Ro-Man Holiday: ROBOT MONSTER (Astor Pictures 1953)

My friends at The Film Detective are hosting a Drive-In Monster Movie Party all this month, and asked me to join in on the fun! When I received the list of movies they’re showing, I jumped at the chance to watch and review ROBOT MONSTER, that infamous no-budget classic directed by Phil Tucker, featuring an alien called Ro-Man who looks like a gorilla wearing a diving helmet. And honestly, how can you not love that!!

ROBOT MONSTER consistently makes critics’ all-time worst movie lists, derided for its technical ineptitude, overwrought acting, absurd dialog, and flat-out senselessness. It’s all that, to be certain, but I look at things through a different (some would say “shattered”) lens. First, did I enjoy it? The answer: a resounding yes! The movie may not be on a par with CASABLANCA or THE SEARCHERS , but it didn’t bore me or make me want to shut it off. Tucker’s little opus isn’t the height of brilliance, but it’s fun, and I watch films mainly to  have fun. Second, I don’t want to be preached to or have someone else’s political philosophies rammed down my throat – I wanna be entertained, dammit, and ROBOT MONSTER succeeds on that level. Tucker himself allegedly attempted suicide after the movie was released, but honestly, it’s not THAT bad.

The movie doesn’t make a whole lot of sense most of the time, but that didn’t stop my enjoyment of it. Seems Ro-Man is one of a Master Race of aliens who’ve obliterated everyone on Earth except for a hearty band of non-stars, most prominent being ‘B’ actors George Nader and Claudia Barrett, both of whom are easy on the eyes. Claudia in particular is one hot sci-fi babe, and apparently Ro-Man thinks so too, as her Earthly delights cause the diving-helmeted gorilla-alien to kidnap her for his own nefarious purposes. This may be a kiddie sci-fi flick, but lovely Claudia sure seems to spend a lot of time in bondage!

George Barrows as Ro-Man scares no one in that silly get-up, and seems to be having a hard time navigating through Bronson Canyon in his bulky costume (probably couldn’t see out of the helmet!). Barrows was a bit player and stuntman who followed the grand tradition of Charlie Gemora and Crash Corrigan in playing onscreen apes, beginning with TARZAN AND HIS MATE, and appeared in such fare as GORILLA AT LARGE, BLACK ZOO, GHOST IN THE INVISIBLE BIKINI, and HILLBILLYS IN A HAUNTED HOUSE , as well as tons of TV (THE ABBOTT & COSTELLO SHOW, THE ADDAMS FAMILY, THE LUCY SHOW, THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES, MAN FROM UNCLE, THE INCREDIBLE HULK).

I still haven’t figured out what’s up with all the bubbles, but that didn’t stop me from loving this loopy yet likable film. ROBOT MONSTER is one of those  so-bad-it’s-good flicks that has a demented charm all it’s own. Most importantly, it’s enjoyable, something you can’t say about many big budget productions currently playing at the local bijou. I like it, and if you’re in the right frame of mind, you will, too!

ROBOT MONSTER is now playing on The Film Detective 

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Pre Code Confidential #28: Edward G. Robinson in LITTLE CAESAR (Warner Brothers 1931)

Gangster movies were nothing new in 1931. Josef von Sternberg’s UNDERWORLD (1927), Lewis Milestone’s THE RACKET (1928), and Bryan Foy’s LIGHTS OF NEW YORK (1929) had all dealt with urban organized crime onscreen (and Foy’s drama was the first “all-talking picture” to hit cinemas). But when Edward G. Robinson rat-a-tatted his way through Mervyn LeRoy’s LITTLE CAESAR, the gangster genre had finally arrived – with a vengeance! This highly influential flick opened the floodgates for a variety of films about mobsters, killers, and other assorted no-goodniks, and made an unlikely star out of the pugnacious Eddie G.

The film concerns the rise and fall of Rico “Little Caesar” Bandello, a small-time hood from the sticks who, along with partner in crime Joe Massara, moves to the big city and blasts his way up the ranks to become a gang boss. The diminutive Robinson exudes star power as the psychotic sociopath who cares about nothing but himself, and craves power over everything. Robinson’s a cocky bantam rooster, strutting and swaggering his way across the screen; he’s a vicious animal to be certain, but you can’t take your eyes off him. Although he had a long Hollywood career (but believe it or not, never won an Oscar!), it’s as Rico most people remember him by, thanks to numerous bad impressionists and cartoon characters (i.e. THE KING AND ODIE’s Biggie Rat).

Film scholars make a lot about the homosexual subtext in LITTLE CAESAR: Rico’s got no time for dames, preferring the company of his fellow crooks; his close relationship with Joe, deriding him for keeping company with dancer Olga Stassoff; the fauning gangster Otero, who beams as his boss checks himself out in the mirror, donned in a tux. Though nothing is explicit or overt it’s definitely there, hidden in the shadows like like homosexuality itself during those more puritanical times.

What stands out even more for me is the proto-noir flourishes that appear throughout the film. LeRoy and his DP Tony Gaudio use devices such as montage and fades, and many of the scenes (William Collier Jr’s murder on the church steps, for example) precede the film noir movement by a good ten years. Gaudio’s fluid camerawork and Ray Curtiss’s slick editing keep LITTLE CAESAR from being static, unlike many early talkies, and that famous final scene, as the defiant Rico, trodding down a wind-swirled lonely street, gets cut down by the Tommy gun blast of copper Thomas E. Jackson, uttering the now-classic line “Mother of Mercy, is the the end of Rico?”, remains a highlight of Hollywood cinema. Mervyn LeRoy may not be a name that springs to mind when thinking of film noir influences, but films like this one, FIVE STAR FINAL , THREE ON A MATCH , and I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG tell a different story.

Young (21 at the time of filming) Douglas Fairbanks Jr. also makes an impression here as Rico’s pal Joe Massara, a hoofer who wants to put his life of crime behind him after falling for Olga (Glenda Farrell in her film debut). George E. Stone as henchman Otero, infatuated with boss Rico, gives another of his outstanding supporting performances. Other cast members of note include the aforementioned Jackson as the laconic cop out to get Rico, Stanley Fields as the dimwitted ex-capo Sam Vettori, and Sidney Blackmer as the dapper boss ‘Big Boy’.

LITTLE CAESAR can be enjoyed on many different levels: as an influential  piece of Hollywood history, a precursor to film noir, or Edward G. Robinson’s star-making turn. But for me, it’s just damn good entertainment, a rip-roaring crime saga that outguns the rest of them, and the granddaddy of all gangster flicks to come.

 

Bang, You’re Dead!: Charles Bronson in DEATH WISH (Paramount 1974)

Most people think of DEATH WISH as just another 70’s revenge/exploitation flick, right? Nope. Far from it. Sure, there’s loads of graphic violence, but this gem of a movie contains just as much political commentary as ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, with an added dose of black comedy to boot. The film had its finger firmly placed on the pulse of 1970’s America, with all its fear and paranoia about rampant urban crime, and is among the decade’s best.

Director Michael Winner and star Charles Bronson had made three films together up to that time: the revisionist Western CHATO’S LAND, the actioner THE MECHANIC , and the cops-vs-Mafia drama THE STONE KILLER . All were hits with the drive-in crowd, and helped Bronson go from supporting player to major star. Strangely enough, Bronson wasn’t the first actor considered for the part of Paul Kersey. Jack Lemmon was original choice, and that would’ve been an interesting interpretation, but the role ended up in Charlie’s firm hands, and he made it his own.

Architect Paul and his wife Joanna (Hope Lange) return from an idyllic Hawaiian vacation to grimy, crime infested New York City. They have a good life, but that life is shattered when Joanna and daughter Carol are followed home from the grocery store by three young punks (one of whom is future star Jeff Goldbum, making his film debut), who break into their apartment, brutally raping Carol and killing Joanna. The scene is graphic and uncomfortable to sit through, causing critics of the era to condemn it, but that savagery is necessary to understanding Paul’s motivation.

Tired and frustrated by police efforts and living in daily fear, Paul decides to take matters into his own hands with a sockful of quarters, then is sent by his boss to Tuscon, where he meets Western developer Ames Jainchill. We learn Paul served in Korea as a medic (and conscientious objector). We also learn quiet, peaceful Paul is more than familiar with guns. A trip to a Wild West show gives him ideas, and a going away present from Jainchill gives him the means to carry them out…

Bronson’s Paul Kersey is not just a cardboard vigilante. After his first kill, Paul is sickened by what he’s done, going home and immediately vomiting. As he gains more confidence in believing his actions are justified, he comes to think of himself as a Wild West bounty hunter mowing down bad guys (and there are several allusions to Western films throughout the movie). Bronson walks a fine line here, and gives what I think is his best performance. True, Kersey becomes a murderous Avenging Angel, but ask yourself these questions: What if you were in his shoes? What if it were YOUR wife and daughter?

Two of my favorite 70’s character actors are in DEATH WISH: Steven Keats and Stuart Margolin. Keats made a memorable first impression in the Boston-lensed neo-noir THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE opposite Robert Mitchum, and went on to act in THE GAMBLER, HESTER STREET, BLACK SUNDAY , SILENT RAGE, and the TV miniseries SEVENTH AVENUE and THE EXECUTIONER’S SONG. Here he plays Kersey’s meek son-in-law Jack, whose response to the tragedy is much different than Paul’s, to say the least. Keats was a fine actor who tragically committed suicide in 1994, and doesn’t get nearly enough credit for his work these days.

Margolin is a Familiar Face to fans of TV’s THE ROCKFORD FILES; he played James Garner’s former cellmate Angel, a con artist who frequently got Jim into trouble (winning two Emmys for his efforts). As Jainchill, Margolin plays a brief but essential part as the Westerner who sets Paul’s behavior into motion.  He’s best known for his television work, both as an actor and director, but his feature films include KELLY’S HEROES, FUTUREWORLD, DAYS OF HEAVEN, and S.O.B. He’s still acting, recently appearing on the revival of THE X-FILES. Both these men would make interesting Familiar Faces posts (hmmm… ).

Another great character actor, Vincent Gardenia, plays cynical NYC cop Frank Ochoa, assigned to hunt down the vigilante. Ochoa is enmeshed with the political ramifications of capturing the mysterious shooter, whose actions are popular with the public at large, having caused the crime rate to drastically drop in the Big Apple. The Emmy and Tony winning, Oscar nominated (BANG THE DRUM SLOWLY, MOONSTRUCK) Gardenia is well remembered by 70’s audiences for his role as Frank Lozenzo, neighbor of TV’s Archie Bunker on ALL IN THE FAMILY. Plenty of other recognizable performers ply their trade as well: Paul Dooley, Olympia Dukakis, Stephen Elliott, Christopher Guest, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, Marcia Jean Kurtz, Eric Laneuville, Al Lewis (aka Grandpa Munster!), Sonia Marzano (SESAME STREET’s Maria), and William Redfield.

Wendell Mayes’ script doesn’t judge Kersey one way or the other, letting the audience make their own decisions, and the writer of THE ENEMY BELOW, ANATOMY OF A MURDER, VON RYAN’S EXPRESS, and THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE pulls it off with style. DP Arthur Ornitz gives viewers a bleak, uncompromising look at New York’s mean streets, and I absolutely love Herbie Hancock’s jazzy score. Critics of the time loathed and reviled DEATH WISH, but theater owners packed ’em in, as the film really resonated with audiences, and still does today. DEATH WISH spawned a slew of vigilante movies that became a sub-genre in themselves, but none truly caught the zeitgeist of the times like this one. It also spawned four sequels, which are enjoyable but not nearly on a par with the original. It also spawned a 2018 remake starring Bruce Willis and directed by Eli Roth, but like I always say, ain’t nothin’ like the real thing, baby! No matter which side of the coin you’re on, you’ve got to admit DEATH WISH is an important film that ranks with the best of the decade, not to mention damn entertaining!

 

Riot On Ice: Paul Newman in SLAP SHOT (Universal 1977)

Hockey fans are excited about this year’s Stanley Cup Finals between the Boston Bruins and the St. Louis Blues, so I figured now’s the time to take a look at the quintessential hockey movie, George Roy Hill’s SLAP SHOT. Hill and star Paul Newman, who’d previously collaborated on BUTCH CASSIDY & THE SUNDANCE KID and THE STING, reunited for this raucous, raunchy sports comedy about a failing minor league hockey team who reinvent themselves as a hard-hitting goon squad.

Newman plays Reg Dunlap, an aging rink rat now the player-coach for the Chiefs, a dying franchise in a dying mill town. The team is on a massive losing streak, and attendance is at an all-time low. Two-bit GM Joe McGrath (Newman’s COOL HAND LUKE antagonist Strother Martin) is trying to sell the Chiefs, and things look bleak until Dunlap begins taunting his opponents and the rink violence escalates. Enter a trio of new players named the Hanson Brothers (David Hanson, Jeff and Steve Carlson), who take the art of hockey goons to a whole new level, and the fans return in droves, eating up the carny-like atmosphere like cherry flavored sno-cones.

Young hockey purist Ned Braden (Michael Ontkean, THE ROOKIES, TWIN PEAKS) objects to the pro wrestling inspired mayhem and refuses to take part, but the Chiefs become the hottest attraction in the league, and make their way to the championship game. Meanwhile, Reg tries to discover the true  identity of the Chiefs’ mysterious owner while dealing with marital disharmony (Jennifer Warren, later a director in her own right) as he continues to promote the hell out of his beloved Chiefs in order to save the franchise…

The movie is DEFINITELY non-PC and probably will offend the more sensitive types, but those of you who still have your sense of humor intact will guffaw wildly at the crude jokes and shenanigans taking place on and off the ice. In between the sexist humor and bloody violence you’ll find a serious character study as Newman’s Reg Dunlap goes through a mid-life crisis, including the loss of both his wife and his career. Paul was still in great shape at age 50 and looked like he belonged on a hockey team. Ontkean’s Ned Braden has marriage troubles of his own with wife Lindsay Crouse; both turn in good performances and Ontkean’s wicked funny striptease on ice toward the conclusion is a comedy highlight!

Those wild’n’crazy Hanson Brothers were based on real-life minor league hockey goons the Carlson Brothers, two of whom (Steve and Jeff) play their fictitious selves (third brother Jack was called up to Edmonton, replaced by another hockey goon, Dave “Killer” Hanson). Their cinematic hockey havoc made them minor celebrities, doing personal appearance tours and even making the cover of Sports Illustrated (albeit thirty years later). Besides the always-reliable Strother Martin, others of interest include 70’s favorite Jerry Houser as a Dunlap loyalist, M. Emmett Walsh as a gullible reporter, Brad Sullivan as the obnoxious perv Morris, and the hit song “Right Back Where We Started From” by Maxine Nightingale, which keeps popping up throughout the film:

SLAP SHOT’s screenplay by Nancy Dowd was based on the experiences of her brother Ned’s time in the minor leagues (Ned plays the part of feared opponent Oglethorpe in the film). The movie wasn’t a hit at first, but has since become one of the ultimate “guy flicks” thanks to it’s sheer outrageousness. After all, it’s got sex, violence, beer, and sports – what’s not to love, eh? Meanwhile, here in the real world, Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Finals is about to start, soooo…

LET’S GO BRUINS!!

Bobby Orr’s immortal Stanley Cup winning goal against the St. Louis Blues in 1970!

Alfred Hitchcock’s Last Ride: FAMILY PLOT (Universal 1976)

Critics in 1976 were divided over Alfred Hitchcock’s FAMILY PLOT, which turned out to be his final film. Some gave it faint praise, in an “it’s okay” kinda way; others decried it as too old-fashioned, saying the Master of Suspense had lost his touch – and was out of touch far as contemporary filmmaking goes. Having recently viewed the film for the first time, I’m blessed with the gift of hindsight, and can tell you it’s more than “okay”. FAMILY PLOT is a return to form, and while it may not be Top Shelf Hitchcock, it certainly holds up better than efforts made that same year by Hitch’s contemporaries George Cukor (THE BLUE BIRD), Elia Kazan (THE LAST TYCOON), and Vincente Minnelli (A MATTER OF TIME).

Hitchcock reunited with screenwriter Ernest Lehman (NORTH BY NORTHWEST) to concoct a devilishly clever black comedy about phony psychic Blanche Tyler who, along with her cab driver boyfriend George,  is charged with finding the missing nephew of very rich Mrs. Rainbird.  The old dame is offering a $10,000 finder’s fee, which makes the perpetually broke couple drool, but there’s a catch: the boy in question has been missing since he was a baby, over forty years ago.

Meanwhile, as the couple leave the Rainbird manse, we cross-cut to a tall, mysterious blonde walking toward another stately manse. The silent woman hands over instructions to a trio of suits; she’s actually Fran Adamson, who along with her mastermind husband Arthur kidnap the rich and powerful for ransoms paid in sparkling jewels. The pernicious pair has been plying their trade for years without being caught, and it’s no spoiler to tell you Arthur Adamson is really the missing Rainbird heir, a sociopath who killed his adoptive parents in a house fire, and doesn’t like Blanche and George snooping around in his business…

Hitchcock and Lehman combine the suspense with loads of dark humor, and the result is a fun film that ends with a wink to the camera, as if Hitch is telling us, “Lighten up, it’s only a movie”. It may be a minor film in his major career, but it was entertaining enough to keep me invested throughout. Lehman’s script  keeps it’s tongue firmly in cheek, and he won that year’s Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for Best Screenplay. The language is cruder than you’ll find in Hitchcock films past, but that’s just Alfred keeping up with the times; he had always pushed the boundaries of the censorship boards, and was probably delighted to be able to let loose!

Barbara Harris is marvelous as the fake psychic Blanche, giving a joyously ditzy performance. Harris was shamefully underutilized by Hollywood, and should have been a much bigger star. Bruce Dern does good work as well playing Blanche’s bickering boyfriend, caught up in something way over his head. This was Dern’s second film with the Master; he had previously had a small role in 1964’s MARNIE. William Devane is another criminally neglected actor; he’s chillingly charming as Adamson (and can now be found hawking gold in TV commercials for Rosland Capital!). Karen Black’s Fran is kind of a   thankless role, but her presence is always welcome onscreen, as is another underrated actor, Ed Lauter, playing Devane’s murderous cohort.

Albert Whitlock’s (THE BIRDS) special effects during the car chase scene were no longer cutting-edge, and in fact look as phony as Blanche’s psychic powers, but that’s really a minor quibble. FAMILY PLOT may be lesser Hitchcock, but it’s certainly enjoyable enough to keep Hitch fans happy. At least it did for me, and I’d recommend it to all who want to see The Master of Suspense take us on one last ride.

Special Memorial Day Edition: Randolph Scott in GUNG HO! (Universal 1943)

Duke Wayne wasn’t the only movie cowboy who fought WWII in Hollywood. Randolph Scott battled fascism in quite a few war dramas, and one of his best is 1943’s GUNG HO! (currently streaming on The Film Detective ). The rock-solid Mr. Scott plays tough-as-nails Col. Thorwald, an expert in guerilla warfare thanks to his experience with the Chinese army, who whips a diverse crew of Marines into fighting shape to launch the first American ground offensive against the Japanese on Makin Island.

Scott and his second-in-command, the versatile character actor J. Carrol Naish (playing a Marine of Greek descent this time around), gather up a motley crew of misfits and reprobates ala THE DIRTY DOZEN:  there’s battling stepbrothers Noah Beery Jr. and David Bruce (who’re also rivals for the affections of pretty Grace McDonald in a subplot), hillbilly farmboy Rod Cameron, murderous minister Alan Curtis , “no good kid” Harold Landon (from Brooklyn, of course!), hustler Sam Levene , and most notably a young Robert Mitchum as a scrappy ex-boxer with the moniker ‘Pig Iron’. A shirtless Bob made the bobbysoxers swoon, and he was soon cast in a series of ‘B’ Westerns at RKO, then scored big two years later in another war flick, THE STORY OF G.I. JOE , leading to superstardom and screen immortality.

There’s plenty of blazing combat action, and the violence is quite brutal for the era, but we were at war, and War is Hell. Director Ray Enright handles it all well, with plenty of help from some of Universal’s best: DP Milton Krasner, editor Milton Carruth, composer Frank Skinner, and special effects wizard John P. Fulton . Lucien Hubbard and Joseph Hoffman’s script was based on the first-hand account by Lt. W.S. LeFrancois, first published in The Saturday Evening Post. Besides those previously mentioned, other Familiar Faces to film fans include Irving Bacon (in a funny bit as a soda jerk), Peter Coe , Dudley Dickerson, Louis-Jean Heydt, Robert Kent, Richard Lane, Walter Sande, and Milburn Stone. Those of *ahem* a certain age will recognize the voice of newscaster Chet Huntley narrating the proceedings.

Carlson’s Raiders: The Real Heroes of Makin Island

Modern day viewers may cringe at some of the blatant racist epitaphs hurled towards the Japanese (“I wanna kill Japs”, “I just don’t like Japs”), but once again I need to remind you of historical context. Pearl Harbor was still fresh in America’s collective mind, and retaliation was demanded. The real raid on Makin Island was the first strike, led by Lt. Col. Evans Carlson and his second-in-command James Roosevelt (FDR’s son). The 2nd Raider Battalion was transported by submarine to the Japanese stronghold, and the bloody two day battle resulted in the destruction of Japan’s garrison, with 46 verified enemy kills. The Americans weren’t spared either: 28 dead (including nine who were captured and later executed), 17 wounded, and 3 MIA. Today we honor those who sacrificed their lives on Makin Island and in other battles for the cause of freedom. Before you eat those hot dogs or bask on the beach, remember them in your thoughts and prayers.