Panic In the Streets (1950, directed by Elia Kazan)


The plague has come to New Orleans.

A dead body is found on the New Orleans wharf.  He’s dead because he was shot several times but an autopsy reveals that he would have died anyways because he was suffering from a form of the bubonic plague!  In order to keep the plague from spreading through the city (and also to hopefully save the lives of anyone who has been infected), Dr. Clint Reed (Richard Widmark) and police captain Tom Warren (Paul Douglas) have to isolate everyone who the man came into contact with.  But first, they’re going to have to discover that man’s identity and also how he came to end up dead on the docks of New Orleans.

What Dr. Reed doesn’t know is that the man was named Kolchak and that he was murdered by a small-time gangster named Blackie (Jack Palance, making his film debut).  Now, Blackie and his associate, Fitch (Zero Mostel) are both infected and are both looking to get out of town.  Of course, if either one of them succeeds in leaving New Orleans, they’ll spread the plague through the entire country.

Largely filmed on location in New Orleans and focusing as much on Dr. Reed as it does on the criminals that he’s pursuing, Panic In The Streets is an effective mix of film noir, medical drama and police procedural.  Seen under normal circumstances, Panic in the Streets is a good thriller.  Seen during a time when the news is dominated by COVID-19 and riots in large cities, Panic in the Streets feels damn near prophetic.

Richard Widmark does a good job playing Dr. Reed, who is portrayed as being a no-nonsense professional.  He’s type of doctor who you want on your side if there’s a plague coming to town.  Not surprisingly, though, the film is stolen by Jack Palance as the smirking Blackie.  This was Palance’s film debut but he already knew how to be the most intimidating man in the room.  Zero Mostel also has some good scenes as Blackie’s associate and his sweaty and fearful performance provides a good contrast to Palance’s more controlled villainy.

One interesting thing about Panic in The Streets is that Dr. Reed and Capt. Warren are actually able to convince a newspaper reporter to delay filing a report about the plague, mostly to avoid a mass panic in the streets.  Though he takes some convincing (and Warren’s methods aren’t exactly Constitutional), the reporter finally agrees to hold off on reporting for four hours.  With the 24-hour news cycle and the dominance of social media, that’s not something that could happen today.

God’s Gun (1976, directed by Gianfranco Parolini)


During the dying days of the old west, outlaw Sam Clayton (Jack Palance) ride into the town of Juno City and try to take things over.  Because the sheriff (Richard Boone, who reportedly walked off the film before shooting was complete) is old and ineffectual, it falls to the town priest, Father John (Lee Van Cleef), to chase them off.  Father John is hardly your typical priest.  He’s a former gunfighter who, even though he no longer carries a weapon, still knows how to throw a punch.  Though he manages to put Sam and the gang behind bars, they are all eventually released.  The first thing they do is gun down Father John in front of his own church.

A mute child, Johnny O’Hara (Leif Garrett), flees town to track down Father John’s twin brother, Lewis (also played by Lee Van Cleef).  What Johnny doesn’t know is that Sam, who years ago raped Johnny’s mother (played by Sybil Danning), might actually be his father.  When Johnny finds Lewis, he finally manages to communicate what’s happened.  Lewis and Johnny head back to town so Lewis can get his vengeance  The only catch is that Lewis promised his brother that he would no longer carry a gun so he’s going to have to use his wits to get his revenge.

God’s Gun is a strange film.  It was one of the last of Spaghetti westerns but, though the director was Italian, it was filmed in Israel and it was produced by none other than Menahem Golan.  Golan brings the same producing aesthetic to God’s Gun that he later brought to many Cannon films — a few recognizable veteran actors (Jack Palance, Lee Van Cleef), an up-and-coming star (Leif Garrett), an international sex symbol (Sybil Danning), and a spin on a popular genre.  Like many of Golan’s films, the plot is occasionally incoherent and the entire production feels cheap and rushed but, at the same time, it’s hard to resist the mix of Van Cleef, Palance, and Danning.

Adding to the film’s strange feel is that every actor is dubbed, even the ones with trademark voices like Jack Palance and Lee Van Cleef.  Palance sneers throughout the entire film and could be giving a good performance but every time he starts to speak, you hear a voice that is clearly not Jack Palance’s and it makes it hard to get into the story.  There’s also an annoying squawking sound effect that explodes on the film’s soundtrack whenever someone is shot or whenever Lewis makes an appearance.

It’s not all a loss, though.  The Israeli desert is an effective Western backdrop and there are a few good camera shots.  When Lee Van Cleef and Jack Palance have their final confrontation, the picture starts to spin around and it’s pretty cool.  Finally, if you’re a Van Cleef fan, this is a rare chance to see him playing a traditional hero.  Because he’s dubbed, it’s hard to judge Van Cleef’s dual performances but this film does show that he could do more than just be a smirking killer.  He’s actually a pretty convincing priest.  Who would have guessed?

The Great Adventure (1975, directed by Gianfranco Baldanello)


During the Gold Rush, a young boy named Jim Chambers (Fernando E. Romero) rescues a German shepherd from a bear trap.  Jim’s father doesn’t want Jim to adopt the dog but then he gets killed by Indians so what is he going to do about it?  Traveling with two trappers who are also brothers (played by Manuel de Blas and Remo De Angelis), Jim, his sister, Mary (Elisabetta Virgili), and the dog move to the nearby town of Dawson City.

Jim and Mary want to take over the town’s newspaper, which was originally founded by their family.  However, both the newspaper and the town have been taken over by an evil gambler named William Bates (Jack Palance).  Bates may be willing to let the children run the paper but only if they allow him to take their dog.  Meanwhile, one of the trappers falls in love with the local saloon keeper, Sonia Kendall (Joan Collins).

Though The Great Adventure is set in Alaska and tells a typical Western story, it’s an Italian film through-and-through.  Jack Palance and Joan Collins may be top-billed but the movie itself is dominated by actors speaking in poorly dubbed English.  This was one of several films based on White Fang that was released in the 70s and, like many of them, it’s an uneasy hybrid of a treacly family film and a violent western.  On the one hand, it’s a film about two children and their dog trying to publish a newspaper and, on the other hand, Jack Palance kills people in cold blood.  The film is so badly edited to be almost impossible to follow but I’m an unapologetic Jack Palance fan and I almost always enjoy any film that lets Palance do his thing.  Unfortunately, The Great Adventure didn’t have as much Palance as I was expecting and Joan Collins is beautiful but hampered by the film’s G-rating.  (For an actress who was affectionately nicknamed The Great British Open, Collins is always a strange presence in a family film.)  At least the dog was a good actor.  He eventually abandons his newfound family so that he can rejoin a wild dog pack in the wilderness and he probably made the right decision.  He looks very happy at the end of the movie.

The Cop in Blue Jeans (1976, directed by Bruno Corbucci)


Nico Giraldi (Tomas Milian) was once one of Rome’s top thieves.  He stole handbags and briefcases and he sold them through a network of underground sellers.  Now that Nico has grown up, he’s turned over a new leaf.  Though he still bristles at authority and is just as quick to break the rules, Nico is now a member of the Rome police, assigned to the anti-mugging squad.  He’s a tough cop who has no problem beating the Hell out of a mugger after he captures him.  However, Nico knows that arresting the muggers is only half the job.  To Nico, the real enemies are the sellers who employ the muggers.  Nico wants the men at the top of the criminal food chain, men like the mysterious Baron (Guido Mannari) and the sadistic American crime boss, Richard Russo (Jack Palance).

It’s not just his background that’s unconventional.  Dressing like a slob and sporting an unkempt beard, Nico is a strong contrast to his more conventional co-workers.  Nico even carries a mouse named Captain Spaulding in his front shirt pocket.  The ladies, of course, love Nico.  His girlfriend (played by the beautiful Maria Rosaria Omaggio) is a literary agent who is hoping the publish a manuscript that is being smuggled out of Russia.  The Russians try to sabotage her efforts by switching a briefcase.  It’s a pretty good thing that Nico still remembers how to pull off the perfect mugging.

Though Nico is obviously based on Al Pacino’s performance in Serpico, The Cop in Blue Jeans has little in common with Sidney Lumet’s classic.  Instead, The Cop in Blue Jeans is a mix of action and comedy.  The action comes from Nico’s attempts to capture the members of Russo’s gangs and Russo killing anyone who displeases him.  (A scene in which Russo has a man suffocated in a car is far stronger than anything you would ever see in an American comedy.)  The comedy comes from Nico being such a slob that even his fellow police officers often attempt to arrest him.  Nico insults everyone and everyone insults Nico.  It’s actually not that funny but I liked how every fight turned into an elaborate brawl and Tomas Milian, who was always well-cast as scruffy iconoclasts, gives a good performance as Nico.  Add to that, it’s always entertaining to see Jack Palance play the bad guy, even if this was clearly just a film that he did to pick up a paycheck.

The Cop in Blue Jeans was a big hit in Italy and, coming out a time when Milian’s career was struggling after his early Spaghetti Western successes, it helped to revive his career.  Milian went on to play Nico in ten sequels before then establishing himself as a character actor.  (The role that most modern audiences know him from is as the corrupt Mexican general in Traffic.)  Milian died in 2017 and today would have been his 87th birthday.  The Cop in Blue Jeans features him at his best and shows why he was a star for such a long time.

Film Review: Barabbas (dir by Richard Fleischer)


Who was Barabbas?

The simple answer to that is that Barabbas was the prisoner who, according to the Gospels, Pontius Pilate released during Passover.  As the story goes, Pilate gave the people the choice.  He could either release Barabbas or Jesus.  For what crime was Barabbas being held?  The Gospel of Matthew merely says that Barabbas was a “notorious prisoner.”  Mark and Luke both write that he was involved in a recent riot and that he was a murderer.  The Gospel of John refers to him as being a bandit, which may have been another term for revolutionary.  Regardless of what crime he had committed, the people overwhelmingly called for Barabbas to be released and for Jesus to be crucified.  What happened to Barabbas after he was set free is not recorded but has been the subject of a good deal of speculation over the centuries.

(Of course, there are some scholars who believe that the Barabbas story was simply an invention of later writers, designed to shift the responsibility for the crucifixion away from the Romans.  There’s also some who say that Jesus and Barabbas were actually the same person and that the inclusion of the Barabbas story was meant to indicate that Jesus was actually a revolutionary who was working to free Judea from Roman role.  I imagine Dan Brown will eventually base a novel on this theory, so look forward to hearing your grandma debating the historicity of Barabbas at some point in the future.)

Back to the original question, who was Barabbas?

According to the 1961 film of the same name, Barabbas was Anthony Quinn.

Based on a novel by the Nobel Prize-winning Swedish author, Pär Lagerkvist, Barabbas opens with Pilate (Anthony Kennedy) making his infamous offer.  Barabbas or Jesus?  Perhaps the only person more shocked than Pilate by the people’s decision is Barabbas himself.  A brutish and violent man, Barabbas is looking forward to returning to his old life but, as he leaves the prison, he finds himself fascinated by the sight of Jesus stoically carrying the cross, heading to the fate that Barabbas was spared.  Later, Barabbas witnesses the Crucifixion and is shaken when, upon Jesus’s death, the sky turns black.

(Director Richard Fleischer shot the Crucifixion during an actual solar eclipse, so that the sky actually did turn black during filming.  It’s a stunning scene.)

For the rest of his life, Barabbas is haunted by both his narrow escape from death and his subsequent notoriety.  When Barabbas tries to reunite with his former lover, Rachel (Silvana Mangano), he discovers that not only does she now want nothing to do with him but that she has also become a follower of Jesus.  (Later, in a surprisingly graphic scene, Rachel is stoned to death.)  Barabbas becomes convinced that he cannot die and he becomes increasingly reckless in his behavior.  Over the next few decades, he finds himself sold into slavery and forced to spend 20 years working in the harsh sulfur mines of Sicily.  He befriends a Christian named Sahak (Vittorio Gassman) and, with him, is trained to be a gladiator by the sadistic Torvald (Jack Palance).  Eventually, Barabbas finds himself rejected by both the Romans and the Christians while Rome burns all around him.

Barabbas is a film that really took me by surprise.  I’ve seen a lot of Biblical and Roman films from the 50s and 60s and I was expecting that Barabbas would be another sumptuously produced but slow-paced epic, one that would inevitably feature stiff dialogue and overly reverential performances.  I mean, don’t me wrong.  I happen to love spectacle and therefore, I enjoy watching most of those old historical and religious epics.  But still, for modern audiences, these films can often seem rather … well, hokey.

But Barabbas was totally different from what I was expecting.  As wonderfully played by Anthony Quinn, Barabbas wanders through most of the film in a state of haunted confusion.  Even at the end of the film, after he’s met St. Peter (Harry Andrews), Barabbas doesn’t seem to fully understand what he believes or how he’s become one of the most notorious men in Rome.  Quinn plays Barabbas almost like a wild animal, one that has been cornered and trapped by his own infamy.  The more Barabbas struggles against his fate, the more trapped he becomes.  Barabbas may be a brute but, the film suggests, even a brute can find some sort of redemption.  Quinn gets good support from the entire supporting cast.  Jack Palance is perfectly evil as Torvald while Vittorio Gassman, Silvana Mangano, and Ernest Borgnine bring some needed nuance to characters who, in lesser hands, could have just been cardboard believers.

Barabbas is a surprisingly dark film.  When Rachel is stoned, the camera doesn’t flinch from showing just how cruel an execution that was.  Nor does the camera flinch from the violent brutality of the gladiatorial games.  When Barabbas is sold into slavery, the sulfur mines of Sicily are depicted in Hellish detail and practically the only thing that saves Barabbas from spending the rest of his life being smothered under a cloud of sulfur is a giggly Roman woman who decides to buy Barabbas so that he can serve as a good luck charm.  The scenes of Barabbas’s skill of a gladiator are contrasted with the bloodthirsty crowd demanding and cheering death.  Even when Barabbas joins the Christians in the Roman catacombs, he discovers that they want nothing to do with him, suggesting that they believe in forgiveness for everyone but him.  The spectacle of Rome is displayed but so is the terror of what lies underneath the city’s ornate surface.  If Barabbas is occasionally a ruthless or unsentimental character, one need only look at the world he lives in to understand why.

With the exception of a few slow scenes at the start of the film, director Richard Fleischer does a good job of keeping the action moving.  It’s a long film but it never becomes a boring one.  In the end, thanks to Quinn’s performance and the film’s unflinching portrayal of life in ancient Rome, Barabbas is a biblical epic for people who usually don’t like biblical epics.

 

The TSL’s Grindhouse: Gor (dir by Fritz Kiersch)


The 1987 film Gor opens with a nerdy college professor (played by Urbano Barberini, of Demons and Opera fame) giving perhaps the worst lecture in the history of underwhelming lectures.  The professor explains that there is a counter-earth, a place that he claims is known as Gor.  Gor shares the same orbit as Earth but it’s linearly opposed to Earth, which apparently makes it impossible to see.  However, the professor says that his father gave him a ring which can transport the user to Gor.  The only problem is that the professor has not figured out how to use the ring.

The students all look incredibly bored with the lecture and I don’t blame them.  Not only does the professor seem to be rambling but he doesn’t even offer up any visual aides.  He could have at least utilized a powerpoint presentation or something.  Instead, his only teaching aide is a whiteboard on which he’s written “counter-earth.”  I have to wonder what their final exam is going to look like.  “True or false.  Your professor is a freaking loon.”

(I found myself wondering what university would possibly grant tenure to some guy who thinks he owns a magic ring but then I remembered Evergreen College.)

The professor’s name is Tarl Cabot and I think that’s a good deal of his problem right there.  When you give a child a name like Tarl Cabot, you’re pretty much guaranteeing that he’s going to grow up believing that he has a magic ring that’ll transport him to another planet.

Of course, in Tarl’s case, it turns out that the ring does just that.  After his teaching assistant dumps him so that she can go on a date with another professor, Tarl crashes his car and when he wakes up, he finds himself on Gor.  Apparently, the ring only works if you crash your car or something.

As for Gor itself, it turns out to be kind of a dump.  It’s a huge desert.  Seriously, check out this counter-earth:

If Tarl wanted to see a desert, he could have just driven around Southern California and saved himself a lot of trouble.

Yes, there is trouble in Gor.  No sooner has Tarl arrived then he’s being attacked by a bunch of barbarians on horseback.  The barbarians are led by the evil Sarm (played by Oliver Reed).  Much as with the case of Tarl Cabot, I think that once you name a child Sarm, you’ve pretty much guaranteed the way that his life is going to turn out.  Anyway, Tarl somehow survives being attacked by the barbarians.  He even manages to kill Sarm’s son, which leads to Sarm declaring that he wants Tarl dead.

Fortunately, Tarl is eventually rescued by another group of barbarians.  This group is led by Talena (Rebecca Ferratti) and she wants Tarl to help her rescue her father from Sarm’s fortress.  But how can Tarl help when he’s literally useless?  Don’t worry!  The good barbarians are willing to train Tarl.  One montage later, Tarl is now a master swordsman.  Now, all Tarl has to do is dress like a barbarian and then track down a little person who can serve as a guide to Sarm’s fortress!

And what a fortress it is!  Sarm may be evil but he likes to make sure that both his guests and his slaves have a good time.  Sarm welcomes Tarl to the fortress and even tries to recruit him over to his side.  (So apparently, Sarm’s over that whole “you killed my son” thing.)  Sarm understands that the best way to recruit Tarl is with a dance number!  As Sarm laughs lustfully, the slaves put on a show.  It’s somewhat out-of-place but at least it distracts from the rest of the film.

Anyway, there’s a lot of problems with Gor but the main one is that the place itself just doesn’t seem like it’s worth all the trouble.  After spending years trying to figure out how to get to the planet, Tarl arrives and discovers that it’s basically the same desert that was used in almost every post-apocalyptic film made in the 80s and 90s.  (In fact, judging from John Carter, it’s still being used today.)  What I always wonder about this type of movie is 1) why is the other planet always full of humans who speak perfect English and 2) why do all of these planets feature a society that resembles that ancient Roman Empire?  Apparently, swords and arrows are literally universal weapons because they’re used on every planet in the universe.

When I first saw that this film starred Urbano Barberini, I assumed that it was going to turn out to be an Italian production.  (In the late 80s, there were several Italian films that featured barbarians fighting in post-apocalyptic landscapes.)  However, it turns out that Gor was a South African production, co-produced by the legendary Harry Alan Towers and directed by an American named Firtz Kiersch.  (Kiersch also directed the first film version of Children of the Corn.)  That said, the film itself is so ineptly dubbed and the production values are so low-budget that it would still be easy to mistake Gor for a film directed by Bruno Mattei or Claudio Fragasso.

Because he’s so badly dubbed, it’s difficult to really judge Barberini’s performance as Tarl Cabot.  At the very least, he looks good with a sword in his hand and he’s cute — if never quite believable — when he plays Tarl as a neurotic physicist.  However, Barberini can’t really compete with Oliver Reed, who devours every inch of scenery that he can find.  Reed bellows and laughs and appears to be drunk in almost every scene in which he appears but at least he seems to be having a good time.  Reed is also required to wear a silly helmet in most of his scenes and I sincerely hope that he got to take it home with him.

Oliver Reed isn’t the only familiar face to pop up in Gor.  There’s also Jack Palance.  Palance only shows up for about two minutes and he looks rather confused as he discusses his plan to conquer the world.  (Apparently, Palance returned in Gor‘s sequel.)  For two minutes of screen time, Palance managed to score himself third billing in the opening credits of Gor, above even Oliver Reed!  Way to go, Jack!

Anyway, Gor is a pretty stupid movie.  I appreciated the random dance number but otherwise, it’s fairly dull and only occasionally enlivened by Oliver Reed’s refusal to go gently into that dark night.  I’m going to guess that films like this were popular with filmgoers who saw themselves as real-life Tarl Cabots and who spent their spare time thinking, “Nobody will laugh at me once they see me with a sword!”  I caught the film yesterday on Comet TV, which is quickly becoming one of my favorite channels for watching bad movies.

 

Cleaning Out the DVR #18: Remember Those Fabulous Sixties?


cracked rear viewer

There’s a lot of good stuff being broadcast this month, so it’s time once again to make some room on the ol’ DVR. Here’s a quartet of capsule reviews of films made in that mad, mad decade, the 1960’s:

THE FASTEST GUITAR ALIVE (MGM 1967; D: Michael D. Moore) –  MGM tried to make another Elvis out of rock legend Roy Orbison in this Sam Katzman-produced comedy-western. It didn’t work; though Roy possessed one of the greatest voices in rock’n’roll, he couldn’t act worth a lick. Roy (without his trademark shades!) and partner Sammy Jackson (TV’s NO TIME FOR SERGEANTS) peddle ‘Dr. Ludwig Long’s Magic Elixir’ in a travelling medicine show, but are really Confederate spies out to steal gold from the San Francisco mint to fund “the cause” in the waning days of the Civil War. The film’s full of anachronisms and the ‘comical Indians’ aren’t all that funny…

View original post 728 more words