Fast Friends: THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT (United Artists 1974)

Clint Eastwood  is posing as a preacher in a small Montana town, giving his Sunday sermon. Meanwhile, carefree Jeff Bridges steals a Trans Am off a used car lot and goes for a joyride. Clint’s sermon is interrupted by a hit man who opens fire in the church, chasing Eastwood down through a wheat field, when Bridges comes speeding along, running the killer down. Clint hops in the Trans Am, and the two become fast friends, setting up THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT, a wild and wooly tale that’s part crime caper, part character study, and the directorial debut of Michael Cimino.

Clint plays Korean War veteran John Mahoney, a criminal known as “The Thunderbolt” who pulled off a successful half-million dollar armory robbery. His ex-gang members (George Kennedy , Geoffrey Lewis ) think he betrayed them, and are out to kill him, but not before finding out where the loot is hidden. He’s basically a loner, an island unto himself, until he meets up with Bridges’ Lightfoot, an affable goofball who lives outside society’s rules. These two outsiders form a bond as they wander around aimlessly, trying to stay one step ahead of the murderous Red Leary (Kennedy) and his quiet partner Goody (Lewis).

The killers finally catch up with our stars, but things are smoothed over, and the four go to retrieve the money, hidden behind a blackboard in a one-room schoolhouse. But the schoolhouse is gone, apparently torn down by progress, and with it their dreams, until Lightfoot comes up with a brilliant idea: recreate their glorious achievement by heisting the armory again. Red, who detests the young neer-do-well, scoffs at first, but “Thunderbolt” is all in, and the elaborate scheme (complete with Bridges in drag) goes off just as planned, except for one fateful mistake at a local drive-in….

Jeff Bridges deservedly earned his second Oscar nomination as the free-spirited Lightfoot, a man-child who’s a loner like Eastwood’s character. The older “Thunderbolt” takes a shine to Lightfoot’s outrageous attitude and outlook on life, which he finds similar to his own. Bridges really came into his own during these 70’s flicks, and was soon a major star in his own right. George Kennedy is always good playing a mean, nasty dude (as opposed to Bridges as THE Dude!), and Lewis offers comedy relief as the soft-spoken Goody. The cast is full of Familiar Faces from film and TV, including Catherine Bach (THE DUKES OF HAZZARD) as a hooker, PLAN 9’s Gregory Walcott as a used car salesman, Alvin Childress (Amos of AMOS’N’ANDY fame) as a janitor, and Gary Busey, Jack Dodson, Burton Gilliam, Beth Howland, Roy Jensen, Karen Lamm, Bill McKinney, Vic Tayback, and Dub Taylor . Rock’n’roll backup singer supreme Claudia Lennear (Joe Cocker, Leon Russell, Delaney & Bonnie, etc) has a bit as a sexy secretary.

Director Michael Cimino with Clint Eastwood

Eastwood himself was originally scheduled to direct, but instead gave young Michael Cimino a shot at his first feature job. Cimino began his career directing TV commercials, and was co-screenwriter on the sci-fi film SILENT RUNNING and Eastwood’s DIRTY HARRY sequel MAGNUM FORCE. His shot framing against the backdrop of Montana’s Big Sky country is picture  perfect, and he ably guides the cast of pros through their paces. It’s a good first outing, and led to 1978’s Oscar winner THE DEER HUNTER, copping both Best Picture and Director that year. Unfortunately his follow-up, 1980’s HEAVEN’S GATE, became one of Hollywood’s all-time disasters, and tanked big-time at the box office. To be honest, I’ve yet to see it, so I couldn’t tell you if it’s as bad as it’s reputation. I have seen and enjoyed Cimino’s 1985 YEAR OF THE DRAGON, which I feel is underrated and overlooked. But the bombing of HEAVEN’S GATE pretty much ended Michael Cimino’s career as a major filmmaker; he died in 2016, his dreams and the promises of his debut film THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT and his masterpiece THE DEER HUNTER unfulfilled.

 

Halloween Havoc!: Joan Crawford in STRAIT-JACKET! (Columbia 1964)

It’s time once again to revisit Joan Crawford’s later-day career as a horror star, and this one’s a pretty good shocker. STRAIT-JACKET! was Joan’s follow-up to WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE, the first in the “Older Women Do Horror” genre (better known by the detestable moniker “Psycho-Biddy Movies”). Here she teams for the first time with veteran producer/director William Castle , starring as an axe murderess released after twenty years in an insane asylum, becoming the prime suspect when people begin to get hacked to bits again.

The film itself begins with a 1940’s prolog depicting the gruesome events that occurred when Lucy Harbin (Joan) catches her husband (Lee Majors in his uncredited film debut) in bed with another woman. Joan, all dolled up to resemble her MILDRED PIERCE-era self, grabs the nearest axe and CHOP! CHOP! CHOP! goes hubby and his squeeze into itsy-bitsy pieces. The act is witnessed by her little daughter Carol (Vicki Cos), and Lucy is put away for a long stretch in the nuthouse.

Flash forward twenty years, and Lucy returns home to stay with her brother Bill (Leif Erickson), and his wife Emily (Rochelle Hudson ) who’ve raised Carol (now played by Diane Baker) ever since. Carol, now a budding sculptress, has a fiancé Michael (John Anthony Hayes) she wants Mom to meet, but Lucy’s still skittish, so Carol decides to help by glamming Lucy up to look like she did in the fabulous 40’s! Strange things happen after that, with Lucy’s old psychiatrist getting CHOPPED, then the sleazy farm hand (George Kennedy ), finally Michael’s dad – CHOP! CHOP!, and Michael’s mom is up next before the climax that most horror fans will see coming a mile away.

Joan’s silent film training comes in handy, as the consummate screen star gets to emote with her eyes and body language in many scenes. Crawford is in complete control as the is-she-or-isn’t-she killer, and besides BABY JANE this is her best horror picture. The scenes with Joan all decked out in 40’s fashions and bewigged are a little silly, especially when a tipsy Joan tries to seduce her future son-in-law, but it’s all part of the plot written by another horror vet, Robert Bloch (PSYCHO, THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD ). Castle lends his own macabre touch, with decapitations and some gripping suspense. The Master of Ballyhoo’s gimmick to put patrons in the seats this time around involved passing out little cardboard axes to theater goers, and Joan even participated in a personal appearance tour to promote the film.

Diane Baker had worked with Joan before, in 1959’s THE BEST OF EVERYTHING, and the two women have a marvelous screen chemistry. The rest of the cast is filled with old pros like Erickson, Hudson, and Edith Atwater as Michael’s rich-bitch mother. This was only George Kennedy’s sixth film, but he holds his own as the creepy farm hand who winds up with his head lopped off. STRAIT-JACKET! had an impact on the later slasher shockers to come, and is more than worth your time this Halloween season, especially for fans of the great Joan Crawford.

 

 

On the Border: BANDOLERO! (20th Century-Fox 1968)

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BANDOLERO! was made at an interesting time in the history of Western movies. Sergio Leone’s “Man With No Name” trilogy had begun to exert their influence on American filmmakers (HANG EM HIGH, SHALAKO). Traditional Hollywood Westerns were still being produced (FIRECREEK, 5 CARD STUD), but in a year’s time, Sam Peckinpah’s THE WILD BUNCH would change the Western landscape forever. Andrew V. McLaglen’s BANDOLERO! is more on the traditional side of the fence, though it does exhibit a dash of Spaghetti flavor in its storytelling.

Outlaw Dee Bishop and his gang attempt to rob a bank in Valverde, Texas. The heist is going well until rich Nathan Stone walks in with his beautiful Mexican wife, Maria. Stone tries to break it up, and gets shot for his troubles, thus alerting the attention of Sheriff July Johnson and his deputy, Roscoe. The lawmen successfully catch the gang as they’re leaving the bank. Stone dies, and Dee and his men are now sentenced to hang. By the way, this all happens before the opening credits!

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Dee’s brother Mace gets wind of his wayward brother’s plight and, after ambushing the hangman, helps Dee and his crew escape the noose. July forms a posse to track down the Bishop gang. While everyone’s away, Mace finishes what Dee started and robs the bank himself! Dee and his men ambush the posse, and take Maria hostage. The Bishop brothers, with newly widowed Maria in tow, head across the Mexican border, with the posse doggedly pursuing them. To get free, they must cross “territoria bandolero”, a lawless stretch of desert where bloodthirsty bandits rule, men who take pleasure in “killing every gringo they can find”.

The film then essentially becomes a chase through dangerous territory, with the Bishops trying to stay a step ahead of both the posse and the murderous bandits. July’s posse, amateur townsfolk, get picked off one by one, while the gang’s infighting threaten to do them in. The posse finally captures the outlaws in the deserted town of Sabinas, but must free them when the bandoleros attack. This part of the movie echoes RIO BRAVO, with the protagonists trapped surrounded by killers. It was actually shot in Alamo Village, a set built in Brackettville, Texas for another stand-off Western, John Wayne’s THE ALAMO.

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Dean Martin and James Stewart star as Dee and Mace Bishop, brothers who fought on opposite sides during the Civil War, and chose paths on opposite sides of the law. Both actors were comfortable in the saddle, Stewart well noted for his 1950’s oaters with director Anthony Mann (WINCHESTER ’73, BEND OF THE RIVER, THE NAKED SPUR), while Dino had worked with both John Wayne (RIO BRAVO, THE SONS OF KATIE ELDER) and Robert Mitchum (the aforementioned 5 CARD STUD). Martin’s cavalier attitude contrasts well with Stewart’s laconic, stuttering screen image, and they make a believable pair of brothers.

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Raquel Welch is Maria, and she’s a vision of both beauty and strength. I’ve talked before about my life-long obsession with Raquel , and she gets a lot of close-ups here (part of the Leone influence, no doubt). Her Mexican accent is passable, and BANDOLERO! gives her a chance to show off her acting chops rather than just her body. The late George Kennedy plays Sheriff July Johnson, while Andrew Prine (the cult classic SIMON, KING OF THE WITCHES) is Deputy Roscoe. If those character names sound vaguely familiar, thank author Larry McMurtry, who appropriated them as the sheriff and deputy who chase an outlaw named Dee in one of my favorite books, LONESOME DOVE.

The supporting cast is a Familiar Face lover’s dream, starting with Will Geer as the mean, ornery outlaw Pop Chaney, a long ways from his role as Grampa on THE WALTONS. The chuck wagon-full of Westerns vets includes (take a deep breath and hold on to your Stetson), Don ‘Red’ Barry , Roy Barcroft, Harry Carey Jr, Pat Crenshaw, Big John Hamilton, Jock Mahoney, Sean McClory, Denver Pyle , Guy Raymond, Clint Ritchie, and the ever-popular Dub Taylor.

Andrew V. McLaglen was the son of Oscar-winner and John Ford stock player Victor McLaglen . Andrew cut his Hollywood teeth as an assistant director, then graduated to directing the B-Western GUN THE MAN DOWN. After spending years as lead director of the TV show HAVE GUN WILL TRAVEL, McLaglen’s Western features included MCLINTOCK!, THE RARE BREED, SHENENDOAH, CHISUM, CAHILL US MARSHAL, THE LAST HARD MEN, and the TV movie THE SHADOW RIDERS. DP William Clothier was a favorite of both Ford and Wayne, and his camerawork here enhances the picture with great shots of the Texas background. Clothier was a veteran camera operator (he worked on WINGS and KING KONG) who made the leap to DP in the 1950’s. He won two Oscars for his work on Westerns, THE ALAMO and CHEYENNE AUTUMN. Some of his other films were TRACK OF THE CAT, THE HORSE SOLDIERS, THE COMMANCHEROS, THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE, THE CHEYENNE SOCIAL CLUB, and his last, THE TRAIN ROBBERS.

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James Lee Barrett’s screenplay is both literate and adult in its themes. Maria tells of being a pre-teen whore in Mexico, while Dee is unrepentant in his ways until the very end. Hollywood was changing, and the Western film was changing along with it. That “dash of Spaghetti flavor” I mentioned earlier is in those themes, as well as the use of gore, with people getting brutally hacked to death and onscreen blood (though not nearly as graphic as what’s on screen today). Hollywood Westerns were growing up, and BANDOLERO! serves as a bridge between the West of John Ford and the West of Sergio Leone (and to an extent, Sam Peckinpah).

 

 

Rebel Rebel: Paul Newman in COOL HAND LUKE (Warner Brothers 1967)

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The Sixties was the decade of the rebellious anti-hero. The times they were a-changin’ and movies reflected the anti-establishment mood with BONNIE & CLYDE, EASY RIDER, and COOL HAND LUKE. Paul Newman starred as white-trash outsider Luke Jackson, but it was his co-star George Kennedy who took home the Oscar for his role as Dragline, the king of the cons who first despises then idolizes Luke.

War vet Luke gets busted for “malicious destruction of municipal property while drunk”, and sent to a prison farm in Florida. The non-conformist Luke butts heads with both the “bosses” (prison guards aka authority) and Dragline, a near illiterate convict who runs the yard. Dragline and Luke decide to settle their differences in a Saturday boxing match. The hulking Dragline beats the shit out of Luke, but the smaller man keeps getting up for more. Dragline finally walks away, and Luke earns both his and the other con’s respect. Luke gets a visit from his mom Arletta (Oscar winner Jo Van Fleet of EAST OF EDEN), who’s dying and wants to see him one more time. This poignant scene is one of the best as Luke and Arletta discuss his upbringing, and we can see despite the hardships endured in their lives, there’s a strong loving bond between mother and son. The scene’s done without any maudlin Hollywood bullshit, and well handled by Newman, Van Fleet, and director Stuart Rosenberg.

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Then there’s the memorable egg-eating contest, where Luke bets he can eat fifty hard-boiled eggs in an hour. Dragline backs his play, and the prisoners all put up their money as Luke devours egg after egg, winning the bet in a funny scene. The shot of him lying on the table, surrounded by eggshells, in a crucifixion pose is one of many Christ-like tableaux featuring Luke throughout the film. It gets a little heavy-handed, but it works in this case. Luke gets word his mother has died, and he’s not allowed to attend the funeral. He’s put in “The Box” (a sweltering shed the size of an outhouse) so he doesn’t get “rabbit blood” and try to escape. This only triggers his thirst for freedom, and he attempts a series of escapes, each time getting caught. The punishments get brutaler and brutaler but Luke’s indomitable spirit keeps him going until the tragic end.

Newman and Kennedy head up a great cast,with Strother Martin (“What we have here is failure to communicate”) as The Captain leading guards Morgan Woodward, Luke Askew, and Robert Donner. The cons are played by J.D. Cannon, Wayne Rogers, Dennis Hopper, Ralph Waite, Harry Dean Stanton, and Joe Don Baker, among others. Then there’s Joy Harmon in a brief bit as a local lass washing her car on a hot Florida afternoon. She knows the men on the road gang are watching her, and she’s obviously getting off on turning them on:

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Thank you, Joy!

Stuart Rosenberg began his directing career in the 50’s with the syndicated series DECOY, starring Beverly Garland as a female cop. He moved on to THE NAKED CITY, THE UNTOUCHABLES, ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS, and THE TWILIGHT ZONE before COOL HAND LUKE, his first feature. Rosenberg was a talented director who wasn’t very prolific, but the films he did make were well done. He worked with Newman in three more movies (WUSA, POCKET MONEY, THE DROWNING POOL) and also did LOVE & BULLETS (with Charles Bronson), THE (original) AMITYVILLE HORROR, THE POPE OF GREENWICH VILLAGE, and another prison drama, BRUBAKER, starring Newman’s pal Robert Redford.

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As for Oscar winner Kennedy, COOL HAND LUKE made him a star after years of hard work in small roles. Kennedy was featured in all the AIRPORT and NAKED GUN movies, and had roles in THE DIRTY DOZEN, BANDOLERO!, FOOL’S PARADE, CAHILL US MARSHAL, and THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT. He starred in the TV police dramas PRIEST and THE BLUE KNIGHT, and the first four seasons of DALLAS. George Kennedy is still with us at age 91, semi-retired but popping up as recently as 2014’s THE GAMBLER with Mark Wahlberg. COOL HAND LUKE is a must-see for fans of 60’s cinema, with another fine Newman performance and a star-making turn for George Kennedy. Put it on your watch list!

Say goodnight, Joy!

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Special Veteran’s Day Edition: THE DIRTY DOZEN (MGM 1967)

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Happy Veteran’s Day and thank you to all who’ve served!

One of my favorite WW2 movies to watch is THE DIRTY DOZEN. This rousing all-star epic, flavored with superb character actors and moments of humor, was a box office success and remains a perennial favorite among action lovers. The formula (a band of military misfits unite to battle the enemy) became so popular it’s been rehashed several times in several ways, but none have ever come close to having the panache of director Robert Aldrich’s lively original.

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Army Major Reisman is given the assignment of whipping twelve convicts into fighting shape and taking on what amounts to a suicide mission: conduct a raid behind enemy lines on a chateau where high ranking Nazi officers assemble for R’n’R. Reisman’s a rebellious sort (“very short on discipline”) with contempt for his higher-ups, especially rival Col. Breed. One of the officers calls him “the most ill-mannered, ill-disciplined officer I’ve ever had the displeasure to meet”, but General Worden believes Reisman’s the man for the job. The Major’s introduced to his new charges at prison. There’s cocky Chicago hood Franko, gentle giant Posey, ex-officer Wladislaw, religious nut Maggot, dimwitted Pinkley, and eight other murderers, rapists, and thieves. Reisman and his right-hand man Sgt. Bowren are to take this “dirty dozen” and turn them into a team.

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The deal is the men will get their sentences commuted if successful, but if one of them tries to escape, they all go back to face the hangman. Franko tries some initial pushback, but is brought into line by his peers. The cons learn to depend on each other, though Army psychiatrist Kinder considers them “the most twisted bunch of psychopaths” he’s ever seen. Breed almost gets the mission quashed after being embarrassed by the troop, but they’re given a chance when the dozen capture Breed’s squad during maneuvers. Feeling they’re ready to roll, Reisman leads his men on the mission in an exciting, grisly 45 minute climax. Only three make it back, and Wladislaw is given the last word: “Killin’ generals could get to be a habit with me”.

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WW2 vet Lee Marvin leads the testosterone fueled cast as Reisman, a good soldier who dislikes authority. John Cassavetes was Oscar nominated for his role as Franko, the defiant mobster who becomes a hero. Charles Bronson (Wladislaw) was an old hand at these all-star action films (THE GREAT ESCAPE, THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN), and 70s solo superstardom was just down the road for him. Donald Sutherland  (Pinkley) adds another goofy characterization to his resume, and 70s stardom awaited him, too. Telly Savalas, pre-KOJAK, is slimeball Maggot, while TV’S CHEYENNE Clint Walker plays big Posey. Ex-NFL star Jim Brown makes his film debut, and his “broken play” run while setting off the hand grenades is one of the action genre’s most iconic scenes. Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan, George Kennedy, and Robert Webber are on hand as members of the “big Army brass” (to borrow a line from WW2 vet Ed Wood). Richard Jaeckel is the loyal Sgt. Bowren, and singer Trini Lopez appears as Jiminez (and even gets to sing “The Bramble Bush”). Besides Marvin, actors Borgnine, Ryan, Webber, Kennedy, Savalas, and Walker all served their country during World War Two.

Finally, in answer to that age-old barstool trivia question, “Name the members of THE DIRTY DOZEN”, here’s the lineup:

  • Franko: John Cassavetes
  • Vladek: Tom Busby
  • Jefferson: Jim Brown
  • Pinkley: Donald Sutherland
  • Gilpin: Ben Carruthers
  • Posey: Clint Walker
  • Wladislaw: Charles Bronson
  • Sawyer: Colin Maitland
  • Lever: Stuart Cooper
  • Bravos: Al Mancini
  • Jiminez: Trini Lopez
  • Maggot: Telly Savalas

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