The Dollars Trilogy Pt 3: THE GOOD, THE BAD, & THE UGLY (United Artists 1966)

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THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY is the GONE WITH THE WIND of Spaghetti Westerns, Sergio Leone’s masterpiece, and definitely in my Top 5 Favorite Films. After turning the genre upside down with A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS and inside out with FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE, Leone’s final entry in his triptych of films starring Clint Eastwood as The Man With No Name is an ambitious epic about greed, revenge, and the futility of war, told with a warped sense of humor and plenty of action. Besides Eastwood and FEW DOLLARS co-star Lee Van Cleef, Eli Wallach joins the cast in a performance that should have won the Oscar.

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We’re first introduced to Angel Eyes (Van Cleef), who’s one mean mutha. Sent to find information on the location of stolen Confederate gold, he kills his informant, then kills the man who hired him, and begins his search for “Bill Carson”. Meanwhile, bounty hunter ‘Blondie’ (Eastwood) turns in the bandit Tuco (Wallach) for reward money. Tuco is wanted for a laundry list of nefarious deeds and sentenced to hang. But at the hanging, Blondie shoots the rope, freeing Tuco, and the two escape, forming an alliance to scam the law with their rope trick.

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Blondie gets sick of Tuco’s bitching and ends their partnership by abandoning him in the desert. Tuco survives, and reunites with his former gang members to kill Blondie. The pistoleros are no match for Blondie and all wind up dead, but Tuco sneaks in from behind. The bandit forces Blondie to wear a noose and stand on a chair, just when the Union Army decides to bomb the town, sending the rooming house crashing in a heap. Blondie escapes, but Tuco catches up with him and forces the bounty hunter to walk across the scorching desert without food or water as he sadistically lords over him.

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Just when Blondie’s about had it, a six-horse coach comes careening across the desert landscape. Curious Tuco stops the runaway horse and finds the coach full of dead Confederate soldiers. Not one to waste an opportunity, he lifts the corpses’ wallets and watches, only to discover one of them’s still alive. It’s “Bill Carson”, who tells Tuco the name of the cemetery where $200,000 in gold is buried. Tuco goes to get “Carson” some water, but when he returns the man is dead. However, Blondie has managed to crawl over, and now is the only person alive who knows the name of the grave where the gold is hidden.

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The two mortal enemies are now partners again. Donning the Confederate uniforms, they make their way to a mission run by Tuco’s brother, where Blondie can convalesce. The pair then hit the road, but are captured by Union forces and sent to a POW camp. Tuco has taken the identity of “Bill Carson”, which sparks the interest of the camp’s sergeant…. Angel Eyes!

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Eli Wallach totally steals the show as Tuco. A foul-mouthed, feral animal who’s not as dumb as he looks, Tuco is alternately funny and cruel, sly as a fox and twice as dangerous. Wallach has a field day in the role, and the character is more fully fleshed out than either Eastwood or Van Cleef’s archetypes. The scene where Tuco is bathing when a bounty hunter tries to take him by surprise, delivering the line “When you have to shoot, shoot- don’t talk!”, is a classic, as is the one with Tuco in the gun shop. Wallach wasn’t even nominated for the Supporting Actor Oscar (Walter Matthau won for THE FORTUNE COOKIE), but the film itself wasn’t released in the U.S. until 1967. That year George Kennedy won for COOL HAND LUKE, but Wallach should’ve been a shoe-in either year.

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There are so many big set-pieces in THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THEN UGLY, none more famous than the three-way showdown between Eastwood, Van Cleef, and Wallach. Leone’s wide-angle shots and deep close-ups are interspersed with a spinning camera effect, edited to perfection, all while Ennio Morricone’s music builds to a crescendo. Speaking of the maestro, this is my favorite of his scores, a musical masterpiece on its own that was turned into a hit record by Hugo Montenegro in 1968, reaching #2 on the Billboard charts:

And yes, I still have the 45 lying around somewhere in the basement!

Sergio Leone’s THE GOOD,THE BAD, AND THE UGLY never gets old. I watch it a least once a year, and always marvel at something I didn’t quite pick up on before. Even if you’re not a fan of Spaghetti Westerns, the film transcends the genre into cinematic art by one of the screen’s true masters. Now if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll go downstairs and look for that 45….

 

 

The Dollars Trilogy Pt 2: FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE (United Artists 1965)

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After the huge international success of his A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS , Sergio Leone was red hot. Another Spaghetti Western was hastily written by Leone and Luciano Vincenzoni (and an uncredited assist from Sergio Donati), but FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE is pure Leone, from the visual style to the bits of humor interspersed between the violence. Clint Eastwood returned as The Man With No Name, paired this time with veteran Western heavy Lee Van Cleef as the beady-eyed Colonel Mortimer.

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Eastwood’s character (briefly referred to as ‘Manco”) is a fast-drawing bounty hunter. He’s interested in the $10,000 reward for escaped killer/outlaw Indio. Mortimer is also interested in Indio, but has another motive: a young Indio raped his sister, resulting in her suicide during the act. The two meet up in El Paso, where Indio plans to rob the bank’s estimated one million dollars, kept in a secret cabinet. Manco and Mortimer engage in pissing contest in the street, shooting each other’s hats, but soon form an uneasy alliance to split the reward money. Manco infiltrates Indio’s gang, but the robbery is successful. Mortimer shows up as a safecracker willing to help for a price, followed by treachery at every turn until the final shootout between Mortimer and Indio, filmed as a warmup to the more heralded scene in THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY.

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Lee Van Cleef became a star at age 40 thanks to this film. The actor had struggled for years in Hollywood, playing Western henchmen (HIGH NOON, THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE), noir goons (KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL), even sci-fi villains (IT CONQUORED THE WORLD), but after an uncredited role in 1962’s all-star HOW THE WEST WAS WON, he was absent from the big screen until Leone came calling. From the opening panoramic shot of him nailing a rider with his rifle, Van Cleef’s persona as one scary dude not to be messed with was established. Suddenly, after all the struggles, he was a star, and made Spaghetti Westerns right until the craze died down in the 1970’s. Van Cleef continued to work steadily in films, from his role in John Carpenter’s ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK to costarring in the television ninja series THE MASTER, right up until his death in 1989.

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Gian Maria Volonte (Ramon Rojos in A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS) plays Indio as the meanest, craziest bandito the West has ever seen. This nut makes Liberty Valance look like a boy scout! He’s always smoking weed to obliterate the memory of what happened that night with Mortimer’s sister, and carries a chiming pocketwatch with her picture (Mortimer has one, too). Many of the cast of Leone’s previous film appear, as does another Familiar Face: German actor Klaus Kinski, making his Spaghetti debut as the hunchbacked outlaw Wild.

Lee Van Cleef (Col. Douglas Mortimer) is not interested in collecting the bounty on El Indio and his gang, motivated solely by retribution. Clint Eastwood (Manco) can collect the money.

Ennio Morricone’s music is back, a staple of these films. The hauntingly whistled theme, with it’s by now familiar whipcracks and wordless chorus, is a classic in its own right. The camerawork by Massimo Dallamano, a standout in FISTFUL, is excellent, guided by Leone’s painterly eye. FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE was another worldwide hit, but like it’s predecessor not released in the U.S. until 1967. Leone’s next film would be what I consider his greatest, the final chapter in the Dollars Triolgy, THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY.

(to be continued… )

 

The Dollars Trilogy Pt 1: A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (United Artists 1964)

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If the American Western film wasn’t completely dead in 1964, it was surely on life support. Television had saturated the market with weekly oaters to the point of overkill. John Wayne’s starring vehicles were still making money, but the rest of Hollywood’s big screen Westerns were mainly made to fill the bottom half of double feature bills, from Audie Murphy outings to the low budget, veteran laden films of producer A.C. Lyles.

Meanwhile in Italy, writer/director Sergio Leone was as tired of the sword & sandal films he was making as was his audience. He had a notion to revitalize the failing western genre by giving it a new, European perspective. Leone grew up on Hollywood westerns, and wanted to turn them on their ear by showing a more realistic, grittier version of the Old West. Searching high and low for an American name actor to star, Leone was turned down by the likes of Charles Bronson, James Coburn, and Rory Calhoun before finally settling on a young television actor named , Clint Eastwood co-star of the series RAWHIDE. The result was A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, the first true “Spaghetti Western” and a bona fide film classic.

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Clint, with his iconic serape and cheroot, plays The Man With No Name, who arrives in the Mexican border town of San Miguel. Two rival factions, the Rojos and the Baxters, rule the roost, with violence and death as commonplace in the town as its dusty streets. He kills four Baxters and signs on with the Rojos, but ultimately plays both sides against the middle. Eastwood helps the beautiful young Marisol escape the clutches of the murderous Ramon Rojos and flee with her husband and son, only to be beaten and tortured for his troubles.  But of course, Clint escapes and returns for his revenge in a bloody five against one conclusion.

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If this sounds familiar, you’re probably thinking of Akira Kuroswa’s samurai epic YOJIMBO (1961), of which this film’s a remake, in the way THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN was a remake of SEVEN SAMURAI. Only Leone didn’t credit it as such, and a lawsuit was pressed by Kurosawa, who said it was “a fine movie, but it was MY movie”* (the suit was eventually settled out of court). Leone was also obviously influenced by the films of John Ford, with beautifully framed shots of Spain’s Tabernas Desert and Cabo de Gata-Najir National Park standing in for Ford’s beloved Monument Valley, all captured by DP Massimo Dallamano. Those trademark Leone close-ups are in evidence here, a tactic reused by virtually every man who ever helmed a Spaghetti Western. The violence is swift and unromanticised, another Leone trademark that would later be usurped by a score of directors, especially Sam Peckinpah.

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Another Leone trademark began here, his collaboration with composer Ennio Morricone. Right from those animated opening credits, we hear something out of the ordinary, as budget constrictions (the entire film only cost around $200,000) caused Morricone to improvise, using whipcracks, gunshots, a chorus, and that twanging Fender guitar to create a unique, memorable score. Morricone woud work on all of Leone’s Westerns and soon became the most sought-after film composer on both sides of the Atlantic, finally receiving his due with an Oscar for THE HATEFUL EIGHT in 2016.

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A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS made Clint Eastwood an international star, and Spaghetti Western aficionados will recognize many Faces that may not be Familiar to most film fans: there’s Gian Maria Volonte (Ramon), Marianne Koch (Marisol), Jose Calvo, Sighardt Rupp, Mario Brega, Benito Stefanelli, Aldo Sambrell, Lorenzo Robledo, Antonio Molina Rojo, and Jose Canalejas, all of whom pop up in dozens of other Italian horse operas, including Leone’s. It became Italy’s highest grossing film ever, but wasn’t released in the U.S. until 1967. It was a huge success stateside as well, and a few months later Leone’s sequel, FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE, opened in America. We’ll take a look at that one next time…

*quote taken from The Emperor and The Wolf (2001) by Stuart Galbraith IV, New York: Faber and Faber.

The Perfect Crime Film: KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL (United Artists 1952)

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My friend Rob suggested I review KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL awhile back, and I’m sorry I waited so long. This is a film noir lover’s delight, packed with tension, violence, double-crosses, and a head-turning performance by John Payne in the lead. Made on an economical budget like the same year’s THE NARROW MARGIN , director Phil Karlson and George Diskant create a shadowy, claustrophobic atmosphere brimming with danger at every turn.

I knew Payne mainly from his 40’s musicals and his idealistic lawyer opposite Maureen O’Hara in MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET, but he’s a revelation here as Joe Rolfe, a florist truck driver who’s set up as a patsy by a gang of armored car robbers. He can dish out (and take) beatings with the best them, and delivers the tough-talking dialog with aplomb. KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL helped Payne shed his lightweight image, and he went on to do other dark crime films and rugged Westerns. I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for them!

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The plot isn’t overly complex: ex-cop Tim Foster. aka ‘Mr.Big’, hires three hoods to commit “the perfect crime”, a meticulously planned robbery in broad daylight. He insists all four of them wear masks so no one knows the other’s identity except himself. Timed to the last second, the caper goes off without a hitch, and Foster gives the goons each a torn-in-half king playing card, telling them he’ll contact them after the heat dies down to split the loot. Rolfe is grilled by the police, but ultimately let go when his alibi checks out.

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But he’s lost his job, and the now destitute Rolfe discovers there’s a 25% reward for finding the missing $1.2 million stolen in the robbery. Getting a hot tip from his bartender buddy, Rolfe flies to Tijuana and shadows Pete Harris, a degenerate gambler who may have been involved. He confronts Harris and beats the truth out of him, and is about to accompany the crook to Barados when Pete’s gunned down by the Mexican police at the airport. Rolfe then decides to impersonate Harris, since the gang have never laid eyes on one another.

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There he encounters Tony Romano and Boyd Kane, and after a suspicious Romano tosses his room, learns the pair were in on the heist. Foster is also at the resort, and we learn why he planned it all: after being forced to retire for backing the wrong politician, Foster plans to swerve the crooks and collect that  reward himself. Complicating things is Helen, Foster’s law student daughter, who arrived on the plane with Rolfe and is romantically interested in him.

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The violence is both realistic and graphic. I found the scene where Rolfe has Romano in a stranglehold, shoving a pistol under his chin, particularly brutal. Editor Buddy Small, son of producer Edward, keeps things tight, and Diskant’s black & white photography shows why he was one of the great noir cinematographers. Phil Karlson learned his craft directing Charlie Chan and Bowery Boys entries at Monogram, and made some solid 50’s noirs, including the ferocious THE PHENIX CITY STORY . He later remade KID GALAHAD with Elvis Presley, did a pair of Dean Martin/Matt Helm flicks, and the classic 1973 WALKING TALL. His career is well worth a look for film fans.

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KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL costars four of the screen’s baddest bad guys. Veteran Preston Foster gives heft to the role of Mr. Big, Jack Elam plays the chain-smoking Harris, oily Lee Van Cleef is womanizer Romano, and Neville Brand is chilling as the gum-chewing Kane. Pretty Coleen Gray rounds out the cast as Foster’s daughter Helen. Some of the plot elements here were reworked into Quentin Tarantino’s 1992 debut RESERVOIR DOGS; much as I liked that film, I think KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL surpasses it. Thanks for the recommendation, Rob!

Quench the Devil’s Thirst: Robert Mitchum in THUNDER ROAD (United Artists 1958)

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Robert Mitchum  puts the pedal to the metal as a moonshine runner at odds with both the Feds and gangsters in THUNDER ROAD. This is Mitchum’s most personal picture, not only starring but producing, writing the story (and two songs!), and, rumor has it, doing much of the directing. His notorious independent streak comes through in his character Luke Doolin, a Korean War vet who believes in the right of individual ownership, whether on his land or in his car, and free market enterprise, without interference from outsiders or the government. That’s right, Luke Doolin is a true Libertarian hero!

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He’s also the best damn driver in River Valley, Kentucky, as we see in the opening scene, speeding down the backroads, eluding police with the greatest of ease. The Doolins have been making moonshine for generations, with daddy Vernon running the still, baby brother Robin the family mechanic, and mama Sarah praying for their souls every Sunday at church. The local menfolk are all anti-authority, and refuse to knuckle under to big city gangster Kogan and work under him, even after one of their own dies in an “accident”. Vernon tells the crowd Luke has promised to fight the crime cartel tooth and nail, to the death if necessary.

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Kogan and his hoods aren’t the only problem facing Luke. Special Treasury Agent Troy Barrett of the Beaureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Tax Division has been assigned to nab the cocky Luke, who’s been making a mockery out of them. The only problem Luke doesn’t have is with women, as both sweet Roxanna back home and sultry singer Francine in Memphis are in love with him. When Kogan’s men try to take him out with guns on a lonely stretch of highway, Luke pulls the old oil slick trick, sending the goons to their death in a fiery crash. Confronting Kogan at his Memphis HQ, Luke answers his “How rough do you want it?” query with a swift karate chop, peeling out as he makes his getaway only to be chased down by the cops.

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Barrett tries to make a deal with Luke to nail the gangster, but stand-up guy Luke will have none of that. Barrett tells him the Feds now have him on file, and will put the pressure on, but Luke nonchalantly replies, “First you got to catch me… if you can”. Luke’s 1951 Ford Coupe is now red hot, and he reluctantly sells it to his cousin Jed. The Feds see it parked, and Barrett’s partner approaches, only to be blown to smithereens along with Jed thanks to a bomb planted by Kogan’s men. Barrett and his agents launch an all-out assault on River Valley, busting and blowing up stills, hoping to put an end to the war. But Luke’s determined to make one more run, especially after finding out Kogan plans to set up his baby brother, resulting in a mad dash to Memphis with both a killer on the road and the Feds out to stop him.

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The low budget might make you think Mitchum’s been plopped smack-dab in the middle of an AIP exploitation flick; it’s got that kind of vibe to it. But it all works, mainly thanks to Mitchum’s enviable cool factor. He’s just so easy-breezy as Luke Doolin (as he was in most of his films) one can’t even tell he’s acting. Perhaps that’s why he never won an Oscar; he makes it look too easy. Even during his love scenes with singer Keely Smith (Francine), who’s as wooden as a popsicle stick, you believe him. Robert Mitchum was that damn good.

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The part of little brother Robin was expressly written with Elvis Presley in mind, but his greedy manager Col. Tom Parker wanted too much money, so producer Mitchum hired his son James to play the role. Mitchum’s other son Christopher also appears briefly as a washboard player in the dance scene, making this a family affair (both younger Mitchum’s went on to film careers). Gene Barry (TV’s BAT MASTERSON, BURKE’S LAW) handles the part of Federal Agent Barrett like he’s DRAGNET’s Joe Friday, and that’s not a knock, it’s a compliment. Other Familiar Faces besides the aforementioned Miss Smith include Jacques Aubuchon, Trevor Bardette, Sandra Knight, Peter Breck (Nick on THE BIG VALLEY), and Randy Sparks, who sings the title tune. Mitchum himself later recorded his version of the song, hitting the pop charts in both 1958 and 1962!

THUNDER ROAD was a big hit on the drive-in circuit for decades, and influenced a whole genre of moonshine runner movies. Veteran director Arthur Ripley, who hadn’t made a film in a dozen years, gets the credit, though most sources agree Mitchum was calling the shots. The pace is fast and furious, but THUNDER ROAD isn’t just an action pic; it’s a political statement on individuality and freedom without being overtly political about it. How I wish modern-day Hollywood filmmakers would learn from it, instead of trying to hammer us over the head with their message!

 

Star Vehicle: Burt Reynolds in WHITE LIGHTNING (United Artists 1973)

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Burt Reynolds labored for years in the Hollywood mines, starring in some ill-fated TV series (his biggest success on the small screen was a three-year run in a supporting role on GUNSMOKE) and movies (nonsense like SHARK! and SKULLDUGGERY) before hitting it big in John Boorman’s DELIVERANCE. Suddenly, the journeyman actor was a hot property (posing butt-naked as a centerfold for COSMOPOLITAN didn’t hurt, either!), and studios were scurrying to sign him on to their projects. WHITE LIGHTNING was geared to the Southern drive-in crowd, but Reynolds’ new-found popularity, along with the film’s anti-authority stance, made it a success across the nation.

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WHITE LIGHTNING takes place in rural Arkansas, and Gator McKluskey (Burt) is doing a stretch in Federal prison for running moonshine. His cousin visits and tells Gator his younger brother Donnie was murdered by Sheriff J.C. Connors, the crooked boss of Bogan County. A raging Gator tries to escape, but is immediately caught, so he makes a deal with the Feds to get the goods on the sheriff. Not that Gator’s eager to assist those damn revenuers… his main goal is to avenge Donnie’s death.

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Gator’s given a souped-up 1971 Ford Galaxie Custom 500, complete with a 429 Police Interceptor/Cobra Jet engine, and a link to mechanic/moonrunner Dude Watson, who’s violated his Fed Pro (that’s Federal Probation to you non-criminal types). Dude’s reluctant to trust Gator, considering him a snitch, but reluctantly agrees to go along, and introduces Gator to runner Rebel Roy Boone, who’s got a hot babe named Lou eager for Gator to “try my shaky puddin'” (he does!).

Gator acts as a “blocker” for Boone, running interference with the law while the good ol’ boy makes his moonshine run. When Boone’s car is temporarily disabled by Dude, Gator is allowed to accompany him to Big Bear’s still, a large enterprise out in the hill country. The Sheriff gets word the Feds have sent a spy to nose around, Dude gets killed, Gator and Lou are captured by Big Bear, who’s in cahoots with Connors, and things begin to look bleak….

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That Reynolds charm is on fine display here, with his sly smile and that unmistakable laugh. Burt’s physical acting takes precedent over his dramatic skills, but hey, it’s an action flick! Besides, his charisma is more than enough to carry the film, even without his trademark 70’s ‘stache, that and all the car chase scenes, staged by stunt coordinator/2nd unit director Hal Needham, who’d later direct Burt in five films, including the SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT series.

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That Ford Galaxie’s not Burt’s only co-star here. Ned Beatty plays the coke-bottle-glasses wearing, pot-bellied villain of the piece, and he’s meaner and ornerier than Sheriff Buford T. Justice could ever hope to be. Jennifer Billingsley (Lou) is a sweet Southern potato, best remembered for her film debut in 1964’s LADY IN A CAGE. Matt Clark is funny and poignant as Dude, and Bo Hopkins is good as the jerk Rebel Roy. Perennial Western baddie R.G. Armstrong makes a nasty Big Bear, while Diane Ladd (billed with one D, for reasons unknown) elicits sympathy as Dude’s wife (her daughter Laura Dern appears unbilled as one of their kids). Director Joseph Sargent was a four-time Emmy winner who had his good days on the big screen (THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE) and not-so-good (JAWS THE REVENGE); this is one of his better efforts.

Every character in this film hates the system! Sheriff Connors hates the Commies infiltrating Washington, the moonshiners hate the IRS, and those damn long-haired, pot smoking hippies are always protesting. This is because screenwriter William W. Norton was a rebel in his own right; a card-carrying member of the Communist Party since the paranoid 50’s, Norton’s life is as interesting as the story. After a career in Hollywood, penning THE SCALPHUNTERS, I DISMEMBER MAMA, BIG BAD MAMA, and this film’s sequel GATOR, he moved to Ireland in the 1980’s and became a gunrunner for the INLA (Irish National Liberation Army), until he and his wife Eleanor were busted in France, and sentenced to prison. After doing his time, and learning a warrant was issued in America, he sought asylum in Nicaragua, where he killed a man who broke into his house. Then he moved to Cuba, but found living under a Communist regime was a lot different from just carrying a card, so he fled to Mexico, eventually being smuggled back into the USA by friends, where he lived out his life. He summed up how he felt about his film career to a nurse who asked him if she’d know any of his movies; Norton replied, “I don’t think your IQ is low enough”. His son William “B.W.L” Norton is still active in movies and television.

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Norton’s opinion aside, I thoroughly enjoyed WHITE LIGHTNING. It’s a fast-paced film filled with plenty of action, solid character actors, humor, and Burt Reynolds lighting up the screen as only Burt could. His movie output from ’73 til about the mid-80’s were all for the most part entertaining, and worth rediscovering if you only know him as the old guy from BOOGIE NIGHTS. I recommend you start right here with WHITE LIGHTNING.

Halloween Havoc!: DONOVAN’S BRAIN (United Artists 1953)

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No, this is not a movie about the mind of the 60’s Scottish folk singer responsible for “Sunshine Superman” and “Mellow Yellow”. DONOVAN’S BRAIN is a sci-fi/horror hybrid based on the 1942 novel by Curt Siodmak, responsible for THE WOLF MAN and other Universal monster hits. It was first made as a 1944  Republic Pictures effort titled THE LADY AND THE MONSTER with Erich Von Stroheim (why Universal didn’t buy the rights is a mystery to me). This is one of those rare cases where the remake is better than the original!

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The story concerns Dr. Pat Cory, a scientist experimenting with keeping the brain of a monkey alive without a body. After several failures, Cory and his assistant, alcoholic Dr. Frank Schratt, have finally succeeded. A nearby plane crash leaves three dead, and multi-millionaire Warren H. Donovan in critical condition. Donovan dies on the table, but his brain is still registering “alpha waves”, and Cory removes it from Donovan’s body, and miraculously keeps it alive!

Cory believes Donovan’s brain still contains all the man’s thoughts and knowledge, and tries to find a way to communicate with it. The brain waves begin to deviate as if it’s still thinking, and after a week it has grown, it’s impulses increasing. The doctor hooks the brain up to a radio set, hoping to receive transmission, and gets more than he bargained for when Donovan’s Brain begins to take over, returning the dead millionaire to life in Cory’s body, taking over his will and becoming the dominant force.

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Lew Ayres does a splendid job as Cory/Donovan in this sci-fi variation on the Jekyll/Hyde theme. Ayres is better known as another doctor, playing Dr. Kildare in a series of MGM films in the late 30’s/early 40’s. There’s no weird makeup or transformation scenes, yet Ayres is convincing playing two distinct parts. The actor was a conscientious objector during WWII, serving as a medic, and his career suffered in those fervent patriotic days because of his stance. Besides the Kildare movies, Ayres appeared in ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (Oscar winner of 1930), IRON MAN (not the superhero, a boxing film with Jean Harlow), STATE FAIR, JOHNNY BELINDA (Best Actor nominee), and THE DARK MIRROR, among many others.

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Nancy Davis is solid in the role of Cory’s faithful wife Jan. She gained a bit more fame when she became the wife of Ronald Reagan, and served as First Lady. Gene Evans (Schratt) was a burly favorite of director Sam Fuller, who cast him in five films. Steve Brodie plays a sleazy, blackmailing photo-journalist who naturally gets his comeuppance. Other Familiar Faces are John Hamilton (SUPERMAN’s‘s Perry White), Tom Powers, Shimen Ruskin, and Harland Warde. Felix Feist wrote and directed, keeping things tense, aided by Joseph Biroc’s photography.

Original novelist Curt Siodmak is well known to classic horror fans as writer of the screenplays for THE WOLF MAN, THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS , BLACK FRIDAY, FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN, I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE, and EARTH VS THE FLYING SAUCERS . The brother of noir director Robert Siodmak (THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE, THE KILLERS ), Curt also tried his hand in the director’s chair, though without the success of his brother. Curt helmed the goofy low-budgeter BRIDE OF THE GORILLA (featuring Lon Chaney Jr, Raymond Burr, and Barbara Payton) and the boringest sci-fi I’ve ever watched, THE MAGNETIC MONSTER. As a director, Curt was a great writer!

The novel itself was a best seller, and is referenced in numerous books, movies, and TV shows. No less than Stephen King is a fan, and so am I, having read it when I was a teen. DONOVAN’S BRAIN makes a gripping little film, worth your time to rediscover and enjoy.