Marooned (1969, directed by John Sturges)


Imagine The Martian or Apollo 13 without any humor or narrative momentum and you’ve got an idea what Marooned is like.

Three American astronauts (played by Richard Crenna, Gene Hackman, and James Franciscus) are returning to Earth after serving on an experimental space station when the engine to their spacecraft fails.  Now stuck in orbit around the Earth, they only have two days before they run out of oxygen.  While flight commander Crenna tries to keep everyone calm and make sure that all the proper procedures are followed, Gene Hackman yells at NASA and demands to be rescued.

Down on Earth, the head of NASA (Gregory Peck) says that there’s nothing that can be done.  There’s no way to get a rescue mission set up quickly enough to save the lives of the astronauts.  Both the President and David Janssen disagree with him.  Janssen demands to be sent into space immediately, regardless of the dangers, so that he can bring America’s astronauts home.

Marooned is a painfully slow movie that went into production at the height of the space race and which was released just a few weeks before the first successful moon mission.  Because it was made at a time when there were still many who claimed that NASA was a waste of money, the movie goes out of its way to explain that, even though the astronauts are probably going to die in space, NASA is in no way to blame.  Richard Crenna absolves NASA of blame after being told that a rescue mission isn’t feasible.  Gregory Peck holds a press conference, where he gives a lengthy speech about why space exploration is still important.  The movie is very detailed in showing that NASA is staffed by personality-free professionals, which might have boosted confidence in NASA but which also leads to a dull story.  You’ll notice that I haven’t referred to anyone in this film by the names of their characters.  That’s because their names don’t matter because, other than Gene Hackman and David Janssen, none of them is really distinguished by any sort of identifiable personality.  Hackman chews the scenery while Janssen plays another surly character who seems like he has a permanent hangover.  I wouldn’t trust Janssen to pilot a spaceship.

Marooned won an Oscar for its Special Effects, which were probably impressive back in 1969 but which are dull by modern standards.  Winning that Oscar meant that Marooned would eventually earn the distinction of being the only Oscar winner to be featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000.  On MST 3K, it aired under the title Space Travelers, which is a perfectly generic name for a perfectly generic film.

 

An Offer You Can’t Refuse #6: King of the Roaring 20s: The Story of Arnold Rothstein (dir by Joseph M. Newman)


The 1961 gangster biopic, King of the Roaring ’20s: The Story of Arnold Rothstein, tells the story of two men.

David Janssen is Arnold Rothstein, the gambler-turned-millionaire crime lord who, in the early years of the 20th Century, was one of the dominant figures in American organized crime.  Though he may be best-remembered for his alleged role in fixing the 1918 World Series, Rothstein also served as a mentor to men like Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky, and Bugsy Siegel.  Rothstein was perhaps the first gangster to to treat crime like a business.

Mickey Rooney is Johnny Burke, Arnold’s best friend from childhood who grows up to be a low-level hood and notoriously unsuccessful gambler.  Whereas Arnold is intelligent, cunning, and always calm, Johnny always seems to be a desperate.  Whereas Arnold’s success is due to his ability to keep a secret, Johnny simply can’t stop talking.

Together …. THEY SOLVE CRIMES!

No, actually, they don’t.  They both commit crimes, sometimes together and sometimes apart.  Perhaps not surprisingly, Arnold turns out to be a better criminal than Johnny.  In fact, Johnny is always in over his head.  He often has to go to his friend Arnold and beg him for his help.  Johnny does this even though Arnold continually tells him, “I only care about myself and money.”

The friendship between Arnold and Johnny is at the heart of King of the Roaring 20s, though it’s not much of a heart since every conversation they have begins with Johnny begging Arnold for help and ends with Arnold declaring that he only cares about money.  At a certain point, it’s hard not to feel that Johnny is bringing a lot of this trouble on himself by consistently seeking help from someone who brags about not helping anyone.  From the minute that the film begins, Arnold Rothstein’s mantra is that he only cares about money, gambling, and winning a poker game with a royal flush.  Everything else — from his friendship to Johnny to his marriage to former showgirl Carolyn Green (Dianne Foster) to even his violent rivalry with crooked cop Phil Butler (Dan O’Herlihy) — comes second to his own greed.  The film’s portrayal of Rothstein as being a single-minded and heartless sociopath may be a convincing portrait of the type of mindset necessary to be a successful crime lord but it hardly makes for a compelling protagonist.

Oddly enough, the film leaves out a lot of the things that the real-life Arnold Rothstein was best known for.  There’s no real mention of Rothstein fixing the World Series. His mentorship to Luciano, Lansky, and Seigel is not depicted.  The fact that Rothstein was reportedly the first gangster to realize how much money could be made off of bootlegging goes unacknowledged.  By most reports, Arnold Rothstein was a flamboyant figure.  (Meyer Wolfsheim, the uncouth gangster from The Great Gatsby, was reportedly based on him.)   There’s nothing flamboyant about David Janssen’s performance in this film.  He plays Rothstein as being a tightly-wound and rather unemotional businessman.  It’s not a bad performance as much as it just doesn’t feel right for a character who, according to the film’s title, was the King of the Roaring 20s.

That said, there are still enough pleasures to be found in this film to make it worth watching.  As if to make up for Janssen’s subdued performance, everyone else in the cast attacks the scenery with gusto.  Mickey Rooney does a good job acting desperate and Dan O’Herlihy is effectively villainous as the crooked cop.  Jack Carson has a few good scenes as a corrupt political fixer and Dianne Foster does the best that she can with the somewhat thankless role of Rothstein’s wife.  The film moves quickly and, even if it’s not as violent as the typical gangster film, it does make a relevant point about how organized crime became a big business.

It’s not a great gangster film by any stretch of the imagination and the lead role is miscast but there’s still enough about this film that works to make it worth a watch for gangster movie fans.

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

  1. The Public Enemy
  2. Scarface
  3. The Purple Gang
  4. The Gang That Could’t Shoot Straight
  5. The Happening

The Swiss Conspiracy (1976, directed by Jack Arnold)


In The Swiss Conspiracy, David Janssen growls his way through another international crime thriller.

Janssen plays David Christopher, a former Treasury agent who is now living in Geneva.  When a Swiss bank is contacted by blackmailers who threaten to reveal the secret account numbers of some of its most prominent and unsavory clients, the bank’s president, Johann Hurtill (Ray Milland), hires Christopher to find out who is behind the plot.  Unfortunately, one of the account holders is a U.S. gangster named Robert Hayes (John Saxon, naturally) and he’s not happy about having to work with a former fed.

With The Swiss Conspiracy, you know what you’re getting into the minute that the film opens with a narrator giving a lengthy explanation about how Swiss bank accounts work.  This is one of those 70s thriller where the budget is low, the plot is often nonsense, and the entire cast seems to be more interested in hitting the slopes than actually making a convincing movie.  The cast is full of familiar actors who, at the time of filming, had seen better days.  Along with Ray Milland, John Ireland, Anton Diffring, and Elke Sommer all have small roles while “German screen sensation” Senta Berger is cast as the woman who might be in love with David Christopher.  Martin Landau is not in this movie but it certainly feels like he should have been.

David Janssen made a lot of movies like this in the 70s.  Janssen was a good actor and he was especially skilled at playing grizzled tough guys but in The Swiss Conspiracy, he seems to be more interested in checking out the sights than in anything else.  You can’t really blame him because the film was shot on location in Zurich and the local scenery is always more interesting than anything else that’s happening on screen.

The Swiss Conspiracy was directed by Jack Arnold, a veteran B-movie director who was also did The Creature From The Black Lagoon and The Incredible Shrinking Man.  His direction in The Swiss Conspiracy is workmanlike and undistinguished but he does make great use of the locations.  The Swiss Conspiracy may not be a great movie but I’ll damned if I don’t want to hop on the next plane and head to Switzerland for the week.

Warhead (1977, directed by John O’Connor)


Somehow, a nuclear bomb falls out of an American airplane that happens to flying over the border between Israel and Jordan.  Luckily, the bomb doesn’t explode but now it’s just sitting out in the desert where anyone can stumble upon it.  CIA operative Tony Stevens (David Janssen) just happens to be on vacation in the Middle East so he’s recruited and sent off to find the bomb before anyone else finds out about it.

At the same time, a group of Israeli soldiers, led by Captain Ben-David (Christopher Stone) and Lt. Liora (Karin Dor), are searching for a group of Palestinian terrorists, led by Malouf (Tuvia Tavi).  As soon as Tony finds the bomb, he is captured by Malouf.  He is then rescued by Ben-David but now Tony has to deal with two interested parties who want the bomb for themselves.

Warhead is a confusing movie that seems like it is trying to say something about the Middle East and America’s role as an international policeman.  Captain Ben-David feels that the Americans are being selfish with their refusal to allow other countries to develop their own nuclear missiles while Tony argues that the world would be plunged into war if everyone had the bomb.  (Remember, this film is from the 70s and was made at a time when the U.S. and the Russians were pretty much the only nuclear super powers.)  The film ends on a nihilistic note, with almost everyone either dead or disillusioned but why?  The acting is so bad and the production is so shoddy that it’s hard to figure out what this movie is trying to say.  Is Ben-David right about American arrogance or is Tony right to argue that deterrence is the only way to keep the world safe?  The movie doesn’t seem to know.  David Janssen was usually the ideal actor to play grizzled tough guys but, in this movie, he was clearly just collecting a paycheck and hopefully enjoying the chance to do some sight-seeing in the Holy Land.  The most intriguing character in the movie is a beautiful Israeli sniper played by Joan Freeman but she is killed off early and forgotten.

Warhead premiered on TV but was obviously originally intended for a theatrical release.  There’s a very gratuitous rape scene that is so awkwardly edited that it’s easy to see that it was cut down once it became apparent the movie was never going to play in theaters.  (The scene could have just as easily been removed from the film without effecting the narrative but I guess the networks wanted to give all of the dads and teenage boys a reason to not change the channel.)  According to the information I’ve found online, Warhead was filmed in 1973 but sat on the shelf for four years.  Watching the movie, it’s easy to see why.

Hijack! (1973, directed by Leonard Horn)


Jake (David Janssen) is a down-on-his-luck trucker who is offered job by a mysterious man named Kleiner (WIlliam Schallert).  If Jake agrees to transport a cargo across the country, he will get not only $6,000 but Kleiner will also pull some strings get Jake back in the good graces of the trucking company.  If Jake takes the job, he will be given a slip of paper with a phone number on it and, according to Kleiner, that piece of paper will get him out of any trouble that he runs into along the way.  The only condition is that Jake is not allowed to know what he’ll be transporting.  Jake agrees and soon, he and his partner Donny (Keenan Wynn) are driving the truck through the desert.  They are also being followed by a group of men who will stop at nothing to steal the cargo.

This made-for-TV movie is called Hijack! but no one ever gets hijacked.  Instead, with the exception of a brief romantic interlude between Jake and a truck stop waitress (Lee Purcell), this is a nonstop chase movie but the chase itself is never exciting enough to justify that exclamation mark in the title.  It was probably made to capitalize on the success of Steven Spielberg’s made-for-TV classic, Duel, but it never come close to capturing the nerve or intensity of that film.  There’s one good scene where the bad guys come after the truck in a helicopter but otherwise, this is a pretty anemic stuff.  Even the eventual reveal of what Jake and Donny are hauling across the desert is a let down.

David Janssen specialized in playing grizzled loners and Keenan Wynn specialized in playing eccentric old coots so both of them are adequate in the main roles.  The bad guys are largely forgettable and, as she did in so many other TV movies in the 70s, Lee Purcell brings what life that she can to an underwritten role.

Birds of Prey (1973, directed by William A. Graham)


When three disgruntled Vietnam vets rob Zion’s Bank in downtown Salt Lake City and take a bank teller (Elayne Heilveil) hostage, they’re spotted by traffic reporter Harry Walker (David Janssen).  A World War II vet who is going through a mid-life crisis and who feels unappreciated by the country that he risked his life to defend, Harry chases after the robbers in his helicopter.  With Harry’s help, the police corner the robbers on the roof of a parking garage.

That’s when they discover that the robbers have a helicopter of their own!  After abandoning their car, the robbers and their hostage take off in their helicopter, heading into the Oquirrh Mountains.  Though he’s running low on fuel and has been ordered to back off by Police Captain Jim McAndrew (Ralph Meeker), Harry continues to pursue the other helicopter into the wilderness.

A made-for-TV movie from 1973, Birds of Prey is a chase movie, with the usual cars replaced by helicopters.  What makes this movie so exciting is that it was directed in the days before CGI so, when you watch the two helicopters dangerously pursuing each other over Salt Lake City and taking daredevil risk over the mountains of Utah, you’re watching the real thing.  David Janssen was a trained pilot who actually was flying the helicopter and doing his own stunts for the majority of the film.  When the two helicopters nearly collide, you’re aware that you’re seeing a real near-miss, one that could have gone tragically wrong if not for the talents of the men piloting those helicopters.

Despite all of the action in the air, the film does occasionally touch ground.  Harry and McAndrew talk about why some vets can move on and others can’t.  Harry briefly lands on the freeway and gets some help from a passing motorist.  Finally, Harry gets to know the kidnapped teller, who has never been outside of Salt Lake City and who shares Harry’s love of old movies.  David Janssen was the go-to guy for gruff and grizzled heroes in 1970s made-for-TV movies and he’s pretty good as Harry.  But the real stars of the film are the helicopters and the still-impressive aerial footage of them chasing each other above Utah.

Unfortunately, I have never seen a good print of Birds of Prey.  Even the version on Amazon Prime is grainy, scratchy, and sometimes washed-out.  (It also features a promo for a television station in Phoenix, suggesting that it was transferred straight from a VHS tape.)  I hope that, at some point in the near future, someone will restore this minor chase classic.

Embracing The Melodrama Part III #5: Jacqueline Susann’s Once Is Not Enough (dir by Guy Green)


“Only in the movies, baby.” 

— Mike Wayne (Kirk Douglas) in Jacqueline Susann’s Once Is Not Enough (1975)

Jacqueline Susann’s Once Is Not Enough (for that indeed is the unwieldy title of this little movie) opens with a shot of two Oscars sitting on an end table.  Those Oscars belong to Mike Wayne (Kirk Douglas), a legendary Hollywood producer who hasn’t had a hit in way too long.  He’s struggling financially.  He may even have to fire his maid (Lillian Randolph), despite the many years that she’s spent making sure he wakes up and remembers to take a shower before leaving the house.  What choice does Mike have but to marry Deidre Milford Granger (Alexis Smith), the world’s sixth richest woman?  Mike doesn’t even mind that Deidre is having an affair with Karla (Melina Mercouri).

That makes sense to everyone by Mike’s daughter, January (Deborah Raffin).  As Mike explains it, January’s name came about as a result of January being born in January.  So, I guess if I was Mike’s daughter, I would have been named November.  Everyone in the film thinks that Mike’s being terribly clever by naming his daughter after her birthday but, to me, that just sounds lazy.

Does January have some issues?  Well, when she returns to America after getting into a serious motorcycle accident in Europe, she greets her father by cheerfully saying, “I hope nobody thinks we’re father and daughter.  I hope they think you’re a dirty old man and I’m your broad.”

Agck!  That sounds like the set up for a Freudian nightmare but instead, the film’s rather blasé about the whole incestuous subtext of January’s relationship with her father.  Mike is soon pushed to the side as the movie follows January as she tries to make a life for herself in New York City.  Fortunately, she’s able to land a job at a magazine, working for her old college friend, Linda (Brenda Vacarro).  In college, Linda was smart and homely but she has since had so much plastic surgery that January doesn’t even recognize her.  Linda’s either found the greatest plastic surgeon in the world or else January is just really, really stupid.

Linda gets all the best lines.  While talking about all of the work that she’s had done, she takes the time to brag that she had everything fixed by her navel, which she declares to be perfect.  When January comments that Linda is beautiful, Linda replies, “And now ugly is in!  I want my old nose back!”

Linda is stunned to learn that January is still a virgin but that problem is solved once January goes out on a few dates with David (George Hamilton), who is Deidre’s cousin.  David and January go out to a club and January is shocked when a random woman throws a drink in David’s face.  Later, January goes back to David’s apartment, which turns out to be the epitome of 70s tackiness.  When January asks David why the carpet and all of the furniture is red, David replies, “I wanted it to look like a bordello.”

Things don’t really work out between January and David but don’t worry!  January soon meets the world-renowned author, Chest Hair McGee (David Janssen)!  Okay, actually his name is Tom Colt.

Tom spends almost the entire movie drunk and acting obnoxious but January falls in love with him.  And, of course, it has nothing to do with the fact that he’s the same age as her father.  No, of course not.  Instead, she’s charmed by the way he slurs the line, “Forgive me, I can’t take my eyes off of your ass!”

January is convinced that she and Tom are going to be together forever.  Of course, Mike hates Tom.  And there is the fact that Tom’s married.  Literally everyone in the movie tells January that Tom is never going to leave his wife but I guess we’re still supposed to be shocked when Tom tells her that he’ll never leave his wife.  He does, however, thank her for allowing “a broken-down old man” to “feel like a stud.”  In the end, nothing really works out for January but she’s such an annoying and vacuous character that you really don’t mind.

Based on a novel by the same author who gave the world The Valley of the Dolls, Once Is Not Enough is a movie that manages to be both remarkably bad and also surprisingly watchable.  Some of that is because the film is a time capsule of 70s fashion, 70s decor, and 70s slang.  A lot more of it is because the cast is made up of such an odd mishmash of performers and acting styles that nobody seems like they should be in the same movie.  Kirk Douglas grimaces.  George Hamilton looks embarrassed.  David Janssen lurches through the film like a drunk trying to remember where he lives.  Alexis Smith and Melina Mercouri chew every piece of scenery they can find while Brenda Vaccaro shouts her lines as if hoping the increased volume will keep us from noticing what she’s actually saying.  Poor Deborah Raffin wanders through the film with a dazed look on her face.  Can you blame her?

Interestingly enough, Jacqueline Susann’s Once Is Not Enough actually was nominated for an Oscar.  Brenda Vaccaro was nominated for Best Supporting Actress.  Admittedly, Vaccaro does probably come the closest of anyone in the cast to creating an interesting character but I still have to wonder just how weak the Supporting Actress field was in 1975.

Anyway, this incredibly silly and tacky film is a lot of fun, though perhaps not in the way that it was originally intended to be.  Between the nonstop drama, the unintentionally hilarious dialogue, and the weird performances, the film plays out like a cartoon character’s dream of the 70s.

Tomorrow, we’ll take a look at another silly and tacky film from the same decade, 1978’s The Betsy!

A Movie A Day #33: Two-Minute Warning (1976, directed by Larry Peerce)


mpw-8771

For the longest time, I thought that Two-Minute Warning was a movie about a gang of art thieves who attempt to pull off a heist by hiring a sniper to shoot at empty seats at the Super Bowl.  As planned by a master criminal known as The Professor (Rossano Brazzi), the sniper will cause a riot and the police will be too busy trying to restore order to notice the robbery being committed at an art gallery that happens to be right next to the stadium.

I believed that because that was the version of Two-Minute Warning that would sometimes show up on television.  Whenever I saw the movie, I always through it was a strange plan, one that had too many obvious flaws for any halfway competent criminal mastermind to ignore them.  What if the sniper was captured before he got a chance to start shooting?  What if a riot didn’t break out?  The sniper spent the movie aiming at empty seats but, considering how many people were in the stadium, it was likely that he would accidentally shoot someone.  Were the paintings really worth the risk of a murder charge?

Even stranger was that Two-Minute Warning was not only a heist film but it was also a 1970s disaster film.  Spread out throughout the stadium were familiar character actors like Jack Klugman, John Cassevetes, David Janssen, Martin Balsam, Gena Rowlands, Walter Pidgeon, and Beau Bridges.  It seemed strange that, once the shots were fired and Brazzi’s men broke into the gallery, all of those familiar faces vanished.  When it comes to disaster movies, it is an ironclad rule that at least one B-list celebrity has to die.  It seemed strange that Two-Minute Warning, with all those characters, would feature a sniper shooting at only empty seats.  For that matter, why would there be empty seats at the Super Bowl?

That wasn’t the strangest thing about Two-Minute Warning, though.  The strangest thing was that Charlton Heston was in the film, playing a police captain.  In most of his scenes, he had dark hair.  But, in the scenes in which he talked about the art gallery, Heston’s hair was suddenly light brown.

Recently, I watched Two-Minute Warning on DVD and I was shocked to discover that the movie on the DVD had very little in common with the movie that I had seen on TV.  For instance, the television version started with the crooks discussing their plan to rob the gallery.  The DVD version opened with the sniper shooting at a couple in the park.  In the DVD version, there was no art heist.   The sniper had no motive and no personality.  He was just a random nut who opened fire on the Super Bowl.  And,  in the DVD version, he did not shoot at empty seats.  Several of the characters who survived in the version that I saw on TV did not survive in the version that I saw on DVD.

What happened?

The theatrical version of Two-Minute Warning was exactly what I saw on the DVD.  A nameless sniper opens fire and kills several people at the Super Bowl.  In 1978, when NBC purchased the television broadcast rights for Two-Minute Warning, they worried that it was too violent and too disturbing.  There was concern that, if the film was broadcast as it originally was, people would actually think there was a risk of some nut with a gun opening fire at a crowded event.  (In 1978, that was apparently considered to be implausible.)  So, 40 minutes of new footage was shot.  Charlton Heston even returned to film three new scenes, which explains his changing hair color.  The new version of Two-Minute Warning not only gave the sniper a motive (albeit one that did not make much sense) but it also took out all of the violent death scenes.

Having seen both versions of Two-Minute Warning, neither one is very good, though the theatrical version is at least more suspenseful than the television version.  (It turns out that it was better to give the sniper no motive than to saddle him with a completely implausible one.)  But, even in the theatrical version, the potential victims are too one-dimensional to really care about.  Ultimately, the most interesting thing about Two-Minute Warning is that, at one time, an art heist was considered more plausible than a mass shooting.

tmw