An Offer You Can’t Refuse #20: The Untouchables (dir by Brian DePalma)

“Let’s do some good!” Eliot Ness shouts as he and a platoon of Chicago cops raid what they believe is a bootlegger’s warehouse.

That line right there tells you everything that you need to know about the 1987 film, The Untouchables.  In real life, Eliot Ness was known to be an honest member of law enforcement (which did make him a bit of a rarity in 1920s Chicago) but he was also considered to be something of a self-promoter, someone who tried to leverage his momentary fame into an unsuccessful political career.  In the 50s, after Ness had lost most of his money due to a series of bad investments and his own alcoholism, Ness wrote a book about his efforts to take down Al Capone in Chicago.  That book was called The Untouchables and though Ness died of a heart attack shortly before it was published, it still proved popular enough to not only rehabilitate Ness’s heroic image but also to inspire both a television series and the movie that I’m currently reviewing.

None of that is to say that Ness didn’t play a role in Al Capone’s downfall.  He did, though it’s since been argued that Ness had little to do with actual tax evasion case that led to Capone going to prison.  It’s just that, in real life, Eliot Ness was a complicated human being, one who had his flaws.  In The Untouchables, Kevin Costner plays him as a beacon of midwestern integrity, a Gary Cooper-type who has found himself in the very corrupt city of Chicago in the very corrupt decade of the 1920s.  The film version of Eliot Ness has no flaws, beyond his naive belief that everyone is as determined to “do some good” as he is.

So, The Untouchables may not be historically accurate but it’s still an entertaining film.  It’s less concerned with the reality of Eliot Ness’s life and more about the mythology that has risen up around the roaring 20s.  Everything about the film is big and operatic.  In the role of Al Capone, Robert De Niro sneers through every scene with the self-satisfaction of a tyrant looking over the kingdom that he’s just conquered.  While Costner’s Ness tells everyone to do some good, De Niro’s Capone uses a baseball bat to keep his underlings in line.  He goes to the opera and cries until he’s told that one of Ness’s men has been killed.  Then a big grin spreads out across his face.  It’s not exactly a subtle performance but then again, The Untouchables is not exactly a subtle movie.  It’s not designed to be a film that makes you think about whether or not prohibition was a good law.  Instead, everything is bigger-than-life.  It’s a film that takes place in a dream world that appears to have sprung from mix of old movies and American mythology.

In real life, Ness had ten agents working under him.  They were all selected because they were considered to be honest lawmen and they were nicknamed The Untouchables after it was announced to the press that Ness had refused a bribe from one of Capone’s men.  In the film, Ness only has three men working underneath him and they’re all recognizable types.  Sean Connery won an Oscar for playing Jmmy Malone, the crusty old beat cop who teaches Ness about the Chicago Way.  A young and incredibly hot Andy Garcia plays George Stone, the youngest of the Untouchables.  Best of all is Charles Martin Smith, cast as Oscar Wallace, a mild-mannered accountant who first suggests that Capone must be cheating on his taxes.  There’s a great scene in which the Untouchables intercept a liquor shipment on the Canadian border, all while riding horses.  Sitting on the back of his galloping horse and trying not to fall off, both Oscar Wallace and the actor playing him appear to be having the time of their lives.  For Oscar (and probably for much of the audience), it’s a fantasy come to life, a chance to “do some good.”

The Untouchables was directed by Brian DePalma and his stylish approach to the material is perfect for the film’s story.  DePalma fills the film with references to other movies, some from the gangster genre and some not.  (In one of the film’s most famous sequence, DePalma reimagines Battleship Potemkin‘s massacre on The Odessa Steps as a shoot-out between Eliot Ness and Capone’s men.)  DePalma’s kinetic style reminds us that The Untouchables is less about history and more about how we imagine history.  In reality, Capone was succeeded by Frank Nitti and The Chicago Outfit continued to thrive even in Capone’s absence.  In the film, Nitti (played by Billy Drago) brags about killing one of the Untouchables and, as a result, is tossed off the roof of a courthouse by Eliot Ness.  It’s not historically accurate but it makes for a crowd-pleasing scene.

Big, operatic, and always entertaining, The Untouchables is an offer that you can’t refuse.

Previous Offers You Can’t (or Can) Refuse:

  1. The Public Enemy
  2. Scarface (1932)
  3. The Purple Gang
  4. The Gang That Could’t Shoot Straight
  5. The Happening
  6. King of the Roaring Twenties: The Story of Arnold Rothstein 
  7. The Roaring Twenties
  8. Force of Evil
  9. Rob the Mob
  10. Gambling House
  11. Race Street
  12. Racket Girls
  13. Hoffa
  14. Contraband
  15. Bugsy Malone
  16. Love Me or Leave Me
  17. Murder, Inc.
  18. The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre
  19. Scarface (1983)

Criminally Underrated: George C. Scott in BANK SHOT (United Artists 1974)

cracked rear viewer

I’m a big fan of the novels and short stories of Edgar Award-winning writer Donald E. Westlake , named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America. His comic-laced crime capers featuring master planner Dortmunder were well suited for films and the first book in the series, THE HOT ROCK, was filmed by Peter Yates in 1972 with Robert Redford as the mastermind. Two years later came BANK SHOT, the second Dortmunder novel, starring George C. Scott but changing the character’s name to Walter Ballentine due to legal issues. Dortmunder or Ballentine, BANK SHOT is a zany film with a fine cast of actors that deserves another look.

Ballentine is doing life in Warden “Bulldog” Streiger’s maximum security prison, but when his shady “lawyer” and confidant Al G. Karp visits with an idea for a new “shot”, the hardened criminal makes his escape. Karp needs Ballentine’s expertise to plan the robbery of Mission Bell…

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Film Review: Kid Blue (1973, directed by James Frawley)

KidBlueFor the past week and a half, I have been on a major Warren Oates kick.  The latest Oates film that I watched was Kid Blue, a quirky western comedy that features Warren in a small but key supporting role.

Bickford Warner (Dennis Hopper) is a long-haired and spaced-out train robber who, after one failed robbery too many, decides to go straight and live a conventional life.  He settles in the town of Dime Box, Texas.  He starts out sweeping the floor of a barber shop before getting a better job wringing the necks of chickens.  Eventually, he ends up working at the Great American Ceramic Novelty Company, where he helps to make ashtrays for tourists.

He also meets Molly and Reese Ford (Lee Purcell and Warren Oates), a married couple who both end up taking an interest in Bickford.  Reese, who ignores his beautiful wife, constantly praised Greek culture and insists that Bickford take a bath with him.  Meanwhile, Molly and Bickford end up having an affair.

Bickford also meets the local preacher, Bob (Peter Boyle).  Bob is enthusiastic about peyote and has built a primitive flying machine that he keeps in a field.  The town’s fascist sheriff, Mean John (Ben Johnson), comes across Bob performing a river baptism and angrily admonishes him for using “white man’s water” to baptize an Indian.

Bickford attempts to live a straight life but is constantly hassled by Mean John, who suspects that Bickford might actually be Kid Blue.  When Bickford’s former criminal partner (Janice Rule) shows up in town and Molly announces that she’s pregnant, Bickford has to decide whether or not to return to his old ways.

Kid Blue is one of a handful of counterculture westerns that were released in the early 70s.  The film’s biggest problem is that, at the time he was playing “Kid” Blue, Dennis Hopper was 37 and looked several years older.  It’s hard to buy him as a naïve naif when he looks older than everyone else in the cast.  As for Warren Oates, his role was small but he did great work as usual.  Gay characters were rarely presented sympathetically in the early 70s and counter-culture films were often the worst offenders.  As written, Reese is a one-note (and one-joke) character but Warren played him with a lot of empathy and gave him a wounded dignity that was probably not present in the film’s script.

Kid Blue plays out at its own stoned pace, an uneven mix of quirky comedy and dippy philosophy.  Still, the film is worth seeing for the only-in-the-70s cast and the curiosity factor of seeing Dennis Hopper in full counterculture mode, before he detoxed and became Hollywood’s favorite super villain.


Embracing the Melodrama Part II #36: WUSA (dir by Stuart Rosenberg)

wusaI recently saw the 1970 film WUSA on Movies TV.  After I watched it, I looked Joanne Woodward up on Wikipedia specifically to see where she was born.  I was surprised to discover that she was born and raised in Georgia and that she attended college in Louisiana.

Why was I so shocked?  Because WUSA was set in New Orleans and it featured Joanne Woodward speaking in one of the most worst Southern accents that I had ever heard.  A little over an hour into the film, Woodward’s character says, “What’s all the rhubarb?”  And while “What’s all the rhu…” sounds properly Southern, the “…barb” was pronounced with the type of harshly unpleasant overemphasis on “ar” that has given away many Northern actors trying to sound Southern.  Hence, I was shocked to discover that Joanne Woodward actually was Southern.

That said, her pronunciation of the word rhubarb pretty much summed up every problem that I had with WUSA.  Actually, the real problem was that she said “rhubarb” in the first place.  It came across as being the type of thing that a Northerner who has never actually been down South would think was regularly uttered down here.  And I will admit that WUSA was made 16 years before I was born and so, it’s entirely possible that maybe — way back then — people down South regularly did use the word rhubarb.  But, for some reason, I doubt it.  I know plenty of old Southern people and I’ve never heard a single one of them say anything about rhubarb.

As for WUSA, it’s a long and slow film.  A drifter named Reinhardt (Paul Newman) drifts into New Orleans and, with the help of an old friend who is now pretending to be a priest (Laurence Harvey), Reinhardt gets a job as an announcer at a right-wing radio station.  He reads extremist editorials that he doesn’t agree with and whenever anyone challenges him, he explains that he’s just doing his job and nothing matters anyway.

Reinhardt also gets himself an apartment and spends most of his time smoking weed with long-haired musician types, the exact same people that WUSA regularly denounces as being a threat to the American way.  Living in the same complex is Geraldine (Joanne Woodward), a former prostitute who has a scar on her face and who says stuff like, “What’s all the rhubarb?”  She falls in love with Reinhardt but finds it difficult to ignore what he does for a living.

Meanwhile, Geraldine has another admirer.  Rainey (Anthony Perkins) is an idealistic and neurotic social worker who is regularly frustrated by his efforts to do good in the world.  Reinhardt makes fun of him.  The local crime boss (Moses Gunn) manipulates him.  And WUSA infuriates him.  When Rainey realizes that WUSA is a part of a plot to elect an extremist governor, Rainey dresses up like a priest and starts carrying around a rifle.

Meanwhile, Reinhardt has been assigned to serve as emcee at a huge patriotic rally.  With Geraldine watching from the audience and Rainey wandering around the rafters with his rifle, Reinhardt is finally forced to take a stand about the people that he works for.

Or maybe he isn’t.

To be honest, WUSA is such a mess of a film that, even after the end credits roll, it’s difficult to figure out whether Reinhardt took a stand or not.

Anyway, WUSA is not a lost masterpiece and I really wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.  The film’s too long, there’s too many scenes of characters repeating the same thing over and over again, and neither Newman nor Woodward are particularly memorable.  (You know a movie is boring when even Paul Newman seems like a dullard.)  On the plus side, Anthony Perkins gives such a good performance that I didn’t once think about the Psycho shower scene while watching him.

As boring as WUSA is, I have to admit that I’m a little bit surprised that it hasn’t been rediscovered.  Considering that it’s about a right-wing radio station, I’m surprised that there haven’t been hundreds of pretentious think pieces trying to make the connection between WUSA and Fox News.  But, honestly, even if those think pieces were out there, it probably wouldn’t do much for WUSA‘s repuation.  According to the film’s Wikipedia page, Paul Newman called it, “the most significant film I’ve ever made and the best.”  Paul Newman’s opinion aside, WUSA is pretty dire.

Shattered Politics #32: The Werewolf of Washington (dir by Milton Moses Ginsberg)

Werewolf of Washington (1973)

First released in 1973, The Werewolf of Washington is one of those obscure films that always seems to pop up in Mill Creek box sets.  That’s largely because Werewolf of Washington has slipped into the public domain and anyone can release and sell a copy of it.  (It’s also been uploaded to YouTube by a few hundred different users.)  It’s a film that I’ve actually watched quite a few times, largely because it is so easily available.

Which doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s any good.  I have to admit that, in between viewings, I always seem to convince myself that The Werewolf of Washington is a better film than it actually is.  The idea behind the film sounds clever.  The President’s press secretary (played by Dean Stockwell) is a werewolf.  When the full moon shines, he transforms and wrecks havoc on the streets on D.C.  Stockwell still wears his suit, even when he’s a wolfman.  The President (played by Biff McGuire) is a total idiot who spends a lot of time bowling.  The Attorney General (Clifton James) is a paranoid fascist who is quick to blame the werewolf’s murders on outside agitators.  For no particular reason, a dwarf mad scientist (Michael Dunn) shows up.

Yes, the idea is clever but the execution … actually, the execution is not terrible.  Dean Stockwell gives a good performance and there’s a funny scene where he starts to turn into a werewolf while bowling with the President.  Stockwell’s fingers swell up and get stuck in the bowling ball and Stockwell totally freaks out.  And then there’s a scene where the werewolf attacks a woman in a phone booth and it’s actually rather suspenseful and almost scary.  Plus, Biff McGuire is great and all too plausible as the vapid President.

And yet, overall, the film itself is never as good as you want it to be.  I think a large part of the problem is that the film opens with a long voice over from Dean Stockwell, which explains why his character ended up in Budapest (that would be where he gets bitten by the werewolf) and why the President subsequently named him press secretary.  It’s so much backstory that you get the feeling that the opening narration must have been added in post production in order to cover up scenes that either did not work or that the film’s director never got a chance to shoot.

And really, the entire film is like that.  The film is a collection of scenes that never really flow together or establish any sort of steady pace.  And, when it comes to both horror and comedy, pace is key.

The Werewolf of Washington is a clever idea.  I just wish the execution had been just as clever.

And I’ll probably continue to wish that the next time that I rewatch it.



James Bond Review: Live and Let Die (dir. by Guy Hamilton)

One year and one day ago the very first James Bond film to star Sir Roger Moore, Live and Let Die, in the title role was reviewed by Lisa Marie, and now it’s time to revisit the eight official film in the series.

With the previous Bond entry, Diamonds Are Forever, we finally see Sean Connery run out of gas when it came to playing the title role of James Bond. Yet, despite the obvious boredom Connery was having in the film the producers of the series were still wanting him to come back for another Bond film. Maybe it was his experience during the production of Diamonds Are Forever or Connery finally decided it was truly time to go the series’ producers didn’t get their wish and were in a rush to find someone new to wear the mantle o Agent 007.

They finally found their new James Bond in the form of English-actor Roger Moore and production on Live and Let Die began soon after.

Roger Moore, for me, has always been the start of the less serious, but much more fun era of the James Bond franchise. His films still had the intrigue and action of the Connery-era, but the writers and producers of the series put in more one-liners and humor in the story. We begin to see the start of this in the previous Bond film (not handled as well and came off as awkward at times), but it was in Live and Let Die and in Roger Moore that this change in the series’ tone finally hit it’s stride.

The film dials back the global domination attempts by the series of villians both SPECTRE and not. This time around Bond must investigate the deaths of three MI6 agents who had been investigating one Dr. Kananga, the despot of the fictitious Caribbean island of San Monique. Kananga (played by Yaphet Kotto) also has an alter-ego in the form of Mr. Big who runs a series of soul food restaurants as a front for his drug business. Every Bond film always tries to out-elaborate the previous one with it’s villains plans. There’s no attempts by Kananga/Big to dominate the world. His plans are pretty capitalistic in a ruthless sort of way. He wants to corner the drug market in the US by flooding the illegal drug market with his own heroin which he plans to give away for free thus bankrupting the other crime lords and drug dealers.

This plan by Kananga actually looks to be very sound and it helps that he has the beautiful seer Solitaire (played by a young and beautiful Jane Seymour) to help him outwit ad stay ahead of his competitors and the law. His plan would’ve succeeded if not for the meddling of one British super-spy named James Bond.

Live and Let Die might not have been as serious about it’s story as the early Connery films, but it definitely had a much more faster pace with more action to distinguish Moore from Connery. One particular famous action sequence involves Bond escaping from Kananga’s drug farm in the Louisiana Bayou country being chased not just by Kananga’s henchmen but by the local police in the form of Sheriff J.W. Pepper who plays the role of fool and comedy relief in the film. Even the smaller action scenes in the film had more life and fun to them like Bond escaping a gator pit by timing a run across the backs of a line of gators to safety.

Where the previous bond film’s attempt at injecting humor and more action into the story were more failures than successes in this film Roger Moore Bond film they worked in due part to Moore’s playful delivery of the one-liners and bon mots the role has become known for of late. Any trepidation that audiences and producers might have had about  Moore taking on the role that had been made famous by Connery  soon went away as this film played out.

Live and Let Die still remains my favorite of all the Roger Moore Bond films and saw it as the highlight of his time playing the character. While the follow-up films were good in their own right it was this initial Moore entry in the series where the writers, Moore and veteran Bond filmmaker Guy Hamilton were able to find the perfect balance of thrilling action and humor that the rest of the Moore-era films couldn’t replicate.

Next up for James Bond…The Man with the Golden Gun.

Horror Film Review: Live and Let Die (dir. by Guy Hamilton)

I know what you’re going to say before you say it.

“Okay, Lisa,” you sigh, “I hate to tell you this but Live and Let Die is not a horror film.  Live and Let Die is a James Bond film.  In fact, it’s the first one to feature Roger Moore in the role of Bond.  It’s the one where Yaphet Kotto is the guy who’s both a Harlem drug dealer and a world leader and he’s planning on importing all this heroin from Haiti or somewhere and Bond runs off with his Tarot card reader who is played by Jane Seymour, who has mismatched eyes, just like you!”

“Thank you,” I say in my shy little way as my cheeks flush red and my mismatched eyes glance downward.

“However,” you continue, “it’s hardly a horror film.  Live and Let Die is just the James Bond film where they go to Louisiana and end up chasing each other in boats and then Clifton James shows up as this redneck sheriff and its just kinda embarrassing.”

“May I speak now?” I ask as I narrow my multi-colored eyes at you, “Now, to be honest, I’ve only recently started to really watch all of the old school James Bond films from the 60s and the 70s but Live and Let Die is actually one of my favorites, even with Clifton James as Sheriff J.W. Pepper.  I mean, the film’s actually a lot of fun, Yaphet Kotto made a great villain, and even if Roger Moore wasn’t quite as sexy and dangerous as Sean Connery was, at least he wasn’t all stiff and humorless like Daniel Craig.  In fact, I think it could be argued that Live and Let Die was the first — and maybe only — truly Grindhouse James Bond film.  I just find it interesting how the whole film is basically a hybrid of all of the big exploitation genres of 1973.   The scenes in Harlem and really the film’s entire plot is pretty much ripped off from blaxploitation while the voodoo scenes all have this kind of campy, Hammer feel to them.  Even the scenes in Louisiana are an homage to the southern car chase movies that were apparently big at the drive-ins back then.”

“That’s all good and well, Lisa, but how does that make Live and Let Die a horror film?  And don’t say it’s because Felix Leiter is played by David Hedison, the star of the original Fly because–”

“Hold on,” I say, “this is the point where we show the trailer.”

“Okay, Lisa Marie,” you say, “now that you’ve indulged in your bizarre trailer fetish, explain just how exactly this is a horror film and don’t try doing that thing you always do where you link it to some weird-ass thing that happened to you like ten years ago.”

My nostrils flare as I begin, “Ten years ago, me and my family were taking a vacation in voodoo country…”

“Lisa Marie, did you not read the previous paragraph?”

“Oh, sorry.”  I pause in order to get my thoughts straight in my head.  “Well, first off, let’s start with the opening credits.  Now, I’ll be honest here and admit that I’ve always kinda wanted to be one of those girls that are always dancing around naked during the opening credits of all the old school James Bond films–” 

“That’s a shock.”

“–so I always end up paying attention to those opening credits.  I mean, that’s my time to fantasize about being in a James Bond film.  And I have to say, the opening credits of Live and Let Die — Agck!  Seriously, everyone always spends so much time talking about how great the theme song is that they kinda miss just how freaky and nightmarish those opening credits are.  I mean, seriously, when you’re at home alone and you’re watching this in a dark room, these opening credits are genuinely unsettling.  Here, check them out.”

“Okay,” you say, “I can see how the credits might freak you out but that’s just like 2 minutes of a two hour film–”

“Oh my God, I’m so not even done yet!” I snap, “This film isn’t about James Bond fighting drug dealers.  All of that stuff with Yaphet Kotto and the heroin and all that — it’s all just an excuse to get to what the film is truly about: James Bond vs. Baron Samedi, the man who can not die!  As played by Geoffrey Holder, Baron Samedi’s only in a few scenes but he dominates the entire film.  I mean, it’s actually kinda funny because every time Baron Samedi shows up, someone dies but the film comes to life.”

“In fact,” I continue, now pretty much talking to myself, “when Baron Samedi first appears in the film, he’s killing this poor, terrified man by holding a poisonous snake up to the man’s face and oh my God, that scene freaked me out when I first saw it!  In fact, it’s the only scene from a James Bond film that’s ever given me a nightmare.  Even Eva Green drowning in Casino Royale didn’t freak me out as much as that snake scene did and you know I’m a lot more scared of drowning than I am of snakes.  Which is odd since I live in Texas and there’s a lot more snakes around here than large bodies of water…”

“Slow down and breathe, Lisa Marie,” you say, “you’re getting off topic.”

“Right, sorry.  Anyway, it’s a scary scene precisely because Baron Samedi seems to be enjoying killing the man so much.  Then again, it could also be the fact that Baron Samedi had the most evil laugh ever.  Seriously, listen to it in the scene below.”

As you watch the scene, I continue to speak, my words tumbling one after another out of my mouth, “But the scariest Baron Samedi scene isn’t even on YouTube.  Seriously, YouTube sucks.  I hate YouTube.  I mean, you can find a thousand videos of silly people doing that Wii workout game in their underwear but you can’t find the freakiest Baron Samedi scene ever.  Seriously, forget about Occupying Wall Street.  Let’s occupy freaking YouTube and demand–”

“Focus, Lisa.”

“Sorry.  Anyway, the freakiest scene in Live and Let Die and I would dare say the freakiest scene of the entire James Bond series, comes towards the end of the film.  Baron Samedi pops up out of this grave and James Bond like shoots him and blows off half his forehead, right?  And Baron Samedi just stand there perfectly still and emotionless.  Then, his eyes slowly roll upward and stare up at where his forehead used to be.  So, Bond shoots him like three more times and Baron Samedi just collapses like a rag doll.  And then, suddenly, Baron Samedi — forehead intact — pops out of another grave and does that evil laugh of his!  Oh.  My.  God!  It is so freaky!  I was watching it and I was just like…AGCK!

“And that,” I conclude, “is why Live and Let Die is a horror film.”

However, now that I’m finished, you don’t reply.  I look up and I see that you’re gone.

And in your place…