Embracing the Melodrama Part II #46: Walking Tall (dir by Phil Karlson)


Walking_Tall_(1973_film)About 50 minutes into the 1973 film Walking Tall (not to be confused with the 2005 version that starred Dwayne Johnson), there’s a scene in which newly elected sheriff Buford Pusser (Joe Don Baker) gives a speech to his deputies.  As the deputies stand at attention and as Pusser announces that he’s not going to tolerate any of his men taking bribes from the Dixie Mafia, the observant viewer will notice something out-of-place about the scene.

Hovering directly above Baker’s head is a big, black, almost phallic boom mic.  It stays up there throughout the entire scene, a sudden and unexpected reminder that — though the film opens with a message that we’re about to see the true story of “an American hero” and though it was filmed on location in rural Tennessee — Walking Tall is ultimately a movie.

And yet, somehow, that phallic boom mic feels oddly appropriate.  First off, Walking Tall is an almost deliberately messy film.  That boom mic tells us that Walking Tall was not a slick studio production.  Instead, much like Phil Karlson’s previous The Phenix City Story, it was a low-budget and violent film that was filmed on location in the south, miles away from the corrupting influence of mainstream, yankee-dominated Hollywood.  Secondly, the phallic implications of the boom mic erases any doubt that Walking Tall is a film about men doing manly things, like shooting each other and beating people up.  Buford does have a wife (Elizabeth Hartman) who begs him to avoid violence and set a good example of his children.  However, she eventually gets shot in the back of the head, which frees Buford up to kill.

As I said earlier, Walking Tall opens with a message telling us that we’re about to watch a true story.  Buford Pusser is a former football player and professional wrestler who, after retiring, returns to his hometown in Tennessee.  He quickly discovers that his town is controlled by criminals and moonshiners.  When he goes to a local bar called The Lucky Spot, he is unlucky enough to discover that the bar’s patrons cheat at cards.  Buford is nearly beaten to death and dumped on the side of the road.  As Buford begs for help, several motorists slow down to stare at him before then driving on.

Obviously, if anyone’s going to change this town, it’s going to have to be Buford Pusser.

Once he recovers from his beating, Buford makes himself a wooden club and then goes back to the Lucky Spot.  After beating everyone up with his club, Buford takes back the money that he lost while playing cards and $50.00 to cover his medical bills.  When Buford is put on trial for armed robbery, he takes the stand, rips off his shirt, and shows the jury his scars.  Buford is acquitted.

Over his wife’s objections, Buford decides to run for sheriff.  The old sheriff, not appreciating the competition, attempts to assassinate Buford but, instead, ends up dying himself.  Buford is charged with murder.  Buford is acquitted.  Buford is elected sheriff.  Buford sets out to clean up his little section of Tennessee.  Violence follows…

On the one hand, it’s easy to be snarky about a film like Walking Tall.  This is one of those films that operates on a strictly black-and-white world view.  Anyone who supports Buford is good.  Anyone who opposes Buford is totally evil.  Buford is a redneck saint.  It’s a film fueled by testosterone and it’s not at all subtle…

But dangit, I liked Walking Tall.  It’s a bit like a right-wing version of Billy Jack, in that it’s so sincere that you can forgive the film’s technical faults and frequent lapses in logic.  Walking Tall was filmed on location in Tennessee and director Phil Karlson makes good use of the rural locations.  And, most importantly, Joe Don Baker was the perfect actor to play Buford Pusser.  As played by Baker, Pusser is something of renaissance redneck.  He’s a smart family man who knows how to kick ass and how to make his own weapons.  What more could you ask for out of a small town sheriff?

In real life, Buford Pusser died in a mysterious car accident shortly after the release of Walking Tall.  Cinematically, the character of Buford Pusser went on to star in two more films.

Shattered Politics #27: Medium Cool (dir by Haskell Wexler)


Film_Poster_for_Medium_CoolFor the past few days, I’ve been chronologically reviewing 94 films about politicians and, to a lesser extent, politics.  Four days ago, I started in on the 60s by taking a look at Sunrise at Campobello, one of the most traditional-minded and pro-American movies ever made.  And now, I’m closing out the decade by taking a look at 1969’s Medium Cool, a film that is — in style, ideology, and content — the exact opposite of Sunrise at Campobello.

I should admit that I’m cheating a bit by including Medium Cool in this series of reviews.  When I first started Shattered Politics, I said that I would be reviewing films about politicians.  While Medium Cool is a fiercely political film, there are few elected officials to be seen on screen.  That said, it was shot during the infamous 1968 Democratic National Convention and, as such, the politicians are present regardless of whether or not they’re seen.

Plotwise, the film follows a news cameraman, John (Robert Forster), and his sound guy (Peter Bonerz) as they go around Chicago, searching for stories.  Along the way, they interview the disturbingly cheerful owner of a gun club (played, in his film debut, by Peter Boyle), several people who volunteered on Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign, and, in one of the film’s best and most awkward scenes, a group of Black Panthers.

Throughout the first half of the film, John remains detached from the stories that he covers.  He’s more concerned with getting the footage and getting a good soundbite than in really listening to what anyone is saying.  (In many ways, he’s like a less sociopathic version of the character played by Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler.)  It’s not until John discovers that his station is sharing his footage with the FBI that John finally starts to show some political awareness.  Unfortunately, he also shows some anger and ends up losing his job as a result.

Now unemployed, John meets Eileen (Verna Bloom), a single mother who has recently moved to Chicago from West Virginia.  Now that he’s free from the detachment of his job, John actually starts to develop feelings for both Eileen and her son, Harold (Harold Blankenship).  When Harold runs away, Eileen and John search Chicago for him.  Unfortunately, their search happens at the same time as the 1968 Democratic Convention.  While John and Eileen search, the Chicago police are busy beating protestors in the street.

(The video below is long, but worth watching, as is the entire film.)

Now, I know that, in the past, I’ve been critical of many of the counter culture films of the late 60s and early 70s, describing their politics as being shallow, trendy, and faux Leftist.  (And if you doubt me, read my reviews of Getting Straight, Zabriskie Point, and R.P.M.)  However, Medium Cool is an exception to those films, in that it actually works.  Medium Cool was directed by famed cinematographer, Haskell Wexler.  Wexler began his career shooting documentaries and, in many ways, that’s exactly what Medium Cool is.  Though Robert Forster may be an actor, many of the people that he interviewed in the film were not.  When he talks to the former Kennedy campaign workers, he’s talking to actual volunteers and getting their true feelings, as opposed to something written for them by an out-of-touch screenwriter.  When we see John and Eileen trying to survive the violence outside the Democratic Convention, we’re also seeing Robert Forster and Verna Bloom attempting to do the same thing.  The protestors being attacked were real.  The cops doing the attacking were real.  The violence was real.

And, considering that Medium Cool was released 46 years ago, the issues raised by the film are still real.  When the Black Panthers suspiciously view John and his sound guy, we’re reminded of the protestors in Ferguson demanding that the national media get out of their way.  When we see the protests outside the 1968 Democratic Convention, how can we not compare them to the protests that we still see every day?  When the cops line up in military precision and we hear that orders must be followed, are we watching Medium Cool or are we watching CNN?

During one of Medium Cool‘s better known moments, an off-screen voice is heard to shout, “Look out, Haskell!  It’s real!,” warning director Haskell Wexler that the violence he’s filming is actually happening.  And that’s a warning that’s still appropriate and relevant today.  We may be watching from the safety of our homes but it’s still real.

(Of course, it should be mentioned that, according to Wexler himself, “Look out, Haskell!  It’s real!” was actually added to the scene in post production.)

It’s perhaps indicative of how much American culture changed in the 60s that a decade that started with Ralph Bellamy playing Franklin D. Roosevelt would end with Medium Cool.  Fortunately, Medium Cool gives us plenty of evidence about how that change happened.

 

 

Embracing the Melodrama #28: The Towering Inferno (dir by John Guillermin)


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I have a weakness for the old, all-star disaster movies of the 1970s.  It could be because those movies remind me of how fragile life really is and encourage me to make the most of every minute.  Or maybe it’s because I have my phobias and, by watching those movies, I can confront my fears without having to deal with a real-life tornado, hurricane, tidal wave, avalanche, or fire.

Or maybe I just have a weakness of glitz, glamour, and melodrama — especially when it involves a huge cast of stars and character actors.  Yes that’s probably the reason right there.

Case in point: the 1974 best picture nominee, The Towering Inferno. 

As is the case with most of the classic disaster films, The Towering Inferno is a long and big movie but it has a very simple plot.  The world’s tallest building — known as the Glass Tower — has been built in San Francisco.  On the night of the grand opening, a fire breaks out, trapping all the rich and famous guests on the 135th floor.  Now, it’s up to the fire department to put out the fire while the trapped guests simply try to survive long enough to be rescued.  Some will live, some will die but one thing is certain — every member of the all-star cast will get at least 15 minutes of screen time and at least one chance to scream in the face of the film’s still effective special effects.

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As for the people trapped by the towering inferno, we don’t really get to know them or their motivations.  (Add to that, once the fire breaks out, everyone pretty much only has one motivation and that’s to not die.)  As a result, we don’t so much react to them as characters as we do to personas of the actors who are playing them.

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For instance, we know that Fire Chief O’Halloran is a fearless badass and a natural leader because he’s played by Steve McQueen.  McQueen brings a certain blue collar arrogance to this role and it’s a lot of fun to watch as he gets progressively more and more annoyed with the rich people that he’s been tasked with rescuing.

We know that architect Doug Roberts is a good guy because he’s played by Paul Newman.  Reportedly, Newman and McQueen were very competitive and, in this movie, we literally get to see them go-head-to-head.  And, as charismatic as Newman is, McQueen pretty much wins the movie.  That’s because there’s never a moment that O’Halloran isn’t in charge.  Doug, meanwhile, spends most of the movie begging everyone else in the tower to exercise the common sense necessary to not die.  (Unfortunately, despite the fact that he looks and sounds just like Paul Newman, nobody in the tower feels like listening to Doug.  If Towering Inferno proves anything, it’s that most people are too stupid to survive a disaster.)

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The tower’s owner, James Duncan, is played by William Holden so we know that Duncan may be a ruthless businessman but that ultimately he’s one of the good guys.  Holden gets one of the best scenes in the film when, after being told that people in the building are catching on fire, he replies, “I think you’re overreacting.”

Roger Simmons is Duncan’s son-in-law and we know that he’s ultimately to blame for the fire because he’s played by Richard Chamberlain.  Roger might as well have a sign on his back that reads “Doomed.”  The same can be said of publicity executive Dan (Robert Wagner) and his girlfriend, Lorrie (Susan Flannery).

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Faye Dunway is Susan.  She is Doug’s fiancée and she really doesn’t do much but she does get to wear a really pretty dress.  The same can be said of Susan Blakely, who plays Roger’s dissatisfied wife, and Jennifer Jones, who plays a recluse.  And good for them because if you’re going to be stuck in an inferno without much to do, you can at least take some comfort in looking good.

Then there’s Fred Astaire, who does not dance in this film.  Instead, he plays a kind-hearted con artist who ends up falling in love with Jennifer Jones.  Fred Astaire received his only Oscar nomination for his brief but likable performance in The Towering Inferno.

And finally, there’s the building’s head of security, Jernigan.  We know that he’s a murderer because he’s played by O.J. Simpson and … oh wait.  Jernigan is actually probably the second nicest guy in the whole film.  The only person nicer than Jernigan is Carlos, the bartender played by Gregory Sierra.

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The real star of the film, of course, is the fire.  In the 40 years since The Towering Inferno was produced, there’s been a lot of advances in CGI and I imagine that if the film was made today, we’d be watching the fire in 3D and it would be so realistic that we’d probably feel the heat in the theater.  That said, the fire effects in The Towering Inferno are still pretty effective.  Now, I have to admit that I have a phobia (and frequent nightmares) about being trapped in a fire so, obviously, this is a film that’s specifically designed to work itself into my subconscious.  But that said, the scenes with various extras thrashing about in the flames are still difficult to watch.  There’s a scene where Robert Wagner and Susan Flannery find themselves trapped in a blazing reception area and it is pure nightmare fuel.

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The Towering Inferno is an undeniably effective disaster film.  At the same time, when one looks at the 1974 Oscar nominees, it’s odd to see The Towering Inferno nominated for best picture along with The Godfather Part II, Chinatown, and The Conversation.  Unlike those three, The Towering Inferno is hardly a great film.

But it is definitely an entertaining one.

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Film Review: Magnum Force (dir by Ted Post)


Today, we continue our look at the Dirty Harry film franchise by taking a look at the second film in the series, 1973’s Magnum Force.

Despite the fact that Dirty Harry famously ended with Harry Callahan throwing away his badge in disgust, Magnum Force reveals that Callahan (played again by Clint Eastwood) is still a member of the San Francisco Police Department.  He’s got a new partner (Felton Perry, a likable actor in a thankless role) but he’s still butting heads with his superiors at the department.  He’s also still got a way with the one-liners.  When Lt. Briggs (Hal Holbrook) brags that he never once had to draw his gun while he was in uniform, Callahan replies, “A man’s got to know his limitations.”

While Callahan is busying himself with doing things like gunning down robbers and preventing an attempt to hijack a plane, a group of motorcycle cops are gunning down the town’s criminals.  They begin by killing a mobster who has just beaten a murder charge on a technicality but soon, they’re gunning down anyone who has ever so much as been suspected of committing a crime.  Alone among the detectives investigating the murders, Callahan believes that the killers are cops and, even worse, he suspects that his old friend Charlie McCoy (played by Mitchell Ryan) might be a member of the group…

Though it suffers when compared to Dirty Harry, Magnum Force is still an exciting and effective action film that is clearly a product of the same period of time that gave us such classics of paranoid cinema as The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor.  Whereas Dirty Harry took an almost documentary approach to capturing life and death in San Francisco, Magnum Force is a film that is full of dark shadows and expressionistic angles.

In Dirty Harry, the Scorpio Killer was both an obvious outsider and an obvious force of destruction.  The film’s dramatic tension came from the fact that he was so clearly guilty and yet nothing could be done to stop him.  The villains in Magnum Force are the exact opposite of Scorpio.  As chillingly played by David Soul, Robert Urich, Tim Matheson, and Kip Niven, the killer cops are distinguished not by their otherness but by their total lack of individuality.

In the film’s best scene, they confront Harry in a parking garage and basically tell him that he’s either with them or against him.  Sitting on their motorcycles, wearing their leather jackets, and with their grim faces hidden behind their aviator sunglasses, these cops are the ultimate representation of  faceless fascism.  After listening to their excuses, Harry asks if they consider themselves to be heroes.

“All of our heroes are dead,” one of them replies, delivering the film’s best line.

Obviously, Magnum Force was made to be an answer to those critics who claimed that Dirty Harry was a fascist film and it is a bit jarring, at first, to see Harry “defending” the system.  (“I hate the goddamn system but until something better comes along…”)  When Harry tells the killer cops, “I’m afraid you’ve misjudged me,” it’s not hard to see that this is the same message that Eastwood meant to give his critics.

However, what makes the killer cops in Magnum Force such interesting villains is that they are, ultimately, tools of the system that they’re attempting to destroy.  By killing off criminals as opposed to arresting them and putting them on trial, the killer cops are minimizing the risk of the flaws inherent in the system being exposed.  Hence, by defending the system, Harry is helping to expose and destroy it.

When I told Jeff that I was planning on watching and reviewing all of the Dirty Harry films, he suggested that I watch them in reverse-order.  His logic was that, since the films tended to get worse as the series progressed, watching them backwards would allow me to end my project on a happy note as opposed to a note of bitter disappointment.  I took his advice and I’m glad I did.  While I disagree with him about whether or not The Dead Pool is a better film than Sudden Impact, I do have to agree that the first two Dirty Harry films are dramatically better (and quite different in tone) from the ones that subsequently followed.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at the third film in the series, 1976’s The Enforcer.