Well-Structured Destruction: Clint Eastwood in THE GAUNTLET (Warner Brothers 1977)

(First off, feast your eyes on the incredibly cool Frank Frazetta poster! Then read on… )

Clint Eastwood’s  directorial credits include some impressive films: THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES, PALE RIDER, UNFORGIVEN, MYSTIC RIVER, MILLION DOLLAR BABY. While 1977’s THE GAUNTLET may not belong on that list, I feel it’s a very underrated movie deserving a second look. Clint and his lady love at the time Sondra Locke star in this character study of two damaged people disguised as an action comedy, essentially a chase film loaded with dark humor.

Clint plays Ben Shockley, an alcoholic Phoenix cop sent to Las Vegas to extradite Gus Mally, “a nothing witness in a nothing trial”. Gus turns out to be a woman, a hooker in fact, set to testify against a Phoenix mobster. Ben’s suspicions are roused when he learns Vegas oddsmakers are giving 50-1 they don’t make it to Phoenix alive, confirmed when the car they’re to drive to the airport is blown to smithereens! From there, it’s Ben and Gus trying to beat those odds as not only the mob but the cops are out to kill them – the corrupt Phoenix police commissioner is a perv who abused Gus, and pulls out all the stops to prevent her testimony.

When we first meet Ben, he’s looking pretty ragged. Drunk and disheveled, going nowhere on the job, and somewhat of a meathead, Ben’s the perfect patsy for Commissioner Blakelock’s fools errand. Face it, the guy’s expendable. But Ben has a reputation for getting the job done, and his dogged determination drives him to reach his goal. He may be in love with Jack Daniels, but when he learns he’s been set up by Blakelock, he draws on some inner strength to not only prove he’s still a competent cop, but to stick it to Blakelock.

Locke’s Gus Mally is a free-spirited, feminist hooker who may not have the proverbial heart of gold, but has a steely reserve of her own. She knows the fix is in, and is reluctant at first to return to Phoenix and certain death. Along the way, she lets down her hard-core veneer and begins to trust Ben, eventually falling in love with the big ape. She also gets the best lines, calling Ben at one point a “.45 caliber fruit”, and engaging in banter like this: Ben: “I just do what I’m told”  Gus: “Yeah, well so does an imbecile”.

The violence quotient in THE GAUNTLET is ratcheted up to 11. There’s a scene where the Vegas cops blast the fuck out of Gus’s home, turning it into a smoldering block of Swiss cheese. The duo hop a freight train and are attacked by bikers, with Gus almost getting raped before Ben’s act of self-sacrifice. There’s blazing machine guns and explosions a-plenty, and the final gauntlet run through Phoenix in an armored bus is a masterpiece of mass destruction. Yes, the ending is totally improbable, but it will definitely make you smile.

Clint and Sondra’s offscreen life was filled with controversy, but they made a dynamic duo onscreen. Locke and Eastwood costarred in the aforementioned JOSEY WALES, as well as EVERY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE, BRONCO BILLY, ANY WHICH WAY YOU CAN, and SUDDEN IMPACT. She was nominated for an Academy Award for her film debut THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER, and appeared in the horror flick WILLARD. Like THE GAUNTLET itself, Miss Locke is an underrated actress whose ‘palimony’ litigation against Eastwood after their break-up practically ruined her career (the more things change… ). She also directed the films RATBOY, IMPULSE, and DO ME A FAVOR, and is a breast cancer survivor.

Pat Hingle plays Ben’s former partner, now an administrator who discretely helps his friend from the inside. William Prince makes a slimy bad guy as Blakelock, and Clint’s old Universal Studios stablemate Mara Corday shows up early on as a prison matron. Bill McKinney , Roy Jenson, and Dan Vadis are Familiar 70’s Faces in the cast. Composer Jerry Fielding contributes a cool jazz score, featuring musician Art Pepper on sax. It aids tremendously in putting the picture over, as does Clint’s keen cinematic eye. THE GAUNTLET may not rank high in the Eastwood directorial canon, but it’s an exciting, explosive genre classic crackling with excitement that can be viewed as both an action thriller and character study, and is well worth another look.

 

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Last of the WOOD-en Soldiers: RIP Conrad Brooks

It was a fateful day in 1948 when 17-year-old Conrad Brooks, trying to break into movies, met a 24-year-old would-be filmmaker named Edward D. Wood, Jr. at a coffee and donut shop. The two men hit it off, both dreaming of Hollywood success, and worked together on an unreleased short “Range Revenge”, beginning a lasting collaboration and friendship. Conrad Brooks, who died today at age 86, will never be remembered as an actor the stature of Olivier or Brando, but his participation in the films of no-budget auteur Ed Wood will always hold a special place in the hearts of lovers of uniquely strange (some would say bad) cinema.

Young Conrad Brooks with horror icon Bela Lugosi

Brooks played several parts in Wood’s first film, 1953’s gender-bending GLEN OR GLENDA, about a man who loved to dress in women’s clothing. The director managed to get veteran horror icon Bela Lugosi , down on his luck and suffering from an opiate addiction, to appear as well, his first of three with Wood. Brooks did double duty in 1954’s JAIL BAIT, playing both a medical attendant and a photographer. His bit in 1955’s BRIDE OF THE MONSTER was brief and uncredited; the movie, while no DRACULA, gave Lugosi a final chance to strut his thespic stuff onscreen, and in my opinion is Wood’s best film.

Brooks came into his own in Wood’s magnum opus PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE , as Patrolman Jamie, a bigger role than usual and the one most Wood fans remember him by. He filmed NIGHT OF THE GHOULS that same year, a “sequel” of sorts that sat unreleased for decades because the perennially cash-strapped Wood couldn’t afford to pay the film lab bill! The movie finally saw the light of day in 1984. 1960’s THE SINISTER URGE was Brooks’ last role for Ed, a fight scene that was actually filmed for Wood’s unfinished HELLBORN. Ed Wood slid further down the scale to porn movies after that, while Conrad Brooks disappeared from films entirely after a part in Coleman Francis’ awful THE BEAST OF YUCCA FLATS, starring fellow Wood player Tor Johnson .

Brooks reemerged in the 80’s after a resurgence of interest in Ed Wood’s career, sparked in part by being named “Worst Director” in the Medved Brothers’ 1980 book “The Golden Turkey Awards”. He appeared in a trio of Mark Pirro’s Crown International flicks: A POLISH VAMPIRE IN BROOKLYN, DEATHROW GAMESHOW, and CURSE OF THE QUERWOLF. In Tim Burton’s 1994 biopic ED WOOD, Conrad has a cameo as a bartender. He went on to play in Direct-To-Video/DVD epics by Fred Olen Ray and Donald G. Johnson, as well as becoming, like his friend Ed, a writer/director/actor of his own films.

Conrad later became a popular figure on the Horror Film Convention Circuit, signing autographs and reminiscing with fans about his days with Ed Wood. When he died earlier today, he was the last of the Ed Wood Stock Company, and a piece of Hollywood history died with him. The Indie Film Crowd, whether they want to admit it or not, owes a debt of gratitude to men like Conrad Brooks and Ed Wood, who went out and made movies their way, as best they could, for better or worse. Our hats are off to you, Conrad Brooks, may you rest in peace. Say hi to Ed, Bela, Tor, Paul, and the gang in low-budget heaven!

All for One, Fun for All: AT SWORD’S POINT (RKO 1952)

France in 1648 is in upheaval: Cardinal Richelieu has passed away, the Queen is ill, and evil Duc de Lavelle is plotting to usurp the crown by forcing a marriage to Princess Henriette and murder young Prince Louis. The Queen summons the only persons that can help: her trusted Musketeers! But the quartet have either grown old or died, and in their stead come their equal-to-the-task children, Cornel Wilde (D’Artagnon Jr.), Dan O’Herlihy (Aramis Jr.), Alan Hale Jr (Porthos Jr.), and – Maureen O’Hara , daughter of Athos!!

AT SWORD’S PONT isn’t a great movie, but it is a fairly entertaining one, with lots of flashing swordplay, leaping about, cliffhanging perils, and narrow escapes. It kind of plays like a Saturday matinee serial, and there’s a lot of fun to be had, with Cornel Wilde a dashing D’Artagnon Jr, O’Herlihy a competent second fiddle, and Hale doing his usual good-natured lug thing. But it’s marvelous Maureen who kept me captivated throughout, her flaming red hair streaming as she battles side by side with the male Musketeers. She’s no slouch with that sword either; Maureen could buckle her swash with the best of ’em! 

The backstory behind the making of AT SWORD’S POINT may actually be more interesting than the movie itself. Republic first announced it would make the film in 1947, based on a screenplay by Aubrey Wisberg and Jack Pollexfen. It ended up being filmed two years later at RKO, then sat on the shelf another two years. When it was finally released, Walter Ferris and Joseph Hoffman got the screenwriting credits, with Wisberg and Pollexfen credited for the story only. By this point I’m sure they didn’t care, having moved on to form their own Mid Century Productions, making low budget flicks from 1951’s MAN FROM PLANET X to 1961’s SECRET OF MONTE CRISTO. Why the movie sat so long is unclear; no doubt notoriously meddling RKO boss Howard Hughes had something to do with that!

The supporting cast offers fine performances from Gladys Cooper as Queen Anne and Blanche Yurka as tavern keeper and Musketeer aide Madame Michom. Robert Douglas makes a hissable villain, Nancy Gates a regal Princess, and Familiar Faces Tanis Chandler, Tris Coffin, Holmes Herbert, Lucien Litlefield, and Phil Van Zandt pop up as well. Director Lewis Allen has some good films on his resume (THE UNINVITED, SO EVIL MY LOVE, CHICAGO DEADLINE, SUDDENLY ), and keeps the action running along swiftly. Roy Webb’s jaunty main theme sounded suspiciously familiar to me – compare it to John Williams’ theme from 1978’s SUPERMAN and judge for yourselves!

AT SWORD’S POINT is an ‘A’ film in intent, but ‘B’ in execution. It’s hardly a classic of the swashbuckler genre, but it has it’s moments and can certainly be enjoyed on a mindless level. The bold Technicolor helps give it a big budget sheen, Maureen is both lovely and dangerous, Wilde is a heroic D’Artagnon, and it’s all harmless fun. It’s light and breezy and if you’ve got an hour and a half to spare, by all means give it a shot.

 

Western Zing: MY NAME IS NOBODY (Titanus 1973)

Sergio Leone  wasn’t quite done with the Western genre after DUCK, YOU SUCKER. MY NAME IS NOBODY is based on “an idea by Sergio Leone”, and though Leone’s former Assistant Director Tonino Valerii is given full credit,  the Maestro reportedly directed a couple of scenes as well as some second-unit action in the film. Whatever the case, the film puts a comic spin on Spaghetti Westerns in general and Leone’s movies in particular, with the comedic talents of star Terence Hill standing in sharp contrast to the old school Hollywood hero Henry Fonda .

Hill was the brightest star on the Italian horizon, having starred in Giuseppe Colizzi’s GOD FORGIVES… I DON’T, ACE HIGH, and BOOT HILL alongside burly Bud Spencer, adding elements of humor as they went along . But with 1970’S THEY CALL ME TRINITY, the duo went full-bore into comedy territory, giving the Spaghetti genre a needed shot in the arm. Some fans hold the Hill/Spencer films in contempt, crying too much funny business ruined the Spaghetti recipe, but I’m certainly not among them. The best Spaghettis always had a strong strain of humor running through them, from Eli Wallach’s Tuco in THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY to the performances of Tomas Milian , and Leone himself never shied away from throwing in a good gag. To me, comedy is an essential herb for making a good Spaghetti, and box office returns on the Hill/Spencer vehicles proved that most fans agreed.

Hill’s ‘Nobody’ is basically an extension of his ‘Trinity’ character, a laid-back, outwardly goofy vagabond who happens to be quicker than he lets on in both his mind and his actions. He idolizes gunslinger Jack Beauregard (Fonda), the fastest gun in the west, whom we’re introduced to in a barber shop, where three killers have marked him for death. Beauregard beats the odds, and when the barber’s little boy asks who’s faster than Beauregard, the reply is, “Faster than him? Nobody!”, setting up the next scene where Beauregard comes across Nobody lazily attempting to catch a fish.

The plot involves a worthless mine used to fence stolen gold by outlaw gang The Wild Bunch, and Beauregard’s quest to snatch his late brother’s share of the loot, with Nobody urging the aging gunfighter to take on the Wild Bunch solo, “one against one hundred and fifty” and mark his place in the history books. But that’s all secondary to the images put onscreen by Valerii. Nobody’s ‘undercranked’ fighting scenes are throwbacks to the silent slapstick era (and resemble Hong Kong Kung-Fu movies), the direct opposite of Beauregard’s slo-mo killings, emphasizing the difference stylistically between the two Western brands. There’s a bizarre Street of Pleasure scene (reportedly Leone’s handiwork) which features a parody drinkin’ and shootin’ contest. Leone also did the scene with Nobody and a train conductor standing at the urinals, which in my opinion could’ve been edited out, but the Maestro thought it was funny. A ciascuno il suo. 

A Funhouse Hall of Mirrors scene is an obvious (but well done) homage to Welles’ THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI , and Leone’s American spirit brother Sam Peckinpah  gets name checked during a graveyard scene between Hill and Fonda. Unlike most early Spaghetti Westerns, much of MY NAME IS NOBODY was filmed on location in the American West (both New Mexico and New Orleans). Many American actors appear in brief roles: Leo Gordon , R.G.Armstrong  (for some reason billed as R.K.!), Geoffrey Lewis, and future DALLAS star Steve Kanaly. Also in the cast in a small bit is Leone and Spaghetti veteran Mario Brega .

Ennio Morricone  delivers his customary unique score, his themes punctuating the characters and the action onscreen. Sound plays an important role in the film, as it does in all the Spaghettis (for better or worse, in some cases). Grizzled vet Fonda delivers a final message that says goodbye to the Old Hollywood West, along with some advise to the new breed of international stars like Hill. MY NAME IS NOBODY may have too much basil and not enough oregano for some intenditori, but for my palate it’s a tasty entry on the Spaghetti Western menu that’s a feast for the eyes and ears. Buen appetito!  

 

Rockin’ in the Film World #13: Elvis Presley in KID GALAHAD (United Artists 1962)

Let’s face it – with a handful of exceptions, most of Elvis Presley’s  post-Army 1960’s movies are awful. They follow a tried-and-true formula that has The King in some colorful location torn between two (or more!) girls, some kind of vocational gimmick (race car driver, scuba diver), and a handful of forgettable songs. KID GALAHAD is one of those exceptions; although it does follow the formula, it’s redeemed by a stellar supporting cast, a fair plot lifted from an old Warner Brothers film, and a well choreographed and edited final boxing match.

The movie’s very loosely based on 1937’s KID GALAHAD, a boxing/gangster yarn that starred Edward G. Robinson, Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, and Wayne Morris in the role now played by and tailored for Presley. He’s a young man fresh out of the Army (how’s that for typecasting?) who returns to his upstate New York hometown of Cream Valley looking for work as a mechanic. He wanders into in a boxing camp run by glib Gig Young, who has a penchant for betting on horses, and gets roped into being a sparring partner, despite the fact he has little ring experience. Gig throws Elvis to the lions and discovers the kid has a devastating right and so, together with trainer Charles Bronson , begins grooming the naïve youngster for pugilistic stardom.

There are subplots galore, as Gig has run afoul of some crooked fight promoters, and has issues with his ladylove Lola Albright to boot. Gig’s kid sister Joan Blackman (costar of Elvis’ hit BLUE HAWAII) comes to camp to straighten out her brothers finances, and of course falls in love with Presley, to big bro’s displeasure. Trainer/cornerman Bronson has his hands broken before the eve of the big fight by goons, but you just know Presley’s gonna come out on top, and win the girl as well… you do know that, right?

The supporting players make the film a cut above the usual Elvis pic. Gig Young’s fight manager is a smooth-talking hustler, in up to his neck with trouble from both the mob and the feds, and takes gal pal Lola Albright for granted. Young gives a good performance, as does the sexy Lola, an actress who deserved a better career than she had. Charles Bronson was still a second-stringer at the time, and is totally believable as the veteran fight trainer. He and Presley work well in their scenes together; it’s too bad they never costarred again, preferably in a Western (Curse you, Col. Tom Parker!). Joan Blackman, making her second appearance with The King, had a few good roles (GOOD DAY FOR A HANGING, CAREER, TWILIGHT OF HONOR), but like Albright never reached the heights her talent deserved. Some Familiar Faces bobbing and weaving through the plot include Edward Asner , Michael Dante, Richard Devon, Robert Emhardt, David Lewis, Bert Remson, and Roy Roberts.

As for Elvis… well, he’s basically playing Elvis, and as such he’s fine. There are echoes of some of his earlier characters, but after 1960 his screen persona had mellowed. No longer the hot-headed rebel of JAILHOUSE ROCK or KING CREOLE, here he’s just a good ol’ country boy who wants to work on cars, and happens to have a powerful right hook. The songs aren’t all that memorable, but I did like the jaunty “I Got Lucky” (co-written by Ed Wood’s ex-girlfriend Dolores Fuller!) and the wistful “A Whistling Tune”. The boxing scenes were staged by former welterweight turned bit player Mushy Callahan, who plays the referee in Elvis’s big bout with “Sugar Boy Romero”, played by then-current welterweight champ Orlando De La Fuente. And yes, that’s renowned boxing announcer Jimmy Lennon Sr. as the ring announcer.

All of this is put together with style by veteran director Phil Karlson , who I’ve discussed several times and whose filmography is worth looking into. KID GALAHAD is the last really good Elvis movie, thanks to that cast and crew, before he settled into the predictable formula for the rest of the 60’s. It’s a pity Col. Parker didn’t let Presley spread his thespic wings, because Elvis coulda been a contender with the right balance of script, cast, and direction. But as they say in Hollywood, that’s show biz.

I’ll Be Superamalgamated!: DOC SAVAGE, THE MAN OF BRONZE (Warner Brothers 1975)

I used to devour those Doc Savage pulp novels reissued as paperbacks by Bantam Books. You know, the ones with those cool James Bama covers? They were filled with action, adventure, intelligence, and good humor, as written by Lester Dent under the pseudonym ‘Kenneth Robeson’. Doc himself was a paragon of goodness, trained from birth in the arts and sciences, a perfect physical specimen adept at all the fighting disciplines with near super-human strength. In fact, one could make a case for Doc Savage as the world’s first mass-market superhero, the Man of Bronze predating DC’s Superman (The Man of Steel) by a good five years.

Doc’s amazing adventures screamed for a screen treatment, but it wasn’t until 1975 that producer George Pal bought the character’s rights from Dent’s widow Norma and made DOC SAVAGE: THE MAN OF BRONZE. Pal, whose credits include sci-fi classics like WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE, WAR OF THE WORLDS, and THE TIME MACHINE, seemed like the right man for the job. He hired handsome, muscular former TV Tarzan Ron Ely to portray Doc, and director Michael Anderson, who’d helmed the WWII action flick THE DAM BUSTERS and the Oscar-winning AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS. What could possibly go wrong?

Plenty. All the right elements were in place: Doc’s Fabulous Five band of brothers (Monk, Ham, Renny, Johnny, Long Tom), his Fortress of Solitude, a 1930’s setting, a script based on Doc’s origin story (with parts of two other novels incorporated), and plenty of gadgets. But Pal, his co-screenwriter Joe Morhaim, and Anderson chose to go the camp route, spoiling the film. Frank DeVol adapted John Philip Sousa marches as his score, and it’s horrible, ruining the action scenes. While Dent’s books always carried a hefty amount of humor, here it’s played to the Nth degree, and not always intentional. Doc’s eyes literally twinkle thanks to animation, every mode of transport has the stylized Bantam ‘Doc Savage’ logo on it. The film has the look and feel of a bad TV movie, as Pal was aiming for a series akin to the 1960’s BATMAN, but the camp craze was long out of fashion. The whole thing fails to capture the spirit of the Savage novels, treating the material as a joke.

Ely deserved better. The actor, who later hosted the game show FACE THE MUSIC and the Miss America pageant, makes a good-looking, solid Doc, and plays things fairly straight. The Fab 5 (Michael Miller, Darrell Zwerling, William Luckling, Paul Gleason, Eldon Quick) don’t, and though they resemble the team, they’re just cardboard characters. Paul Wexler as archvillain Captain Seas is way over the top, and Pamela Hensley (BUCK ROGERS, MATT HOUSTON) just flat-out couldn’t act. Michael Berryman, Carlos Rivas, and Robert Tessier are also in the cast, and Paul Frees does the narration. The little old lady crossing the street near the end is Grace Stafford, longtime voice of Woody Woodpecker (Pal was pals with Grace and her husband, animator Walter Lantz).

At the very end, DOC SAVAGE: THE ARCHENEMY OF EVIL is advertised as coming soon. Since the first film tanked miserably, it never got made. I’m glad it didn’t, because I want to see a more straightforward version of Doc put on the Silver Screen. In May of 2016 it was announced a new version would be filmed, starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and directed by Shane Black. We’re still waiting for that to materialize. Meanwhile, fans of the Man of Bronze can stick to rereading those Bantam paperbacks, and skip this waste of time.

 

Book Review: WE’LL ALWAYS HAVE CASABLANCA by Noah Isenberg (W.W. Norton 2017)

CASABLANCA was released seventy-five years ago on November 26, and The Cult of Casablanca is stronger than ever! The film resonates with young and old alike in its themes of lost love, redemption, and answering to a higher moral authority. Noah Isenberg’s latest book, WE’LL ALWAYS HAVE CASABLANCA: THE LIFE, LEGEND, AND AFTERLIFE OF HOLLYWOOD’S MOST BELOVED MOVIE, takes a look behind the Silver Screen to track the history of the film  from its beginnings through its continuing popularity today.

Isenberg, a professor of film studies at The New School and author of the definitive EDGAR G. ULMER: A FILMMAKER AT THE MARGINS (2014), gives the reader a three-pronged look at the film. In the first, he meticulously delineates the screenplay’s roots, from its birth as the play Everybody Comes to Rick’s by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison, to the adaptation by brothers Julius and Philip Epstein, to the contributions of writers Howard Koch and Casey Robinson. All this is carefully researched by Isenberg through interviews and the Warner Brothers archives, unearthing the correspondence of producer Hal Wallis and studio chiefs Jack and Harry Warner, among others.

The second prong deals with the  film’s memorable cast and crew. Yes, the big names are all there – Bogie, Bergman, Henreid, director Michael Curtiz, composer Max Steiner – but Isenberg also shines the spotlight of many of the smaller players, most of whom were refugees from war-torn Europe. Though these actors were big names themselves in their respective native countries, the majority of them were reduced to being bit players in Hollywood, a fact that made them feel as if they’d turned from “St. Bernards to Dachshunds”. The plight of actors Curt Bois, Marcel Dalio, Lotte Palfi, and Hans von Twardowski, forced out of the limelight by circumstance and into lesser, sometimes uncredited roles, caused much bitterness among these talented strangers in a strange land.

Finally, Isenberg takes us to the CASABLANCA phenomenon, starting shortly after the death of Humphrey Bogart. Revival houses like The Brattle in Cambridge, MA brought the film a new, college age audience in the late 50’s. It’s anti-authoritarian stance and theme of fighting for a just cause also  resonated with the 60’s counterculture movement, and of course the film’s romanticism played a large part in that. Isenberg looks at the movie’s lasting impact in pop culture, even today, and discusses several critical points of view, not all of which are favorable (which is sacrilegious far as I’m concerned!).

WE’LL ALWAYS HAVE CASABLANCA is a surprisingly easy read. Only the arms of Morpheus prevented me from finishing it in one sitting. Then again, you know what a huge CASABLANCA buff I am! Even if you’re not as obsessive about the movie as me, if you’re a classic film buff (and I assume most of you reading this blog are) the book is a fascinating look at Hollywood filmmaking in the 40’s, when the studio dream factories were in their glory. I highly recommend it to those of you interested in movie history – in fact, it would make the perfect Christmas gift for the film fan in your life!.

More on CASABLANCA from Cracked Rear Viewer:

Top Ten Reasons CASABLANCA is The Greatest Movie Ever Made!!

Here’s Looking at You On The Big Screen, CASABLANCA!