Friday, August 26, 2011

BUDDY BUDDY (1981)


In 1966, Billy Wilder wrote and directed what was considered to be his last inarguably great movie, The Fortune Cookie. Notable for many things, particularly the first on-screen pairing of Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, a Golden Globe nod and an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for Matthau, nominations for the screenplay by Wilder and his long-time collaborator I.A.L. Diamond, as well as for Cinematography and Art Direction. It was a box office hit and solidified that Wilder was an unmitigated Hollywood maestro.

Four years later, after a series of stalled productions, Wilder wrote, produced and directed The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, meant to be an “event” picture it was butchered by United Artists and opened to critical applause but little financial success. Following that came a series of failures: Avanti! (1972), The Front Page (1974—surprisingly given the reteaming of Matthau and Lemmon) and Fedora, a movie whose tumultuous production almost forced Wilder into retirement.

After another three years, give or take, Wilder began to complain publically that he was being discriminated against in Hollywood, because of his age, because of his last few “failures”. Movie culture had changed underneath him. What used to be daring—the smoldering infidelity of Double Indemnity, promiscuity of Some Like It Hot and The Apartment—was now tame in the time of Taxi Driver, The Godfather, Jaws, Carnal Knowledge, The Graduate.

Then MGM acquired a quiet French black comedy from 1973, L'Emmerdeur, starring Lino Ventura and Belgian pop singer Jacques Brel. Screenwriter Francis Veber (Les Fugitifs, Le Chevre) adapted his play Le contrat specifically for Edouard Molinaro (La Cage aux Folles). A hitman named Milan who checks into a hotel to take out his next target, a witness for an upcoming trial. In the room next door is François Pignon, who keeps trying to kill himself now that his wife left has him. The resulting story is a comedy of misadventure as Milan is forced to deal with Pignon in one way or another to keep the sad sack from attracting unwanted attention.

In France, L’Emmerdeur was extremely successful (Veber himself would direct a remake in 2008), to the point that the Yiddish word “schlemiel” is translated as “François Pignon”. In the United States, L’Emmerdeur was released as A Pain in the A__, finding a decent-sized audiences in the Art Houses and on the emerging world of cable television (especially a young upstart channel called Home Box Office). MGM figured they had nothing to lose by remaking it for the casual, non-subtitle-reading American viewer, and to that end, they brought it to Billy Wilder.

Wilder, desperate to get back to work after a three-year black-out, leapt perhaps too quickly at the opportunity. He and Diamond hammered out the finished script in a matter of weeks and embarked on a whirlwind production. Later in life, Wilder would say, “If I were to meet all of my movies in a room, Buddy Buddy is the one I wouldn’t want to face.”

Buddy Buddy begins with a pair of murders—a mailman leaves a bomb in the box of one man and a milkman poisons the cowjuice of another. Both are the blank-faced Trabucco, who is working his way through the witnesses of a huge upcoming land fraud trial. Last on his list is mobster Rudy “Disco” Gambola, who has turned state’s evidence for the prosecution. “Hello Mr. Green?” he says, calling his bosses. “Oh, Mr. White... let me speak to Mr. Brown...” (Sound an eentcy bit familiar?)

Trabucco checks into a hotel room, begins to assemble his high-powered rifle when a loud noise comes from the room next door. Through the connecting passage, he finds Victor Clooney lying unconscious in his bathtub, around his neck a noose made from the curtain sash. Since Victor tried to hang himself from the shower pipe, water pours into the room and he’s now in more danger of drowning than strangling.

From there, Clooney continues to inadvertently make Trabucco’s life miserable. Mistaking the hitman’s insistence that Eddie the Bellboy not involve the police—“Can’t you see this man needs compassion? The warmth of human understanding?”—for genuine concern and the extended hand of friendship, Clooney bedevils the poor hitman to no end. Forced to assemble and disassemble his rifle more times than is necessary, Trabucco tries to first get incapacitate Clooney by tying him to a chair (“You’re making it very difficult for me to like you!”), then rid himself of Clooney entirely—thwarted by the sudden appearance of cops escorting a woman in labor to the hospital—then pawn him off at the same sex clinic where Clooney’s wife left him for the head therapist.

Each time, Clooney returns to wreak more havoc on Trabucco’s life and plans. This was his last job, of course; the one he could retire on. The one that could get him killed if he botched it. “This was gonna be it. Enough money to retire on because in this kind of work you don't qualify for social security.” An easy gig if he could just get this schlemiel of a François Pignon off his damned back! Along the way he grows to, well if not like Clooney per ce, at least begrudgingly tolerate him. This change in relationship lead to the movie’s best moments: those involving Matthau, Lemmon and their trademark back-and-forths.

Clooney: Have you ever been married, Mr. Trabucco?

Trabucco: Once but I got rid of her. Now I just lease. I once knew a guy, he had two heart-attacks. So they put in him a pace-maker. So his wife divorced him. She said it was interfering with the tv-reception.

Clooney: Are you from L.A.?

Trabucco: Not necessarily.

Even with the winning team of Matthau and Lemmon, and a bizarre supporting cast of Paula Prentiss, Klaus Kinski, future MacGyver co-star Dana Elcar and an early appearance from Ed Begley, Jr., Buddy Buddy never really gets up a full head of steam. Perhaps hewing a little too closely to the understated pacing of L’Emmerdeur, Wilder’s and Diamond’s manages a lot of chuckles but never the belly-laugh you’d expect from the team. The movie transitions from one scene to the other in fits and starts and only really comes into its own when Clooney is finally tired of the humiliation and becomes his own man, to defend Trabucco.

Trabucco: Do me a favor.

Clooney: Yes ?

Trabucco: Fuck off.

Cue screeching brakes and an entire audience suffering whiplash from severe brain disconnect. In the late ‘70s, such language was far from uncommon. The double-entendre had already been demoted to single and before too long, even Julie Andrews would pop her top (in Blake Edwards’ S.O.B.). But there was an oddness to hearing the word “fuck” come out of Walter Matthau. There’s also something unsettling watching Lemmon discuss orgasms and penis size with Prentiss and Kinski (heck, Kinski playing a man any woman would leave her husband for is unnerving enough). With one word, Wilder crashed into New Hollywood.

It wasn’t a new word for him. In fact, in his private life, he was known to enjoy using it. Probably even enacting it. I don’t like to think about that, though. Matthau was notoriously grumpy, acerbic, misanthropic. But he didn’t work blue—especially not with Lemmon. MGM saw a way to bring a tired workhorse in from the pasture for another go, thinking it would be a cheap way of getting a moderate hit on the screen.  In an attempt to “spice things up” for modern audiences, Wilder and Diamond failed to realize that along with new viewers, older Wilder fans still came to the movies to see a Wilder Movie. That had been his point all along. He wasn’t too old and he was still big, Norma Desmond big and you don’t get bigger than that.

Those unfamiliar or dismissive of Wilder may think me prudish right now but the trouble was, Wilder didn’t work blue because he didn’t have to. Wilder was an intellectual and thrived by confounding the censors. He hid the dirty stuff between the lines of dialogue, between fade downs and fade ups. It was akin to Groucho Marx exposing himself to an audience—it wasn’t beneath him; there was no need. Wilder and Diamond’s script worked too hard for the new viewers. They gave them what they wanted and you should never do that. Wilder always gave the audience something new, something they hadn’t known they’d wanted. That was the key to Billy’s brilliance. Desperation for work forced him to sell out in every sense of the word. He didn’t make the movie he wanted to see, but what he wanted to sell.

Buddy Buddy failed at the box office but did reasonably well on cable. The critics jumped up and down on it for many reasons, language not being among them. The disinterested pace, the uncomfortable characters. Matthau was criticized for not being Clint Eastwood, whom many felt would have been a better choice for Trabucco, a sentiment that was shared by both Wilder and Matthau. And like Trabucco, many found Clooney very difficult to like. For years, Klaus Kinski denied he was even in it! (Think about that—you’re in the room with Kinski, the movie is on TV and he’s just shaking his head. “But…but Klaus—that’s you! You’re right there! Look, see you on screen?”) At the time, it seemed like a sour note on which to end. For Wilder, it would be the last feature he’d direct.

With thirty years of hindsight, Buddy Buddy can be viewed as a slight, flawed, but still reasonably solid offering from Billy Wilder. It wasn’t The Fortune Cookie, but the nice thing was Billy never sold you the same thing twice. In fact, it’s fun to watch it back-to-back with L’Emmerdeur for both the similarities and the differences. They’re both low energy comedies with light chuckles, no guffaws. They’re even both sporadically available on DVD (although Buddy Buddy is currently only available on a Spanish import).

While it’s not the case, it could be easy to leave a discussion of Buddy Buddy on one exchange of dialogue. It’s tempting, but it’s only partially true, just like the sentiment behind it:

Clooney: Here I am, almost didn't make it.

Trabucco: Almost doesn't count.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

BUTCHER, BAKER, NIGHTMARE MAKER (aka NIGHT WARNING) (1980)



In 1982, Vipco, the UK distributors of Abel Ferrara’s 1979 sleaze classic Driller Killer, committed the apparently reprehensible act of advertising their new acquisition by buying full page ads in British movie magazines. To further identify their new release as Driller Killer, Vipco had the audacity to include in their ads the movie’s box art. By these very acts of savagery, the company destroyed a large chunk of the British people’s moral fabric. A large number of concerned citizens, despite few of their ranks having actually seen the movie, complained to the Advertising Standards Agency to protest the film’s release and, perhaps, its very existence. All of this was spawned by the promotional artwork: a special-effects shot of the title character and one of his victims, a power drill between the two and splashes of red around. Either a movie called Driller Killer should have fluffier promotional art, or is grossly insensitive to those who may have succumbed to drill killings, in either event, it was wrong in its sheer and utter wrongness.

Add to this a nice little old woman named Mary Whitehouse, head of The National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association, for whom moral outrage was her tea, biscuits and oxygen. An outspoken crusader against anything not wholesome and good in the British media, she was a watchdog who vigilantly harassed the BBC and, in particular, the BBC's Director General, Sir Hugh Greene. This made her a bit of a punching bag for satire shows, but that mattered not one whit to her. But then, another smartass distributor came along, this time with the brilliant idea of a publicity stunt. In order to promote the United Kingdom’s release of Cannibal Holocaust, Go Video wrote an anonymous letter to Whitehouse expressing their own outrage at this film’s release, nay, the film’s very exposure to light! Whitehouse responded as they’d hoped and decried the film, holding up the letter as proof that we’d all gone to hell and it was up to NVLA to save us all. What neither Go Video nor Vipco realized was that if you get enough busy-bodies riled up, someone will have to pay attention just to get them to shut up. And the morality police are always the fastest to mobilize, to prove that their civilization is good and decent and any outside contradiction is simply the motivations of minority freaks, sleaze-merchants, pimps and drug dealers.

Thus was born the Video Recordings act of 1984 and the rise of The Video Nasty. Under the authority of the British Board of Film Classification, and their enforcer the Director of Public Prosecutions (DDP), dozens of movies were yanks from the shelves of video stores and many were banned outright from classification, meaning that they would not be shown to anyone in the public, under any condition. And one of the movies that fell victim to this nationwide ban was Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker (also known as Night Warning), which dealt less with its gory killings and more with its intrinsic themes of sexuality of both the budding male and the repressed female, homophobia, reverse-Oedipalism, incest and the emotional results of a tragic loss early in one’s life. An exploitation film on the surface, it was nonetheless nominated for a Saturn Award for the Best Horror Movie of 1982 by the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror, but has never been seen in the UK. And thanks in part to that country’s suppression, it’s become a veritable lost film today.

When Billy Lynch (Jimmy McNichol) was three-years-old, his parents were killed in a horrible (and lengthy) car crash, leaving him in the care of his aunt Cheryl (Susan Tyrell). Now seventeen, Billy is about to graduate high school with the hope of going to college on a basketball scholarship. Aunt Cheryl, who displays an uncomfortable amount of barely-appropriate affection towards Billy, does not want to see him go. Playful kidding aside and familial reticence aside, she tells him point blank, “College is for rich kids and people with brains. You wouldn't fit in.”

Chalking it up more to “Oh, that Aunt Cheryl,” he dismisses it as one of her eccentricities, like her insistence on his drinking milk every morning and waking him up for school by pawing at his naked back and purring in his ear. Jimmy is just a wide-eyed dumb kid with a pretty photographer girlfriend, Julie (Julia Duffy soon to be of Newhart fame), and a coach that really believes in him. Things’ll all work out.

On the other hand, Aunt Cheryl is clearly a sexually repressed, regretful spinster and Billy’s imminent departure raises both her desperate libido and homicidal tendencies. In an attempt to seduce their television repairman, she gets dolled up in the best fashion she remembers. But Mr. Repairman Phil Brody (Caskey Swaim) refuses her attention. Enraged, Cheryl stabs the man to death in their kitchen, just as Billy returns home from school. Breaking down into hysteria, she insists that Brody tried to rape her and that the killing was in self-defense.

Police detective Joe Carlson (Bo Svenson) sees things otherwise. The way he has it figured, it was Billy on the handle-end of that knife, enraged at seeing his Aunt in a romantic tryst. Cheryl is only covering for Billy. It’s obvious that Billy, tall, thin, sensitive Billy, is one of those blood-crazed homosexuals. The more he digs, the more convinced he becomes because Coach Landers (Steve Eastin) is also gay, and that he’d been in a relationship with Brody! And if Brody was “one of those”, what interest would he have in raping a woman? That can only mean one thing: a homosexual love triangle. Doing his duty, he pressures Landers to resign to remove that unhealthy influence from the impressionable young men on the team who have to shower together yet keep eyes up.

Carlson, who isn’t above using a gun to intimidate a suspect into a confession, becomes obsessed with Billy and eradicating his vile gay ways. (Which levers more suspicion on Carlson, if you ask me.) Fortunately, his partner, Det. Cook (Britt Leach—you’d know him if you saw him), doesn’t believe the whole triangle, er, angle, and starts doing some digging on his own, against Carlson’s orders. When he discovers that the cause of the crash that killed Billy’s parents was tampered brake lines, Cook is told to forget all about. Go on vacation and keep your nose out of it! Which is darned good detective work, again if you ask me. Why go with facts when hunches are so much more the policeman’s trade?

With the police watching them, Aunt Cheryl is even more insistent that Billy stays with her. The day of the Big Game complete with a scout from Denver University, which could make or break Billy’s educational career, she makes sure that he drinks his milk beforehand. Once it’s been properly prepared with some special medication. Billy not only blows the game but collapses unconscious on the court. So back to Aunt Cheryl he goes. But not to school. “You don't want to go back, you've learned enough. Besides, it's full of perverts!”

Now, in addition to both Carlson and Cook nosing around into their lives, Julie decides that Aunt Cheryl is definitely not on the up-and-up and begins her own investigation. This, of course, leads to deflowering Billy and getting caught by Aunt Cheryl and a brand new psychotic hissy fit from her.

The next morning, Aunt Cheryl has chopped her flowing locks into a shorter hairstyle resembling that of a startled badger. All the better to show off her wild and crazy eyes. Which prompts Billy to join the separate investigations, hoping to uncover the truth about his parents’ death and the real source of Aunt Cheryl’s obsession, now spiked in the red on the Creepy Meter. The real dilemma for Billy is who does he protect himself from first: Aunt Cheryl or Det. Carlson?

While taking occasional dips into exploitation territory, Nightmare Maker / Night Warning is more a character-driven thriller than a horror film. The bulk of the gore is crammed into the final act when Aunt Cheryl is full-blown bananas, and even that is largely restrained, more shocking in its rage and intensity than for its spurting red. On the surface, we have a pair of incredibly unnerving villains, a shocking decapitation, a naked Julia Duffy and an early appearance by Bill Paxton (as the team bully, Eddie), so that should be more than enough to lure even the vaguely interested.

But the screenplay by Stephen F. Breimer and Alan Jay Glueckman and Boon Collins (the unequivocal genius between Abducted and Abducted II: The Reunion), really packs a lot of social and psychological commentary in what could have been a routine slasher flick. Obviously the writers had strong feelings about homophobia and abuse of authority because the character of Carlson is such an toxic force in the film, and Bo Svenson does a good job of keeping the cop a dimension ahead of what could have been characture. While the direction by veteran television William Asher (the inventor of the television sit-com with hits like Our Miss Brooks, I Love Lucy and Bewitched) is serviceable and he excels at keeping up the claustrophobic and near-unsanitary atmosphere, he pays particular care to the scenes between Billy and Aunt Cheryl. This could be because of his tempestuous relationship with his own abusive and alcoholic mother drawing him to the material. Regardless, the scenes between Tyrell and Lynch are squirm-inducing and play not like exploitation but with real incestual overtones.

Tyrell, it should be noted, is the undisputed star of the movie. McNichol is only okay and Duffy is plucky and likable, Tyrell effortlessly transforms Aunt Cheryl from a lonely, sympathetic lady at one moment to a frightening immovable force in another. Her descent into psychosis is gradual, but when she hits bottom, it’s believable due to the surprisingly subtle bits of business she employs at the beginning. The little Psycho moments with her and a mummified corpse in the basement are unnecessary. Aunt Cheryl is frightening because Tyrell brings her to life. She’s a real person who could live next door to just about anybody, caring for a kid who has no idea what a “real” relationship with a devoted relative is like. From his perspective, the constant touch of an aunt, her walking in on him while he showers, dresses, etc., is normal behavior.

So why would this movie get lumped in with the other video nasties? Likely it had nothing to do with the underlying content. The incestual nature is not explicit, nor is it acted upon, and in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, the homophobia would have been applauded. Perhaps the sexuality both on screen and smoldering beneath, combined with the schlocky violence and the demented adult themes were too many ingredients for the BBFC. The unpleasant stew was too difficult to shrug off as another splatter fest. That it remains effective even today should give you an idea of how it was received by a very staunch and proper government concerned with moral authority. For an outwardly-trashy horror flick, Nightmare Maker is rife with uncomfortable subtext. 

For a country that can be worked up over an advertisement, the entirety of Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker might have been just too much for them.




Monday, August 22, 2011

BRUTE FORCE (1947)



In 1948, Darryl F. Zanuck, president of 20th Century Fox, called Jules Dassin into his office. “Jules,” he may have said, since I wasn’t there. “You’ve been named in Congress as a Communist Sympathizer. You’ll never work in Hollywood again. But that won’t be for a while so you still have time to make another movie for us.”

Dassin finished filming Night and the City but landed on the blacklist after principal photography and was kicked off the studio, barred from editing the final cut, no input on the score, no say on even how the credits would look. He fled to Europe to find work, but American distributors refused to handle movies made by anyone on the blacklist. He didn’t work as a film director again until the French heist film Rififi, 1955.

Flashback to 1947. Dassin was still well-respected as a director and artist in the U.S. and Fox had just released his latest film, a blistering attack on the penal system starring Burt Lancaster and Hume Cronyn: Brute Force. Filmed during the adolescence of the Dies Act, also known as the House Un-American Committee. Congress was intent on rooting Communists out from under every bed and was coming down hard on Hollywood. Ten Men, The “Hollywood Ten”, refused to answer their “$64 Dollar Question” (“Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party of the United States”) and wound up with a one-year prison term.

With a script by Richard Brooks, story by Robert Patterson, there’s an argument to be made that Brute Force was Dassin’s judgment of HUAC. Set in the island-built Westgate Prison, Brute Force focuses on a battle of wills between the prisoners and the guards, headed by chief of security, Captain Munsey (Cronyn). Munsey is a small man with a sadistic streak that broadens as his power increases. He derives pleasure from manipulating the prisoners to inform on one another; even greater pleasure from lying to them or threatening them into betrayal. The men are crammed six-to-a-cell and spend their days working in the various shops or in “the drainpipe”, digging a sewer system from one end of the island to the other. Due to overcrowding, not every convict has a job—unemployment even in prison—and with nothing to do with their time, they focus on ugly thoughts.

The men of Cell R17 watch through their window as Joe Collins (Lancaster) is brought out of solitary on yet another rainy night. Munsey watches with satisfaction as Joe sneers at him. “Perhaps now you’ve learned not to carry a shiv, Joe. Or are you still maintaining that it was planted on you?”

In point of fact, it was planted on Joe, under Munsey’s coercion. And his fellow cons know who the culprit is. Their method of justice is to force him, using blowtorches, into a licence plate press.

The prison’s gutless Warden Barnes (Roman Bohnen) is under pressure to improve discipline, under penalty of losing his position. The murders and fights do not look good to the public eye. Munsey takes advantage of the warden’s predicament and sows further seeds of destruction, particularly amongst Joe Collins and his cellmates in R17.

A close-knit bunch, not quite a gang, have shared their stories of what they’re in for. In nearly every case, it involves a woman. Tom Lister (Whit Bissell), for instance, didn’t have the money to buy his wife a fur coat, the only thing she ever wanted. He enables this purchase by embezzling from his employers. “Soldier” (Howard Duff) has been in and out of prison since WWII, when he smuggled food to a resistence faction led by his wife. When she guns down an informant, he takes the rap. His quest to get back to her in Italy has been one stretch after another. Spencer (the terrific John Hoyt) has all sorts of stories, all of them involving dames, schemes and the wild life.

Joe’s wife (Ann Blyth) is an invalid. He turns to crime to finance her recovery. On his last job, he’s thrown in prison and she has no idea that he’s there. Now, according to his friend and attorney, she’s succumbing to cancer and refuses treatment until Joe returns. That ups the ante for Joe and he’s determined to escape.

Turning to a con named Gallagher (Charles Bickford) working for the prison newspaper, Joe tries to get the older man in on the scheme. In response, Gallagher turns to his star reporter, Louie. “Louie? The bust out still on?”

Louie: “Everything works, we go next Tuesday.”

Gallagher: “Next Tuesday. It’s been ‘next Tuesday’ for 12 years. Twelve years from now it’ll still be next Tuesday. They promised me my parole. When I go, I’m walking out of here.”

Lancaster (Collins) “Next Tuesday?”

Munsey ups the pressure on the warden using little tricks like lying to Lister that his wife is filing for divorce, prompting the man to hang himself. This paves the way to accuse one of the cellmates of murder. Which must go on official report, enraging the officials above. Privileges are revoked. The prison’s doctor, Walters, can see the strain on the prisoners, takes on that strain himself and tries to purge it with alcohol. As the only thing close to a conscience Munsey has, Walters is agast at the captain’s treatment of the convicts. “Kindness is a weakness,” Munsey says, smug smile and flared nostrils. “Weakness is an infection that will destroy us all.”

“I know in medicine that you don’t cure a sick man by making him sicker,” says the Doc. “In here, you’re returning a man into the world a worse criminal than he came in.”

Finally, with the prison about to blow, Gallagher’s discovers that all parole has been revoked “indefinitely”. He joins Joe and the men from R17 in a plot to escape. The prisoners begin scrounging for things they need: tools, Molotov cocktails, a revolver. The plan is to hijack one of the mining cars from the drainpipe and storm the guard tower. But there’s a traitor in R17 and Muncie learns about the plan at once. To get the details, he tries to beat info out of one of the prisoners, using a rubber hose and Wagner arias. Sheer brutality. The powderkeg finally blows in a firey and remarkably violent climax and a horrific end for R17’s Judas.

Whether or not Brute Force is an analogy for HUAC and the treatment of the Hollywood Ten is certainly open to debate. The parallels are undeniable. The sadistic Muncie in control and drunk with power (Senator Joe McCarthy), undermining a superior whose hands are tied with indecision (President Truman, arguably) and without the authority to over-ride the power he’s given Muncie’s actions (Congress). The prisoners with their code against betrayal and naming names (Hollywood and the rest of America), and six men crammed into a single cell for things they’ve done or might have done (The Hollywood Ten, some who were genuine communists, some who just attended meetings). The lone difference is that The Hollywood Ten didn’t have a Joe Collins. They definitely had a traitor in their midst (director Edward Dmytryk, again arguably) and Hollywood had plenty as well. As for Dr. Walters, he may well represent anyone in Hollywood or the Heartland who saw what was happening but was too afraid, too helpless, to powerless to speak up too loudly.

When Dassin finally returned to the United States, the blacklist had ended not with a speeding mine car and a wall of flame into which Joe McCarthy was hurled, but, among other acts of bravery, with Otto Preminger’s public announcement of his hiring Dalton Trumbo to write Exodus. There was no violent uprising from the American People, no growl of rage from Burt Lancaster. Hollywood just waited HUAC out, until Commie actors no longer seemed like a problem in the face of yet another looming war. In the end, it wasn’t Dalton Trumbo who brought an end to HUAC, but Dylan Thomas’ prescient words: “Not with a bang, but a whimper.”  


Sunday, August 21, 2011

THE FRONT (1976)



“They’re selling the Cold War, Howard. And they use the Blacklist for anyone who isn’t buying.”

“I have here in my hand a list of 205,” said Joseph McCarthy, the Junior Senator from Wisconcin. “A list of names that were made known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping policy in the State Department.” The day was Lincoln Day, February 9, 1950. Senator McCarthy was speaking to the Republican Women’s Club of Wheeling, WV. “The State Department is infested with Communists.”

By the end of the year, McCarthy had America convinced that there was a Communist under every bed. Every neighbor, even family members, could be covert Communist agents working to subvert the American way of life. Even if they’d done nothing more than marched in a Pro-Union parade or attended a single Socialist meeting as early as 1920, they were suspect. Commies wanted nothing more than to take down Capitalism, the Free Market, America. FDR’s “New Deal”, which helped get America’s poor and unemployed back on its feet, was the insidious plot that started it all, straight out of Karl Marx’s handbook.

And anyone who disagreed with the above was also, clearly, a Communist. That was why we had to hold the ideals of Soviet Russia, of Red China, with deep contempt. And there was no worse an agent of those countries and their twisted policies than Hollywood. Motion Pictures and television were battling each other for dominance in the ‘50s. And do you know why? It had nothing to do with entertainment. It had nothing to do with the new technology’s captivation of the American family. The two mediums were fighting each other to the top in order to establish the best position to pervert American minds. Hollywood was rife with Commies, Dupes, Sympathisers and Pinkos. Just look at all those Unions! What need did actors have of Unions except to subvert the American Free Market? The Reds were slipping their subliminal message into otherwise normal, decent motion pictures and television shows. These treasonous men and women had to be rooted out. They had to be stopped!

It was time to move forward with the greatest tool in the United States arsenal, the Dies Act of 1938, better-known as the House Un-American Committee or HUAC. It was time that Americans stand up and turn in anyone they might think was a Red, before Congress and they eyes of God. It had been effective in the past. In October 1947, the Committee had successfully subpoenaed hundreds of professionals in the entertainment industry and nailed many with the “$64 Dollar Question”: “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party of the United States.”

Being a member was not illegal. Not then, not before, not now. Still, the first victims, the ones who saw real jail time for “Contempt of Congress” by exercising their First Amendment rights and not answering such a question, came to be known as The Hollywood Ten and included such luminaries as Ring Lardner, Jr., Dalton Trumbo, Lester Cole and Edward Dmytyrk. Playright and screenwriter Berthold Brecht escaped prosecution by “naming names” of other former members of the Party. A few months after their conviction, Dmytyrk apologized as well, named names and saw his career recover. The rest remained silent and served the full year of their term, only to find every door slammed shut upon their release. The studios took HUAC seriously, refused to hire anyone “unfit”, though not officially. Officially, there was no blacklist. Congress had no right to tell anyone who they could or could not hire. But they could make suggestions. They could “suggest” that it might not be, for instance, in RKO’s best interest for Floyd Odium to remain the owner of the studio. It would be in better hands if Howard Hughes, industrialist and engineer, took over.

This continued throughout the ‘50s. Some professionals like Elia Kazan and Lee J. Cobb stepped right up, eager to co-operate with HUAC and named names like auctioneers. Kazan would even make a pro-snitching film, On the Waterfront (co-starring Cobb), which raked in the Academy Awards. Even those who initially stood up to the Committee, particularly Humphrey Bogart, who had formed of the Committee for the First Amendment with John Huston and Lauren Bacall, saw his own career and standing jeopardized and felt compelled to announce publically that he was in no way a Communist sympathizer in an article for Photoplay Magazine. Walt Disney, certainly no Union man, had already cofounded the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals (MPA), a political action group cofounded by Walt Disney, that declared prerogatives for a “real” American movie: "Don't smear the free-enterprise system ... Don't smear industrialists ... Don't smear wealth ... Don't smear the profit motive ... Don't deify the 'common man' ... Don't glorify the collective".

Screenwriters held the only ace when it came to the blacklist. While the studios saw through attempts to simply apply pseudonyms to their scripts, they found it useful to employ “fronts”—men and women, ostensibly (and preferably) non-writers who had no political blackmarks to their names, who could submit scripts for the blacklisted under their own identities. This allowed the writers to do what they did to make a living, namely writing. It wasn’t a safe solution—J. Edgar Hoover’s had FBI agents around every corner—but it was all they had.

In 1976, former blacklisted director Martin Ritt and writer Walter Bernstein sculpted a movie around this very scenario and called it, logically, The Front. A young Woody Allen plays Howard Prince, part-time bookie, part time diner cashier, full-time loser and deadbeat, is approached by his friend, a blacklisted writer named Alfred Miller (Michael Murphy, never better), to apply his clean name to Alfred’s scripts. Howard would get a commission of 10%— “I’d be paying an agent that anyway,” says Miller—to turn in the scripts and pose as the real writer to directors and producers. Out of the goodness of his heart and the emptiness of his wallet, Howard shows his loyalty to Miller and agrees.

Miller had previously worked for a weekly dramatic television series called Grand Central, narrated by famous funnyman Hecky Brown (Zero Mostel, blacklisted 1951). Producer Phil Susssman (Herschel Bernardi, blacklisted 1952) is happy to have good scripts pouring in again. Idealistic script editor Florence Barrett (Andrea Marcovicci) falls in love with Howard through his scripts, believing him to be the real author of such touching, dramatic, substantive stories. Howard takes advantage of her mistaken feelings, hoping to find an angle that will allow him to keep Miller’s secret and still have Florence. He does this, mostly, by avoiding any conversation regarding his process or his work. Which leads him into dangerous waters whenever a rush script-change is required. He can’t write, so what the hell is he supposed to do when Sussman has him virtually locked in an office?

Through Miller’s work, Howard’s star begins to rise, hobnobbing with industry stars, finally able to afford to pay back those he owes. He finds that being a famous writer really suits him. So he takes on a couple more “clients”, fronting for other blacklisted writers. Before long, he’s giving them notes. “I can’t turn this one in. I just didn’t feel it was ready. Hey, it’s my name going on these scripts. They’re expecting my best work.” With evasion his best defense, Howard’s greed starts to get to him further, wanting to front for even more. “I want good guys, Alfie. Just being blacklisted isn’t enough.”

Inevitably, the dishonesty catches up to him. Hecky Brown comes under investigation by the film’s version of the Grim Reaper, Mr. Hennessey of the “Freedom Information Services”. Even though he writes what he is “suggested” to write, to apologize for his activities in the Party—“there was this girl—with a big ass.”—he still winds up on the blacklist and Sussman is forced to let him go. “They’re taking the part in a new direction,” says Sussman. “Besides, you’re too big for the show. You should have your own show. Call me in a couple of weeks. We’ll, uh, we’ll have dinner and talk about it. I, uh, I already have something in mind that’d be great for you.”

Devastated by Hecky’s firing and Sussman’s caving in to what she sees as immoral government demands, she quits and asks Howard to help her publish a pamphlet speaking out against the blacklist. When Howard refuses, advising her to return to Sussman and beg for her job back, he shows his true colors and breaks her heart.

During their split, he accompanies Hecky to the Hamptons, where a former venue has agreed to hire him for a lounge show. Howard doesn’t realize that Hecky has been instructed to find out more about Howard for a chance to have his name removed from the list. “They” want to know who Howard’s friends are, where he goes, what he does in his personal life. 

“So,” Hecky says in the car along the way. “Where’d you go last weekend?”

“Oh, you know. Out. Here and there.”

“What do you do in your personal life?”

“You know, the usual.”

“The usual,” sighs Hecky. “I used to love the usual.”

But even these low-payng gigs aren’t what they used to be. The hotel manager and former friend stiffs Hecky for half of what he was offered and the comedian responds violently. “You’ll never work in this town again, you Commie sonofabitch!” Hecky hears as he’s dragged off of the manager and through the back door. The word has gotten around already that he was blacklisted. And being on the blacklist must mean that you’re a Communist, otherwise, why would you be on the blacklist? Not that there is a blacklist.

“All it takes is one man to stand up to these bastards,” Miller tells Howard. “One man to say that he’s not putting up with this. It’s illegal what they’re doing. It’s wrong.”

Eventually, HUAC comes for Howard. But all he has to do is play ball, read a prepared statement, and apologize for any wrongdoing. Then he’s in the clear. The night before his informal hearing, tragedy strikes, and Howard decides that maybe evasion isn’t enough of a tactic. He might not be that “one man” of Miller’s, but he’s all they had.

As subtle as HUAC itself, The Front is bitterly hilarious and really nails home the despair Congress left in its midst with its Red Scare. Like every domestic hysteria, HUAC was merely keeping the engine running with its campfire stories of the invisible enemy. It was something for the “little” people to focus on while corporate rights and interests were maintained and increased. It would justify the Korean War and give the military something to do. WWII was so last-decade. Screaming “Commie” would get the people to fall in line, vote for whoever would make them “feel safe”, namely those who served the best interest of Joe McCarthy, J. Edgar Hoover, Roy Cohn, etc. Those already in power. Before long, even those in power bought their own bullshit, because that’s what always happens.

Communists (terrorists, gay marriage, abortion, Al Qaida, whoever, whatever) will destroy our Great Nation. When the “little people” are fighting amongst themselves, they forget all about revolution.

While Woody Allen is fine as Howard—he gets the most satisfying and cheer-worthy line in the movie—it’s Zero Mostel who steals the movie. Hecky’s story mirrors that of comedian Philip Loeb, who committed suicide after losing his career to the blacklist and Mostel’s performance is bombastic and devastating.

Officially, the blacklist came to an end in 1960, when Otto Preminger announced publically that he’d hired Dalton Trumbo to write the screenplay for Exodus. Small victories over the years—Hitchcock’s hiring of Norman Lloyd as associate producer on Alfred Hitchcock Presents; Betty Hutton’s insistence of Jerry Fielding for musical director on her own self-titled CBS show—had chipped away at Congresses non-existent life-killer throughout the late ‘50s. But HUAC still had piles of bodies in its wake. Lee J. Cobb and Sterling Hayden were haunted until their deaths at their betrayal of friends and co-workers, while Kazan insisted until his death that he did the right thing and even won an honorary Academy Award for his overappreciated body of work.

But Miller had it right. It did only take one man to stand up, and then others followed. In real life, the “one man” could be considered to be Edward R. Murrow, the respected journalist who called HUAC on the carpet with an episode of his show See It Now titled "A Report on Senator Joseph R. McCarthy". But the “one man” may also have been John Henry Faulk, the host of a CBS radio comedy show, fired for his left leanings. He turned around and sued CBS for wrongful termination. While the case dragged on for years, it kept HUAC’s unconstitutional activity in the public eye. In 1962, Faulk won his suit and the decision meant that those behind the blacklist were legally liable for all professional and financial damages to those they had harmed. Suddenly, the “real Americans” were the ones crying, that they’d been “duped” by Congress. But there was little mercy for the “Congressional Sympathizers.”

Thirteen years of government running roughshod over the country before the people had had enough. Before allowing it to happen again, with the Viet Nam War. And again with Iran/Contra Scandal. And again. And again.

Who will be our “one man” today? Matt Damon? Right now, he’s all we have.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

BREAKOUT (1975)



In August, 1971, a helicopter touched down inside the yard of Mexico City's Santa Maria Acatitla prison for just ten seconds. It took off with two men: Carlos Antonio Contreras Castro, a counterfeiter from Venezuela, and Joel David Kaplan, a 44-year-old businessman from New York. Kaplan, a former courier for Fidel Castro and the nephew of molasses baron, Jacob M. Kaplan, had been convicted of the murder of his business partner, Louis Vidal, Jr., in 1962. Despite serious doubts that the body found was that of Vidal’s, despite Vidal’s association with drug dealers and gunsmugglers, who, Kaplan insisted, had orchestrated an elaborate plot to fake his own death and disappear, Kaplan was sentenced to 28 years in the Mexican prison. (Time Magazine)

With his uncle’s J.M. Kaplan Fund under a 1964 congressional investigation under suspicion of acting as a money laundering conduit between Latin America and the CIA, the younger Kaplan had very few people to turn to in either country. Were it not for his sister, Judith Kaplan Dowis, and a rock star lawyer from San Francisco named Vasilios Basil Choulos, Kaplan may very well have died inside the prison. Instead, Choulos enlisted the help of pilot Roger Hershner, who painted a bell helicopter to look like that of Mexico’s attorney general’s. One hundred-and-thirty-six guards were interrogated for complicity but no inside man had been employed. In point of fact, nearly the entire population of the prison, employees and convicts alike, had been inside watching the first recreational movie shown in more than two years. Attorney General Julio Sanchez Vargas resigned in disgrace.

Once in the U.S., Kaplan was granted immunity—Choulos told the Mexican government that his client was a CIA operative, though that really didn’t satisfy anyone and was unlikely to be true anyway. Kaplan, Choulos and Hershner sat down with writers Warren Hinckle, William Turner and Eliot Asinof and the sextet released a book, The Ten-Second Jailbreak: The Helicopter Escape Of Joel David Kaplan. The book was excerpted in Playboy and immediately optioned by Hollywood producers Robert Chartoff and Irwin “I love disaster!” Winkler, to be directed by Mike Ritchie and to star Kris Kristoferson.

The story was eventually filmed and released in 1975 as Breakout, directed by Tom Gries and starring Charles Bronson, Robert Duvall, Jill Ireland, Sherree North, Randy Quaid, Paul Mantee, John Huston and Emilio “El Indio” Fernadez. The bizarre and exciting story of both Kaplan and Choulos and the ten-second rescue had been boiled down to the finest of all formulas, released with the taglines, “Sentenced to 28 years in prison for a crime he never committed. Only two things can get him out—a lot of money and Charles Bronson!” and more confusing, “No prison can hold…Charles Bronson!”

If you take the facts into consideration, which one should never do apparently, Bronson plays neither Choulos nor Hershner, but an amalgam named Nick Colton, a border country bush pilot and occasional con-artist. He owns a Cessna and a fishery in a partnership with Randy Quaid (as ‘Hawkins’) and is approached one hot afternoon by Ann Wagner, wife of wrongly-imprisoned Jay Wagner. She employs Colton to fly her into Mexico but doesn’t tell him why. She does pay his price, “Twelve hundred…and thirty-nine dollars. And fifty-two cents.”

In Breakout’s scenario, Jay is the grandson of a fruit magnate with CIA ties played by John Huston, turning in his usual solid worn-out criminal mastermind character. Harris Wagner makes some vague reference to Jay’s free-spiritedness proving to be a detriment to both the company’s stockholders and the interest of the Central Intelligence Agency, and therefore has a slick lawyerly-looking op named Cable (Paul Mantee) to frame Jay for a random murder. Despite Jay being in Chile and the murder taking place in Mexico, holds no sway over the judge, who pronounces swift and lengthy sentence.

Jay’s first attempt at escape goes badly. After paying some trustees to smuggle him out in a sealed coffin, laying bent-backed on top of the box’s other occupant. Because the warden and General is played by “El Indio”—better known to audiences as the ruthless Mapache in The Wild Bunch—he lets the prisoners simply bury Jay alive for a while. Jay then falls prey to choppy editing because the next time we see him, he’s back inside the prison looking only slightly worse for wear.

Colton and Ann have barely touched down near the prison when they come under fire and are forced to leave a running Jay behind. Presumably, Colton yells at Ann the entire way back to his airfield, because he emerges with a sentence starting with “And—!” But Ann sweetens the deal with some more money, getting Colton to thinking, which also doesn’t turn out well. Attempting to use Myrna (North), an old girlfriend and current worn-down wife of the Deputy Sheriff, as misdirection for the horny guards, she refuses and he’s forced to put Hawk in drag instead. “With enough make-up, anyone can look like a whore,” says Myrna philosophically. Except, of course, for Randy Quaid, who makes a less-convincing female than Bugs Bunny. He’s beaten up by the guards (taking an extremely painful and realistic blow to the head from a rifle butt) and thus the situation becomes, for Colton, personal. Even though it wasn’t his ass thoroughly kicked.

Meanwhile, Jay’s health is deteriorating inside the cell and unbeknownst to him (but not us, since we saw the violent and Peckinpah-ish slow-mo opening) his new cellmate is the actual triggerman in Jay’s frame-up, forced at gunpoint to shoot who seems to be someone quite close to him. Either that or Sosa (Jorge Moreno) bawls at the drop of a bullet. How unmanly. Jay’s unhappy at being incarcerated, he takes it out on Ann during one of their conjugal visits, which becomes extremely non-conjugal, lessening our sympathy for him a bit, but because Jill Ireland plays the rape scene with the same distracted indifference that she uses throughout the film, it isn’t really that affecting.

Eventually, Colton gets around to taking some helicopter piloting lessons but proves to be terrible—until it counts, of course. By the third act, his convoluted-yet-simplistic escape plan involves a still-broken Hawk, Myrna (“Keep poppin’ up to ‘borrow’ my wife? She ain’t a lawnmower!” exclaims Deputy/Hubby Spencer) and his soon-to-be-married flight instructor. As we know from the real-life story, Colton successfully liberates Jay, but since this is a Bronson movie and he hasn’t gotten to punch anyone for over an hour, the suspense is continued at the customs department in Mexico City, where everyone finally confronts the slick, sleazy CIA fellow.

I don’t mean to be harsh towards Breakout in pointing out its silly beats. The movie is actually extremely watchable and a good deal of fun. Jill “Mrs. Bronson” Ireland is a real drawback, with her dull accent, glassy eyes and implausible wigs. Duvall is mostly wasted, spending his time in the dark or in hospital beds, leaving one with the suspicion that most of his story was left on the cutting room floor in favor of more Bronson. Huston’s two scenes with Mantee seem to be from a different movie and he pretty much vanishes by Act II.

So what we’re left with is a surprisingly-relaxed and easy-going Bronson. In his fifties by this point, his squinty eyes and weathered skin makes his face resemble a catcher’s mitt, but he’s obviously having a good time playing the gutsy make-it-up-as-he-goes hero. Breakout must have been a relief for him after playing all of his famed anti-hero roles in The Mechanic, Mr. Majestyk and Death Wish. Gries direction is almost absent, but there is some magnificent photography courtesy of DP Lucien Ballard and 2nd Unit Director Bob Bender, including a real hero shot of the rescue’s commencement featuring Colton’s convertible, the Cessna and the helicopter all framed against the desert backdrop. North and Quaid are both solid—North’s trampy character and yen for Colton are real low comedy highlights—and both the escape and the climax are tense and well-staged.

There’s even a surprising death for one villain where we see his entire body shredded by a plane propeller, rivaling Hungry Joe’s death in Catch-22. It’s an obvious effect today, as many IMDb reviewers point out, but in the ‘70s it had to have been quite shocking. Hell, it still packs a jolt at the moment.

But the film’s loss is not including the real-life hero Vasilios “Bill” Choulos. A fascinating character in and of himself, Choulos made a name for himself in San Francisco as a crusader for the common man in fhe face of government, corporations and industry. One of the first attorneys to ever file a lawsuit against the tobacco industry, a man who traveled all over the world to represent the families of pilots killed in crashes of the faulty F-104 Starfighter “widow maker” jets, he also represented members of Sonny Barger’s Hell’s Angels in a high profile murder case and served on the defense team for Jack Ruby. His clients included Lenny Bruce, Timothy Leary and Abby Hoffman and was one of the few men to correspond directly with the Zodiac Killer. He opened his home to his counter-culture clients and over time it became a kind of artist community.

In his obituary in the SF Chronicle in 2003, his partner, Claude Wyle, said of Choulos, “A lot of the work he did in products liability paved the way for lawyers in this country today. He was a brilliant negotiator whose brutal honesty could get under people's skin, but somehow also endeared him to others. Anything that's timely today, he's already done it, and he was probably the first to do it.” (Peter Fimrite, Chronicle Staff Writer)

Honestly, it might not have been too much of a stretch to turn Bronson into this brilliant crime-fighting legal mind. He certainly demonstraits in Breakout that he possessed a rarely-employed mischievous sense of humor. Rather than the down-and-out everyman tough guy that he delivered time and time again, the movie really could have benefited for another touch or two of the outrageous to throw off the beats and numbers just a little. But that’s just hindsight. You want Bronson, in Breakout you get Bronson, albeit just a little more relaxed and less murdery.

Friday, August 19, 2011

THE GIRL HUNTERS (1962)



There’s little poetry in a Mike Hammer novel. Creator Frank Morrison “Mickey” Spillane never allowed it in; for in with it may come sentimentality and that didn’t fit in Spillane’s world-view. The world was a hard, sharp-edged thing that both slices and bludgeons. It’s a Burmese tiger-trap. It’s a beach in Guadalcanal, “[T]here in the muck and the slime of the jungle, there in the stink that hung over the beaches rising from the bodies of the dead”. What poetry that does exist has the same flint edge. Take this from the same passage in One Lonely Night: “…there in the half-light of too many dusks and dawns laced together with the crosscrossed patterns of bullets, I had gotten a taste of death and found it palatable to the extent that I could never again eat the fruits of a normal civilization.”

Hammer is far and away removed from Chandler’s knight-errant or Hammett’s cynical but upright detective. He’s an embittered, battered ex-soldier with wide streaks of racism, misogyny and extreme rage, which he acts out with either his hard-man’s fists or his .45 “Betsy”. His only guidance through this corpse-stench world is his own sense of justice, which can be summed up but the title of his debut, I, The Jury. He hides no secrets, doesn’t ask for understanding, knows that he can only trust his secretary and long-time fiancée, Velda. He has one friend in the police force he left behind, Pat Chambers, and even that relationship is tenuous.

Portrayed on screens both big and small (though doing much better on television) by Biff Elliot, Stacy Keach, Darren McGavin (in a popular show TV Guide itself called “the worst thing on TV”), Ralph Meeker and Armand Assante, perhaps only one man could ever really do the character justice. For Spillane, it was the man upon whom he based the character, a Newburgh, NY, police officer and fellow vet of the pacific theater, Jack Stang.

While Stang had appeared with Spillane in the 1954 thriller Ring of Fear and had even filmed a screen test for a version of Kiss Me Deadly, his turn as Hammer was never meant to be. So for The Girl Hunters, Spillane turned to a logical second-choice, himself. In one of the only occasions where the writer played his creation in a film, as the credits announce with bold intensity: “Mike Hammer IS Mickey Spillane.”

Spillane is completely appropriate to play the mean-willed side-of-beef with a carry permit. Looking like a particularly weary William Bendix when we first meet him, lying face-down, drunk in the gutter. Seems Hammer has been on a seven-year bender after the apparent death of his beloved Velda. He blames himself and so does Pat Chambers, who fishes him out of the drain to beat him up some more. Pat stops short of killing Mike because a fatally-wounded dock worker named Cole is asking for Hammer specifically. The slug they dug out of Cole matches the gun that was used to murder a senator years ago.

Dying in an oxygen tent, Ritchie Cole reveals that his killer was a top-level Soviet assassin nicknamed “the Dragon”. “Tooth and nail,” Ritchie says. Then reveals the Dragon’s next target: Velda. She’s still alive and Hammer is her only hope to remain so.

Seven-year drunk, nothin’—Hammer’s sober as a judge in seconds, hot on the Dragon’s trail. “Dragon’s have teeth and nails. Now I’m St. George.”

Pat wants nothing to do with his old friend, but the heat comes on from a fed named Rickerby, who tells Mike that Cole was a field agent. The fed can get Hammer anything he needs, so long as he leaves the Dragon alive for Rickerby.

Mike starts at what he thinks might be the beginning, at the dead senator’s mansion. There he meets the no-longer grieving widow, Laura Knapp (Goldfinger’s Shirley Eaton), sunbathing in her pool. The details of her husband’s murder don’t add up. It was staged to look like a robbery, but all that was taken were piles of paste jewelry. Senator Knapp had moved all of his secret papers to a safety deposit box the previous week.

The always-bikini-clad Laura comes on strong, eager to help Hammer in solving her husband’s murder, to help him find “that girl” he’s looking for. If Velda was just some girl, he wouldn’t be looking so hard. But seven years is a long time and with Laura’s bikinis come smoldering glances and thick eyelashes. For the next two acts, Mike runs back and forth across the city, into seedy bars and ritzy estates. Occasionally, he runs into television star Hy Gardner, playing himself, and the two go off for an investigation. Nearly every scene ends with a threat, a sap to the head or a stitch of bullets across the wall. But each scene also brings Mike closer to The Dragon. And Velda.

Spillane was never one for subtlety in his writing and that carries over into his acting. Though he is surprisingly (or not) good as Mike Hammer, his characterization is a lot like the detective’s surname. He’s blunt, he’s hard and he packs a wallop. His Hammer isn’t the narcissistic psychotic Robert Aldritch turned Ralph Meeker into in Kiss Me Deadly, but he’s hardly a soft-touch, though he does let his grief over Velda out in both small and large ways. Sometimes it’s a sad look, but more often it’s a fist to the furniture. But you don’t doubt Spillane’s Hammer. When he’s threatened in a skuzzy bar by a Cuban pimp with an ice-pick, Mike/Mickey stares at the man hard, then rolls a bullet down the length of the bar. Sliding a hand inside his jacket, his eyes never leave the pimp’s. “Eat it,” he orders. Choosing his life over his reputation, the pimp leaves the icepick imbedded in the bar and swallows the bullet. There is no misunderstanding in that scene. Maybe Hammer started out as a drunk and a punching bag at the beginning but make no mistake, if you’re in his way or even mildly annoying him, he’ll kill you, with his bare hands, and he will not be sobbing in church come Sunday.

Hammer talks plain too. He notices that Laura has a shotgun shoved barrel-down in a flowerpot inside the door, so he tells her exactly what would happen if she tried to fire that blocked barrel. “Won’t be nothin’ left above the neck. The coronor’ll be picking bits of skull out of that wall with a pair of needle-nosed pliers.” After cleaning the clay out of the gun, he hands it back to her and leaves. Laura responds with a firey glance, lowering the barrel out of frame as the camera dollies into the most suggestive scene in the film. And you just know that blocked barrel is going to come back into play.

The Girl Hunters also contains one of the most brutal fights ever staged. Hammer catches up to a bad guy and the two of them beat the living hell out of each other in a tool-laden basement. A buzz saw goes on, but there’s no false suspense involving the spinning blade. It’s just there to make noise and drown out the punching. In the end, both men are bleeding and exhausted, panting and unable to throw or take another punch. Hammer leaves the man on the ground and, for just a second, considers burying an axe in the man’s chest, even toeing open his ripped shirt for a better target. But instead, he keeps the man alive for later. Without a rope to secure the villain, he makes due with a mallet and a long iron spike, nailing the man’s hand to the floor. This isn’t the way Mike Hammer “rolls”; it’s how he looks at life. He may live in the gray, but he sees it as black and white. What does a guy have to do so he can move forward? Does he go over, around or, more often, through? Ironically, after he finally reaches his goal, his Velda, she’s only seen from the back, unconscious. His denoument is with Laura Knapp, not with his gal, not with Pat. In this case, Velda is Mike’s Maltese Falcon, she’s the stuff his dreams are made of. Rather than to cynically assume that her part was cut due to budget or time, it might make the world a better place to think that she’s someone private for Mike. We get to see the rough and the brutal, but not the man that Velda loves.

After The Girl Hunters, Mickey went on and Mike Hammer went on, sometimes together, sometimes separately, but never again would they be one and the same on the screen. Spillane popped up in guest star appearances on television; Mike Hammer went on to other adventures in filmmaking. Spillane wrote Mike until he died, then Max Allan Collins helped pick up the pieces where Mickey left off, most recently with a novel entitled The Goliath Bone, in which Hammer goes up against the Taliban. And he still hasn’t married Velda.

Monday, August 15, 2011

DR. COOK’S GARDEN (1971)


By many accounts, Bing Crosby was a bit of a prick. According to half his kids, he was an abusive father, both physically and emotionally; to the other half, he was an adoring father and the living embodiment of Father Chuck O’Malley, his iconic character from Going My Way and The Belles of Saint Mary’s. A recovered alcoholic, devout pot enthusiast, former part-owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates, Crosby had many facets beyond crooner and “that guy in those road movies with that other guy”. Depending on who you talk to, or which ever-reliable Internet source you visit, Crosby’s last performance was either as himself in That’s Entertainment in 1974 or a brief and uncredited cameo in the Bob Hope vehicle, Cancel My Reservation in 1972. But do some original research and you’ll uncover the news that his last major role in a feature film was in a TV-movie in 1971, Dr. Cook’s Garden.

The movie was an adaptation of a disastrous Ira Levin (Rosemary’s Baby) Broadway play, directed by George C. Scott and starring Burl Ives. Seen as superficial, standard and convoluted without being interesting, the show closed after less than a week. Fingers were pointed. People fought. Lives and civilizations were ruined.

Of course, ABC thought it would make a terrific movie. Adapted by Art Wallace and directed by Ted Post, Dr. Cook’s Garden was tailored for the eternal, fatherly Crosby. The titular Dr. Leonard Cook is a kindly doctor in small-town Greenfield, an idyllic paradise that he had a hand in creating. Everyone is happy, healthy, free of crime, litter, hooligans, any and all minorities… The good doctor loves his patients, his town and, especially, his beautiful garden, right outside of his home office, which he tends to lovingly every day.

Hometown boy Dr. Jimmy Tennyson (Frank Converse) returns and becomes Dr. Cook’s assistant. After about nine minutes in his mentor’s presence he begins to notice something peculiar. Some—not all, mind you—of Dr. Cook’s patients start to, well, die. Of little things like colds and dandruff. But all of these former patients are the usual horrible little monsters of small townery: the alcolholics, the abusive husbands, guys with bad tempers who kick dogs (really). So when they die, the rest of the town goes “Enh” and returns to their normal activities of porch-sitting.

So it would seem that the good doctor is playing god (which brings to mind Dr. Hfuhruhurr in The Man With Two Brains, when he replied, “Somebody has to!”) But, like all men of conscience, Tennyson can’t abide by such a breach of the Hippocratic Oath, no matter how mildly-annoying these dead people are. Increasing his tension is the fact that his girlfriend, Janey, is played by Blythe Danner, and that can’t be healthy for anyone.

Originally broadcast as an ABC Movie of the Week in 1971, Dr. Cook’s Garden has been seen only rarely since. It wasn’t rebroadcast after its initial airing and it was many years before it showed up on late-night cable. It’s also mysteriously absent from Bing’s Wikipedia page and numerous biographies. Which is odd. Despite the turgid pace (particularly for a movie lasting barely over an hour) and one of the most beloved actors appearing as a serial killer, there’s little offensive about the movie. Quite the opposite, as the central message is quite intriguing.

What horrifies Jimmy is the central moral argument. Unlike the late Dr. Jack Kevorkian, Bing’s Dr. Cook isn’t helping his patients to die so much as choosing who gets to live. As he sees it, it’s his moral duty to the potential utopia of the town. His decisions of who to “put to sleep” are never rash, but are considered with great care. Where Jimmy disconnects is at the idea of how far will Dr. Cook go to keep Greenfield so idyllic. What if the kindly madman decides that litterbugs are the next line of offense? Or people who speak loudly at the movies? (Which, of course, most people would support 100%, but that’s hardly a moral choice as much as justifiable homicide.) 



It’s this central theme that over-rides Post’s sluggish directing. There’s zero suspense nor even the attempt of casting doubt’s shadow over Dr. Cook’s complicity in the sudden deaths. After Cook suffers a brief cardiac episode minutes following the opening credits, anyone who has ever seen a movie before will anticipate the ending. It all leads up to the young doctor placed in his mentor’s position. 

Predictable, sure, but still effective as far as discussion topics go. In the end, it’s the film’s rarity, the bizarro casting, and an excellent glimpse into Crosby’s dark side that make this movie worth hunting down.

Good luck with that. (Okay, the whole darned thing is on YouTube.)

For an even better analysis of Dr. Cook’s Garden, may I refer you to Amanda Reyes’ excellent essay here.