City on Fire (1979, directed by Alvin Rakoff)

In an unnamed city somewhere in the midwest, Herman Stover (Jonathan Welsh) is fired from his job at an oil refinery.  Herman does what any disgruntled former employee would do.  He runs around the refinery and opens up all the valves and soon, the entire location is covered in a combustible mix of oil and chemicals.  One spark is all it takes for the refinery to explode and the entire city to turn into a raging inferno.

While Fire Chief Risley (Henry Fonda, getting a special “And starring” credit for doing what probably amounted to a few hours of work) sits in his office and gives orders to his subordinates, Dr. Frank Whitman (Barry Newman) cares for the injured at the city’s new hospital.  Also at the hospital is Mayor William Dudley (Leslie Nielsen) and local celebrity Diana Brockhurst-Lautrec (Susan Clark), who is having an affair with the mayor.  Diana also went to high school with Herman and he still has a crush on her.  When he shows up at the hospital to try to hit on her, he’s roped into working as a paramedic.  Also helping out at the hospital is Nurse Shelley Winters.  (The character may be named Andrea Harper but she’s played by Shelley Winters and therefore, she is Shelley Winters.)  At the local television station, news producer Jimbo (James Franciscus) tries to keep his anchorwoman, Maggie Grayson (Ava Gardner), sober enough to keep everyone up to date on how much longer the city is going to be on fire.

Mostly because it was featured on an early pre-Comedy Central episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, City on Fire has a reputation for being a terrible movie but, as far as 70s disaster films are concerned, it’s not that bad.  The special effects are actually pretty impressive, especially during the first half of the film and there’s really not a weak link to be found in the cast.  It’s always strange to see Leslie Nielsen playing a serious role but, before Airplane! gave him a chance to display his skill for deadpan comedy, he specialized in playing stuffy and boring authority figures.  He actually does a good job as Mayor Dudley and it’s not the film’s fault that, for modern audiences, it’s impossible to look at Leslie Nielsen without instinctively laughing.  Of course, there is a scene towards the end where Leslie Nielsen picks up a fire hose and starts spraying people as they come out of the hospital and it was hard not to laugh at that because it felt like a scene straight from The Naked Gun.

What the film does suffer from is an overabundance of cliches and bad dialogue.  From the minute the movie starts, you know who is going to live and who isn’t and sometimes, City on Fire tries too hard to give everyone a connection.  It’s believable that Herman would be stupid enough to start a fire because we all know that happens in the real world.  What’s less believable is that, having started the fire, Herman would then go to the hospital and keep asking Diana if she remembers him from high school.  It’s not asking too much to believe that Diana, as wealthy local celebrity, would be invited to the opening of a new hospital.  It’s stretching things, though, to then have her deliver a baby while the hospital is in flames around her.

Coming out at the tail end of the disaster boom, City on Fire didn’t do much at the box office and would probably be forgotten if not for the MST 3K connection.  A year after City on Fire was released, Airplane! came out and, through the power of ridicule, put a temporary end to the entire disaster genre.

Horror Film Review: The Sentinel (dir by Michael Winner)

Here’s the main lesson that I’ve learned from watching the 1977 horror film, The Sentinel:

Even in the 1970s, the life of a model was not an easy one.

Take Alison Parker (Cristina Raines) for instance.  She should have everything but instead, she’s a neurotic mess.  Haunted by a traumatic childhood, she has attempted to commit suicide twice and everyone is always worried that she’s on the verge of having a breakdown.  As a model, she’s forced to deal with a bunch of phonies.  One of the phonies is played by Jeff Goldblum.  Because he’s Goldblum, you suspect that he has to have something up his sleeve but then it turns out that he doesn’t.  I get that Jeff Goldblum probably wasn’t a well-known actor when he appeared in The Sentinel but still, it’s incredibly distracting when he suddenly shows up and then doesn’t really do anything.

Alison has a fiancée.  His name is Michael Lerman (Chris Sarandon) and I figured out that he had to be up to no good as soon as he appeared.  For one thing, he has a pornstache.  For another thing, he’s played by Chris Sarandon, an actor who is best known for playing the vampire in the original Fright Night and Prince Humperdink in The Princess Bride.  Not surprisingly, it turns out that Michael’s previous wife died under mysterious circumstances.  NYPD Detective Rizzo (Christopher Walken) suspects that Michael may have killed her.

(That’s right.  Christopher Walken is in this movie but, much like Jeff Goldblum, he doesn’t get to do anything interesting.  How can a movie feature two of the quirkiest actors ever and then refuse to give them a chance to act quirky?)

Maybe Alison’s life will improve now that she has a new apartment.  It’s a really nice place and her real estate agent is played by Ava Gardner.  Alison wants to live on her own for a while.  She loves Michael but she needs to find herself.  Plus, it doesn’t help that Michael has a pornstache and may have killed his wife…

Unfortunately, as soon as Alison moves in, she starts having weird dreams and visions and all the usual stuff that always happens in movies like this.  She also discovers that she has a lot of eccentric neighbors, all of whom are played by semi-familiar character actors.  For instance, eccentric old Charles (Burgess Meredith) is always inviting her to wild parties.  Her other two neighbors (played by Sylvia Miles and Beverly D’Angelo) are lesbians, which the film presents as being the height of shocking decadence.  At first, Alison likes her neighbors but they make so much noise!  Eventually, she complains to Ava Gardner.  Ava replies that Alison only has one neighbor and that neighbor is neither Burgess Meredith nor a lesbian.

Instead, he’s a blind priest who spends all day sitting at a window.  He’s played by John Carradine, who apparently had a few hours to kill in 1977.

But it doesn’t stop there!  This movie is full of actors who will be familiar to anyone who enjoys watching TCM.  Along with those already mentioned, we also get cameos from Martin Balsam, Jose Ferrer, Arthur Kennedy, Eli Wallach, Richard Dreyfuss, and Tom Berenger.  There are 11 Oscar nominees wasted in this stupid film.  (Though, in all fairness, Christopher Walken’s nomination came after The Sentinel.)

Personally, The Sentinel bugged me because it’s yet another horror movie that exploits Catholic iconography while totally misstating church dogma.  However, the main problem with The Sentinel is that it’s just so incredibly boring.  I own it on DVD because I went through a period where I basically bought every horror film that could I find.  I’ve watched The Sentinel a handful of times and somehow, I always manage to forget just how mind-numbingly dull this movie really is.  There’s a few scary images but mostly, it’s just Burgess Meredith acting eccentric and Chris Sarandon looking mildly annoyed.  If you’ve ever seen Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, or The Omen, you’ll figure out immediately what’s going on but The Sentinel still insists on dragging it all out.  Watching this movie is about as exciting as watching an Amish blacksmith shoe a horse.

There’s a lot of good actors in the film but it’s obvious that most of them just needed to pick up a paycheck.  I’ve read a lot of criticism of Cristina Raines’s lead performance but I actually think she does a pretty good job.  It’s not her acting that’s at fault.  It’s the film’s stupid script and lackluster direction.

Halloween Havoc!: Bela Lugosi Meets The East Side Kids… Twice!

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Ten years after making horror history as DRACULA,   Bela Lugosi signed a contract with Monogram Studios producer Sam Katzman   to star in a series of low-budget shockers. The films have been affectionately dubbed by fans “The Monogram Nine” and for the most part are really terrible, redeemed only by the presence of our favorite Hungarian. Two of the films were with the East Side Kids, SPOOKS RUN WILD and GHOSTS ON THE LOOSE, making them sort of Poverty Row All-Star Productions for wartime audiences.

I won’t go too deeply into all the Dead End Kids/East Side Kids/Bowery Boys variations here. Suffice it to say original Dead Enders Leo Gorcey   (Muggs), Huntz Hall (Glimpy), and Bobby Jordan (Danny) landed at Monogram after their Warner Brothers contracts expired, much to Jack Warner’s relief. The young actors were a rowdy bunch, and Jack was probably glad to be rid of them! Anyway, the trio were popular with the masses, and…

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Cleaning Out the DVR Pt 9: Film Noir Festival Redux

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Welcome back to the decadently dark world of film noir, where crime, corruption, lust, and murder await. Let’s step out of the light and deep into the shadows with these five fateful tales:


PITFALL (United Artists 1948, D: Andre DeToth) Dick Powell is an insurance man who feels he’s stuck in a rut, living in safe suburbia with his wife and kid (Jane Wyatt, Jimmy Hunt). Then he meets hot model Lizabeth Scott on a case and falls into a web of lies, deceit, and ultimately murder. Raymond Burr  costars as a creepy PI who has designs on Scott himself. A good cast in a good (not great) drama with a disappointing ending. Fun Fact: The part of Scott’s embezzler boyfriend is played by one Byron Barr, who is not the Byron Barr that later changed his name to Gig Young.  


THE BRIBE (MGM 1949, D:Robert Z. Leonard) Despite an…

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The Fabulous Forties #19: Whistle Stop (dir by Leonide Moguy)


The 19th film in Mill Creek’s Fabulous Forties box set was 1946’s Whistle Stop and I’m sad to say that I ran into some trouble when I tried to watch it.  As much as I love the Mill Creek box sets, the DVDs within are somewhat notorious for getting easily damaged.  That was the problem that I ran into when I tried to watch Whistle Stop.  From the minute I hit play, the film would randomly pause.  The picture would randomly pixelate.  The sound would randomly vanish.  As you may have picked up, it was all very random but it also made it impossible for me to watch Whistle Stop.

However, like almost every other film that’s ever shown up in Mill Creek box set, Whistle Stop is in the public domain and, therefore, it’s been uploaded to YouTube by dozens of different accounts.  Once I realized that the DVD wasn’t going to work, I switched over to YouTube and I finally got watch Whistle Stop.

Really, I probably shouldn’t have gone to all the trouble.  Of the 19 Fabulous Forties films that I’ve watched so far, Whistle Stop is perhaps the least interesting.  Half of the film is a film noir and the other half if a small town melodrama but, with its convoluted plot and uninspired direction, it really doesn’t work as either.

Mary (Ava Gardner) grew up in a small town but, eventually, she left and went to the big city, hoping to make a new life for herself.  Apparently, she didn’t succeed because, two years later, she returns to the small town.  (The town is so small and obscure that it’s mostly known for its train stop.  Hence, it’s a “whistle stop.”)  When she returns, she discovers that her ex-boyfriend, Kenny Veech (George Raft) has become a loser in her absence.  Kenny is still in love with her but he’s also bitter at her for leaving town.

Making things even worse, from Kenny’s point of view, is that Mary is now dating a sleazy nightclub owner named Lew Lentz (Tom Conway).  Kenny’s best friend, Gitlo (Victor McLaglen), comes up with a plan, in which he and Kenny will kill Lew and make it look like a robbery.  However, Lew has plans of his own and…

You know what?  I’m probably making Whistle Stop sound more interesting than it actually is.  This is one of those films were the plot manages to be absurdly complicated without actually adding up to much. On the plus side, Ava Gardner, one of my favorite of great femme fatales, is beautiful and sultry as Mary and reminded me of why, for several years, Film Noir Femme Fatale was my default Halloween costume.  Tom Conway makes Lew Lentz so amazingly sleazy that you can’t help but admire his commitment to the role.  On the other hand, George Raft is totally miscast and way too handsome and naturally rakish to play a total loser like Kenny Veech.  Watching the film, you can tell that he wasn’t particularly comfortable playing such an insecure and passive character.

Whistle Stop wasn’t particularly memorable but if you want to watch it, you can do so below.  It’s free!

Shattered Politics #48: The Kidnapping of the President (dir by George Mendeluk)


Agency was not the only Canadian film to be made about American politics in 1980.  There was also The Kidnapping of the President, a low-budget political thriller that, because it has since slipped into the public domain, can currently be found in a few dozen DVD box sets.  In fact, you may very well own a copy of The Kidnapping of the President without even realizing it!

Don’t worry if you do.  The Kidnapping of the President is a fairly harmless little film.

U.S. President Adam Scott (Hal Holbrook) is visiting Toronto when he gets handcuffed to a South American revolutionary named Roberto Assanti (Miguel Fernandes).  Assanti locks President Scott in an armored car that is wired with explosives and then demands a hundred million in diamonds and two planes.  (Though the film never explicitly states it, I imagine that Assanti was primarily motivated by jealousy over the fact that Che is on a million t-shirts while Assanti remains fairly unknown.)  It’s up to secret service agent Jerry O’Connor (William Shatner) to negotiate with Assanti and rescue the President!  Meanwhile, the ethically compromised Vice President (Van Johnson) is left as acting President in Washington and struggles to keep things calm while his ambitious wife (Ava Gardner) plots for a brighter future.

Overall, the Kidnapping of the President is okay for what it is.  It’s neither exceptionally good nor memorably bad.  It just sort of is.  Hal Holbrook is always well-cast as a President and William Shatner gives a typical Shatner performance, which is either a good or a bad thing depending on how you feel about William Shatner.  And, for that matter, Miguel Fernandes is a properly unlikable villain though he never really seems to have the charisma necessary to make him believable as the dynamic leader that he’s supposed to be.

Probably the most interesting thing about The Kidnapping of the President is that it doesn’t try to pass Montreal off for being a location in the United States.  Instead, the film was not only filmed in but is actually set in Toronto as well.  When Jerry attempts to deal with the local authorities, that means that he ends up talking to a bunch of very polite men in red uniforms.

But what’s strange about this is that the people of Toronto are so excited about the arrival of the President.  You half expect to hear one extra say, “I never thought I’d live long enough to see the day that a leader that I can’t vote for and who has next to nothing to do with my everyday life would come to visit Toronto.”

Don’t get me wrong.  If you follow me on twitter, then you know that I am unashamed to declare my love for all things Canadian.  And obviously, as neighbors, Canada and the United States do have a close relationship.  But would people in Toronto really be that excited to see the President?

If so, I think we really owe the people of Canada an apology for not knowing more about their government.  At the very least, we should definitely invite Stephen Harper over for lunch.

44 Days Of Paranoia #20: Seven Days In May (dir by John Frankenheimer)

For today’s entry in the 44 Days of Paranoia, let’s take a look at the 1964 political thriller, Seven Days In May.

Directed by John Frankenheimer (who also directed the conspiracy classic, The Manchurian Candidate), Seven Days In May opens with unpopular President Jordan Lyman (Fredric March) on the verge of signing a treaty with the Russians.  The chairman of the joint chiefs-of-staff, Gen. James Scott (Burt Lancaster), is opposed to the treaty and feels that Lyman’s actions will lead to the collapse of the U.S.  When Scott’s aide, Jiggs Casey (Kirk Douglas), thinks that he’s come across evidence that Scott is planning a military coup, he takes his suspicions to the White House.  Working with an alcoholic Senator (Edmond O’Brien) and a cynical political aide (Martin Balsam), the President launches his own investigation into Scott’s activities.

When it was first released, Seven Days In May was very successful with both critics and audiences.  Edmond O’Brien even received an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor.  When viewed today, however, Seven Days In May feels rather quaint.  A good deal of the film’s suspense was meant to be generated by the question of whether or not Gen. Scott is actually planning a coup.  However, for the modern viewer, it’s really not a question worth asking.  For us, it’s easy to watch this film and shout, “Of course he’s planning on overthrowing the government!  He’s the most obviously villainous character in the entire film!”  The idea of a military conspiracy to overthrow the U.S. government was perhaps shocking back in 1964 but today, we take the existence of such conspiracies for granted.

Seven Days In May is definitely a product of its time.  Unlike John Frankenheimer’s other well-known conspiracy film, The Manchurian Candidate, there’s no sly undercurrent of satire or subversion running through Seven Days In May.  Instead, Seven Days In May epitomizes everything that we think of when we think about the early 60s.  The film’s politics are liberal but not radically so.  The President is such an honorable leader that he won’t resort to the politics of personal destruction and reveal that Scott has a mistress.  Casey explains that he disagrees with the President’s politics but that he is bound by duty to reveal Gen. Scott’s subversion.  Indeed, by the end of the film, it’s obvious that we’re meant to condemn Scott not because he might overthrow the President but because he would subvert the democratic process to do so.  Seven Days In May is a film that tells viewers to support and respect their elected leaders, whether they be good or evil and whether they’re played by Fredric March or Burt Lancaster.

When I listened to Casey explain why he was informing on a man who he claimed to admire and agree with, I was reminded of some of the recent political debates that we’ve had deal with her in America.  All of those debates can pretty much be summed up by whether we, as citizens, are obligated to support a law even if we personally don’t agree with it or to respect a leader even if we do not agree with him.  The answer, according to Seven Days In May, would appear to be yes.

While Seven Days In May is often a bit too ponderous for its own good, it’s still a well-made and watchable film.  If you’re a history nerd like me, you’ll enjoy the film as a portrait of its time.  John Frankenheimer directs as if the movie is a film noir and the film’s shadowy black-and-white cinematography looks great.  Finally, if you’re a fan of the old school movie stars, how can you not enjoy a film that features Kirk Douglas, Fredric March, and Burt Lancaster?

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

A Quickie With Lisa Marie: Earthquake (dir. by Mark Robson)

Since it’s impossible for me to talk about anything without somehow relating it to a movie, I guess it makes sense that my reaction to San Francisco winning the World Series was to write a review of the award-winning, 1974 disaster film Earthquake.  If the Rangers had won, I would have been obligated to write up a review of No Country For Old Men.

But anyway, Earthquake

So, Earthquake is one of those movies from the 70s in which a large group of different characters had to deal with some sort of cataclysmic disaster that could, in theory, have happened in reality as well as up on the movie screen.  There were apparently about 2,000,000 of these films made between 1970 and 1980 and they all had titles like Hurricane, Tornado, Big Fire, Asbestos, Flash Flood, Lava Flow, Khardashian, Avalanche, and, of course, Earthquake.  These movies always featured an “all-star” cast of people that nobody had ever actually heard of and I guess part of the fun was trying to guess who would survive and who would die.  Apparently, they were the 1970s version of Dancing With The Stars.  Call it Dying With Celebrities.

Earthquake is one of best known of these films.  Apparently, it made a lot of money in 1974 and it won Academy Awards for its earthquake effects.  Bleh.  Whatever.  Have you ever really sat down and looked at a list of the movies that have won at least one Academy Award since they first started handing those things out?  Earthquake is like a 6 hour movie and Los Angeles doesn’t start shaking until halfway through.  The Earthquake itself only lasts for 15 minutes and it’s kind of impressive to watch but it’s 15 minutes out of 360.

Before the earthquake hits, we get to meet the usual cross-section of humanity.  Charlton Heston is an architect who is married to Ava Gardner who is the daughter of Heston’s boss, who is played by an actor named Lorne Greene who appears to be younger than either Heston or Gardner.  Heston has a mistress who is played by Genevieve Bujold who is really pretty, sweet, and boring.  Gardner is none of these things but she is a foul-mouthed alcoholic who fakes suicide attempts so I was pretty much on her side as far as the whole love triangle is concerned.  After the Earthquake, Heston and Greene and a bunch of accident-prone extras are stuck in the ruins of sky scraper.  Heston grimaces a lot in this film but you know what?  Say what you will about Charlton Heston’s politics or his clenched-teeth acting style, the man knew how to wear an ascot.

While Heston is torn between Gardner and Bujold (a plot development that reportedly inspired the famous Sartre play No Exit), Richard Roundtree just wants to jump over stuff on his motorcycle.  That’s right — John Shaft is in this movie and we can dig it.  He’s a professional daredevil.  He’s also a surprisingly dull actor.  Who would have guessed that, without a theme song playing, Shaft would turn out to be so boring?  Still, there’s a really cool scene where Roundtree tries to ride his motorcycle through Los Angeles in the middle of the earthquake and the film is worth watching for his all-flare stunt daredevil costume if nothing else.  Plus, Roundtree’s playing a character named Miles here and I like that name.

There’s another subplot.  It involves George Kennedy as a blue-collar cop who does what he has to do to try to maintain the peace before and after the Earthquake.  Bleh.  I mean, Kennedy actually gives a pretty good performance and he’s probably the most likable character in the film but seriously — Bleh.

And finally, this collection of humanity is rounded out by an aspiring actress (played by actress Victoria Principal who, four years earlier, had made history by being the first woman to successfully seduce actor Anthony Perkins and no, I don’t want to go into how I know that) and the psychopathic grocery store manager who is obsessed with her.  The grocery store manager is played by former child evangelist and 70s exploitation icon Marjoe Gortner.  Much as in the later film Starcrash, Gortner projects a remarkably unlikable vibe that works well for his character.  He also has a really bad perm and a mustache and his performance is so sublimely bad that it’s actually pretty good.  As for Principal, her character here is apparently the owner of 1974’s most ginormous afro and, like most women in the 70s, really should have considered wearing a bra.  It’s hard to really judge Principal’s performance because any time she’s on-screen, you just start thinking, “Oh my God, she had sex with Norman Bates but somehow, she thinks she’s too good for Marjoe Gortner?” 

These are the characters that we follow as Los Angeles is destroyed on-screen.  None of them are really much more than cardboard cut outs but there’s something oddly comforting about how shallow and predictable they all are.  Add to that, most of them end up dead so if you do dislike them, you’ll find a lot to enjoy.  You’ll especially enjoy the film’s final few moments unless, like me, you can’t swim and you’re terrified of drowning.  If you’re like me, that scene might give you nightmares. 

Flawed as it may be, I still have to recommend this movie as 1) a time capsule and 2) as a quintessential piece of American camp.  Every line of dialogue, every performance, every image, and every scene in Earthquake simply screams 1974.   I guess the best way to look at Earthquake is to think about it as if the movie’s a time machine.  You might not like where the machine takes you but you’re still going to get into the damn thing and, once you find yourself stuck in Iowa in the year 1835, you’ll find someway to force yourself to be entertained because otherwise, you’re just hanging out in Iowa in 1835.