Gone With The Whaaat?: MANDINGO (Paramount 1975)

If you’ve never seen MANDINGO, be prepared for loads of gratuitous sex, violence, debauchery, depravity, racism, incest, nudity, and other such unsavory stuff! Some people today discuss the film in a scholarly manner, dissecting the sociological implications of pre-Civil War decadence in the deep South, the plight of the abused slaves, the overindulgent cruelty of the slave owners, and blah blah blah. I’m gonna talk about what the movie really is: pure, unadulterated Exploitation trash, in which some scenes will have your jaw dropping in shock, while others will leave you laughing at the exaggerated overacting and ludicrous dialog!

The movie centers around the Maxwell family and their plantation home, Falconhurst. It’s no Tara; Falconhurst is a run-down, gloomy, decrepit mansion that looks like it belongs in one of those “hillbilly horror” schlockfests of the 60’s or 70’s. Family patriarch Warren Maxwell wants a grandson to carry on the family name, so he sends son Hammond to court his cousin Blanche. Along the way, Hammond and cousin Charles are treated to having sex with a couple of slaves. While the cruel Charles beats his with a belt, Hammond develops feelings for his, Ellie, and purchases her. He also buys a Mandingo slave called Mede, “a fightin’ n*gger” who he plans to use to wager on in to-the-death battles and breed with the other slaves.

On his wedding night, Ham discovers Blanche is no virgin – seems she’s already been had by her brother Charles (“It was just once!”). Disgusted, Ham turns to his “bed wench” Ellie for comfort, and she soon becomes pregnant. While Ham’s off pitting Mede in a brutal contest against a slave named Topaz (a no-holds-barred, hardcore battle straight outta Paul Heyman’s late, lamented Extreme Championship Wrestling!), a drunken Blanche whips Ellie with a riding crop, forcing the slave to tumble down the staircase and lose her baby.

 

Ham, who no longer touches Blanche, heads to Natchez to sell some slaves, and while the cat’s away, Blanche will play… with Mede, whom she forces to have sex with her by threatening to tell Ham he raped her (a lie, of course). Warren, tired of waiting for a grandbaby, locks Ham and Blanche in the bedroom together until they do the wild thing and produce a kid! Blanche soon announces she’s with child, and a baby is born at last… a black baby! Mede’s! The not-so-kindly family doctor allows the child to bleed out and die, Ham sees the dead black baby in it’s crib, poisons Blanche, and goes after Mede with a gun! Forcing Mede to fill a cauldron with boiling hot water, he tells his Mandingo, “GET IN!”. Of course Mede refuses, and Ham shoots Mede into the pot and runs him through with a pitchfork! Head slave Agamemnon grabs the gun and aims at Ham, Warren commands him to stop, so Agamemnon shoots Warren instead and runs off, and… and our film abruptly ends right there!

The distinguished actor James Mason plays family patriarch Warren Maxwell waaay over-the-top, complete with a terrible Southern accent. Mason seems to know he’s trapped in a bad film, and compensates by hamming it up mercilessly as the old slave owner. Whether delivering lines like (to his daughter-in-law) “You actin’ zany! Zany! You actin’ like a Georgia bitch!”, or trying to cure his “rheumatis” by pressing his bare feet on a little black child’s belly, Mason earns a spot in the Bad Acting Hall of Fame.

If Mason is over-the-top, Susan George as Blanche takes a full  leap into the abyss as Blanche. Her character is a drunken, horny harridan, vicious as the devil, and George is a real hoot! Perry King tries to play it straight as Hammond, but eventually gets caught up in the overblown theatrics. Brenda Sykes is good as Ellie, and the great Richard Ward shines in the role of the smarter-than-they-think Agamemnon  (“Why, a lazy, no account, stupid, God-forsaken n*gger like me cain’t have a soul, Massa”). Also in the cast are Paul Benedict (Bentley on THE JEFFERSONS), Ji-Tu Cumbuka, Lillian Hayman (the soap ONE LIFE TO LIVE), former Mr. Universe/pro wrestler Earl Maynard, Debbie Morgan (ALL MY CHILDREN), and Roy Poole.

Then we’ve got heavyweight boxer Ken Norton in the pivotal part of Mede. The muscular 6’3″, 200+ pounder, who handed Muhammad Ali his second professional loss in 1973 and held the WBC title in ’78, makes an imposing presence. Norton wanted to be an actor, but lacked the talent. He did star in the sequel DRUM, and had some other film and TV credits, but as a thespian, he was a good boxer. Norton tries, I’ll give him that, and he’s great in the fight scenes, but let’s just say dialog wasn’t his strong point!

Director Richard Fleischer throws any sense of subtilty out the plantation window in this lurid little Exploitation number. The movie’s based on an equally lurid 1957 book by Kyle Onstott, which must have shocked the socks off of readers back then. Dino De Laurentiis produced, a sure sign of big-budget schlock (though to be fair, he did make his share of good films). And Executive Producer Ralph Serpe claimed MANDINGO would “bring about a better understanding between the races”. Who you kiddin’ bud? There’s no deep sociological message to MANDINGO – it’s strictly Exploitation fare, and should be treated as such. If you’re in the mood for some trashy fun in a “so-bad-it’s- good” kinda way, then MANDINGO is right up your alley. Don’t expect any more than that!

Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: ARMORED CAR ROBBERY (RKO 1950)

Looking for a tough, no-frills ‘B’ crime drama? Look no further than ARMORED CAR ROBBERY, which is just what it says it is, the planning, execution, and aftermath of said dirty deed, with a cast of rugged mugs and hard-hearted dames directed by Richard Fleischer during his salad days at RKO. The movie echoes Robert Siodmak’s CRISS CROSS in its heist scene, and I’m sure Stanley Kubrick watched and remembered it when he made his film noir  masterpiece THE KILLING .

Make no mistake, ARMORED CAR ROBBERY isn’t on a par with those two films. It is, however, an enjoyable little 67 minutes of cops vs crooks. Criminal mastermind Dave Purvis assembles a gang of low-lives to pull the caper off, killing a cop in the process. The cop’s partner, Lt. Jim Cordell, is now determined to hunt the crooks down and avenge him. One of the participants, Benny McBride, is mortally wounded during the heist, which is fine by Purvis, who’s been banging his wife, Burlesque star Yvonne LeDoux, on the side. Purvis ends up putting McBride out of his misery, but Cordell and his men, including new rookie partner Danny Ryan, are hot on their trail. One crook dies trying to escape, but Al Mapes gets away in a boat, leaving Purvis and Yvonne with all that loot. Mapes is picked up and rats, leading to Danny going undercover, getting ambushed by Purvis, and a climax at the airport that spells the end of Purvis’s criminal career.

Charles McGraw , complete with trench coat and fedora, stars as the dogged Lt. Cordell, and the gravel-voiced actor is tough as leather. William Talman plays Purvis, one of his many bad guy roles before turning to the side of the law as DA Hamilton Berger on TV’s PERRY MASON. Douglas Fowley is the unfortunate McBride, Steve Brodie the rat Mapes, and Gene Evans crook Ace Foster. Don McGuire is young Danny Ryan; best known for playing CONGO BILL in the 1948 serial, McGuire later turned to writing, responsible for the story and/or screenplays for 3 RING CIRCUS, BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK, JOHNNY CONCHO (which he also directed), THE DELICATE DELINQUENT (ditto), and TOOTSIE ( for which he received an Oscar nomination).

Sexy B-Movie Queen Adele Jergens plays sexy stripper Yvonne LeDoux, and when she’s on stage you can hear the wolf whistles! Adele’s just as tough as the guys in this one, a statuesque blonde who’s sure no cream puff. The leggy former Rockette graced the screen in A THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS, THE CORPSE CAME C.O.D., LADIES OF THE CHORUS (as Marilyn Monroe’s mom!), THE MUTINEERS, and GIRLS IN PRISON, and made a perfect foil for comedy teams Abbott and Costello (A&C MEET THE INVISIBLE MAN) and The Bowery Boys (BLONDE DYNAMITE, FIGHTING TROUBLE). She met husband Glenn Langan (THE AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN) while filming THE TREASURE OF MONTE CHRISTO, and retired from the movies in 1956. Adele Jergens was never a big star, but her presence was more than welcome whenever she came onscreen.

ARMORED CAR ROBBERY makes no pretense about what it is, a low-budget picture designed for the bottom half of double features. But thanks to Fleischer and that hard-as-nails cast, it’s worth rediscovering for B-Movie fans… like Yours Truly! In this case, ‘B’ stands for Better!

Pounded to Death by Gorillas: HIS KIND OF WOMAN (RKO 1951)

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People don’t go to the movies to see how miserable the world is; they go there to eat popcorn, be happy“- Wynton (Jim Backus) in HIS KIND OF WOMAN

Right you are, Mr. Howell, err Backus. There’s an abundance of fun to be had in HIS KIND OF WOMAN, the quintessential RKO/Robert Mitchum movie. Big Bob costars with sexy Jane Russell in a convoluted tale that’s part film noir, part Monty Python, with an outstanding all-star cast led by Vincent Price serving up big slices of ham as a self-obsessed movie star. And the backstory behind HIS KIND OF WOMAN is as entertaining as the picture itself!

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But we’ll go behind the scenes later. First, let’s look at the movie’s plot. We meet down on his luck gambler Dan Milner (Mitchum) in a bar…. drinking milk! Dan just got done doing a 30 day stretch in a Palm Springs jail “for nothin'” (an in-joke reference to Mitchum’s 1948 pot bust ). He returns to his apartment only to be greeted by three goons, who promptly beat the crap out of him. He’s made an offer he can’t refuse to clear his debt: accept $50,000 and move to Mexico for a year, no questions asked. Dan’s no dummy; he takes the offer.

What he doesn’t know is that deported vice lord and “upper crust crumb” Nick Ferraro (bulky Raymond Burr) plans to hijack Dan’s identity and return to the states. While Dan waits for his plane at a crummy cantina, he meets songbird Leonore Brent (Russell):

The heat is on between Dan and Leonore, and their sexually charged banter crackles throughout the film. Leonore is heading to the same place as Dan: Morro’s Lodge, a swanky hotspot for the idle rich. It’s here we meet our cast of characters, none of whom are what they seem. There’s Morro (Phillip Van Zandt), who’s comfortable on both sides of the fence,  Krafft (John Mylong) a chess playing writer with a past, Wynton (Backus) a cheery sort who likes to play cards and hustle young women, and Thompson (Charles McGraw ), who’s mixed up in Dan’s deal.

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Then there’s Hollywood actor Mark Cardigan, played by the one and only Vincent Price, and he’s a hoot. Price has a field day as the vain blowhard in the Errol Flynn mold (when his latest swashbuckler is screened, a wag says, “It has a message no pigeon would carry”). His Cardigan has a thing going on with Leonore, that is until his wife (Marjorie Reynolds) shows up to put a halt to it. Whether spouting Shakespeare or rousing up a rescue party, Price shamelessly steals every scene he’s in. It’s probably his best non-horror role, and he plays it up for all he’s worth.

Back to the story: Dan’s biding his time, waiting to get paid off, while Krafft and Thompson are always lurking in the background. A hurricane is brewing, and a drunken pilot (Tim Holt) barrels through it. But he’s not really a lush, he’s Federal agent Lusk, and he spills the beans to Dan about Ferraro’s scheme to make a patsy out of Dan. Lusk is killed by Thompson, Dan’s kidnapped by Ferraro’s goons, and taken to the gangster’s yacht to await certain doom.  Macho man Cardigan leads the Mexican police on a raid, and a battle ensues. Dan finally breaks free in time to save Cardigan from Ferraro, and the good guys are victorious! Dan and Leonore get together at last and have the final say in a memorably STEAMY ending!

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That ending wasn’t the one concocted by credited writers Frank Fenton and Jack Leonard and director John Farrow. They weren’t even involved in it. RKO studio boss Howard Hughes wasn’t satisfied with the conclusion, feeling it wasn’t exciting enough. Hughes hired director Richard Fleischer and writer Earl Fenton, who’d just wrapped up filming on another RKO noir, THE NARROW MARGIN. The three brainstormed a new ending, building a replica of Ferraro’s yacht inside the studio’s water tank for the added action. This put the film way behind schedule, but there was more to come. When Hughes viewed the footage, he decided the actor playing Ferraro (Robert J. Wilke, later Captain Nemo’s first mate in Fleischer’s 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA ) wasn’t appropriately menacing enough. Recalling seeing Raymond Burr in another film, Hughes recast the role, and Fleischer had to reshoot all the scenes featuring Ferraro!

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Hopelessly over budget due to Hughes’ tinkering, HIS KIND OF WOMAN lost money at the box office. Today aficionados see it as a camp classic, a romp through film noir territory unlike any other of its day. Mitchum and Russell make an attractive screen team, Price is a riot, and the rest of the cast is more than up to par. Familiar Face spotters will want to keep their eyes peeled for Tol Avery, Danny Borzage, Anthony Caruso, Robert Cornthwaite, King Donovan, Paul Frees, and Carlton Young, not to mention a very young Mamie Van Doren. There’s no other film in the noir canon quite like HIS KIND OF WOMAN, so put it on your must-watch list today.

Steampunk Disney: 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA (Walt Disney Productions 1954)

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When TCM aired this movie last week, I just had to watch. It was one of my favorites as a kid, and I was curious to see how well it held up with the passage of time. To my delight, 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA is even more enjoyable in adulthood, a joyous sci-fi adventure film thanks to the fine cast and the genius of Walt Disney.

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Based on the Jules Verne novel, 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA takes us back to 1868, where rumors of a sea monster attacking ships are running rampant. Eminent scientist Professor Aronnax and his protégé’ Counseil are invited to join a voyage to investigate the matter, along with the free-spirited harpoonist Ned Land. They encounter the beast and are shipwrecked, only to discover the monster is actually a fantastic, futuristic submarine, The Nautilus. The sub is commanded by Captain Nemo, who picks up Aronnax, Counseil, and Ned and makes them his prisoners. The Nautilus takes the trio on a fantastic journey to the undersea kingdom, where they encounter everything from cannibalistic headhunters on an unchartered island to a giant squid that attacks the submarine during a gale-force storm.

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The four leads are in top form, especially Kirk Douglas as the rowdy Ned Land. Kirk has a ball playing the rambunctious sailor, and even gets to sing a song, “A Whale of a Tale”. Paul Lukas (Oscar winner for WATCH ON THE RHINE) adds dignity to the part of Professor Aronnax and Peter Lorre is sarcastically funny as his sidekick Counseil. James Mason cuts a fine figure as Nemo, the anti-war warrior. Nemo’s a conflicted character; abhorring violence and wishing only to live in peace beneath the sea, yet attacking ships and sending their crews to a watery grave. Of all the screen versions of Verne’s Nemo (Herbert Lom, Robert Ryan, Omar Sharif et al) Mason is by far the best. And let’s not forget Esmerelda, Nemo’s trained seal who bonds with the boisterous Ned.

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This was Disney’s fifth live-action film (the first was 1950’s TREASURE ISLAND) and first under the Buena Vista Distribution banner. To direct, Disney hired Richard Fleischer , son of his former animation rival Max Fleischer (POPEYE THE SAILOR, BETTY BOOP, GULLIVER’S TRAVELS). The younger Fleischer handles the material well, from a script by Earl Fenton. He had directed several highly regarded noirs (ARMORED CAR ROBBERY, THE NARROW MARGIN) before taking on this big-budget adventure, and split the remainder of his career between crime dramas (COMPULSION, THE BOSTON STRANGLER, MR. MAJESTYK) and fantasies (FANTASTIC VOYAGE, DOCTOR DOOLITTLE, SOYLENT GREEN, CONAN THE DESTROYER, RED SONJA).

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20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA won Academy Awards for Art Direction and Special Effects. The breathtaking underwater sequences were shot mostly off the coast of Nassau, and involved over 30 crew members to film. The giant squid scene features a larger than life animatronic monster, and still looks better than any CGI- created creature today (don’t get me started!). Walt Disney put together a masterpiece of sci-fi cinema that has indeed stood the test of time, as enjoyable now as when it was first released in Technicolor and CinemaScope. One of the all-time classic adventures of the screen, 20,00 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA belongs in every film fanatic’s collection.

 

Hunger Games: Charlton Heston in SOYLENT GREEN (MGM 1973)

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Oscar winning actor Charlton Heston (BEN-HUR) ventured into the realm of dystopian science-fiction in the late 60s/early 70s with a quartet of films. He starred in the 1968 blockbuster PLANET OF THE APES and its 1970 sequel BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES, then a 1971 adaptation of Richard Matheson’s I AM LEGEND titled THE OMEGA MAN. The last of these was 1973’s SOYLENT GREEN, a grim look at an overpopulated, polluted future world (set in 2020!) where food is scarce, the climate has changed dramatically, and the rich minority controls everything. (Geez, sound familiar?)

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Heston plays NYC Police Detective Thorn, investigating the murder of powerful, rich industrialist William Simonson (Joseph Cotten in a cameo), who lives in Central Park West, a complex for wealthy males that comes complete with a woman as part of the “furniture” (Leigh Taylor-Young). The killing looks like a robbery attempt gone bad, but Thorn suspects foul play, and has his eye on Simonson’s bodyguard Tab (a rather paunchy Chuck “THE RIFLEMAN” Connors).

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Thorn is assisted by his roommate, the elderly crime book researcher Sol Roth. Edward G. Robinson is Sol, in what was his last film role. Robinson was Hollywood’s OG, having starred in 1931’s LITTLE CAESAR, the movie that kicked off the gangster cycle. His acting chops hadn’t diminished one bit, and Robinson gives us a touching swan song as a man who longs for the days when the world was livable, showing his disgust at the “tasteless, odorless crud” the Soylent Corporation manufactures to feed the masses. The scene where Thorn brings home some plundered “real food” (beef, apples, and a bottle of bourbon) is priceless as we watch the old man’s spirit lift savoring the meal.

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The powers that be put the kibosh on Thorn’s investigation, having him reassigned to “riot duty”, riding herd over the rabble as Soylent Green is put up for rationing. An assassin tries to gun him down, meeting a gruesome death under one of the front-end loaders used to control the rowdy peasants. Thorn keeps digging into the murder despite pressure from his boss (Brock Peters), as does Sol. The elderly former professor goes to The Exchange, bringing along the reference books Thorn obtained from the Soylent Oceanographic Survey. They come to a grim conclusion, and Sol cannot bear to live with the truth. He checks into Home, an assisted death facility, and Thorn arrives just before Sol expires. Sol shares the horrible secret of Soylent Green, begging Thorn to prove it to the world. The death scene is poignant, as Sol drinks from a poisoned cup, then lays down while bathed in orange light, images of nature before him, classical music gently taking him away. Edward G. Robinson, an actor’s actor to the last, died of terminal cancer twelve days after filming this scene.

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I’m about to SPOIL THE ENDING so if you haven’t seen SOYLENT GREEN, keep scrolling. Most of you film fans out there already know, and even those who’ve never seen the movie have heard people imitating Heston’s famous last words: “It’s people…Soylent Green is people!” I’m a huge admirer of Heston, not just for his many great performances, but for always staying true to himself. Charlton Heston was King of the Epics (THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY), starred in Orson Welles’ classic noir TOUCH OF EVIL, and made great Westerns like WILL PENNY and THE MOUNTAIN MEN. A liberal politically early in his life, Heston campaigned for Adlai Stevenson, marched with Martin Luther King, and was president of his union, The Screen Actor’s Guild. When he felt the Democratic Party had abandoned their principles, Heston switched to the Republicans, supporting his old friend Ronald Reagan. He served as president of the NRA, making that famous speech about taking our guns away “when you pry them from my cold, dead hands”. It’s not hip to be Heston fan nowadays, but I don’t really care. He served his country in WW2, and stood up proudly for his convictions. Besides, any actor who can do Shakespeare and share a stage with Dame Edna Everage can’t be all bad. Charlton Heston, American icon, died of complications from Alzheimer’s disease in 2008.

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Other cast members include Whit Bissell, Paula Kelly, Dick Van Patten, and Celia Lovsky. Miss Lovsky was once married to Peter Lorre, and as an actress is perhaps best known to sci-fi fans as Vulcan leader T’Pau in the “Amok Time” episode of STAR TREK. Director Richard Fleischer, son of animation pioneer Max (Popeye, Betty Boop), had an uneven career, batting slightly over .500, with more hits (20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA, FANTASTIC VOYAGE, THE BOSTON STRANGLER) than misses (1967’S DOCTOR DOOLITTLE, the abominable MANDINGO, 1980’S THE JAZZ SINGER with Neil Diamond). SOYLENT GREEN is solidly in the hit column, with themes that are still relevant today, and a wonderful farewell performance from Edward G. Robinson.

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