The Conquering Hero: Baby Blue Marine (1976, directed by John D. Hancock)


The year is 1943 and America is at war.  All young men are expected to join the Marines and fight for their country but the Corps is not willing to accept just anyone.  Marion (Jan-Michael Vincent) wants to continue a family tradition of service but, as his drill sergeant (Michael Conrad) puts it, Marion just is not pissed off enough to be a Marine.  Marion is kicked out basic training and told to go home.  He is given a blue uniform to wear on his jury so that anyone who sees him will know that he couldn’t cut it.

Ashamed of his failure and in no hurry to confront his family, Marion takes the long route home.   While having a drink in California, he meets a Marine (Richard Gere) who did not get kicked out of basic training.  Though not yet 30, this shell-shocked Marine already has a head of gray hair, which he says he got from the horrors of war.  The Marine is due to return to the fighting in Europe but, upon meeting Marion, he sees a way out. When Marion gets drunk, the Marine knocks him out, switches uniforms with him, and goes AWOL.

When Marion comes to, he discovers that everyone that he meets now judges him by his new uniform.  Strangers buy him drinks.  Other servicemen try to pick fights with him.  When he stops off in a small Colorado town, a local waitress (Glynnis O’Connor) falls in love with him and nearly everyone that he meets assumes that he must be a hero.  Marion doesn’t exactly lie about his past.  Instead, he simply allows people to believe whatever they want to believe about him.  It seems like an idyllic situation until three prisoners from a nearby Japanese internment camp escape and the towns people expect Marion to help capture them.

Loosely plotted and sentimental, Baby Blue Marine is a dramatic version of Preston Sturges’s Hail The Conquering Hero.  Though the film has a gentle anti-war message, it’s actually more about nostalgia for a simpler and more innocent time.  If the film had been made at height of the Vietnam War, it might have been more angrier and more cynical.  But, instead, this is one of the many post-Watergate films that wistfully looked back upon the past.  When Marion settles into the town, he finds what appears to be a perfect and friendly home.  Only the nearby internment camp and the town’s hysteria over the escape prisoners serve as reminders that things are never as ideal as they seem.  Jan-Michael Vincent gives one of his best performances as the well-meaning Marion and actors like Richard Gere, Bert Remsen, Katherine Helmond, Dana Elcar, Michael Conrad, Bruno Kirby, and Art Lund all make strong impressions in small roles.

One of the few films to be produced by television mogul Aaron Spelling, Baby Blue Marine is not easy to find but worth the search.

A Movie A Day #304: Code of Silence (1985, directed by Andrew Davis)


It’s life and death in the Windy City.  It’s got Chuck Norris, Henry Silva, Dens Farina, and a robot, too.  It’s Code of Silence.

Chuck plays Eddie Cusack, a tough Chicago policeman who is abandoned by his fellow officers when he refuses to cover for an alcoholic cop who accidentally gunned down a Hispanic teenager and then tried to place a gun on the body.  This the worst time for Cusack to have no backup because a full-scale gang war has just broken out between the Mafia and the Comachos, a Mexican drug gang led by Luis Comacho (Henry Silva).  When a cowardly mobster goes into hiding, Luis targets his daughter, Diana (Molly Hagan).  Determined to end the drug war and protect Diana, Eddie discovers that he may not be able to rely on his brothers in blue but he can always borrow a crime-fighting robot named PROWLER.

Despite the presence of a crime-fighting robot, Code of Silence is a tough, gritty, and realistic crime story.  Though Chuck only gets to show off his martial arts skills in two scenes (and one of those scenes is just Eddie working out in the gym), Code of Silence is still Norris’s best film and his best performance.  The film draws some interesting comparisons between the police’s code of silence and the Mafia’s omerta and director Andrew Davis shows the same flair for action that he showed in The Fugitive and Above the LawCode of Silence‘s highlight is a fight between Chuck and an assassin that takes place on top of a moving train.  Norris did his own stunts so that really is him trying not to fall off that train.

Davis surrounds Norris with familiar Chicago character actors, all of whom contribute to Code of Silence‘s authenticity and make even the smallest roles memorable.  (Keep an eye out for the great John Mahoney, playing the salesman who first introduces the PROWLER.)  Norris’s partner is played by Dennis Farina, who actually was a Chicago cop at the time of filming.  After Code of Silence, Farina quit the force to pursue acting full time and had a busy career as a character actor, playing cops and mobsters in everything from Manhunter to Get Shorty.  As always, Henry Silva is a great villain but the movie is stolen by Molly Hagan, who is feisty and sympathetic as Diana.  To the film’s credit, it doesn’t try to force Eddie and Diana into any sort of contrived romance.

Unfortunately, none of Chuck Norris’s other films never came close to matching the quality of this one.  Code of Silence is a hint of what could have been.

A Movie A Day #212: Fuzz (1972, directed by Richard A. Colla)


Detective Eileen McHenry (Raquel Welch) has just been given her new assignment and she is about to find out that there is never a dull day in the 87th Precinct.  How could there be when the precinct’s top detectives are played by Burt Reynolds, Tom Skerritt, and Jack Weston?  Or when Boston’s top criminal mastermind is played by Yul Brynner?  There is always something happening in the 8th Precinct.  Someone is stealing stuff from the precinct house.  Someone else is attacking the city’s homeless.  Even worse, Brynner is assassinating public officials and will not stop until he is paid a hefty ransom!

Based on the famous 87th Precinct novels that Evan Hunter wrote under the name Ed McBain, Fuzz has more in common with Robert Altman’s MASH than The French Connection.  (Skerritt and Bert Remsen, who plays a policeman in Fuzz, were both members of Altman’s stock company.)  Much like Altman’s best-regarded films, Fuzz is an ensemble piece, one that mixes comedy with tragedy and which features several different storylines playing out at once.  Scenes of homeless men being set on fire are mixed with scenes of Reynolds and Weston going undercover as nuns.  (Of course, Burt does not shave his mustache.)  Since it was written by Hunter, the film’s script comes close to duplicating the feel of the 87th Precinct novels.  Unfortunately, Richard A. Colla was a television director and Fuzz feels more like an extended episode of Police Story or Hill Street Blues than a movie.  Unlike Altman’s best films, Fuzz‘s constantly shifting tone and the mix of comedy and drama often feels awkward.  Fortunately, Fuzz does feature good performances from Reynolds, Westin, Skerritt, and Brynner, along with a great 70s score from Dave Grusin.  Raquel Welch is never believable as cop but she’s Raquel Welch so who cares?

A Movie A Day #123: Dillinger and Capone (1995, directed by Jon Purdy)


1934.  Chicago.  The FBI guns down a man outside of a movie theater and announces that they have finally killed John Dillinger.  What the FBI doesn’t realize it that they didn’t get Dillinger.  Instead they killed Dillinger’s look-alike brother.  The real John Dillinger (played by Martin Sheen) has escaped.  Over the next five years, under an assumed name, Dillinger goes straight, gets married, starts a farm, and lives an upstanding life. Only a few people know his secret and, unfortunately, one of them is Al Capone (F. Murray Abraham).  Only recently released from prison and being driven mad by syphilis, Capone demands that Dillinger come out of retirement and pull one last job.  Capone has millions of dollars stashed away in a hotel vault and he wants Dillinger to steal it for him.  Just to make sure that Dillinger comes through for him, Capone is holding Dillinger’s family hostage.

This film, which was produced by Roger Corman, combines two popular but probably untrue rumors, that Dillinger faked his own death and that Al Capone had millions of dollars stashed somewhere in Chicago.  Though the two never met in real life (and moved in very different criminal circles), the idea of bringing Dillinger and Capone together sounds like a good one.  Unfortunately, the execution leaves a lot to be desired.  Sheen and Murray are both miscast in the lead roles, with Sheen especially being too old to be believable as the 40 something Dillinger, and the script never takes advantage of their notoriety.  In this movie, Dillinger could just as easily be any retired bank robber while Capone could just as easily be any unstable mob boss.  In classic Corman fashion, more thought was given to the title than to the story.

One things that does work about the movie is the supporting cast, which is full of familiar faces.  Clint Howard, Don Stroud, Bert Remsen, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Catherine Hicks, Maria Ford, and Martin Sheen’s brother, Joe Estevez, are all present and accounted for.  Especially be sure to keep an eye out for Jeffrey Combs, playing an FBI agent who suspects that Dillinger may still be alive.  He may not get to do much but he’s still Jeffrey Combs.

Shattered Politics #38: Nashville (dir by Robert Altman)


Nashville-Cover

“Oh we must be doin’ somethin right to last 200 years…”

— Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson) in Nashville (1975)

The 1975 Best Picture nominee Nashville is the epitome of an ensemble film.  It follows 24 characters as they spend five days wandering around Nashville, Tennessee.  Some of them are country music superstars, some of them are groupies, some of them are singers looking for a first break, and at least one of them is an assassin.  The one thing that they all have in common is that they’re lost in America.  Released barely a year after the resignation of Richard Nixon and at a time when Americans were still struggling to come to terms with the turmoil of the 60s, Nashville is a film that asks whether or not America’s best days are behind it and seems to be saying that they may very well be.  (That’s a question that’s still being asked today in 2015.)  It’s appropriate, therefore, that Nashville both takes place in and is named after a city that everyone associates with perhaps the most stereotypically American genre of music that there is.

Nashville follows 24 characters, some of whom are more interesting than others.  For five days, these characters wander around town, occasionally noticing each other but far more often failing to make any sort of connection.

Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson) is a veteran star, a somewhat comical character who sings vapid songs about home and family and who smiles for the public while privately revealing himself to be petty and vain.  His son, Bud (Dave Peel), is a Harvard graduate who acts as his father’s business manager.  Oddly enough, Haven is an unlikable character until the end of the film when he suddenly reveals himself to be one of the few characters strong enough to keep Nashville for descending into chaos.  Meanwhile, Bud seems to be a nice and modest guy until he takes part in humiliating another character.

Haven’s lover is Lady Pearl (Barbara Baxley), who owns a nightclub and spends most of the film drinking.  Much like Haven, she starts out as a vaguely comical character until she finally gets a chance to reveal her true self.  In Pearl’s case, it comes when she delivers a bitter monologue about volunteering for Bobby Kennedy’s presidential campaign.

Haven’s lawyer is Delbert Reece (Ned Beatty), an obsequies good old boy who is married to gospel singer Linnea (Lily Tomlin).  They have two deaf children.  Linnea has learned sign language.  Delbert has not.  Over the course of the film, both Delbert and Linnea will be tempted to cheat.  Only one of them actually will.

And then there’s Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley), a mentally unstable singer who has come to Nashville with her manipulative husband/manager, Barnett (Allen Garfield).  Almost every character in the film wants something from Barbara Jean.  A mostly silent Vietnam veteran named Kelly (Scott Glenn) claims that his mother knows Barbara Jean.  A nerdy guy named Kenny (David Hayward) comes to Nashville just to see her perform.

Both Kelly and Kenny end up getting to know Mr. Green (Keenan Wynn), a rare Nashville resident who doesn’t seem to care about music.  However, Mr. Green’s spacey niece, L.A. Joan (Shelly Duvall), is obsessed with having sex with as many musicians as possible.

Among those being targeted by L.A. Joan is Tom Frank (Keith Carradine), one-third of the folk trio Bill, Mary, and Tom.  Unknown to Bill (Allan F. Nicholls), Tom is sleeping with Bill’s wife, Mary (Cristina Raines).  Unknown to Mary, Tom is sleeping with almost every other woman in Nashville as well.  When Tom takes to the stage at Pearl’s nightclub and sings a song called I’m Easy, the audience is full of women who think that he’s specifically singing to them.

Another one of Tom’s songs, the appropriately titled “It Don’t Worry Me,” is frequently sung by Albuquerque (Barbara Harris), who spend the entire film trying to get discovered while hiding out from her much older husband, Star (Bert Remsen).

Another aspiring star is Sulleen Grey (Gwen Welles), who is a tone deaf waitress who suffers the film’s greatest humiliation when she agrees to perform at a political fund raiser without understanding that she’s expected to strip while singing.  Trying to look after Sulleen is Wade (Robert DoQui), who has just been released from prison.

And then there’s the loners, the characters who tend to pop up almost randomly.  Norman (David Arkin) is a limo driver who, like everyone else in Nashville, wants to be a star.  The hilariously bitchy Connie White (Karen Black) and the bland Tommy Brown (Timothy Brown) already are stars.  (The character of Tommy Brown is one of Nashville’s oddities.  He’s listed, in the credits, as being a major character but he only appears in a few scenes and never really gets a storyline of his own.)  There’s the Tricycle Man (Jeff Goldblum), a silent magician who mysteriously appears and disappears throughout the film.

And, finally, there’s Opal (Geraldine Chaplin), an apparently crazed woman who is wandering around Nashville and pretending to be a reporter for the BBC.  (It’s never specifically stated that Opal is a fake but it’s fairly obvious that she is.)  How you feel about the character of Opal will probably determine how you feel about Nashville as a whole.  If you find Opal to be a heavy-handed caricature, you’ll probably feel the same way about the rest of the film.  If you find the character of Opal to be genuinely amusing with her increasingly pretentious musings, you’ll probably enjoy Nashville.

There is one more very important character in Nashville.  He’s the character who literally holds the film together.  He’s also the reason why I’m including Nashville in this series of reviews about political films.  That character is named Hal Phillip Walker and, though he’s never actually seen in the film, he’s still the driving force behind most of what happens.  Walker is a third-party presidential candidate, a man who seems to be universally admired despite the fact that his campaign appears to just be a collection of vapid platitudes.  Walker’s campaign manager, John Triplette (Michael Murphy), comes to Nashville and sets up the Walker For President rally.  That’s where Nashville reaches its violent and not-all-together optimistic climax.

Reportedly, Nashville is a favorite film of Paul Thomas Anderson’s and you can see the influence of Nashville in many of Anderson’s films, from the large ensemble to the moments of bizarre humor to the refusal to pass judgement on any of the characters to the inevitable violence that ends the film.  Also, much like Anderson’s films, Nashville seems to be a film that was specifically made to divide audiences.  You’re either going to think that Nashville is a brilliantly satirical piece of Americana or you’re going to think it’s a self-indulgent and self-important mess.

As for me, I think it’s great and I think that, after you watch it, you should track down and read Jan Stuart’s The Nashville Chronicles: The Making of Robert Altman’s Masterpiece.  It’s the perfect companion for a great film.