An Offer You Can Refuse #4: The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight (dir by James Goldstone)


“Oh, fuck you.”

That was my reaction, last night, as I watched the 1971 film, The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight.  I was talking to my DVR and yes, I was cursing quite a bit.  You know that a film has to be bad when it actually drives me to start cursing at an inanimate object.  The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight was so bad that I actually got pissed off at my DVR for recording it.  It’s true that I am the one who scheduled the recording but still …. my DVR should have known better than to listen to me!

What is The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight about?  I have no idea.  I watched the damn movie and I have no idea what the point of it was.  The film stars Jerry Orbach as a low-level gangster named Kid Sally.  Kid Sally’s crew — the Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight — is made up of a collection of malcontents, morons, and other stereotypes.  One member of the crew is a little person.  That’s the joke.  He’s a tough gangster who is wiling to put a bullet between your legs but that’s just because he’s crotch-height.  Ha ha.

Anyway, the big boss is a guy named Baccala (Lionel Stander).  Every morning, Baccala’s wife starts the car to check for bombs.  Whenever she goes outside, Baccala crawls underneath the kitchen table and waits.  Like a lot of the stuff in this movie, that’s one of those things that would be funny if it hadn’t been taken too such a cartoonish extreme.  Anyway, Baccala has zero respect for Kid Sally and Kid Sally wants to take over Baccala’s rackets.  Is it time for a mob war!?

Maybe.  A lot of people die in various “amusing” ways over the course of the film but I was never quite sure whether or not the killings were part of a mob war or if they were just the type of random mishaps that occur when a bunch of dumbasses get their hands on a cache of weapons.  Trying to follow the plot of The Gang Who Couldn’t Shoot Straight is next to impossible.  The editing of the film is so ragged that you’re rarely aware of how one scene relates to another.  If The Godfather showed how a gangster story could be a historical epic and if Goodfellas showed how an editor could recreate the kinetic experience of being a gangster, The Gang Who Couldn’t Shoot Straight shows how a mafia movie can just be a collection of random vignettes that may or may not be connected.  It’s impossible to care about the potential war between Kid Sally and Baccala because neither Kid Sally nor Baccala exist as characters beyond their silly names.

A young Robert De Niro is in this film.  He plays Mario, an Italian thief who comes to New York for a bicycle race and joins Kid Sally’s crew.  Or at least, I think he joins the crew.  It’s hard to tell.  Mario often dresses like a priest, for some reason.  He’s also fallen in love with Angela (Leigh Taylor-Young), who is Kid Sally’s sister though she could just as easily be his cousin or maybe his daughter-in-law from Tuscon.  I wouldn’t necessarily say that De Niro gives a good performance here as much as it’s just impossible not to pay attention to him because he’s a young Robert De Niro.  He and Leigh Taylor-Young do have a very sincere and touching chemistry but it’s out-of-place in a film that’s dominated by slapstick and scenes of Kid Sally using a lion to intimidate shop owners.  (Yes, that happens.)  De Niro certainly seems to be trying hard to give a good performance but he’s not a natural comedian.  Of course, you don’t need me to tell you that.  FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, WE’VE ALL SEEN DIRTY GRANDPA!

Anyway, the main problem with this film is that it’s a comedy that was apparently put together by people who think that comedy involves a lot of screaming and silly music.  I’ve actually seen a handful of other films that were directed by James Goldstone — Brother John, Rollercoaster, When Time Ran Out.  Significantly, none of those other films were comedies and there’s nothing about any of Goldstone’s other films that suggest that he was anything more than a director-for-hire.  The film itself was written by Waldo Salt, who also worked on the scripts for Midnight Cowboy, Coming Home, and Serpico.  Again, none of those films are particularly funny.  70s era Mel Brooks probably could have made this into a funny film but James Goldstone and Waldo Salt could not.

As bad as The Gang Who Couldn’t Shoot Straight is, it is also the answer to a very interesting trivia question.  This is the film that Al Pacino dropped out of when he was cast as Michael Corleone in The Godfather.  The actor who replaced Pacino was Robert De Niro.

Anyway, The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight is an offer you can refuse.

Previous Offers You Can’t (or Can) Refuse:

  1. The Public Enemy
  2. Scarface
  3. The Purple Gang

Embracing the Melodrama #31: When Time Ran Out (dir by James Goldstone)


If I had been alive in the 70s, I would have been terrified if I had ever found myself in the same general location of Paul Newman, William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Red Buttons, Jacqueline Bisset, or Burgess Meredith.  Just based on the movies that they spent that decade appearing in, it would appear that disaster followed them everywhere.

Just consider:

Both Paul Newman and William Holden were trapped in The Towering Inferno. 

Ernest Borgnine and Red Buttons both ended up taking an unexpected Poseidon Adventure together.

Jacqueline Bisset was a flight attendant in the first Airport and nearly got killed by a mad bomber.

And finally, Burgess Meredith was a passenger on The Hindenburg.

Seriously, that’s a dangerously disaster-prone bunch of thespians!

So imagine how terrifying it must have been on the set of the 1980 film When Time Ran Out when all 6 of those actors — along with a lot of other disaster film veterans — were first gathered in one place.  People were probably running for their lives, both on-screen and off.

Lava3

When Time Ran Out takes place on an island in the South Pacific.  Shelby Gilmore (William Holden, playing yet another ruthless but essentially good-hearted businessman) owns a luxury resort that happens to be sitting dangerously close to an active volcano.  Oil rigger Hank Anderson (Paul Newman) is convinced that the volcano is about to erupt but Shelby’s son-in-law, Bob Spangler (James Franciscus), refuses to listen and claims that even if the volcano does blow, the resort will be safe.

(As a sidenote, why were William Holden’s son-in-laws always too blame in disaster movies?  First, you had Richard Chamberlain in The Towering Inferno and now, it’s James Franciscus in When Time Ran Out…)

Suspended over a volcano

Suspended over a volcano

You can just look at the film’s title (When Time Ran Out!) and guess that Bob is probably wrong.  However, Bob has other things on his mind.  First off, he’s cheating on his neurotic wife (Veronica Hamel) with a native islander (Barbara Carrera) who happens to be married to the hotel’s general manager, Brian (Edward Albert).  Brian also happens to be Bob’s half-brother and is therefore owed at least half of Bob’s fortune but nobody but Bob realizes that.

And, of course, there are other colorful guests at the hotel who will soon find themselves either fleeing from or drowning in molten lava.  There’s a white-collar criminal (Red Buttons) who is being pursued by a detective from New York (Ernest Borgnine, of course).  There’s also two retired tightrope walkers (Burgess Meredith and Valentina Cortese) and you better believe that there’s going to be a scene where one of them is going to have to walk across a plank that happens to be suspended over a river a lava…

Told ya!

Told ya!

Eventually, that volcano does erupt and…well, let’s just say that When Time Ran Out is no Towering Inferno as far as the special effects are concerned.  The scene where one random fireball flies out of the volcano and heads for the resort is particularly amusing for all the wrong reasons.  Not only does the volcano apparently have perfect aim but it’s also painfully obvious that the fireball is streaking across a matte painting.  This is the type of film where, when people plunge into a river lava, they do so with heavy lines visible around their flailing bodies.  That, along with the cast’s obvious lack of interest in the material, adds up to make When Time Ran Out a film that is memorable for being so ultimately forgettable.

The Horror!

The Horror!

(It’s odd to consider that this film was directed by the same James Goldstone who directed such memorable films as Rollercoaster and Brother John.)

When Time Ran Out is something of a historical oddity because it was the last of the old 70s all-star disaster films.  (This may have been released in 1980 but it’s a 70s film through and through.)  The movie was such a monumental failure at the box office that it pretty much ended an era of disaster films.

For that reason, it also feels like an appropriate film with which to close out the 70s.  Tomorrow, we’ll continue to embrace the melodrama with the 1980s.

when time

 

A Death-Defying Quickie With Lisa Marie: Rollercoaster (dir by James Goldstone)


Recently, despite my longstanding fear of heights and my refusal to ever ride one in real life, I watched a film called Rollercoaster.  First released in 1977, Rollercoaster recently made its debut on TCM.  I was hesitant about watching it but then Robert Osborne assured me that it was an entertaining film and, seriously, who can say no to Robert Osborne?

An unnamed bomber (Timothy Bottoms) is going from amusement park to amusement park and blowing up roller coasters.  He wants money and, even more importantly, he wants the money to be delivered to him by safety inspector Harry Caulder (George Segal).  Will the FBI back off long enough for Harry to deal with the bomber?  Will the bomber ever smile?  Finally, will Harry be able to save the day while, at the same time, trying to quit smoking and bond with his daughter?

Roller Coaster is about 30 minutes too long and it’s never quite as exciting as it should be.  My mind kept wandering during the climax, which is not a good thing when the film is supposed to be a race against time.  However, at the same time, when taken on its own dated terms, Roller Coaster is a lot of fun.  Even if director James Goldstone (who also directed the far more surreal Brother John) struggles a bit with keeping the action moving at a steady pace, he still directs with a good eye for detail and gets good performances out of the majority of the film’s cast.

Since I best know George Segal for playing cantankerous father figures on about a thousand different sitcoms, it took me a few minutes to get used to the idea that he was the main character here.  While Segal does have several funny lines in Rollercoaster, he is also totally convincing and likable as the film’s hero.  Timothy Bottoms is equally convincing as the unnamed bomber.  The fact that we learn little about the bomber’s motivations or background just serve to make Bottoms’s cold performance all the more chilling.

As for the supporting cast, Henry Fonda is the biggest distraction, snarling his way through his role as Segal’s jerk of a boss.  Oddly enough, Fonda showed up in a lot of disaster films in the 70s, usually playing authority figures and usually only appearing in two or three scenes.  Whenever Henry Fonda shows up in a film like this, overacting and looking somewhat humiliated, it’s best just to close your eyes and think of 12 Angry Men and then realize that even great actors sometimes just needed a paycheck.  Richard Widmark is far more convincing, playing the stuffy FBI agent who doesn’t have much use for George Segal.  Finally, for those of you who enjoy spotting future Oscar nominees in unlikely roles, 13 year-old Helen Hunt makes her film debut here as Segal’s daughter, who just wants to ride the rollercoaster one time.

Ultimately, the best recommendation that I can give to Rollercoaster is to say that it’s a quintessentially 70s films and hence, it’s a piece of history.  Not only is the film full of 70s fashion, 70s hair, and 70s stereotypes (just check out the long-haired teenagers joking about getting high while unknowingly sitting on top of a bomb) but the film also features a performance from a band called Sparks that is so 70s that the cast of Dazed and Confused might as well have been watching them in the audience and going, “Alright, alright, alright…”

(I have to admit that I had never heard of Sparks before I saw this film.  I looked them up on Wikipedia and I discovered that not only is the band still performing but that the lead singer claims that appearing in Rollercoaster was the band’s biggest regret.  Personally, I think he’s being too hard on both the band and the film.  Sure, they seem painfully out-of-place but I dare anyone to get the borderline annoying sound of “Big Boy” out of their head.)

For those of us who were born a few decades too late to experience it firsthand, Rollercoaster is our chance to spend two hours living in the 70s.

Film Review: Brother John (dir by James Goldstone)


Yesterday, while I was out running, I tripped over an invisible rock (at least I think it was an invisible rock) and I twisted my ankle. My first impulse was to check to see if I was being chased by zombies since I’ve learned from movies that anytime a woman sprains her ankle, there has to be either zombies or a masked killer somewhere nearby. Fortunately, movies are not real life. Anyway, I’m staying home from work today, trying to rest and stay off my ankle — which means going against every naturally hyper instinct in my body.

Fortunately, I’ve got thousands of movies, a lot of books, and a TV to help comfort me as I spend the day on the couch.  (I also have the sound of my landlord’s son mowing the lawn outside.)   Earlier this morning, as I was exploring everything that television has to offer, I came across a channel called Bounce TV and a movie called Brother John.

Up until I randomly came across it on Bounce TV, I had never heard of Brother John.  A quick google search hinted that I probably wasn’t alone in that.  Brother John appears to be a rather obscure film.

And that’s a shame because, as I quickly discovered, Brother John is actually a pretty interesting film.

Released in 1971, Brother John takes place in a small town in Alabama.  The majority of the town’s black citizens work at the local factory, where they are exploited by the white owners and kept in check by the white sheriff (who, as played by Ramon Bieri, is the epitome of the nightmarish Southern law enforcer).  When the workers, under the leadership of the charismatic Charlie Gray (Lincoln Kilkpatrick), threaten to unionize, the town finds itself on the verge of exploding into racial violence.

Into all of this comes John Kane (Sidney Poitier).  Wearing a dark suit and viewing the world through weary eyes, John grew up in the town.  The local doctor and town drunk Doc Thomas (Will Geer) can still remember delivering John.  However, John mysteriously vanished when he was a teenager.  As Doc Thomas points out, John only returns after someone dies.  In this case, it was the funeral of John’s sister that led to him returning to town.

This time, however, John doesn’t leave immediately after the funeral.  Instead, he spends a few days in the town and dates a school teacher (Beverly Todd).  The authorities — led by Doc Thomas’s politically ambitious son, Lloyd (Bradford Dillman) — are convinced that John is a labor agitator who has come to town to start trouble.  Meanwhile, the factory workers (including Todd’s ex-boyfriend, played by Paul Winfield) are angered by John’s reticent nature.

After having John arrested, Lloyd discovers, from looking at John’s passport, that John has been all over the world, even to communist countries that should be closed to American citizens.  He discovers that John carries a journal that’s full of empty pages.  When he asks John how he managed to learn a dozen different languages, John replies, “I listened.”  Lloyd thinks John is a communist.  Doc Thomas, meanwhile, is convinced that John is something more than just a human being…

Who is Brother John?  That’s the question that everyone’s asking in this film.  It’s a question that the film never answers.  Instead, it’s up to the audience to consider the enigmatic clues offered up in this film and come to their own conclusions.

And that is why I enjoyed Brother John.  It’s a film that encourages the audience to think for itself.  Featuring an excellent performance from a perfectly cast Sidney Poitier and plenty of moody Southern atmosphere, Brother John is a great discovery waiting to be found.

brother-john-movie-poster-1971-1020235424