Dead Pigeons Make Easy Targets: THE CHEAP DETECTIVE (Columbia 1978)

THE CHEAP DETECTIVE could easily be subtitled “Neil Simon Meets MAD Magazine”. The playwright and director Robert Moore had scored a hit with 1976’s MURDER BY DEATH, spoofing screen PI’s Charlie Chan, Sam Spade, and Nick & Nora Charles, and now went full throttle in sending up Humphrey Bogart movies. Subtle it ain’t, but film buffs will get a kick out of the all-star cast parodying THE MALTESE FALCON, CASABLANCA , TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT, and THE BIG SLEEP .

Peter Falk  does his best Bogie imitation as Lou Peckinpaugh, as he did in the previous film. When Lou’s partner Floyd Merkle is killed, Lou finds himself in a FALCON-esque plot involving some rare Albanian Eggs worth a fortune. Madeline Kahn , John Houseman, Dom De Luise , and Paul Williams stand in for Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, and Elisha Cook Jr, respectively, and they milk it for every laugh they can get, especially Kahn as the mystery woman who continuously changes her name and personality!

There’s a CASABLANCA subplot with Louise Fletcher as Lou’s former flame, now married to French resistance fighter Fernando Lamas, getting an opportunity to show off his comic skills. Nicol Williamson plays Colonel Schissel, leader of “the Cincinnati Gestapo”, with young James Cromwell as his aide Schnell. James Coco and David Ogden Stiers are café waiters, and since you can’t have CASABLANCA without Sam, we get Scatman Crothers as the piano player who’s told not to play that song again… “Jeepers Creepers”!

Eileen Brennen mimics Lauren Bacall as a sultry saloon singer who calls Lou “Fred” (he in turn dubs her “Slinky”). Ann-Margret channels THE BIG SLEEP’s Martha Vickers as the oversexed wife of ancient, decrepit Sid Caesar , Simon’s old YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS boss. Marsha Mason, Simon’s wife at the time, plays Merkle’s cheating widow Georgia, who accidentally flushes the dead dick’s ashes down the toilet! Stockard Channing’s on hand as Lou’s handy, virginal secretary Bess, and Vic Tayback, Abe Vigoda, and Carmine Caridi are the overbearing cops on Lou’s case ( at one point, Tayback tells Vigoda to “stop leaning” on Lou… literally!). Funnyman Phil Silvers , who Simon also worked with on the SGT. BILKO sitcom, has a cameo as a cab driver.

DP John Alonso, who shot the neo-noir CHINATOWN (and there’s a CHINATOWN gag in this, too), gives us a fog-shrouded, sepia-toned San Francisco setting. Simon goes back to his SHOW OF SHOWS roots with all the puns, word play (“Hello, Georgia. I just had you on my mind”), and wacky sight gags. It’s obvious Simon has an affection for these films as he lampoons all the Bogart movie tropes, and the cast seems to be having a ball. There are plenty of guffaws to be had viewing THE CHEAP DETECTIVE, a Bogie devotee’s delight, and fans of film parodies like AIRPLANE! and THE NAKED GUN are sure to get a kick out of this one.

 

That’s Blaxploitation! 10: HELL UP IN HARLEM (AIP 1973)

I’ve covered producer/writer/director Larry Cohen’s marvelously manic work in the horror genre ( IT’S ALIVE! , GOD TOLD ME TO ), but did you know the low-budget auteur also contributed some solid entries to the Blaxploitation field? Cohen’s gangster epic BLACK CAESAR starred Fred “The Hammer” Williamson and was such a smash a sequel was rushed into production and released ten months later. HELL UP IN HARLEM picks up right where the original left off, as ‘Black Caesar’ Tommy Gibbs is set up by corrupt DA DiAngelo and shot on the streets of New York City. Tommy has possession of some ledgers with the names of all the crooked politicians and cops on his payroll, and DiAngelo and his Mafioso friends want to put him out of circulation for good. Escaping via a wild taxi ride, Tommy is back in business and out for revenge.

This enables Cohen to serve up a series of crazy/cool set pieces that moves the film forward at a dizzying speed. There’s an amphibious assault on the syndicate’s compound where the bodies pile up and the gangsters are force-fed soul food! You can’t have a 70’s flick without the obligatory sex scene, and Williamson engages in a sensuous tryst with the angelic Sister Jennifer (Margaret Avery, later an Oscar nom for THE COLOR PURPLE). A moody scene highlighting 42nd Street in its sleazy 70’s heyday (there’s even a movie poster for Klaus Kinski’s ’71 giallo SLAUGHTER HOTEL!) finds the traitorous Zach (Tony King) murdering Tommy’s ex Helen (Gloria Hendry) in a dark alley. Tommy chases Zach from New York to LA in an improbable scene that winds up in a Los Angeles airport. Tommy’s final acts of retribution include slamming a beach umbrella through the sunning torso of Mafia chief Joe Frankfurter, and other gruesome highlights!

HELL UP IN HARLEM has a massive body count, crazy cartoonish violence, tough banter, and even some brief  kung-fu action thrown in for good measure! Former NFL/AFL star Williamson was one of the genre’s most charismatic stars, looking sharp in those totally outrageous 70’s outfits, and runs through the film like an All-Pro defensive back (which he was!). Julius Harris steals the show as Tommy’s Big Papa, adding to his list of colorful characterizations in films like SUPER FLY, TROUBLE MAN, and LIVE AND LET DIE. He even gets his own theme song, the funky “Big Papa”:

The funk/jazz score by Fonce Mizell (who co-wrote many of the Jackson 5’s hits) and Freddie Perren (the disco anthem “I Will Survive”) features the gruff vocal talents of Motown’s Edwin Starr, whose hits included “Agent Double-O Soul”, “Twenty Five Miles”, and the classic track “War”, later covered by Bruce Springsteen. HELL UP IN HARLEM was obviously a rush job to capitalize on the success of BLACK CAESAR, but Larry Cohen doesn’t fail to disappoint his audience, cramming in action scene after action scene. It’s sexy and violent and complete nonsense, but somehow Cohen and his cast make it work on a shoestring budget and a warped sense of humor.

Now enjoy Edwin Starr lip-synching “War”, along with the funky gyrations of the SOUL TRAIN dancers:

A Big Screen, Some Popcorn, and JAWS (Universal 1975)

Dun-dun, dun-dun, dun-dun, dun-dun…..

This past Wednesday night, I went out to New Bedford’s Zeiterion Theater to watch a screening of the summertime classic JAWS. The Z, as we locals call it, began life as a vaudeville palace in 1923, and five months later changed its name to The State and ran the latest silent movies. The State operated as a movie house until the late 70’s, with the historic building refurbished in 1982 and retro rebranded as the Zeiterion, hosting concerts, plays, dance, and other performing arts. The city (which now owns and operates the Z) recently purchased a state-of-the-art high-definition digital projector and, after an absence of almost a year,  movies are back in New Bedford! They kicked off a “summer series” of films with Steven Spielberg’s summer blockbuster scarefest, filmed not far from here (just a fast ferry ride away aboard the Sea Streak) on Martha’s Vineyard.

“You’re gonna need a bigger boat!”

And what a FIN-tastic experience it was! It was the perfect film to start with for the #1 fishing port in America, and the place was jam-packed. Imagine that, an almost full house to watch a 42-year-old film on a Wednesday night! I enjoyed watching the little kids seeing the movie for the first time as much as I did watching it myself. Everybody jumped and screamed when Richard Dreyfuss , exploring an abandoned boat underwater, was startled by a dead body popping up – including me, and I’ve seen JAWS at least 30 times! A similar reaction occurred at the shark’s first appearance, scaring the bejeezus out of both Roy Scheider and us. Spontaneous applause erupted from the crowd on three different occasions; when Jaws is blown to smithereens, when Dreyfuss emerges from the deep alive, and of course at Scheider’s iconic “You’re gonna need a bigger boat” line!

Capt. Quint enjoying a Narry!

The audience was crazy about Quint, the crusty sea captain played by Robert Shaw . It seems everybody around these parts knows a “Quint” down at the docks! Dreyfuss had more than his share of fans in the seats, too. As for myself, I liked all of Spielberg’s little “in-jokes” and film quotes, honoring Hitchcock and the 50’s sci-fi movies he grew up with. And the sound was awesome, with most people humming along to John Williams’ famous “dun-dun, dun-dun, dun-dun” theme. All in all, a great night out watching a great film with a great crowd. Much as I sometimes complain about all the negative shenanigans that go on in New Bedford these days (drug dealing, gang violence, etc) , there are still a lot of good people living here, and some good things going on as well. Next up in the Z’s “Summer Movie Series” they will be showing another one of my favorites, 1993’s coming-of-age baseball comedy THE SANDLOT. Anyone want to guess where I’ll be on July 12?

The State Theater hosting the World Premiere of “Down to the Sea in Ships” (1949)
The Zeiterion Theater today

Summer Fun with Bill Murray in MEATBALLS (Paramount 1979)

Summer is finally here, so what better way to celebrate than with a summer movie starring Bill Murray!  Bill had joined the cast of SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE in 1979 (back when it was actually funny) and quickly became a fan favorite with his smarmy, snarky persona and silly characterizations. After the film success of John Belushi, it was only natural for Hollywood to come calling, right? Wrong, bucko… it was Canada that lured Bill for his first starring vehicle, the oh-so-70’s teen comedy MEATBALLS! Yeah, you heard right, ’twas the Great White North that plucked Bill away from being “Live from New York” to a location shoot at good ol’ Camp White Pines in the wilds of Ontario.

Bill’s fellow ‘Second City’ alumnus Harold Ramis (or as he was called in SCTV’s credits, ‘Ha-Harold Ramis’!) was a cowriter of the screenplay, beginning a long string of movie collaborations between the two (STRIPES, CADDYSHACK,  GHOSTBUSTERS I & II). It’s director is Ivan Reitman, who produced Belushi’s smash NATIONAL LAMPOON’S ANIMAL HOUSE, a film from which MEATBALLS derives much of its anarchic spirit, minus much of the raunch, though sex is still a pervading theme (hey, it’s a 70’s teen comedy, whaddaya want?).

Bill is Tripper Harrison, the smart-assed senior member of rundown Camp North Star, in charge of the CIT’s (that’s counselors-in-training). Tripper has the hots for his female counterpart Roxanne (Kate Lynch), but she’s turned off by his amorous attempts. He takes new camper Rudy (Chris Makepeace, MY BODYGUARD), a shy kid shunned by the other campers, under his wing, and the relationship between Rudy and Tripper is kinda sweet, in a nutty-Bill-Murray sort of way.

Rival Camp Mohawk is full of snotty rich kids, and they’ve beaten Camp North Star at the annual Olympiad the last twelve years. This time around, things are going much the same, until Tripper gives a rousing, non-sequitur filled speech (like Belushi in ANIMAL HOUSE) to rally the troops. After some chicanery, the score’s close, and Rudy ends up sacking the quarterback… wait, wrong Rudy… he wins the marathon race to lead Camp North Star to victory!

MEATBALLS is populated by the usual stereotyped characters you find in these films. There’s the nerdy Spaz (complete with taped glasses and a pocket protector), chubby Fink (who wins the hot dog eating contest), studly Crockett, and perennially put-upon camp director Morty. A special shout-out goes to sexy Kristine DeBell as knockout A.L. Kristine starred in the X-Rated musical spoof ALICE IN WONDERLAND (1976) at age 22, and appeared in I WANNA HOLD YOUR HAND, Paul Mazursky’s WILLIE AND PHIL, THE BIG BRAWL (as Jackie Chan’s girlfriend), and TAG: THE ASSASSINATION GAME. She’s gained somewhat of a cult following for her roles, and is fondly remembered by fandom.

The music score is by Elmer Bernstein. Yes, THAT Elmer Bernstein, of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN fame. He also cowrote the goofy disco-flavored theme song, with Rick Dees (of “Disco Duck” and SOLID GOLD fame). David Naughton’s one hit wonder “Makin’ It” can also be heard in the movie – though why anyone would want to is a mystery to me! Pop singer Mary MacGregor (“Torn Between Two Lovers”) contributes the sappy “Good Friends”.

MEATBALLS is perfect fare for a summer’s eve, a silly but sweet comedy that showcases Bill Murray’s zaniness. Like most teen comedies of the era, it won’t tax your brain, and though not nearly as outrageous as ANIMAL HOUSE, you’ll get some chuckles out of it. Now, for all you angry David Naughton fans, here’s “Makin’ It”. Excuse me while I leave the room. Happy summer, everybody!:

Criminally Underrated: George C. Scott in BANK SHOT (United Artists 1974)

I’m a big fan of the novels and short stories of Edgar Award-winning writer Donald E. Westlake , named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America. His comic-laced crime capers featuring master planner Dortmunder were well suited for films and the first book in the series, THE HOT ROCK, was filmed by Peter Yates in 1972 with Robert Redford as the mastermind. Two years later came BANK SHOT, the second Dortmunder novel, starring George C. Scott but changing the character’s name to Walter Ballentine due to legal issues. Dortmunder or Ballentine, BANK SHOT is a zany film with a fine cast of actors that deserves another look.

Ballentine is doing life in Warden “Bulldog” Streiger’s maximum security prison, but when his shady “lawyer” and confidant Al G. Karp visits with an idea for a new “shot”, the hardened criminal makes his escape. Karp needs Ballentine’s expertise to plan the robbery of Mission Bell Bank, currently headquartered in a trailer while construction is finished on a new building. Karp’s assembled a nutty robbery crew that includes his ex-FBI agent nephew Victor, ditzy, amorous financial backer Eleonora, looney driver Stosh Gornik and his con artist mom, and trigger happy wanna-be politician Hermann X. The brainy Ballentine decides they won’t just rob the bank… they’ll steal the entire kit’n’kaboodle! Ballentine and company pull off an elaborate, ingenious heist that baffles everyone but “Bulldog”, who’s hot on the fugitive’s trail.

 

Scott, complete with bushy eyebrows and a pronounced lisp, is the lynchpin holding BANK SHOT together, playing straight man to the wackiness going on around him. When he learns the job is in LA, he grumbles it’s “freak town- kook city – where the nuts are – trouble”, and he’s not wrong. Sorrell Booke (THE DUKES OF HAZZARD’s Boss Hogg) goes strictly for laughs as his partner-in-crime Karp. Joanna Cassidy (WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBITT?) has one of her earliest roles as the constantly giggling Eleonora, as does Bob Balaban (credited as Robert) as young Karp. One of my favorite comic character actors Don Calfa (WEEKEND AT BERNIE’S) plays the manic Stosh, with Bibi Osterwald (THE WORLD OF HENRY ORIENT) as his swindler mom. Ex-NFLer Fred McRae (48 HRS) makes a funny Hermann X, but it’s the late Clifton James (Sheriff J.W. Pepper of LIVE AND LET DIE and THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN ) who stands out as the ornery, doggedly determined Warden “Bulldog” Streiger.

Director Gower Champion was a former MGM musical star famed for his dancing with wife Marge Champion. He was more successful as a Broadway director (BYE BYE BIRDIE and HELLO DOLLY! were among his many hits) than on film, in fact BANK SHOT was only his second (and last) feature. It was a good swan song, as the film captures the Westlake flavor nicely. The movie has a daffy, anarchic spirit to it, and though sometimes it can be over-the-top silly, is worth watching when you’re in the mood for a good, solid belly-laugh.

Kicking Off A Trend: FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH (Warner Brothers 1972)

When FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH first hit the local multiplex back in the day, everybody in the neighborhood was kung-fu fighting, throwing chops and roundhouse kicks at each other, trying to be like star Lo Lieh. Bruce Lee’s movies hadn’t yet made it our way, but David Carradine’s KUNG FU was must-see TV for every adolescent boy (and some of the cooler girls). Pretty soon  chop-sockey action spread all over the city’s theaters, but it was FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH that reached New Bedford, MA first, and has always held a special place in my heart.

Hong Kong action star Lo Lieh plays Chao Chih-Hao, who’s sent to Shen Chin-Pei’s school by his mentor to train further and defeat Ming Dun-Shun’s “gangsters” in a martial arts tournament. Chih-Hao rescues damsel in distress Yen Chu Hung from some bad guys along the way, and though she comes on to him, his heart belongs to his mentor’s daughter Sung Ying Ying. Arriving at the school, Chih-Hao is mercilessly ridden by his teachers and fellow students, especially jealous Han Lung, but he keeps his head down and persists in his studies.

Dun-Shun’s toughest dude Chin Lang comes to the school and threatens Chin-Pei, beating the crap out of all the students and giving Chin-Pei a “dishonorable blow” for good measure. When Chih-Hao hears of this, he goes to the local bar and, after pouring wine over Lang’s head, engages in a fast and furious fight, emerging victorious. Chin-Pei is so impressed by his bravery he decides to teach Chih-Hao the lethal secret technique known as “The Iron Fist”!! Chih-Hao’s hands turn red whenever he gears up to use it, and the siren from the theme from IRONSIDE plays!

The bad guys get wind of this and import some brutal Japanese mercenaries to shake things up.  Han Lung, still jealous of Chih-Hao and Chu Hung’s feelings toward him, sets our hero up, as the mercs waylay him and ruthlessly break both his hands! Nursed back to health by Chu Hung, he trains harder than ever to master the way of “The Iron Fist” and represent the school in the tournament.

The almost non-stop violence and action has a poetic quality to it. Bodies fly through the air with the greatest of ease, and every fight is a well choreographed ballet. There’s also lots of gore, as when Chih-Hao’s old teacher is killed by the mercs in a bloody good scene, or when Han Lung, having failed to stop Chih-Hao, has his eyes ripped out by Dun-Shun’s rotten son. He gets his “eye for an eye” revenge later in a scene shot in a darkened room, reminiscent of American film noir. The final tournament battle’s a dilly, and so’s the ending, an action packed dance of violence sure to please any kung-fu fan.

Producer Sir Run Run Shaw had been involved with movies since 1927, and his Shaw Brothers studio was the largest in Southeast Asia. This was their first stateside hit, and opened the floodgates for the kung-fu genre here in America. Bruce Lee would soon take over as the world’s #1 Martial Arts star, and stars like Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung would follow in his footsteps. But FIVE FINGER OF DEATH (also known as KING BOXER) is the film that started it all, and it still holds up well today, despite the really bad dubbing. Then again, that’s just part of what makes these chop-sockey movies so much fun!

Grand Dame Guignol: WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH HELEN? (United Artists 1971)

The recent FX mini-series FEUD has sparked a renewed interest in the “Older Actresses Doing Horror” genre, also known by the more obnoxious sobriquettes “Hagsploitaion” or “Psycho-Biddy” movies. This peculiar film category lasted from 1962’s WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? until winding down around the early Seventies. 1971’s WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH HELEN? came towards the end of the cycle, a creepy little chiller with Debbie Reynolds and Shelley Winters   getting caught up in murder and madness in 1930’s Hollywood.

I wouldn’t exactly call Debbie Reynolds a “hag”; she was only 39 when this was filmed, and still quite a hottie, especially when glammed-up in a Jean Harlow “Platinum Blond” wig. Deb gets to show off her tap-dancing and tangoing in a few scenes, showing off her still amazing legs for good measure. She and Shelley play a pair of Iowa mothers who (as the opening newsreel footage tells us) have spawned two killer sons that slaughtered a young girl and got sentenced to life in prison. Harassed by angry mobs and receiving threatening phone calls, Adelle (Debbie) and Helen (Shelley) decide to go west and open a dancing school for aspiring Shirley Temple types in Tinsletown.

Changing their last names, Adelle and Helen rent a studio, and soon an oddball unemployed ham named (appropriately enough) Hamilton Starr worms his way into a position as voice coach. Linc Palmer, rich father of one of Adelle’s no-talent pupils, takes an interest in her, while Helen withdraws from the world, finding solace in her pet rabbits and the religious radio broadcasts of Sister Alma (played by Agnes Moorehead, whose genre credits include HUSH… HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE   and DEAR DEAD DELIALH).

Helen is still getting those threatening phone calls, and seems on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Adelle suspects Helen of sending a newspaper clipping of her sordid past to Linc, and comes home to find blood smeared on a cardboard cut-out of her. She demands Helen leave, and walks out in a huff. A knock on the door finds a man who knows Helen’s real name, and as he walks up the staircase, the frightened, freaked out woman pushes him to his doom. Adelle returns, discovering the horror, and helps Helen get rid of the body.

Helen is now truly cracking up, and not even Sister Alma can save her (“There is no forgiveness for me”). After Adelle receives a marriage proposal from Linc, she arrives back home to discover her bedroom trashed, and blood all over the bathroom. Following a trail of blood down the bannister to the backyard, she gasps as she sees Helen’s pet rabbits all slaughtered in their coops. Then Helen appears, blood on the front of her nightgown, and…

And you’ll have to watch the movie to find out (although that poster up top may give you a clue). Shelley Winters was said to have been having a real-life nervous breakdown while shooting this film, and her acting is more restrained than usual at this stage of her career. She certainly had me convinced she was going bonkers but, given the circumstances, it probably wasn’t that much of a stretch for her. There’s a subtle but noticeable lesbian subtext in Helen’s reliance on Adelle, deftly handled by both ladies. Shelley had previous appeared in THE MAD ROOM, and went on to star in WHOEVER SLEW AUNTIE ROO?, and overcame her breakdown to continue a long career.

Linc is played by Dennis Weaver, taking a break from MCCLOUD to portray Debbie’s lover. Flamboyant Irish thespian Michael MacLiammoir plays the flamboyant Hamilton Starr in a clear case of typecasting (though he did remind me a bit of Sydney Greenstreet). Another oddball actor, Timothy Carey , has a cameo as a down-on-his-luck bum. Pamelyn Ferdin, Logan Ramsey, Peggy Rea, and the immortal Yvette Vickers   all pop up in small parts.

Henry Farrell, whose novel served as the basis for BABY JANE, wrote the spooky screenplay, as he did with SWEET CHARLOTTE. He also did the teleplays for HOW AWFUL ABOUT ALAN (with Julie Harris and Anthony Perkins) and THE HOUSE THAT WOULD NOT DIE (Barbara Stanwyck). Director Curtis Harrington was a huge horror buff responsible for the atmospheric NIGHT TIDE, QUEEN OF BLOOD, GAMES, and the TV Movies THE CAT CREATURE, KILLER BEES (with Gloria Swanson!), and DEVIL DOG: THE HOUND OF HELL. DP Lucian Ballard isn’t a name usually associated with horror films, but he dabbled occasionally early in his career (1942’s THE UNDYING MONSTER, ’44’s THE LODGER), so he knew the territory fairly well.

WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH HELEN? is kitschy fun, with Debbie and Shelley enjoying a good, gruesome romp together. Keep a lookout for more of these “Psycho-Biddy” films on TCM and elsewhere, featuring Golden Age stars like Bette, Joan , Barbara, Agnes, Olivia, Tallulah, Miriam , even Gloria Grahame… just watch out for hidden knives!