A Movie A Day #326: MacArthur (1977, directed by Joseph Sargent)

The year is 1962 and Douglas MacArthur (Gregory Peck), the legendary general, visits West Point for one last time.  While he meets the graduates and gives his final speech, flashbacks show highlights from MacArthur’s long military career.  He leaves and then returns to Philippines.  He accepts the Japanese surrender and then helps Japan rebuild and recover from the devastation of the war.  He half-heartedly pursues the Presidency and, during the Korean War, gets fired by Harry Truman (Ed Flanders).

MacArthur is a stolid biopic about one America’s most famous and controversial generals.  It was produced by Frank McCarthy, a former general who knew MacArthur and who previously won an Oscar for producing Patton.  McCarthy was obviously hoping that MacArthur was do its subject what Patton did for George Patton and both films follow the same basic pattern. a warts-and-all portrait of a World War II general with all of the action centered around the performance of a bigger-than-life actor in the title role.  Though obviously made for a low budget, MacArthur is a well-made and well-acted movie but it suffers because Douglas MacArthur was just not as interesting a figure as George Patton.  Gregory Peck does a good job subtly suggesting MacArthur’s vanity along with capturing his commitment to his duty but he never gets a scene that’s comparable to George C. Scott’s opening speech in Patton.  The main problem with MacArthur, especially when compared to Patton, is that George Patton was a born warrior while Douglas MacArthur was a born administrator and it is always going to be more exciting to watch a general lead his men into battle then to watch him sign executive orders.

A Movie A Day #174: St. Ives (1976, directed by J. Lee Thompson)

Raymond St. Ives (Charles Bronson) is a former cop-turned-writer who desperately needs money.  Abner Procane (John Houseman) is a wealthy and cultured burglar who needs someone to serve as a go-between.  Five of Procane’s ledgers have been stolen.  The thieves are demanding a ransom and Procane believes that St. Ives is just the man to deliver the money.  But every time that St. Ives tries to deliver the money, another person ends up getting murdered and St. Ives ends up looking more and more like a suspect.  Who is the murderer?  Is it Janet (Jacqueline Bisset), the seductive woman who lives in Procane’s mansion?  Is it Procane’s eccentric psychiatrist (Maximillian Schell)?  Could it be the two cops (Harry Guardino and Harris Yulin) who somehow show up at every murder scene?  Only Ray St. Ives can solve the case!

Charles Bronson is best remembered for playing men of few words, the type who never hesitated to pull the trigger and do what they had to do.  St. Ives was one of the few films in which Bronson got to play a cerebral character.  Ray St. Ives may get into his share of fights but he spends most of the film examining clues and trying to solve a mystery.  The mystery itself is not as important as the quirky people who St. Ives meets while solving it.  St. Ives has a great, only in the 70s type of cast.  Along with those already mentioned, keep an eye out for Robert Englund, Jeff Goldblum, Dana Elcar, Dick O’Neill, Daniel J. Travanti, Micheal Lerner, and Elisha Cook, Jr.  It’s definitely different from the stereotypical Charles Bronson film, which is why it is also one of my favorites of his films.  As this film shows, Bronson was an underrated actor.  In St. Ives, Bronson proves that, not only could he have played Mike Hammer, he could have played Philip Marlowe a well.

St. Ives is historically significant because it was the first Bronson film to be directed by J. Lee Thompson.  Thompson would go on to direct the majority of the films Bronson made for Cannon in 1980s, eventually even taking over the Death Wish franchise from Michael Winner.

Film Review: Prime Time (1977, directed by Bradley R. Swirnoff)

Prime TimeThe great character actor Warren Oates appeared in a lot of fairly obscure movies but none are as obscure as Prime Time.

With a running time of barely 70 minutes, Prime Time is a comedic sketch film that was meant to capitalize on the then-recent success of The Groove Tube, Tunnelvision, The Kentucky Friend Movie, and the first season of Saturday Night Live.  According to the Unknown Movies Page, Prime Time was financed independently and was picked up for distribution by Warner Bros.  After the Warner execs saw the finished film, they decided it was unreleasable so the film’s production team sold the film to Cannon Pictures, who were famous for being willing to release anything.  The movie played in a few cities under the terrible title American Raspberry and then went straight to VHS obscurity.

Sketch comedies are usually hit-and-miss and Prime Time is definitely more miss than hit.  The majority of the film is made up of commercial parodies but, since most of the commercials being parodied are no longer on the air, the humor has aged terribly.  There is also a wrap-around story.  The President (George Furth) and a general (Dick O’Neill) try to figure out where the commercial parodies are coming from and stop them before the broadcast leads to a riot.   There are a few funny bits (including Harry Shearer as a stranded trucker looking for a ride and Kinky Friedman singing a song about “Ol’ Ben Lucas who has a lot of mucus”) but, for the most part, the film is epitomized by a skit where people literally get shit dumped on their head.  The film’s opens with an incredibly racist commercial for Trans Puerto Rican Airlines and it’s all downhill from there.

As for Warren Oates, he appears in an early skit.  He and Robert Ridgely (best known for playing Col. James in Boogie Nights) play hunters who take part in the Charles Whitman Celebrity Invitational, climbing to the top of the Tower on the University of Texas campus and shooting at the people below.  It’s even less funny now than it probably was in 1977.

How did Warren Oates end up in a movie like Prime Time?  Even great actors have bills to pay.  As for Prime Time, it is the one Warren Oates film that even the most dedicated Warren Oates fan won’t regret missing.

Warren Oates and Robert Ridgely in Prime Time

Warren Oates and Robert Ridgely in Prime Time

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #50: Hustling (dir by Joseph Sargent)

hustling21I have to admit that I had ulterior motives for reviewing the film Hustle as a part of Embracing the Melodrama.  I was already planning on reviewing another 1975 film about prostitutes, one that I had recently watched on Netflix.  That name of that film was Hustling and, for whatever reason, it amused me to imagine being alive in 1975 and going to see Hustle at a movie theater and then coming home, turning on TV, and finding myself watching a film called Hustling.

So really, if I was going to review one of those films, I had to review the other, right?  It made perfect sense at the time!

Anyway, as for Hustling, it’s a film about prostitutes in New York and the wealthy magazine writer who decides to interview them for an article.  Watching the film, what I immediately noticed was that, even though the film had a properly gritty feel to it, none of the characters ever cursed and, for a film about sex workers, there was no nudity.  Though the characters continually talked about getting beaten up by their pimps, all of the violence occurred off-screen.  Even more importantly, whenever something dramatic happened, the scene would fade to black.  It was almost as if the movie was pausing for an unseen commercial.

Which, of course, it was.  Hustling was made for television and, as I watched it, it was easy for me to imagine that I was actually watching the latest Lifetime original film.  It certainly followed a pattern that should be familiar to anyone who has ever watched a movie on Lifetime.  Wanda (Jill Clayburgh, giving an excellent performance) is a veteran prostitute who, after being arrested for the hundredth time, is told that the charges against her will be dropped if she allows herself to be interviewed by magazine writer, Fran Morrison (Lee Remick).  At first Wanda refuses but, after her pimp refuses to pay her fine and suggests that she should just accept spending a few months in jail, Wanda reconsiders and accepts Fran’s offer.

The rest of the film charts Fran and Wanda’s unlikely friendship.  Wanda tells Fran what it’s like to be prostitute.  Fran encourages Wanda and the other prostitutes to stand up for their legal rights.  Wanda deals with a society that looks down on her.  Fran deals with a boyfriend (Monte Markham) who can’t understand why she’s so concerned about a bunch of prostitutes.  Wanda considers going back to her pimp.  Fran considers exposing all of the “respectable” men who use prostitutes.

So, Hustling is pretty predictable and, not surprisingly, rather dated but it’s also a fairly effective portrait of life on the margins of society.  Lee Remick is stuck playing a one-note character but Jill Clayburgh is great in the role of Wanda. If nothing else, Hustling was filmed on location in some of the sleaziest parts of 1970s New York City and therefore, the film serves as a bit of a historical document.

For those wishing to check it out, the film’s currently available on Netflix.

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #29: Pretty Poison (dir by Noel Black)


“I don’t care if critics like it; I hated it.  I can’t like or be objective about films I had a terrible time doing.”

— Tuesday Weld on Pretty Poison (1968)

It’s actually rather depressing to read that Tuesday Weld hates Pretty Poison because it really is an underrated gem, a nifty little thriller that acts as sly satire on youth, conformity, and small town life.  The main reason that the film works is because of the performances delivered by both Weld and her co-star, Anthony Perkins.

But then again, when we the viewers think back on a movie, we remember what we saw as a member of the audience and sometimes, we forget that just because a film is fun to watch, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it was enjoyable to make.  When actors and other technicians think back on a film they were involved with, they remember the experience of actually making it.  Reportedly, Weld did not get along with the director of Pretty Poison and couldn’t wait to get away from him.

Interestingly enough, in Pretty Poison, Tuesday Weld plays a teenage girl who doesn’t get along with her mother and who can’t wait to get away from her.  Perhaps being miserable while making Pretty Poison helped Weld to bring a miserable character to life.

Pretty Poison opens with a nervous-looking man named Dennis Pitt (Anthony Perkins) watching a group of high school cheerleaders practicing on a field.  His attention is focused on one cheerleader in particular, the blonde Sue Ann Stepanek (Tuesday Weld).  Even before the opening credits have ended, the film has established a familiar dynamic.  Sue Ann is the fresh-faced example of small town American innocence.  Dennis is the type of creepy older guy that every girl has had to deal with at some point in her life.  (When I was in high school, there were always guys like Dennis hanging out around the mall.  When I was in college, the Dennis Pitts of the world were the guy who still hung out around the dorms even though they hadn’t been a student in a decade.)

Having established this dynamic early on, Pretty Poison spends the rest of its running time turning that dynamic upside down.

Dennis has recently been released from a mental hospital.  Under the watchful eye of his parole officer (John Randolph), Dennis gets a mind-numbingly dull job at a local mill and tries to live a normal life.  When Dennis finally does get a chance to talk to Sue Anne, he lies to her and tells her that he’s a secret agent and that he’s in town on a mission.  Sue Anne responds to Dennis’s awkward flirting and soon, she’s accompanying him on his “missions.”  During one such mission near the mill, they’re spotted by a security guard.  Sue Anne responds by enthusiastically murdering him.

Yes, the cheerleader’s a sociopath.

Sue Anne’s tyrannical mother (Beverly Garland) does not approve of her relationship with Dennis.  Sue Anne wants her mother out of the way and she expects her secret agent boyfriend to help her out…

Pretty Poison is a sharp mix of dark comedy and heightened drama, one that gets progressively darker as it progresses.  From the minute the film first shows Sue Anne intensely practicing on that field while Dennis watches her, it’s pretty obvious that the film was meant to be an allegory for American society in 1968.  Sue Anne is the perfect, all-American cheerleader who kills people because she can.  Dennis is the neurotic outsider who knows that he’ll never be able to get anyone to believe the truth.

And it all works, largely because both Anthony Perkins and Tuesday Weld are so well-cast.  It is, of course, impossible to watch Perkins without first thinking about Psycho but he actually manages to make Dennis into a very different character from Norman Bates.  If Norman was a psycho who, at first sight, looked like an innocent, Dennis is an innocent who, at first sight, looks like a psycho.  Tuesday Weld, meanwhile, turns Sue Anne into a disturbingly plausible killer, the type who, within minutes, can alternate between moodiness and giddiness, all the while squealing with orgasmic joy while bashing in someone’s head.

Tuesday Weld may hate Pretty Poison but it’s still a pretty good movie.

Netflix Noir #4: The Mugger (dir by William Berke)

The Mugger 2

For my final Netflix Noir, I watched The Mugger, a film from 1958.

The Mugger is a police procedural.  Taking place in an unnamed city, it stars Kent Smith as Dr. Pete Graham.  Pete’s both a psychiatrist and a cop and, needless to say, he has a lot to deal with.

For one thing, his girlfriend, Claire (Nan Martin) is also a cop.  In fact, she’s apparently the only female cop on the entire force!  (“Woman cops?” another detective is heard to say, “Do we really need them?”)  Claire spends most her time working undercover on the dance hall circuit.  Pete wants to get married.  Claire wants to solve a few more cases before making that commitment.  Pete says that’s okay, as long as her plans “include me, a home, and children.”

Pete has also been forcefully recruited to counsel a Jeannie (Sandra Church), the sister-in-law of a local taxi driver.  As the driver explains it, Jeannie is “about 18 and is she built!”  Pete replies, “You shouldn’t get excited about a kid who wants to have a good time,” which seems like an unusually progressive attitude for a cop in the 1950s.  Still, Pete agrees to try to encourage Jeannie to be a little bit less rebellious.  Jeannie, by the way, is my favorite character in the film because she is never in a good mood and she gets to dismiss her older sister’s concerns by saying, “Maybe she’s getting a little old, a little jealous.”

It also turns out that Jeannie’s neighbor, Nick Greco (George Maharis), has a crush on her and apparently, just hangs out in her house all day.  While this seemed rather creepy to me, the film seemed to suggest that this was just normal 50s behavior.  Apparently, since nobody bothered to lock their doors back then, it was also totally appropriate to just hide in someone’s house and listen in on private conversations.

Peter’s other big problem is that there’s a mugger who is robbing women and cutting their cheek with a knife.  I have to give the film some credit here because it doesn’t shy away from discussing the sexual subtext to these attacks, which I imagine was quite daring for a film in the 50s.  Pete comes up with a detailed profile of the attacker, the sort of thing that would make the cast of Criminal Minds jealous.  Claire goes undercover to catch the mugger and there’s a great scene where a drunk sailor tries to harass her and she threatens to shoot him in the knee caps.  Again, this is not the sort of thing that we typically associate with a 50s film…

Which is not to say that The Mugger is not clearly a product of its time.  For one thing, just check out the police force in this city, which is all white, all middle-aged, and — with the exception of Claire — all male.  As well, this is one of those old movies where any woman who walks down a street will be leered at by every guy she passes, including the film’s heroes.  One of the reasons why it was so great to see Claire threaten to cripple that soldier was because it came after 50 minutes of watching Pete and every other man in the film do a double take whenever she entered a room.

Clocking in at a little over 70 minutes and obviously low-budget, The Mugger is an undeniably obscure film.  Checking with the imdb, I discovered only two reviews that had been previously written for this film and one of them was in Turkish!  When I went onto YouTube to look for a trailer, I found nothing.  The Mugger is forgotten and hardly a lost classic but I still enjoyed watching it.  What can I say?  I love my history and, if nothing else, The Mugger is definitely a time capsule.

Watch it on Netflix while you can!

The Mugger