A Movie A Day #17: The Laughing Policeman (1973, directed by Stuart Rosenberg)


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San Francisco in the 1970s.  Revolution is in the air.  Hippies are on every street corner.  A man named Gus Niles knows that he’s being tailed by an off-duty cop, Dave Evans.  Gus boards a city bus, knowing that Evans will follow him.  On the bus, an unseen gunman suddenly opens fire with an M3 submachine gun, not only killing both Evans and Gus but six other people as well.  After the bus crashes, the gunman calmly departs.  At first, it is assumed that the massacre was another random mass shooting, like Charles Whitman in Austin or Mark Essex in New Orleans.  But one San Francisco detective is convinced that it wasn’t random at all.

The Laughing Policeman was one of the many police procedurals to be released after the box office success of Dirty Harry and The French Connection and, despite the name, it’s also one of the grimmest.  While the complex mystery behind why Evans was following Gus and who killed everyone on the bus is intriguing, The Laughing Policeman‘s main focus is on the often frustrating nitty gritty of the investigation, complete with false leads, uncooperative witnesses, unanswerable questions, and detectives who frequently make stupid mistakes.  The movie’s first fifteen minutes are devoted to the police processing the bus, with Stuart Rosenberg (best known for directing Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke) using overlapping dialogue to give the entire scene a documentary feel.  As Detective Jake Martin, Walter Matthau is even more cynical and downbeat than usual while Bruce Dern provides good support as a younger, more volatile detective.  The supporting cast is full of 70s character actors, like Lou Gossett, Anthony Zerbe, Gregory Sierra,and playing perhaps the sleaziest drug dealer ever seen in an American movie, Paul Koslo.

The Laughing Policeman was based on a Swedish novel that took place in Stockholm but, for the movie, Swedish Detective Martin Beck became world-weary Sgt. Jake Martin and Stockholm became San Francisco.  Rosenberg directed the entire film on location, giving The Laughing Policeman the type of realistic feeling that would later be duplicated by TV shows like Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue, and Law & Order.  Though it may not be as well-known as either Dirty Harry or The French Connection, The Laughing Policeman is a dark and tough police procedural, an underrated classic of the genre.

Incidentally, The Laughing Policeman was one of the first films for which character actor Bruce Dern shared top billing.  According to Dern’s autobiography, Matthau generously insisted that Dern be credited, with him, above the title.

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Film Review: The Thief Who Came To Dinner (1973, directed by Bud Yorkin)


0033bee5_mediumIn The Thief Who Came To Dinner, Ryan O’Neal plays Webster McGee, a Houston-based computer programmer.  After deciding that living in a capitalist society means that everyone steals from everyone else, Webster quits his boring job and decides to become a real thief.  Figuring that they can afford to lose a little wealth, Webster only targets the rich and powerful.  After he steals some incriminating documents from a crooked businessman (Charles Cioffi), Webster uses those documents to blackmail his way into high society.  Soon, Webster owns a mansion of his own and is living with a gorgeous heiress (Jacqueline Bisset, who played a lot of gorgeous heiresses back in the day).  Webster also has an insurance investigator after him.  Dave Reilly (Warren Oates) knows that Webster is a thief but he also can not prove it.  As Dave obsessively stalks him, Webster plots one final heist.

Until I saw it on TCM on Monday, I had never heard of The Thief Who Came To Dinner.  Directed in a breezy style by Bud Yorkin, The Thief Who Came To Dinner was an early script from Walter Hill.  Though the film is much more comedic than his best known work, it’s still easily recognizable as coming from Hill’s imagination.  The obsessive Dave and the coolly professional Webster are both prototypical Hill characters and their adversarial yet friendly rivalry would be duplicated in several subsequent Hill films.

The Thief Who Came To Dinner is an engaging movie that doesn’t add up to much.  The normally stiff Ryan O’Neal gives one of his better performances, though he struggles to hold his own whenever he has to act opposite the far more energetic Warren Oates.  Ned Beatty, Gregory Sierra, John Hillerman, Michael Murphy, and Austin Pendleton all appear in minor roles, making the film’s cast a veritable who’s who of 70s character actors.  And, of course, the film features Jacqueline Bisset at her loveliest.

The Thief Who Came To Dinner may not be well-known but it is an enjoyable and satisfying piece of 70s entertainment.

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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The Daily Grindhouse: The Clones (dir. by Lamar Card and Paul Hunt)


How, you may be asking, did I come to see The Clones, an extremely obscure and low-budget science fiction thriller from 1973?

It all started when I first saw the trailer for the film on 42nd Street Forever, a compilation of old school grindhouse trailers.  For whatever reasons, the trailer for The Clones fascinated me.  Whether it was the extremely dry narration or the fact that the trailer actually ended with a quote from a then-member of the U.S. Senate, I felt that The Clones was a film that I, as a student of film and history, simply had to see.

How obscure is this film?  It’s so obscure that The Clones has never even been released on DVD.  In order to see the film, I had to go on Amazon and order a used VHS copy from a some guy in Indiana.  When it arrived in the mail, the first thing I noticed was the big “Property of the St. Augusta Public Library” that was stamped on the back of the worn video box.

The fact that my copy of The Clones had obviously seen better days actually added a lot to the viewing experience.  Much as true grindhouse fans treasure every scratch and auditory pop whenever they watch a film like Fight For Your Life or Last House on Dead End Street, I found myself oddly proud that my copy of The Clones had obviously survived so much just so that it could eventually end up as a part of my video library.

As for the film itself, The Clones is one of those wonderful low-budget films that deserve to be rediscovered.  Dr. Gerald Appleby (well-played by an actor named Michael Greene) is a nuclear scientist who discovers that he’s been cloned and that the clone has essentially been out living his life whenever the original Appleby has been at work.  Though it’s hinted that he’s being set up by foreign spies, the reason for Appleby’s cloning remains obscure throughout the entire film.  Whether this narrative obscurity is intentional or not, it actually serves the film well as it helps to transform Appleby into almost a Kafkaesque figure.

When Appleby attempts to reveal to the proper authorities that he’s been cloned, he finds himself accused of being an imposter and is forced to literally run for his life.  The majority of the film deals with Appleby being chased across the California desert by not only the mad scientist who cloned him (a wonderfully demented Stanley Adams) but also by two ruthless federal agents.  The two federal agents are played by Otis Young and Gregory Sierra, two character actors who appeared in several films during the 70s.  Sierra and Young are a lot of fun to watch in this film and it’s hard not to like them, even if they technically are villains.  They both just seem to be having so much fun trying to kill our hero.

From what little information that I’ve been able to gather about this film’s production, it appears that The Clones was one of the first motion pictures to attempt to take advantage of the paranoia that most people feel over the prospect of humans being cloned.  When seen today, the film’s story is a bit predictable because, to be honest, there’s really only so much when you can do with cloning as a plot device.  However, The Clones remains an oddly effective film.  The low budget (and lack of special effects) actually contributes to the film’s success.  Without the crutch of spectacle, The Clones is forced to pay attention to things like characterization.  How’s that for a concept?

The film eventually climaxes with a genuinely exciting shoot out in a deserted amusement park and then it all ends, in typical 70s fashion, in a climax that manages to be both fun and depressing at the same time.

The Clones is not necessarily an easy film to see but it’s well worth the effort.