An Offer You Can’t Refuse #18: The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (dir by Roger Corman)


On February 14th, 1929, seven men were murdered in a garage in Chicago, Illinois.  Five of the seven men were known to be associates of gangster George “Bugs” Moran.  The other two men were considered to be innocent bystanders, a mechanic and a dry cleaner who just happened to enjoy hanging out with gangsters.  Though no one was ever convicted of the crime, it was well-known that the murders were carried out on the orders of Al Capone.

In many ways, the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre was a turning point in America’s relationship with organized crime.  Before the massacre, Capone had become a bit of a folk hero.  He knew how to talk to the press and he was viewed as merely breaking a law (in this case, prohibition) that most people opposed in the first place.  However, after the murders, public opinion soured on Capone.

Some of it was the brutality of the crime.  It’s been said that over five hundred bullets were fired in that garage, all to kill seven defenseless men who were lined up against a wall.  Grisly pictures of the victims were released to the press.  Perhaps if the seven men had been carrying weapons and had been involved in a shootout with their murderers, the public’s reaction would have been different.  But this was a cold-blooded execution.

Personally, I think the fact that the killers disguised themselves as cops also played a role in the public’s outrage.  It was a very calculated move on the part of the killers and it highlighted just how much planning went into the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.  As well, it undoubtedly made people paranoid.  If a bunch of killer could dress up like cops, who knew who else they could dress up as?

Finally, I think that Capone’s biggest mistake was carrying out the crime on Valentine’s Day.  You don’t murder people on a holiday.  Anyone should know that.  If Capone had waited until February 20th, he probably could have gotten away with it.

The 1967 film, The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, details the rivalry between Capone and Moran, starting with them fighting for control over the Chicago rackets and ending with the title event.  Moran is played by Ralph Meeker while Jason Robards plays Capone.

Now I know what you’re probably thinking.  Perennial WASP Jason Robards as Al Capone?  That may sound like odd casting and, let’s just be honest here, it is.  However, it actually kind of works.  Robards may not be convincingly Italian but he is convincingly ruthless.  Add to that, one of the major subplots of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre is that, even as the head of the Chicago Outfit, Capone still feels like an outsider in the world of organized crime because, while he is Italian, he isn’t Sicilian.  Capone feels as if Lucky Luciano and all of the major New York crime bosses look down on him and one reason why he’s so ruthless about taking over Chicago is that wants to show Luciano that he can be just as effective a crime lord as any Sicilian.  Capone feeling out of place in the Mafia is reflected by Robards initially seeming to be out of place in a gangster film.  By the end of the movie, of course, Capone has proven himself and so has Jason Robards.

Robards isn’t the only familiar face to be found in The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.  Though this film was released by 20th Century Fox, it was directed by Roger Corman and Corman fills the production with members of his stock company.  Dick Miller, Jonathan Haze, and Jack Nicholson all have small roles as gunmen.  Bruce Dern plays the unlucky mechanic who enjoys hanging out with gangsters.  Buck Taylor, Leo Gordon, and Joe Turkel all have small roles.  John Agar plays Dion O’Bannon and is gunned down in his flower store.  Though not members of the Corman stock company, George Segal and David Canary plays brothers who work for Moran.  There’s a lot of characters wandering through this film but Corman makes sure that everyone gets a chance to make an impression.

It’s a good gangster film.  Though he was working with a larger budget than usual, Corman still brought his exploitation film aesthetic to the material and the end result is a violent, melodramatic gangster film that looks really impressive.  The film’s recreation of 1920s Chicago is a visual delight and looking at the well-dressed and stylish gangsters walking and driving down the vibrant city streets, you can understand why organized crime would have such a draw for some people.

The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre is a classic gangster film and a classic Corman film.  It’s an offer you can’t refuse.

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
  6. King of the Roaring Twenties: The Story of Arnold Rothstein 
  7. The Roaring Twenties
  8. Force of Evil
  9. Rob the Mob
  10. Gambling House
  11. Race Street
  12. Racket Girls
  13. Hoffa
  14. Contraband
  15. Bugsy Malone
  16. Love Me or Leave Me
  17. Murder, Inc.

 

An Offer You Can Take or Leave #13: Hoffa (dir by Danny DeVito)


The 1992 film, Hoffa, opens in 1975, with two men sitting in the backseat of a station wagon.  One of the men is the controversial labor leader, Jimmy Hoffa (Jack Nicholson).  The other is his longtime best friend and second-in-command, Bobby Ciaro (Danny DeVito).  The two men are parked outside of a roadside diner.  They’re waiting for someone who is late.  Jimmy complains about being treated with such disrespect and comments that this would have never happened earlier.  Jimmy asks Bobby if he has his gun.  Bobby reveals that he does.  Jimmy asks him if he’s sure that there’s a loaded gun in the diner, as well.  Bobby goes to check.

Jimmy Hoffa, of course, was a real person.  (Al Pacino just received an Oscar nomination for playing him in The Irishman.)  He was a trucker who became a labor leader and who was eventually elected president of the Teamsters Union.  He was a prominent opponent of the Kennedys and that infamous footage of him being interrogated by Bobby Kennedy at a Senate hearing seems to sneak its way into almost every documentary ever made about organized crime in the 50s.  Hoffa was linked to the Mafia and was eventually sent to prison.  He was freed by the Nixon administration, under the condition that he not have anything to do with Teamster business.  When he disappeared in 1975, he was 62 years old and it was rumored that he was planning on trying to take over his old union.  Everyone from the mob to the CIA has been accused of having had Hoffa killed.

Bobby Ciaro, however, was not a real person.  Apparently, he was a composite character who was created by Hoffa’s screenwriter, David Mamet, as a way for the audience to get to know the enigmatic Jimmy Hoffa.  Bobby is presented as being Hoffa’s best friend and, for the most part, we experience Jimmy Hoffa through his eyes.  We get to know Jimmy as Bobby gets to know him but we still never really feel as if we know the film’s version of Jimmy Hoffa.  He yells a lot and he tells Bobby Kennedy (a snarling Kevin Anderson) to go to Hell and he talks a lot about how everything he’s doing is for the working man but we’re never really sure whether he’s being sincere or if he’s just a demagogue who is mostly interested in increasing his own power.  Bobby Ciaro is certainly loyal to him and since Bobby is played by the film’s director, it’s hard not to feel that the film expects us to share Bobby’s admiration.  But, as a character, Hoffa never really seems to earn anyone’s loyalty.  We’re never sure what’s going on inside of Hoffa’s head.  Jack Nicholson is always entertaining to watch and it’s interesting to see him play a real person as opposed to just another version of his own persona but his performance in Hoffa is almost totally on the surface.  With the exception of a few scenes early in the film, there’s doesn’t seem to be anything going on underneath all of the shouting.

The majority of Hoffa is told via flashback.  Scenes of Hoffa and Bobby in the film’s present are mixed with scenes of Hoffa and Bobby first meeting and taking over the Teamsters.  Sometimes, the structure of the film is a bit cumbersome but there are a few scenes — especially during the film’s first thirty minutes — that achieve a certain visual poetry.  There’s a scene where Hoffa helps to change a man’s flat tire while selling him on the union and the combination of falling snow, the dark city street, and Hoffa talking about the working man makes the scene undeniably effective.  The scenes where Hoffa spars with Bobby Kennedy are also effective, with Nicholson projecting an intriguing blue collar arrogance as he belittles the abrasively ivy league Bobby.  Unfortunately, the rest of the movie doesn’t live up to those scenes.  By the time Hoffa becomes a rich and influential man, you realize that the film isn’t really sure what it wants to say about Jimmy Hoffa.  Does it want to condemn Hoffa for getting seduced by power or does it want to excuse Hoffa’s shady dealings as just being what he had to do to protect the men in his union?  The film truly doesn’t seem to know.

Hoffa is definitely not an offer that you shouldn’t refuse but, at the same time, it’s occasionally effective.  A few of the scenes are visually appealing and the cast is full of character actors like John C. Reilly, J.T. Walsh, Frank Whaley, and Nicholas Pryor.  It’s not a disaster like The Gang Who Couldn’t Shoot Straight.  Hoffa is an offer that you can take or leave.

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
  6. King of the Roaring Twenties: The Story of Arnold Rothstein 
  7. The Roaring Twenties
  8. Force of Evil
  9. Rob the Mob
  10. Gambling House
  11. Race Street
  12. Racket Girls

Film Review: The Passenger (dir by Michelangelo Antonioni)


The 1975 film, The Passenger, tells the story of David Locke (Jack Nicholson).

Locke is a television news journalist.  From what we can gather, he’s respected from his colleagues, even though he doesn’t seem to be extremely close to anyone, including his wife (Jenny Runacre).  Everyone thinks that Locke is dead.  They believe that he was found dead in a hotel room in Africa, the victim of a heart attack.  What they don’t know is that Locke is actually alive.  He switched identities with Robertson (Charles Mulvehill), the man who actually was found dead in the hotel room.  After years of reporting on a world that appears to be going insane, Locke has decided that it’s time for a fresh start.  He no longer wants to deal with his marriage, his career, or anything else that used to define David Locke as a person.  He now just wants to be Robertson.

Of course, the problem with this plan is that Robertson had a life before Locke appropriated it.  Locke discovers that Robertson was not only a gun runner but he was also supplying weaponry to the same rebels that Locke, in his previous life, traveled to Africa to do a story on.  Since Locke has Robertson’s appointment book, he decides to keep all of Robertson’s meeting across Europe.

Meanwhile, Locke’s wife is curious to know about her husband’s final moments and, for that reason, she wants to speak with this mysterious Robertson, who was the last person to reportedly see her husband alive.  Locke’s friend, Martin (Ian Hendry) sets out to try to track down Robertson.  Locke, meanwhile, has met an architecture student (Maria Schneider), with whom he embarks on a passionate affair despite not ever learning her name.

The Passenger famously ends with a seven minute tracking shot, one that begins in a hotel room and then moves out into the hotel’s courtyard before then returning to the hotel room.  While the audience is watching the action unfold in the courtyard, something very important happens inside of that hotel room.  In fact, what happens in the hotel room is probably the most important moment of the entire film and yet director Michelangelo Antonioni only shows us the events leading up to the moment and the events immediately afterwards.  Antonioni leaves it up to the audience to determine exactly what happened inside of that hotel room.  It’s a bold move on his part and it’s also the perfect way to end this film.  The Passenger is a film about detachment and it only makes sense that the film would end with the ultimate statement of detachment, with the emphasis being less on what’s happening in the hotel room and more on the fact that life, in all of its random and confusing messiness, will continue regardless of how the story of David Locke turns out.

It’s definitely not a film for everyone.  Those who watch the film excepting a typically explosive Jack Nicholson performance will probably be surprised to discover that Jack plays a rather quiet character in The Passenger, one who is often so introverted that it’s a struggle to figure out what exactly is going on inside of his mind.  Locke thinks that, as a journalist, he understands the world but, when he becomes Robertson, he discovers that there’s a big difference between reporting a story and actually being a part of that story.  It’s an odd experience, watching Jack Nicholson play a character who is essentially in over his head.  And yet, this is is also one of Nicholson’s best performances.  Freed up from his usual tricks, Nicholson gives a vulnerable and ultimately rather sad performance as a man who realizes too late that he’s grown so detached from the world that he no longer really has an identity.

The Passenger‘s a difficult but intriguing film.  It’s a classic of the 70s and features Jack Nicholson at his best.

Film Review: Psych-Out (dir by Richard Rush)


There’s a scene in the 1968 film, Psych-Out, in which a group of hippies are talking to be a liberal-minded minister, asking him if a mysterious figure known as “The Seeker” has even come by his church.  The minister tells them that he has not seen the Seeker, though he has heard of him.  As the hippies politely leave the church, one of them accidentally brushes past a middle-aged woman.  Though the hippie politely apologizes, the woman is still obviously disgusted by his presence in the church.  She asks her companion how the minister can possibly allow people who “dress like that” into the church.

As the woman complains, the camera focuses in on the stained glass window directly over her shadow.  There’s Jesus and the disciples.  They’ve all got beards.  They all have long hair.  They’re all wearing simple clothing …. oh my God, they’re hippies!

That’s actually one of the more subtle moments to be found in Psych-Out, an entertainingly heavy-handed film about hippies and wanderers in California.  Psych-Out was made at the height of the counter culture.  It was filmed on location in the San Francisco neighborhood of Haight-Ashbury, where both the love and the clothes are free and no one is about judging anyone else’s thing.  Into this neighborhood comes Jenny Davis (Susan Strasberg), who has run away from home and who is looking for her brother, Steve (Bruce Dern).  Jenny may have been raised in a conservative household but she’s eager to embrace the counter-culture.  Jenny is also deaf but she can read lips.  She also has the police looking for her but fear not!  The residents of Haight-Ashbury look after one another!  They have to, considering that there are still cops and even a few rednecks hanging out around the neighborhood.

No sooner has Jenny arrived in San Francisco than she falls in with a 30-something hippie named Stoney (Jack Nicholson, with a pony tail).  Stoney is a member of a band, along with Elwood (Max Julien) and Ben (Adam Roarke).  Even though Stoney says that he doesn’t care about material goods, he’s still eager to become a rock star.  Stoney also says that he doesn’t want to get tied down by any commitments.  He wants to do his own thing.  He may sleep with Jenny but that doesn’t mean that either one belongs to the other.  Stoney may say that but he certainly gets jealous when he sees Jenny talking to the local guru, Dave (Dean Stockwell).  Dave calls Stoney for being a phony.  “You may be righteous but you’re not hip,” Dave tells him.   Can Stoney become both righteous and hip before the film ends?  Can Jenny find her brother?  Will the band get signed to a recording contract and will the menacing junkyard rednecks ever see the errors of their fascist ways?

Today, of course, Jack Nicholson is probably the main reason why most people would want to see Psych-Out.  Ironically, for a figure who is so identified with the counter-culture, Jack Nicholson did not make for a very convincing hippie.  A lot of that is because Nicholson’s trademark sarcasm (which is on full display in Psych-Out, as this is a far more typical Nicholson performance than the one that would make him a star a year later in Easy Rider) owed more to the beats than to the hippies.  Nicolson’s persona always had more in common with Jack Kerouac than Abbie Hoffman.  In Psych-Out, he comes across as being too much of a natural skeptic to fit in with the free-spirited hippies all around him.  Nicholson is fun to watch because he’s Jack Nicholson but you never buy him as someone who would really want to live in a commune where no one has any possessions and money is frowned upon.

Dean Stockwell, on the other hand, is a totally believable hippie guru though, to his credit, his still brings some welcome wit to his role.  The script may call for him to recite some fairly shallow platitudes but he does so with just enough of a smile to let use know that not even Dave takes himself that seriously.  As for the rest of the cast, Bruce Dern gets to do his spaced-out routine and Henry Jaglom, who would later become an insufferably self-important director, plays an artist with huge sideburns who tries to chop off his hand while having a bad trip.  Jenny is horrified but everyone tells her not to judge.  Susan Strasberg is sympathetic as Jenny and is convincing as a deaf character.  Unfortunately, the film doesn’t give her much to do other than walk around San Francisco with a dazed expression on her face and stare lovingly up at Jack Nicholson.

Psych-Out‘s greatest value is probably as a time capsule.  It was filmed on location and it features actual hippies.  Watching it is like getting a chance to step into a time machine and go back to San Francisco in 1968.  Of course, judging from this film, San Francisco in 1968 wasn’t that appealing of a place but still, Psych-Out remains an entertainingly silly historical document.  Just a year after the release of Psych-Out, Charles Manson and his followers would come out of the canyons and the Altamont Free Concert would end in murder and the 60s would come to an abrupt end.  Watching Psych-Out, it’s hard to believe all of that was right around the corner.

4 Shots From 4 Films: Special Jack Nicholson Edition


4 Shots From 4 Films is just what it says it is, 4 shots from 4 of our favorite films. As opposed to the reviews and recaps that we usually post, 4 Shots From 4 Films lets the visuals do the talking!

Today is Jack Nicholson’s 83rd birthday!

It’s been ten years since Jack Nicholson last appeared in a movie, the forgettable How Do You Know.  Rumor has it that he’s basically retired from acting, though it’s said that Nicholson himself has denied it.  However, whether he’s working or not, he remains a screen icon with a filmography that is a cinema lover’s dream.  He’s worked with everyone from Roger Corman to Stanley Kubrick to Milos Forman to Martin Scorsese and, along the way, he’s become a symbol of a very American-type of rebel.  Though often associated with the counter-culture, his style has always been too aggressive and idiosyncratic for him to be a believable hippie.  Instead, he’s one of the last of the beats, an outsider searching for meaning in Americana.

Over the course of his career, Nicholson has won three Oscars and been nominated for a total of 12.  He’s the only actor to have been nominated in every decade from the 1960s to the 2000s.  If he ever writes his autobiography, you know that we’ll all run out and buy a copy.  When the day comes that Jack Nicholson is no longer with us, it will truly be the end of an era.

Happy birthday, Jack Nicholson.  May you have many happy returns!

4 Shots From 4 Films

Psych-Out (1968, dir by Richard Rush)

Carnal Knowledge (1971, dir by Mike Nichols)

The Shining (1980, dir by Stanley Kubrick)

The Departed (2006, dir by Martin Scorsese)

Mardi Gras Film Review: Easy Rider (dir by Dennis Hopper)


If you are among those who wanted to celebrate Mardi Gras today but couldn’t make it down to New Orleans, fear not!  There is a solution to your problem.  You can always just watch 1969 counterculture classic, Easy Rider.

Easy Rider features one of the most famous Mardi Gras scenes of all time and adding to the scene’s authenticity is the fact that it was actually shot in New Orleans during the celebration.  If you watch the Mardi Gras sequence carefully, you’ll notice that several people on the streets of the French Quarter actually stop and stare directly at the camera.  It reminds you that you’re watching a movie but, at the same time, it also reminds you that you’re seeing something authentic.  Those weren’t just professional extras pretending to get drunk and glaring at Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda.  Those were people who were actually in the French Quarter for Mardi Gras and who just happened to end up getting included in one of the biggest cult films of all time.  If you want to know what Mardi Gras was like in the late 60s, this is the film to watch.

At the same time, after watching Easy Rider, you may be find yourself happy to not be in New Orleans today.  As with almost everything else in Easy Rider, Mardi Gras starts out as something exciting and full of promise but it ends as something dark and full of death.  One minute, Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Karen Black, and Toni Basil are walking down the streets of New Orleans and having what appears to be a good time.  The next thing you know, they’re in a cemetery and Peter Fonda’s sobbing and talking about his mother’s suicide while Toni Basil and Karen Black are freaking out.  Of the four of them, only Dennis Hopper appears to not be having a bad trip but then again, Hopper is so naturally spacey in Easy Rider that it’s kind of hard to tell.

The next morning, Fonda and Hopper leave New Orleans on their motorcycles and promptly get blown away by two shotgun-toting rednecks in a pickup truck.  It seems a fitting conclusion to a film that celebrates the beauty of the American landscape while, at the same time, suggesting that almost everyone who lives there is a complete and total prick.

Of course, the whole Mardi Gras sequence doesn’t occur until the very end of the film.  The majority of the film deals with the journey to New Orleans.  Billy (Dennis Hopper) and Wyatt (Peter Fonda) are two motorcycle-riding drug dealers who have just made a small fortune off of selling cocaine to Phil Spector.  Billy and Wyatt are heading to New Orleans to celebrate and visit a famous brothel.  Wyatt is cool and stoic and always seems to be thinking about something.  Billy is Dennis Hopper.  Easy Rider is often referred to as being a hippie film but neither Billy nor Wyatt is really a hippie.  They’re outsiders and they like to smoke weed but they’re also largely apolitical.  They just want to enjoy the open road.  If anything, they’re beatniks who were born a year or two too late.

As they ride from California to New Mexico, Billy and Wyatt meet plenty of people along the way.  They stop off at a hippie commune and then later, they get harassed by a bunch of rednecks in a diner.  The rednecks are menacing while the hippies are annoying.  The rednecks throw Wyatt and Billy in jail for “parading without a permit.”  The hippies have a mime troupe.  The rednecks drive around with shotguns.  The hippies try to grow crops in the desert.  (I’m enough of a country girl to know that Billy’s right when he scornfully says that nothing that they’re planting is going to actually grow.)  The rednecks are ignorant.  The hippies are smug.  None of them really seem like people that you would want to spend too much time around.

Along the way, Wyatt and Billy temporarily travel with two others.  The hitchhiker is played by Luke Askew.  We never learn his name but he does play a key role in the film when he gives Wyatt the tab of acid that will eventually ruin Mardi Gras.  Meanwhile, George Hanson is an alcoholic lawyer and he’s played by Jack Nicholson.  At the time that the film was shot, Nicholson was on the verge of retiring from acting so he could concentrate on directing and writing.  He took the role and expected, as almost everyone did, that Easy Rider would just be another biker film.  Instead, Easy Rider became a hit and a cultural milestone that not only won Nicholson his first Academy Award nomination but also made him a star.

Interestingly enough, Jack Nicholson is not really that good in Easy Rider.  His attempt at a Texas accent is terrible and you never believe him as someone who has never smoked weed before.  If anything, Luke Askew gives a far better performance than Nicholson and he actually has more screen time as well.  However, I think Nicholson benefited from the fact that George is probably the most likable character in the film.  (Depending on how you feel about Billy and Wyatt, you could argue that he’s the only likable character in the film.)  He’s not a smug hippie nor is he a murderous redneck.  Unlike Wyatt and Billy, he has a job that doesn’t involve selling cocaine to Phil Spector.  Whereas Luke Askew’s Hitchhiker seems like the type of guy who would just love to lecture you about why Vietnam is all your fault, George comes across as being a gentle soul. George is a character that viewers can feel safe identifying with, even if Nicholson is never quite convincing as someone so naive that he fears he’ll freak out after taking one hit off of a joint.

Easy Rider‘s critical reputation tends to go up and down, depending on who you’re reading or talking to.  There’s a tendency, among many critics, to complain that Fonda acted too little while Hopper acted too much.  Personally, I think there’s a lot of hidden wit to be found in Hopper’s performance and I love how annoyed he gets when they’re at the hippie compound.  As for Peter Fonda, he may not have been the most expressive actor but he did capture a certain feeling of ennui.  For most of the film, it’s hard to tell whether there’s anything actually going on in Wyatt’s head.  Then, we follow Wyatt and Billy to that cemetery in New Orleans and we discover that there’s actually quite a bit going on behind Wyatt’s wall of stoicism.  After watching Wyatt curse at a statue while sobbing, we understand why he keeps so much hidden.

When it was released in 1969, Easy Rider was a huge box office success and it inspired every major studio to try to duplicate it’s success with a counter culture film of its own.  (Hopper was given several million dollars and sent down to Peru to make a follow-up to Easy Rider.  The result was The Last Movie, a legendary disaster that temporarily ended Hopper’s career as a director.)  Seen today, Easy Rider is undeniably pretentious but always watchable.  The scenery is beautiful and the Mardi Gras sequence sets the standard by which all other bad trips should be judged.  Most importantly, the film works as a historical document.  Everything about it — from the music to the cultural attitudes to even Hopper’s attempts to imitate Jean-Luc Godard in his direction — makes this film into a time capsule.  Until they invent a time machine that works, Easy Rider is as close as some of us will ever get to experiencing the end of the 60s.

And finally, it’s the ultimate Mardi Gras film, even if it’s main message seems to be that everyone needs to stay the Hell away from Mardi Gras.  Or, at the very least, don’t accept LSD from a scruffy hitchhiker before rolling into New Orleans.  Seriously, the more you know….

Goin’ South (1978, directed by Jack Nicholson)


Jack Nicholson was not an overnight success.

Nicholson was 17 years old when he first came to Hollywood in 1954.  Looking to become an actor, Nicholson toiled as an office worker at the MGM cartoon studio, took acting classes, and went to auditions.  It would be four years before he even landed his first role, the lead in the Roger Corman-produced The Cry Baby Killer.  When that film failed to become a hit, Nicholson spent the next ten years doing minor roles and occasionally starring in a B-picture.  He auditioned for some big parts, like Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate, Buck Barrow in Bonnie and Clyde, and Guy Woodhouse in Rosemary’s Baby, but his big break continued to allude him.  By 1969, Nicholson was so disillusioned with acting that he was planning to instead pursue a career as a director.  However, before Nicholson officially retired from the acting game, he received a call from the set of Easy Rider.  Depending on who you ask, Rip Torn, who had previously been cast in the role of alcoholic George Hanson, had either quit or been fired.  Bruce Dern, the first choice to replace Torn, was busy filming They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?  Nicholson agreed to step into the role and the rest is history.

Easy Rider may have made Jack Nicholson one of the world’s biggest film stars but he never lost his ambition to direct.  In 1971, he made his directorial debut with Drive, He Said, a film about campus unrest.  At the time, the film flopped at both the box office and with critics and quickly sunk into obscurity.  (It has subsequently been rediscovered and, in some cases, positively reevaluated.)  After the failure of Drive, He Said, it would be another seven years before Nicholson again got a chance to direct.

Nicholson’s second film as a director, Goin’ South, is a comedic western.  Nicholson plays Henry Lloyd Moon, an unsuccessful outlaw who used to ride with Quantrill’s Raiders.  When Moon is captured in Longhorn, Texas, he is sentenced to be hanged.  Fortunately, for Moon, Longhorn has a special ordinance.  Any man condemned for any crime other than murder can be saved from the gallows if a local woman agrees to marry him and take responsibility for his good behavior.  As a result of this ordinance, Longhorn is populated almost exclusively by single women and reformed outlaws.

While standing on the gallows, the cocky Moon is stunned to discover that none of the women want to marry him.  Finally, an old woman emerges from the crowd and announces that she’ll become Moon’s wife.  When Moon hops off the gallows and thanks her, the woman drops dead.  Fortunately, another, younger woman, Julia Tate (Mary Steenburgen, making her film debut), steps forward.

Once they’re married, the lecherous Moon discovers that Julia is a virgin and that the only reason she married him was so she could force him to work in the secret gold mine that’s hidden underneath her property.  The railroad will soon be taking over the land and Julia wants to get all of the gold before she leaves town for Philadelphia.  Though Julia, at first, wants nothing to do with Moon, he eventually wears her down through sheer persistence and the two fall in love.

Complicating matters is Deputy Towfield (Christopher Lloyd), who is upset because he feels that Julia was meant to be his wife.  Also, the members of Moon’s former gang (including Danny DeVito and Veronica Cartwright) show up at Julia’s house and discover the truth about the mine.

Goin’ South gets off to a good start.  The scene on the gallows, where Moon waits for someone to marry him and save his life, is genuinely funny and Nicholson and Steenburgen have a playful chemistry for the first hour of the movie.  Nicholson leers even more than usual in this film but the script is written so that the joke is always on Moon.  Much of the film’s humor comes from Moon always overestimating both his charm and his cleverness.  However, once Moon and Julia finally consummate their marriage, the movie loses whatever narrative momentum it may have had and gets bogged down with the subplots about Towfield and Moon’s gang.  There are funny moments throughout but the story gets away from Nicholson and the film is reduced to a series of set pieces, none of which build up to much.

Not surprisingly, Nicholson gets good performances from his cast, which is largely made up by the members of his 1970s entourage.  Along with Danny DeVito and Christopher Lloyd, longtime Nicholson associates like Tracey Walter, Ed Begley Jr., Richard Bradford, Jeff Morris, and Luana Anders all appear in small roles.  John Belushi plays the tiny role of Deputy Hector.  (Goin’ South was actually the first film in which Belushi was cast, though production didn’t actually begin until after Belushi had finished working on National Lampoon’s Animal House.)  Unfortunately, despite all of the good performances, the script doesn’t do much to develop any of the characters.  Belushi especially feels underused.  (Because Belushi had moved on to Animal House by the time the film went into post-production, Nicholson ended up dubbing several of Belushi’s lines himself.)

Drive, He Said was largely considered to have failed at the box office because Nicholson remained behind the camera so he took the opposite approach with Goin’ South.  Nicholson is in nearly every scene and he gives one of his broadest performances.  It works for the first half of the film, when Moon is constantly trying to get laid and failing every time.  But, during the second half of the movie, Nicholson’s failure to reign in his performance works to the film’s detriment.  When the movie needs Nicholson to be romantic, he’s still behaving like a horny cartoon. Whenever he looks at Mary Steenburgen, it seems as if his eyes should be popping out of his head, Tex Avery-style.  He’s an entertaining cartoon, but a cartoon nonetheless.  As a result, Goin’ South is often funny but it still feels very inconsequential.

Like Drive, He Said, Goin’ South was both a critical and a box office flop and it temporarily turned Nicholson off of directing.  It would be another 12 years before he would once again step behind the camera.  In 1990, Nicholson directed The Two Jakes, the sequel to one of his best films, Chinatown That would be Nicholson’s last film as a director.  Nicholson acted for another 20 years, following the release of The Two Jakes.  To date, he made his final screen appearance in 2010, with a supporting role in James L. Brooks’s How Do You Know.  Nicholson has disputed claims that he’s officially retired, saying that he’s instead just being more selective about his roles.  Even though it’s been ten years since we last saw him on screen, Jack Nicholson remains an American icon and a living legend.

6 Trailers In Memory of Robert Evans


As Jeff reported earlier today, the famed Hollywood producer Robert Evans passed away this weekend.  As a student of both Hollywood and history, I have to say that I always found Evans to be a rather fascinating figure.  It seemed inevitable that his name would pop up whenever I read a book, an article, or even just an interview concerning the films of the 60s, 70s, and 80s.  Robert Evans was nice enough to follow me on twitter and we even exchanged tweets on occasion.

As a producer, Robert Evans is probably more associated with gangster movies like The Godfather and The Cotton Club than horror films.  But Evans was involved in a few “scary” and horror-adjacent films, both as an actor and a producer.  So, tonight’s edition of Lisa Marie’s Favorite Grindhouse Trailers is dedicated to Robert Evans.

  1. Man of a Thousand Face (1957)

As an actor, Evans began his career by playing Irving Thalberg in this biopic of Lon Chaney, Sr.  Evans was specifically chosen for the role by Thalberg’s widow, Norma Shearer.  Not surprisingly, the trailer below concentrates on James Cagney’s performance as legendary horror star, Lon Chaney, Sr.

2. The Fiend Who Walked The West (1958)

One of Evans’s rare starring roles was in this western-horror hybrid.  Yes, that’s Robert Evans as the “kooky killer.”

3. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

As head of production at Paramount, Evans was responsible for greenlighting this classic horror film, starring Mia Farrow.  Reportedly, Evans arranged for his friend, Jack Nicholson, to screen test for the role of Rosemary’s husband.

4. Marathon Man (1976)

Evans produced this film.  Technically, Marathon Man was a thriller/spy movie.  But the scenes of Dustin Hoffman in the dentist chair definitely qualify as horror.

5. Sliver (1993)

After spending the 80s financially bereft and an almost forgotten figure, Evans made a comeback by producing this incredibly silly “erotic” thriller.

6. Jade (1995)

Sliver did well enough at the box office that Evans followed it up with another, similarly silly thriller.

Of course, while it’s tempting to laugh at films like Jade and Sliver, it should be remembered that Evans was also involved with some of the best and most important films of all time.  Next time you watch The Godfather, be sure to say a little thank you to Robert Evans.

R.I.P.

Horror on the Lens: The Terror (dir by Roger Corman)


Have you ever woken up and thought to yourself, “I’d love to see a movie where a youngish Jack Nicholson played a French soldier who, while searching for a mysterious woman, comes across a castle that’s inhabited by both Dick Miller and Boris Karloff?”

Of course you have!  Who hasn’t?

Well, fortunately, it’s YouTube to the rescue.  In Roger Corman’s 1963 film The Terror, Jack Nicholson is the least believable 19th century French soldier ever.  However, it’s still interesting to watch him before he became a cinematic icon.  (Judging from his performance here and in Cry Baby Killer, Jack was not a natural-born actor.)  Boris Karloff is, as usual, great and familiar Corman actor Dick Miller gets a much larger role than usual.  Pay attention to the actress playing the mysterious woman.  That’s Sandra Knight who, at the time of filming, was married to Jack Nicholson.

Reportedly, The Terror was one of those films that Corman made because he still had the sets from his much more acclaimed film version of The Raven.  The script was never finished, the story was made up as filming moved alone, and no less than five directors shot different parts of this 81 minute movie.  Among the directors: Roger Corman, Jack Hill, Monte Hellman, Francis Ford Coppola, and even Jack Nicholson himself!  Perhaps not surprisingly, the final film is a total mess but it does have some historical value.

(In typical Corman fashion, scenes from The Terror were later used in the 1968 film, Targets.)

Check out The Terror below!

Horror Scenes That I Love: Jack Meets Lloyd in The Shining


The scene below is, of course, from Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 masterpiece, The Shining.

In this scene, Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) stumbles into the Overlook Hotel’s ballroom, still fuming over having been accused of abusing his son.  A recovering alcoholic, Jack sits at the bar and thinks about how he would give up his soul for just one one drink.  And, on cue, Lloyd (Joe Turkel) appears.

As I was watching this scene, it occurred to me that, way back in 1980, there probably was some guy named Lloyd who saw this movie in a theater and was probably totally shocked when Jack suddenly stared straight at him and said, “Hey, Lloyd.”

The brilliance of this scene is that we never actually see Lloyd materialize.  We see him only after Jack has seen him.  So, yes, Lloyd could be a ghost.  But he could also just be a figment of Jack’s imagination.  Jack very well could just be suffering from cabin fever.  Of course, by the end of the movie, we learn the truth.

Everyone always talks about Jack Nicholson’s performance as Jack.  Some people love it and some people hate it.  (I’m in the first camp.)  However, let’s take a minute to appreciate just how totally creepy Joe Turkel is in this scene.  Turkel was a veteran character actor and had appeared in two previous Kubrick films, The Killing and Paths of Glory.  Two years after appearing in The Shining, Turkel played what may be his best-known role, Dr. Eldon Tyrell in Blade Runner.

From Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, here’s Jack Nicholson and Joe Turkel: