Julius Caesar (1970, directed by Stuart Burge)


In ancient Rome, under the direction of Cassius (Richard Johnson), several members of the Senate conspire to kill Julius Caesar (John Gielgud), believing that his death is the only way to preserve the Republic.  Even Caesar’s longtime friend, Brutus (Jason Robards), is brought into the conspiracy.  Unfortunately for the conspirators, after Caesar’s murder, Mark Antony (Charlton Heston) gives his famous speech asking the Romans to lend him their ears and the Roman citizens turn against Caesar’s murderers and instead look to Antony and Octavius (Richard Chamberlain) to lead them.

This was the first adaptation of William Shakespeare’s play to be filmed in color and the assassination of Caesar was portrayed much more graphically than in previous productions.  By the end of the attack, Caesar has been stabbed so many times and there’s so much blood on screen that it doesn’t seem like he should even have the strength to say, “Et tu, Brute?”  Despite the then-modern innovations, this version still feels creaky and stiff.  When Caesar makes his appearance on the Ides of March, all of the conspirators actually stand in a neat line while Caesar enters the Senate.  When Mark Anthony and Brutus make their speeches, the extras playing the Roman citizens looked bored and disinterested.

For most viewers, the appeal of this version of Julius Caesar will be for the cast, which was considered to be all-star in 1970.  Along with Gielgud, Robards, Heston, Johnson, and Chamberlain, the cast also features Robert Vaughn as Casca, Christopher Lee as Artemidorous, Jill Bennett as Calpurnia, and Diana Rigg as Portia.  Surprisingly, it’s Jason Robards, the Broadway veteran, who struggles with Shakespeare’s dialogue, delivering his lines flatly and without much emotion.  Meanwhile, Charlton Heston steals the entire film as Mark Antony, nailing Antony’s funeral oration and proving himself to be much more clever than the conspirators had originally assumed.  (Of course, Mark Antony was the Charlton Heston of his day so I guess it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that Heston is perfect in the role.)  I also liked Diana Rigg’s performance in the small role of Portia and Robert Vaughn’s devious interpretation of Casca.

Though he plays Caesar here, John Gielgud previously played Cassius in the 1953 version of Julius Caesar, the one with James Mason and Marlon Brando.  That is still the version to watch if you want to see the definitive adaptation of Julius Caesar.

Film Review: The Day After (dir by Nicholas Meyer)


“This is Lawrence. This is Lawrence, Kansas. Is anybody there? Anybody at all?”

The words of Joe Huxley (John Lithgow) hang over the ending of The Day After, a 1983 film that imagines what the aftermath of a nuclear war would be like not on the East or the West Coasts but instead in the rural heartland of America.  Huxley is a professor at the University of Kansas and, as he explains early on in the film, Kansas would be an automatic target in any nuclear war because it houses a number of missile silos.  When he explains that, it’s in an almost joking tone, largely because the missiles haven’t been launched yet.  Instead, the only thing we’ve heard are a few barely noticed news stories about growing tensions between America and Russia.  About halfway through The Day After, the bombs go off and there are suddenly no more jokes to be made.

When the bombs drop over Kansas, we watch as cities and field and people burst into flames.  In a matter of minutes, several thousands are killed.  I’m almost ashamed to admit that I was probably more upset by the image of a horse being vaporized than I was by the death of poor Bruce Gallatin (Jeff East), the college student who was planning on marrying Denise Dahlberg (Lori Lethin).  I guess it’s because horses — really, all animals — have nothing to do with the conflicts between nations.  Humans are the ones who take the time to build bigger and better weapons and The Day After is one of the few films about war that’s willing to acknowledge that, when humans fight, it’s not just humans that die.

The bombing sequence is lengthy and I have to admit that I was a bit distracted by the fact that I recognized some of the footage from other movies.  A scene of panicked people running through a building was taken from Two-Minute Warning.  A scene of a building exploding and a construction worker being consumed by flames was lifted from Meteor.  As well, there’s some stock footage which should be familiar to anyone who has ever seen a documentary about the early days of the Cold War.  Still, despite that, it’s an effective sequence simply because it’s so relentless.  Some of the film’s most likable characters are vaporized before our eyes.  Steve Guttenberg, of all people, is seen ducking into a store.

Guttenberg plays Stephen Klein, a pre-med student who manages to survive the initial attack and takes shelter with the Dahlberg family at their ranch.  At first, it’s a bit distracting to see Steve Guttenberg in a very serious and very grim film about the nuclear apocalypse but he does a good job.  The sight of him losing both his teeth and his hair carries a punch precisely because he is reliably goofy Steve Guttenberg.

If the film has a star, it’s probably Jason Robards, the doctor who witnesses the initial blast from the safety of his car and then treats the dying in Lawrence, Kansas.  He does so, despite the fact that he doesn’t know if his wife, son, and daughter are even still alive.  He continues to do so until he also falls ill with radiation poisoning.  Knowing that he’s dying, he heads home just to discover that there is no home to return to.

Home is reccuring theme throughout The Day After.  Everyone wants to return to their home but everyone’s home has been wiped out.  “This is my home,” Jim Dahlberg (John Cullum) tries to explain before he’s attacked by a group of feral nomads.  Home no longer exists and trying to pretend like life can go back to the way it once was is an often fatal mistake.

Real happy film, right?  Yeah, this isn’t exactly a film that you watch for fun.  I have to admit that I made a joke about how I wouldn’t want to die while wearing the unfortunate blue jumpsuit that Jason Robards’s daughter chooses to wear on the day of the nuclear attack and I felt guilty immediately.  (Well, not that guilty.  Seriously, it was a terrible fashion choice.)  The Day After is a film that gives audiences zero hope by design.  It was made at a time when it was generally assumed that nuclear was inevitable and it was designed to scare the Hell out of everyone watching.  And while I can’t attest to how audience may have reacted in 1983, I can say that, in 2020, it’s still a powerful and disturbing film.

“Is anybody there? Anybody at all?” Joe Huxley asks and by the end of the film, the answer doesn’t matter.  The damage has already been done.

Fools (1970, directed by Tom Gries)


What the Hell, 1970?

In this self-conciously hip and with-it portrait of life in San Francisco at the tail end of the hippie era, Jason Robards plays Matthew South, a veteran B-movie actor who is fed up with everyday life and who is prone to long monologues about how the machines are taking over.  (Just imagine how Matthew would feel about the world today.)  When Matthew gets into an argument with two people in a park, Anais Appleton (Katharine Ross) comes to his rescue and soon, they’re in the middle of a falling in love montage.  Actually, there are several falling in love montages and they’re almost all scored by Kenny Rogers and the First Edition.  It’s easy listening with a hippie tinge.

Fools follows Matthew and Anais as they wander around San Francisco and have several strange encounters, none of which make much sense.  For instance, there’s a scene where two FBI agents suddenly burst into the room and then admit that they’re at the wrong address.  Why is that scene there?  What does it mean?  Later, Matthew and Anais go to a dentist and they listen to a patient try to seduce her psychiatrist (who is played by Mako).  Why is that scene there?  What does any of it mean?  Everywhere that Matthew and Anais go, they see evidence that society is dumb and that the answer to all life’s problems is a love song from Kenny Rogers.  Matthew never stops talking and Anais never stops looking pretty (she’s Katharine Ross after all) but neither ever becomes a strong enough character to ground Fools in any sort of reality.  It’s a movie that preaches nonconformity while so closely imitating A Thousand Clowns and Petulia that the entire thing feels like plagiarism.

Anais has a husband, an emotionally distant lawyer named David (Scott Hylands).  David isn’t prepared to let Anais leave him, no matter how tired she is of their marriage.  He hires a detective to follow Anais around.  It all leads to an act of violence that doesn’t fit the mood of anything that’s happened before.  Cue another falling love montage before the end credits role.

Fools is one of those films that probably would never have been made without the success of Easy Rider.  Everyone wanted a piece of the counterculture in 1970 and Fools tries so hard that it’s painful to watch.  Of course, neither Matthew nor Anais are really hippies.  They do eventually come across some hippies playacting in the street.  One of them is played by future David Lynch mainstay Jack Nance so that’s pretty cool.  Otherwise, Fools deserves to stay in 1970.

 

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.

 

The TSL’s Grindhouse: A Boy And His Dog (dir by L.Q. Jones)


(Nearly every Saturday night, the Late Night Movie Gang and I watch a movie.  On January 20th, we watched the 1975 science fiction satire, A Boy and His Dog.)

A Boy and His Dog begins, quite literally, with a bang.  A bang followed by a mushroom cloud.  And then a second mushroom cloud.  And then another.  And another.  When the explosions finally stop, we are informed that World War IV only lasted five days.  Of course, it destroyed most of society.  The year is now 2024 and … well, things aren’t great.

(For those of you keeping track, that means we’ve got another six years left.  Enjoy them!)

The world is now a barren wasteland, an endless stretch of desert.  There are a handful of survivors but they’re not exactly the types who you would want to survive an apocalypse.  Take Vic, for instance.  Vic (played by Don Johnson) is an absolute moron.  He can’t read.  He’s not very good at thinking.  He has no conscience.  He’s someone who kills and rapes without giving it a second thought.  When Vic isn’t scavenging for food and supplies, he’s obsessing on sex.  When we first meet him, the only thing redeeming about Vic is that almost everyone else in the world is even worse than he is.

That Vic has managed to survive for as long as he has is something of a minor miracle.  Vic has been lucky enough to team up with a dog named Blood.  Blood is not only surprisingly intelligent but he’s also telepathic.  Unfortunately, the same experiment that granted him telepathy also caused him to lose his instinct as a hunter.  So, Blood and Vic have an arrangement.  Vic keeps Blood supplied with food and Blood helps Vic track down women.

Blood’s voice is provided by actor Tim McIntire and, from the minute we first hear him, it becomes obvious that Blood may be cute on the outside but, on the inside, it’s a totally different story.  Blood rarely has a good word for anyone or anything.  He delights in annoying Vic, calling him “Albert” while still demanding that Vic get him food.  He’s a surprisingly well-read dog but you wouldn’t necessarily want to get stuck in a kennel with him.  Much as with Vic, Blood’s only redeeming trait is that everyone else is marginally worse than he is.

(Sadly, if there was an apocalypse like the one that starts this movie, most of the survivors probably would be like Vic.  The only people who would survive something like that would be the people who were solely looking out for themselves.)

A Boy and His Dog is a highly episodic film, following Vic and Blood as they wander across the wasteland and bicker.  They fight other scavengers.  They spend a rather depressing night at a makeshift movie theater.  Eventually, they come across a young woman named Quilla June (Suanne Benton).  Blood dislikes her but Vic says he’s in love.  (Mostly, he’s just excited that he’s now having sex regularly.)  Eventually, through a whole series of events, Vic discovers an underground city named Topeka, where everyone wears clown makeup.  The head of the town (Jason Robards) informs Vic that his sperm will be used to impregnate 35 women.  Vic is excited until he finds out that reproduction in Topeka is a matter of artificial insemination.

(Both the wasteland and Topeka are nightmarish in their own different ways.  The wasteland is world without morality or compassion.  Topeka is a world where everyone looks like a mime, there’s always a marching band, and order is maintained by a robot wearing overalls.)

Of course, while Vic is dealing with life underground, Blood waits above ground.  By the end of the film, Vic is forced to make a choice between settling down or remaining loyal to his dog.  It all leads to a final comment from Blood that will either make you laugh or throw a shoe at your TV.  I did both.

A Boy and His Dog is a strange movie.  It definitely isn’t for everyone.  It’s a comedy but the humor is pitch black.  Still, that strangeness — along with the talent of the dog playing Blood and Tim McIntire’s savagely sarcastic voice work — is what makes the film watchable.  There’s literally no other film like A Boy and His Dog.  By the time Vic ends up in Topeka, the film has become almost a fever dream of apocalyptic paranoia and satire.  The ultimate message of the film appears to be that the apocalypse would really suck so let’s try to not blow each other up.

Who can’t get behind that?

 

A Movie A Day #296: Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983, directed by Jack Clayton)


Something Wicked This Way Comes is one of my favorite films.

The place is Green Town, Illinois.  The time is the 1920s.  The carnival has come to town but this is no normal carnival.  Led by the sinister, Mr. Dark (Jonathan Pryce), this carnival promises to fulfill everyone’s dreams but at what cost?  Double amputee Ed (James Stacy) gets his arm and his leg back.  The lonely teacher, Miss Foley (Mary Grace Canfield), is young and beautiful once again.  Mr. Dark may bring people what they want but he gives nothing away for free.  Only two young boys, Will (Vidal Peterson) and Jim (Shawn Carson), realize the truth about the carnival but no one in town will listen to them.  Mr. Dark wants Jim to be his successor and Will’s only ally is his elderly father, the town librarian (Jason Robards).

As much a coming of age story as a horror film, Something Wicked This Way Comes takes the time to establish Green Town and to make it feel like a real place and its inhabitants seem like real people.  When Mr. Dark shows up, he is not just a supernatural trickster.  He is not just stealing the souls of Green Town.  He is also destroying the innocence of childhood.  Jonathan Pryce is both charismatic and menacing as Mr. Dark while Jason Robards matches him as the infirm librarian who must find the strength to save his son.  The confrontation between Pryce and Robards, where Pryce tears flaming pages out of a book, is the best part of the movie.  Along with Robards and Pryce, the entire cast is excellent.  Be sure to keep an eye out for familiar faces like Royal Dano, Jack Dodson, Angelo Rossitto, and especially Pam Grier, playing the “Dust Witch,” the most beautiful woman in the world.

Based on a classic novel by Ray Bradbury, Something Wicked This Way Comes is one of the only Bradbury adaptations to do justice to its source material.

Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door: PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID (MGM 1973)


cracked rear viewer

(PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID airs tonight at 11:45 EST on TCM. Do yourselves a favor… watch it!)

PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID was director Sam Peckinpah’s final Western, and as usual it’s about more than just the Old West. It’s about the new breed vs the old establishment, about the maverick auteur vs the old studio guard, and about his never-ending battle to make his films his way. The fact that there are six, count ’em, SIX different editors credited tells you what MGM honcho James Aubrey thought of that idea! They butchered over 20 minutes out of the movie, which then proceeded to tank at the box office. Fortunately for us, PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID has been restored to its full glory, and we can enjoy Peckinpah’s original artistic vision.

I’m not going to try to make excuses for Peckinpah; he was a legitimate pain in the ass, a…

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Roger Corman’s Bloody Valentine: THE ST. VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE (20th Century-Fox 1967)


cracked rear viewer

Low budget auteur Roger Corman had visited the gangster genre twice before, with 1958’s MACHINE GUN KELLY (featuring Charles Bronson in the title role) and I, MOBSTER (starring noir vet Steve Cochran ). Nine years later,  Corman produced and directed THE ST. VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE, with major studio backing, star power, and a million dollar budget. It’s still a Roger Corman film though, which means it’s a helluva lot of fun!

We’re in 1929 Chicago (as narrator Paul Frees tells us), a time of lawlessness, bootlegging, and mob killings on a daily basis. Two rival factions are battling to control the Windy City: the Southside gang led by ‘Scarface’ Al Capone (Jason Robards) and his Northside enemy ‘Bugs’ Moran ( Ralph Meeker ). Moran sends his top hood Peter Gusenberg (George Segal) to muscle in on Capone’s rackets, but when Big Al’s mentor Patsy is gunned down by Moran’s assassins, the crime boss goes…

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A Movie A Day #112: The Trial (1993, directed by David Jones)


One morning, in turn of the century Prague, Josef K. (Kyle MacLachlan) wakes up to discover that two detectives are in his room.  They tell him that he is under arrest but they do not tell him the charges.  Josef remains free to go about his everyday life but he must report to the court whenever the court deems to see him.  No matter where Josef turns or who he talks to, he cannot get any answers concerning what he has been charged with.  Even his disinterested attorney (Jason Robards) can not give him a straight answer on why he is being prosecuted.  No matter how much Josef protests that he is innocent of whatever has been accused of, his fate has already been decided.

On paper, this film version of Franz Kafka’s classic novel sound like it should be a masterpiece.  The film was shot on location in Prague, the script was written by Harold Pinter, and Kyle MacLachlan seems like the perfect choice for Josef K.  Unfortunately, director David Jones takes a very straightforward approach to the material and does not exploit the story’s nightmarish qualities.  This is a version of Kafka that could easily play on Masterpiece Theater.  (The perfect choice to direct The Trial would have been MacLachlan’s frequent director, David Lynch.)  MacLachlan does well as Josef K. but he is overshadowed by a steady and distracting stream of cameos from actors like Anthony Hopkins, Alfred Molina, and David Thewlis.

Despite not being totally faithful to its source material, Orson Welles’s 1962 adaptation, which stars Anthony Perkins as Josef K., remains the version to see.

A Movie A Day #107: The Legend of the Lone Ranger (1981, directed by William A. Fraker)


Long before he found fame playing Deputy Hawk on Twin Peaks, Michael Horse made his film debut in one of the most notorious box office flops of all time, The Legend of the Lone Ranger.  

Michael Horse played Tonto, the young Comanche who rescues his childhood friend, John Reid (Klinton Spilsbury), and nurses him back to health after Reid has been attacked and left for dead by the notorious outlaw, Butch Cavendish (Christopher Lloyd).  Reid was a civilian, accompanying a group of Texas Rangers led by his older brother, Dan (John Bennett Perry).  When Cavendish attacked, John was the only survivor.  John wants to avenge his brother’s death but first, Tonto is going to have to teach him how to shoot a six-shooter and how to ride his new horse, Silver.  Finally, John is ready to don the mask and becomes the Lone Ranger.  It’s just in time, because Cavendish has kidnapped President Grant (Jason Robards).

An even bigger flop than the more recent Lone Ranger film starring Armie Hammer and Johnny Depp, The Legend of the Lone Ranger failed for several reasons.  For one thing, the film has a major identity crisis.  The violence is not for kids but most of the dialogue and the performances are.  For another thing, it takes forever for John Reid to actually put on the mask and become the Lone Ranger.  By the time the William Tell Overture is heard, the movie is nearly over.

It was made to capitalize on the same type of nostalgia that previously made Superman a hit and, just as Superman introduced the world to Christopher Reeve, The Legend of the Lone Ranger introduced the world to a football player turned actor, named Klinton Spilsbury.  Unfortunately, the world did not want to meet Klinton Spilsbury, whose blank-faced performance was so bad that James Keach was brought in to dub over all of his dialogue.   Spilsbury did not help himself by reportedly acting like a diva during the shooting, demanding constant rewrites, and getting into bar brawls offset.  Of the two actors who made their screen debuts in The Legend of the Lone Ranger, Michael Horse has worked again.  Klinton Spilsbury has not.

When The Legend of the Lone Ranger went into production, the film’s producers made the incredibly boneheaded move of getting a court injunction barring Clayton Moore (who had played the role on TV) from wearing his Lone Ranger uniform is public.  Since the semi-retired Moore was living off of the money that he made appearing as the Lone Ranger at country fairs and children’s hospitals, this move was a public relations disaster.  (For his part, Moore filed a counter suit and continued to make appearances, now wearing wrap-around sunglasses instead of his mask.)  Moore refused to appear in a cameo and spent much of 1981 speaking out against the film.

Finally, the main reason that Legend of The Lone Ranger flopped was because it opened on the same Friday as a little film called Raiders of the Lost Ark.

The rest is history.