Hooper (1978, directed by Hal Needham)


Reuniting the Smokey and the Bandit team of director Hal Needham and stars Burt Reynolds and Sally Field, Hooper is a film that pays tribute to stuntmen.

Hooper (Burt Reynolds) is a respected but aging stunt coordinator who is currently working on an overblown action film called The Spy Who Laughed At Danger.  (The spy is played by Adam West, who appears as himself.)  Hooper knows that he’s getting too old to keep putting his life at risk but he’s addicted to thrill of doing what he calls “gags.”  Every morning, Hooper wakes up, pops pills, has a beer, and then falls off a building or crashes a car.  When he’s not doing movies, he’s getting into bar brawls.  As demonstrated during a visit to Dodge City, Hooper and his friends are modern day cowboys  but time is catching up to them.  Hooper’s girlfriend, Gwen (Sally Field), wants Hooper to settle down and retire from the business before he ends up a physical wreck like her father (Brian Keith).  Hooper feels that he has to do one last, record-setting stunt before he passes the torch over to younger stuntmen like Ski Shidski (Jan-Michael Vincent).

Hooper is a classic Burt Reynolds film, with everything that you expect from late 70s Burt.  As always, Burt is deceptively laid back.  Sally Field is cute as a button.  Old hands like Brian Keith and James Best provide strong support while Robert Klein plays the type of pompous Hollywood director who is just begging to get slugged at the end of the movie.  (He does.)  The plot of Hooper is even simpler than the plot of Smokey and the Bandit but Hooper is a more heartfelt film.  Hal Needham was a stuntman before he became a director and this film was his tribute to the underappreciated people who risked their physical well-being to make movie magic.  Needham knew men like Hooper and his friends.  They were his people.  Needham’s love for the stunt players comes through in every scene.

As for the stunts, they’re real and they’re spectacular.

 

Hal Needham, of course, will always be associated with Burt Reynolds.  Before moving into directing, Needham frequently served as Reynolds’s stunt double and the two were such close friends that Needham spent 12 years living in Reynolds’s guest house.  Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood was partially inspired by the friendship of Burt Reynolds and Hal Needham, with Leonardo Di Caprio and Brad Pitt playing characters who were based on the two men.  (Reynolds was even originally cast in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood as George Spahn but he died before he could shoot his scenes. The role was taken over by Bruce Dern.)  Needham was responsible for directing some of Burt’s best films (Cannonball Run, Smokey and the Bandit and this one) and some of his worst (Stroker Ace and Cannonball Run II).  Needham also directed Megaforce, which didn’t feature Burt but which is still, in its own way, unforgettable.

Hal Needham (1931 — 2013)

The critics may not have loved the movies that Hal and Burt made together but audiences did.  Needham’s best films are just as entertaining today as they were when they were originally released.  They don’t demand much but they deliver everything you could possibly want.  Whenever the real world is getting to be overwhelming, I’m thankful that I can turn on a Hal Needham film and return to a world where the only thing that matters is driving fast, loving hard, and having a good laugh while you’re doing it.  Today, more than ever, the legacy of Hal Needham is just what we need.

The TSL’s Horror Grindhouse: Man on the Prowl (dir by Art Napoleon)


Man on the Prowl is a surprisingly intense film from 1957.

Doug Gerhardt (played by James Best) is an overly friendly young man with a pompadour and a quick smile.  Doug works as a deliveryman for a car dealership and he seems like a nice enough person.  He’s maybe a little bit goofy and, if you talked to him, you might think that he’s a little bit slow.  Still, it’s hard not to get caught up in his endless enthusiasm.  Doug is a very friendly man and he certainly does seem eager to help everyone that he meets.

Of course, Doug is also a sociopathic murderer.  He’s just been released from a mental hospital and, as we see when he strangles his date during the first few minutes of the movie, he’s still got some issues.  However, no one ever seems to really notice, just because he is so friendly and kind of dorky.  Even though his own mother (Vivi Janiss) tries to warn people that Doug is not well, most people just think that he’s a little bit eccentric.

When Doug nearly runs over Marian Wood (Mala Powers) and her son, Marian is not very happy with him.  Doug apologizes for driving too fast and he even insists on helping Marian carry in her groceries.  Marian goes from hating Doug to being somewhat forgiving of his reckless driving.  That’s the power of Doug’s charm.  He can go from nearly killing someone to making a new friend in just a matter of minutes.

Marian is married to Woody (Jerry Paris), though it’s not a particularly happy marriage.  Woody is always traveling on business, leaving Marian to take care of the house on her own.  Seeing an opening, Doug starts to casually drop by so that he can do things like help Marian fix the washing machine.  Of course, it’s hinted that Doug might be the one who broke the washing machine in the first place.  Doug is determined to replace Woody in Marian’s life.  When it turns out that Marian isn’t ready for husband to be replaced by a delivery boy (even if that delivery boy can fix a washing machine) …. well, Doug doesn’t take it well.

Man on the Prowl really took me by surprise.  For a film made in 1957, the story didn’t feel particularly dated, beyond a few things that couldn’t be helped.  (Doug’s pompadour comes to mind.)  If anything the film feels refreshingly honest in its willingness to admit that not all marriages are happy and not all wives are content with the idea of just sitting at home and waiting for their husband to return.  However, the thing that really took me by surprise was how Doug was portrayed.  Considering that the term “serial killer” wouldn’t be coined until 23 years after this film was originally released, Man on the Prowl is a surprisingly realistic portrayal of a serial killer.  Doug is someone who is empty on the inside but who keeps the world from noticing by deploying a charming smile and a friendly manner.  He’s Ted Bundy, decades before Bundy became a household symbol of evil.  As played by James Best, Doug is a very realistic and very frightening modern monster.

In many ways, Man on the Prowl is a prophetic film.  In 1957, someone like Doug was probably seen as being an aberration, a once-in-a-lifetime example of the natural order of things getting screwed up.  Now, however, we know that the world is full of Doug Gerhardts.  And we all feel a little less safe as a result.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Sounder (dir by Martin Ritt)


The 1972 film Sounder follows the Morgans, a family of black sharecroppers living in 1930s Louisiana.

When we first see Nathan Lee Morgan (Paul Winfield) and his young son, David Lee (Kevin Hooks), they’re hunting.  Accompanying them is their loyal dog, Sounder.  As they hunt, two things become very obvious.  Number one, David Lee is a good father who is doing his best to provide for his family under the most difficult circumstances possible.  Number two, the family is desperately poor.  When Nathan finally gives in to temptation and steals a ham to feed his family, the local Sheriff (James Best) shows up at the farmhouse the next day and arrests him.  Nathan is taken away to prison and one of the deputies even shoots Sounder.

Fortunately, Sounder survives and so do the Morgans.  Under the stern but loving leadership of their mother, Rebecca (Cicely Tyson), the Morgan children manage to bring in the season’s crops.  Unfortunately, having to work out in the fields doesn’t leave much time for David Lee to get an education.  When he does go to school, he and the other students listen as a middle-aged, white teacher reads to them from Huckleberry FInn.

After the wounded Sounder finally returns to the Morgan family and recovers from his wounds, David Lee decides that he wants to go to the prison and see his father.  Unfortunately, the sheriff refuses to even tell the family where Nathan has been incarcerated.  None of the white authority figures in town care that the Morgans are struggling or that they’ve managed to bring in the crops themselves.  None of them cares or seems to even understand that David Lee is missing his father.  The sheriff presents himself as being a reasonable man and is never heard to the use the n-word.  Instead, he and every other white person in town refers to David Lee as being “boy,” diminishing everything that he’s done since his father was arrested.

David Lee finally figures out the location of a prison that might (or might not) currently be housing his father.  It’s several miles away.  Accompanied by Sounder, David Lee sets out to make the long journey to the prison.  Along the way, he discovers another school and a far more empathetic teacher named Camille (Janet MacLachlan).  David Lee is forced to make a decision that will effect not only his future but also the future of his family.

Sounder is a heartfelt film.  It’s a film that’s less interested in telling a story with a traditional beginning and end as opposed to just sharing scenes of everyday life.  In this case, it’s the life of family that manages to survive despite it often seeming as if the entire world is arrayed against them.  The film was based on a book that pretty much centered around the dog.  The movie, on the other hand, is more about the family and, despite the fact that the film is still named after him, the dog is pretty much superfluous to the plot.  That said, Sounder still plays an important role because, just as Sounder survives being shot at and remains loyal to the people that he loves, the Morgans survive whatever adversity is tossed at them.  Watching the film, the viewer is very much aware that life is never going to be easy for the Morgans but, at the same time, it’s impossible not take some comfort in the fact that they have each other.  Paul Winfield and Cicely Tyson both give strong performances as the resilient Nathan Lee and Rebecca and the entire film is the type of movie that’ll inspire tears even as it inspires happiness.

At the Oscars, Sounder was nominated for Best Picture, where it provided a gentle contrast to the other nominees, Cabaret, Deliverance, The Emigrants, and The Godfather.  Paul Winfield and Cicely Tyson were nominated for Best Actor and Best Actress, making 1972 the first year in which black performers were nominated in both of the lead categories.  (It was also the first year in which more than one black actress was nominated for Best Actress as Tyson ended up competing with Lady Sings The Blues‘s Diana Ross.)  In the end, Tyson lost to Cabaret‘s Liza Minnelli while Winfield lost to The Godfather‘s Marlon Brando.  And, of course, The Godfather also went on to deservedly win the award for Best Picture.

Escape From Mayberry: Savages (1974, directed by Lee H. Katzin)


Ben (Sam Bottoms) is a gullible college student working at a gas station in the Mojave desert.  Horton Madec (Andy Griffith) is a wealthy attorney from Los Angeles who walks with a limp and who fancies himself a big game hunter.  Madec hires Ben to serve as his guide through the desert.  Madec says that he’s hunting a ram but instead, he ends up shooting and killing an old prospector.  Even after Madec offers to pay him off, Ben wants to go to the police.  Madec gives it some thought and decides to hunt Ben himself.

After forcing Ben to strip down to his shorts, Madec sets him loose in the desert.  As Ben tries to make his way back to civilization, Madec follows close behind and uses his rifle not to kill Ben but instead to keep him from drinking water or taking shelter from the sun.

Savages deserves to better known than it is.  The film does a good job of making you feel as if you’re trapped out in the desert with Ben, trying your damndest to survive while some maniac follows close behind, taunting you and refusing to allow you to get any relief.  Horton Madec is pure evil, a maniac who brags about how he can do anything he wants because he has money and he knows people.  That he’s played by Andy Griffith makes him even more dangerous because you know there’s no way anyone would believe that Andy Griffith took you out to the desert tried to kill you.

After playing the folksy and friendly Andy Taylor for nine seasons on The Andy Griffith Show, Griffith tried to leave Mayberry behind by taking on villainous roles in made-for-TV movies like this one and Pray For The Wildcats.  Though he actually started off his film career by playing a villain in A Face In The Crowd, it was still probably a shock for audiences in 1974 to turn on Savages and see Andy Griffith cruelly drinking a martini while another man nearly died of dehydration in front of him.  Griffith goes full psycho in the role of Horton Madec and is totally convincing.  (Of course, audiences preferred the folksy side of Griffith which is why, even after ten years straight of playing bad guys, Griffith still ended up starring in Matlock.)

Even though it’s Griffith’s show, Sam Bottom does okay in the role of Ben.  He has the right look for the character and that’s really all that the part requires.  For the majority of the movie, it’s just Griffith and Bottoms but eventually, James Best shows up as Sheriff Bert Williams.  Five years later, Best would achieve a certain immortality when he was cast as Sheriff Roscoe P. Coltrane on The Dukes of Hazzard.

Savages has never gotten an official DVD release but it can be viewed on YouTube, along with Griffith’s other villainous turn from 1974, Pray for the Wildcats.

Lonesome Cowboy: Randolph Scott in RIDE LONESOME (United Artists 1959)


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Randolph Scott and director Budd Boetticher  teamed again for RIDE LONESOME, their sixth of seven Westerns and fourth with writer Burt Kennedy. Scott’s a hard case bounty hunter bringing in a killer, joined in his trek by an old “acquaintance” with an agenda of his own. Everyone’s playing things close to the vest here, and the stark naked desert of Lone Pine’s Alabama Hills, with its vast emptiness, plays as big a part as the fine acting ensemble.

Ben Brigade (Scott) has captured the murderous Billy John and intends to bring him to justice in Santa Cruz. Coming to a waystation, he finds Sam Boone and his lanky young companion Whit, known outlaws who’ve heard the territorial governor is granting amnesty to whoever brings in Billy. Also at the station is Mrs. Crane, whose husband has been murdered by marauding Mescaleros. Sam’s interested in forming a partnership and taking Billy…

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Film Review: Ode to Billy Joe (dir by Max Baer, Jr.)


Why, on June 3rd, did Billie Joe McAllister jump off of the Tallahatchie Bridge in Mississippi?

That was the question that was asked in Ode to Billie Joe, a 1967 country song by Bobbie Gentry.  In the song, the details were deliberately left inconclusive.  Why did Billie Joe commit suicide?  No one knows.  All they know is that he was a good worker at the sawmill and, the weekend before jumping, he was seen standing on the bridge with a teenage girl and apparently, they dropped something down into the river below.  The song suggests that the girl and the narrator are one in the same but even that is left somewhat vague.

Ode to Billie Joe was a hit when it was first released, largely because it’s story could be interpreted in so many different ways.  Why did Billie Joe kill himself?  Maybe it was because he didn’t want to be drafted.  Maybe it was because he and his girlfriend had killed their baby and tossed it off the bridge.  Maybe it was because he was hooked on Dexedrine and his doctor wasn’t available to renew his prescription.  It could be any reason that you wanted it to be.

However, in 1976, when Ode to Billie Joe was turned into a movie, ambiguity would not do.  As opposed to the song, Ode To Billy Joe had to answer the question as to why Billy Joe jumped into that river.  In the movie, 18 year-old Billy Joe (Robby Benson) works at the sawmill and spends his time courting 15 year-old Bobbie Lee Hartley (Glynnis O’Connor).  Bobbie Lee’s father (Sandy McPeak) says that she’s too young to have a “gentleman caller,” even though Bobbie Lee insists that she’s “15 going on 34 … B cup!”  Bobbie Lee warns Billy Joe that her father is liable to shoot his ears off but Billy Joe insists that he doesn’t need ears because he’s in love with her.  That’s kind of a sweet sentiment, even though I don’t think Billy Joe would look that good without ears.

(Whenever I complain about how Southerners in the movies always seem to have two first names, my sister Erin replies, “Yeah, that’s really annoying, Lisa Marie.”  So, I won’t make a big deal about it this time…)

One night, Billy Joe and his friends go out and Billy Joe ends up getting drunk.  He disappears for several days and when he shows up again, something has definitely changed.  After unsuccessfully trying to make love to Bobbie Lee, Billy Joe tells her what happened that night he got drunk.  Billy Joe had sex with a man, something that he has been raised to view as being the ultimate sin.  When Billy Joe is later pulled out of the river, the entire town wonders why he jumped off the bridge and how Bobbie Lee was involved…

Ode to Billy Joe, which aired last Tuesday on TCM, is a better-than-average film, one that I was surprised to have never come across in the past.  That doesn’t mean that it’s a perfect movie. Robby Benson, in the role of Billy Joe, gives an absolutely terrible performance.  You can tell that Benson was trying really hard to do a good job but, often, he goes totally overboard, making scenes that should be poignant feel melodramatic.  Though it probably has more to do with when the film was made than anything else, the film is also vague about Billy Joe’s sexuality.  Is Billy Joe in denial about his identity?  Is he deeply closeted or was he in such a drunken stupor that he was taken advantage of?  Ode to Billy Joe does not seem to be sure.  By committing suicide, Billy Joe joins the ranks of gay movie characters who would rather die than accept their sexuality.  Obviously, he had to jump off that bridge because that’s what the song said he did but there’s a part of me that wishes the movie had featured someone commenting that they never actually found Billy Joe’s body and then the final scene could have taken place 16 years later, with Bobbie Lee living as a hippie in San Francisco and just happening to spot Billy Joe walking down the street, hand-in-hand with his boyfriend.

Here’s what does work about the movie.  Glynnis O’Connor gives a great and empathetic performance as Bobbie Lee.  The scenes with her father and her mother (played by Joan Hotchkis) have a very poignant and wonderful realness to them.  Though I’ll always be a city girl at heart (well, okay — a suburb girl), I spent some time in the country when I was growing up.  And while I was never quite as isolated as Bobbie Lee (who lives in a house with no electricity or plumbing) and the film took place in the past, I could still relate to many of Bobbie Lee’s experiences.  The film may have been made in 1976 and set in 1952 but life in the country hasn’t changed that much.

For instance, there’s this great scene where Bobbie Lee’s father is trying to drive across the bridge.  The only problem is that there’s a bunch of drunk shitkickers on the bridge, sitting in their pickup truck and blocking his way.  It’s a very tense scene, one that I found difficult to watch because, when I was growing up in Arkansas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and South Texas, I saw the exact same thing happen more times than I care to admit.  In the country, no one backs down.  Scenes like that elevated Ode To Billy Joe to being something more than just another movie based on a song.

Finally, there’s a beautiful scene towards the end of the film, between Bobbie Lee and a character played by an actor named James Best.  I won’t spoil the scene but it’s a master class in great acting.  (Best also played one of the sadistic villains in Rolling Thunder, another good 70s film about life and death in the country.)

Though I wasn’t expecting much from it, Ode to Billy Joe was a pleasant surprise.  It’s not perfect but it’s still worth watching.

Creature Double Feature: THE BLACK SCORPION (1957) and THE KILLER SHREWS (1959)


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Back in the glory days of local television, Boston’s WLVI-TV (Channel 56) ran a Saturday afternoon movie series titled “Creature Double Feature”. It was a huge ratings hit during the 1970’s, introducing young viewers to the BEM (bug-eyed monsters) movies of the past. Let’s return now to those halcyon days of yesterday with a look at two sci-fi flicks from the fabulous 50’s.

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First up is THE BLACK SCORPION, a 1957 giant monster movie from Warner Brothers. This low-budget saga starts off with stock footage of volcanos erupting and earthquakes a-quaking, and a hyperbolic narrator expounding on natural disasters threatening Mexico. Two brawny geologists, Hank and Artur, investigate the devastation. While out scouting they run into beautiful rancher Teresa Alvarez, whose vaqueros have fled the hacienda in fear. After getting them back on the ranch, our scientists attend an autopsy of a dead Mexican cop (the doctor performing the autopsy looks like he…

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Cleaning Out The DVR, Again #7: Rolling Thunder (dir by John Flynn)


I’m currently in the process of watching the 36 films that I’ve recorded on my DVR since March.  Last night, I was extremely excited as I looked up the 7th film on the DVR and I discovered that I was about to watch the 1977 revenge classic, Rolling Thunder!

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Among those of us who love old grindhouse and exploitation film, Rolling Thunder has achieved legendary status.  Based on a script by Paul Schrader (though I should point out that Schrader’s script was rewritten by Heywood Gould and Schrader himself has been very critical of the actual film) and directed by John Flynn, Rolling Thunder is quite literally one of the best revenge films ever made.  It’s also a great Texas film, taking place and filmed in San Antonio.  Quentin Tarantino has frequently cited Rolling Thunder as being one of his favorite films and he even used the name for his short-lived distribution company, Rolling Thunder Pictures.

Rolling Thunder also has one of the greatest trailers of all time.  In fact, if not for the trailer, I probably would never have set the DVR to record it off of Retroplex on March 25th.  The Rolling Thunder trailer is included in one of the 42nd Street Forever compilation DVDs and, from the minute I first watched it, I knew that Rolling Thunder was a film that I had to see.

Watch the trailer below:

Everything about that trailer — from the somewhat portentous narration at the beginning to the way that Tommy Lee Jones calmly says, “I’ll get my gear,” at the end, is pure genius.

But what about the film itself?  Well, having finally seen the film, I can say that Rolling Thunder is indeed a classic.  It’s also one of the most brutal films that I’ve ever seen, containing scenes of truly shocking and jarring violence.  In fact, the violence is so shocking that it’s also, at times, rather overwhelming.  This is one of those films that you will probably remember as being far more violent than it actually is.  Because, while Rolling Thunder features its share of shoot-outs and garbage disposal limb manglings, it’s actually a very deliberately paced character study.

When we first meet Maj. Charles Rane (William Devane), he’s sitting on a plane and looking down on San Antonio.  He’s in full military dress uniform.  Setting across from him, also in uniform, is John Vohden (Tommy Lee Jones).  The year is 1973 and Rane and Vohden have both just spent the past seven years as prisoners in a Vietnamese camp.  While they were prisoners, they were tortured every day.  Now, they’re returning home and neither one of them is quite sure what’s going to be waiting for them.

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Over the imdb, you can find a few complaints from people who feel that Rolling Thunder gets off to a slow start.  And it’s true that it takes over 30 minutes to get to the pivotal scene where Maj. Rane loses both his hand and his family.  But that deliberate pace is what makes Rolling Thunder more than just a revenge flick with a kickass name.  That first half-hour may seem to meander but what it’s actually doing is setting both Rane and Vohden up as strangers in their own country.

The film gets a lot of mileage out of comparing Rane to Vohden.  Rane is good with words.  When he gets off the plane, he gives a perfect (and perfectly empty) speech about how the whole war experience has made a better American out of him.  Rane knows how to fool people but it quickly becomes apparent that, on the inside, Rane feels empty.

Vohden, meanwhile, is not an articulate man.  He’s not invited to give a speech when the plane lands.  Vohden cannot fake the emotions that he does not feel.  At first, Rane and Vohden seem to be complete opposites (and the film wisely contrasts Jones’s trademark taciturn style of acting with Devane’s more expressive technique) but eventually, we learn that they’re actually two sides of the same coin.  Both of them have been left empty as a result of their wartime experiences and, in the end, Vohden is the only one who can truly understand what’s going on in Rane’s head while Rane is the only one who can understand Vohden.  When Rane needs help getting revenge, Vohden is the one that he turns to.  It’s not just because Vohden knows how to kill.  It’s also because John Vodhen is literally the only man to whom Charles Rane can relate.

Why does Rane need revenge?  After the local bank awards him with 2,000 silver dollars (“One silver dollar for every day you spent in the Hell of Hanoi!,” he is told at the presentation), Rane returns home to discover that a group of men have broken into his house.  One of them, known as the Texan (an absolutely chilling performance from James Best), demands that Rane tell them where the silver dollars are hidden.  When Rane responds by giving only his name, rank, and serial number, Slim (Luke Askew) reacts by forcing Rane’s arm into the kitchen sink and then turning on the garbage disposal.  (A scene was apparently shot that literally showed Rane’s hand getting ripped off by the garbage disposal but it was judged to be too graphic even for this grim little movie.)  Even as the disposal mangles Rane’s arm, Rane refuses to tell them where the money is.  Instead, he just flashes back to being tortured at the camp and we realize that Rane’s experiences have left him immune to pain.

Of course, the Texan doesn’t realize this.  Instead, he glares at Rane and mocks him by declaring him to be “one macho motherfucker.”

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When Rane’s wife and son walk in on the men, Slim and the Texan murder them and leave Rane for dead.  However, Charles Rane isn’t dead.  He survives but he claims that he can’t remember anything about the men who attacked him.  It’s only after Rane is released from the hospital and starts to practice firing a shotgun with the hook that has replaced his hand that we realize that Rane does remember.  Recruiting a local waitress who also happens to be an amateur beauty queen (Linda Haynes, giving the type of great performance that makes me wonder why I’ve never seen her in any move other than Rolling Thunder) to help, Rane sets out to track down “the men who killed my boy.”

Linda Hayes in Rolling Thunder, giving a great performance in a somewhat underdeveloped role

Linda Hayes in Rolling Thunder, giving a great performance in a somewhat underdeveloped role

It’s very telling that Rane continually says that he’s after the men who “killed my boy” but he never mentions his wife.  When Rane first arrived home, he had one conversation with his wife.  He complained that she had changed her hair and that she wasn’t wearing a bra.  “Nobody wears them anymore,” She replied before telling him that, during his seven year absence, she had fallen in love with another man, Cliff (Lawrason Driscoll).  And, up until she’s murdered by the Texan, that’s the last conversation that we see Rane have with his wife.  Rane still lives in the house and he still tries to talk to his son (even though his son seems more comfortable around Cliff than around Rane) but Rane becomes a stranger to his family.  While his wife sleeps in the house, Rane insists on staying out in the garage and continuing to go through the daily routine of calisthenics that he used to maintain his sanity while he was a prisoner.

(When Cliff asks Rane what it was like to be tortured, Rane literally forces Cliff to pull back on his arms in the same way that his Vietnamese captors had to.  As I watched these scenes, I was reminded that 2008 presidential candidate John McCain cannot lift his arms above his shoulders as a result of the torture he suffered while a POW.)

When Rane goes to El Paso to recruit Vohden for his mission of revenge, we notice that Vohden also appears to be incapable of speaking to his wife.  When Vohden leaves, he says goodbye to his father but not his wife.  It’s probably not a coincidence that, when Vohden and Rane find Slim and the Texan, they’re at a brothel, a place where men are in charge, women are subservient, and primal needs are satisfied without the risk of emotional attachment.  (It’s also probably not a coincidence that Slim is also identified as having recently returned from Vietnam.  He complains that, unlike Rane and Vohden, he was never captured by the enemy and, as a result, he didn’t get a parade when he came back home.)  Rolling Thunder is a film about emotionally stunted men who are incapable of interacting in any way other than violence.  By the end of the film, you’re left wondering whether Rane’s mission was about revenge or about his own need to destroy.

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And what an ending!  When I say that the violence in Rolling Thunder is overwhelming, I’m talking about two scenes in particular.  There’s the scene where Rane loses his hand and watches as The Texan casually executes his wife and son.  And then there’s the ending.  The final shootout was quick but it was also so brutal that I was literally shaking by the end of it.

(The scenes leading up the final shootout also featured one of the few humorous moments to be found in this otherwise grim film.  When Vohden — who is inside the brothel with a prostitute — starts to put his rifle together, the prostitute asks him what he’s doing.  “Oh,” Vohden says, in that perfectly weary way that only Tommy Lee Jones can do, “just going to kill a bunch of folks.”)

I mentioned earlier that Paul Schrader is reportedly not a fan of Rolling Thunder.  Apparently, in his original script, Charles Rane was portrayed as being a poorly educated racist, a bit of a prototype for the character that Robert De Niro played in Taxi Driver.  Ranes’s final rampage was meant to be an example of the war in Vietnam coming home and it was made much clearer that Rane’s violence was as much fueled by his own racism as by a desire for revenge.  Schrader has said that his anti-fascist script was turned into a fascist movie.

A scene from Paul Schrader's original script

A scene from Paul Schrader’s original script

With all due respect to Mr. Schrader (who I think is a very underrated filmmaker), Rolling Thunder is anything but a fascist movie.  Instead, it’s a brutal and somewhat disturbing character study of a man who will never truly escape the war in which he fought.  The fact that Rane is played by super smooth William Devane (as opposed to the redneck that Schrader apparently envisioned) only serves to make the film’s critique of hyper masculinity all the more disturbing.  It’s interesting to note that, on their own, Rane and Vohden are never presented as being particularly likable or heroic.  Instead, we root for them because the people who have hurt them are even worse.

This was how Schrader envisioned Johnny and Rane.

This was how Schrader envisioned Johnny and Rane.

Though it may be far different from what Paul Schrader originally envisioned, John Flynn’s Rolling Thunder is a film that works on every level.  It is both a visceral revenge film and a character study of a disturbed man.  It’s a powerful film that will leave you shaken and it’s one that I will probably never erase from my DVR.

There are some movies that you just don’t dare delete.

Rolling Thunder is one of those movies.

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Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: The Caine Mutiny (dir by Edward Dmytryk)


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It’s the 1940s and World War II is raging.  The U.S. Navy is model of military discipline and efficiency.  Well, except for the U.S.S. Caine, that is.  The Caine is something of a disorganized mess, where no one takes his job seriously and sailors have names like Meatball (Lee Marvin) and Horrible (Claude Akins).  The men love Lt. Commander DeVriess (Tom Tully), largely because he has given up on trying to enforce any sort of discipline.  However, DeVriess has recently been relieved of his command.  As he leaves, Meatball gives him a new watch, a gift from all the men.  DeVriess admonishes them, snapping that the gift is violation of Naval regulations.  He then puts the watch on his wrist and leaves the ship.

DeVriess’s replacement is Captain Francis Queeg and, at first, we have reason to be hopeful because Captain Queeg is being played by Humphrey Bogart.  Surely, if anyone can get this ship into shape, it’ll be Humphrey Bogart!  From the moment he arrives, Queeg announces that he’s going to enforce discipline on the Caine and if that means spending hours yelling at a man for not having his shirt tucked in, that’s exactly what Queeg is prepared to do.  However, it also quickly becomes apparent that the awkward Queeg has no idea how to talk to people.  He is also overly sensitive and quick to take offense.  Whenever Queeg makes a mistake (and he does make a few), he’s quick to blame everyone else.

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Realizing that the men are turning against him, Queeg even begs his officers for their help.  He asks them if they have any suggestions.  They all sit silently, their heads bowed as Queeg somewhat poignantly rambles on about how his wife and his dog both like him but the crew of the Caine does not.

Queeg’s officers are a diverse bunch, none of whom are quite sure what to make of Queeg or the state of the Caine.  Ensign Willie Keith (Robert Francis) is a wealthy graduate of Princeton University who, at first, likes Queeg but quickly comes to doubt his abilities.  On the other hand, Lt. Steve Marsyk (Van Johnson) has doubts about Queeg from the start but, as a career Navy man, his natural instinct is to respect the chain of command above all else.

And then there’s Lt. Tom Keefer (Fred MacMurray).  Keefer is a self-styled intellectual, a novelist who is always quick with a snarky comment and a cynical observation.  (If The Caine Mutiny were remade as a B-horror film, Lt. Keefer’s name would probably be Lt. Sardonicus.)  From the minute the viewers meet Lt. Keefer, our inclination is to like him.  After all, he seems to be the only person in the film who has a sense of humor.  If we had to pick someone to have dinner with, most of us would definitely pick the erudite Tom Keefer over the humorless and socially awkward Francis Queeg.  As such, when Keefer starts to suggest that Queeg might be mentally unstable, our natural impulse is to agree with him.

It’s Tom Keefer who first suggests that it may be necessary to take the command away from Queeg.  And yet, when it comes time to take action, it’s Keith and Marsyk who do so while Keefer stands to the side and quietly watches.  And, once the Caine arrives back in the U.S., it Keith and Marsyk who are court martialed.  Will they be found guilty of treason or will their lawyer, Lt. Barney Greenwald (Jose Ferrer), prove that Queeg was unfit for command?

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Made in 1954 and based on a novel by Herman Wouk, The Caine Mutiny is one of those big and glossy 1950s productions that holds up a lot better than you might expect.  The film has its flaws.  In the role of Keith, Robert Francis is a bit on the dull side and a subplot in which he courts May Wynn feels unneccessary and only serves to distract from the main story.  But, for the most part, it’s an intelligent and well-directed film.  Humphrey Bogart turns Queeg into a pathetic and lonely figure and you can’t help but feel sorry for him when he talks about how his dog loves him.  Van Johnson also does well as Marsyk, effectively portraying a well-meaning character who is in over his head.  Jose Ferrer gets a great drunk scene at the end of the film and, of course, you can’t go wrong with Lee Marvin as a smirking sailor, even if Marvin only appears for a handful of minutes.

Fred MacMurray The Caine Mutiny

But for me, my favorite character (and performance) was Fred MacMurray’s Tom Keefer.  Technically, Keefer is not meant to be a likable character.  He’s totally passive aggressive.  He’s pretentious.  He’s smug.  At times, he’s rather cowardly.  And yet, Tom Keefer remains the most memorable and interesting character in the entire film.  He gets all of the good one-lines and MacMurray delivers them with just the right amount of barely concealed venom.  (“If only the strawberries were poisoned…” he says as he considers dinner aboard the Caine.)  It’s a great role and Fred MacMurray gives a great performance.  And you know what?  I don’t care how bad a character he may have been.  I still want to read Tom Keefer’s book!

The Caine Mutiny was nominated for best picture of 1954.  However, it lost to On The Waterfront.

Otis, Roscoe, and Roy Sullivan


We lost three talented character actors this week.

Tom Towles Tom Towles (March 20, 1950–April 5, 2015) may have never been a household name but he  was well-known to horror fans.  In Rob Zombie’s House of a 1,000 Corpses, he played George Wydell, the gruff deputy who was executed by Karen Black’s Mama Firefly.  In Tom Savini’s underrated remake of Night of the Living Dead, he took over the role of Harry Cooper and was executed by Patricia Tallman’s Barbara.

However, he was best known for playing the loathsome Otis in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.  Taken under the wing of serial killer Henry (Michael Rooker), Otis is such an enthusiastic and depraved student that even Henry grows disgusted with him. Based on real-life murderer Ottis Toole, Otis is one of the most disgusting and plausible of movie psychos.  Playing a stupid character, Towles gave a very intelligent performance.

Before being cast as Otis, Towles served in the Marines and was active in Chicago theater.  He died in Florida, of a massive stroke.

James BestJames Best (July 26th, 1926–April 6th, 2015) played many different roles but he will always be best known as Sheriff Roscoe P. Coltrane of Hazzard County.  Born in Kentucky, Best proudly served in World War II and started acting in 1950.  For the first part of his career, he played cowboys, soldiers, outlaws, and sidekicks.  In The Twilight Zone episode “The Last Rites of Jeff Myrtlebank,” he played a country boy who came back to life in the middle of his funeral.  On The Andy Griffith Show, he played guitar player Jim Lindsey.  He showed his versatility in films like Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor and Max Baer’s Ode To Billy Joe.

Most people know him for his role on The Dukes of Hazzard.  For 6 years, Best played Roscoe P. Coltrane and his performance has lived on and been rediscovered in endless syndicated reruns.  Roscoe was forever in “hot pursuit,” chasing the Duke boys with his basset hound, Flash, sitting in the car beside him.  Roscoe never came close to catching the Dukes but he never stopped trying.  There was nothing subtle about Best’s performance but it was perfect for The Dukes of Hazzard.

James Best was also a painter and a respected acting coach, as well as an early mentor to Quentin Tarantino.  He passed away at the age of 88 from pneumonia.

Geoffrey LewisGeoffrey Lewis (July 31st, 1935–April 7th, 2015) began his career in 1970 and, at the time of his passing, he had over 200 credited roles to his name.  With a face that could either be friendly or threatening depending on how it was lit, Lewis played truck drivers and senators, criminals and lawyers, good old boys and corporate businessmen.  Lewis was the epitome of a character actor, never quite a star but making even the smallest of roles memorable.

He was a favorite of Clint Eastwood’s and appeared in seven films with him.  In Every Which Way But Loose and Any Which Way You Can, he played Orville and stole scenes from not only Clint Eastwood and Ruth Gordon but from Clyde the Orangutan as well.  More recently, he brought tragic dignity to the role of Roy Sullivan in Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects.

Rest in peace, good gentlemen.