A Movie A Day #103: Mobsters (1991, directed by Michael Karbelnikoff)


The place is New York City.  The time is the prohibition era.  The rackets are controlled by powerful but out of touch gangsters like Arnold Rothstein (F. Murray Abraham), Joe Masseria (Anthony Quinn), and Salvatore Faranzano (Michael Gambon).  However, four young gangsters — Lucky Luciano (Christian Slater), Meyer Lansky (Patrick Dempsey), Frank Costello (Costas Mandylor), and Bugsy Siegel (Richard Greico) — have an ambitious plan.  They want to form a commission that will bring together all of the Mafia families as a national force.  To do it, they will have to push aside and eliminate the old-fashioned mob bosses and take over the rackets themselves.  When Masseria and Faranzano go to war over who will be the new Boss of all Bosses, Luciano and Lansky seen their opportunity to strike.

I love a good gangster movie, which is one reason that I have never cared much for Mobsters. Mobsters was made in the wake of the success of Young Guns and, like that film, it attempted to breathe new life into an old genre by casting teen heartthrobs in the lead roles.  There was nothing inherently wrong with that because Luciano, Lansky, and Seigel were all still young men, in their 20s and early 30s, when they took over the Mafia.  (Costello was 39 but Mobsters presents him as being the same age as they other three.)  The problem was that none of the four main actors were in the least bit convincing as 1920s mobsters.  Christian Slater was the least convincing Sicilian since Alex Cord in The Brotherhood.  As for the supporting cast, actors like Chris Penn and F. Murray Abraham did the best that they could with the material but Anthony Quinn’s performance in Mobsters was the worst of his long and distinguished career.

Fans of Twin Peaks will note that Lara Flynn Boyle had a small role in Mobsters.  She played Luciano’s girlfriend.  Unfortunately, other than looking pretty and dying tragically, she was not given much to do in this disappointing gangster film.

Special Veteran’s Day Edition: BACK TO BATAAN (RKO 1945)


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John Wayne  and Anthony Quinn fight World War II on the backlots of RKO (subbing for the jungles of the Philippines) in BACK TO BATAAN, a stirring exercise in propaganda ripped from headlines of the era. The film was made to stoke audience’s patriotic fires, and succeeds in it’s objective. It’s well directed and shot, has plenty of action, and superb performances by all, including a standout from 14-year-old Ducky Louie.

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Wayne plays Col. Madden, assigned to train Filipino freedom fighters (try saying that three times fast!) to battle the invading Japanese.  Quinn is Capt. Bonifacio, grandson of Filipino revolutionary hero Andres Bonifacio. He’s having issues with his girlfriend Dalisay, who’s the island version of Tokyo Rose (what he doesn’t realize is she’s secretly sending coded messages to the Allies through her broadcasts). Madden and his ragtag crew are out to destroy a Japanese gas depot, but first they encounter schoolteacher…

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Not Quite Spaghetti: Guns For San Sebastian (1968, directed by Henri Verneuil)


bdssposLeon Alastray (Anthony Quinn) is an outlaw in 18th century Mexico who is given sanctuary and hidden from the Spanish authorities by a kindly priest, Father Joseph (Sam Jaffe).  In return, Leon agrees to escort the priest to a peasant village that is under siege from the Yaqui Indians.  During the journey, Joseph dies and when Leon arrives at the village, he is mistaken for the priest.  Even though Leon’s an atheist and a womanizer, he pretends to be a man of God and tries to broker a peace with the Yaqui’s bloodthirsty leader, Golden Lance (Jaime Fernandez).  Standing in the way is Teclo (Charles Bronson), a mestizo rebel who wants to keep the Spanish and the Yaqui at war.

Because it features a score by Ennio Morricone and co-stars Charles Bronson, Guns For San Sebastian is often mistakenly referred to as being a spaghetti western.  Instead, it was a big budget American-French co-production that was filmed, on location, in Mexico. (The majority of spaghettis were filmed in Spain.)  While revolution in Mexico was a popular backdrop for many spaghetti westerns, none of them were as sympathetic to the church or the government as Guns for San Sebastian.  If Guns For San Sebastian were a true spaghetti western, Teclo would be the hero.

Guns For San Sebastian is an above average western that starts out slow but gets better as it approaches the exciting final battle between the villagers and Yaqui.  Morricone provides another great and rousing score but the main reason to watch Guns For San Sebastian is to see Anthony Quinn and Charles Bronson, two legendary tough guys, acting opposite each other and competing to see who can be the most intimidating.  In the movie, Quinn may win but you can still see the determined presence that led to Bronson becoming an unlikely movie star in the 70s.

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This Eagle Doesn’t Fly: FLAP (Warner Brothers 1970)


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FLAP is an attempt by director Sir Carol Reed to jump on the late 60’s/early70’s “relevance” bandwagon by depicting the modern-day mistreatment of the American Indian. It’s a seriocomic character study that struggles to find it’s identity, and as a result fails at both comedy and drama.

FLAP is Flapping Eagle, an ex-soldier living back on the reservation who’s “pissed off at everybody”. He’s a hard drinking man, as is just about all the Indians here, feeding into the stereotypical “drunken Indian” image. Flap’s had enough of the noise coming from construction workers building a highway project right next to the rez, and causes a fracas between the hardhats and the Indians, damaging a bulldozer in the process. Native Wounded Bear (who has a correspondence school law degree) points out the highway is gong through sacred burial ground, which turns out not to be the case. Everyone’s up in arms, especially local…

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Embracing the Melodrama #30: The Greek Tycoon (dir by J. Lee Thompson)


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“The characters in this film are fictitious and any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental”. — Completely And Totally False Disclaimer From The Greek Tycoon (1978)

In order to appreciate a film like 1978’s The Greek Tycoon, it helps to be a history nerd like me.

If you are, then you probably know that, 5 years after her husband was assassinated in Dallas, former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy remarried.  Her new husband was Aristotle Onassis, a Greek shipping magnate who was 23 years older than her and who had an unsavory reputation.  Onassis was one of the world’s richest men and was known for both his extravagant life style and for being a ruthless operator.  Depending on which books you read, Onassis is portrayed as either being either one of the world’s greatest villains (and, in fact, there’s a whole school of conspiracy theorists who believed that Onassis was somehow involved in John Kennedy’s assassination) or just a casually amoral rich man who treated his new wife like his latest trophy.  Either way, he was not the sort of person who Americans expected to become the second husband of a widowed first lady.

Of course, the Greek Tycoon is not about Aristotle and Jackie Onassis.  It’s about another Greek shipping magnate with a ruthless reputation who shocks the world by marrying the widow of a martyred President.  And, if you stick with the film all the way through the end credits, you’ll even see a disclaimer to prove it!

Anthony Quinn plays Theo Tomasis.  When we first meet him, he’s content to spend his time making crooked business deals and attending parties on a seemingly endless collection of white yachts.  He is grooming his son (Edward Albert) to take over the family business.  He loves both his wife Simi (Camilla Sparv) and his mistress (Marilu Tolo).  In fact, the only problem he has in his life is his business rival, Spyros (Raf Vallone, who played another Greek tycoon in The Other Side of Midnight).  Spyros happens to be Theo’s brother.  But other than that, Theo is content to spend all of his time dancing and breaking plates because, as the film reminds us every chance that it gets, he’s Greek.

However, things change for Theo when he meets Liz Cassidy (Jacqueline Bisset), the wife of young and charismatic Senator James Cassidy (James Franciscus).  Within minutes of meeting her, Theo is hitting on her but Liz loves her husband.  However, Sen. Cassidy soon becomes President Cassidy and this, of course, leads to Cassidy being assassinated while he and Liz are strolling down the beach.

Liz is soon married to the freshly divorced Theo and proving herself to be far more strong-willed than anyone realized.  Despite the anger and efforts of both Theo’s son and the dead President’s brother (Robin Clarke), Liz and Theo’s love endures and soon, they are such a glamorous and famous couple that its surprising that nobody ever suggests making a movie about them.

The Greek Tycoon is a big mess of a movie but it’s enjoyable if you know what inspired it.  (Of course, if you’re not into history and you don’t know anything about Aristotle and Jackie then you’ll probably find The Greek Tycoon to be one of the most boring movies ever made.)  To be honest, the story is never important in a film like this.  Instead, you watch for the clothes and the sets and they’re all properly glamorous in a 1970s sort of way.  Finally, you can watch this movie for Anthony Qunn’s unapologetically over-the-top performance as Theo.  I don’t know if you could necessarily say that Quinn gave a good performance here but, watching the film, it certainly does look like he was having fun.

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Lisa Goes Back To College: R.P.M. (dir by Stanley Kramer)


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For my next return-to-college film, I ended up watching R.P.M.  Like both Getting Straight and Zabriskie Point, R.P.M. was released in 1970 and deals with political unrest on campus.

Directed by Stanley Kramer (who also gave us such respectable and middlebrow liberal films as Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner and Judgment at Nuremberg), R.P.M. takes place at prestigious college.  Students radicals led by Rossiter (Gary Lockwood) and Dempsey (Paul Winfield) have taken over a building on campus.  When the university’s president goes to confront the students, one of them yells out, “Buzz off!”  Well, you know how sensitive college presidents are.  He quickly resigns his post and the students demand that he be replaced either by Che Guevara, Eldridge Cleaver, or Paco Perez.

Unfortunately, Guevara is dead and Cleaver is in Algeria.  Fortunately, left-wing sociology professor Paco Perez (Anthony Quinn) is available and he just happens to teach on campus!  Perez is named interim president of the college.  Now, Perez has to bring peace to the campus, despite the fact that the protestors now see him as a sell-out because he accepted the position. Perez also has to deal with nonstop snarky comments from his girlfriend, a grad student named Rhoda (played by Ann-Margaret).

Especially when compared to Getting Straight and Zabriskie Point, R.P.M. is something of a forgotten film.  I haven’t found many reviews online and the majority of them mostly seem to focus on the fact that the film is dated and that director Stanley Kramer’s portrayal of the student protestors is incredibly negative.  And, in many ways, those criticisms are perfectly valid.  And yet, with all that in mind, I still loved R.P.M.  Of the three 1970 campus protest films that I watched last weekend, R.P.M. was my personal favorite.

Why do I so love R.P.M?

Well, let’s check out some of the dialogue.

When Paco first comes to see the protestors, one girl literally sings, “Look what the revolution dragged in!”

Later, another demonstrator is heard to philosophically ask, “Why is the good ass never radical and the radical ass never good?”  (And that’s certainly a question that was asked by everyone who drove by Occupy Dallas back in 2011.)

About the college administration, one girl announces, “They’ve got empty scrotes!”

When Paco tells Dempsey that the college is finally going to hire a black admissions offer, Dempsey replies, “How black?  Is this cat an oreo cookie?  Is he related to my uncle Tom?”

When Paco asks how long it will take for the protestors to peacefully leave the building, one of them loudly announces, “It would take to the 12th of never!”  Of course, everyone applauds.

And that’s not counting all of the times that random protestors say, “Right on!”

But even better than listening to the protestors is listening to Paco and Rhoda discuss their relationship.

When Rhoda tells Paco that she knows the real him because she sees him without his pajamas, Paco replies, “That’s not reality.  That’s flab.”  With a world-weary sigh, Rhoda replies, “Flab is reality.”

When Paco complains about Rhoda’s cooking, she sensibly tells him, “Next semester, hump a home economics major.”  Paco replies, “I did.  The food is great but the talk is lousy.”

After being taunted by a student, Paco asks Rhoda, “Did you tell the kids I was a lousy lay?”  Rhoda laughs and replies, “I may have thought it but I never said it!”

Finally, in one heart-warming scene, Paco informs Rhoda that, “The whole campus calls you Paco’s Pillow.”

Seriously, how can you not love a movie with dialogue this overwritten and over-the-top?  It’s obvious the Kramer and screenwriter Erich Segal were desperate to sound hip and contemporary and, as a result, nobody speaks like a normal person.  Instead, listening to R.P.M. is a bit like listening to a party to which every 60s stereotype has been invited.

And yet, it’s not just the dated dialogue that causes me to love R.P.M.  As opposed to the histrionic Getting Straight and the artistically detached Zabriskie Point, R.P.M. is an attempt to seriously deal with the issue of student protest.  For every three moments that ring false, there’s one that works and that’s a lot more than most films about campus unrest can say.  Anthony Quinn gives a good performance as a man who doesn’t realize quite how complacent he has become.  He and Gary Lockwood have a wonderfully tense scene together where they sincerely and intelligent debate their different worldviews.  It’s the best scene in the film and one that is so well-done that it excuses any previous missteps.

R.P.M. occasionally shows up on TCM.  Keep an eye out for it.

Antony Quinn and Ann-Margaret

 

A Quickie With Lisa Marie: The Ox-Bow Incident (directed by William A. Wellman)


As part of my continuing mission of see every single movie ever nominated for best picture, I’ve been watching a lot of TCM this month.  Last week, I caught the 1943 best picture nominee, The Ox-Bow Incident.

Taking place in Nevada in the 1880s, The Ox-Bow Incident is a western that examines both the mob mentality and takes on the issue of lynching.  (It should be remembered that when the Ox-Bow Incident was first released, lynchings were still a regular occurrence.)  Henry Fonda and Henry Morgan play two prospectors who ride into town one day and discover that everyone is on edge because there are apparently cattle rustlers about.  When it’s reported that a rancher has been murdered, the townspeople form a posse and go searching for the rustlers.  Realizing that until the real rustlers are caught they’ll be considered prime suspects, Fonda and Morgan join the posse.  Led by Major Tetley (Frank Conroy), who falsely claims to be a Confederate veteran, the posse comes across a camp with three men.  Though it quickly becomes obvious that the three men are probably innocent, the posse immediately makes plans to lynch the men.  Fonda and Morgan find themselves forced to either side with the bloodthirsty posse or to stand up to the mob.

To be honest, I’ve never been a big fan of Westerns.  On a personal note, Some of that is because whenever anyone from up north finds out that I’m from Texas, they always ask me if I’ve ever ridden a horse.  (For the record, I do not own a horse, I do not ride horses, and I’m pretty sure I’m allergic to them.)  On another note, Westerns often strike me as being predictable.  All of the dark strangers and the old maid school teachers and the tight-lipped gunslingers spitting tobacco all over the place — it all just makes me want to go, “Bleh!” 

However, I was surprised to discover that I really enjoyed The Ox-Bow Incident.  While the film’s well-intentioned message was a bit heavy-handed, director William Wellman emphasizes the psychological aspects of the story and the movie itself was well-acted by a large cast who brought a surprising amount of depth to characters who, in lesser hands, could have easily just been stereotypes.  Henry Fonda and Henry Morgan were both excellent and sympathetic leads while Jane Darwell dominated the film as one of the more bloodthirsty members of the lynching party.  A very young and very suave Anthony Quinn also shows up as one of the accused men.  Five decades before either Quentin Tarantino or the Coen Brothers, Wellman and his cast use the standard tropes of the western genre to comment on some very real issues and the end result is a fast-paced film that succeeds in making a moral debate just as exciting as any gunfight or stampede.

Released in 1943, The Ox-Bow Incident was nominated for best picture but, ultimately, it lost to Casablanca.  It’s hard to complain about any film losing to Casablanca but taken on its own terms, the Ox-Bow Incident remains an entertaining and intelligent film and one that I’m thankful that TCM gave me a chance to discover.