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What I’ve Been Watching:  Sssssss (1973).

Who’s Responsible:  Bernard L. Kowalski (director); Hal Dresner, Dan Striepeke (screenwriters); Strother Martin, Dirk Benedict, Heather Menzies (stars).

Why I Watched It:  Slavish devotion to the genre.

Seen It Before?  Yes.

Likelihood of Seeing It Again (1-10):  6.

Likelihood the Guys Will Rib Me for Watching It (1-10):  3.

Totally Subjective BOF Rating (1-10):  5.

And?  I disliked this when I saw it as kid (although I was surprised not to find one of my trademark 3″ x 5″ index cards documenting that; maybe I didn’t see it all the way through, and thus had to disqualify it), primarily because it’s such a downer, or perhaps I should say “a wrist-ssssssslitter.”  Cutting to the chase, it’s about a guy who gets turned into a snake.  I misremembered—on several counts—that it ended with a shock reveal of said snake-guy on display in a carnival sideshow, a shot that I’m still convinced was a deliberate homage to the notorious “human duck” (Olga Baclanova) at the close of Tod Browning’s twisted classic, Freaks (1932)…but it’s neither the ending nor the poor protagonist, David Blake.

It’s probably more accurate to say that I’d assumed, rather than misremembered, it to be a bargain-basement production, especially coming from Kowalski, the director of Night of the Blood Beast (1958) and Attack of the Giant Leeches (1959), who worked primarily in television and helmed the notorious bomb Krakatoa: East [sic] of Java (1968).  So it was with some surprise that I discovered it was from a major studio, Universal, and the famed Zanuck/Brown production team that, incredibly, made The Sting the same year, and went back to zoological terror with Jaws (1975).  Accordingly, it has a polished look that I was not expecting, photographed by a serial Emmy Award nominee, Gerald Perry Finnerman.

Sssssssupremely sssssssilly and sssssssorta sssssssadistic, it’s from a long line of movies in which mad scientists try to hybridize humans with other species, thus enabling ours to survive a looming threat.  In this case, ophiologist Dr. Carl Stoner (Martin) theorizes that becoming literally cold-blooded will see us through once we’ve squandered all of those increasingly scarce fossil fuels, and endeavors to prove his point with David (Benedict).  Yet while rigorously conventional in that way, the film is unique in another, marking the sole effort as writer (sharing credit with Hal Dresner) or producer of makeup artist Dan Striepeke, an Oscar nominee for Forrest Gump (1994) and Saving Private Ryan (1998).

We open as Stoner helps Kogen (Tim O’Connor) load his truck with a coffin-sized crate containing…something alive that he has just sold to the sideshow proprietor.  On a visit to the nearby college, Stoner asks pompous colleague Dr. Ken Daniels (Richard B. Shull) to extend his research grant, but it doesn’t sound very promising because he’s, y’know, a mad scientist, and their ideas rarely go down well with academia.  He also mentions that his last assistant, Tim McGraw…left rather abruptly—an illness in the family, I believe—and could he please have another, so Daniels sends him home with David, who’s hunky and amiable enough to attract the attention of Stoner’s daughter/assistant, Kristina (Menzies).

David’s not overly endowed with intelligence, though, so he’s naively acquiescent as the doc starts pumping him full of injections that give him strange dreams, and purport to be precautionary antivenom.  The Stoners, y’see, eke out a living selling venom milked from their extensive snake collection, augmented with paltry donations from local yokels who come and watch the doc risk his life dancing around with a king cobra, although probably more in the ghoulish hope of seeing him fatally bitten than for entertainment value alone.  Speaking of which, visiting the carny, David sees the, um, extremely realistic Snake Man (Nobel [sic] Craig), and you’d have to be dumber than he is not to suss that it’s McGraw.

Surprisingly, that makeup is credited not to Striepeke (who worked on four Planet of the Apes films and the TV series)—although he reportedly had an uncredited hand in it—but to the maestro himself, John Chambers, and Nick Marcellino.  Unsurprisingly, it’s really, really good, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who recalls that image more than anything else in the film, which as we’ll see is a double-edged sword.  Anyway, re-enter classmate Steve Randall (Reb Brown, TV’s pilloried Captain America), whom we’ve seen bullying David at the school and coming on to Kristina at the carnival; climbing uninvited into her window one night, he is surprised by, and breaks the neck of, one of their beloved snakes.

Although that probably violated any number of statutes, Stoner favors private justice, so he slips a black mamba into Steve’s shower.  When Daniels visits soon after, he brings two pieces of news:  the refusal of Stoner’s grant request (shocker), and the death of football star Steve from a “heart attack”; curiosity piqued by the doc’s reaction, or lack thereof, he starts to snoop around, which amounts to signing your own death warrant in such movies.  Sure enough, just after getting a glimpse of David—who’s turning progressively greener and scalier—through a window, he’s clonked on the head, awakening in the cellar where he quickly falls victim to a python, last seen as a shoe protruding from the snake’s maw.

Mindful of the fact that even Kristina might notice David’s new emerald complexion, and concerned about the ramifications of their growing attraction, Stoner has sent her off on a wild snake chase to pick up a nonexistent delivery.  She then just happens to learn of the, um, extremely realistic Snake Man and, upon sneaking into the carny after hours to check it out, is horrified to find Tim.  Meanwhile, once David has completed his transformation into an actual snake—which, alas, is a lot less visually or dramatically interesting than the Snake Man—Stoner commands “an audience” with the cobra, informing the ex-king that he has been dethroned by a new species with the body of a snake and the mind of a man.

Evidently “his majesty” doesn’t take the news well, because he bites Stoner to death, and it’s unclear whether the doc became inexplicably suicidal, or his luck finally just ran out.  Just then, Kristina comes home, and although she might reasonably be miffed at Dad for turning Tim into the consummate sideshow freak, she’s not happy to see him lying there dead, and even less so when the cobra menaces her.  A sharpshooting cop’s timely arrival ends that threat, but worse waits inside, where a frantic mongoose (which they evidently kept around just as a precaution) suddenly manages to escape from his cage and goes for the throat of her ex-boyfriend; we end with a freeze-frame on Kristina’s screaming face.

What a happy story, and admittedly unusual in that respect, although in a way, the ending is (as AllMovie critic Donald Guarisco called it) “anticlimactic” after the amazing Snake-Man scenes.  Okay, I know he’s a mad scientist, but even with that in mind, it’s difficult to understand Stoner’s plan; even with human brains, how would our reptilian successors inherit the Earth, lacking both the power of speech and opposable thumbs…or opposable anything else, for that matter?  Or are they just supposed to go back to nature?  And how, in the short term, did he think he could keep all of that a secret?  These gaping plot holes, and the casualness with which David is subjected to such horror, didn’t endear this to me.

Frequently cast with offscreen pal L.Q. Jones, and perhaps best known for his “failure to communicate” line from Cool Hand Luke (1967), character actor Ssssssstrother Martin is probably worthy of a post in his own right.  His films include such BOF favorites as Kiss Me Deadly (1955), The Wild Bunch (1969), and—speaking of “Stoners”—Up in Smoke (1978).  Tellingly, I associate the supporting players most readily with genre TV series:  Benedict was Starbuck on Battlestar Galactica, Menzies essayed Jessica on the ill-fated Logan’s Run, Shull partnered with android cop John Schuck on Holmes and Yo-Yo, and O’Connor showed his benevolent side as Dr. Huer on Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.

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Road Movies

The Internet Movie Database lists several Connecticut locations for the 2007 film Reservation Road, including my hometown of Easton.

The Internet Movie Database lists several Connecticut locations for the 2008 film Revolutionary Road, including my hometown of Easton.

Seriously, what are the odds…?

Having heard for a decade that they’d shut down traffic on the Black Rock Turnpike (that’s Route 58 for you out-of-towners) to shoot a scene for some movie near the Bluebird Garage—where my Mom still has her cars serviced to this very day—I was naturally eager to see this little slice of local history, and thought I recalled that it was supposed to be some horrific accident near the start of the film.

So when I saw Revolutionary Road scheduled on the ol’ satellite dish, it sounded familiar, and looking it up, I confirmed Easton as a shooting location.  Taped the sucker, invited Mom and Madame BOF to watch it with me, and soldiered on alone when they politely declined.  Imagine my surprise when, once I’d finished the film, the horrific accident I’d been waiting for never materialized, although there were multiple points in the narrative at which one might have been suitable (or perhaps even desirable).

Doubting myself (as usual), I rewound at Madame BOF’s behest and was reminded that there’s a scene near the start of the film in which the protagonists (Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet) get into an argument while driving at night, and pull over to continue it outside the car, near some structure that, dimly and fleetingly glimpsed in the blackness, could conceivably have been the Bluebird Garage…or, really, anything else, for that matter.

“What a gyp!” says I, in the immortal words of Felix Unger.  But I compared notes with my wise and wonderful MBI colleague Barbara Lessard, whose own memory supported much of mine, so I got curious, and started Googling.  That led me to the website of the Historical Society of Easton (who knew?), according to which, “The Bluebird Garage was used in the filming of the 2007 movie Reservation Road starring Juoquin [sic] Phoenix, Mark Ruffalo, Jennifer Connelly, Mira Sorvino, Elle Fanning et al.”

So, yes, I was watching THE WRONG MOVIE.  You cannot make this stuff up.

As for Revolutionary Road, which I will not dignify with a formal review or synopsis (in a nutshell, it’s about a supremely dysfunctional couple in 1950s suburban Connecticut), I strongly disliked it on two totally separate levels.  First, it’s supposed to be a big tragedy, but as far as I’m concerned, Leo’s self-centered, casually adulterous character is such a flaming a-hole that it’s only a tragedy for Kate’s.  Second, a lot of the details of dialogue and performances just rang false for me, while the film also exemplifies a phenomenon that’s really started to bother me.

It’s established that the couple has two children, and indeed (sans spoilers) that becomes a critical plot point.  Yet the kids are only shown onscreen a couple of times, more talked about than depicted, and you never get an actual sense that they really have kids.  When I mentioned this to Madame BOF, she said, “Well, I’m sure there are families like that, where the parents don’t care about their kids.”

But she misunderstood my point, which is that a real family feels like a family, be it good, bad, or indifferent.  However the parents feel about them, the kids are (at that young age) an omnipresent and integral part of their lives, and if the film depicts that badly, as I think this one did, then you never buy that the couple ever actually experienced parenthood for a day in their lives.  The kids are more of an intellectual conceit, or a plot contrivance, than they are part of a believable family.  When Leo and Kate had sex in the kitchen one night, I was waiting for one of the kids to wander in looking for a glass of milk or something…but that never happened, because the kids might just as well never have existed, no matter what the characters say about them.

It’s actually sad, because I like the actors (also including Michael Shannon, whom Madame BOF and I saw onstage with Jessica Lange and Gabriel Byrne in Roundabout’s revival of Long Day’s Journey into Night, and The GREAT Kathy Bates) and the director, Sam (American Beauty) Mendes, who not only was wed to Winslet—hey, how’s that for alliteration?—at the time but also, ironically, went on to direct two of the better late James Bond films, Skyfall and Spectre.

Interestingly, I see that the source novel (which, holy cats, my idol John Frankenheimer wanted to film, and then opted to do The Manchurian Candidate instead; talk about a “What If?”), mired for decades in Development Hell, was published in 1961, just after the period portrayed, at which time the material would presumably have felt more fresh and relevant.  Wonder if the advent of Mad Men, which I see premiered in 2007, was a factor in the story’s finally reaching the screen.

Your, uh, mileage may vary.  But I now have to be on the lookout for Reservation Road, which also promises to be (as my Dad so memorably predicted of the scene from Bergman’s Winter Light in which pastor Gunnar Björnstrand must inform Gunnel Lindblom of husband Max von Sydow’s suicide) “a barrel of laughs.”  Bradley out.

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Disclaimer:  This post is more ramble than review, and presupposes some familiarity with the material; read at your own risk.

So, Kevin Smith.

I noticed that the Starz networkz were having a bit of a Smithapalooza, and since I’m a sucker for that sort of thing (e.g., I fired up the VCR when they just showed Beverly Hills Cop 1-3 back to back), I decided—despite some trepidation—to edjicate or, as the case may be, re-edjicate myself a bit.  After all, the guy’s made a bunch of successful movies, so I thought that as a cineaste, I should perhaps have a slightly better handle on his oeuvre.

The main things that interested me about the Smithapalooza, for reasons I’ll explain in a moment, were Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back and Clerks II.  I remembered seeing Mallrats and Chasing Amy, and dimly remembered liking at least the latter, but didn’t feel I needed to revisit those.  I knew, of course, that the micro-budgeted Clerks put him on the map, for better or worse, and even though I was pretty sure I remembered disliking it when I saw it some time ago, I thought—with typical Matthewness—that revisiting it and seeing the sequel all at the same time made some kind of sense.

I was also hazily, ha ha, aware that Smith had spun off some supporting characters into JASBSB, and that the film contained some element of Hollywood parody (always a draw for me), but was unaware of this whole View Askewniverse “shared mythology” thing until I started viewing and reading up a little on his work.  The Starz guyz showed Clerks I & II back to back, but knowing that JASBSB was made in between, I studiously watched in sequence.

Well, you won’t be surprised to learn that I H-A-T-E-D Clerks (again, apparently).  It was so relentlessly crude and crass and gross, and the characters so uniformly unsympathetic—putting it mildly—that I came close to abandoning the entire enterprise partway through.  But that’s just not my style.

So, were those off-putting qualities absent from JASBSB?  Hell no.  Yet they were leavened by several factors:

  • Comic-book stuff (like the whole Marvel-derived View Askewniverse concept itself), centered on JASB’s Bluntman and Chronic alter egos.
  • Metacinematic stuff, e.g., Miramax-ribbing and cameos by actors and/or characters from both inside and outside the Askewniverse.
  • Obviously, Star Wars stuff, like Carrie Fisher’s drive-by or Mark Hamill’s character getting his hand cut off and saying, “Not again!”
  • More of an actual plot, most notably the diamond-heist stuff (with, yes, hot chicks) that put one foot into my beloved caper-movie camp.
  • Will Ferrell, whom I used to hate, but who has been steadily winning me over with offbeat stuff like this for several years now.
  • The closing scene where JASB actually get their favorite band, Morris Day and the Time, to play at their after-party; I’m also a sucker for such cameo appearances.
  • And I kinda hate to say it, but I enjoy writer-director-editor Smith’s work on the other side of the camera as not-always-Silent Bob.

By that point, I didn’t go into Clerks II with total dread, more in a spirit of intellectual curiosity about what to expect from this crazy guy next.

So, were those off-putting qualities absent from Clerks II?  Hell no.  Yet they were leavened by several factors:

  • Honest-to-God production values, which moreover were introduced in a clever way:  they replicate the impoverished B&W look of the original when Dante goes to open the Quick Stop, and then as he raises the shutters and sees it’s on fire, the flames usher us into color.
  • The “Moobys” parody of McDonald’s, admittedly an easy but always satisfying target.
  • The Lord of the Rings stuff that helped flesh out Elias’s uber-nerd persona.
  • Dante’s fear over having to dance at his wedding, something to which I could relate profoundly.
  • The friendship stuff.  I loathe “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head,” not least because it seemed so jarringly anachronistic in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, yet its use in the Go-Kart interlude was perfect, making that a great vignette.  And however much I differ from the two protagonists in so many ways, much of Randal’s climactic dialogue (especially “Why, because I enjoyed what I did?  I got to watch movies, f*ck with *ssh*les, and hang out with my best friend all day, can you think of a better way to make a living?  Yeah, maybe it wasn’t what everyone does, but it was pretty f*cking good”) made me reflect on the good times my now-closest friends and I had while working at Penguin USA, as opposed to the largely friendless environment at, ironically, GoodTimes Entertainment, the closest I’ll ever come to an actual dream job.  It also made me wonder what it would have been like if, say, Tom—who, amusingly, had a diametrically opposite reaction to these films—and I had grown up together instead of meeting later in life.  Hey, just call me Maudlin Man.

But you know what the single biggest compensatory factor was?

ROSARIO DAWSON.

Looking over her filmography, I notice first with a chuckle that she made her debut in Larry Clark’s Kids, which I hated even more than—but for many of the same reasons as—Clerks, and second that I have seen several of her early films (e.g., He Got Game, Men in Black II, The Adventures of Pluto Nash, 25th Hour, Shattered Glass), some of them admittedly out of chronology, without being particularly aware of or recalling her presence in them.

But she hit me like a brick in Sin City, so much so that I was pleasurably jolted to see her in Death Proof, and between those and Rent, I realized she’s the entire package:  drop-dead gorgeous, musical, and equally capable of kicking your ass or melting your heart.  And speaking of kicking, her role in Clerks II kicked that flick up an incalculable notch, both demonstrating her willingness to be, shall we say, unconventional and contributing to a happy ending.

So, am I now a kommitted Kevin Smith fan?  Nope, and I probably never will be, due to those omnipresent off-putting qualities.  But at least I now know him to have far greater depth than Clerks would suggest, and for that reason alone am glad I decided to take the plunge and see it through.

Title-related but otherwise random addendum:  R.I.P. Jonathan Demme (1944-2017).  Stop Making Sense is my favorite concert movie ever, and instantly made me a Talking Heads fan forever, thus enriching my life incalculably.

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What I’ve Been Watching:  The Cavern (1964).

Who’s Responsible:  Edgar G. Ulmer (director); Jack Davies, Michael Pertwee (screenwriters); John Saxon, Rosanna Schiaffino, Larry Hagman (stars).

Why I Watched It:  Various reasons, chiefly Saxon.

Seen It Before?  No.

Likelihood of Seeing It Again (1-10):  7.

Likelihood the Guys Will Rib Me for Watching It (1-10):  4

Totally Subjective BOF Rating (1-10):  6.

And?  This truly “international” rarity was, as star Saxon said in our Filmfax interview, “an American, Italian, German and to a small degree Yugoslav co-production….[that] was to be shot in caves in Postona, Yugoslavia, just across the border from Trieste, Italy, in November of 1963.”  In Italy, it was known as Sette contro la Morte (Seven Against Death), while in West Germany, it went by both Neunzig Nächte und ein Tag (Ninety Nights and a Day) and Helden—Himmel und Hölle (Heroes—Heaven and Hell).  The titular septet also encompasses two other nationalities, with Canadian RAF Lieutenant Peter Carter (Peter L. Marshall) and retired British General Braithwaite (Brian Aherne).

The story is, in a sense, simplicity itself:  on the Italian front in 1944, Private Joe Cramer (Saxon) and Captain Wilson (Hagman) are among those forced by a bombing raid to take refuge in a huge system of caves, where they are soon trapped by an explosion.  They are joined by locals Anna (Schiaffino) and Mario Scognamiglio (Nino Castelnuovo), as well as Oberleutnant Hans Beck (Hans von Borsody), but declare an “armistice” until they can extricate themselves from their mutual predicament, which stretches on into months.  The presence of Anna, whose attentions shift from Mario to Joe, naturally causes friction, as do debates over leadership, exploration of the caves and division of the dwindling rations.

It “was loosely based on an incident where American and German soldiers, and Italians also, became trapped in a cave that was used for munitions and supply storage.  The point being that everyone had to forget being enemies and learn how to cooperate to survive,” said Saxon.  “I’ve only seen the film once, screened at 20th Century-Fox.  I cannot tell you how successful it was in portraying this theme; I can only remember being somewhat disappointed.  Generally I used to feel a bit like this seeing any film I was in, but this production was very more clearly a disaster.”  It’s also disorienting in retrospect to see a drama featuring the soon-to-be stars of I Dream of Jeannie and The Hollywood Squares!

Anticipating Hagman’s sliminess as J.R. Ewing on Dallas, Wilson finds and conceals from the others a store of brandy, justified (when Braithwaite stumbles on and shares his secret) as a medical necessity due to his alcoholism.  Attrition begins when Wilson falls drunkenly into an underground river, and continues with two cruel twists:  Hans climbs his way to an exit, only to be shot down when his uniform is spotted, and Peter also gets out the hard way, drowning while exploring the river with improvised diving gear and emerging over a waterfall.  In a final irony, the general goes bonkers and kills himself with a grenade, setting off stored explosives and blasting a way out for the other three.

Saxon’s disappointment with the final result bookended one nine years earlier.  “My very first audition in Hollywood, a week or so after I arrived, was for a picture intended to be called The Bandit, directed by Edgar Ulmer.  My audition seemed to go well as I was considered to be the candidate for the part.  The movie’s title was changed [to The Naked Dawn] and another actor got the role I’d auditioned for.”  He also had a uniquely topical recollection from this film’s production:  “one afternoon…Shirley Ulmer, Edgar’s wife and script supervisor, was running down the boulevard toward us….screaming.  When she got closer, we understood she was saying that President Kennedy had been assassinated.”

Accounts vary as to the script’s patrimony; credited British scenarists Davies and Pertwee (the brother of Jon, the third Doctor Who) may have been fronting for a blacklisted Yank, possibly Dalton Trumbo.  The IMDb asserts that Alberto Bevilacqua, who like Saxon had worked with Mario Bava, had an uncredited hand in it, and that it draws, uncredited, from an unspecified novel by Leon Uris, although I can’t imagine which one.  Composer Carlo Rustichelli’s hundreds of credits also include several films for Bava, and indeed I sensed echoes—as it were—of some of his horror scores, while the somewhat jarring title tune, presumably never a #1 hit, was written by Carroll Coates and performed by Bobby Bare.

“Visiting the caves for the first time, I was startled by their depth and impressiveness,” said Saxon, “but also concerned about filming for ten or twelve hours a day in more or less a forty-degree temperature and constant humidity, which dripped from the walls and the stalactites.  Had we shot the whole film there we all would have likely wound up in a hospital, but the sets were not ready.  So, after waiting for three days for the sets, the company moved across the border for some shooting in the hills around Trieste.”  There, he encountered such irregularities as the close call when a special-effects explosion was prematurely detonated right under, rather than alongside, the car in which he was riding.

While shooting was suspended after a minor player twisted his ankle, Hagman, Marshall, “and Joachim Hansen [who played a German sergeant killed in the cave-in] spent a week testing the local restaurants and having a good time….[And then], an English gentleman strolled into the bar area of the hotel…[and said], ‘Gentlemen, Lloyds of London has sent me regarding your insurance claim, to inform you that you have no insurance with Lloyds of London.’  It appears that besides not having built the sets, the Yugoslavs also didn’t pay the insurance premium they were responsible for….So, not only were there no sets in Yugoslavia, I was told the company would not even be allowed to re-enter the country.”

Aboard a train that night, Saxon was aroused by another outburst of Shirley’s after Edgar awoke unable to see, reportedly due to the amount of sedatives he’d taken.  The director of The Black Cat (1934), The Man from Planet X (1951), Daughter of Dr. Jekyll (1957), The Amazing Transparent Man and Beyond the Time Barrier (both 1960) had apparently pushed his legendary luck with tight budgets too far.  “Ulmer’s contract was made with Marty Melcher, at the time the husband of Doris Day, and a producer at 20th Century-Fox.  Somehow I came to understand that he had entrusted Edgar with a modest sum for the completion of the film; any costs beyond that were to come from Ulmer’s pocket.”

“In Rome, things got slowly and progressively worse.  Ulmer was so harried that he once, at the end of a rehearsal, called ‘Action’ before the camera was even set up.  Another time, Nino…decided to test Ulmer’s attention by speaking gibberish during a rehearsal.  After Ulmer gave his clear approval, we all looked at each other with eyes wide open.”  Later, his “assertions of trust and collaboration with me…turned particularly nasty.  Each time a close-up of me appeared on the looping screen, Edgar would say, ‘This is very good.  But of course I will not use it in the film.’”  Saxon left after visiting friends from Bava’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much, but never saw Ulmer again; it was his last film.

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The Breakheart Kid

What I’ve Been Watching:  Breakheart Pass (1975).

Who’s Responsible:  Tom Gries (director); Alistair MacLean (screenwriter); Charles Bronson, Ben Johnson, Richard Crenna (stars).

Why I Watched It:  You might well ask, why wouldn’t I watch it?

Seen It Before?  Hell yeah.

Likelihood of Seeing It Again (1-10):  10.

Likelihood the Guys Will Rib Me for Watching It (1-10):  2, tops.

Totally Subjective BOF Rating (1-10):  8.

And?  During the 1960s, Charles Bronson appeared in some of the foundational films of my personal cinematic pantheon, not least as an indelible member of three of the greatest ensemble casts ever assembled on the screen in The Magnificent Seven (1960), The Great Escape (1963), and The Dirty Dozen (1967), as well as working with Sergio Leone in Once Upon a Time in the West (1968).  The ’70s were hit or miss, and even the success of Michael Winner’s Death Wish (1974) might be considered a mixed blessing, since he and J. Lee Thompson, who between them directed three of the four sequels, epitomized Chuck’s late-career plummet.  So I consider this one of Bronson’s last really good films.

It is no surprise, at least to me, that it’s the one linking him with another of my favorite authors, joining the elite company of Richard Matheson (Master of the World, 1961; Cold Sweat, 1970) and Elmore Leonard (Mr. Majestyk, 1974).  There are plenty of films based, with varying degrees of fidelity and/or success, on books by Alistair MacLean, a number of which I dearly love (The Guns of Navarone, 1961; Ice Station Zebra, 1968).  But there are only four on which he was a screenwriter, giving us an unfiltered hit of MacLean; this and the now-elusive When Eight Bells Toll (1971) reunited him with Elliott Kastner and Jerry Gershwin, the producers of my all-time favorite movie, Where Eagles Dare (1969).

This was the penultimate feature of director Tom Gries (1922-1977), who had helmed Bronson’s Breakout that same year, but most of whose largely unremarkable career was relegated to television, ranging from the lauded miniseries Helter Skelter (1976) to the tiresome TV-movie Earth II (1971) and episodes of 40-odd series.  Gries did, however, display a knack for Westerns, most notably Will Penny (1967) and 100 Rifles (1969), the latter a staple of Raquel Welch Week on The 4:30 Movie and a prior collaboration with Jerry Goldsmith, for whom my admiration knows no bounds.  He also had an affinity for the genre, e.g., Welch’s Bandolero! (1968), and his Breakheart theme is very memorable.

Lucien Ballard, best known for photographing Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969), contributes some gorgeously rugged Idaho exteriors, while second-unit director and stunt coordinator Yakima Canutt, a veteran of Where Eagles Dare whose last film it was, also earned his salary on this one.  The story is from one of my favorite subgenres, thrillers set aboard trains, in the grand tradition of Richard Fleischer’s The Narrow Margin (1952), Horror Express (1972), and Sidney Lumet’s Murder on the Orient Express (1974).  As such, it’s more of a MacLean adaptation than a traditional Bronson vehicle—pardon the pun—and, despite the unusual setting, it follows his classic blueprint in several respects.

Medico-turned-desperado John Deakin (Bronson) cheats at cards in the 1870s town of Myrtle, leading to an altercation and his arrest by U.S. Marshal Pearce (Johnson), thus securing them spots on a train transporting relief troops to Fort Humboldt.  That’s easier said than done, because Major Claremont (Ed Lauter) had refused to bend the strict no-civilians rule to let Pearce fetch notorious outlaw Levi Calhoun (Robert Tessier, dubbed by Paul Frees), a prisoner at the fort.  Traveling with Nevada Governor Richard Fairchild (Crenna) are Marica (Jill Ireland), daughter of the fort’s commander and obviously his lover; the Reverend Peabody (Bill McKinney); and Dr. Molyneux (David Huddleston).

Before conductor O’Brien (Charles Durning) even gets the train moving, trouble is afoot as two soldiers disappear—ominously soon after being asked to decipher a message that might tell Claremont Just What the Hell Is Actually Going on Here.  Yet Fairchild waits for no man, so away they go, and as with David Shire’s brilliant score for The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974), Goldsmith’s driving theme evokes the forward motion of the train.  While they’re building up steam, however, let’s take a moment to examine this cast, which while not exactly A-list is certainly interesting, e.g., McKinney, a part of the Clint Eastwood “stock company” but most indelibly remembered for Deliverance (1972).

Just as with Clint and the execrable Sondra Locke, at this point in his career, if you got Bronson, you likely also got Ireland, his wife and/or co-star from 1968 until her death in 1990.  No doubt her first husband, David (Man from U.N.C.L.E.) McCallum, was sorry he introduced them on the set of The Great Escape, since she subsequently dumped him for Chuck.  Her spoiled-brat looks and inept emoting haven’t improved since Ireland was shoehorned into Cold Sweat—with a role that has no analog in Matheson’s source novel, Ride the Nightmare—and while I commend Bronson for showing her more loyalty than she did to McCallum, her presence is a millstone that drags down any film she appears in.

With exceptions such as Robert Wise’s The Sand Pebbles (1966), I’ve never been a big fan of Crenna’s, so he seems well suited to his officious-prick role; conversely, Johnson always comes across as so likable, even when playing a killer in The Wild Bunch, that his nastiness as Pearce is surprising.  I’d never call Durning one of my favorite actors, but he does have a key role in one of my favorite films, The Sting (1973), and while given little screen time, he lets his chubby-coward flag fly in a nice “Hey, I’m no gunman” scene.  A tireless, rock-solid supporting player for almost 50 years, Lauter worked with everybody from Aldrich and Frankenheimer to Hitchcock, and does well with a rare heroic role here.

Once they’re safely outta Dodge—er, Myrtle—it’s revealed that the troops are not relief but replacements for the victims of a diphtheria epidemic, and after leaving to check on the medical supplies, Molyneux is found dead in a murder that ex-doc Deakin discovers was made to look like natural causes.  In short order, the fireman plunges from a bridge, his body reeking of alcohol despite reportedly never touching it; Peabody vanishes; and the rear cars carrying the troops are cut loose, plunging sans brakes into a ravine.  Gries handles this brilliantly as we only hear the screams and see no gore, just the slow-motion pulverization of the derailed cars, leaving the horrific carnage inside to our imaginations.

Many a MacLean story centers on a journey or mission whose true nature, along with that of one or more participants, is only made clear near the climax, and in this case, even the epidemic is a red herring.  Revealing himself to Claremont as an incognito Secret Service agent, Deakin explains that far from being a prisoner, Calhoun is in control of the fort and has made an unholy alliance with Chief White Hand (Eddie Little Sky), to whom he has promised the guns and ammo that are their real cargo.  The doctor was silenced to protect that secret; the firemen was killed when he found—as did Deakin—the bodies of the two missing soldiers in the wood supply; and Peabody, also found dead, was his fellow agent.

Fairchild, Pearce, and O’Brien are all in on it, even Carlos the cook (Archie Moore), who battles Deakin to the death atop the train in a nail-biter recalling Canutt’s famed cable-car clash in Where Eagles Dare.  Also echoing that film, Deakin says that he knew he could trust Claremont because the major tried so hard to stop Pearce, their prime suspect, from boarding.  Highlights of the climax in the titular pass include Fairchild shooting Calhoun, who is holding Marica hostage, only to be cut down with a sword by the mounted major; Deakin dynamiting the tracks and tricking the Indians into attacking their own allies; and his final showdown with Pearce.  Cue reprise of the Jerry Goldsmith theme.  All aboard!

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Padre Patroni

In a career spanning an impressive 55 years, George Kennedy (who died on Sunday at 91) was an always-welcome character actor who lent a solid presence to hundreds of films and television episodes. Early in our mutual heyday, the 1960s and ’70s, his roles ranged from the psychotic Herman Scobie in Stanley Donen’s Hitchcock pastiche, Charade (1963), to the slow-witted Leo Krause in William Castle’s Robert Bloch-scripted Strait-Jacket (1964), who underwent a graphic, if not very realistic, decapitation.  After appearances in Robert Aldrich’s Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), Otto Preminger’s In Harm’s Way and Henry Hathaway’s The Sons of Katie Elder (both 1965), Kennedy entered sacred ground, working with Aldrich in two BOF favorites: The Flight of the Phoenix (1965), based on the novel by my late friend Elleston Trevor, and The Dirty Dozen (1967).

In fact, although his role in the latter is far from flashy, it’s probably because I’ve seen that seminal (in every sense) classic so many times that when I think of Kennedy, I think of him first as the good-natured Major Max Armbruster, and remember his amused reaction to the Dozen’s shenanigans during the war games. He followed that up with his Oscar-winning supporting role the same year in Cool Hand Luke, a film for which my appreciation has always been dampened by its gloomy ending, and a substantial part in another personal favorite, Bandolero! (1968).  But it perhaps goes without saying that despite being omnipresent in Westerns, Kennedy was an odd choice to succeed the charismatic Yul Brynner as Chris in Guns of the Magnificent Seven (1969), the third in that increasingly desperate quartet.

He found a role of his own—opposite a cumulative cavalcade of stars—as Joe Patroni in Airport (1970) and its sequels, Airport 1975 (1974), Airport ’77 (1977), and The Concorde…Airport 1979 (1979); he was also featured in another high-profile disaster film, Mark Robson’s Earthquake (1974).  Sadly, his two big-screen collaborations with Clint Eastwood (after “The Peddler,” a 1962 episode of Rawhide that I’ve never seen) were decidedly lesser efforts, the dreaded Michael Cimino’s Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974) and Eastwood’s own disappointing The Eiger Sanction (1975).  Other notable credits from that period include the all-star Agatha Christie extravaganza Death on the Nile, with Peter Ustinov unable to hold a candle to Albert Finney in his first of several impersonations of Hercule Poirot, and as General George S. Patton, the object of the exercise in Brass Target (both 1978), featuring Patrick McGoohan.

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Drumroll, Please

So this morning I finished watching that critically praised early-’70s movie about the friendship between two professional athletic teammates, one of whom is dying and played by an actor well known for portraying a member of the Corleone family.

“I got it—Brian’s Song!”

No, the other one.

The above makes it clear why, without having seen either of them, I’d always confused that 1971 football TV-movie with the 1973 baseball feature film Bang the Drum Slowly. Partly to differentiate them, and partly because of their reps, I figured I should someday break down and watch at least one of them, despite the fact that I hate sports movies and don’t lean toward wrist-slitters.

Since Brian’s Song stars James Caan—who makes me want to slit my wrists just by appearing onscreen—as real-life Chicago Bear Brian Piccolo, and Bang the Drum Slowly stars Robert DeNiro as fictional, albeit pinstripe-clad, New York “Mammoth” Bruce Pearson, my choice was clear, even though I can take or leave Bobby’s co-star, Michael Moriarty. (Interestingly, his character, Henry Wiggen, is the hero of a tetralogy by Mark Harris, here adapting his own 1956 novel, also made into an episode of The United States Steel Hour that same year, with Paul Newman as Henry and Albert Salmi as Bruce.) Can’t say I liked it too much, not that I was really expecting to, and there ain’t much of a plot, not that I’d expend a lot of energy summarizing it if there were.

Star pitcher and sometime insurance salesman Wiggen is almost inexplicably devoted to so-so catcher Pearson, and after learning that Bruce is dying of Hodgkin’s disease, he goes through endless machinations to protect him. He insists on a clause in his contract that links their professional fates, and concocts harebrained stories to conceal Bruce’s visit to the Mayo Clinic, both to the chagrin of manager Dutch Schnell (Oscar-nominated Vincent Gardenia); he also deliberately drags his feet on changing the beneficiary of Bruce’s life insurance to opportunistic floozy Katie (Ann Wedgeworth). The plot links the club’s generally low opinion of Bruce and its inability to pull together as a team, but once the cat is out of the bag and they know he’s dying, they treat him better and—hey presto—improved teamwork enables them to win the World Series, although Bruce gets too sick to finish the season, dying offstage.

I guess it’s supposed to be a great performance, but I didn’t find DeNiro’s tobacco-chewing, slow-witted Southern country bumpkin at all endearing—and yes, I know that’s partly the point—nor was I enamored of the allegedly humorous scenes involving the fictional card game “tegwar” (The Exciting Game Without Any Rules), with which the players and Henry’s friend Joe (the great Phil Foster) fleece suckers. Obviously the extensive location shooting at various historic ballparks did nothing for me. I kept wondering what the significance of the title was until the locker-room scene where guitar-toting fellow pitcher Piney Woods (Tom Ligon) starts singing “The Streets of Laredo,” and suddenly my antennae went up. For you trivia fans, Danny Aiello has a small role as teammate Horse.

Largely obscure director John D. Hancock actually merited a mention in Richard Matheson on Screen, because he was fired as the original director of Jaws 2 (1978), and when his replacement, Jeannot Szwarc, called in a favor from Universal for salvaging that disaster, the result was Matheson’s Somewhere in Time (1980). He also directed the truly creepy Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971), which is why I snapped to attention when I saw the name of that disconcerting little gem’s leading man, Barton Heyman, in the credits. He appears briefly as another teammate, Red…although in the unlikely event that he looked familiar to anyone else, it’s probably because he played Klein (“Chris—doctors!”) in The Exorcist (1973).

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