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.

Cleaning Out the DVR #16: Keep Calm and Watch Movies!

All last week, I was laid up with sciatic nerve pain, which begins in the back and shoots down my left leg. Anyone who has suffered from this knows how  excruciating it can be! Thanks to inversion therapy, where I hang upside down three times a day on a table like one of Bela Lugosi’s pets in THE DEVIL BAT , I’m feeling much better, though not yet 100%.

Fortunately, I had a ton of movies to watch. My DVR was getting pretty full anyway, so I figured since I could barely move, I’d try to make a dent in the plethora of films I’ve recorded.., going all the way back to last April! However, since I decided to go back to work today, I realize I won’t have time to give them all the full review treatment… and so it’s time for the first Cleaning Out the DVR post of 2018!

We begin with BLACK MAMA, WHITE MAMA (American-International, 1972), a Philippine-made “Women in Prison” entry by director Eddie Romero, the Roger Corman of the Philippines. Blaxploitation Queen Pam Grier stars as a feisty American hooker who escapes from your typical brutal jungle prison chained to rich white revolutionary Margaret Markov. If you’re expecting something along the lines of 1957’s THE DEFIANT ONES, forget it! Instead, strap yourselves in for lots of nudity (including the obligatory shower scene!), violence, torture, and a tongue planted firmly in cheek. For example, Pam and Margaret jump a pair of nuns and steal their habits in order to make their getaway!

Sid Haig, a CRV favorite!

Besides WIP veterans Grier (THE BIG DOLL HOUSE, etc) and Markov (THE HOT BOX), the film features the immortal Sid Haig , who’s a riot as a redneck cowboy bounty hunter hired by the local gendarmes to hunt the girls down, dead or alive! I always enjoy Sid in roles large or small, and here he plays this crazy cracker to the hilt! Also in the cast is Vic Diaz, a mainstay of these Filipino exploitation classics, as the ruthless drug lord ripped off by Pam, who’s also hunting our heroines. Lynn Borden is the horny prison matron who peeps on the girls, and wants a piece of Pam pie! BLACK MAMA, WHITE MAMA is a must for genre fans, who’ll love the violent’n’bloody climax!

From the Philippines, we travel to Spain for the Eurowestern THE TEXICAN (Columbia 1966), a strange hybrid of traditional and Spaghetti styles directed by sagebrush veteran Lesley Selander. This was Audie Murphy’s first and only foray into the Spaghetti genre, and his next-to-last film. and though he’s a little more clean-cut than most Spaghetti protagonists, he fits in with the material just fine (as a side note, Murphy was one of many Western stars who turned down Sergio Leone’s A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS , for which Clint Eastwood is eternally grateful!).

Audie’s still very youthful looking at age 41; unfortunately, the same can’t be said for costar Broderick Crawford, playing the villain who kills Murphy’s brother and triggers this revenge tale. Crawford, at age 55, looks mighty dissipated due to his years of heavy drinking, though it’s still fun to watch him snarl and growl his way through the role of mean town boss Luke Starr. Spaghetti regular Aldo Sambrell appears as Crawford’s right-hand gunman, adding his own brand of ‘foreign’ menace. Nico Fidenco’s score aids in setting the film’s mood, and the showdown in the swirling sandstorm street, followed by final retribution in Crawford’s saloon, is well staged by Selander. If you’re not an Audie Murphy and/or Spaghetti Western fan, you’ll probably want to pass, but those of you who are (and include me in that  number) will enjoy this minor entry in the genre’s canon.

GRAVE OF THE VAMPIRE (Entertainment Pyramid 1972) was a surprisingly effective low-budget chiller I’d never heard of before. It starts in 1940, as two college kids are making out in a cemetery, when a crypt opens and vampire Caleb Croft attacks, killing the boy and raping the girl. This macabre opening sets the stage as the girl later gives birth to a strange little baby who prefers blood over milk! From there, we flash-forward to the 70’s, as the child (now a grown-up William Smith ) seeks to destroy his unholy father, working at the local university under the name Prof. Adam Lockwood. In reality, Croft/Lockwood is Charles Croyden, an 1800’s nobleman whose wife Sarah was burned at the stake in Salem. Lynn Peters plays student Anne, and of course she’s a dead (no pun intended) ringer for Sarah. Michael Pataki makes a pretty fierce vampire, Smith is always fun to watch, and the film even manages to sneak in a Bela Lugosi reference! Creepy and atmospheric, GRAVE OF THE VAMPIRE should be on any horror buff’s must-watch list.

Another surprise was RIOT ON SUNSET STRIP (AIP 1967), one of many Hippiesploitation flicks the studio made during those fabulous 60’s. Aldo Ray stars as Lt. Walt Lorimer, trying to keep the peace between the establishment forces and the kids on the Strip. Walt’s the voice of reason… until his daughter Andy (Mimsy Farmer) is given an LSD-spiked soda at a party and gang-raped by five punks. Mimsy’s interpretive “freak-out” dance is a sight to behold! The movie also features an overacting Anna Mizrahi as Andy’s pink-haired lush of a mom… perhaps she should’ve picked up some acting pointers from husband Lee Strasberg.

Mimsy Farmer freaking out!

The surprise part came for me when some of the great garage bands of the era performed. The Standells (of “Dirty Water” fame) do the title tune, featuring lead singer/drummer/ex-Mouseketeer Dickie Dodd and Russ Tamblyn’s younger brother Larry. There’s The Chocolate Watch Band, who sound like a punk Rolling Stones, and The Enemies, fronted by future Three Dog Night vocalist Cory Wells. The movie has some footage from the actual ’66 riot spliced in, and on the whole is pretty well done for this sort of thing. A psychedelic artifact definitely worth a look.

Last but not least, Roger Corman’s BLOODY MAMA (AIP 1970) is one of the  onslaught of gangster epics churned out after the success of 1967’s BONNIE & CLYDE. This one’s a cut above thanks to Corman and star Shelley Winters , giving a bravura performance as the infamous Kate “Ma” Barker without going over the top… well, not too far, anyway! Ma and her cretinous brood (Don Stroud, Robert DeNiro, Robert Wolders, Clint Kimbrough) rob, murder, rape, and kidnap their way to the top of the FBI’s Most Wanted list before the carnage-filled finale, with Bruce Dern , Diane Varsi , and Pat Hingle joining them along the way.

Little Bobby DeNiro and “Mama” Shelley Winters

Young Mr. DeNiro plays dope fiend son Lloyd in one of his earliest pictures. In fact, this may very well be his first gangster role! It also marks the feature debut of cinematographer John A. Alonso, who went on to lens VANISHING POINT , LADY SINGS THE BLUES, CHINATOWN, FAREWELL MY LOVELY, SCARFACE, and many other films of note. BLOODY MAMA’s got a lot going for it, and Corman has said it’s his favorite among the many films he’s made.

There are a lot more movies I watched while sidelined, and more Cleaning Out the DVR to come! Next time, we’ll return to the dark world of film noir!

 

 

Recipe for Disaster: THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE (20th Century-Fox 1972)

Although 1970’s AIRPORT is generally credited as the first “disaster movie”, it was 1972’s THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE that made the biggest splash for the genre. Producer Irwin Allen loaded up his cast with five- count ’em!- Academy Award winners, including the previous year’s winner Gene Hackman (THE FRENCH CONNECTION ). The special effects laden extravaganza wound up nominated for 9 Oscars, winning 2, and was the second highest grossing film of the year, behind only THE GODFATHER!

And unlike many of the “disasters” that followed in its wake, THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE holds up surprisingly well. The story serves as an instruction manual for all disaster movies to come. First, introduce your premise: The S.S. Poseidon is sailing on its final voyage, and Captain Leslie Nielsen is ordered by the new ownership to go full steam ahead, despite the ship no longer being in ship-shape. (You won’t be able to take Leslie too seriously if, like me, you’ve watched AIRPLANE! way too many times!)

Next, introduce your all-star cast: We’ve got Hackman as a rebellious priest having his dark night of the soul, Ernest Borgnine as a belligerent NYC cop and Stella Stevens as his ex-prostitute wife, Red Buttons as a lonely, health-food nut bachelor, Jack Albertson and Shelley Winters as an elderly Jewish couple sailing for Israel, Carol Lynley as a young, aspiring singer, and Roddy McDowell as a steward. Add youngsters Pamela Sue Martin and Eric Shea on their way to meet their parents in Greece for good measure.

Then, add your disaster: a sub sea earthquake that triggers a freak tsunami, hitting the Poseidon with devastating force on New Year’s Eve, right after the singing of “Auld Lang Syne”! The ship capsizes, and now in order to survive our stars must make their way to the bottom (which is now the top) of the ship and reach the engine room to be rescued or, like all the rest of the supporting players and extras, they’re doomed to die in the frigid waters of the Atlantic Ocean!!

Oh, and let’s add some conflict for dramatic effect: Hackman and Borgnine are constantly at odds, bellowing at each other like bull elephants. Winters is old and overweight; the others think she’ll drag them down. Lynley’s suffering from trauma because her brother was killed, MacDowell’s got a wounded leg, Shea’s an obnoxious little know-it-all. There’s enough suspense, thrills, and terror put before our ten heroes for three disaster flicks, and it all works thanks to the steady hand of  director Ronald Neame (who later helmed one of the worst in the disaster cycle, 1979’s METEOR ).

Let’s talk a moment about Shelley Winters’ performance as Mrs. Rosen. During the late 60’s and early 70’s, double Oscar winner Shelley (THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK, A PATCH OF BLUE) began giving way-over-the-top performances in whatever she did, and was becoming more and more a parody of herself. Granted, she had recently suffered a nervous breakdown, and was taking roles beneath her considerable talents. Yet here Shelley toned down her act, giving a subtly emotional portrayal, and her bravery and self-sacrifice in saving Hackman’s life, especially after enduring all the cracks about her weight through the film, deservedly earned Winters an Oscar nomination (though she lost to Eileen Heckart for BUTTERFLIES ARE FREE). THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE may be just a big-budget popcorn movie, but it does have a heart and soul; its name is Shelley Winters.

Let’s also have a tidal wave of applause for the stunt crew, set designers, and special effects wizards who made THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE a visual delight… no CGI necessary! Veteran SPFX men L.B. Abbott and A.D. Flowers were given a Special Achievement Oscar for their fantastic technical work, and the film also won for what I consider one of the most annoying songs of the 70’s, the perennial soft-rock snoozer “The Morning After” (well, as Joe E. Brown said in SOME LIKE IT HOT, nobody’s perfect!). Despite that lame title tune, THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE is just as enjoyable today as it was upon first release,  an exciting, fun piece of Hollywood filmmaking that’s endured the storm-ravaged test of time!

Happy 100th Birthday Robert Mitchum!: THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (United Artists 1955)

Regular readers know I’m a big fan of Big Bob Mitchum, having covered nine of his classic films. The self-effacing Mitchum always downplayed his talents in interviews, but his easy-going, naturalistic style and uncanny ear for dialect made him one of the screen’s most watchable stars. Whether a stoic film noir anti-hero, a rugged soldier fighting WWII, a romantic lead, or a malevolent villain, Mitchum always delivered the goods. Last night I watched THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER for the first time, and his performance as the murderous ‘Reverend’ Harry Powell just zoomed to the top of my list of marvelous Mitchum performances.

Mitchum’s Powell is totally amoral and totally crazy, a sociopathic killer who talks to God about killing women, those “perfume smelling things, lacy things, things with curly hair” that The Lord hates, according to Harry. He’s sexually repressed to the point he must murder in the name of God to find release, and believes God provides for his evangelism by pointing him toward widows with money to act as sacrifices. Powell is by turns charming and savage, ingratiating himself to the townspeople with his pious act in public, cold as the devil’s tail privately. His hands are tattooed with the words “Love” and “Hate”, enabling him to sermonize on the duality of man’s nature:

Listen to Mitchum’s pitch-perfect vocal cadence; he could fit right in as a cable network Southern preacher right now! The Rev has come to this idyllic West Virginia town after being incarcerated for car theft. His cellmate was Ben Harper ( Peter Graves ), a Depression Era man who robbed a bank to feed his family and killed two people in the process. Before being hanged, Harper let slip where he stashed the $10,000 from the crime. Only his two children know the secret, and Powell has ventured forth to do God’s work by finding out where the money’s hid. He woos and wins Harper’s widow Willa ( Shelley Winters ), but Harper’s son John immediately recognizes Powell for what he is, a con man come to steal the ill-gotten gains Dad left behind.

Mitchum creates such a chilling character in NIGHT OF THE HUNTER, you’ll have no reason to cheer for him. On his wedding night, he berates his new bride for her carnal instincts, later murdering her with his switchblade in their bedroom after she learns the truth about him. The bedroom itself is designed to resemble a cathedral, their bed a sacrificial altar. He cajoles and threatens the kids, growling and howling like an animal, eyes blazing from their sockets like the devil himself. It’s a portrait of pure evil straight out of a horror movie, and Robert Mitchum proves all his talk about being a “one-note actor” was just blarney. But that’s Mitchum being Mitchum, a true artist who was so good at what he did he made it look easy.

THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER was the only film directed by another great actor, Charles Laughton , who used the expressionistic style of silent film directors like F.W. Murnau and especially D.W. Griffith, to the point of casting Griffith star Lillian Gish in the pivotal role of Rachael Cooper, a farm widow who takes in stray youngsters, and becomes the salvation for the Harper children. Miss Gish stands toe-to-toe with Mitchum both in her character and in the acting department, the “Love” to Harry Powell’s “Hate”. The entire cast is superb, with James Gleason a standout as alcoholic “Uncle” Birdie, who discovers Willa’s body at the bottom of the Ohio River. Don Beddoe , Gloria Castillo, and Evelyn Varden also shine in their minor parts.

The film wasn’t well received at the time of its release, and a disheartened Laughton never directed another film. It’s our loss, as his baroque stylings made THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER a masterpiece of cinematic art. Today it’s regarded as a true classic, and the performance of Robert Mitchum has a lot to do with that. Along with his Max Cady in CAPE FEAR, Mitchum embodies evil unlike any other actor in film. Happy 100th birthday Bob; here’s to 100 more years of audiences enjoying your wonderful work!

For more on Mitchum this 100th birthday anniversary, follow these links:

OUT OF THE PAST (1947)

WHERE DANGER LIVES (1950)

HOLIDAY AFFAIR (1949)

HIS KIND OF WOMAN (1951)

MACAO (1952)

ANGEL FACE (1952)

THE RACKET (1951)

THUNDER ROAD (1958)

THE SUNDOWNERS (1960)

 

Grand Dame Guignol: WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH HELEN? (United Artists 1971)

The recent FX mini-series FEUD has sparked a renewed interest in the “Older Actresses Doing Horror” genre, also known by the more obnoxious sobriquettes “Hagsploitaion” or “Psycho-Biddy” movies. This peculiar film category lasted from 1962’s WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? until winding down around the early Seventies. 1971’s WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH HELEN? came towards the end of the cycle, a creepy little chiller with Debbie Reynolds and Shelley Winters   getting caught up in murder and madness in 1930’s Hollywood.

I wouldn’t exactly call Debbie Reynolds a “hag”; she was only 39 when this was filmed, and still quite a hottie, especially when glammed-up in a Jean Harlow “Platinum Blond” wig. Deb gets to show off her tap-dancing and tangoing in a few scenes, showing off her still amazing legs for good measure. She and Shelley play a pair of Iowa mothers who (as the opening newsreel footage tells us) have spawned two killer sons that slaughtered a young girl and got sentenced to life in prison. Harassed by angry mobs and receiving threatening phone calls, Adelle (Debbie) and Helen (Shelley) decide to go west and open a dancing school for aspiring Shirley Temple types in Tinsletown.

Changing their last names, Adelle and Helen rent a studio, and soon an oddball unemployed ham named (appropriately enough) Hamilton Starr worms his way into a position as voice coach. Linc Palmer, rich father of one of Adelle’s no-talent pupils, takes an interest in her, while Helen withdraws from the world, finding solace in her pet rabbits and the religious radio broadcasts of Sister Alma (played by Agnes Moorehead, whose genre credits include HUSH… HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE   and DEAR DEAD DELIALH).

Helen is still getting those threatening phone calls, and seems on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Adelle suspects Helen of sending a newspaper clipping of her sordid past to Linc, and comes home to find blood smeared on a cardboard cut-out of her. She demands Helen leave, and walks out in a huff. A knock on the door finds a man who knows Helen’s real name, and as he walks up the staircase, the frightened, freaked out woman pushes him to his doom. Adelle returns, discovering the horror, and helps Helen get rid of the body.

Helen is now truly cracking up, and not even Sister Alma can save her (“There is no forgiveness for me”). After Adelle receives a marriage proposal from Linc, she arrives back home to discover her bedroom trashed, and blood all over the bathroom. Following a trail of blood down the bannister to the backyard, she gasps as she sees Helen’s pet rabbits all slaughtered in their coops. Then Helen appears, blood on the front of her nightgown, and…

And you’ll have to watch the movie to find out (although that poster up top may give you a clue). Shelley Winters was said to have been having a real-life nervous breakdown while shooting this film, and her acting is more restrained than usual at this stage of her career. She certainly had me convinced she was going bonkers but, given the circumstances, it probably wasn’t that much of a stretch for her. There’s a subtle but noticeable lesbian subtext in Helen’s reliance on Adelle, deftly handled by both ladies. Shelley had previous appeared in THE MAD ROOM, and went on to star in WHOEVER SLEW AUNTIE ROO?, and overcame her breakdown to continue a long career.

Linc is played by Dennis Weaver, taking a break from MCCLOUD to portray Debbie’s lover. Flamboyant Irish thespian Michael MacLiammoir plays the flamboyant Hamilton Starr in a clear case of typecasting (though he did remind me a bit of Sydney Greenstreet). Another oddball actor, Timothy Carey , has a cameo as a down-on-his-luck bum. Pamelyn Ferdin, Logan Ramsey, Peggy Rea, and the immortal Yvette Vickers   all pop up in small parts.

Henry Farrell, whose novel served as the basis for BABY JANE, wrote the spooky screenplay, as he did with SWEET CHARLOTTE. He also did the teleplays for HOW AWFUL ABOUT ALAN (with Julie Harris and Anthony Perkins) and THE HOUSE THAT WOULD NOT DIE (Barbara Stanwyck). Director Curtis Harrington was a huge horror buff responsible for the atmospheric NIGHT TIDE, QUEEN OF BLOOD, GAMES, and the TV Movies THE CAT CREATURE, KILLER BEES (with Gloria Swanson!), and DEVIL DOG: THE HOUND OF HELL. DP Lucian Ballard isn’t a name usually associated with horror films, but he dabbled occasionally early in his career (1942’s THE UNDYING MONSTER, ’44’s THE LODGER), so he knew the territory fairly well.

WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH HELEN? is kitschy fun, with Debbie and Shelley enjoying a good, gruesome romp together. Keep a lookout for more of these “Psycho-Biddy” films on TCM and elsewhere, featuring Golden Age stars like Bette, Joan , Barbara, Agnes, Olivia, Tallulah, Miriam , even Gloria Grahame… just watch out for hidden knives!

 

Dark Western Sky: James Stewart in WINCHESTER ’73 (Universal-International 1950)

James Stewart  and Anthony Mann made the first of their eight collaborations together with the Western WINCHESTER ’73, a film that helped change both their careers. Nice guy Stewart, Hollywood’s Everyman in Frank Capra movies like MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON and IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, took on a more mature, harder-edged persona as Lin McAdam, hunting down the man who killed his father, Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally ). As for Mann, after years of grinding out B-movie noir masterpieces (T-MEN, RAW DEAL ), WINCHESTER ’73 put him on the map as one of the 1950’s top-drawer directors.

The rifle of the title is the movie’s McGuffin, a tool to hold the story together. When McAdam and his friend High Spade (the always welcome character actor Millard Mitchell) track Dutch Henry to Dodge City, the two mortal enemies engage in a shooting contest judged by none other than Wyatt Earp (Will Geer). Lin wins the event, only to be jumped at his hotel by Dutch Henry, who steals the prized “One of a Thousand” Winchester and rides off with his gang to Riker’s Bar, a lonely outpost saloon. It’s there Dutch loses the rifle in a poker game to gun-runner Joe Lamont (a very good John McIntire ). Lamont sells his wares to renegade Indians, all riled up after the Sioux massacre Custer at Little Big Horn.

But Indian warrior Young Bull (played by a young Rock Hudson !) covets the new repeater, and Lamont pays a heavy price, losing his scalp in the process. The renegades chase Lola Manners (pretty Shelley Winters ), a “dance hall girl” run out of Dodge by Earp, and her fiancé Steve Miller (Charles Drake) into an encampment of soldiers led by Sgt. Wilkes (Jay C. Flippen ), then Lin and High Spade are also corralled, and a battle at dawn between the soldiers and renegades ensues, with marksman Lin picking off Young Bull. The two men ride off, and a young recruit (young Tony Curtis!) finds the rifle. The sergeant hands it over to Miller, who rides away with Lola to meet Waco Johnnie Dean.

Waco Johnnie is played by Dan Duryea at his psychotic best, a thoroughly nasty character if there ever was one. Waco kills Miller and steals both his rifle and Lola, sends his men out to their doom in a fierce gunfight with the local marshal and his posse, then rides away with Lola as a shield to meet up with… you guessed it, Dutch Henry, who takes possession of the Winchester. Waco and Dutch plot to rob a gold shipment in Tascosa. But Lin and High Spade are still tracking Dutch (who, it turns out, is Lin’s brother), and manage to foil the robbery, leading up to a memorable mano y mano shootout between Lin and Dutch among the high rocks.

The screenplay by Borden Chase and Robert L. Richards is filled with tension, keeping the viewer on the edge of his (or her) seat. William H. Daniels’ B&W cinematography beautifully captures the Arizona locations, and matches them well with the studio-shot footage. The other cast members are all Familiar Faces on the sagebrush trail: John Alexander, James Best Abner Biberman Steve Brodie John Doucette , Chuck Roberson, Ray Teal, Chief Yowlachie, and John War Eagle.

James Stewart gives a us a brooding, deeply shaded performance, guided through the darkness by film noir vet Anthony Mann. Out of all the Stewart/Mann Western collaborations, WINCHESTER ’73 remains my favorite, a gritty saga of revenge that gave new screen life to both the actor and director, aided and abetted by a superb cast of character actors. It’s a must-see oater for film fans in general, and Western buffs in particular.

 

This Eagle Doesn’t Fly: FLAP (Warner Brothers 1970)

flap1

FLAP is an attempt by director Sir Carol Reed to jump on the late 60’s/early70’s “relevance” bandwagon by depicting the modern-day mistreatment of the American Indian. It’s a seriocomic character study that struggles to find it’s identity, and as a result fails at both comedy and drama.

FLAP is Flapping Eagle, an ex-soldier living back on the reservation who’s “pissed off at everybody”. He’s a hard drinking man, as is just about all the Indians here, feeding into the stereotypical “drunken Indian” image. Flap’s had enough of the noise coming from construction workers building a highway project right next to the rez, and causes a fracas between the hardhats and the Indians, damaging a bulldozer in the process. Native Wounded Bear (who has a correspondence school law degree) points out the highway is gong through sacred burial ground, which turns out not to be the case. Everyone’s up in arms, especially local cop Rafferty, who has it in for Flap.

flap2

Flap and his drinking buddies (dim Lobo, young writer Eleven Snowflake, Wounded Bear, storekeeper Looking Deer) decide to become revolutionaries, and derail a train to the rez, claiming it as abandoned property on their land. When Rafferty shoots an elder’s dog who’s always biting at his ankles, Flap has a confrontation that lands the cop in the hospital. The old man dies of a heart attack, and according to an old treaty, if a tribal member dies as a result of malicious intent on the white man’s part, the tribe can reclaim all the land they can walk to from sunup to sundown, resulting in the entire tribe, led by Flap, marching to Phoenix to take over the town. A near riot breaks out, but Flap is assassinated by Rafferty from his hospital window (conveniently placed in the center of town).

flap3

Anthony Quinn plays Flap like a Native American Zorba. That’s not a put-down; Quinn’s the best thing about the film. The two-time Oscar winner had been in pictures since 1936, and knew just what buttons to push to win audience sympathy. The problem’s not Quinn, it’s his character (or any character here) isn’t fully fleshed out by screenwriter Clair Huffaker, adapting his own 1967 novel “Nobody Loves a Drunken Indian”. Huffaker was an uneven writer who produced some good scripts (FLAMING STAR , 100 RIFLES) and bad (HELLFIGHTERS, TARZAN AND THE VALLEY OF GOLD). FLAP falls into the latter category.

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Quinn’s costars are Claude Akins as Lobo, future producer/director Tony Bill (Eleven), veteran Victor Jory (Wounded Bear), LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRARIE’s Victor French (Rafferty), and Shelley Winters as Flap’s prostitute girlfriend Dorothy Bluebell. Shelley’s her over-the-top self again, at one point threatening to pull a Lorena Bobbitt (Google it!) on unfaithful Flap with a pair of scissors! Familiar Faces include Rodolfo Acosta, William Mims, Anthony Caruso, J. Edward McKinley, Alan Carney  , Parley Bear, and the only real Native American in the cast Chief John War Eagle. Marvin Hamlisch contributes the score, and co-wrote the theme song (done by Kenny Rogers & The First Edition).

Carol Reed was coming fresh off his Oscar-winning success of 1968’s OLIVER! when he took on this project. Sir Carol made a number of true classic films: ODD MAN OUT, THE THIRD MAN, OUR MAN IN HAVANA. Sadly, FLAP is not among them. Maybe if all concerned had settled on a pure comedy, or gone the other way with stark drama, FLAP would’ve been a better movie. As it stands, I would recommend you skip this one and look into three other movies of the time dealing with the problems of Native Americans; Arthur Penn’s LITTLE BIG MAN, Abraham Polonsky’s TELL THEM WILLIE BOY IS HERE, and Ralph Nelson’s SOLDIER BLUE.

 

 

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!

 

That’s Blaxpolitation! 5: The CLEOPATRA JONES Saga

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Standing six-foot-two, the beautiful former model Tamara Dobson was Warner Brothers’ answer to Pam Grier. The first female action star, Grier was killing it at the box office with hits like COFFY and FOXY BROWN, and Warners’ cast the Amazonian Dobson in the title role of CLEOPATRA JONES (1973). While Dobson made a foxy badass mama in the role, she wasn’t a very good actress. Which is alright in the world of action films, as long as the violence comes fast and hard, and CLEOPATRA JONES delivers in that department.

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Our girl Cleo is a special government agent in Turkey helping to wipe out some large poppy fields (“Thirty million worth of shit”, says Cleo). This causes drug smuggling crime boss Mommy to freak out and seek revenge. Mommy is played by Shelley Winters in one of her patented over the top roles, wearing a series of bad wigs and screeching at the top of her lungs. Mommy sics her goons on Cleo’s pet charity, a rehab for addicts run by her boyfriend. When Cleo gets back stateside, there’s hell to pay as she takes down Mommy’s gang of cutthroats with the aid of her street friends.

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There’s plenty of car chases, kung-fu fighting, and close calls here, along with plenty of familiar faces. Antonio Fargas plays Mommy’s rival Doodlebug, a flashy dresser looking to cut in on her turf. Bernie Casey is Cleo’s love interest, Brenda Sykes a hooker, Bill McKinney as a corrupt cop, and Esther (GOOD TIMES) Rolle as a diner owner whose two sons, Malcom and Melvin, are kung-fu experts that help Cleo take down Mommy and her thugs. Even SOUL TRAIN impresario Don Cornelius makes a cameo appearance. CLEOPATRA JONES didn’t cover any new ground in the Blaxploitation field, but it did well enough at the box office to warrant a sequel two years later.

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1975’s CLEOPATRA JONES AND THE CASINO OF GOLD came next, and it’s one of the rare instances where I liked the sequel better than the original. This time around, Cleo’s in Hong Kong up against the villainous Dragon Lady, played by a spectacular looking Stella Stevens as a lesbian drug queen. Norman Fell is Stanley, Cleo’s liason/agent-in-charge, who warns Cleo to tow the line. Maalcom and Melvin are back, but this time they’re more of comic relief than kick-ass kung-fu fighters. The action’s handled by Dobson and her co-star Ni Tien (billed here as Tanny), playing a private eye who’s more than a match for Cleo. Hong Kong cinema legend Run Run Shaw is credited as co-producer, and he definitely knew his chop-socky action flicks (FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH, MAN OF IRON, LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES). CASINO OF GOLD is more a traditional action flick than just another funky Blaxploitationer, and could’ve continued as a James Bond-like series, with Dobson much better suited to the glamorous international spy role than street chick. But box office returns were poor for this entry, and Warners pulled the plug on the Cleopatra Jones series.

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Tamara Dobson’s film career went south after that. Her few remaining credits included a stint on the Saturday morning sci-fi show JASON OF STAR COMMAND, featuring STAR TREK’s James Doohan and the great Sid Haig as the cosmic bad guy. She died of MS in her hometown of Baltimore in 2006 at age 59, leaving behind her two CLEOPATRA JONES films as her legacy. Both are fun to watch, with CASINO OF GOLD especially as a precursor to what could have been. They’re definitely worth rediscovering for lovers of action and Blaxploitation movies. Thanks for the memories, Cleo.

 

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