A Movie A Day #152: Bad Company (1972, directed by Robert Benton)


Missouri during the Civil War.  All young men are being forcibly constricted into the Union army, leaving those who want to avoid service with only two options: they can either disguise themselves as a woman and hope that the soldiers are fooled or they can head out west.  Drew Dixon (Barry Brown) opts for the latter solution but his plans hit a snag when he’s robbed and pistol-whipped by Jake Rumsey (Jeff Bridges).  When Drew coincidentally meets Jake for a second time, he immediately attacks him.  Jake is so impressed that he insists that Drew join his gang of thieves.

Jake’s gang, which include two brothers (one of whom is played by John Savage) and a ten year-old boy, is hardly the wild bunch.  They spend most of their time robbing children and are, themselves, regularly robbed by other gangs, including the one run by Big Joe (David Huddleston).  Their attempt to rob a stagecoach goes hilariously wrong.  Less hilarious is what happens when they try to steal a pie from a window sill.

Bad Company was the directorial debut of Robert Benton and it has the same combination of comedy and fatalism that distinguished both his script for Bonnie and Clyde and several of the other revisionist westerns of the 1970s.  While the interplay between Drew and Jake may remind some of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the film’s sudden bursts of violence feel like pure Peckinpah.  Fortunately, the combination of Robert Benton’s low-key direction and the excellent performances of Jeff Bridges and Barry Brown allows Bad Company to stand on its own.  Brown and Bridges make for an excellent team, with Bridges giving a charismatic, devil-may-care performance and the late Barry Brown holding his own as the more grounded Drew.  (Sadly, Brown, who appears to have had the talent to be a huge star, committed suicide six years after the release of Bad Company.)  This unjustly forgotten western is one of the best films of the 1970s.

A Movie A Day #141: Breakheart Pass (1975, directed by Tom Gries)


California.  The 1870s.  Sheriff Pearce (Ben Johnson) boards a train with his prisoner, an alleged outlaw named John Deakin (Charles Bronson).  The train is mostly full of soldiers, under the command of Major Claremont (Ed Lauter), who are on their way to Fort Humboldt.  The fort has suffered a diphtheria epidemic and the soldiers are supposedly transporting medical supplies.

However, it’s not just soldiers on the train.  There’s also Gov. Fairchild (Richard Crenna) of Nevada, his fiancée (Jill Ireland), the Reverend Peabody (Bill McKinney), and a conductor named O’Brien (Charles Durning).  As the train continues on its journey, it becomes obvious that all is not as it seems.  People start to disappear.  A man is thrown from the train.  Two cars full of soldiers are separated from the train and plunge over a cliff.  There is also more to Deakin than anyone first realized and soon, he is the only person who can bring the murderers to justice.

In both real life and the movies, Charles Bronson was the epitome of a tough guy, so it’s always interesting to see him playing a more cerebral character than usual.  There are some exciting and surprisingly brutal action scenes, including a scene where Bronson fights a cook (played by former professional boxer Archie Moore) on top of the speeding train, but Breakheart Pass is more of a murder mystery than a typical action film.  If Louis L’Amour and Agatha Christie had collaborated on a story, the end result would be much like Breakheart Pass.  Bronson spends as much time investigating as he does swinging his fists or shooting a gun.  It’s not a typical Bronson role but he does a good job, showing that he could think as convincingly as he could kill.  Acting opposite some of the best character actors around in the 70s, Bronson more than holds his own.

Apparently, back in 1975, audiences were not interesting in watching Bronson think so Breakheart Pass was a disappointment at the box office and it is still not as well known as Bronson’s other films.  However, even if you’re not already a fan of the great Bronson, Breakheart Pass is worth discovering.

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.

44 Days of Paranoia #19: Capricorn One (dir by Peter Hyams)


Last night, the temperature plunged here in Texas.  When I woke up this morning, I was confronted with a world that was literally frozen.  Needless to say, nobody in Dallas went to work today.  Instead, we all sat in our houses and tried to keep ourselves entertained.  I kept myself occupied by watching a film that was initially released way back in 1978 and which takes place in my home state.

The name of that film was Capricorn One and it’s the latest entry in the 44 Days of Paranoia.

Capricorn One begins with three astronauts preparing to take the fist manned space flight to Mars.  James Brolin is the stoic leader.  Sam Waterston is the guy who has a joke for every occasion.  And O.J. Simpson is … well, O.J. really doesn’t have much of a personality.  He’s pretty much just along for the ride.

However, it turns out that there really isn’t going to be a ride.  Just as the countdown begins, the astronauts are ordered to leave the capsule.  They are then transported to secret base in the Texas desert.  It’s here that they have a meeting with the Head of NASA, who is played by Hal Holbrook.  (It’s simply not a 70s conspiracy film if Hal Holbrook isn’t somehow involved).  Holbrook proceeds to deliver a stirring monologue where he talks about how he and Brolin have always dreamed of sending a manned flight to Mars.  However, as Holbrook explains, the life support system on the crew’s ship was faulty.  If Holbrook had allowed them to be launched, they would have died as soon as they left the Earth’s atmosphere.  However, if the mission had been canceled then there was a chance that the President would use that cancellation as an excuse to cut NASA’s funding.

So, as Holbrook explains, an empty spaceship has been launched into space.  As far as the American public is concerned, the three astronauts are currently on their way to Mars.  Now, in order to save the space program, they are going to have to fake the mission.  In a studio, a fake alien landscape has been set up and it’s from that studio that Brolin, Waterston, and Simpson will pretend to explore Mars.

Brolin, Waterston, and Simpson reluctantly agree to cooperate with the plan.  However, after doing the first fake broadcast, Brolin starts to have second thoughts.  Realizing that he can’t trust the three astronauts to keep a secret, Holbrook announces that the capsule’s heat shields failed during re-entry and that the crew of Capricorn One is now dead.  Now, all he has to do is have the three of them killed for real.

Meanwhile, a NASA technician (Robert Walden) stumbles onto evidence of the deception.  He subsequently vanishes but not before he tells reporter Elliott Gould about his suspicions.  While the three astronauts try to escape from Holbrook’s agents, Gould tries to find out what really happened to Capricorn One.

It’s probably half-an-hour too long, the plot is full of holes (the least of which being why Holbrook waited until after he had announced the fake deaths to order the real deaths), and director Peter Hyams allows a few scenes to run on and on while others seem to end with a jarring abruptness.  However, for the most part, Capricorn One is a well-acted and solidly entertaining film.  However, there are two things that make Capricorn One especially memorable.

First off, Capricorn One features one of the most exciting action sequences that I have  ever seen.  It occurs while Gould is investigating Walden’s disappearance.  After visiting Walden’s apartment and discovering that it’s inhabited by a woman who claims to have never heard of his friend, Gould is driving away when he discovers that his brakes have been disabled.  The car then starts to accelerate and Gould finds himself desperately trying to regain control as the car careens through the streets of Houston.  The scene is shot almost entirely from Gould’s point-of-view and, for five minutes, we watch as everything from other cars to unlucky pedestrians come hurtling towards the car.  For those few minutes, when the viewer and Gould become one, Capricorn One is not only exciting but it feels genuinely dangerous as well.

Secondly, Capricorn One features some of the oddest dialogue imaginable.  Peter Hyams not only directed the film but he also wrote the screenplay as well.  Watching the film, one gets the feelings that Hyams was so in love with his dialogue and with all of his quirky characters that he simply could not bring himself to cut anything or anyone.  As a result, the film is full of lengthy monologues.  When the characters speak to each other, they don’t have conversations as much as they trade quips.  Characters like Gould’s ex-wife (played by Karen Black) and his editor (David Doyle) show up for a scene or two, deliver monologues that are only tangibly related to the film’s plot, and then vanish.  Sam Waterston ends up telling the world’s longest joke while he climbs a mountain in the desert.  Towards the end of the film, Telly Savalas (who was in my favorite Mario Bava film, Lisa and the Devil) shows up as a foul-tempered crop duster and engages in a long argument with Gould who, despite being a reporter, never bothers to question why Savalas would have a crop dusting business in the middle of the desert.

But here’s the thing — it works.  As odd as some of the dialogue may be and as superfluous as some of the action is to the overall plot, it still all works to the film’s benefit.  The constant quirkiness works to keep the audience off-balance and to give Capricorn One its own unique rhythm.

Capricorn One — see it now before Michael Bay remakes it.

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