Formerly "Dave's Blog About Movies and Such"

Monday, July 28, 2008

Seconds (1966)

dir. John Frankenheimer

"Isn't it easier to go forward when you know you can't go back?"
-Old Man

In the realm of technological achievements, time renders all things mundane. The initially novel and awe inspiring, through commercialization and mass marketing, become parts of our everyday existence. Although this is obviously evident in the digital world, it has also proven to be particularly true of the medical world through the use of plastic surgery. The once revolutionary procedure has since become an omnipresent multi-million dollar industry. Although it had been around for years as a means to repair various disfigurements, such as those brought on by battle, plastic surgery did not really gain a foothold until vain people realized that they could use it in hopeless attempts to recapture faded youth and dashed dreams, and patch up their empty lives (this, incidentally, is a paraphrasing of an early slogan in an ad campaign for plastic surgery. The ad exec responsible was soon fired.) Also, as with all things new, as plastic surgery came into vogue, so came the inevitable backlash. As fear developed over the ramifications of this technology, cautionary tales were produced, warning of its inevitable consequences.

In 1966, John Frankenheimer decided to tackle the subject in the experimental and relatively forgotten Seconds (Incidentally, for other interesting takes on the issue of plastic surgery, Hiroshi Teshigahara's The Face of Another, released the same year as Seconds, is well worth a watch; as is the earlier Bogart movie Dark Passage). After a string of successes (Birdman of Acatraz, The Manchurian Candidate, Seven Days in May, The Train) Frankenheimer developed enough clout that he was granted substantial creative freedom with his work (as well as a Ferrari when he directed The Train). This golden boy could do no wrong. Given such creative freedom, when Frankenheimer directed Seconds, he made a movie so experimental (at least by mainstream Hollywood standards) that it inevitably died at the box office. Although he had another success with the subsequent car chase movie Grand Prix, Frankenheimer would eventually fade from the spotlight and snuggle into the warm comforting bosom of sweet sweet alcoholism, interrupted, of course, by the occasional comeback film.

concerns mid level bank executive Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph), a timid man whose life turns upside down when he starts to receive mysterious phone calls from a dead friend. This eventually leads him to a corporation whose goal is to give its customers brand new lives. After extensive plastic surgery, the patient is given a brand new young appearance. Through the Cadaver Procurement Section, this corporation finds a dead person of similar body type to stand in as the corpse of the patient. Thus, the patient can begin life anew with a brand new identity. After being blackmailed, as well as coming to the realization that he will not be missed by anyone, Hamilton decides to go through with the procedure.

In the powerful scene in which the company's president asks Hamilton if he has anything to live for in his current life, Hamilton responds that he and his wife get along ok, he might become president of the bank, his daughter writes every now and then, he has a boat, and a few friends. The pointlessness of his existence is detailed in a few depressing sentences, thusly making a sad, pointed commentary on the banal existence of America's new prosperous, relentlessly dull middle class (Gee, why didn't people come out in droves to see this movie?).

It should be noted that, as strange as this company and its services are, the employees carry on with all the bored nonplussed attitude of mid-level office workers. Much in the same tone that Charlie Kaufman would emulate for some of his works, Frankenheimer shows that even the most bizarre activities, given enough time and repetition, will become mundane jobs.

When it came to choosing the perfect actor to portray the virile youth of a transformed Hamilton, the studio, of course, decided to hire Rock Hudson, a man only ten years younger than Randolph (Incidentally, this movie was later adapted into the hit reality TV show, "I Want a Famous Middle-Aged Gay Icon Face"). Hamilton is given the new name of Tony Wilson. Aside from becoming the host of a British music show as well as the manager of Factory Records, in his new identity, Wilson is an artist living among bohemians in Malibu. Although Wilson is initially wary of this new life, free spirit Nora Marcus (Salome Jens) soon opens his eyes to the joys of, among other things, drinking wine made from the grapes smashed by orgies of naked dirty hippies.

Wilson soon comes to the realization, however, that the life of a bohemian is just as constrictive and hemmed in by its own set of rules as that of a mid level bank executive (albeit, a life with much more fucking). In another movie, Wilson would go home to his previous life to find that true happiness was there along. After traveling the world to find himself he would have realized that, all along, the real joys of life lied in sweet simple domesticity. In this film, however, a visit to his now widowed wife, Emily Hamilton (Frances Reid), reveals to Hamilton/Wilson just how empty his previous life was. This movie is basically what It's a Wonderful Life would have been if Clarence convinced George Bailey to commit suicide (again, why wasn't Seconds a box office smash? [side note: before anyone comments, I realize that It's a Wonderful Life was also something of a flop on its initial release]).

Hamilton/Wilson soon decides to head back to the corporation. He surmises that, given the chance at starting his life over yet again, he could be truly independent and live by his own rules. We know, of course, that this is folly. In this way, Seconds is particularly subversive (not to mention, depressingly bleak). In this film, free will is just a pipe dream; we are all simply products of our surroundings and the expectations of others. Terrible consequences await those who imagine otherwise.

After a severely long wait, Wilson is finally granted the opportunity of restarting his life yet again. It is then that he discovers a horrifying secret about the corporation. Although the film's twist climax is telegraphed early on, it is nevertheless terrifying, and Hudson's performance in this scene is particularly effective. Indeed, Hudson delivers a stellar performance throughout the film. Much like Tony Curtis' performance in The Boston Strangler, this was an attempt to break free from typecasting (in Hudson's case, it was the typecast of the lovable hunk in squeaky clean bedroom comedies). It should be noted, however, that as horrifying as this movie's ending is, it simply can not match the sheer blood chilling terror produced by the faces Jackie and Sylvester Stallone.

Seconds is a film with a truly unique look. Containing the kind of surreal dream sequences that would make Bunuel and Fellini cream themselves, it is amazing that this was a mainstream film. To achieve this film's unique look, Frankenheimer employed many of the camera techniques that he would later use to great effect in Grand Prix, released just a few months later. In particular, he makes great use of mounted cameras: on gurneys, vehicles, and people (something that Darren Aronofsky would later have much fun with); and wide angle photography. The wide angle photography, in particular, works to give the movie a tense claustrophobic feel.

Although, superficially, Seconds is a cautionary sci-fi tale of plastic surgery run amok, it is really much more. Like other movies of its era, such as The Swimmer and The Graduate, Seconds, more than anything, examines the empty banality of white upper middle class American life. The plastic surgery angle was just a springboard from which to examine it. Although other movies examined the subject with similar, if not greater, venom, few approached it with such bleak despair.

The trailer:

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Come on Time

Back in the days when it was still a novelty for rock bands to produce songs specifically for use in feature films, the bands and filmmakers tended to have more fun with the idea. This was particularly true in the case of The Zombies' collaboration with Otto Preminger for his suspenseful film, Bunny Lake Is Missing. The Zombies adapted their song "Just Out of Reach" for use in the trailer. Now titled, "Come on Time", this song cheekily warned viewers that, because of the shocking twist at the film's climax, no patrons would be admitted into the theater after the movie started. Although Bunny Lake Is Missing was not the first film to require viewers to show up before the movie started (Hitchcock's Psycho was a much more famous earlier example of a film to employ this rule), it was another example of a change in movie exhibition. Up until this point, movie goers could pay their 25 cents and walk into a movie whenever they damn well pleased. If someone walked in halfway through a movie, he or she would watch the rest of the movie and stay through the next showing, leaving whenever the movie got to the point where he or she walked in -- truly anathema to modern movie goers. The change in exhibition was a sign that movies were beginning to be respected on the same level as the other arts (one wouldn't start a book halfway through, for instance). It is astounding today that this seemingly logical manner of viewing movies would be such a foreign concept that an instructional song would have to be made informing viewers of it.

Here is trailer with the Zombies song:

Monday, July 21, 2008

Incubus (1965)

dir. Leslie Stevens

"He has defiled you, Kia...befouled you with love."

Having grown up in front of a TV, I have many vague half memories of the bizarre movies and TV shows that I saw as a child. Many times, after exhaustive searches, I have to resign myself to the fact that I, in fact, dreamed some of these things (I'm still convinced, however, that somewhere deep in a vault lies the very special episode of "Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C." in which the lovable screw up is shipped off to Vietnam). Every now and then, however, I'll stumble across one of these pieces of pop cultural ephemera and see that I did, in fact, watch the movie or TV show in question. The most blatant example of this phenomenon is the Canadian TV show "Today's Special". For years, I had vague memories of watching a slightly creepy children's show on PBS in which mannequins came to life at night and ran amok. Whenever I mentioned this show to my siblings, they stared at me blankly and told me to lay off the pcp. Surely, someone would remember it. Whenever I asked any of my similarly pop culture savvy (i.e., geeky) friends, they would inevitably respond with, "You mean the classic 80's romp Mannequin, starring Andrew McCarthy, James Spader, and a pre-cougar Kim Cattrall, don't you?"

"That was an unnecessarily detailed response, but no, what I remember was a kid's show. I saw it as a kid."

"Lay off the pcp."

After asking everyone I knew, I was resigned to sticking this one into the "I dreamed it" category. Fortunately, one night while doing a rare non-porn related search on google, I found that, not only did this show exist, but it was also every bit as creepy as I remembered. To prove this show's existence (and its creepiness) to the doubters, here is the intro to "Today's Special":

This dream phenomenon is not limited to the movies and TV shows I saw as a child, however. Some movies are so randomly bizarre that they leave me asking myself, "Did I just dream that?", minutes after watching them. The Leslie Stevens directed film Incubus is one such movie. Spoken entirely in the fake nineteenth century language of Esperanto, this movie about Satanism stars a pre-"Star Trek" William Shatner. Long thought lost, the negative and all known prints of Incubus were accidentally destroyed by a lab soon after the first few theatrical showings of this film. The discovery of a surviving print and the subsequent dvd release of Incubus a few years ago was great news, of course, for the multitude of people salivating for the chance to see William Shatner ham it up in another language (and a fake one at that!). Sweet baby Jesus, I love the dvd age.

Running at a brisk 78 minutes, the simple plot of Incubus concerns the efforts of she-demon Kia (Allyson Ames) to ensnare the righteous war hero Marc (William Shatner). Incubus takes place in a non-specific village that is centered around a mystical well with healing powers. As the film's opening narration tells us, the discovery of the well soon leads to this town becoming a haven for vain and unsavory types. For, you see, in addition to containing healing powers, the well also acts as something of minor fountain of youth, erasing a few years of age off the user's appearance. As is so often the case, the vast group of people in search of youth, but too poor to pay for minor face-lifts and botox, proves to be a fertile pool from which to recruit members for Satan's vast army. A division of Satanco® sets up shop in this town and the damned souls just start rolling in (ka-ching).

When Kia announces her plan to recruit a decent God fearing man, her sister Amael (Eloise Hardt) erupts with rage. This is the path to destruction, she reasons. The demons of hell have no power to compete with the human emotion of love. Thus, whenever a demon becomes ensnared in this web, he or she is powerless to escape the clutches of amor. An impudent Kia pays Amael no heed, however. Seeing Marc as a pillar of virtue, she soon puts her witchay womanly wiles to work on the Starship Enterprise captain. Wouldn't you know it, the irresistible Shatner charm works its way into Kia's demon heart instead.

Hoping to avoid the embarrassment of loosing one of her employees to the competitor, Godco®, Amael releases an incubus (Milos Milos) who will violate Marc's sister Arndis (Ann Atmar). When news of this abomination reaches Marc, he looses his shit and kills the Incubus in a fit of rage. His soul now tainted, Marc is up for grabs in hell's recruitment effort. Kia struggles with her sworn duties as a demon and with her newfound love for the contemptible human. In the film's climax, Kia must decide between Satan and Shatner.

Although the plot of this film sounds like typical 60s B movie fare, Incubus's look and tone are anything but typical. Photographed by the brilliant cinematographer Conrad Hall (Cool Hand Luke, Electra Glide in Blue), Incubus looks and feels more like a Bergman film than a cheapo assembly line drive-in movie (not that there's anything wrong with cheapo assembly line drive-in movies). The stark, stunning black and white photography also anticipates the look of subsequent work by Hall in the film In Cold Blood. [Side note: I was going to include here some very Bergmanesque shots from this movie that I performed image captures of while watching Incubus on PowerDVD. Seeing as I am not the most technologically savvy, I somehow did not save these pictures (a fact that I did not realize until after I returned this movie to netflix). Thus I had to rely on the few pictures I found in a google image search for "Incubus". Incidentally, I had to refine my search to "Incubus Shatner" because a search for "Incubus" will result in a plethora of images such as the one directly below. ]

Just as the film's visuals rise above its exploitation trappings, Incubus's dialogue is similarly atypical (and not just because it is spoken in Esperanto). Also in typical Bergman fashion, this film's characters are more likely to engage in religious/philosophical discussions than to engage in any kinds of action. Although the discussions tend be more of the simplistic "God is good, Satan is evil" variety, this piece of pop-Bergman sure gets an A for effort (It is of a wholly different tone, of course, from the pop-Bergman of Wes Craven's The Virgin Spring update, The Last House on the Left). Given its influences, Incubus is more concerned with mood than with thrills.

Interestingly, Incubus has developed a reputation over the years of being cursed. As mentioned before, the film's negative and prints were destroyed soon after its completion. In addition, the actor Milos Milos would later take part in a murder/suicide involving Mickey Rooney's estranged wife. Actress Ann Atmar eventually committed suicide. And William Shatner was doomed to spend the rest of his days hounded by a vast army of pale friendless virgins.

Considering the fact that Incubus dabbles in Satanism, it is obvious that the tragedies to befall this film and its participants in subsequent years were clearly acts of retribution by a vengeful God. Aside from being concerned with Supreme Court decisions and people's sexual activities, God is also a film buff who watches all the random obscure movies he can find bootlegs of and judges if they contain any offensive material. It just goes to prove my point that you shouldn't make movies that will make the baby Jesus cry.

The fates of those involved involved in this film, however, were not uniformly bleak. As stated earlier, Cinematographer Conrad Hall would go on to have quite an illustrious career. Not that Oscars have any meaning, but Hall would eventually win Academy Awards for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and American Beauty. (American Beauty belongs, incidentally, to that obnoxious genre of films that I have dubbed, "Rich White People Whine". In a career that produced such groundbreaking photography in such legitimately awesome films as Marathon Man, Cool Hand Luke, In Cold Blood, and Electra Glide in Blue, Hall's win for American Beauty is one big cosmic joke. It also further proves the pointlessness of awards.)

It is a shame that movies this insane are so rarely attempted anymore. Nowadays, lacking sufficient means to recoup costs on such bizarre experimentations, producers are less likely to fund the Incubuses of the world. Back in the sixties, however, when drive-ins and art houses proved to be fertile money making dumping grounds for the multitude of lsd/coke fueled visions that art school dropouts decided set to film, damn near anything was possible.

[Side Note: To those concerned about the increasingly long, rambling nature of my reviews, I will no longer take pcp before writing.]

The Incubus trailer:

Friday, July 18, 2008

"And Why Doesn't Batman Dance Anymore?"

As anticipations run sky high for Christopher Nolan's The Dark Night, I thought it would be behoovy to remind y'all that he will never top a previous Batman franchise. I speak not of the Tim Burton movies nor of the fabulously atrocious Joel Schumacher flicks, but, of course, the Adam West starring TV series. What it lacked in depth and characterization, it more than made up for in b-level celebrity cameos and latent homo-eroticism. More than anything, however, it gave the world the batusi. And for that we will be forever grateful.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Emperor of the North (1973)

dir. Robert Aldrich

"Like I was tellin' you, there was a day a dump had quality. But by God, the trash in this country has gone to hell."
-A no. 1

As soon as I caught news of the release of The Wackness, one thought crept into my head, "And so it's begun." It was inevitable, of course, that such a movie would be produced. As those of us who came of age during the nineties grow older, nineties nostalgia will become a deciding factor when greenlighting certain pictures. Although some period pictures are set in other eras for allegorical reasons, the raison d'etre for the majority of these pictures is nostalgia. Consequently, period movies tend to take place in a period ten to twenty years prior. We like the familiar; we like to be reminded of our youth. How else to explain the setting of a picture in an era as nondescript as the nineties. It is inevitable that the 00's will see a slew of nineties period movies, just as every period before it produced its share of nostalgic period pictures.

The seventies, however, present an interesting conundrum when discussing period movies. Although this decade produced a good portion of late fifties/early sixties period movies (American Graffiti, Grease, Quadrophenia, and The Wanderers), a disproportionate number of period movies during this era took place during the depression (e.g. Hard Times, They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, The Day of the Locust, Paper Moon, Bound for Glory, Boxcar Bertha, etc...); thereby throwing a monkey wrench into the whole series of charts I was producing for this piece. This aberration is interesting for a number of reasons. Aside from the fact that a large portion of these movies were made by people born after the thirties, the Depression was not a time to be nostalgic for. I doubt a producer's first thought, when funding a picture, would be, "Death, disease, and poverty, that'll put some asses in the seats." Of course, as we all know, the producers of this period were of a different breed. Coming from an era of anti-establishmentistictism (I know this isn't a word; but that's how anti-establishmentistictarian I am. As far as I'm concerned, this is a perfectly cromulent word), they were not afraid to buck trends or the status quo. "People don't want to see downer movies? Fuck it; we'll make so many of them, they'll have no other choice than to watch these pictures." As the saying goes, the lunatics had taken over the asylum.

Perhaps, as with any tragedy, some passage of time is necessary before people can confront such troubling chapters in their history. It was not until the era of the New German Cinema of the seventies (The Tin Drum, The Marriage of Maria Braun), for instance, that Germany could recover from its collective amnesia and confront its horrific past (Before anyone says anything, I realize that this is a rather specious analogy, however, the Polak in me simply can't pass up an opportunity to stick it to the Germans). Although a few movies from the thirties dealt in a grim manner with the troubles and mindset of the nation (The Grapes of Wrath, I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang), the majority of movies made during the Depression dealt with the issues in a more oblique manner, and they tended to be of the "everything's gonna be fine; we'll make it through this" variety (Gold Diggers of 1933). As Sullivan's Travels so appropriately shows, people don't want to be reminded of their misery. They need movies as a form of escape.

The citizens of seventies America, however, were far enough removed from the Depression so as not be troubled by its depiction in film. Perhaps most important in the decisions to produce Depression era pictures during the seventies, was that it allowed filmmakers (jaded by a crumbling economy, an unjust war, and a dishonest Government) an opportunity to explore the anti-authoritarian feelings and general malaise of a citizenry from another period of strife in our nation's history, thus drawing an analogy to present conditions. It was in this vein that Robert Aldrich approached Emperor of the North, a film about hobos riding the rails. (Incidentally, Aldrich was born in 1918 and thus was very much alive during the Depression. Seeing as Aldrich was born into a mad rich family with connections to the Rockefellers, however, he very well could have been nostalgic about the Depression [side note: according to The Wackness, during the long ago era of the nineties, mad was much in vogue as an adverb meaning very or extremely.])

Although the plot is rather simple, this action movie is much more than the sum of its parts. In Emperor of the North, Ernest Borgnine plays notoriously bloodthirsty train conductor Shack, a man who would rather see a thousand 'bos die violent, gruesome deaths than let one of them ride for free on his train, The 19. Enter Lee Marvin as A no. 1, the emperor of the North Pole (so called because to be king of the hobos is a title just as pointless as that of emperor of the North Pole). This anti-establishment figure considers it his duty to ride Shack's train and stick it to The Man. A no. 1 is not alone in his quest, however, as young punk Cigaret (Keith Carradine) attempts to learn from A no. 1 and best him in the ways of the hobo. What results is the most heartwarming buddy road comedy this side of a Hope-Crosby picture.

Like another macho director of his era, Sam Fuller, Aldrich was a master of the opening scene. Emperor of the North, accordingly, opens with a doozy. An incongruously smooth seventies Marty Robbins song, "A Man and a Train", plays as we iris in on The 19 breezing through beautiful countryside (the iris -- a nostalgic film technique if ever there was one).

When the train stops to water up, Shack's hobo senses tingle. After a tramp boards his train, Shack fills with demonic glee at the prospect of killing another "goddamn 'bo". When The 19 moves again, Shack finds the hobo and knocks him out with a hammer. The 'bo subsequently falls under the train and is mangled. As The 19 rolls away from this bisected man, the smooth music kicks back in and the credits roll. This scene, as much as any other in Aldrich's oeuvre, is a perfect summation of his career. It is alternately, macho and campy. A career that produced such he-man pictures as The Dirty Dozen, Attack, Kiss Me Deadly, and The Longest Yard also produced the camp classics Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte, and The Killing of Sister George (with this kind of resume, Aldrich would damn near top my list of "The best directors you've never heard of"). This is not surprising, however. As much as his action pictures are known for their unrelenting testosterone fueled masculinity, an element of camp pervades most of them. The absurdly evil Borgnine character and the incongruous seventies music in Emperor of the North create an opening scene that is downright laughable. Add a little more blood and substitute the smooth music with an obscure early sixties pop tune, and this scene could very easily belong in an early John Waters movie.

Just as in another Lee Marvin movie I covered last week, this film revels in excess. In our introduction to A no. 1, he uses a live chicken as a weapon against children whom Cigaret has employed to steal from A no. 1. This is the kind of role that Marvin excelled at. His dialogue is filled with the barbed one-liners that few actors could deliver with the venomous yet lovably smug non-chalance that Marvin displayed. In one exchange, A no. 1 responds to Cigaret's remark of, "Emperors know a lot, huh?" with, "They know plenty kid. A no. 1 knows more."

In a typical scene, A no. 1 decides to get baptized in a lake as a diversion so that Cigaret can steal the clothes of church parishioners. When the priest asks if he has sinned, A no. 1 ogles the breasts of a nubile parishioner whose baptism gown has become wet and clingy, and responds in a creepily lecherous tone, "I have sinned." In another movie, Marvin's character would have been the creepy old man who hides in the bushes outside of a female locker room while vigorously masturbating. In Emperor of the North, he is the hero. Significant for Marvin, this was the sort of role that allowed him to indulge in his alcoholism, as his resulting disheveled appearance and gruff demeanor aided in the verisimilitude of his performance.

Just as Marvin played his vulgar hero at full tilt, Borgnine, likewise, clearly relished the opportunity to play such a one-dimensional characterization of evil. Incidentally, much of the scenery in this movie is marred by presence of huge Borgnine shaped teeth marks. Carradine's over the top performance, on the other hand, is quite grating. It is very much in the vein of Susan George's wild-eyed performance from Dirty Mary Crazy Larry. Throughout the seventies, Carradine was quite capable of turning in nuanced, subtle characterizations, particularly in Altman films, so it could be argued that his characterization of Cigaret is purposefully annoying. Seeing as his character is far less likable than the unredeemably evil Shack, however, he probably just turned in a bad performance.

Emperor of the North does not contain characters, but rather archetypes: Good, Evil, and Youth. Although this film takes place during the Depression, it sums up all of the struggles occurring in the sixties and seventies, with each character representing a side in this struggle. Aldrich celebrates the changing of the guard in that the old school authoritarian ways of Shack are soon to end. It is not surprising that this movie has gained something of a cult following in recent years. Although much of this is due to the fact the film's anti-authoritarian message will always remain resonant with the young'uns, I would surmise that the real reason for its cult status is that this film's camp value, like wine, only gets better with age. More than anything, however, people just like to see Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine in motherfucking chain/ax/lumber/sledgehammer fights.

(side note: I know the quality of some of these videos is not the greatest but they were the best I could find on youtube)

Friday, July 11, 2008

When Presidents Attack

In this day and age, it seems that people running for public office need to have time machines on hand so that they can correct any minor gaffes, bad decisions, or bad associations they may have had many years prior. Even the slightest past faux pas will have consequences in this age when 24 hour news channels, hungry to fill the time, will repeat those mistakes ad nauseum. One wonders what previous elections would have looked like were they held in this same environment. One thing is certain, it is a crying shame that this clip from Don Siegel's awesome version of Hemingway's The Killers was never used against Reagan in his bid for the White House:

[Side Note: although Reagan was a sub par actor in most films, this was one of the only performances of his that I ever found thoroughly convincing.]

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Prime Cut (1972)

dir. Michael Ritchie

Although the seventies were a time of sexual explicitness in Hollywood cinema, the seeds were planted earlier. Throughout the fifties and sixties, as Hollywood films competed with both TV and the racier pictures coming out of Europe, the previously puritanical Production Code became far less strict. Movies during this period were much freer to explore previously taboo subject matter (e.g. sex, fornication, and fucking), and some of the more maverick directors pushed the limits of good taste to the breaking point. Throughout this same period, the sexual revolution was also in full force. And when the Production Code was finally abandoned altogether in 1968 and replaced by the ratings system, what resulted was a full on fuck-fest on the silver screen. Of course, with all this free love came the inevitable reactionary backlash. As time rolled on, directors were far less interested in depicting fun sex, but rather in showing the supposed consequences of a liberated citizenry.

Unfortunately, this backlash resulted in a disproportionate number of, even the most mainstream seventies flicks, showing graphic depictions of rape. These films took full advantage of the newfound cinematic freedoms while, at the same time, punishing viewers for liberated sexual attitudes. An offshoot of this trend was the white slavery movie. In these pictures, unsuspecting young women are forced into a life of prostitution by sadistic businessmen. Although the idea of white slavery was not new, it had not been depicted in film with such ferocity until the seventies. It was in this genre, in particular, that filmmakers could give in fully to grotesque sexual fantasies under the guise of cautionary sexual tales. Although the majority of these films were lower profile drive-in fare, a few of these movies were studio pictures. And few of them were as outlandish as Michael Ritchie's gem Prime Cut.

Although Michael Ritchie did not have a prolific career, he did helm a string of solid, entertaining pictures throughout the seventies. He is one of those directors whose work most people are familiar with (The Candidate, The Bad News Bears, Fletch), yet whose name is virtually unknown. Incidentally, he came very close to being included on a previous list I made of almost great directors. Like so many directors of his generation, his work saw a sharp decline in quality over the course of the eighties (not to denigrate Fletch). Whether he just lucked out in the seventies as a director for hire, or he actually was a great director who just stopped caring by the time the 80s rolled around, I can't say for sure. But if someone were to argue for Ritchie's genius, Prime Cut's opening scene would be a good piece of evidence.

This sequence depicts the process by which a cow becomes delicious, delicious food. This scene is reminiscent of those films frequently shown on "Mr. Roger's Neighborhood" in which the production of certain commodities was shown in detail (that is, if "Mr. Roger's Neighborhood" were produced by PETA). As the titles come across the screen, we hear the high pitched sound of a slaughterin' saw accompanied by the bisection of names on the screen. All the while, elevator music is pumped into the abattoir. As slaughterhouse workers mindlessly do their job, a shoe moves unnoticed along the conveyor belt. Although it won't be made abundantly clear until a few scenes in, we have been introduced to Murphy, an Irish hood from Chicago who ran afoul of Kansas City filth entrepreneur/rancher Mary Ann (played here with sadistic glee by Gene Hackman), and wound up as a strand of hot dogs. The slaughterhouse motif, implied cannibalism, and saw sounds in the credits were, no doubt, inspirations for Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

As the movie kicks in, we learn that Mary Ann is in debt to the Chicago mob to the tune of $500,000. Seeing as it does not like to be trifled with, the mob sends Nick Devlin to Kansas City to set things straight (Devlin is played by Lee Marvin, a full-time alcoholic who, in his spare time, turned in stellar performances in some of the coolest movies of his era). When Devlin finds Mary Ann, he soon discovers that, aside from delving in the farm business and the drug trade; Mary Ann also deals in young women, whom he keeps naked, drugged and penned up like prized hogs in the middle of his barn. As if to drive the point home, Mary Ann states, "Well, cow flesh, girl flesh, it's all the same to me. What they're buying, I'm selling." A thoroughly appalled Devlin takes a girl named Poppy (Sissy Spacek in her first major movie role) in his custody as exchange for some of the money he's owed.

Mary Ann is none too pleased with his situation, and he engages in a battle of wills with the Chicago mob as the wise-cracking Devlin continually gets Mary Ann's goat. In the film's second half, a series of plot twists unfold in purposefully noiresque fashion. We soon learn that Mary Ann's wife Clarabelle (obvious much) previously had relations with Devlin (along with any man that happened to wander into her field of vision), and during a final barb-filled encounter, Devlin bids her a nasty farewell. Meanwhile, Mary Ann has kidnapped Poppy, and Devlin grabs a few men to aid him in her rescue. Taking place on Mary Ann's ranch, the film climaxes in a predictable though entertaining fashion.

If anything, Prime Cut excels in excess. Aside from the subject matter and copious Sissy Spacek nudity, Prime Cut is over the top and obvious in other less obvious ways. The aforementioned slaughterhouse scene goes on much further than good taste
necessitates. And later in the film, when a fight breaks out at a county fair, and gun toting hillbillies open fire on Devlin and Poppy, the fair spectators take no notice. This is just an everyday ritual for these folks, after all, why should they react? In this and many other ways, Ritchie presents us with the most exaggerated view of small town folks. The tone of this movie is best captured, however, in the climax to the fair chase scene. It is here that a wheat thresher destroys an empty car (yes, this is how the scene ends). For what seems an eternity, we watch as the entire damned car is devoured by the thresher. This scene has no reason to exist, but damned if it ain't entertaining. Much the same can be said of the movie itself.

Side Note: Prime Cut's imdb page lists the following keywords: Kansas City, Female Frontal Nudity, Female Nudity, County Fair, Female Full Frontal Nudity. In the interest of protecting viewers who haven't seen this movie, imdb has blocked these keywords with a warning that states: Spoiler Alert! Rollover or vote to view plot keywords! (I'm not entirely sure why they need that second exclamation mark, by the way). If imdb didn't have the foresight to block these spoilers, unsuspecting readers would have had this movie ruined in finding out that it involves not only Kansas City and a county fair but also that it contains three different kinds of female nudity! (I take it back, random exclamation marks are fun!)]

[Second Side Note: When I looked up pictures for this movie on the interweb, the majority contained a nekkid Sissy Spacek. I actually did want to include pictures of the pig/ho pens because the absurdity of it all has to be seen to be believed. I did not know what Blogger's policy is, regarding nudity, however. Seeing as I didn't want to risk the loss of my blog, I decided not to post the pictures. Anyways, it's none too hard too find these pictures if you really want to see them.]

Here is the opening credit sequence:

Friday, July 4, 2008

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Predator Continues Its Political Tradition

After waiting my entire lifetime to hear this, news has finally arrived that Sonny Landham announced his candidacy for a Senate seat in Kentucky. Most people will remember him as the Indian soldier Billy from Predator. If he wins, it would make him the third actor from that movie, after Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jesse Ventura, to gain elected office . Here's to hoping that Carl Weathers becomes Governor somewhere, thus completing the Predator Gubernatorial trifecta.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

I Want to Live! (1958)

dir. Robert Wise

"I'm the little ball bouncing around a roulette wheel. Everyone betting me to land where it's gonna do them the most good: votes for the DA, circulation for the newspapers, promotions for the cops."
-Barbara Graham

Women in prison -- do there exist three more salacious words in the English language? No one knows for sure, but one thing is certain; there exists no sexier a movie genre. Staples of late night skinemax and sleazy drive-ins, these movies present a vivid male fantasy world full of nudity, breasts, and naked women. In these flicks, dangerous female inmates must contend with bull dyke prison guards, catfights, and raging libidos that force them to engage in copious amounts of lesbian sex. This genre presents an interesting conundrum: in this male fantasy world, women are simultaneously dom/sub and men are nowhere to be found. One wonders the myriad psychological implications of the male desire for these movies. Here, women are both contained and in charge. Perhaps, beneath the male construct of women as subordinates there is a subconscious desire to see them in a dominant position where men have become so pointless as to become nonexistent. Either that or we just like to see tits on the screen. Regardless, Robert Wise's I Want to Live! is not one of these movies.

I Want to Live! belongs to a large group of message pictures produced by Hollywood in the forties and fifties. During this period, many producers sought to expose and examine various problems that most of square America would rather keep buried. As a result, many of these pictures are bogged down by a laughable, if earnest, preachy tone. Although not without camp value, I Want to Live! does lack some of the heavy-handed moralizing of pictures by such people as Dore Schary or Stanley Kramer. This is due in large part to the work of director Robert Wise. Wise brings a hard edged, realistic sensibility to the subject matter. Although generally more well-known for lavish musicals such as West Side Story and The Sound of Music, Wise had a long illustrious career excelling in many genres, particularly crime thrillers. It was his background in thrillers that gave him the know how to deal with this film's subject matter: crime, imprisonment, and the death penalty. Of all his assets as a filmmaker perhaps none was more important to this picture's success than his attention to detail. Aside from giving this movie a realistic feel, it also resulted in one of the most harrowing climaxes that Wise ever filmed.

I Want To Live! opens with a scene as wild and inventive as the Johnny Mandel jazz score that accompanies it. We are thrust into a boozy, scandalous night club in which everything is shot at oblique angles. Susan Hayward, playing real life criminal Barbara Graham, is out with a john in this seedy club. When she brings her client to a motel, Graham runs afoul of the law. It is obvious, though, that she is all too familiar with johnny law. Graham exhibits the disregard for morals and seen-it-all attitude of a Jerri Blank. Doing hard time in the slammer ain't no thing for this tough broad. Indeed, it is soon clear that Graham's greatest asset, apart from her ability to bed copious numbers of men, is her smart-assery. Never without a clever quip, she is quick to put in their places any folks looking to get the better of her.

As the years pass by, however, Graham develops a deep desire to reform her ways. When she informs her gangster boss that she plans to quit in order to get married, he tells her that she is making a mistake and then knocks over a card castle, which we see in close up. Cut to a baby crying as the now domesticated Graham struggles with poverty and a junkie husband. It isn't long before she comes crawling back to her former boss, if only to earn money so that her baby won't starve. When the cops arrest members of this group for the murder of a 61 year old crippled widow, she gets lumped in with them and thrown in jail. Things only get worse from there.

Because the newspapers are hungry for a juicy story, they paint her guilt in bright red colors across the headlines. The jury has no choice but to convict her. [SPOILER ALERT] After Graham is put on death row, Wise serves up an intense, suspenseful series of scenes. Graham eventually falls into the good graces of a sympathetic lawyer who struggles to retry her case. On the day that she is to be executed, the Governor grants her a stay of execution, but her lawyer is unsuccessful in appealing her case. Her fate sealed, she walks to the gas chamber. A stickler for detail, Wise shows every excruciatingly painful detail involved in putting someone to death. Very few scenes are this viscerally gut-wrenching. Knowing that the real life Graham may have been innocent, adds an even greater weight to Wise's work. Not knowing the particulars of Graham's case, I wasn't sure how this movie was going to end. One gets the feeling that it may have been a struggle for Wise to keep such a dark ending. Although the real life Graham was executed, it wouldn't be surprising if a contemporary audience found the film's ending a shock, given Hollywood's artistic license and propensity for cheery resolutions.

[SPOILERS CONTINUED] As harrowing as the execution is, a far more subtle scene stands out for its misanthropy. During all the hubub surrounding Graham's execution day, a newspaper office has two headlines ready: one declaring Graham's big break and the other announcing her execution. Aside from being a clever homage to Citizen Kane, the movie that Wise's big break (as an editor), this scene simultaneously lays bare the inhumanity of the press and the cheap commodification of modern human existence. Wise and Hayward went to painstaking detail in examining the complex life of this troubled woman. Yet, the totality of Graham's existence is laid out in the splashy headline of a local periodical. She is no longer a person but a means to sell a newspaper. Another result of the humanity brought to this character, is the laying bare of the dangerous consequences of a flawed system. It is because of cases such as this, that it seems Wise probably saw this movie as means of facilitating a re-examination of capital punishment. Although the death penalty was halted for a brief period in the seventies, a recent Supreme Court ruling negates any chance of this happening again. [END SPOILER ALERT]

It should be noted that no matter how much of a complex character we are presented with in this movie, the real Graham was much less likable, and most likely present at the crime in question (if not fully guilty). Regardless, the Graham in this movie was miles from the law abiding characters generally put at the front and center of the "wrongfully accused" genre. She's guilty of everything but murder. In this way she is far more believable than, say, the never-hurt-a-fly character Henry Fonda plays in The Wrong Man (a thoroughly awesome movie, by the way). Although not all of us engage in prostitution and small cons, we are better able to relate to this character because of her flaws. Wise seems to be saying that in this world, we're all guilty and to put anyone to death is a blatant form of hypocrisy. More than anything, the moral ambiguity of both the main character and the plot are signs of a changing Hollywood. The small gains in artistic freedom that allowed Wise to make this movie would eventually erupt into the anything goes artistic renaissance of sixties and seventies Hollywood.

It should be noted that this review represents a first for me; I have never before reviewed an Academy Award winning picture (Susan Hayward won the Oscar for her role). I feel a little dirty now. No need to worry folks. I don't plan to make a habit of this. Some of my next reviews will include Prime Cut, a movie in which Lee Marvin rescues a young Sissy Spacek from the white slave trade; and Emperor of the North, a flick in which Lee Marvin and Keith Carradine vie for title of "King of the Railway Hobos". Let the trash begin.