Flesh & Blood: Marilyn Chambers in RABID (New World 1977)

Once upon a time, there was a pretty young actress named Marilyn Chambers. She had a fresh, wholesome quality about her, and did some bits parts and modeling gigs. One was as the decent young mom holding her pride and joy baby on the box of Ivory Snow, the detergent that claimed it was 99 1/4% pure. But no acting jobs were forthcoming, so Marilyn found herself in a porn flick called BEHIND THE GREEN DOOR, which became a sensation…

… as did young Marilyn, though she longed to be taken as a serious actress in mainstream films.

Around the same time, there was a young Canadian director named David Cronenberg. He was making a name for himself in the horror field with films like CRIMES OF THE FUTURE (1970) and SHIVERS (1975)…

… but though a few critics admired his work, most dismissed him as just another Grindhouse hack. For young David’s movies were of the “body horror” school, filled with gore, grossness, and a lot of sex, not to mention a very low budget. He had an idea for a movie titled RABID, and wanted to cast Sissy Spacek, fresh off her lead in CARRIE, in the starring role. But the producers balked at casting Sissy and her Texas accent in a Canadian film, so young David searched far and wide, finally choosing young Marilyn as his nominal star. Marilyn was grateful to finally have the lead in a mainstream film, and they lived happily ever after.

Well, not really. Cronenberg went on to THE DEAD ZONE, THE FLY remake, A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE, and a great career, while Marilyn went back to porn with 1980’s INSATIABLE and other hard-and-softcore delights before her way-too-early death in 2009 at age 57. RABID shows she could act, if not on a par with Hepburn or Meryl Streep. Still, she was more than competent in this creepy little thriller as Rose, who’s involved in an horrific motorcycle crash with her boyfriend Hart (Frank Moore). Fortunately (or unfortunately, as it turns out), the accident occurs near the Keloid Clinic for Plastic Surgery. Rose is put back together using an experimental method of skin grafting, resulting in her growing a monstrous blood-sucking appendage in her arm pit (which pops out of what suspiciously looks like a certain part of the female anatomy!).

Rose begins infecting people with a mysterious virus that turns it’s victims into mouth-foaming, blood-lusting maniacs. Soon the entire city of Montreal is under siege by the zombie-like creatures, and martial law is declared with orders of shoot to kill. Oh, Canada! Rose continues infecting people, including an iconic scene where she enter a porn theater and is hit on by a leisure-suited perv. Bad idea, perv! (The film playing is called MODELS FOR PLEASURE, and I’m unsure if it’s a real movie or not. I can’t find any info on it… any readers out there heard of it?) When Rose leaves the theater, she walks past another movie palace. The film showing there? CARRIE!

RABID showcases Cronenberg’s trademark black humor, as well as his penchant for gruesomeness. It also features a good turn by character actor Joe Silver as the sympathetic business partner of Dr. Keloid (Howard Ryshpan, who also ends up infected in a wild operating room scene). The film helped put David Cronenberg on the map, due in large part to the novelty of having Marilyn Chambers in a straight role (though she does have her share of topless scenes, praise Jesus!). Any fans of David Cronenberg, the lovely Miss Chambers, or good ol’ 70’s Grindhouse gore will be more than satiated by viewing RABID.

Strange Days Indeed: Woody Allen’s SLEEPER (United Artists 1973)

(I’m posting a bit earlier than usual so I can head up to the Mecca of baseball, Fenway Park! Go Red Sox!!)

Full disclosure: I lost interest in Woody Allen around the time he decided to become a “serious” filmmaker beginning with INTERIORS. Sure, I thought ZELIG and PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO were funny, and A MIDSUMMER’S NIGHTS SEX COMEDY had its moments. But for me, the years 1969-1977 were Woody’s most creative period, spanning from the absurd TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN to the Oscar-winning ANNIE HALL. Landing right about midway in that timeline stands his brilliant sci-fi satire SLEEPER, which owes more to Chaplin and Keaton than Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke.

The fun begins when Miles Monroe (Allen) is woken from his cryogenic sleep in the year 2173. Two hundred years earlier, Miles had been the proprietor of the Happy Carrot Health Food store, and went in for minor surgery on his peptic ulcer. Somehow he was cryogenically frozen, and is now a stranger in a strange land. The premise just serves as an excuse for Allen to indulge in some of the wackiest schtick and sight gags he’s ever done. Some of the funniest involve him disguised as the robot servant of wacky poet Luna (Diane Keaton, Woody’s significant other at the time). Ersatz robot Woody gets into a battle with a bowl of pudding that grows to Blob-like proportions, gets wrecked on the Orb (a futuristic drug that’s passed around at a party), and is brought in by Keaton to have a head change, where he engages in a sped-up slapstick fight that’s reminiscent of the great silent comedies.

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Allen and Keaton have a wonderful comic chemistry, a sort of 70’s neurotic version of Tracy and Hepburn. Keaton’s Luna is a ditzy bubblehead who comes into her own when she joins the underground movement against the oppressive totalitarian regime, and the two of them sparkle as they infiltrate government headquarters masquerading as doctors and kidnap The Leader, or rather what’s left of him… seems the rebels have blown him up and all that remains is his nose, which is about to be cloned! This scene features a send-up of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY complete with the voice of HAL (Douglas Rain) as a medical computer. A hysterical scene in the rebel camp has Allen and Keaton parodying A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, with Woody as Vivien Leigh’s Blanche and Diane imitating Brando’s Stanley Kowalski!

A Woody Allen film isn’t complete without his trademark one-liners in the grand tradition of his heroes Groucho Marx and Bob Hope (1), and SLEEPER is packed with some gems. Asked to become a spy by the underground, Allen quips, “I’m not the heroic type, I’ve been beaten up by Quakers!”. Keaton asks, “What’s it like to be dead for 2,000 years”, to which Allen replies, “It’s like spending a weekend in Beverly Hills”. When she inquires nonchalantly if he wants to “perform sex”, he rakishly answers, “I’m not up to performing, but I’ll rehearse with you”. Nervous about infiltrating the government, Allen remarks, “I’m 237 years old, I should be collecting Social Security”. Allen’s political philosophy comes into play when he states to Keaton, “Political solutions don’t work, I told you, it doesn’t matter who’s up there, they’re all terrible”. The movie’s last line, with Keaton asking him since he doesn’t believe in God, science, or politics just what does he believe in, is a classic: “Sex and death, two things that come once in my lifetime. But at least after death, you’re not nauseous”.

The jokes and gags come fast and furious, from escaping the stormtroopers via The Hydraulic Suit, to the Yiddish robot tailors voiced by comedians Jackie Mason and Myron Cohen, to Woody discovering the wonders of The Orgasmitron, all set to an incongruous Dixieland Jazz score by Allen and The Preservation Hall Jazz Band. SLEEPER is silly and ridiculous and loads of fun, though some of the jokes are a bit dated (spoofing Howard Cosell, for example). Nevertheless, it’s one of Woody’s best efforts, and as a whole it holds up nicely. Woody Allen is still making films today, one of the last of a dying breed of 70’s filmmakers who helped change the course of cinema. He’s a genius of the cinema of the absurd, and SLEEPER is one you won’t want to miss!

(1) according to Conversations with Woody Allen (2007) by Eric Lax (New York City; Knopf), SLEEPER is dedicated to Marx & Hope.

I Am Legend: THE OMEGA MAN (Warner Brothers 1971)

When I was a lad of 13, back in the Stone Age, I saw THE OMEGA MAN on the big screen during it’s first run. I remember thinking it was real cool, with Charlton Heston mowing down a bunch of mutant bad guys with his sub-machine gun, some funny one-liners, and a few semi-naked scenes with Rosalind Cash. What more could an adolescent kid ask for in a movie? Now that I’m (ahem!) slightly older, I recently re-watched the film, wondering just how well, if at all, it would hold up.

I’m happy to report THE OMEGA MAN, despite some flaws in logic, stands the test of time as a post-apocalyptic sci-fi action/adventure, with a touch of Gothic horror thrown in. The film is the second of three based on Richard Matheson’s novel I AM LEGEND, the first written by Matheson himself (under the pseudonym Logan Swanson) as THE LAST MAN ON EARTH, a 1964 Italian production starring Vincent Price. The third and most recent was titled I AM LEGEND (2007) starring Will Smith. Each version brings it’s own unique take on the basic story; I’ve seen all three, and enjoyed them equally, disproving the theory held by some critics that all remakes are automatically bad.

Charlton Heston was in his sci-fi heyday at this point in his career. He’d starred in the mega-hit PLANET OF THE APES and iys sequel, and soon would headline SOYLENT GREEN. Heston was big box-office, and his presence in these films gave them more prestige than other genre entries of the era. Chuck makes a good protagonist, ex-Army immunologist Robert Neville, whether cruising down the deserted streets of LA listening to a smooth jazz version of “Theme from A Summer Place” on his 8-track, sitting in an empty theater watching WOODSTOCK for the umpteenth time, hunting down and battling those aforementioned mutants, or making history by have an interracial love affair with co-star Rosalind Cash, who could’ve very easily filled Pam Grier’s boots in any of her 70’s Blaxploitation flicks.

THE OMEGA MAN was the first time I became aware of actor Anthony Zerbe as Mattias, leader of the mutant cult known as The Family. The biological plague has caused them to become nocturnal, albino-skinned creatures of the night, and Zerbe gives a truly chilling performance. Since then Zerbe’s become one of my favorite character actors, gracing us with his talent in THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JUDGE ROY BEAN, PAPILLION, FAREWELL MY LOVELY, ROOSTER COGBURN, KISS MEETS THE PHANTOM OF THE PARK, THE DEAD ZONE, numerous TV movies and mini-series, and a regular role on David Janssen’s private eye series HARRY O. Zerbe was in both sequels to THE MATRIX and recently in AMERICAN HUSTLE. Other cast members include Lincoln Kilpatrick , Paul Koslo, Eric Laneuville, and Monika Henreid (daughter of Paul) as one of the cult.

Yes, THE OMEGA MAN is an artifact of its time, like any film. It does hold up well though, and is still an entertaining take on Matheson’s story. Actually, you really can’t go wrong with any of the three versions out there, but for a good dose of 70’s apocalyptic action, go with THE OMEGA MAN.

The Game’s Afoot: THE SEVEN-PER-CENT SOLUTION (Universal 1976)

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Sherlock Holmes has long been a favorite literary character of mine. As a youth, I devoured the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stories, marveling at the sleuth’s powers of observation and deduction. I reveled in the classic Universal film series starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Holmes and Watson, and still enjoy them today. I read Nicholas Meyer’s 1974 novel “The Seven-Per-Cent Solution” as a teen, where a coked-out Holmes is lured by Watson to Vienna to have the famed Sigmund Freud cure the detective of his addiction, getting enmeshed in mystery along the way. I’d never viewed the film version until recently, and while Meyer’s screenplay isn’t completely faithful to his book, THE SEVEN-PER-CENT SOLUTION is one of those rare instances where the movie is better than the novel.

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This is due in large part to a pitch-perfect cast, led by Nicol Williamson’s superb performance as Sherlock. We see Holmes at his worst, shooting coke like a maniac, jittery and on edge, babbling with wild-eyed intensity about “my nemesis, my evil genius”, the criminal mastermind Professor Moriarty. He’s paranoid and delusional, and Williamson brilliantly captures a man in the throes of cocaine-induced mania (trust me on this). Slowly but surely, with the help of the equally brilliant Freud, Holmes regains his sanity, and his deductive reasoning returns strong as ever. Williamson’s Holmes recalls the great Rathbone’s interpretation of the sleuth; indeed, the film as a whole will remind you of those 40’s films, albeit with a much, much larger budget.

Robert Duvall (Dr. John H. Watson) wants to dedfend the honor of Alan Arkin (Dr. Sigmund Freud).

Robert Duvall  gives a different take on Dr. John Watson than jolly old Nigel Bruce, far less of a bumbler and more athletic here despite the cane and limp. Alan Arkin makes a fine Sigmund Freud, and though the thought of the father of modern psychology as action hero may sound ludicrous, Arkin’s cerebral acting makes it work. Laurence Olivier is on hand briefly as Professor Moriarty, persecuted by the cocaine-demented Holmes. Vanessa Redgrave makes a lovely damsel in distress, playing the operatic diva Lola Devereaux. Charles Gray plays Holmes’ brother Mycroft, as he would later in the long-running British TV series starring Jeremy Brett. Jeremy Kemp exudes continental evil as the villainous Baron Leisdorf. All-star Familiar Faces Joel Grey, Samantha Eggar, Anna Quayle, Jill Townsend, and famed French discotheque’ matron Regine add to the fun.

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Besides the acting, this film is visually beautiful, with a lavish production design by Ken Adam, art direction by Robert Lamont, and Oscar nominated costuming by Alan Barrett, all stunningly filmed by cinematographer Oswald Morris, whose credits include MOBY DICK, HEAVEN KNOWS MR. ALLISON, THE GUNS OF NAVARONE, LOLITA, and OLIVER!. Producer/director Herbert Ross’s background as a former choreographer comes in handy, gracefully guiding the players through their paces. Ross never really got the acclaim other directors of his era did, despite a solid track record of hit comedies (THE OWL AND THE PUSSYCAT, THE SUNSHINE BOYS, THE GOODBYE GIRL), musicals (FUNNY LADY, FOOTLOOSE), and dramas (THE TURNING POINT, STEEL MAGNOLIAS).

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There are references to the Doyle stories peppered throughout the film for Sherlockphiles, and the climactic train chase, complete with a fencing duel atop a speeding locomotive, is loads of fun. Anyone who enjoys the current BBC version starring Benedict Cumberbatch or the CBS adaptation ELEMENTARY will have a grand old time viewing THE SEVEN-PER-CENT SOLUTION.

The Party’s Over: Dean Martin in MR. RICCO (MGM 1975)

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It’s an older, more world-weary Dean Martin we see in MR. RICCO, a fairly gritty but ultimately unfulfilling 70’s flick that would’ve made a decent pilot for a TV series (maybe in the NBC MYSTERY MOVIE rotation with Columbo and McCloud), but as a feature was best suited for the bottom half of a double bill. This was Dino’s last starring role, though he did appear in two more movies (THE CANNONBALL RUN and it’s sequel), and this attempt to change his image from footloose swinger to a more *gasp!* sober Martin doesn’t really cut it.

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Dean’s a defense lawyer, a “lily white liberal” who gets black militant Frankie Steele (Thalmus Rasulala ) off a murder rap. When two cops are blown away in an ambush, the witness provides a description of Steele, causing friction between Ricco and the police, especially his friend Detective Captain Cronyn (Eugene Roche, an underrated character actor who’s really good here). The cops raid the militant’s warehouse headquarters looking for Steele, and a racist cop shoots one of them, planting a weapon on the dead body. The dead guy’s brother Purvis (Phillip Michael Thomas, years before MIAMI VICE) is arrested, and sister Irene (Denise Nicholas of TV’s ROOM 222 and IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT) hires Ricco to clear him. Meanwhile, it seems Steele’s still on the loose, as Ricco’s home is attacked with a barrage of gunfire. But Ricco has his doubts about it all; why would Steele want to kill the man who got him cleared of a murder charge?

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This sets the stage for (few too many) action scenes, and what amounts to an introduction to Mr. Ricco’s world. He’s pals with Cronyn, has a faithful dog companion named Hank who fetches his wide golf shots, lives with elderly Italian Uncle Enzo (veteran Frank Puglia in his last film), a plucky girl Friday (Cindy Williams marking time between AMERICAN GRAFFITI and LAVERNE AND SHIRLEY), and Italian restaurant owners Nino and Angela (Nicky Blair, Rose Gregorio) who set him up with sweet Katherine Freemont (Geraldine Brooks). If that doesn’t sound like a TV pilot premise, what does? The television connection is also linked to Emmy-winning director Paul Bogart, better known for his work on the small screen (series ARMSTRONG CIRCLE THEATER, U.S. STEEL HOUR, THE DEFENDERS, ALL IN THE FAMILY, the TV-movies LOOK HOMEWARD ANGEL, AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE, THE SHADOW GAME) than his films (MARLOWE, HALLS OF ANGER, SKIN GAME, TORCH SONG TRILOGY).

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But Dino had just ended a nine-year run on his variety show the previous year, and was in the midst of a painful divorce. The great crooner probably wasn’t up to the grind of another weekly series (or even the MYSTERY MOVIE format of every three weeks), and was slowing down as he approached sixty. The point is moot, however; whatever the film’s intentions, MR. RICCO tanked at the box office. A new generation of stars and filmmakers was on the rise, and Dean Martin no longer had the cache he did in the Fabulous 50’s and Swingin’ 60’s. He continued with his CELEBRITY ROAST specials, played Vegas for his aging fan base, and had a memorable reunion with ex-partner Jerry Lewis at the 1976 Muscular Dystrophy Labor Day Telethon. Dino finally succumbed to lung cancer in 1995, putting an end to one of show biz’s greatest careers. MR. RICCO is average at best, but it does have the last starring performance of Dean Martin to recommend it. For fans of old Hollywood, that’s more than enough.

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That’s Blaxploitation! 9: THREE THE HARD WAY (Allied Artists 1974)

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An All-Star Blaxploitation cast barrels their way through THREE THE HARD WAY, director Gordon Parks Jr.’s ultra-violent classic that dives into action from jump street and rarely lets up on the gas pedal straight through til the end. It’s the quintessential 70’s action flick whose thin plot only serves to weave a tapestry of wild action set pieces and well-staged stunt work courtesy of stunt coordinator Hal Needham and his stellar stunt gang.

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We’re lured into the action right from the get-go in a pre-credits scene of a desperate young black man escaping from a concentration-camp-like compound. He makes it to L.A. and contacts his friend, the BMW-driving, hot-shot record producer Jimmy Lait, played by NFL great Jim Brown . The kid is then assassinated in his hospital bed and Jimmy’s girl Wendy (Sheila Fraser) is kidnapped. A scene change lets us in on the plot, as white supremacist Monroe Feather and evil scientist Dr. Fortero have designed a “scientific” final solution to the race problem by spiking the water supplies of urban areas with a poison that kills only black folks!

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Jimmy then enlists two of his old pals to help foil the fiendish plot and save Wendy. Another football player turned actor, Fred ‘The Hammer’ Williamson, is studly Chicago PR man Jagger Daniels. Williamson was already a Blaxploitation icon for films like BLACK CEASAR and HELL UP IN HARLEM, and he and Brown have good screen chemistry (the pair would appear together in four other films). Then it’s on to Washington to recruit Mister Keyes, played by BLACK BELT JONES star Jim Kelly, whose incredible kung-fu moves made up for his lack of acting talent. These three bad-asses proceed to take on the villainous Feather’s army, winding up in an explosive finale that’s violent, bloody, and loads of fun.

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I’ve got to mention the titanic trio of topless female torturers who pop up, riding in garbed in red, white, and blue on matching Kawasakis to dole out punishment on a captured racist. They’re Countess (Playboy cover girl Pamela Serpe), Empress (Irene Tsu of HOW TO STUFF A WILD BIKINI and PARADISE HAWAIIAN STYLE), and Princess (Marie O’Henry of DELIVER US FROM EVIL and DR. BLACK, MR. HYDE)….

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…and they’re a riotous highlight! They should’ve gotten their own film!

Crazy Jay Robinson, who played Caligula in THE ROBE and DEMETRIOS AND THE GLADIATORS, bring his oily talents to the role of Monroe Feather, and wasn’t even Oscar nominated (I know, I know, but he really is good in the part)! Familiar Faces include Charles McGregor (SUPER FLY’s Fat Freddie), Howard Platt (Officer Hoppy of SANFORD AND SON), Alex Rocco (THE GODFATHER), martial artist David Chow (who joins Kelly in a wild battle against some goons), and a young Corbin Bernsen. Richard Tufo composed the score, with songs by Curtis Mayfield’s old group The Impressions. Veteran Lucien Ballard capably handles the cinematography with his usual style.

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As far-fetched and unbelievable as THREE THE HARD WAY is, its non-stop action and likable stars kept me entertained all the way, and that’s exactly what I want out of a movie. It’s one of the definitive films in the Blaxploitation canon, and if you’re a fan like me, you’re gonna love this one. Get that popcorn ready, and enjoy!

Cheers for THE LAST AMERICAN HERO (20th Century Fox 1973)

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The world of NASCAR racing takes center stage in THE LAST AMERICAN HERO, a fictionalized biopic of legendary driver Junior Johnson. But this isn’t just a film about stock cars; it’s an extraordinary character study of a young man from the backwoods of North Carolina who discovers himself and what’s important to him. Jeff Bridges is outstanding in his first full-fledged starring role, demonstrating at age 24 the acting chops that have carried him to a long and prosperous film career.

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Junior Jackson hauls moonshine for his Daddy on the winding backroads of  the Carolina hills, his tactics eluding the cops at every turn. He’s cocky and confident, and pisses the local law off so much they bust up Daddy’s still and send him back to prison. Junior decides to use his only marketable skill to raise money for the family while Daddy’s away – driving. He enters a demolition derby, using an illegal railroad tie to batter his opponents, and badgers promoter Hackel (Ned Beatty in another fine performance – why hasn’t this man ever won an Oscar???) into letting him enter a ten-lap preliminary race, which he wins.

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Junior knows how good he is, and his talents take him to the top of the sport, encountering along the way characters like stock car groupie Marge (Valerie Perrine) and macho driver Kyle Kingsman (a swaggering William Smith). But the center of his universe is his family. Daddy Jackson (Art Lund) doesn’t know any life other than making moonshine, and wants better for his son. When Junior expresses his desire to race, he tells his son, “Damn foolishness to one person is breath of life to another”. Mom (Geraldine Fitzgerald) worries about the dangers of the racing life, and brother Wayne (pre-stardom Gary Busey) is both antagonist and supporter, as most brothers are. The Jackson family isn’t portrayed as just a bunch of hillbilly moonshiners, but real flesh and blood people, and it’s refreshing to see.

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Director Lamont Johnson is another of those that had more success on television than film. He did eight TWILIGHT ZONE episodes, including the classics “Nothing in the Dark” and “Kick the Can”, and won Emmys for WALLENBERG: A HERO’S STORY and LINCOLN. His big screen output ranged from okay (YOU’LL LIKE MY MOTHER, CATTLE ANNIE AND LITTLE BRITCHES) to atrocious (LIPSTICK, SPACEHUNTER: ADVENTURES IN THE FORBIDDEN ZONE). THE LAST AMERICAN HERO is without question his finest feature. The exciting action on the oval is well captured by DP George Silano, and skillfully edited by the tandem of Robbe Roberts (BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA) and Tom Rolf (TAXI DRIVER, THE RIGHT STUFF). William Roberts (THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN ) based his screenplay on an Esquire Magazine article by Tom Wolfe.

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THE LAST AMERICAN HERO doesn’t make many critical discussions about great films of the 70’s, but I believe it deserves to be in the conversation. Not just another slice of Americana pie, it’s a well-constructed story expertly told, with exciting action, a great ensemble of actors, and a star turn by Jeff Bridges. It should be on your watch list. As a bonus, the movie’s theme is “I Got a Name” by the late, great Jim Croce, which didn’t even get an Oscar nomination, but should have (“The Way We Were” won that year), so to close this out, here’s Jim Croce: