Dead Man Walking: Clint Eastwood in HANG ‘EM HIGH (United Artists 1968)

Clint Eastwood  returned to America after his amazing success in Sergio Leone’s Man With No Name Trilogy as a star to be reckoned with, forming his own production company (Malpaso) and filming HANG ‘EM HIGH, a Spaghetti-flavored Western in theme and construction. Clint was taking no chances here, surrounding himself with an all-star cast of character actors and a director he trusted, and the result was box office gold, cementing his status as a top star.

Clint plays ex-lawman Jed Cooper, who we meet driving a herd of cattle he just purchased (reminding us of his days on TV’s RAWHIDE). A posse of nine men ride up on him and accuse him of rustling and murder, appointing themselves judge, jury, and executioner, and hang him. He’s left for dead, until Marshal Dave Bliss comes along and cuts him down, taking Jed prisoner and transporting him to nearby Ft. Grant. Evidence is brought before Judge Fenton, who  clears him and offers Jed a proposition – work for him as a U.S. Marshal in the vast, untamed Oklahoma Territory, and legally bring his attempted killers to justice while helping Fenton clean up the territory. Jed accepts, and our revenge tale begins in earnest…

This sets up a series of vignettes that try to capture that Spaghetti flavor. Director Ted Post, who guided Clint through 24 episodes of RAWHIDE, was a competent craftsman who unfortunately lacked the visual flair of a Leone or a Corbucci, though he does give it a game try. The closest he comes is the scene where Clint crosses the desert plain with would-be killer Bruce Dern  (at his crazy best). Some of the camera angles and close-ups remind one of Leone, but Post just wasn’t up to the task. He would direct Eastwood again in MAGNUM FORCE, and among his other features are BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES, the cult horror film THE BABY, and the Chuck Norris vehicle GOOD GUYS WEAR BLACK. Post’s episodic TV credits include GUNSMOKE, WAGON TRAIN, THE TWILIGHT ZONE, and 179 episodes of the prime-time soap PEYTON PLACE.

That all-star cast I mentioned is headed by Pat Hingle as Judge Fenton, the only law in lawless Oklahoma Territory, representing the establishment. Fenton is a politician through and through, and is constantly at odds with Jed, who’s not too happy about being a pawn to get his justice served. Ed Begley is Captain Wilson, upstanding citizen and leader of the lynch mob that tried to hang Jed. Western veteran Bob Steele plays one of the lynchers who turns himself in; his scene with Eastwood in prison is a symbolic passing of the cowboy torch. Other stars appear briefly: Bert Freed, Jonathan Goldsmith (the original “Dos Equis” guy!), Arlene Golonka , Roy Glenn, Alan Hale Jr. Dennis Hopper (as a madman called The Prophet), Ben Johnson (Marshal Bliss), Charles McGraw , Joseph Sirola, Russell Thorson, and Ruth White. A special shoutout goes to stage actor Michael O’Sullivan as the condemned alcoholic murderer Duffy.

Inger Stevens plays Rachel Warren, who is granted permission to observe all prisoners brought in to try to identify the men who raped her and killed her husband. Like Jed Cooper, Rachel is a damaged soul, and the two are destined to get together. Stevens, too, was a damaged soul; a Swedish immigrant whose mother abandoned the family, she ran away at age 16 and hooked up with the Midwest burlesque circuit. By 18, Inger was working as a chorus girl in New York, and began learning at the Actors’ Studio under Lee Strasberg. She gained notice in 1957’s MAN ON FIRE opposite Bing Crosby, and won a Golden Globe for her role in the TV sitcom version of THE FARMER’S DAUGHTER (1963-66), co-starring William Windom. Her other films include THE BUCCANEER, THE WORLD THE FLESH AND THE DEVIL, MADIGAN, and FIVE CARD STUD. Stevens was secretly married to black actor Ike Jones in 1961, a move that would’ve been career suicide in those pre-Civil Rights days. In 1970, she was found on the floor of her Hollywood home, overdosed on barbiturates. Inger Stevens was just 35 years old at the time of her death.

HANG ‘EM HIGH was just the beginning for Clint Eastwood. He has gone on to become one of our greatest filmmakers, a true renaissance man of movies: acting, directing, producing, even writing some of his own music scores. And the Spaghetti Western genre he helped usher in would make its mark on Hollywood Westerns for years to come.

 

Blues On The Downbeat: ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW (United Artists 1959)


Desperate men commit desperate acts, and the three protagonists of ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW are desperate indeed in this late entry in the film noir cycle. This is a powerful film that adds social commentary to the usual crime and it’s consequences plot by tainting one of the protagonists with the brush of racism. Robert Wise, who sharpened his skills in the RKO editing room, directs the film in a neo-realistic style, leaving the studio confines for the most part behind, and the result is a starkly lit film where the shadows of noir only dominate at night.

But more on Wise later… first, let’s meet our three anti-heroes. We see Earle Slater (Robert Ryan ) walking down a New York street bathed in an eerie white glow (Wise used infra-red film to achieve the effect). Slater’s a fish out of water, a transplanted Southerner drifted North, a loser and loose cannon with a criminal record and no prospects of work. He’s also an unapologetic racist, as we learn when he calls a young black child he meets on the street “you little pickaninny”.

Slater is on his way to meet Dave Burke (Ed Begley ), an ex-cop thrown off the force in a scandal. Burke seems like a kindly older gentleman, living alone with his faithful German Shepard, but harbors much bitterness inside. Burke was connected to Slater through a mutual acquaintance, and has a proposition for him, a fool-proof bank robbery that will net Slater fifty thousand dollars.

The third member of this group is Johnny Ingram (Harry Belafonte, whose company produced the film). Johnny’s a jazz singer and vibraphonist, “a bonepicker in a four man graveyard”, divorced and heavily in gambling debt to gangster Bacco (Will Kuluva). Johnny’s also given the proposition by Burke, but at first turns it down as being a sucker’s play.

But when Burke asks Bacco to apply the pressure, including having his goons stalk Johnny and his daughter at the park, Johnny accepts the deal. The three men meet and plan the heist, and Slater throws a fly in the ointment by refusing to work with a black man. Johnny’s race is integral to making the scheme a success, and Slater is desperate to prove his manhood and stop living off his girlfriend (Shelley Winters ), so he reluctantly agrees. The trio take a trip upstate to a small town (filmed partially in Hudson, NY), where things definitely do not go as planned, and a slam-bang ending that will remind you of WHITE HEAT .

The three stars shine brightly, with Ryan particularly effective as the  violent, racist Slater. Belafonte has an amazing presence,which the singer didn’t get a chance to exhibit onscreen often enough; his character is a bit of a racist himself, berating his ex-wife (Kim Hamilton) for associating with her “ofay” PTA friends, but still manages to gain the audience’s sympathy. Begley was a fine actor in many classic films (PATTERNS, 12 ANGRY MEN) who’d win an Oscar three years later for SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH. Shelley Winters’ role is small but pivotal in understanding Ryan’s character. Even smaller, but just as effective, is Gloria Grahame’s role as their across-the-hall neighbor. Also in the cast is Richard Bright making his film debut as one of Kuluva’s hoods; he’d later play the murderous Al Neri in THE GODFATHER movies. Others making their film debuts are Wayne Rogers (M*A*S*H’s Trapper John), Zohra Lampert (LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH), and Mel Stewart (SCARECROW AND MRS. KING). Cicely Tyson appears in her second film as a bartender.

Director Robert Wise

Wise was no stranger to film noir, having made such classics as BORN TO KILL , THE SET-UP , HOUSE ON TELEGRAPH HILL, and THE CAPTIVE CITY. While those films are all shadows and darkness, Wise shot much of this movie in the bright sunlight, until the darkness takes over during the robbery. Robert Wise was one of those directors that could handle any genre, from horror (THE BODY SNATCHER , THE HAUNTING ) to westerns (BLOOD ON THE MOON, TRIBUTE TO A BAD MAN), sci-fi (THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN) to drama (EXECUTIVE SUITE, I WANT TO LIVE!), war movies (RUN SILENT RUN DEEP, THE SAND PEBBLES) to epic musicals (WEST SIDE STORY, THE SOUND OF MUSIC), and handle them all superbly. Refusing to be pigeonholed, Robert Wise’s body of work is one of the most impressive in Hollywood history.

The soundtrack for ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW was composed by John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet. When you hear it, you’re hearing the some of the best jazz had to offer: Milt Jackson, Percy Heath, Bill Evans, Connie Kay, and other greats of the era. The movie’s downbeat ending will leave you breathless and thinking, like all great films do. It’s a film ahead of its time, still relevant and maintaining its power today.

Halloween Havoc!: THE DUNWICH HORROR (AIP 1970)

THE DUNWICH HORROR is another film I saw when it was first released, on a double bill with the Spaghetti Western GOD FORGIVES, I DON’T. Unfortunately, this one fails to stand the test of time, with it’s trippy special effects and a somnambulant performance by Dean Stockwell , who was pretty obviously stoned out of his gourd during the shooting.

Professor of the occult Henry Armitage is lecturing on the Necronomicon, a book said to hold the key to the gate to another dimension, where a race of monsters known as “the old ones” dwell. Creepy Wilbur Whateley, great grandson of occultist Oliver, shows an abonrmal interest in the book. In fact, Wilbur wants to possess the Necronomicon to bring “the old ones” back to rule the Earth once again. To achieve this, he pretty much kidnaps and drugs student Nancy Wagner, hoping to use her in a bizarre sex ritual that will unlock that gate. Nancy’s friend Elizabeth, concerned about her well-being, goes to the Whateley house to find her, only to be attacked by Wilbur’s twin brother, who’s a demon from beyond!  Some nefarious doings cause the townspeople to storm Wilbur’s property, where Armitage and Whateley engage in an occult battle that results in the end of the Whateley line… or does it??

This wasn’t director Daniel Haller’s first shot at helming a film based on the writings of H.P. Lovercraft. In 1965, Haller directed his first film, DIE, MONSTER, DIE, based on Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space”, starring the immortal Boris Karloff. THE DUNWICH HORROR features color filters and distorted lens to convey the horrors from the other side, but they come off like bad outtakes from executive producer Roger Corman’s LSD extravaganza THE TRIP , causing the film to feel dated. Though there are some scary scenes, they’re few and far between.

Stockwell sleepwalks through the role of Wilbur Whateley, as he did for most of his performances of the era. That’s understandable, as during this time he was involved in the hippie/drug scene and hanging out with the likes of Dennis Hopper and Neil Young. Sandra Dee (Nancy) is equally dull, although she has an excuse, her character having fallen under the spell of Wilbur’s occult powers (and drugs!). Dee makes the movie seem like it could be subtitled GIDGET GOES TO HELL! This was the last film for veteran Ed Begley (Armitage), who at least lends some dignity to the proceedings, despite spouting gibberish in that fatal final battle with Stockwell. The same can’t be said for Sam Jaffe, playing Wilbur’s grandpop, who overacts mercilessly.

Other Familiar Faces include Donna Baccala, Lloyd Bochner , AIP stalwarts Beach Dickerson and Barboura Morris , Talia Shire (her 2nd film appearance), and Jason Wingreen. I really liked THE DUNWICH HORROR when I first saw it, and wanted to like it again. But I just can’t recommend it; there are tons of other, better horror films to watch this Halloween season. Unless you’re as stoned as Stockwell was when he made it – then you just may dig it!

“Yog-Sothoth!!”

Rockin’ in the Film World #4: WILD IN THE STREETS (AIP 1968)

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If you think today’s political climate is tumultuous and crazy, wait’ll you get a load of WILD IN THE STREETS. Filmed in the chaotic year 1968, this satirical look at the counter-culture vs the establishment revolves around a power-mad rock star whose call to lower the voting age to 14 results in him becoming President of the good ol’ USA, and sticking it to the over 30 crowd by interring them in concentration camps loaded with LSD-spiked water supplies!

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Christopher Jones is Max Frost, née Flatow, the charismatic leader of rock band Max Frost and the Troopers. Pre-credits flashbacks show Max’s unhappy childhood with an overbearing mother (Shelley Winters at her over-the-top best) and abrasive dad (Bert Freed). Max learns to hate all adults and dabbles in making LSD and bombs. After he blows up dad’s car, the rebellious Max leaves home and winds up becoming a mega rock star rivaling the Beatles in popularity.

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Frost’s Troopers include 15-year-old lead guitarist and financial whiz Billy,  former child star now acid head Sally LeRoy, drummer/anthropologist Stanley X, and anarchist trumpeter The Hook. Aspiring Senator Fergus, running on an 18-year-old voter platform (which in reality didn’t go into effect until 1971), hires Max and his band to play at a political rally. But the shrewd Max comes up with a new song “Fourteen or Fight”, aimed at getting teenyboppers the vote, and urges his young “troops” to descend on the Sunset Strip to protest. This goes up the ass of the ultra-establishment Senator Allbright sideways, and a summit meeting is held at Fergus’s home, resulting in a compromise to fifteen and a promise from Max not to lead the teenagers to riot.

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Teens from across the country flock to the Strip in droves, with stock footage of the real Sunset Strip riots, exploited by AIP in 1967’s RIOT ON SUNSET STRIP… but that’s another post for another day. Suffice it to say, Max gets what he wants, and the 14 year olds get the vote. Max runs 25-year-old Sally for a vacant congressional seat, and she’s overwhelmingly elected. Stoned out Sally proposes lowering the age to hold office to 14 for congress, senate, and president, causing chaos among the old guard and riots in the streets of Washington, with twelve teens shot down and killed. Max and his merry pranksters devise a plan to spike the D.C. water supply with LSD, resulting in a psychedelic scene of tripped-out elected officials giving a unanimous vote to change the age limits!

The Republican Party (!) ask Max to run for President because “Nixon would look dumb with long hair and Ronald Reagan would look even worse!” Max is elected in a landslide and calls for mandatory retirement at age 30, then sending 35-year-olds to his LSD concentration camps to live out their days under blissful control. Max’s “troops” become storm troopers rounding up the oldsters, including his own mother and Senator Fergus, who’s picked up by his own son Jimmy. Revolutions spring up across the globe, as teenagers everywhere take over the world!

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Sound far-fetched? You bet, but the folks at American International Pictures had been doing teen exploitation pics for years, and knew it’s audience well. This one has a better cast than most AIPers, with lead Christopher Jones doing his best James Dean as the pony-tailed rebel Max. Jones was familiar to youngsters as star of the TV series THE LEGEND OF JESSE JAMES, portraying the outlaw as an anti-establishment hero. His  brief but memorable career saw him star in the sexploitation comedy THREE IN THE ATTIC, 1970’s THE LOOKING GLASS WAR, and David Lean’s lavish production RYAN’S DAUGHTER before he decided to drop out of movies altogether and devote his time to painting and sculpting. Christopher Jones is one of my favorites of the era, and made a final film appearance in 1996’s MAD DOG TIME as a favor to director Larry Bishop, who plays The Hook here (and was son of Rat Packer Joey Bishop).

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Besides Shelley Winters’ outrageous performance as Mrs. Flatow, the adults are represented by Hal Holbrook as Senator Fergus (who went on to star in a TV series called THE SENATOR), Oscar winner Ed Begley as Sen. Allbright, and Millie Perkins (THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK) as Fergus’s wife. Former child star Kevin Coughlin plays Billy, Diane Varsi (PEYTON PLACE) is Sally, and Richard Pryor makes an early film appearance as Stanley X. Another James Dean wannabe, Michael Margotta, plays Fergus’s rebellious son Jimmy. THE BRADY BUNCH’s Barry Williams is Max as a child, and AIP vet Salli Sachse is a hippie mom. Some famous names of the times have cameos as themselves: Army Archerd, Melvin Belli, Dick Clark, Pamela Mason, and the venerable Walter Winchell. And yes, the narrator is none other than Paul Frees, who seems to be  in every other film I write about!

Director Barry Shear did mostly television, but his feature credits include a couple good ones: the Blaxploitation drama ACROSS 110th STREET and the Western THE DEADLY TRACKERS. Screenwriter Robert Thom (married at the time to Millie Perkins) also penned COMPULSION, ALL THE FINE YOUNG CANNIBALS, BLOODY MAMA, and THE PHANTOM OF HOLLYWOOD, but is probably best remembered for DEATH RACE 2000. And believe it or not, WILD IN THE STREETS was actually Oscar nominated, for the fine editing work of Eve Newman and Fred Feitshans (it lost to BULLITT, but what the hell… a nomination for low budget AIP!)

But it really should’ve been nominated for was its rocking score. The Troopers songs (played offscreen by members of Davie Allen and the Arrows) were written by Rock and Roll Hall of Famers Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, the team responsible for classic hits by The Animals (“We Gotta Get Outta This Place”), The Drifters (“Saturday Night at the Movies”), Dolly Parton (“Here You Come Again”), Paul Revere and the Raiders (“Hungry”, “Kicks”), and The Righteous Brothers (“You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling”, “Soul and Inspiration”). A song from WILD IN THE STREETS made it to #22 on the Billboard charts, and was in heavy rotation on radio during 1968 (I still have the 45!) It’s “Shape of Things to Come”, a proto-punk call to revolution after the kids are gunned down in D.C.:

So if you’re sick of politics as usual (and who isn’t!),  WILD IN THE STREETS is just the thing to take your mind off all the noise and nonsense going on today. It’s a loopy time capsule of the hippie days, when you didn’t trust anyone over 30. I’m WAY past 30 now, but I’m thinking maybe we should send Hillary and The Donald to an LSD camp. Not Bernie though.. he’d probably dig it too much!