Let’s Go to the Drive-In with Charles Bronson in BREAKOUT (Columbia 1975)

Charles Bronson  finally achieved superstar status in the 1970’s after years of toiling in supporting parts thanks to drive-in fare like THE MECHANIC, MR. MAJESTYK, and the DEATH WISH films. 1975’s BREAKOUT had a bigger budget, a better than average cast, and major studio support, but at it’s heart it’s still a drive-in movie, albeit a cut above the usual action flick.

Bronson casts aside his normal stoic, stone-faced screen persona as Nick Colton, a somewhat shady pilot/mercenary who’ll do anything for a buck. Charlie’s quite a charmer here, displaying a sense a humor and talking a lot more than usual. He’s in rare form, getting to display his acting chops, honed through over two decades in the business, and is obviously having a good time in the role.

Nick is hired by Ann Wagner to rescue  her husband Jay, framed by his own grandfather and sentenced to a ruthless Mexican pennitentary. Seems Jay’s been stepping on some special interest toes South of the Border, including the CIA. Nick and his partner Hawk make several attempts to free Jay without success, and now it’s become personal. After all, he’s got a reputation to uphold!  Nick finally figures a way to pull it off by creating a diversion and landing a helicopter in the middle of the prison courtyard, and flies away, only to encounter trouble at customs with Grandpa’s murderous agent Cable in the film’s exciting conclusion.

Bronson’s actress wife Jill Ireland plays Ann in their 10th of 17 films together. They may not be Bogie & Bacall, but the couple did have good chemistry onscreen and off, and their marriage lasted until Ireland’s death from breast cancer in 1990. Ann’s husband Jay is Robert Duvall , another actor who came up through the ranks and hit it big in the 70’s starting with THE GODFATHER. Veteran director John Huston pulls the strings as grandfather Harris Wagner in what amounts to a glorified cameo. Another actor/director, Mexico’s Emilio Fernandez, plays the brutal prison jefe. A pre-legal woes Randy Quaid is Nick’s partner-in-crime Hawk, even getting to dress in drag at one point (and you haven’t lived until you’ve seen Quaid in drag!). Sexy Sheree North still looks hot as she did in her heyday as Myrna, part of Nick’s diversion scheme. Other Familiar Faces in the cast are Sidney Clute, Roy Jenson, Paul Mantee (ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS), Alejandro Rey , and Alan Vint (MACON COUNTY LINE).

BREAKOUT’s director Tom Gries isn’t a household name, but he made some good films, including the classic Western WILL PENNY with Charlton Heston,   100 RIFLES, LADY ICE, and BREAKHEART PASS (also starring Bronson). He was a prolific TV director, helming the TV movies THE GLASS HOUSE (another prison drama that won him an Emmy), the sci-fi saga EARTH II, and HELTER SKELTER, a two-parter about the Manson murder trial. Gries was also the creator of the 60’s WWII series THE RAT PATROL, starring drive-in favorite Christopher George.

BREAKOUT has no pretensions about it’s place as a drive-in movie, despite the cast and budget. In fact, that’s where I first saw it, at a local drive-in in Fairhaven, MA back in the day. It’s one of my favorite Charles Bronson films, and the star looks like he’s enjoying it as much as I did. I think you will, too!

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Elements of Style: Steve McQueen in BULLITT (Warner Brothers 1968)

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Steve McQueen was the personification of 60’s screen cool in BULLITT, a stylish action film directed by Peter Yates. It’s the first of producer Philip D’Antoni’s cop trilogy, both of which (THE FRENCH CONNECTION and THE SEVEN-UPS) I’ve previously covered. Unlike those two films, the grittiness of New York City is replaced by the California charm of San Francisco, and the City by the Bay almost becomes a character itself, especially in the groundbreaking ten minute car chase between McQueen’s Mustang and the bad guy’s Dodge Charger.

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Style permeates the film from the get-go, with the snappy opening credits montage by Pablo Ferro. Then we get right into the story, as San Francisco detective Frank Bullitt is assigned to guard mob witness John Ross, scheduled to testify before a Senate Subcommitte on crime. Hot shot politician Walt Chalmers wants Bullitt because of his reputation and PR value with the papers. Things go awry when Ross is attacked in the seedy hotel room he’s being hidden in, causing the death of a cop. Ross survives, barely, and another attempt is made at the hospital. When he succumbs to his injuries, Bullitt and partner Delgatti stash the body in the morgue, and begin their investigation. Chalmers demands to know where Ross is, thinking him still alive, but Bullitt won’t give in until he completes his search for the truth.

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Frank Bullitt is the prototype for D’Antoni’s “Maverick Cop”. Cool as a cucumber, always butting heads with authority, breaking the rules, and of course driving like a maniac! McQueen’s just right for the part, with his ice-blue eyes revealing nothing and his naturalistic acting style. His iconic dark blue turtleneck, tweed jacket with elbow patches, and desert boots set a style trend among men who wanted to be like Steve, but there’s only one Steve McQueen!

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And that car chase set the style for literally dozens of cop films to come. Bullitt’s green ’68 Mustang GT goes up against a ’68 Dodge Charger in one of the wildest chase scenes ever filmed. McQueen drove in the close-ups (he was a race driver of note), but the heavy lifting was done mostly by stuntman Carey Lofton and motorcycle racing champ Bud Ekins (who also doubled for McQueen in THE GREAT ESCAPE). Bill Hickman, stunt driver extraordinaire, was behind the wheel of the Charger,  and choreographed most of the sequence. The action takes us from Fisherman’s Wharf, through Midtown, and ends just outside San Francisco on Guadalupe Canyon Parkway. Frank P. Keller deservedly won the Oscar for best editing that year largely due to this exciting chase.

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The cast features Robert Vaughn (THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E) as Chalmers, as grandstanding politician (is there any other kind?). Vaughn had costarred with McQueen in THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, and the two men work well together here. I love this bit of dialog- Chalmers:  “Frank, we must all compromise”. Bullitt: “Bullshit”. Vintage McQueen! Jacqueline Bisset’s on hand in the role of Bullitt’s sensitive artist girlfriend (“With you, violence is a way of life, violence and death”, she tells him). Don Gordon plays Bullitt’s partner Delgatti; the two were friends offscreen and appeared together in PAPILLION and THE TOWERING INFERNO. Simon Oakland is Bullitt’s tough boss, like he was Darren McGavin’s tough boss in THE NIGHT STALKER (both the movie and TV show). George Stanford Brown (THE ROOKIES), Norman Fell (THREE’S COMPANY), Vic Tayback (ALICE), Felicia Orlandi, Ed Peck, and Al Checco are also among the supporting cast, as is young Robert Duvall in a small role as a cab driver.

Director Peter Yates was recommended by McQueen after the star saw his British film ROBBERY, which also involved a car chase. Yates would go on to make interesting films, including THE HOT ROCK (based on a Donald Westlake novel), THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE (an underrated crime drama starring Robert Mitchum), THE DEEP, the bicycle racing saga BREAKING AWAY, EYEWITNESS (another underrated film), THE DRESSER, and SUSPECT. William A. Fraker’s cinematography is stunning, and Lalo Schifrin adds another solid jazz score to his resume.

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Everything works together to make BULLITT (along with BONNIE AND CLYDE) one of the most stylish American films of the 1960’s, and one that holds up well today. I only wish Philip D’Antoni had made a few more; with BULLITT, I’ve completed covering his cop trilogy. That’s alright, though. Now I can watch them again without taking notes, and just enjoy them as a fan!

Before the Force: George Lucas’ THX-1138 (Warner Brothers 1971)

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George Lucas was a 23 year old film student at USC when he made the short ELECTRIC LABYRINTH: THX 1138 4EB. This 15 minute highly stylized film won first prize at the National Student Film Festival, and Lucas was given an apprenticeship at Warner Brothers. With the help of his friend and USC alumni Francis Ford Coppola, Lucas expanded his short into the feature film THX-1138.

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In the future, the masses are controlled by drugs that keep them in a state of sedation. No emotions allowed, especially sexual feelings. Everyone conforms to standard, with shaved heads and asexual jumpsuits. THX (Robert Duvall) works in a robot factory making android police, while his roommate LUH-3417 (Maggie McOmie) is a surveillance expert alongside SEN-5241 (Donald Pleasence). LUH begins switching THX’s meds, and the two discover the joy of sex. They’re found out and separated, and SEN tries to move in with THX, who reports him. Both men are sent to rehabilitation, and THX tries to find LUH and escape from his conformist life.

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I saw THX-1138 when it first came out (I was a young teen) and found it boring. Upon rewatching, I feel the same way. It just doesn’t grab me emotionally or draw me into its world at all. The film is technically brilliant, with Walter Murch’s sound work playing an important part, and the great Donald Pleasence is engaging as SEN, but as a whole I just don’t enjoy it. Don’t expect to see any Jedi Knights or cute whirring androids here; it’s not that kind of sci-fi. The closest it comes to STAR WARS is the opening sequence featuring clips of the 30s serial BUCK ROGERS, and the scrolling credits. For me, the film needed more Buck Rogers and less pretentious talk.

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THX-1138 didn’t do well at the box office, but it did show George Lucas as a filmmaker with a future. It’s too cold to be anything but a curio of Lucas’ early work, but his next film would show a different side of Lucas, one with more heart. Next time I’ll be looking at the smash 1973 hit AMERICAN GRAFFITI.

Meanwhile, for all you Lucasphiles out there, here’s the original 1967 short ELECTRIC LABYRINTH: THX 1138 4EB: