Griffith Gets Serious: Winter Kill (1974, directed by Jud Taylor)


Eagle Lake, a mountain resort town in California, has a problem.  It’s almost tourist season and there is a sniper stalking through the night, using his rifle to pick off citizens and painting messages like “The First” and “The Second” in the snow.  It’s up to police chief Sam McNeill (Andy Griffith) to figure out the killer’s motives and capture him before the vacation season begins!  To catch the killer, McNeill is going to have to investigate his friends and neighbors, all of whom have secrets that they don’t want to have revealed.

1974 was a busy year for Andy Griffith.  Best-known for playing the folksy and reassuring Sheriff Taylor for over ten years on The Andy Griffith Show, Griffith tried to change his image by appearing in three unexpectedly dark made-to-TV movies.  In Pray For The Wildcats and Savages, Griffith played the villain.  In Winter Kill, he’s back in a more familiar role.  He is once again playing a lawman, though this one carries a gun and doesn’t have time to sit on his porch and play the guitar while Aunt Bea makes dinner.  Instead, he’s getting pressure from all sides to capture a psycho sniper who, at the start of the movie, shoots an old woman after throwing pebbles at her bedroom window.  Eventually, the sniper even ends up kidnapping Chief McNeill’s girlfriend!  This never happened in Mayberry!

Winter Kill is a pretty good mystery.  It’s not strictly a horror film but the sight of the masked sniper, making his way through the night and coldy gunning down unsuspecting victims is scary enough that it might as well be.  Andy Griffith was surprisingly tough and gritty as Chief McNeill.  He might be a good guy in this movie but you still know better than to mess with him.  The rest of the cast is made up of television regulars but keep an eye out for a youngish Nick Notle playing a cocky ski instructor.

Winter Kill was actually meant to be a backdoor pilot for a show where Chief McNeill would battle crime on a weekly basis.  Though that didn’t happen, the concept was later retooled and became a short-lived series called Adams of Eagle Lake.

Captain Kirk vs. Sheriff Taylor: Pray For The Wildcats (1974, directed by Robert Michael Lewis)


The year is 1974 and there’s nothing more dangerous than being a hippie in Baja California.  That’s because psychotic business Sam Farragutt (played by Andy Griffith!) is on the loose.  Sam likes to describe himself as being a hippie himself.  “A hippie with money,” Sam puts it as he waves a hundred dollar bill in the face of a hippie without money,

Actually, there is one thing more dangerous than being a hippie in Baja California and that’s being an ad executive.  Once again, Sam Farragutt is to blame.  He’s willing to give his business to three ad execs but first they have to agree to go down to Baja and ride around with him on their motorcycles.  The three ad execs are Terry Maxon (former child evangelist Marjoe Gortner!), Paul McIllvain (former Brady Bunch star Robert Reed!), and suicidal burn-out Warren Summerfield (William Shatner!).  Warren is having an affair with Paul’s wife (Angie Dickinson!) but he’s still planning on committing suicide in Mexico.

However, going to Mexico gives Warren a new lease on life.  After Warren discovers that Farragutt is responsible for the death of two hippies, he becomes determined to make sure that justice is served.  Soon, Andy Griffith (!) is chasing William Shatner (!) across the Mexican desert.  Someone’s going to die.  Is it going to be Sheriff Taylor or Captain Kirk?

Pray For The Wildcats was a made-for-TV movie that aired the same year as Savages.  Both movies were a part of Andy Griffith’s attempt to change his image after playing the folksy Sheriff Taylor on The Andy Griffith Show.  Griffith is a good villain but the main appeal of Pray for the Wildcats is the chance to see William Shatner doing his thing.  Shatner has a juicy role here, playing a man who is at first suicidal and then righteously indignant.  He overemotes with the self-serious intensity that was Shatner’s trademark in the years before he finally developed a sense of humor about himself.  The movie itself gets bogged down with unnecessary flashbacks and dated dialogue but the spectacle of Griffith vs. Shatner makes it all worth it.

Escape From Mayberry: Savages (1974, directed by Lee H. Katzin)


Ben (Sam Bottoms) is a gullible college student working at a gas station in the Mojave desert.  Horton Madec (Andy Griffith) is a wealthy attorney from Los Angeles who walks with a limp and who fancies himself a big game hunter.  Madec hires Ben to serve as his guide through the desert.  Madec says that he’s hunting a ram but instead, he ends up shooting and killing an old prospector.  Even after Madec offers to pay him off, Ben wants to go to the police.  Madec gives it some thought and decides to hunt Ben himself.

After forcing Ben to strip down to his shorts, Madec sets him loose in the desert.  As Ben tries to make his way back to civilization, Madec follows close behind and uses his rifle not to kill Ben but instead to keep him from drinking water or taking shelter from the sun.

Savages deserves to better known than it is.  The film does a good job of making you feel as if you’re trapped out in the desert with Ben, trying your damndest to survive while some maniac follows close behind, taunting you and refusing to allow you to get any relief.  Horton Madec is pure evil, a maniac who brags about how he can do anything he wants because he has money and he knows people.  That he’s played by Andy Griffith makes him even more dangerous because you know there’s no way anyone would believe that Andy Griffith took you out to the desert tried to kill you.

After playing the folksy and friendly Andy Taylor for nine seasons on The Andy Griffith Show, Griffith tried to leave Mayberry behind by taking on villainous roles in made-for-TV movies like this one and Pray For The Wildcats.  Though he actually started off his film career by playing a villain in A Face In The Crowd, it was still probably a shock for audiences in 1974 to turn on Savages and see Andy Griffith cruelly drinking a martini while another man nearly died of dehydration in front of him.  Griffith goes full psycho in the role of Horton Madec and is totally convincing.  (Of course, audiences preferred the folksy side of Griffith which is why, even after ten years straight of playing bad guys, Griffith still ended up starring in Matlock.)

Even though it’s Griffith’s show, Sam Bottom does okay in the role of Ben.  He has the right look for the character and that’s really all that the part requires.  For the majority of the movie, it’s just Griffith and Bottoms but eventually, James Best shows up as Sheriff Bert Williams.  Five years later, Best would achieve a certain immortality when he was cast as Sheriff Roscoe P. Coltrane on The Dukes of Hazzard.

Savages has never gotten an official DVD release but it can be viewed on YouTube, along with Griffith’s other villainous turn from 1974, Pray for the Wildcats.

Book Review: ANDY & DON: The Making of a Friendship and a Classic American TV Show (Simon and Schuster)


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THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW is one of the most beloved sitcoms in television history, still being run on cable networks fifty-five years after its debut. The show about life in small town Mayberry revolves around the friendship between mellow Sheriff Andy Taylor and his hyperactive deputy, Barney Fife. ANDY & DON not only tells us about them, but about the real life friendship between the two stars, Andy Griffith and Don Knotts.

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The book shows us the very similar backgrounds of the two comic legends. Both came from poor rural towns (Knotts in West Virginia, Griffith in North Carolina), and had their share of grief and difficulty growing up. The pair met when both were cast in the Broadway hit No Time for Sergeants, and hit it off right away. When Griffith was slated to star in a new sitcom as a country sheriff, Knotts called and asked if…

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The Medium is the Message: Andy Griffith in A FACE IN THE CROWD (Warner Brothers 1957)


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If you only know Andy Griffith from his genial TV Southerners in THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW and MATLOCK, brace yourself for A FACE IN THE CROWD. Griffith’s folksy monologues had landed him a starring role in the hit Broadway comedy NO TIME FOR SERGEANTS. The vicious, wild-eyed Lonesome Rhodes was thousands of miles away from anything he had done before, and the actor, guided by the sure hand of director Elia Kazan, gives us a searing performance in this satire of the power of the media, and the menace of the demagogue.

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When we first meet Larry Rhodes, he’s in the drunk tank in rural Pickett, Arkansas, a small town not unlike Mayberry. Local radio host Marcia Jeffries is doing a remote broadcast there, hoping to catch some ratings. The no-account drifter is hostile at first, but when the sheriff promises him an early release, you can practically see the wheels spinning…

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Embracing the Melodrama #27: Go Ask Alice (dir by John Korty)


Go Ask Alice

Earlier today, I took a look at The People Next Doora film about a family torn apart by the discovery that their teenage daughter is taking drugs.  For all of that film’s melodrama and over-the-top moments, it still worked.  It may have felt like it was taking place on a plane of heightened reality but it still felt real nonetheless.  Among the many films in the drugs-in-the-suburbs genre, that general feeling of reality made The People Next Door unique.  Far more typical of the genre is the 1973 made-for-TV movie, Go Ask Alice.

Go Ask Alice is based on a YA book that’s been in print for 43 years now.  (I can still remember spending an afternoon reading it in a Barnes and Noble when I was 14 years old.)  The book claims to be the diary of a  teenage girl who ended up getting addicted to drugs and sex.  She runs away from home for a bit and, even when she does manage to stop using drugs, her friends still insist on secretly slipping her acid.  She goes crazy and ends up spending some time in a mental asylum.  Eventually, she’s released and moves to a new town with her family.  She end the diary saying that she’s looking forward to the future and then, in the afterward, we’re told that she died three weeks later of an overdose and this diary has been published so that we can all learn from her story.

Now, oddly enough, when Go Ask Alice was originally published, it was apparently sold as being an authentic diary of an anonymous teenage girl who had been a patient of the book’s “editor”, Dr. Beatrice Sparks.  However, if you actually read the book, it’s pretty obvious that, while Dr. Sparks may have indeed used some of her patients’ real-life experiences, Go Ask Alice is in no way authentic.  Instead, it’s a classic example of the type of cautionary tale in which a character makes one mistake (in this case, the girl drinks a soda that’s been spiked with LSD) and, immediately afterwards, everything bad thing that possibly could happen does happen.  The purpose of the book is to shock and titillate, to make us wonder how this girl can go from being the sweet optimist who bought a diary because she feels that she finally has something to say to being so jaded that she casually says stuff like, “Another day, another blowjob.”  And, of course, the answer is that she didn’t because the whole thing is totally made up.

But that still didn’t stop anyone from making a movie out of the book and informing us, at the start of the movie, that the story we are about to watch is true and only the names and certain details have been changed to protect everyone’s privacy.  Our diarist (who is now definitely named Alice) is played by a young actress named Jamie Smith-Jackson, who is sympathetic and pretty.  Alice’s mother (Ruth Roman) is too repressed and uptight to provide any guidance to her rapidly maturing daughter.  Meanwhile, Alice’s father is played by William Shatner, so we know he’s not going to be able to do any good either.

Much as in the original book, Alice goes to one party, drinks on LSD-spiked soda, and her life is never the same.  Soon, she’s spending all of her time doing drugs and, as she informs us, having a “monthly pregnancy scare.”  She’s no longer hanging out with her smart, nerdy friends.  Instead, she spends all of her time with a bunch of petty criminals who recruit Alice to help deliver drugs to the students at the junior high.  (“I push at the elementary school!” one junior high kid snarls).  Eventually, Alice runs away from home and lives on the streets.  Fortunately, she runs into a liberal Catholic priest (played by Andy Griffith and yes, you read that right) and starts trying to get her life straight…

Go Ask Alice is no The People Next Door but it’s no Reefer Madness either.  What it gets wrong about teenage drug use, it gets right about just how confusing and alienating it can be to be 15 years old.  At the same time, I’d be lying if I said that this film did not have some camp appeal.  How can it not when it features not only Andy Griffith talking tough but also William Shatner with a bushy mustache?

And guess what?

You can watch it below!

44 Days of Paranoia #29: A Face In The Crowd (dir by Elia Kazan)


For our latest entry in the 44 Days of Paranoia, we take a look at Elia Kazan’s 1957 political satire, A Face In The Crowd.

The film opens with radio producer Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal) visiting a local jail in Arkansas.  She’s looking for human interest stories that she can feature on her show and she discovers one when she meets an imprisoned drifter named Larry Rhodes (Andy Griffith).  When Marcia interviews him, Rhodes proves himself to be a natural performer, telling folksy jokes and launching into a song about being a “free man in the morning.”  Rhodes proves to be so popular that, after he’s released from jail, he pursues a career in show business with Marcia as both his manager and, eventually, his lover.

Moving to Memphis, a renamed Lonesome Rhodes eventually lands his own television variety show and he soon starts doing irreverent commercials for local companies.  Along the way, Rhodes also finds a new manager, the glib and manic Joey DePalma (Anthony Franciosa).  With the help of Joey, Rhodes becomes the spokesman for a fake energy supplement, Vitajex.

As Rhodes’ fame grows, so does his ego.  After dumping Jeffries, Rhodes impulsively marries a 17 year-old majorette (Lee Remick).  His show also goes national and Rhodes soon starts to use his influence to try to both promote an incompetent, business-backed Presidential candidate and to destroy anyone who he considers to be an enemy.  As his show’s disillusioned head writer (Walter Matthau) puts it, Rhodes has become a “demagogue in denim.”

A Face In The Crowd is a personal favorite of mine.  Director Kazan deftly mixes satire with melodrama and, with the exception of the weak ending, the film’s vision of media manipulation and demagogic celebrities probably feels more plausible today than when it was first released.  The film is full of great performances, from the avuncular Walter Matthau to vulnerable Patricia Neal to the innocent-and-then-not-so-innocent Lee Remick.  Anthony Franciosa is wonderfully glib and sleazy and it’s a lot of fun to watch his joy at discovering how easy it is to manipulate the world.

Ultimately, however, the film’s success is mostly due to Andy Griffith’s amazing performance as Lonesome Rhodes.  Griffith, displaying all of the folksiness but none of the empathy that would be displayed in his later television show, turns Rhodes into a force of nature, a smiling charlatan and a charismatic sociopath who manipulates for the pure enjoyment of manipulation.

To make the obvious comparison, it’s very easy to imagine Lonesome Rhodes getting his own show on MSNBC, where on a nightly basis he could bark orders at his followers and ridicule anyone who dares to question him.  But even beyond that, the character of Lonesome Rhodes resonates.  I’m from the South.  I grew up down here and I live down here.  I can tell you, from my own personal observations and experiences, that we still have our share of demagogues.  Some of them run in elections and some of them preach on Sunday but all of them have got a bit of Lonesome Rhodes inside of them.

For that reason, A Face In The Crowd is probably more relevent today than it’s ever been.

Other Entries In The 44 Days of Paranoia 

  1. Clonus
  2. Executive Action
  3. Winter Kills
  4. Interview With The Assassin
  5. The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald
  6. JFK
  7. Beyond The Doors
  8. Three Days of the Condor
  9. They Saved Hitler’s Brain
  10. The Intruder
  11. Police, Adjective
  12. Burn After Reading
  13. Quiz Show
  14. Flying Blind
  15. God Told Me To
  16. Wag the Dog
  17. Cheaters
  18. Scream and Scream Again
  19. Capricorn One
  20. Seven Days In May
  21. Broken City
  22. Suddenly
  23. Pickup on South Street
  24. The Informer
  25. Chinatown
  26. Compliance
  27. The Lives of Others
  28. The Departed