, Calloway’s part is small, but without the “Hi-De-Ho” Man, THE CINCINNATI KID just wouldn’t have been the same. Calloway hadn’t been on American screens since 1958’s ST. LOUIS BLUES, and it’s always a treat to see him again.

Add to that list a plethora of Familiar Faces, including Jeff Corey , Robert DoQui, Theo Marcuse, Burt Mustin, Milton Selzer, Ron Soble, Karl Swenson, Dub Taylor , Irene Tedrow (as Tuesday’s mom), Charles Wagenheim , and Midge Ware, and you’ve got a Master Class of screen acting going on (and a special shout-out goes to young Ken Grant as the nickle-pitching shoeshine boy). Lalo Schifrin provides the jazzy score, DP Philip Lathrop’s shot composition is perfectly framed, and future director Hal Ashby adds some stunning editing work. THE CINCINNATI KID is a real treat for film buffs, one I’ve seen many times over, and surely will again.

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All Star Exploitation: MACHETE MAIDENS UNLEASHED (Australian 2010)

Tonight we celebrate baseball with MLB’s 90th annual All-Star Game, and… what’s that you say, Dear Readers? You don’t LIKE baseball?!? (*sighs, shakes head, mutters “must be some kinda Commies”*) Luckily for you, I’ve got an alternative for your viewing pleasure this evening. It’s an All-Star salute to the halcyon days of low-budget Exploitation filmmaking in the Philippines that lasted roughly from 1959 (Gerry DeLeon’s TERROR IS A MAN, with Francis Lederer and Greta Thyssen) to the early 80’s and the advent both of VHS, which effectively ended the Drive-In/Grindhouse Era, and political upheaval caused in part by Fernando Marcos’s imposition of martial law on the island nation.

1971’s “Beast of the Yellow Night”

This Australian-made documentary by writer/director Mark Hartley covers the wild, wild world of making Exploitation movies in the jungle on a shoestring budget through judicious use of clips, trailers, and interviews with the people who made these crazy things – and lived to tell about it! And you want non-baseball All-Stars? Let’s start with the King of the ‘B’s’ himself, Roger Corman, whose New World Pictures produced, financed (minimally, I might add!), and released many of them stateside, beginning with 1971’s BEAST OF THE YELLOW NIGHT and ending with 1979’s JAWS -ripoff UP FROM THE DEEP. Rapid Roger makes no bones about the fact these little epics were green lit strictly to make money – and boy, did they ever!

Pam Grier and Margaret Markov in “Black Mama White Mama” (1973)

Among the many interviewees are directors Allan Arkush, Joe Dante, Jack Hill, Jonathan Kaplan , and John Landis , Corman graduates all. Landis is particularly candid and hilarious in his assessment of pretentious, eggheaded critics who saw more into these schlockfests than was intended. Like Corman, he fully admits the only reason they were made was a quick buck! Also on hand are rare interviews with legendary Filipino directors Eddie Romero (MAD DOCTOR OF BLOOD ISLAND, BLACK MAMA WHITE MAMA , THE TWILIGHT PEOPLE) and Cirio Santiago (TNT JACKSON, THE MUTHERS , VAMPIRE HOOKERS).

Pam again, with Sid Haig in “The Big Doll House” (1971)

And talk about All-Stars? How’s this for a power-hitting lineup: Colleen Camp (EBONY, IVORY, & JADE), Marlene Clark (NIGHT OF THE COBRA WOMAN), Pam Grier (THE BIG DOLL HOUSE), Gloria Hendry (SAVAGE SISTERS), Dick Miller (FLY ME), Chris Mitchum (THE ONE-ARMED EXECUTIONER), Patrick Wayne (BEYOND ATLANTIS), and Celeste Yarnell (BEAST OF BLOOD) all appear in interview segments. Not only that, but the great Sid Haig , who costarred in just about ALL of these films (many times opposite Grier), shares his own reminiscences about the glory days of Filipino filmmaking.

James Bond Jr?: Weng Weng in “For Y’ur Height Only” (1981)

There’s loads of clips and trailers from classic trash like THE BIG BIRD CAGE, COVER GIRL MODELS (“They’re always overexposed but they’re never underdeveloped!”), DYNAMITE JOHNSON, FIRECRACKER, THE HOT BOX (“Their guns are hot and their bodies are hard!”), THEY CALL HER CLEOPATRA WONG, WOMEN IN CAGES, and FOR Y’UR HEIGHT ONLY, starring the immortal 2’9″ Filipino superstar Weng Weng! It’s all here in MACHETE MAIDENS UNLEASHED: mad monsters, women in chains, action, explosions, and most importantly, The 3 B’s – Beasts, Blood, and Breasts! They just don’t make ’em like these flicks anymore, and probably never will again. This is one hell of a fun documentary that Grindhouse/Exploitation/Drive-In fans won’t want to miss! Now excuse me while I go watch some baseball.

from Eddie Romero’s “The Twilight People” (1972)

Rockin’ in the Film World #20: EDDIE AND THE CRUISERS (Embassy 1983)

You couldn’t go anywhere in 1984 without hearing “On the Dark Side” blaring from a car radio or your neighborhood bar’s jukebox. That’s thanks in large part to audiences rediscovering 1983’s EDDIE AND THE CRUISERS via repeated showings on HBO, turning the film into an instant cult classic and veteran Providence-based rockers John Cafferty & The Beaver Brown Band into FM-radio favorites. The film hadn’t done well when first released to theaters, but exposure on the fairly-new medium of Cable TV garnered new fans of both it and Cafferty’s soundtrack album.

Investigative reporter Ellen Barkin looks into the mysterious death of Eddie Wilson (played by Michael Pare’), lead singer of The Cruisers, whose death in a car accident is shrouded in secret, as the body was never found. Was it suicide? murder? or is Eddie still alive? She digs deep to uncover the facts about what happened that fateful night at the recording studio, where the band was putting together an LP titled “A Season in Hell”, based on the dark poetry of Arthur Rimbaud.

Her journey of discovery takes her to Eddie’s bandmates: lyricist/keyboard player Tom Berenger, now a high school Literature teacher; former manager Joe Pantoliano, a New Jersey DJ; bitter ex-bass player Matthew Laurence, leader of a Cruisers tribute band; background singer (and Eddie’s steady) Helen Schneider, a choreographer; drummer David Wilson, working in an Atlantic City casino. She also discovers the fate of saxman Michael “Tunes’ Antunes (the sax player for Beaver Brown, who was born RIGHT HERE in New Bedford, MA!), who tragically died of a heroin overdose (the more things change… ).

Director Martin Davidson (who also cowrote the screenplay) made his debut with 1974’s THE LORDS OF FLATBUSH, a 50’s-set drama that was an early hit for Sylvester Stallone and Henry “The Fonz” Winkler. His films are mainly of the low-budget variety, but well worth seeking out: the Gen-X coming of age tale ALMOST SUMMER, the John Ritter superhero comedy HERO AT LARGE, the sorority life drama HEART OF DIXIE (with Ally Sheedy, Phoebe Cates, and Virginia Madsen), and the Sissy Spacek romantic comedy HARD PROMISES (steer clear of the Davidson-penned, Joe Brooks-directed bit of treacle IF EVER I SEE YOU AGAIN though!). Davidson also worked extensively in TV, helming episodes of CALL TO GLORY, PICKET FENCES, CHICAGO HOPE, and JUDGING AMY, and a pair of TV-Movies starring Miss Madsen: the true-crime drama A MURDEROUS AFFAIR: THE CAROLYN WARMUS STORY and the baseball comedy LONG GONE.

Still rockin’ after all these years: John Cafferty, Michael Antunes, and the Beaver Brown Band

John Cafferty and Beaver Brown enjoyed enormous success after EDDIE AND THE CRUISERS found its way to cable TV, not only with “On the Dark Side”, but the FM hits “Tender Years” and “Wild Summer Nights”. Their follow-up album contained more hits (“Tough All Over” and “C-I-T-Y”), and they recorded the theme to the 1986 Stallone action flick COBRA (“Voice of America’s Sons”). The film’s sequel EDDIE & THE CRUISERS II: EDDIE LIVES!, tanked at the box office (and frankly isn’t very good), but that hasn’t stopped Cafferty and his bandmates from rockin’ and rollin’ after 40-plus years on the road. I’ve seen and enjoyed them several times, and they always manage to get the crowd movin’ and groovin’ (and stole the show from headliners Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes last time out!). The Beaver Brown Band are true rock’n’roll road warriors, and EDDIE AND THE CRUISERS is a must-see for die-hard rockers (like yours truly!).

 

Beautiful Dreamer: MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (RKO 1949)

The folks who brought you KING KONG – producer Merian C. Cooper, director Ernest Shoedsack, writer Ruth Rose, animator Willis O’Brien – returned sixteen years later to the giant ape theme with MIGHTY JOE YOUNG, a classic fantasy that can stand on its own. Though the film usually gets lumped into the horror genre, it’s more a fable than a fright fest, a beautifully made flight of fancy for children of all ages, and one of my personal favorites.

In deepest darkest Africa, little Jill Young buys a cute baby gorilla from the natives. Twelve years later, impresario Max O’Hara, along with rodeo wrangler Gregg and his crew, travel to The Dark Continent in search of exotic animal acts for a new show he’s producing, when they come face to face with the now 12 foot tall, 2,000 pound gargantua, affectionately called Joe by a grown Jill. She’s the only person that can control the beast, so hustler O’Hara signs them both up to headline his newest venture, Hollywood nightclub The Golden Safari.

The act features Jill playing “Beautiful Dreamer” on piano while Mighty Joe hoists her far above his head. Then, in one of my favorite segments, ten of the world’s strongest men (professional wrestlers Sammy Stein, Killer Karl Davis, Rasputin, Henry “Bomber” Kulky, Slammin’ Sammy Menacker , Max the Iron Man, Wee Willie Davis, Man Mountain Dean, The Swedish Angel, and ex-heavyweight boxing champ Primo Carnera) attempt a futile tug o’war against Joe! The act’s a smash hit, yet neither Jill nor Joe are happy with their decision to leave home for the bright lights of Tinseltown.

A trio of trouble-causing drunks sneak backstage and get Joe wasted on booze, and the enormous ape escapes and wreaks havoc on the club. Joe is captured and ordered to be killed by those pesky authorities, but the ever-hustling O’Hara comes up with a scheme to free the beast and return him and Jill to Africa. The cops are in hot pursuit when the gang spots a burning orphanage (which was tinted red in the version I recently viewed), and Mighty Joe rescues a bunch of children from certain doom. Joe and Jill are allowed to return home, accompanied by Jill’s now boyfriend Gregg, and guess what – that’s right, they live happily ever after!

Sixteen year old Terry Moore had been playing mostly bits before shooting to stardom in MIGHTY JOE YOUNG. Miss Moore. who’s still with us at age 90, went on to a lengthy screen career in films like COME BACK LITTLE SHEBA (for which she received a Supporting Actress Oscar nomination), DADDY LONG LEGS, SHACK OUT ON 101, PEYTON PLACE, and numerous TV appearances (and also did a memorable 1984 nude PLAYBOY pictorial at age 55!). Ex-rodeo champ, stuntman, and John Ford favorite Ben Johnson put his roping and riding skills to good use here as Gregg (and Ford himself was an uncredited co-producer). KING KONG’s Robert Armstrong plays the hyperbolic producer O’Hara, older but still as fast-talking as ever. And perennial Warner Brothers movie sidekick Frank McHugh steals a few scenes as O’Hara’s sidekick Windy.

MIGHTY JOE YOUNG is a Familiar Face spotter’s dream (especially that panning shot down the nightclub bar!). Old Hollywood Buffs will have a ball locating (among many others) such stalwarts as Iris Adrian , Kay Christopher, Chester Clute, Joyce Compton, Ellen Corby , James Flavin, Bess Flowers, Byron Foulger , John Gallaudet, Ed Gargan, Dorothy Granger, Paul Guilfoyle, Carol Hughes, Tom Kennedy, Donald Kerr, Charles Lane, Richard Lane , Kermit Maynard, Anne Nagel , Nestor Paiva, Jack Pennick, Irene Ryan , William Schallert , Regis Toomey – a veritable classic movie lover’s paradise! Happy Hunting!

Willis O’Brien  supervised the special effects, but most of the animation was done by his protege, Ray Harryhausen. Young Ray had done some film work, notably on George Pal’s Puppetoons shorts, but MIGHTY JOE YOUNG was his first of many fantasy features to follow – classics such as BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA, 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH , 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD, ONE MILLION YEARS BC , GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD, and CLASH OF THE TITANS. His debut here earned an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects, which was given to O’Brien as special effects supervisor. O’Brien, in turn, handed the Oscar over to Harryhausen, and deservedly so. Honestly, you don’t see that kind of humility in Hollywood very often!

MIGHTY JOE YOUNG was remade by Disney in 1998. Having never seen it, I can’t really comment on it, but I don’t see how it could possibly compare to the original. This is (in my humble opinion) one of the all-time great fantasy films, and despite it’s age still holds up well today. It’s the kind of movie that, if you  showed it to the younger generation, would surely spark their interest in films of the past, and I can’t give it a greater compliment than that!

 

Drive-In Saturday Night 4: WHITE LINE FEVER (Columbia 1975) & HIGH-BALLIN’ (AIP 1978)

Breaker One-Nine, Breaker One-Nine, it’s time to put the hammer down with a pair of Trucksploitation flicks from the sensational 70’s! The CB/Trucker Craze came to be because of two things: the gas crisis of 1973 and the implementation of the new 55 MPH highway speed limit imposed by Big Brother your friendly Federal government. Long-haul truckers used Citizen’s Band radios to give each other updates on nearby fueling stations and speed traps set up by “Smokeys” (aka cops), and the rest of America followed suit.

Country singer C.W. McCall had a massive #1 hit based on CB/trucker lingo with “Convoy”, and the trucker fad was in full swing. There had been trucker movies made before – THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT, THIEVES’ HIGHWAY, HELL DRIVERS, and THE WAGES OF FEAR come to mind – but Jonathan Kaplan’s 1975 WHITE LINE FEVER was the first to piggy-back on the new gearjammer craze. Kaplan was a Roger Corman acolyte who started with films like NIGHT CALL NURSES (and later directed Jodie Foster to an Oscar in THE ACCUSED, based on a real-life incident that happened RIGHT HERE in New Bedford, MA). WHITE LINE FEVER was his first movie for a major studio, and though the budget was still small, it resonated enough with audiences to make it a surprise box office hit.

The late, great Jan-Michael Vincent stars as a returning Vietnam vet who marries childhood sweetheart Kay Lenz and buys himself a big rig (christening it “The Blue Mule”), hoping to live The American Dream. That dream is shattered when Vincent refuses to play ball and haul contraband for his sleazy bosses (including Slim Pickens, L.Q. Jones, and Don Porter), and attempts to unionize his fellow truckers.

Jan-Michael gets blackballed and lands in a whole heap o’trouble before taking matters into his own hands at shotgun point, and there’s lots of 18-wheel action, car crashes, explosions, and other good stuff. Meanwhile, a subplot unfolds when Kay discovers she’s pregnant and considers an abortion, a hot button topic at the time (as I always say, the more things change… ). The Bad Guys set Our Hero up for the murder of Slim, and the trial features a crooked prosecutor (R.G. Armstrong) and crooked witness (John David Garfield, son of the former Warner Brothers star).

Our Hero is acquitted, so The Bad Guys ramp up the nastiness, trashing The Blue Mule, killing his good buddy Pops (Sam Laws), and beating Jan-Michael and Kay severely, then burning their house down! Vindictive bastards! Kay loses the baby (conveniently skirting that pesky abortion issue) and is told she can never have children, so Jan-Michael’s had just about enough, leading to a slam-bang smash-up finale with Our Hero vs Porter’s Evil Empire, going down in an Exploitation Blaze of Glory!

Reportedly, WHITE LINE FEVER is where Jan-Michael Vincent was first introduced to cocaine, a drug that swiftly sent him on a personal downward spiral (I can relate!). He did some excellent work in movies and TV during the 70’s and 80’s, but sadly drugs and alcohol held him back from realizing his full potential. Beautiful Kay Lenz was a personal favorite of mine for films like BREEZY and THE GREAT SCOUT & CATHOUSE THURSDAY (and the Rod Stewart video “Infatuation” , directed by Kaplan) who remains active today, mostly in episodic TV. And besides those previously mentioned, the ubiquitous Dick Miller has a small role as one of Jan-Michael’s fellow haulers; Kaplan and Miller pay tribute to their mentor by naming Dick’s character ‘Birdie’ Corman, who drives a rig called ‘The Brat’!

And now let’s hit the snack bar before our next feature…

Everybody loaded up on popcorn? Good, because next up is pure popcorn movie bliss, 1978’s HIGH-BALLIN’…

This underrated little Trucksploitation flick came out at the height of the CB/Trucker craze, and stars SMOKEY & THE BANDIT’s Jerry Reed as an independent trucker battling another Evil Empire… this time a trucking magnate (Chris Wiggins) who wants to force the indies out of business and work for him. Enter Jerry’s good ol’ buddy Peter Fonda , who first appears riding up to the truck stop on a motorcycle because… well, because he’s Peter Fonda!

There’s plenty of exciting action to be found in this Canadian-made entry, and I especially enjoyed the scene where Jerry and Peter are being chased by bad guys down the highway while hauling a load of stock cars – you can’t get much more redneck than that, good buddy! HIGH-BALLIN’ also costars the sexy-cute and extremely underrated Canadian actress Helen Shaver as Pickup, a tough truck drivin’ chick (who shares the obligatory 70’s sex scene with Fonda). David Ferry (Detective Dolly of THE BOONDOCK SAINTS) is on hand as psycho henchman Harvey, who winds up in a cowboy-style showdown with Fonda at the film’s conclusion. Keep an eye out for Canadian actors Harvey Atkin (TV’s CAGNEY & LACEY) and Michael Ironside (SCANNERS, V: THE FINAL BATTLE, TOP GUN) in minor roles.

HIGH-BALLIN’ may be low-budget, mindless entertainment, but it’s good for what it is, with lots of action, trucker lingo (“Keep the shiny side up, keep the greasy side down”), and likable performances from Fonda, Reed, Shaver, and young Chris Langevin (who now works as a prop man) as Reed’s son Tanker, a rare instance where the little kid isn’t annoying in one of these action flicks. So keep the bears away from your back doors as you leave the drive-in while we listen to C.W. McCall’s smash “Convoy”, from the glory days when Kenworths and Peterbilts ruled the roads – and the screens!:

  That’s a Big 10-7 from me, Good Buddies!