Black Gunn (1972, directed by Robert Hartford-Davis)

A war has broken out in Los Angeles.

The Black Action Group (B.A.G.) has robbed a Mafia bookmaking operation.  The Mafia, led by used car dealer Russ Capelli (Martin Landau, in his slumming it years), is less concerned with the money as they are with the fact that one of the militants, a Vietnam vet named Scott Gunn (Herbert Jefferson, Jr.), has also stolen a set of ledgers that could reveal every detail of their organization.  Capelli sends the psychotic Ray Kriley (Bruce Glover, father of Crispin) on a mission to track down Scott and kill him.

What the Mafia didn’t count on is that Scott’s older brother, Gunn (Jim Brown), is the owner of Los Angeles’s hottest nightclub.  When Scott approaches his brother, Gun tells him that he doesn’t care about the B.A.G. or any of their politics.  Still, Gunn allows Scott to stash the ledgers at his club and to hide out at his place.  When Scott still ends up getting murdered by Kriley, Gunn sets out to get revenge.

For the most part, Black Gunn is a standard blaxploitation movie with all of the usual elements, a cool nightclub, the mob, black militants,an anti-drug scene and a speech about why it’s important to not sell out to the man, and a hero played by an actor who may not have been able to show much emotion but who still radiated coolness.  Not surprisingly, Jim Brown is the main attraction here and he delivers everything that his fans have come to expect from him.  Blaxploitation regulars Bernie Case and Brenda Sykes also appear in the film.  Casey plays the head of B.A.G. while Sykes is wasted in a one-note role as Gunn’s girlfriend.  Among the villains, it’s fun to watch the glamorous Luciana Paluzzi plays a gangster’s niece and Bruce Glover is just weird enough to make Kriley interesting.  Though Martin Landau would end his career with a deserved reputation for being one of America’s greatest character actors, he spent most of the 70s sleepwalking through roles in low-budget action and horror films and his performance in Black Gunn is no different.  Having Capelli be both a car salesman and a gangster is a nice touch but otherwise, he’s just not that interesting of a character and Landau is only present to get a paycheck.

Black Gunn has some slow spots but the final shoot-out between the militants and the gangsters is exciting and so brutal that it will be probably take even the most jaded blaxploitation fan by surprise.  Black Gunn is hardly a classic but, like its hero, it gets the job done.

Gone With The Whaaat?: MANDINGO (Paramount 1975)

cracked rear viewer

If you’ve never seen MANDINGO, be prepared for loads of gratuitous sex, violence, debauchery, depravity, racism, incest, nudity, and other such unsavory stuff! Some people today discuss the film in a scholarly manner, dissecting the sociological implications of pre-Civil War decadence in the deep South, the plight of the abused slaves, the overindulgent cruelty of the slave owners, and blah blah blah. I’m gonna talk about what the movie really is: pure, unadulterated Exploitation trash, in which some scenes will have your jaw dropping in shock, while others will leave you laughing at the exaggerated overacting and ludicrous dialog!

The movie centers around the Maxwell family and their plantation home, Falconhurst. It’s no Tara; Falconhurst is a run-down, gloomy, decrepit mansion that looks like it belongs in one of those “hillbilly horror” schlockfests of the 60’s or 70’s. Family patriarch Warren Maxwell wants a grandson to carry on the family…

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Embracing the Melodrama Part II #54: Mandingo (dir by Richard Fleischer)

Mandingo_movie_posterUp until last night, I was under the impression that James Mason never gave a single bad performance over the course of his long career.  Oh sure, I knew that Mason had probably appeared in his share of bad films.  But I figured he was one of those actors who was always better than his material.  Just watch Lolita, The Verdict, Julius Caesar, Odd Man Out, Bigger Than Life, or Murder By Decree and you’ll see that James Mason was a great actor.

But then, last night, I finally got around to watching the 1975 film, Mandingo.

I’ve actually owned Mandingo on DVD for a few years.  I bought it on a whim, the result of having seen it listed as one of the worst films of all time in several different reference guides.  But I have to admit that I did not have any great desire to actually sit through the film.  Instead, it was one of those films that you buy just so your very ownership of it can be a conversation piece.

(“Oh my God, Lisa, what’s this?”  “Oh, that little old thing?  That’s my copy of Mandingo…”)

However, when I decided to do Embracing the Melodrama, Part II, I realized that this would be the perfect time to actually watch and review Mandingo.

Mandingo deals with life on a sordid plantation in pre-Civil War Alabama.  Warren Maxwell (James Mason) owns the plantation and he spends most of his time sweating and complaining about his rheumatism.  When a Satanic slave trader named Brownlee (Paul Benedict) suggests that Warren can cure his rheumatism by always resting his feet on the backs of two little slave children, Warren proceeds to do just that.  Seriously, this is a 127 minute film and, nearly every time that Mason appears on screen, he’s got his feet propped up on the children.

Warren’s got a son named Hammond (Perry King).  Hammond walks with a limp, the result of a childhood pony accident.  Warren expects Hammond to sire an heir to Maxwell family legacy but Hammond is only comfortable having sex with slaves.  Finally, during a business trip with his decadent friend Charles (Ben Masters), Hammond meets and marries Blanche (Susan George).  Blanche assures Hammond that she’s a virgin and, on their wedding night, she asks Hammond how to have sex.  “We take off our clothes…” Hammond begins.

However, the morning after, Hammond is convinced that Blanche lied about being virgin because she enjoyed having sex.  Once they return to the plantation, Hammond refuses to touch Blanche and instead ends up falling in love with a slave named Ellen (Brenda Sykes).  When Ellen gets pregnant, Blanche beats her until she miscarries.

And meanwhile, James Mason keeps popping up with two little kids resting underneath his feet…

But that’s not all!  Hammond has purchased a slave named Mede (Ken Norton).  Mede is a boxer and wins Hammond a lot of money.  In order to “toughen up” his skin, Mede is also forced to bathe in a cauldron of very hot water.  “Shuck down those pants!” Hammond shouts before Mede gets in the cauldron.

Blanche, who is now an alcoholic, gets her revenge on Hammond by having sex with the the legendarily endowed Mede.  Soon, Blanche is pregnant and Hammond and Warren are both excited.  Then the baby is born and all Hell breaks loose.

And, meanwhile, James Mason rests his feet on the back of two little kids…

Mandingo is one of those films that you watch in wide-eyed amazement, shocked that not only was this movie made but it was also apparently made by a major film studio and directed by a professional director.  (Before he directed Mandingo, Richard Fleischer directed everything from 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea to Doctor Dolittle to Soylent Green.)  I know that some would argue that Mandingo used the conventions of exploitation cinema to expose the sickening inhumanity of American slavery but let’s be honest here.  Mandingo is not Django Unchained.  Instead, it’s a slow-moving soap opera that is occasionally redeemed by some over-the-top dialogue and histrionic performances.

And it’s also proof that James Mason was capable of giving a bad performance.  According to the imdb, James Mason described Mandingo as a film that he did solely for the paycheck.  From his terrible Southern accent to the way that he always seems to be trying to hide his face from the camera, Mason gives perhaps one of the worst performances ever given by a legitimately great actor.

But really, can you blame him?

Back to School #10: Pretty Maids All In A Row (dir by Roger Vadim)

Pretty Maids All In A Row, which — as should be pretty obvious from the trailer above — was originally released in 1971, is a bit of a historic film for me.  You see, I love movies.  And, as a part of that love, I usually don’t give up.  Regardless of how bad a movie may turn out to be, once I start watching, I stick with it.  I do not give up.  I keep watching because you never know.  The film could suddenly get better.  It could turn out that what originally seemed like a misfire was actually brilliant satire.  If you’re going to talk or write about movies, you have an obligation to watch the entire movie.  That was a rule that I had always lived by.

And then, one night, Pretty Maids All In A Row popped up on TCM.

Now, I have to admit that I already knew that Pretty Maids was going to be an extremely 70s film.  I knew that it was probably going to be more than a little sexist.  I knew all of this because the above trailer was included on one of my 42nd Street Forever DVDs.  But I still wanted to see Pretty Maids because the trailer hinted that there might be an interesting hiding underneath all of the cultural baggage.  If nothing else, it appeared that it would have some sort of worth as an artifact of its time.

(If you’re a regular reader of this site, you know how much I love my cinematic time capsules.)

So, the film started.  I logged onto twitter so that I could live tweet the film, using the hashtag #TCMParty.  And from the moment the film started, I knew it wasn’t very good.  It wasn’t just that the film’s camerawork and music were all extremely 70s.  After all, I like 70s music.  I don’t mind the occasional zoom lens.  And random psychedelic sequences?  WHO DOESN’T LOVE THOSE!?  No, my dislike of the film had nothing to do with the film’s style.  Instead, it had to do with the fact that there was absolutely nothing going on behind all of that style.  It wasn’t even style for the sake of style (which is something that I usually love).  Instead, it was style for the sake of being like every other “youth film” that came out in the 70s.


And then there was the film’s plot, which should have been interesting but wasn’t because director Roger Vadim (who specialized in stylish decadence) had no interest in it.  The film takes place at Oceanfront High School, where the only rule is that apparently nobody is allowed to wear a bra.  We meet one student, Ponce De Leon Harper (played by an amazingly unappealing actor named John David Carson), who is apparently on the verge of having a nervous breakdown because, at the height of the sexual revolution, he’s still a virgin.

(Because, of course, the whole point of the sexual revolution was for losers like Ponce to finally be able to get laid…)

Ponce is taken under the wing of high school guidance counselor Tiger McDrew (Rock Hudson, complete with porn star mustache).  Quickly figuring out exactly what Ponce needs, Tiger sets him up with a teacher played by Angie Dickinson.  However, Tiger has other concerns than just Ponce.  Tiger, it turns out, is a sex addict who is sleeping with nearly every female student at the school. But, American society is so oppressive and puts so much pressure on the American male that Tiger has no choice but to kill every girl that he sleeps with…

This is one of the only film I can think of that not only makes excuses for a serial killer but also presents him as being a heroic  character.  And, while it’s tempting to think that the film is being satirical in its portrayal of Tiger and his murders, it’s actually not.  Don’t get me wrong.  The film is a very broad comedy.  The high school’s principal (Roddy McDowall) is more concerned with the football team than with all of the girls turning up dead at the school.  The local sheriff (Keenan Wynn) is a buffoon.  The tough detective (Telly Savalas) who investigates the murders gets a few one liners.

But Tiger, most assuredly, is the film’s hero.  He’s the only character that the audience is expected to laugh with, as opposed to at.  He is the character who is meant to serve as a mouthpiece for screenwriter Gene Roddenberry’s view on America’s puritanical culture.  If only society was less hung up on sex, Tiger wouldn’t have to kill.  Of course, the film’s celebration of Tiger’s attitude towards sex is not extended towards the girls who sleep with him.  Without an exception, they are all presented as being empty-headed, demanding, shallow, and annoying, worthy only of being leered at by Vadim’s camera until Tiger finally has to do away with them.

(The film’s attitude towards women makes Getting Straight look positively enlightened.)

Rock and Angie

Rock and Angie

ANYWAY!  I spent about 40 minutes watching this movie before I gave up on it.  Actually, if you want to be technical about it, I gave up after 5 minutes.  But I stuck with it for another 35 minutes, waiting to see if the film was going to get any better.  It didn’t and finally, I had to ask myself, “Why am I actually sitting here and wasting my time with this misogynistic bullshit?”  So, I stopped watching and I did so with no regrets.

What I had forgotten is that I had set the DVR to record the film while I was watching it, just in case I later decided to review it.  So, last week, as I was preparing for this series of Back to School posts, I saw Pretty Maids All In A Row on my DVR.  I watched the final 51 minutes of the film, just to see if it ever got better.  It didn’t.

However, on the plus side, Rock Hudson does give a good performance in the role of Tiger, bringing a certain seedy desperation to the character.  (I’m guessing that this desperation was Hudson’s own contribution and not an element of Roddenberry’s screenplay, which more or less presents Tiger as being a Nietzschean superman.).  And beyond that, Pretty Maids serves as evidence as to just how desperate the Hollywood studios were to makes movies that would be weird enough to appeal to young people in the early 70s.

Watching the film, you can practically hear the voices of middle-aged studio executives.

“What the Hell are we trying to do with this movie!?” one of the voices says.

“Who cares!?” the other voice replies, “the kids will love it!”