I Escaped From Devil’s Island (1973, directed by William Whitney)

The year is 1918 and the French penal colony, Devil’s Island, is renowned as the world’s most brutal prison.  Hidden away from mainland Europe, it is populated by the worst of the worst.  The prisoners have been sentenced to either spend their life on the island or to die at the blade of guillotine and the guards are all sadists.  Le Bras (Jim Brown) has been sentenced to die but he impresses his fellow inmates by putting up a fight on his way to have his head chopped off.  He doesn’t succeed in escaping but, fortunately for him, the death penalty is abolished mere moments before the blade falls.

Le Bras is alive but he’s still been condemned to spend the rest of his life on Devil’s Island, under the sadistic eye of the head guard, Maj. Marteau (Paul Richards).  However, Le Bras has no intention of being anyone’s prisoner.  He teams up with two other prisoners, a pacifist named Davert (Christopher George) and Jo-Jo (Richard Ely), who, because he is gay, is abused by both the guards and the other prisoners.  The three of them manage to escape from the prison but they still have to make their way through the jungle.  Along the way, they visit a leper colony and Le Bras takes some time to get busy with a native woman.  Meanwhile, Marteau remains hot behind them, determined to capture them and send them back to the prison.

If I Escaped From Devil’s Island sounds familiar, that may be because you’ve seen Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman in Papillon.  Papillon was a major studio production with big stars, a huge budget, and an epic running time.  I Escaped From Devil’s Island was a low-budget film starring B-movie stars and with a 90-minute running time that was the exact opposite of epic.  Roger Corman produced I Escaped From Devil’s Island to capitalize on the expected success of Papillon and he started production early enough that I Escaped From Devil’s Island actually beat Papillon to theaters by a matter of weeks.  Corman originally tried to hire Martin Scorsese to direct I Escaped From Devil’s Island.  When Scorsese decided to follow John Cassavetes’s advice and do a personal film instead, Corman ended up hiring William Whitney to direct.  (Scorsese’s personal film turned out to be Mean Streets, so he probably made the right decision.)

I Escaped From Devil’s Island is an entertaining B-movie.  It doesn’t have the epic sweep of Papillon but it does have a fun cast and all the action that you would expect from a 70s Corman production.  Jim Brown was never a great actor but he never claimed to be.  What Brown had was a tremendous physical presence and a confident movie star charisma and both of those are put to good use in I Escaped From Devil’s Island.  Whether he was playing football or beating up bad guys, Jim Brown was always the epitome of cool and that’s especially true in this film.  Christopher George has some good scenes as a pacifist who believes in non-violent resistance and Paul Richards is a great villain but this is a movie that you watch for Jim Brown and he doesn’t disappoint.

As of today, Jim Brown is 84 years old.  As anyone who has seen him interviewed recently can tell you, Jim Brown is still the epitome of cool.  When Jim Brown speaks, whether people agree with him or not, they still shut up and listen.  Happy birthday, Jim Brown!

Love on the Shattered Lens: Rapture (dir by John Guillermin)

The 1965 film, Rapture, is an odd one.

It takes place in France, largely at an isolated home sitting on a cliff above the Brittany coast.  Frederick Larbaud (Melvyn Douglas) is a former judge who has largely retreated from society.  He lives in his house with his teenager daughter, Agnes (Patricia Gozzi) and his promiscuous housekeeper, Karen (Gunnel Lindbloom).  He’s a stern man, one who is obviously struggling to overcome a vaguely defined personal tragedy.  He is very overprotective of his daughter, Agnes.

As for Agnes, she alternates between moments of childish immaturity and moments of surprising clarity.  She’s the type who still plays with dolls but who also casually tosses them over the cliff so that they can shatter on the rocks below.  She seems to be naive and innocent but, at the same time, she’s also capable of blackmailing Karen and threatening to tell her father that Karen’s boyfriend sneaks into the house at night.  When the sheltered Agnes gets her father’s permission to make a scarecrow for the garden, she throws herself into the work, even going so far as to flirt with the scarecrow after it’s been built.

Meanwhile, a sailor named Joseph (Dean Stockwell) has been arrested for getting into a fight during a drunken night on the town.  While he’s being transported to jail, the prison bus runs off the road.  Joseph escapes from the bus and runs up a hill, passing by Frederick, Agnes, and Karen.  Though the police manage to seriously wound Joseph, he still escapes.

Later that night, during a violent storm, Agnes is shocked to see that her scarecrow has vanished.  While she’s out searching for it, she comes across a delirious Joseph.  Because Joseph has stolen the scarecrow’s clothes, Agnes decides that her scarecrow has come to life and, as a result, Joseph belongs to her.  Surprisingly, Frederick expresses no reservations about allowing Joseph to stay at the house while he recovers from his gunshot wound.

Once Joseph recovers, he explains to Frederick what happened and says that he should probably turn himself in and hope for the best.  Frederick, however, disagrees.  It turns out that Frederick has an agenda of his own and part of that agenda is revealing that brutality of the police.  He continues to allow Joseph to hide out at his house but little does Frederick know that Joseph is falling in love with Agnes (and, of course, Agnes still thinks that Joseph is her scarecrow come to life).

Rapture took me by surprise.  When the film started, I honestly thought it was going to be unbearably pretentious and I wasn’t exactly filled with confidence when I discovered that the film was directed by John Guillermin, a prolific British director whose career spanned from the 50s and the 80s but whose overall output is not particularly highly regarded among film historians.  With its obvious debt to Ingmar Bergman, Rapture did not seem like the type of movie that one would expect to be successfully directed by the 1960s equivalent of Taylor Hackford.  And, it should be said, that the first fourth of the film is rather pretentious and a bit silly.  The black-and-white cinematography is frequently gorgeous and atmospheric but Agnes’s eccentricity often feels overwritten and it seems to take forever for Joseph to actually show up at the house.

However, things get better.  The film, itself, doesn’t become any less pretentious but eventually Joseph starts to fall for Agnes and the chemistry between Dean Stockwell and Patricia Gozzi is strong enough that it carries the viewer over the film’s rough spots.  The film becomes less about how strange Agnes is and more about a sheltered girl falling in love for the first time and, freed from the inconsistency that marred her characterization during the first part of Rapture, Patricia Gozzi’s performance starts to click as Agnes becomes relatable and even sympathetic.

The film hits a high point when Joseph and Agnes try to start a life for themselves away from Agnes’s father and we watch a lengthy montage of their steadily deteriorating relationship.  In a manner of minutes, we witness how quickly the intrusion of the real world threatens to cause their too perfect romance to go awry.  Most of the montage is made up of overhead shots and it captures the feeling of two naive lovers being overwhelmed by the difficulties of living in the real world.  With each movement of the camera, we feel Agnes and Joseph’s world getting a little bit more claustrophobic and a little more threatening.

The film ends on a sad note, which shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone watching.  From the minute that Agnes leads a wounded Joseph into the house, we know that their love is doomed.  That said, it’s still a rather odd ending and one that raises more questions than it answers.  It’s a strange ending for a strange film and it’s one that will stick with you long after you watch it.

4 Shots From 4 Films: Special Alejandro Jodorowsky Edition

4 Shots From 4 Films is just what it says it is, 4 shots from 4 of our favorite films. As opposed to the reviews and recaps that we usually post, 4 Shots From 4 Films lets the visuals do the talking!

Today is the 91st birthday of one of cinema’s greatest surrealists, Alejandro Jodorowsky.  When it comes to Jodorowsky, finding 4 shots from 4 films is not the difficult thing.  The difficult thing is trying to narrow down all of the options to just four.  Along with directing the first midnight film, El Topo, Jodorowsky was also the first director to make a serious effort to bring Dune to the big screen.  No offense to either David Lynch or Denis Villeneuve but it’s hard to think of any other director who would have been more suited to the task.  Sadly, Jodorowsky’s Dune may never be made but he’s still responsible for a filmography that continues to intrigue and outage to this day.

4 Shots From 4 Films

Fando y Lis (1968, directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky)

El Topo (1970, directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky)

The Holy Mountain (1973, directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky)

Santa Sangre (1989, directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky)

Music Video Of The Day: If I Can’t Have You by Yvonne Elliman (1978, dir by ????)

I’m still in my disco mood from hosting last Saturday’s #ILikeToWatch live tweet so here’s Yvonne Elliman singing If I Can’t Have You.  Technically, this is less a music video and more of a guest appearance on a TV show but, in the 70s, that’s as close as many songs got to getting a music video.

Yvonne Elliman also played Mary Magdalene in Jesus Christ Superstar.  If I Can’t Have You was originally written for the Bee Gees but was given to Yvonne after the band decided that they couldn’t make the song work.  She did a great job with it because this is one of those songs that you could just listen to a hundred times a day.