Hellhound On My Trail: Walter Hill’s CROSSROADS (Columbia 1986)

‘Well the blues had a baby/and they named it rock and roll” –

Muddy Waters

Hi, my name’s Gary, and I’m a bluesoholic! Whether it’s Deep South Delta or Electric Chicago, distilled in Great Britain or Sunny California, the blues has always been the foundation upon which rock’n’roll was built. Yet there aren’t a lot of films out there depicting this totally original American art form. One I viewed recently was 1986’s CROSSROADS, directed by another American original whose work I enjoy, Walter Hill.

Hill was responsible for cult classics filled with violence and laced with humor, like HARD TIMES (with Charles Bronson as a 1930’s bare knuckles brawler), the highly stylized THE WARRIORS , the gritty Western THE LONG RIDERS, and SOUTHERN COMFORT (a kind of MOST DANGEROUS GAME On The Bayou). He scored box office gold with the 1982 action-comedy 48 HRS, making a movie star out of SNL’s Eddie Murphy (for better or worse), but his  follow up STREETS OF FIRE (a “rock and roll fable”) tanked at theaters.

Robert Johnson, King of the Delta Blues (1911-1938)

CROSSROADS is a different type of Walter Hill film. While keeping the ‘buddy movie’ aspect and the humor, Hill tones down the violence quotient considerably to tell his tale, based somewhat loosely on the legend of Robert Johnson. the seminal Mississippi bluesman who allegedly “sold his soul to the devil” to achieve fame and fortune. Johnson’s output of music recorded before his death in 1938 at age 27 consists of just 29 songs, including future blues standards “Come On In My Kitchen”, “Dust My Broom”, “Love in Vain”, ‘Ramblin’ On My Mind”, “Sweet Home Chicago”, and of course “Crossroad Blues”.

CROSSROADS is about a quest to discover Johnson’s missing thirtieth song, as a young Julliard student named Eugene Martone, who wants to be a bluesman, finds elderly Willie Brown (aka Blind Dog Fulton), Johnson’s former harmonica player, in an old folks home. Martone is obsessed with finding the lost song, and the crusty, crotchety Willie agrees to help him, if he’ll help Willie escape from the home. He does, and they go ‘hoboing’ down the backroads headed to the Mississippi Delta, where Willie claims he, like Robert Johnson, once sold his soul to the devil, and now wants it back!

Along the way, they meet young runaway Frances, and go on the adventure of a lifetime, as Eugene (dubbed by Willie ‘The Lighting Kid’) learns what it’s really like to live the life of an itinerant  bluesman. Willie finally makes it back to the crossroads, coming face to face with The Devil himself, and a mystical, mojo-fueled guitar duel takes place between Eugene and The Devil’s own shredder (demonically played by guitar whiz Steve Vai) for both their immortal souls…

Joe Seneca is marvelous as cranky Willie, full of piss and vinegar, and makes a totally believable bluesman. Ralph Macchio, who I usually find quite annoying, as Eugene is good as well. Jami Gertz (LESS THAN ZERO) is appealing as the runaway Frances. Joe Morton (BROTHER FROM ANOTHER PLANET) is The Devil’s Assistant, while Robert Judd (who acted with Seneca in the original Broadway production of MA RAINY’S BLACK BOTTOM) makes an evil, leering Devil (here called Scratch). And it’s a real treat to see veteran Harry Carey Jr. pop up in the brief role of the bartender in a redneck country joint!

Slide guitarist extraordinaire Ry Cooder contributes the rootsy soundtrack, aided immensely by the harp blowing of legendary bluesman Sonny Terry. Other musicians contributing include Frank Frost (harp), Otis Taylor (guitar), and Jim Keltner (drums). Walter Hill has crafted a totally likable musical fairy tale with CROSSROADS, a must-see for lovers of the blues.

West-Teen Angst: GUNMAN’S WALK (Columbia 1958)

GUNMAN’S WALK may not be a classic Western like THE SEARCHERS or HIGH NOON, but it was entertaining enough to hold my interest. That’s due in large part to a change of pace performance by All-American 50’s Teen Idol Tab Hunter as a sort-of Rebel Without A Cause On The Range, an unlikable sociopath with daddy issues, aided and abetted by Phil Karlson’s taut direction and some gorgeous panoramic Cinemascope shots by DP Charles Lawton Jr.

Boisterous cattle rancher Lee Hackett (Van Heflin) is one of those Men-Who-Tamed-The-West types, a widower with two sons. Eldest Ed (Hunter) is a privileged, racist creep who’s obsessed with guns, while younger Davy (played by another 50’s Teen Idol, James Darren) is more reserved. The Hacketts are about to embark on a wild horse round-up, and enlist two half-breed Sioux, the brothers of pretty young Clee (Kathryn Grant,  young wife of crooner Bing Crosby).

Ed kills one of the brothers by riding him off a cliff as they vie to rope a beautiful white mare. The Indians call it murder, but a fellow white man (Ray Teal, later the sheriff on TV’s BONANZA) lies for the kid in order to gain favor with Lee, freeing Ed to carouse and cause trouble with abandon. The man is subsequently given his pick of ten horses, and when he picks that white mare, Ed guns him down in a rage, is arrested again, and escapes after killing a deputy. A posse is formed, including Lee, who must confront his wild child in a final showdown.

Hunter is very good indeed as the spoiled, antisocial Ed, a thoroughly unlikable punk who thinks he can get away with anything he wants… including murder. This was a total departure from Tab’s clean-cut image, and he delivers the acting goods under Karlson’s watchful eye. The underrated director cut his movie teeth directing Charlie Chan and Bowery Boys entries at Monogram Pictures before reinventing himself as one of the premiere makers of films  noir during the 50’s, with titles like SCANDAL SHEET, KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL , 99 RIVER STREET , THE PHENIX CITY STORY, and THE BROTHERS RICO. Karlson was also responsible for one of the biggest hits of the early 70’s, WALKING TALL. I’ve praised Karlson’s work several times on this blog, and if you haven’t rediscovered his films yet, you should!

Equally good is Van Heflin as the hail-fellow-well-met dad, unable to grasp the changing times in the West (then again, Heflin’s always good, isn’t he?). James Darren doesn’t get much to do, but he’s one of my favorites (and for more on Mr. Darren, follow this link to my recent post on FOR THOSE WHO THINK YOUNG ). Kathryn Grant doesn’t get much to do either except look pretty, and the supporting cast includes stalwarts such as Bert Convy (making his film debut) as the doomed half-breed, GET SMART’s Ed Platt (who was also in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE) as a sympathetic Indian agent, Robert F. Simon as the town sheriff, and Mickey Shaughnessy as his deputy.

So while GUNMAN’S WALK may not be a classic in the John Ford mold, it’s worth watching for Hunter’s about-face as a heel, Karlson’s direction, and those beautiful vistas captured by Lawton. Now here’s Tab singing his #1 hit from 1957, “Young Love”. Adios, amigos!:

Boulevard of Broken Dreams: Quentin Tarantino’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD (Sony/Columbia 2019)

If you’re as much of a movie/television/pop culture fanatic as I am (and if you weren’t, you probably wouldn’t be reading this blog!), I’m here to tell you you’re gonna ABSOLUTELY FUCKING LOVE this latest Quentin Tarantino epic!

ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD takes place in 1969, at the tail end of Tinseltown’s Glory Days, and the tail end of TV actor Rick Dalton’s career. Dalton (splendidly played by Leonardo DiCaprio) was the star of the late 50s/early 60s TV Western BOUNTY LAW (modeled after Steve McQueen’s WANTED: DEAD OR ALIVE), whose drinking problem has led him on the road to nowheresville, grabbing quick paychecks by guest starring as bad guys on episodic TV. He’s offered the chance to make some low-budget Spaghetti Westerns by producer Marvin Schwarsz (a bloated looking Al Pacino), bottom of the barrel stuff that’ll keep Rick’s name above the title.

Rick’s best bud Cliff Booth (supercool Brad Pitt – and why hasn’t this guy won a fucking acting Oscar yet?) is his long-time stunt double who has problems of his own getting work, due to rumors he killed his wife with a spear gun. Rick gets some new neighbors at his private Ciello Drive residence: upcoming starlet Sharon Tate (an endearing Margot Robbie) and her new hubby, director Roman Polanski. He also lands yet another bad guy role on the pilot episode of LANCER (featuring Timothy Olyphant as the tragic James Stacy), but Cliff’s not hired because of friction with stunt co-ordinator Randy’s (the great Kurt Russell) wife (veteran stuntwoman and actress Zoe Bell).

So while Rick struggles with himself making the pilot, Cliff picks up a cute teenage hitchhiker (Margaret Qualley, Emmy winner for FOSSE/VERDON) and drives her to the Spahn Ranch, and their lives will never be the same…

I won’t spoil the ending for you, except to say it hits you like a swift kick in the balls, and another, and then another, in typically over-the-top Tarantino fashion – all set to the music of Vanilla Fudge’s “You Keep Me Hangin’ On”! As usual, music plays a large part in Tarantino’s film, and you’ll hear classic rock tunes from the era like Los Bravos’ “Bring a Little Water”, Bob Seger’s “Rambling Gambling Man”, The Stones’ ‘Out of Time”, Deep Purple’s “Hush”, and many others. You’ll even hear and see the impossibly handsome Robert Goulet crooning “MacArthur Park” from an old TV clip!

DiCaprio and Pitt make a great pair as Rick and Cliff, a couple of Hollywood losers now living on the fringe of filmdom. And Margot Robbie is just as lovable as the real Sharon Tate – she inhabits the late actress’s skin and truly BECOMES the doomed star. Besides those previously mentioned, I’d be remiss if I didn’t give shout-outs to Bruce Dern as the broken-down George Spahn (a role slated for Burt Reynolds before his death), Austin Butler (Nickelodeon’s ZOEY 101) as the thoroughly evil Tex Watson, Dakota Fanning as Squeaky Fromme, Nicholas Hammond (TV’s original SPIDER-MAN) as director Sam Wannamaker, and Emile Hirsch (INTO THE WILD) as Jay Sebring. Luke Perry makes his final film appearance as actor Wayne Maunder, and Lena Dunham, Martin Kove, Michael Madsen, and James Remar are also along for this wild ride!

.

There’s so much to love for film fans in ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD, and I especially dug the scene where Pitt’s character has a fight with Bruce Lee, played by martial arts expert Mike Moh. The “clip” of DiCaprio singing while hosting the rock music TV show HULLABALOO resonated with me, and fans will get the reference when Olyphant-as-Stacy leaves the set on his motorcycle. A lot of online critics are complaining that the film isn’t up to the auteur’s par, but I call bullshit on that… ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD is vintage Tarantino, an ode to Old Hollywood that’s a movie buff’s dream. It’s 2 and 1/2 hour running time flew by, and by all means, go see it! You can thank me later!

Fondly dedicated to the memory of Sharon Tate (1943-1969)

End of the Trail: James Stewart in Anthony Mann’s THE MAN FROM LARAMIE (Columbia 1955)

I’ve covered several of the  Anthony Mann/James Stewart Western collaborations here. Their final sagebrush outing together THE MAN FROM LARAMIE was shot in Cinemascope and gorgeous Technicolor, features a bunch of solid character actors, has beautiful New Mexico scenery… yet felt like a letdown to me. Maybe it’s because Mann and Stewart set the bar so high in their previous Westerns, but THE MAN FROM LARAMIE is an anti-climactic climax to the director/star duo’s pairings.

Stewart’s good as always, playing bitter Will Lockhart, whose brother was killed by Apaches and whose mission is to find out who’s selling the guns to them. But the film came off flat, feeling like just another routine Western – good, but not in the same category as WINCHESTER ’73 or BEND OF THE RIVER. Those Mann film noir touches are nowhere to be found, replaced by (dare I say it!)… soap opera elements!

Cathy O’Donnell, so good as Wilma in William Wyler’s THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES and Keechie in Nick Ray’s THEY LIVE BY NIGHT , is not-so-good here as love interest Barbara. Granted, the part is underwritten by scenarists Philip Yordan and Frank Burt, as are most of the characters, reduced to mere cardboard cutouts. Even the great Donald Crisp struggles to make something out of mean ranch owner Alec Waggoman. Arthur Kennedy does okay as ranch foreman (and nominal villain) Vic Hansboro, but Alex Nicol is lousy as hot-headed Waggoman son Dave. Wallace Ford seems to be channeling Gabby Hayes as Stewart’s cantankerous sidekick Charley. Only Aline MacMahon as salty rival rancher Kate (“I’ve patched up bullet holes in places I wouldn’t like to mention”) and young Jack Elam as conniving town drunk Chris Boldt manage to create fleshed-out characters – and Elam’s killed off early!

On the plus side, Charles Lang’s cinematography is outstanding, with some truly breathtaking shots of New Mexico’s scenic vistas, enhanced by that previously mentioned Cinemascope and Technicolor. The film can also be violent and bloodily brutal in places, with some incredibly tough stunt work from pros like Bill Catchings, Ted Mapes, and Chuck Roberson. But let’s be honest – when I start talking about the background and stuntmen, you know I don’t have a lot to say about the film! It just doesn’t have that special “something” that set apart the other Mann/Stewart Westerns. Instead, it’s just another 50’s oater.

Anthony Mann directing Jimmy Stewart in 1953’s “Thunder Bay” (that’s costar Dan Duryea in the background)

Anthony Mann and James Stewart were scheduled to team again for 1957’s NIGHT PASSAGE, but Mann backed out over the casting of Audie Murphy as Jimmy’s outlaw kid brother. Mann claimed Stewart just wanted an excuse to play his accordion in a movie, and a rift developed between the two that never healed. NIGHT PASSAGE is more reminiscent of their work together than THE MAN FROM LARAMIE, a mediocre Western that completists will want to see…  the rest of us can just go back and enjoy THE NAKED SPUR or WINCHESTER ’73 once again.

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time Well Spent: THREE HOURS TO KILL (Columbia 1954)

I don’t think you’ll find THREE HOURS TO KILL among anyone’s Top Ten Films list, or Top Ten Westerns, or even Top Ten Dana Andrews Movies. What you will find, if you give this movie a chance, is a solid, adult themed Technicolor Western with just a hint of film noir, made by Hollywood pros in front and behind the cameras. And you can’t ask for much more than that.

Jim Guthrie returns after a three year absence to the town that once tried to hang him. Jim relates the tale via flashback to old friend and current sheriff Ben East: a big night in town had everybody drinking and partying it up. Sexy hotel owner Chris Palmer comes on to Jim, but he only has eyes for pretty Laurie Mastin, bringing out the jealous side of banker Niles Hendricks. Laurie’s brother Carter disapproves of Jim, and a fight breaks out. The camera moves indoors as the partygoers hear two shots, then rush outside to see Jim standing over Carter, gun in hand. The alcohol-fueled crowd erupts into a lynch mob, and Jim barely escapes with his life, his rope-scarred neck a constant reminder of that fateful night.

Ben gives Jim til sundown, just three short hours away, to prove his innocence before either leaving town for good or being arrested. He soon learns many things have changed since he left. Laurie is now married to Niles and has a young son – and as it turns out, the kid is Jim’s! His probing makes him a marked man, and there are suspects galore, all with their own reasons for wanting Carter dead and Jim held responsible…

Dana Andrews  takes the role of Jim Guthrie and plays it like one of his many noir protagonists. He’s a hard man, and justice isn’t the only thing on his mind. Andrews is as obsessed and determined as his Mark McPherson in LAURA , and though his star had fallen somewhat (due to his alcoholism; Andrews eventually conquered his demons through AA), he delivers a sturdy performance. Donna Reed was a year removed from her Oscar win for FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, and the part of Laurie is a nice, juicy dramatic role for her. As always, Reed gives it her all, and the two work well together.

Character actor James Westerfield in “Three Hours to Kill”

The supporting cast is filled with Familiar Faces. Stephen Elliott is Sheriff Ben, who’s not what he seems. Richard Coogan (TV’s original CAPTAIN VIDEO) plays Niles, who’s also not what he seems. Dianne Foster (Chris) has an impressive sagebrush resume that includes THE KENTUCKIAN, THE VIOLENT MEN, and NIGHT PASSAGE. James Westerfield is bartender Sam, Whit Bissell barber Deke, Richard Webb (another TV captain, CAPTAIN MIDNIGHT) the unfortunate Carter, and Laurence Hugo (the soap opera EDGE OF NIGHT) the gambler Marty. Carolyn Jones has an early role as a bar girl, and you’ll find vets Stanley Blystone, Franklyn Farnum, Frank Hagney, Hank Mann, Frances McDonald, Snub Pollard, and Buddy Roosevelt among the townsfolk.

Producer Harry Joe Brown treats the film like one of his Randolph Scott Westerns – in fact, it probably would’ve made a good Scott vehicle! The screenplay by Richard Alan Simmons (SHIELD FOR MURDER) and Roy Huggins (future creator of TV’s THE FUGITIVE and THE ROCKFORD FILES) is tense and original. Veteran DP Charles Lawton (THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI) makes the Columbia backlot look sufficiently Western. And director Alfred Werker had been around since the silent era; working mainly in B’s, his better known films include HOUSE OF ROTHSCHILD, KIDNAPPED, THE ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, REPEAT PERFORMANCE, and HE WALKED BY NIGHT.

The name Paul Sawtell rarely shows up in discussions on great film composers, but if you’ve ever watched a classic-era movie, you’ve heard his work. Sawtell’s credits are legion: he worked on many Universal Horror and Sherlock Holmes films in the 40’s, moved on to RKO for some Tarzans, scored films noir like THE DEVIL THUMBS A RIDE, BORN TO KILL , T-MEN, RAW DEAL , and KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL , low budget horror and sci-fi (SON OF DR. JEKYLL, THE BLACK SCORPION , IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE ), Irwin Allen’s THE LOST WORLD , VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA, and FIVE WEEKS IN A BALLOON, and even a couple of Russ Meyer sexploitationers (FASTER PUSSYCAT! KILL! KILL!, MOTORPSYCHO). Sawtell also composed tons of stock music cues that pop up in almost 500 films and TV shows. He’s one of Hollywood’s unsung heroes, and though he’s no Max Steiner, he deserves a shout-out – so here it is!!

THREE HOURS TO KILL is not a “classic” Western (we’re not talking John Ford here!), but the talent on both sides of the camera make it just a cut above average. It’s well worth watching, not only for Western buffs, but for fans of good, solid Hollywood filmmaking.

Dark Valentine: THE LOVES OF CARMEN (Columbia 1948)


Love takes many strange forms, none more strange than the obsessive love Don Jose has for the Gypsy temptress Carmen in THE LOVES OF CARMEN, Columbia Pictures’ biggest hit of 1948. The film, based on Prosper Merimee’s 1845 novella and Georges Bizet’s famous opera, reunites GILDA stars Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford with director Charles Vidor, and though it’s in glorious Technicolor and set in 1800’s Spain, it’s got a lot of film noir elements going for it: there’s the protagonist caught in a rapidly moving downward spiral, the amoral femme fatale, crime, murder, and a bleak, downbeat ending. Think I’m stretching a bit? Let’s take a look…

Young nobleman Don Jose arrives in Seville with a dragoon squadron, a corporal with political ambitions and a bright future ahead of him… until he meets Carmen, a gorgeous red-haired Gypsy who is an expert manipulator. Jose is enchanted by this free-spirited beauty, even though she steals his watch when first they meet. Carmen gets into a street fight with a “respectable” citizen, slashing her face with a knife, and is arrested. Don Jose is put in charge of bringing her to jail, but allows her to escape.

Punished for his actions by his Colonel, Jose discovers his superior has designs on the Gypsy woman himself. He’s forced to stand sentry duty at a party, looking on forlornly as Carmen dances and clicks her castanets for the Colonel and his guests. She entices Jose into breaking his restriction, and when the Colonel later finds Jose at Carmen’s humble abode, a sword fight breaks out, and Carmen trips up the officer, who falls onto Jose’s sword, dead. The two head for the mountains, Jose now a deserter wanted for murder.

An old Gypsy woman has predicted “one love” who’ll bring death for Carmen, but the unfettered girl refuses to listen. The Gypsies in the camp have raised bribe money to free their leader, the lusty bandit Garcia… who also happens to be Carmen’s husband! Jose is subjected into joining Garcia’s highwaymen, with Carmen teasingly out of reach. She takes up with the bullfighter Lucas while scouting potential victims along the roadside, and after Jose kills Garcia in a knife fight (adding more blood on his conscience),he becomes leader of the bandits, not allowing Carmen to join in on the robberies. She refuses to sit around camp and be a simple esposa, taking off for a few days to dally with Lucas. The film culminates with Jose tracking down Carmen to Lucas’s estate and, finally realizing she’s no good, plunging his knife into her as Lucas shoots him in the back. The cursed lovers fall on the steps in a final death embrace.

Now if that’s not a film noir plot, I don’t know what is! Rita Hayworth, who was born for Technicolor, is stunning as the seductress Carmen, a woman who’s “bad all the way through… a liar, a thief, and a cheat”. Carmen cares about no one but Carmen (“No one tells Carmen’s eyes where to go or how to behave”, she declares), treating men like lace handkerchiefs to be used and discarded. We first meet her eating a juicy piece of fruit, tantalizingly licking her lips while Jose approaches, and there’s no doubt of the symbolism! Rita scorches every scene with her sex appeal; she’s the ultimate CT, and a femme fatale for the ages.

Glenn Ford’s Jose is a well-bred, ramrod straight soldier until he succumbs to his lust for Carmen. Jose is unworldly, in sharp contrast to the been-around-the-block Gypsy, and though some have criticized his performance, I found him to be more than up to the task. Victor Jory gets the plum part of bandit leader Garcia and runs away with it; I think it’s one of his best roles. Others in the cast are Luther Adler, John Baragrey (Lucas), Wally Cassell , Arnold Moss, Ron Randell, Phil Van Zandt , and Margaret Wycherly as the old Gypsy who predicts Carmen’s doom. Rita’s father Eduardo Cansino helped choreograph the Spanish dances for his daughter (whose production company was responsible for the film).

So while THE LOVES OF CARMEN may not fit neatly into anyone’s idea of film noir (which, let’s be honest, is a genre open to interpretation), a case can certainly be made for this dark tale of “delusion, idealism, and love gone wrong”. It’s the perfect anti-Valentine’s Day movie for those who’ve been burned by love, and a film that deserves a little more love itself from classic film fans out there. Now excuse me while I go eat a box of chocolates…

Happy Valentine’s Day from Cracked Rear Viewer

Man of the People: John Ford’s THE LAST HURRAH (Columbia 1958)

This post has been preempted as many times as tonight’s State of the Union Address! 


John Ford’s penchant for nostalgic looks back at “the good old days” resulted in some of his finest works. The sentimental Irishman created some beautiful tone poems in his 1930’s films with Will Rogers, and movies like HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY and THE QUIET MAN convey Ford’s sense of loss and wistful longing for simpler times. The director’s THE LAST HURRAH continues this theme in a character study about an Irish-American politician’s final run for mayor, running headfirst into a new era of politics dominated by television coverage and media hype instead of old-fashioned boots-on-the-ground handshaking and baby-kissing. It’s not only a good film, but a movie buff’s Nirvana, featuring some great older stars and character actors out for their own Last Hurrah with the Old Master.

Based on Edwin O’Connor’s 1956 novel, the film opens with the superimposed words ‘A New England City’, but you’re not fooling us New Englanders, Mr. Ford… we know that ‘city’ represents Boston and it’s Irish-dominated political scene! We’re taken inside a stately manse, where we see Mayor Frank Skeffington emerge from his bedroom, dressed and ready to go. He pauses before a portrait of his late wife before going to meet with his political operatives to plan the next campaign.

Skeffington’s a wily rascal, a product of the slums who hasn’t forgotten his roots or from where his power comes, as he visits a local widow at her late husband’s wake and hands her an envelope of cash, telling her it was his own late spouse’s last wish, then strong-arms the undertaker into giving the Widow Minnihan a discount. Skeffington is not above using his office for blackmail, and rumors of graft surround him, especially among the city’s blue blood elite. That such a charming scoundrel is played by the great Spencer Tracy only adds to his likability. Tracy was one of the most extraordinary screen actors ever, Golden Age or current, a performer who relied on instinct rather than method. Watch any Tracy film; he plays his roles so natural, you can’t see the seems.

The film follows Skeffington as he runs his old-school campaign, in contrast to his telegenic Kennedyesque opponent Kevin McClusky, who’s backed by the Yankee Brahmin. It’s basically a series of vignettes as Skeffington’s nephew, local sportswriter Adam Caulfield, is invited to join in for an inside look at politics. Ford regular Jeffrey Hunter (THE SEARCHERS, SERGEANT RUTLEDGE) plays Adam, representing the new generation, and serving as a sounding board for Tracy’s Skeffington as he bemoans the loss of the old ways to media saturation and manipulation (though Skeffington’s no slouch in the manipulation department himself!). Tip O’Neill once said “All politics is local”, and that sums up Frank Skeffington in a nutshell.

LAST HURRAH, Edward Brophy, Spencer Tracy, Jeffrey Hunter, Ricardo Cortez, Pat O’Brien, 1958

THE LAST HURRAH is populated by a cast of veterans on both sides of the campaign trail. It seems like the entire “Hollywood Irish Mafia” is on hand for this one, with the exception of James Cagney (who refused to work with Ford again after their MISTER ROBERTS behind-the-scenes fiasco). Skeffington’s ward heelers include Pat O’Brien as his chief operative Joe Gorman, Ricardo Cortez representing the Jewish voters, James Gleason as pugnacious ‘Cuke’ Gillan, and Carelton Young as the blue-blooded Winslow, who’s crossed over to Skeffington’s side. But of all the mayor’s men, I absolutely LOVE LOVE LOVE Ed Brophy as Ditto, the dense but loyal ward boss who acts as court jester to Skeffington. Ditto lives for serving Hizzoner, down to wearing a duplicate of the mayor’s trademark Homburg hat (which he calls his “Grey Hamburger”). The undying affection Ditto has for Skeffington is palpable, and is reciprocated by the mayor. It’s Brophy who’s in the final shot, taking that long walk up the flight of stairs, head down, to pay respects to his boss, and Brophy gives a marvelous all-around performance.

The blue bloods are represented by Basil Rathbone as banker Norman Cass and John Carradine as publisher Amos Force, and with those eminent screen villains you just know they’re the bad guys, along with Basil Ruysdael as the Protestant bishop. Donald Crisp is the Catholic Cardinal, who grew up in the same slum as Skeffington but is on the opposite side of the political spectrum. Wallace Ford plays perennial candidate Charles J. Hennessy, who always runs and loses (there’s one in every town!), and Frank McHugh his ever-optimistic campaign manager. Among those who shine in smaller roles there’s Anna Lee as the Widow Minnihan, Jane Darwell in a comic cameo as an old lady who goes to all the local wakes (and there’s one of them in every town, too!), Willis Bouchey as Adam’s anti-Skeffington father-in-law, Ken Curtis as Monsignor Killian, Charles B. Fitzsimmons (Maureen O’Hara’s brother) as the vacuous McCluskey, O.Z. Whitehead as Cass’s equally vacuous son, and many more, some uncredited. Familiar Face spotters will have a good time with this one!

THE LAST HURRAH isn’t a Ford classic on a par with STAGECOACH , THE GRAPES OF WRATH, or others. It’s one of those smaller Ford efforts, despite the high-powered cast, a rumination on simpler times. The Skeffington machine gets outgunned by modern technology, allowing a pretty-boy puppet to replace the older, more experienced pol. This is progress? Whatever side of the political divide you fall on, you have to agree we need more charming rascals like Frank Skeffington, who actually care about their constituency, and less of those acrimonious, talking-point-repeating elitists who think they know what’s best for us unwashed masses and only serve to divide. But before I turn this into a political diatribe and piss half you Dear Readers off… just go watch the movie!

Brute Farce: Wilder & Pryor Go STIR CRAZY (Columbia 1980)

Gene Wilder  and Richard Pryor weren’t really a comedy team at all, just two incredibly funny comic actors who happened to work well together.  Both were stars in their own right, first appearing together in the 1976 comedy-thriller SILVER STREAK, with Pryor in the pivotal supporting role as a thief who aides the in-danger Wilder. Audiences loved the chemistry between the two, and of course Hollywood took notice. STIR CRAZY is not a sequel, but a funny film of its own allowing Gene and Richard to be their loveably loony selves.

New Yorkers Skip Donahue (Wilder) and Harry Monroe (Pryor) are a couple of buds who’ve both lost their jobs. Playwright Skip’s a dreamer, while aspiring actor Harry’s a realist, but somehow Skip talks his pal into leaving The Big Apple to seek fame and fortune in Hollywood. Their cross-country trek ends when Harry’s decrepit Dodge van breaks down in the Southwestern town of Glenboro. Running low on cash, they take a job doing a song-and-dance routine promoting a local bank. Oh, and they’re dressed as giant woodpeckers!

While taking a lunch break (and notice all the shameless product placement: Dunkin’ Donuts, Coke, Perrier, Heineken… all in the first fifteen minutes!), a couple of crooks steal their woodpecker suits and rob the bank. Skip and Harry are arrested, tried, and sentenced to 125 years in state prison, where they encounter some mean hombres, none meaner than Grossberger, “the biggest mass murderer in the Southwest”. City slicker Skip demonstrates an amazing aptitude for riding the warden’s mechanical bull, and the warden wants him to compete in the annual prison rodeo. Skip holds out in order to name his own crew, who’re planning a jailbreak, and the warden and captain of the guards try everything to break him. They don’t succeed, and Skip, Harry, and the boys create an elaborate escape plan…

“That’s right, we bad!”

It’s pretty obvious Wilder and Pryor threw the script out the window in many scenes and just ad-libbed, riffing off each other like a pair of jazz musicians. It’s equally obvious Pryor was coked out of his skull during much of the movie; his mannerisms are a dead giveaway. Be that as it may, both men are hysterically funny throughout, and the scene where they enter jail for the first time, with Pryor trying to teach Wilder to act like a badass (“That’s right, we bad, uh-huh”) is still a laugh-out-loud classic. The pair teamed again for two more films, 1989’s SEE NO EVIL, HEAR NO EVIL and 1991’s ANOTHER YOU, neither of which was successful; both try too hard, and can’t old a candle to SILVER STREAK or STIR CRAZY.

Sidney Poitier had directed five previous films with himself as star, and here he gives Wilder and Pryor free rein. Poitier does good work balancing comedy and suspense in the film’s ending, and one wishes he’d done more directing (except for GHOST DAD!). Humorist Bruce Jay Friedman wrote the absurd screenplay, at least those parts where Wilder and Pryor aren’t ad-libbing. Among the cast are Georg Stanford Brown (or as we called him, “Hey, it’s the guy from THE ROOKIES”) as a gay con with a crush on Pryor, JoBeth Williams as Wilder’s love interest, Barry Corbin (NORTHERN EXPOSURE) as Warden Beatty (get it?), Craig T. Nelson (JoBeth’s husband in POLTERGEIST) as the cruel guard captain, and the massive Erland van Lidth de Juede, a computer scientist, opera singer, and part-time actor (action fans know him as Dynamo in THE RUNNING MAN) as Grossberger. And yes, that’s the big man’s real voice singing “Down in the Valley”! (A side note: I could be wrong, but I’d swear that’s former Our Gang member Matthew “Stymie” Beard seen briefly sitting in the rodeo crowd behind the warden). STIR CRAZY was, as you can imagine, a huge hit, with the zany team of Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor doing what they did best – making people laugh. The film’s just as funny today as when first released, a testament to the marvelous manic energy and comic chemistry between them.

Rockin’ in the Film World #18: The Who’s TOMMY (Columbia 1975)


Before MTV ever hit the airwaves, there was TOMMY, Ken Russell’s stylized cinematic vision of The Who’s 1969 ‘rock opera’. It was a match made in heaven, teaming Britain’s Wild Man of Cinema with the anarchic rock and roll of Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey, John Entwistle, and Keith Moon (not to mention England’s own enfant terrible, Oliver Reed ). Russell both captures the spirit of Townsend’s hard rock opus and expands on it visually with an all-out assault-on-the-senses musical featuring an all-star cast that includes an Oscar-nominated performance by Ann-Margret as the mother of “that deaf, dumb, and blind kid” who “sure plays a mean pinball”!

The Who’s original album cover

Townshend, the group’s primary songwriter, had been experimenting with long-form rock’n’roll since the beginning, notably the nine minute suite “A Quick One While He’s Away” on their second album A QUICK ONE (retitled in America HAPPY JACK). TOMMY was born after The Who’s concept album THE WHO SELL OUT (everybody did concept albums back then), and was a critical and commercial success. Six years later, Russell adapted the rock opera for the screen; he was considered a true maverick in the filmmaking world, on which he’d unleashed such films as WOMEN IN LOVE, THE MUSIC LOVERS, and especially THE DEVILS, a film so controversial that it still shocks audiences to this day, and has never been shown in it’s raw, uncut version.

Russell threw everything into this psychedelic wonderland (with more cinematic references than I could count!), including that all-star cast I mentioned from the worlds of both Hollywood and rock. The Who’s charismatic lead singer Roger Daltrey plays Tommy, and his performance led to the lead in Russell’s later LISZTOMANIA and other film roles. Guitarist supreme Eric Clapton is The Preacher singing Sonny Boy Williamson’s blues standard “Eyesight to the Blind” at the Church of Marilyn Monroe, while Britain’s premier soul screamer Arthur Brown as The Priest belts out “Religion”. Tina Turner, dolled up like some kinda perverted Countess Dracula, does “The Acid Queen” amidst a sleazy porno shop setting. Maniac Keith Moon , The Who’s deranged drummer, is the perverted “Uncle Ernie” – and Moon’s propulsive drumming throughout most of the film (his successor Kenney Jones subs on a few tracks) is nothing short of astounding. No question: Best Rock Drummer Ever! Elton John knocks “Pinball Wizard” out of the park in a particularly bizarre sequence. Jack Nicholson’s singing as The Doctor is the only real disappointment – stick to acting, Jack!

Oliver Reed, who starred in Russell’s THE DEVILS and was a drinking bud of madman Moon, plays Tommy’s stepdad. He mugs it up shamelessly, fitting right in with the film’s lunacy, but as a singer… well, he’s a great actor (Ollie also sang in the 1968 Oscar-winning musical OLIVER!). Ann-Margret deservedly copped an Oscar nomination (losing to Louise Fletcher’s Nurse Ratched in ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST) as Tommy’s mother, even though she was just three years older than Daltrey as Tommy. She’s the star of this show, giving a spectacular performance, and her scene during “Smash the Mirror”, where she’s deluged with detergent, baked beans, and melted chocolate oozing through the TV screen, is an hallucinatory delight! And God, was she hot!

Russell “fiddled about” with some of the song sequences, adding some and  deleting others in order to make Townshend’s opus more of a cinematic experience, and succeeded. The composer, who based his rock opera on the teachings of his spiritual guru Meher Baba, had no objections, and still praises Russell’s vision of his work. TOMMY is meant to be seen on the Big Screen, but even on the telly, it’s a rock’n’roll masterpiece you don’t want to miss!